I never understood what it meant to Save the Planet. When I was in college, Save the Planet was on everyone’s lips. Save the Planet sounds good, and makes good bumper stickers and nice little buttons for backpacks and denim jackets, but fifty years after I first heard the phrase, it still doesn’t make any sense to me. I didn’t get it when I was shouting it at street rallies in the sixties. And I still don’t get it.
What exactly am I supposed to be saving? I thought the point of the dharma was that everything was impermanent. If that’s true, then Save the Planet is an oxymoron. What am I supposed to be making permanent, fixing and fixating on? The whole planet? And isn’t my wanting to fix it back to what it was, freeze it at some point in the past and make it unchanging, isn’t that just greed guised as good? And isn’t greed our nastiest and worst habit?
I live very near the lake in Chicago. It’s only a few minute walk to the edge of twenty percent of the world’s fresh water. Am I really doing anything to save the planet by not running the water when I shave, or by taking 90-second showers? I just don’t get it. I read that there’s a new ocean forming in Ethiopia. Am I supposed to do something to nurture it, or to fill in the rift and stop it?
While I don't get Save the Planet, I do get the Three Pure Vows, which I am committed to live by and which guide my life: Do no harm, Be of benefit, Save all sentient beings. That I get. That I do. And that is all I can do. That’s where my responsibility ends. For me Save the Planet doesn’t make any sense. It’s a greed-laden idea. It comes from speculative-mind. It’s wrong view. The Three Pure Vows, that’s right view.
Every time I hear myself utter the third vow, every time I set my intention to save all sentient beings, I remind myself that “all sentient beings” aren’t just living things. All sentient beings are everyone and everything–both animate and inanimate. All sentient beings are not only living beings, but also the trees and the forests, the rock and the mountains. In the wording of the Diamond Sutra, it’s everyone and everything …whether born from eggs, from the womb, from moisture, or spontaneously; whether they have form or do not have form; whether they have perceptions or do not have perceptions; or whether it cannot be said of them that they have perceptions or that they do not have perceptions.
While Save the Planet doesn’t tell me anything, the Three Pure Vows tell me everything. Those vows are telling me to do no harm to the people and things around me. Because our nature is to do, if I choose to do no harm and then do something, it will be of benefit. Where do I begin that practice? As one Zen teacher told me, “You start by taking care of the things on our doorstep.” The stuff on my doorstep, that I understand. That makes sense. That I can do.
Howso? By showing respect for everything I encounter. For living and sleeping and walking and driving and cleaning and everything else in ways that are respectful of those around me and of the environment. How do I approach that? By trying to do everything with awareness of the weight I am levying on those around me and on the things I am surrounded by; by being humble and modest in front of plants in my garden, my neighbors, friends, and family. When I conserve resources, I am doing no harm and being of benefit.
That’s what I do, that’s all I can do. That makes sense to me: Conserve Resources.