Not long ago, Jeff Wilson, a scholar of Pure Land Buddhism, suggested that I might do well to feature the work of Kira Jade Cooper, an environmental scientist at the University of Waterloo who developed a model of evaluation to assess the effectiveness of inner transformation techniques – such as mindfulness meditation – in the context of community and organizational development, and also beyond, in application of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
I reached out to Kira and after a Zoom call, sent her some questions about her work, sparked by our discussion. Here is a lightly edited version of our correspondence.
BDG: You come from a scientific background and you describe yourself as sitting at various tables. Please tell us more about this.
Kira Jade Cooper: I have yet to find a single basket that can accommodate my broad and sometimes bizarre research interests that cover topics such as fish herpes, contaminant mobilization, ecosystem health, systems change, mindfulness and sustainability transformations. More recently, I have explored the connection between inner and outer sustainability and the extent to which changes in mindset, values and worldviews could catalyze systemic change towards long-term sustainability. By sitting at many seats and tables, I was extremely fortunate to learn from many people, both at the academy and beyond.
BDG: Where do you find your Buddhist inspiration for the work you do?
KJC: I do not have a formal practice with any particular sangha. However, I have been extremely fortunate to have found kindred spirits in various communities working in the field of sustainable development. In these spaces, I have witnessed a variety of applications of Buddhist and/or post-Buddhist practices that are used to encourage more mindful and sustainable ways of being.
BDG: Please elaborate on your framework for evaluating the effectiveness of internal transformation in the external transformation of organizations, as well as the objective of this evaluation tool.
KJC: My most recent research has focused on examining the growing field of inner transformation as a catalyst for progress in sustainability. Specifically, I am curious to what extent and how different approaches to “inner” change result in “outer” change. Given the growing interest in accelerating progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through internal transformation, I thought it prudent to develop an evaluation model to ensure that interventions for change align with general sustainability requirements. The framework is, in essence, a context-adaptive tool for assessing how internal transformation interventions support external transformation.
BDG: As important as the work of David Loy, Joan Halifax, and Stephanie Kaza is in planting the seeds of Green Buddhism, it is still an aberrant practice. What needs to change and how might you apply your perspective to Buddhist organizations?
As a non-Buddhist, I hesitate to prescribe changes to Buddhist communities. What is clear, however, is that for Buddhism to support progress in sustainable development, it will need to strive to take positive steps. If Buddhist practitioners are committed to contributing positively to progress in sustainability, I would suggest the following as first steps.
First, and most ambitiously, ensure that lessons are aligned not only with personal well-being but also with planetary well-being. Although there may be cascading positive effects resulting from individual attentional regulation or compassion practice, these are unlikely to extend organically on a global scale and lead to the types of behavioral change necessary to avoid new socio-ecological crises. It is also likely that there will be a need to surface and transform unsustainable practices and traditions that have persisted.
With this in mind, Buddhist groups may wish to study current practices in places of worship and what can be changed to reduce their environmental footprint. Are there old practices that generate excessive waste or consume resources that could be transformed? Are there archaic rituals that perhaps generate suffering? What types of changes could be made that would benefit the community; for example, reducing parking space and creating a community or pollinator garden.
BDG: How would you explain what you do to a high school class?
KJC: I'm interested in what can make people treat each other and nature with more kindness and respect. To better understand this, I study how the way we think about our relationships with people, places and the planet affects our behaviors. Another piece of my research puzzle is trying to discover how we can better share the planet with non-humans and cause less suffering to other species.
BDG: Eco-anxiety is a term that has now entered public discourse. Beyond conscious collapse, what can Buddhist perspectives offer as a positive and realistic future scenario?
KJC: I do not believe I can, in good conscience, propose a realistic future scenario that would be considered “positive” given the current state and future trajectory of social and biophysical systems. Let me clarify. For me, “positive” equates to ensuring a just and equitable world for our species and the more-than-human world. And realistically, we're nowhere near on track for that kind of scenario.
That aside, Buddhist perspectives related to dependent co-arising and impermanence are likely very constructive frameworks for those attempting to make sense of the deeply complex interdependent challenges facing humanity. Not only do they offer a systemic approach to designing challenges, but they also accept that all things are fleeting and change is inevitable. Practices aimed at cultivating empathy and compassion are also valuable in an increasingly polarized and unstable world. Additionally, I view the role of the sangha as an integral place of refuge, safety, and support where people can find strength and healing while facing these challenges.
BDG: Where do you see congruences and divergences between Buddhist and indigenous ways of knowing?
KJC: This is a very difficult question to answer, and I feel it is essential to preface my answer with a disclaimer. Both “Buddhist” and “indigenous” ways of knowing are oriented towards a rich and very diverse plurality of understandings. In good conscience, I would be remiss to homogenize Buddhist or indigenous knowledge systems into singular conceptions, because there are many Buddhisms and many indigenous knowledge systems.
This question highlights a deep issue I've noticed in the internal transformation space: the desire to simplify and symbolize a particular wisdom tradition in an effort to solve very complex problems related to sustainability. Not only does this oversimplification fail to recognize the profound differences between the paths – for example, Theravada versus Mahayana versus Vajrayana – but also the various formations within each school and sangha.
That being said, I have seen strong synergies between many versions of Buddhism and indigenous knowledge systems, particularly around concepts related to complexity.
A trend I have witnessed in many Western academic disciplines is the desire to disentangle system elements into isolated units of analysis. One of the main challenges of this model is that transcontextual richness – that which emerges in relationships and across contexts – is lost. The process of tearing "things" apart for dissection is instructive in certain areas and for certain applications. Where this becomes less helpful, or even detrimental to well-being, is when this process becomes a mental model for understanding all phenomena in isolation. When complex challenges like climate change are viewed through a reductionist lens, so are their solutions. As history has demonstrated time and time again, overly simplistic solutions can be dangerous and used as a weapon to serve narrow interests.
Buddhism offers many practices to help cultivate abilities that align with a greater tolerance for complexity, including attentional regulation, compassion, and empathy. I feel that when approached with the goal of reducing collective suffering, these skills could enrich the collective's combined potential to respond less reactively to existential threats.
However, in order to truly serve the conditions for long-term sustainability, a recontextualization of many Buddhist practices would likely be necessary to move from individual to collective interests and move toward what has been described in indigenous knowledge as a right relationship.
Right relationship, as I understand it, refers to a way of being that recognizes oneself as a member of a system within systems. This involves not only seeing oneself in the vast complexity of all life, but also acting with capacity to act from a place of responsibility and reciprocity to foster conditions for present and future generations.
In this case, tolerance for complexity, while not explicitly cultivated through sitting meditation as in many Buddhist practices, also involves a combination of focused attention, discipline, and contemplation – although I use the latter term in a very vague manner.
In my view, a right relationship can also be understood as a conscious expression of a kinship with the more-than-human world. While many Buddhist texts speak of soteriological frameworks for self-transcendence, I have found that indigenous knowledge is more strongly oriented toward collective, long-term flourishing. Unfortunately, in both cases, these rich traditional wisdoms are often appropriated and commodified in ways that do not promote sustainability.
BDG: In the best of all possible worlds, what do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
KJC: As an environmental researcher, I hope that over the next decade my work will become obsolete. . . . That all human actions are aligned with collective and long-term interests, and that there is no need for someone like me to study sustainable transformation because that would be the norm. In the “best” possible world, I hope to see the biosphere recover from anthropogenic damage and degraded ecosystems thrive. Likewise, geopolitical conflicts are resolved before further escalation ensues and healing processes are underway around the world. In summary, I hope and pray that, ten years from now, I will have the pleasure of sharing with you a story of interbeing, good relationships and collective fulfillment.