Dharmagaia: The Nonviolence of Deep Ecology

by Suzanne Duarte

Apollo image of earth; courtesy www.nasa.gov

Nature is stabilized by order, and humans along with all other natural phenomena exist within nature. Attempting to force one’s own path is arrogant, futile and self-destructive.

Lao Tzu

Everything depends on others for survival and nothing really exists apart from everything else. Therefore, there is no permanent self or entity independent of others. Not only are we interdependent, but we are an interrelated whole. As trees, rocks, clouds, insects, humans and animals, we are all equals and part of our universe.

Korean Zen Master Samu Sunim


Dharmagaians (1) are people who seek and speak the truth, cherish and protect the Earth, and act responsibly for the benefit of future generations of all sentient beings. They are not afraid to engage with the truth, the facts of our time, no matter how difficult and painful. In fact, many Dharmagaians have been doing so in writing and teaching for decades. Dharmagaians are also not afraid to allow themselves to feel the suffering of beings living now and those yet to be born, who will inherit a depleted planet.

One Dharmagaian ally, the cosmologist Brian Swimme, tells us that we are living in the most destructive moment in 65 million years. The Earth is withering under the onslaught of humans: our consumption of the biological and mineral endowment of the planet, and our pollution and waste. Species are going extinct at an unprecedented and increasing rate. Resources are declining and shortages are beginning to manifest in the parts of the world that are not already suffering them.

Our time calls for humans to expand our circles of compassion beyond our families and pets, our local bioregions, our ethnic groups, our nations, our species, and our own time. Only when we allow ourselves to feel the magnitude of our moment in history and our kinship with all that lives can we find the strength, the power, to respond appropriately, and sanely adapt to the realities of this time. Without our love and caring, our compassion for the whole of life, the entire Earth community, there can be no solutions, no evolution of consciousness, no forward movement for our species or for the Earth.

For decades this has been the message of Dharmagaians from all fields and walks of life—scientists, philosophers, psychologists, theologians, activists, tribal elders, teachers and writers of all kinds. But Dharmagaians are in the minority and we have been sidelined. Now the truth is emerging in the form of crises that threaten both the ability of the Earth to regenerate and human civilization. Some Dharmagaians say that this is the most exciting time to be alive and call it an adventure, but they also acknowledge that it is a frightening time to be alive and have compassion for those who are afraid to wake up from the dream, the cultural trance that keeps people from responding appropriately to the realities of our time.

As for the name, Dharmagaians, a little explanation is in order. Dharma is an ancient Iindian term that is often referred to as ‘truth’ or ‘law’. Dharma in Sanskrit signifies the underlying, interdependent order, or wholeness in nature and the universe, as well as a way of life that accords with this order and wholeness. When one aligns oneself with the dharma, one aspires to liberate oneself from delusion (false belief, separation), conduct oneself appropriately and ethically, and refrain from causing harm (ahimsa, or nonviolence). Thus the path of dharma leads to integrity, right conduct, morality, nonviolence, and virtue.

Although in the West ‘The Dharma’ is frequently associated with Buddhism, one needn’t be a Buddhist to be dharmic: honest, truthful, self-reflective, empathetic, compassionate, ethical, benevolent, nonviolent, and courageous. Some of the most courageous dharmic people in the world — such as Socrates, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (and many others) — risked their lives and lost them by adhering to the truth, the dharma, as they saw it.

Gaia is the Greek name for Mother Earth that acknowledges her as a living being. A Gaian, therefore, is anyone of any tradition who cherishes and respects this miraculous living planet, which has evolved for billions of years and is our only home. Gaians accept the conditions of the Earth community, which limit us, nurture us, and sustain us, and they recognize that we are totally dependent upon the life of Gaia. Gaians know that for embodied beings Gaia is the ultimate reality, the context in which the law of karma — cause and effect— is played out.

A parallel belief might be what Iroquois Chief Oren Lyons has said: “Humans live within the jurisdiction of the Earth, which transcends human laws. The law of Nature is a spiritual law. It respects all life, for all life is equal. If we transgress it, the consequences will be dark and terrible.” Dharmagaians are in accord with this view, which sets them at odds with the dominant culture of materialism. All Dharmagaians express the need to change the paradigm of Western materialism by evolving beyond it. We also use the term the Great Turning (popularized by Joanna Macy) to elaborate the essential changes that are needed in order for humanity to survive and thrive in harmony with Gaia.

People of all faiths and traditions have demonstrated the capacity to honor the Earth and care for all sentient beings, for the intuition of sacredness is a potential in all human beings. While Buddhist teachings and practices are based upon and open our perceptions to interdependence (the truth of ecology), not all Buddhist practitioners are Gaians. And although many Dharmagaians are not Buddhists, all are faithful to the deep ecological truth of Gaia.

The human soul is nourished and strengthened by facing the truth and connecting with the Earth. We are going to need soul strength and truth force — ‘Satyagraha’ in Gandhi’s vision and practice of nonviolent resistance — to survive this century. By holding the Earth and the truth as sacred values that are inseparable, we have a beacon to guide us through the storms of human confusion that are already around and within us. By keeping Dharma and Gaia as reference points we are in a better position to maintain sanity and learn to live within the jurisdiction of the Earth as she goes through her climate changes and all the other crises she and we are facing. Dharmagaians may be the evolutionary seeds of the enlightened, ecologically sustainable societies into the 22nd century and beyond. Dharmagaians have the potential to midwife the new human species of the future, if not to give birth to it.

Again, you are invited: If you honor and seek the truth, cherish the Earth, and care about future generations, you are welcome here. Hopefully you will also find a sense of community and strength among us. May you take heart in the existence of others whose hearts and minds are as big as the Earth.

Endnote (SD)

(1) The name Dharmagaians (pronounced dar-ma-geye-ans) is inspired by and borrowed from Allan Hunt-Badiner and the wonderful book he edited, Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990. It consists of essays, stories, poems and illustrations about Buddhism, nature, and ecology.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Suzanne Duarte (1944-2015) was our Natural World editor. Her website Dharmagaians is still maintained by her husband and accessible at this link. Please also see the obituary by Michael Sawyer posted under this date.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi