One of the strongest memories I carry from my childhood begins with the shocking heat of black cave water. I am submerging myself inch by inch, frightened of its depths and imagined mythical beasts lying in wait for my spindly legs. Above my head and around me, candles give off a buttery yellow light as they slowly melt down to wax on the rocks.
We—my grandmother, her nun companions, and I—are inside a secret Phur Tsa Chu (mineral hot springs) as part of our pilgrimage. The pungent smell of black rock salt rises and steams up my nostrils. The entrance to the cave feels like it is another world away, far above where we are clustered. Only women are allowed here and in between the echoing silence, all sound consists of their voices as they pray, sing, and talk. Occasionally, disembodied faces float by with hands held down to keep their ballooning petticoats from rising above the water. Some of the women are naked, some are half-clothed, some come with retinues, and some keep their heads down and creep in alone. But, for all, this space nestled in the depths of the Himalayas is a goddess space.
Looking around, I understand that all women are beloved by the goddess here and that all goddesses are beloved here. It does not matter what race or what religion we are. When we raise our voices to pray, we do so as one. The mantras rise and fall. We pray to Guru Rinpoche (Lord Padmasambhava, one of the main founders of Tibetan Buddhism), we recite the six-syllable mantra of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion), we sing of Machig Labdron (the originator of the Vajrayana practice of Chöd), and we praise the goddess Tara, calling to all aspects of her: powerful, wrathful, awe-full, gentle, compassionate, and healing. I am especially loud when the nuns start to recite the Sherab Nyingpo prayer (the Heart Sutra), having only recently memorized it to my mother’s satisfaction. When my grandmother is ready to leave, I mimic her actions and press my forehead against the rock formation that is said to bear the silhouette of Yum Chenmo, the Mother of all Buddhas, also known as Prajnaparamita. My fingers run over the markings and crevasses that make up her feet as I pray to her in a jumble of childish desires. At the core of it, however, the jumble boils down to a basic awareness that I am somehow a minuscule part of her, and that I seek her protection for whenever I am apart from her.
I understand that it is easy to categorize experiences like the one I have described above as exotic. Goddess worship and women-led rituals and practices seem to have long gone extinct in western societies, or are present only in pagan revivals and as part of a feminist pushback against the status quo. However, the worship of female sacred icons and goddesses can be found not just in Buddhist or Hindu or Shinto practicing cultures but throughout the world, even in societies that are strongly patriarchal such as Catholic Europe. And, of course, we find this orientation towards female deities, particularly Mother Earth, in Indigenous cultures everywhere. Not coincidentally, 80% of the biodiversity that exists today is found in Indigenous-managed lands.
There is no denying that we are at the precipice of ecological and climatic disaster. Whether it is the sharp increase in global average temperatures, the rapidly disappearing Arctic sea ice, the expansion of wildfires and droughts, the looming extinction of a million species, or the patchy disappearance of the Earth’s great forests, they are all examples of an obvious truth—our way of living and being on this Earth is thoroughly unsustainable and has caused us to cross ecological tipping points from which life, as we know it today, will not recover.
…our way of living and being on this Earth is thoroughly unsustainable and has caused us to cross ecological tipping points from which life, as we know it today, will not recover.
For several centuries, the prevailing paradigm, one of white male supremacy, has created operating systems that are at war with Nature; with women; with Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC)—with anything it considers the other. These systems, colonialism, capitalism, and a rapacious fossil fuel-dependent global economy, have treated Nature, women, and Black, Indigenous and People of Color, as resources to exploit for profit. Its latest avatar, neoliberalism, which is basically capitalism with no checks and balances in the guise of economic deregulation and trade liberalization, is now the dominant political-economic ideology for the global economy.
The result is that everywhere we look, we see a world of imbalance, a world in disrepair, a world of contrasts. A world where the US and Europe combined are responsible for 52% of the world’s excess material use.1 A world of haves and have nots where the richest 1% of the human population owns almost 40% of all combined wealth, while the poorest 50% collectively owns just 2% of all wealth.2 A world where nations have become richer, but governments have become poorer because the accrued wealth is in private sector hands. A world where during the Coronavirus pandemic, women were the largest demographic that lost their jobs and women of color were most negatively affected everywhere. Ours is a world where those under the age of 40 will live through an unprecedented number of disasters, especially if they are born in the global south, and children born in this decade will experience up to a sevenfold increase in extreme events compared to people born in 1960.3
Dekila shares more on growing up in the Himalayas, the role of Indigenous wisdom in conservation,
her work with faith leaders, and more.
So much of where we have gone wrong boils down to one thing—the systems born out of white male supremacy reject the fact that all life on Earth is predicated upon interdependence. All species exist by interacting with other species and ecosystems, whether in symbiotic relationships such as bees and flowers, or predation such as tigers and deer, or competition such as sharks and dolphins. All species occupy a niche where their existence is necessary for other parts of the ecosystem to function well. Whether symbiotic, predatory, or competitive, we are constantly interacting with our surroundings, with other species that exist in that same ecosystem, and we need them to be healthy and functioning for us to survive.
…the systems born out of white male supremacy reject the fact that all life on Earth is predicated upon interdependence.
Consider oxygen. Without it, we would experience permanent brain damage in four minutes, and death six minutes later. We and other animals need oxygen to survive and therefore, we need photosynthesizers like phytoplankton and seaweed in oceans, and trees, plants, and shrubs on land that produce it. Photosynthesizers use carbon dioxide, water, and the sun’s energy to make food for themselves and in that process, release oxygen as the byproduct. If any of these photosynthesizers were to disappear, we would naturally have more carbon and less oxygen in the air we breathe. This is true for other parts of the ecosystem as well. When one ecosystem component disappears or is damaged, it sets off a chain of obvious and unforeseeable disruptive impacts. Destroying photosynthesizers is clearly a suicidal move. We do it all the time.
While Indigenous peoples have understood and view the world from the lens of interdependence and kinship, European colonial systems replicated around the world in the form of economic development are built upon fossil fuel-dependent technologies and economies that ignore long-term consequences. These systems are designed to disregard injustice and inequity to the other precisely so that all costs are borne by the other. It can seem baffling. How does the vast majority of the human population become othered? How do societies protect the interests of a minority and force the vast majority to bear the costs? Easily. They organize themselves along the principles of individualism and patriarchy and create social systems that oppress and discriminate against the powerless, which drives most people to accumulate and hoard power in order to cushion themselves from the fall of power.
In a presentation at Mind & Life’s 2021 Summer Research Institute, Dekila describes
the earth as a closed system in which we are all interdependent.
However, the assumption that we can all live like this, chasing the dream of me-first material success with no tithes and no regulations to hold us back, is built on a shaky foundation. Our Earth cannot bear it. Last year, our demand for ecological resources and services exceeded what the Earth could generate annually on July 29—2021’s Earth Overshoot Day. The fact is neoliberal economics is incompatible with an Earth where biodiversity thrives, her climate is stable, and human societies flourish equally.
In 1979, Audre Lorde, Black feminist lesbian writer extraordinaire, wrote an essay called “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (PDF) that she addressed to the white heterosexual organizers of an academic conference focusing on the lives of women in America, in which Black women, lesbians, and women from the global south were glaringly absent. In it, she argued that intellectual approaches created by and centering white, heterosexual, wealthy women in the global north could not solve the systemic inequality and oppression of gay, poor, Black, Indigenous and other women of color from the global south, precisely because these problems are created and perpetuated by those very same approaches.
This stands true for where we are in the environmental and climate crises as well. The systems that got us here—the governments and the governance mechanisms that prioritized economic growth above all else, the corporations that bled the Earth’s natural resources dry, the markets that encourage the 1% to profit off of the suffering and losses of the bottom 50%—cannot get us out of the devastation they’ve caused. If we want to step back from the precipice, we must create new tools or reach back to retrieve old tools that were made outside of the influence of this paradigm. We need to rebuild our societies around the principles of interdependence and compassion rather than individualism. We need to find alternatives to the neoliberal model of economic development. To do that, we must revive alternatives to what individual success means in ideological and practical terms. And that requires spiritual practices that cut through the ignorance we are surrounded with, and the attachments we have accumulated and learned to treasure.
We need to rebuild our societies around the principles of interdependence and compassion rather than individualism.
It can seem like an impossible endeavor and yet I know it is possible. I am fortunate to belong to two starkly different worlds—an America where any provision of social safety nets is increasingly seen as radical socialism by conservatives, and Sikkim, a Buddhist-kingdom-turned-Indian-state in the Eastern Himalayas where interdependence and compassion make up the core of our collectivist society. I was raised in an intact Bhutia community in which women are so valued, we have a reverse dowry system. Nature is alive to Sikkim’s peoples; our teachers hear and communicate with the sacred forces that are at play around us, and we whole-heartedly believe Mount Kanchenjunga, our protective deity, watches over us. My own family is stalwartly Tibetan Buddhist. Despite many academic accomplishments and a flourishing career, my mother, Tsunma Dechen Zangmo, like her own mother, Tsunma Tshering Phuti, chose to take her vows and become a nun in her late thirties. Due to their example, I grew up knowing that success did not automatically equate to a profitable career or wealth and that real success, in fact, was the ability to walk away from our addiction to power and stature.
I was raised in the old Bhutia way, surrounded by older women who led and participated in highly developed communal practices, including Chöd and Nyungney. I was encircled by female Buddhist practitioners and teachers, and established male teachers who encouraged and supported them at every turn. Despite these blessings, I was not a diligent dharma student and do not consider myself to be a serious meditator today. However, in every step of my primary education, I was taught that the essence of reality is emptiness, and that in union with compassion, is Mother Wisdom.
One of the common themes in goddess worship, regardless of geography, is that the Earth is transformed into the Great Mother and in doing so, all life forms become her children. That insight allows us to imagine human and non-human species as siblings and kin to one another. It creates a worldview where we can learn to respect, care for and even revere Nature. Moreover, the sacredness of Mother Earth uplifts the role of women as mothers and as caretakers of nature, as well as Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who are oppressed so often in the name of progress and development. (Not surprisingly, women, children, and BIPOC communities have borne and continue to bear the worst of environmental and climate impacts, and overcome these challenges through community—through the expression of interdependence and kinship.)
…the sacredness of Mother Earth uplifts the role of women as mothers and as caretakers of nature, as well as Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who are oppressed so often in the name of progress and development.
Goddess worship subverts the current mainstream culture, which continues to emphasize dominion over Nature and places humans, especially white men, at the top of all its hierarchies. However, to co-opt a phrase by the Australian feminist intellectual Germaine Greer, the opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, it is equity. We need contemplative practices and communal ceremonies that invite and empower everyone—everyone—to restore balance by submitting to Nature’s law of interdependence.
My favorite prayer, even today, is Sherab Nyingpo, the Heart Sutra. It is said to be one of the most important scriptures in Buddhism and is often described as the condensation of Buddha’s teachings on emptiness. In it, Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of compassion, in conversation with Shariputra, one of Buddha’s great disciples, deconstructs every reference point we can imagine that makes up identity and distills it into one sentence. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. This is the heart of the teaching referred to as the Mother Essence of Wisdom, the Incomparable Great Mother of All, Prajnaparamita. When we are taught this prayer and introduced to the concept of emptiness, our teachers do so by first emphasizing compassion so that we do not fall into the trap of nihilism. We are taught that all things, all selves, are empty of self-nature and self-existence because they exist only through the power of interdependence. Everything rests on something else. That awareness engenders compassion, which then becomes a source of great joy.
This framing is at the core of so many contemplative practices within the Buddhist tradition and beyond. To understand interdependence is to open the door to liberation from attachment; attachment to our desires, our dualistic preferences, even our ideas of success. It can be overwhelming. It can be frightening. I wonder if this is why the Buddha, in his compassion, introduced this concept as Prajnaparamita, the Great Mother… because how else do we trust something that decenters us and our self-importance? Who else but our mother do we trust to hold our identities together even as we dissolve them?
The essence of Prajnaparamita is accessible to anyone and everyone; it does not matter if we are women, men, trans, cis, or two-spirited. It does not matter if we are people of color or white, whether we are from the global south or the global north. It exists in that liminal space we create inside when we acknowledge and sink into our own vulnerability. It is that moment of exposing the softest of underbellies within our psyche—to let go of the fantasy that we even exist at all, as individual permanent selves. It is that moment of bliss when we are open to the web of interdependence we have with our communities, with all other sentient beings and non-sentient forces, and with the Earth herself. What is Prajnaparamita then, but the energy of the Earth that gives us life, and when our lives are over, repurposes itself into creating new life? In that expansiveness of tender space, we are all part of Prajnaparamita and the Earth is our original womb, rebirthing our softest selves moment to moment.
In Tibetan Buddhist practice, we are constantly reminded by our teachers that enlightenment does not come easily; it does not come immediately. We will struggle and suffer and be born again and again attempting to achieve it. It helps to know this because we are allowed space to be compassionate to ourselves, to breathe and just be with one another, to experience the process rather than accumulate achievements. We can deviate from a strict linear timeline of what progress towards this goal should look like. We can stop envying others who seem to be further along in their practice. We can stop being impatient with others and stop attempting to lead when it is the time to follow. We can surrender rather than conquer. In short, we can embody wisdom.
To have deep reverence for the Incomparable Great Mother is to manifest it. It is that simple. And yet, for those of us who straddle the fields of contemplative science and environmental action, the question that guides us must be how we ensure this manifestation is not co-opted by the systems it must transform. Societal change will not come instantly, systemic transformation is not transactional; we cannot purchase it with a click of our mouse. It may take lifetimes for us to reverse the trajectory we are on, and to rebuild our societies with a foundation of compassion and equity. But we will get there. Out of wisdom and compassion is born Buddhahood. Out of wisdom and compassion, we will rebuild our societies from the inside out, perfecting a balanced union of individualism and collectivism. We will rebirth ourselves, knowing that we exist in interdependence, and in doing so, we will remember what we forgot: we have been part of the Great Mother all along.
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Hickel, J., O’Neill, D. W., Fanning, A. L., & Zoomkawala, H. (2022). National responsibility for ecological breakdown: A fair-shares assessment of resource use, 1970–2017. The Lancet Planetary Health, 6(4), e342-e349. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(22)00044-4
World Inequality Lab. (2022). World Inequality Report 2022 Executive Summary. https://wir2022.wid.world/executive-summary/
Thiery, W., Lange, S., Rogelj, J., Schleussner, C. F., Gudmundsson, L., Seneviratne, S. I., … & Wada, Y. (2021). Intergenerational inequities in exposure to climate extremes. Science, 374(6564), 158-160. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abi7339