Smokey the Bear Sutra

Every so often, Tricycle features an article from Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal that was in print from 1984–2015 and now has a growing number of back issues archived at inquiringmind.com. As fires continue to cause disruption and destruction for many people in the western United States, we thought it would be a good time to reprint acclaimed poet Gary Snyder’s “Smokey the Bear Sutra,” which appeared in the fall 2005 Earth Dharma issue of Inquiring Mind. We suggest taking a look at related articles published in the same issue, including this interview with Ajahn Passano and Julia Butterfly Hill. We also recommend this 2012 interview with Gary Snyder as well as the essay “All My Relations” by Zen priest and conservation biologist Zenshin Florence Caplow. If you feel so inclined, consider making a donation to help Inquiring Mind continue adding articles to its archive!

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I wrote “Smokey the Bear Sutra” in the spring of 1969, at a time when the nascent environmental movement was trying to stop the spread of nuclear power. We needed some strong, vital imagery to help us, and that’s how “Smokey” was born. My Smokey is essentially a dharmapala, a dharma protector, and I modeled him after the Japanese figure of Fudo. In esoteric Buddhism, Fudo is the patron of mountain ascetics and yogins, and his sadhana [ritual] is still practiced in Nepal and parts of Tibet as well as in Japan. In Sanskrit he has the name Achala, which means “immovable, unshakable,” which is also what fudo means. He’s got a fierce visage and is usually pictured surrounded by flames, further evidence that the US Forest Service’s Smokey is his North American incarnation. You could think of Fudo as a biker bodhisattva. He goes into hell and saves people whether they want to be saved or not. He’s a fierce bodhisattva.

The sutra’s basic message is that our sacred responsibility is to protect all of life. The very first and most important ethical precept in all of Buddhism is ahimsa, which means nonviolence toward all beings. And that’s not limited to human beings. So Buddhism is ecological in intent from the very beginning. Our responsibility is to protect life down to the smallest little creature, protect our community, maintain our own practice, and honor impermanence, all at the same time.

My own archetypal reading of the Fudo character is that he is also the Great Bear of upper Stone Age (no, not polar) bear cults. So in the sutra, I see Smokey as the incarnation of the ancient brown bear of the North and of Fudo at the same time. But, of course, the Forest Service didn’t know anything about all those associations and reverberations. That was part of the fun of it all, turning the establishment’s imagery on its head.

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Tibetan NYPD Officer Accused of Spying for China

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.

Tibetan NYPD Officer Allegedly Spied for China

A Tibetan police officer in New York City has been arrested and accused of spying for China, ABC Eyewitness News reported this week. Born in the People’s Republic of China, 33-year-old Baimadajie Angwang is a community affairs officer in the 111 precinct in New York’s Queens and a US Army Reservist at Fort Dix. He acted “at the direction and control” of Chinese government officials at the consulate in New York to report on the activities of the local Tibetan community, according to the criminal complaint. He also allegedly assessed potential ethnic Tibetan intelligence sources and used his official position at the police department to give consulate officials access to senior NYPD officials. Angwang is also accused of committing wire fraud, making false statements, and obstructing an official proceeding. 

Since 2018 Angwang has been “in frequent communication” with an unidentified Chinese consular official he referred to as “Boss,” the FBI said. “Angwang also discussed the utility of developing sources for the PRC government in the local Tibetan community and suggested that the primary qualification for a source as follows: ‘If you’re willing to recognize the motherland, the motherland is willing to assist you with its resources,'” the criminal complaint said. “This is the definition of an insider threat—as alleged, Mr. Angwang operated on behalf of a foreign government; lied to gain his clearance, and used his position as an NYPD police officer to aid the Chinese government’s subversive and illegal attempts to recruit intelligence sources,” FBI Assistant Director of New York William Sweeney Jr. said in a statement.

Buddhist, Muslim Groups Boycott Leh Elections

Buddhist and Muslim organizations and political parties in Leh, Ladakh, have joined together to boycott upcoming elections in their region, India’s Economic Times reported this week. The elections, which are set to take place on October 16, are for the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), which administers the Leh district of Ladakh, in the Indian region of Jammu and Kashmir. The council was created in 1995, following demands by Ladakhi people to make Leh a new Indian Union Territory because of its cultural and religious differences with the rest of the region. Last year, Ladakh became the first Buddhist-majority region in India, after the Indian government passed a bill revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status as an autonomous region and dividing the territory into two Union Territories (UTs), or states: Ladakh, and Jammu and Kashmir. However, Ladakh’s transformation into a distinct UT effectively stripped the region of its legislature, rendering the democratically elected LAHDC powerless, India’s Frontline reports. Now, Ladakhis plans to boycott the council elections until they can get a constitutional safeguard to protect their economic, political, and environmental interests under India’s Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which makes separate arrangements for what are known as “tribal areas” in India. Ninety-seven percent of people in Ladakh identify as “tribal,” according to Frontline. 

Citing Religious Uses, Swastika, New York Votes to Keep Its Name

The town board of Swastika, New York voted unanimously to keep its name, despite the swastika’s connection to Nazi Germany. The town cited the symbol’s prior uses in Hinduism and Buddhism, Newsweek reported. While many people associate the swastika with white supremacy, Jon Douglass, the town supervisor of Black Brook (a small town which includes the unincorporated area “Swastika”), pointed out that Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions have used a version of the swastika to represent spirituality. The area was named Swastika by settlers in the 1800s, and even during World War II, residents refused to change the name “just because Hitler tried to tarnish the meaning,” Douglass said. 

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America’s Racial Karma

Register here to attend a free livestream meditation session led by Dr. Larry Ward today at 1:00 pm EDT. 

The existence—and persistence—of racism can be baffling. Our society sees the suffering of historically disadvantaged people and treats them with scorn rather than compassion. Buddhism would explain that our current situation is the result of karma. But what does that mean? Contrary to popular depictions, the Buddhist notion of karma is not a tit-for-tat system of crime and punishment where people suffer for their past sins. Karma is a theory of action and consequence that describes how good deeds generate good results and more good deeds in a positive feedback loop, while bad deeds do the opposite. Through the lens of Buddhist karma, we may be able to understand how racism and the pain it causes are perpetuated. 

For years, Zen Buddhist teacher Dr. Larry Ward has been working to use this Buddhist framework to shed light on racism in America—culminating in his new book America’s Racial Karma: An Invitation to Heal (Shambhala; September 15, 2020), which tries to unearth the roots of our “racialized consciousness.” Trained in Thich Naht Hahn’s Plum Village tradition, Ward is the co-director of the Lotus Institute, where he offers teachings on “Deep Buddhism,” an approach to social engagement that draws from Buddhist and indigenous wisdom as well as trauma and resiliency work.

Ward sat down with Tricycle via videoconference to discuss America’s Racial Karma,  how these harmful cycles are perpetuated, and how we can begin to move toward both individual reckonings with racism and collective healing. 

What do you mean by the phrase “racial karma?” Classically, karma is translated as action, and thought is considered a kind of action which drives and sustains karma. How we think creates karmic patterns that affect how we speak to and interact with one another. I believe that we’re still caught in patterns of speech we’ve inherited from a colonial past, as well as binary perceptions of the world that create opposition between people. Binaries close down possibilities through strict definition and set theoretical opposites off against one another—subject/object, tall/short, male/female, black/white, self/other. These binaries affect our perceptions of others. 

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Two Young Graduates Return to Ladakh, Looking to Give Back 

Last year, Ladakh became its own union territory of India, separating it from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It now has a certain level of political autonomy, but Ladakh’s worries are far from over. Situated in a region of the Himalayas where the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism flourish side by side, Ladakh must deal with shrinking glaciers that threaten its already scarce water supply, continuous violence on its border with China, and educational policies from the Indian government that often undermine Ladakhis’ unique cultural norms. 

“Ladakh is still a fragile and developing region,” said Tsewang Chuskit, who recently graduated from Smith College with a bachelor’s degree in education and child studies (and a minor in government). This past spring Chuskit and another Ladakhi youth, Stanzin Angmo, became two of only a handful of Ladakhis to ever attend and graduate from an American college or university. Though the two young women were unable to walk across the stage for their diplomas or congratulate their friends in person due to the pandemic, they’ve already moved ahead with plans to be of service to the place they call home. 

“We face many problems—from both modernization and our own culture—but fortunately, Ladakhis are community-minded and change is coming,” Chuskit said.

Chuskit and Angmo are a sign of that change. They both attended Ladakh’s top-ranked Siddhartha School, a K-10 institution founded by Tibetan Buddhist monk and Ladakh native Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Lobzang Tsetan. 

“One of the daily lessons I received from my teachers and Khensur Rinpoche was to give back to the community,” Chuskit said. Former abbot of the Panchen Lama’s monastery in exile, Khensur Rinpoche established the Siddhartha School in Stok, near the city of Leh, in 1995. At the time, Ladakhi students graduating from tenth grade flunked the Indian national exam required for further education at an average rate of 97 percent per year. As a result, professionals in their area, including government employees, were overwhelmingly non-native. 

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Buddhist Streaming Site Coming Later This Year

The Buddhist Film Foundation will launch a streaming site for Buddhist films, the Dalai Lama writes an op-ed about the climate crisis, and a monk advocates for peace at the India-China border. Tricycle looks back at the events of this week in the Buddhist world.

By Emily DeMaioNewton and Karen JensenSep 19, 2020

The Buddhist Film Foundation plans to launch a streaming site for Buddhist films in late 2020.

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.

Buddhist Streaming Site to Launch Later This Year

The Buddhist Film Foundation, which presents, preserves and promotes Buddhist films from around the world, will launch the Buddhist Film Channel (BFC), a streaming platform devoted exclusively to Buddhist and mindfulness cinema later this year. Already the organization has obtained licenses for 100 titles and will continue to add new films monthly, including feature films, shorts, television shows, video talks, and interviews. The content will be available on a pay-per-view basis as rentals or download-to-own. Everything will be in English or with English subtitles at first; a special fund has been established to cover the costs of adding subtitles in the most common Asian and European languages. If you simply can’t wait until BFC goes live, Tricycle’s Film Club offers a new Buddhist film every month. Check out September’s film, Darkhan, directed by Gulshat Omarova. 

Dalai Lama Speaks Out on Climate 

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama recently penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on the importance of supporting environmental initiatives. The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of individual action, his faith in an increasingly activist youth, and the connection between politics and the environment. “Even as global warming increases in intensity, many young people are working together to share and find solutions. They are our real hope,” he wrote, citing the work of environmental activist Greta Thunberg, whose activism has raised awareness about climate change among the world’s youth. “However, we cannot rest our hopes only on the younger generation. We have to choose political leaders who will act on this issue with urgency.” Last weekend, His Holiness issued a video message to the annual G7 Speakers’ Conference urging the political leaders to take the dangers of climate change seriously and to act together to curb its effects. 

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