Interview with Ron Epstein, PhD regarding his book: Responsible Living: Explorations in Applied Buddhist Ethics- Animals, Environment, GMOs, Digital Media published by the Buddhist Text Translation Society.
*A version of this interview was first published at buddhistdoor.net on December 31, 2019. Annika Lundkvist, editor for Pacific Roots Magazine, conducted the interview and is a correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global as well.
Ron Epstein, Ph.D., a founding member of Dharma Realm Buddhist University and retired lecturer emeritus in the philosophy department at San Francisco State University, holds a B.A. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He commenced his lifelong study and practice of Buddhism at the age of 24 under the guidance of the Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua. His contributions to Buddhist scholarship include Budddhism A to Z, a popular reference book on Buddhist terminology, as well as his work as principle translator of the Surangama Sutra, an important Buddhist source on meditation. He has written extensively on the contemporary application of Buddhism and Buddhist ethics. He also co-sponsored legislation which banned for the first time the growing of GMOs in northern California on a county-wide basis.
Interview with Ron Epstein PhD
Pacific Roots Magazine: What really caught my eye with your book was the intersection of all these themes in connection with Buddhist ethics. To start off with, I’d like to hear about the legislation you introduced banning GMO’s.
Dr. Epstein: Yes, I and a couple of friends started working on Local County Measure H to ban the growing and raising of genetically modified plants and animals. We started in 2003 and it was on the ballot in 2004. I had actually become interested in this issue in the early 1990’s. I had tried very hard to get people interested in it over the years and had pretty much given up when they called me up and said “Do you want to put this on the ballot with us?” So I was very pleasantly surprised. It was quite a ride.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Yes, it was really incredible as the first time banning on a county level, correct?
Dr. Epstein: Yes, it was the first time for banning GMO’s in the country on a county level.
Pacific Roots Magazine: This was really groundbreaking then. Anywhere in the country! There had been no state at that time that had banned it at the state wide level, right?
Dr. Epstein: Correct.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Do other people now working on similar legislation come to you for advice?
Dr. Epstein: Not recently. It’s a very good question you ask. I think people are so confused by the technicalities on the research level that it really takes some study into what’s going on in the field from a scientific perspective to understand what needs to be done on a legislative level. That’s one thing and frankly, most of the key players here who did it back in 2003 are now in their 70’s or 80’s even and there hasn’t been a lot of interest directed our way from younger generations. I’m still hopeful that people will look into these things because there is of course a lot at stake.
Pacific Roots Magazine: There really is. Here in Europe there is much more restrictive use of GMO’s.
Dr. Epstein: Yes.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Do (or did) you have any courses in Buddhist ethics?
Dr. Epstein: I’m pretty much retired from teaching now. I was teaching first at University of California at Davis and for a much longer period of time at San Francisco State University. I’ve been involved for many decades with Dharma Realm Buddhist University which is a very small, fully accredited Buddhist institution. When I was teaching at San Francisco State University, the University decided to start a very complicated and multi-pronged initiative in teaching Environmental Studies. So they set up this whole new Environmental Studies program and I suggested that they have one course in Environmental Ethics as part of the requirements for the major but nobody was interested in doing Environmental Ethics.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Really? That’s strange.
Dr. Epstein: Yes, it was very strange. Initially I thought, this is terrific, we’re doing Environmental Studies and then I found out that what they were interested in was teaching Environmental Studies to help people get jobs with big corporations to justify their anti-environmental actions.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Well, you are a pioneer in this area because look at what’s happening with all these wide spread environmental youth movements. Maybe that gives you some sense of hope when you see how these youth movements have picked up, really very recently becoming a tremendous force. I would think there are now children at the middle and elementary school level who are to some degree now very interested in environmental ethics. It is becoming more of a mainstream point of dialogue.
Dr. Epstein: Yes, absolutely. I’ve been really encouraged by that and from my perspective that’s the most encouraging thing that’s going on in this area- the young people. I hope they keep it up.
Pacific Roots Magazine: I hope so too.
Dr. Epstein: When they were doing the Environmental Studies program, I made a compromise with them and with my department (the Philosophy department) that they would allow there to be an Environmental Ethics course for the first time if I were to put it together and teach it. Nobody else was interested in doing it at all so they gave me a blank slate. I had never taken a course in Environmental Ethics so I put it together and it was really interesting and got a really positive response from the students.
Pacific Roots Magazine: That’s really wonderful. With the younger movement in mind as well as older generations envisioning a drastically improved relationship with the environment, hopefully there will be an even greater strengthening of an ethics of environmentalism.
Looking also at how technology dependent we are, do you have any thoughts of the development of such an ethics alongside awareness of our tech use as well as bringing in Buddhist philosophy to help reconcile and change what we need to do? I recognize this is a very broad question.
Dr. Epstein: Yes it is very broad but I think also necessary to look at the big picture. I’m in a pretty isolated community in Northern California. So from time to time I really wonder if I’m in tune with the situation for example in Silicon Valley. Not too long ago I was very happy to meet some younger people who had influential positions in Silicon Valley firms and had started ethics discussion groups in their corporations. So we all got together on a conference call, several of these young people and myself, to talk about and think about what was going on on the ground. On the one hand, it was wonderful that their corporations were supporting them to have these little discussion groups and taking up the issues. But then when we talked further it became clear that yes these corporations were willing to do that as long as it didn’t rock the boat and affect corporate profits. But just the fact that people continue to bring these things up is a good sign. When I read that people voluntarily lose their jobs for their principles, that’s very impressive to me.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Yes indeed. As I understand, in Silicon Valley, the culture really runs on business and innovation in large parts. I pay attention to vegan issues and industry so what perks my interest coming out of Silicon Valley are these plant based or vegan meat or dairy analog (replacement) products. It’s not likely that the people running these businesses are doing so because they are Buddhist for example but rather they see that there is a market and they are looking for cleaner technology to replace the problematic model of factory farming. They see the present and the fact that this is not sustainable and so they work to come up with a viable and profitable solution.
Returning to your book and the technology theme, you chose to focus on morality and high tech, genetic engineering and a range of issues within digital and social media use. Why did you choose these specific areas of technology to focus on?
Dr. Epstein: I think one of the main problems going on is that if you look historically at the development of Buddhism in the West (it really started early 20th century), is that the expedient that the early European Buddhists used was that, unlike Christianity which was anti-science and anti-evolution, Buddhism was pro-Science and entirely 100% compatible with science and even scientific in its own right. This was a kind of expedient means to drawing peoples interest to Buddhism in the West. I think most people who have any idea with whats going on with Buddhism in the West today know that. One can see that for the last couple of decades, the Dalai Lama has (for instance) been doing the same type of thing and has been meeting with all sorts of different scientist and academics – one group each every year, year after year – and using this as a kind of expedient means to get people interested in Buddhism.
But I think we may have gone a little bit too far in that direction and we need, from a Buddhist point of view, to do a critique of Science and scientism. I do have one essay in my book about Buddhism and Science and one of the main points I try to make is that Science is interested in objectivity and only looks at the material world and Buddhism is more interested in mental clarity and is not only looking at the material world but is also looking at the world of consciousness. If we start not only looking at the similarities of Buddhist teachings and Science but also the differences, then some very interesting things will come forth.
Secondly, I think that my generation in the 1960’s was interested in ethics in terms of social justice and it was obvious that it was a good thing to do and the social justice movement was alive and well. Every generation has its own issues within it but there’s been a kind of neglect of personal ethics of virtue, of character and that part of it is where I think Buddhism can make a real contribution.
Unfortunately, because there isn’t a lot of popular study of Buddhism among most of the Buddhist groups of the West, there isn’t a clear focus on what the prerequisites for developing this aspect of ethics would be. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, actually to not only bring to bear social justice issues but also issues of personal character, how those interface with environmentalism or issues with high tech. For example, you noticed how much emphasis I put on the problem of empathy and the influence of technology in the development of empathy in children for example (from their digital device use). I think we need a lot more exploration of these kinds of issues.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Absolutely. Well I remember when I first saw your book I thought “This is really unique, I have never seen a book like this before connecting all these issues.” Where do you see some of the exploration and addressing of Buddhist ethics in the context of contemporary issues beginning to flourish in the West? Universities?
Dr. Epstein: That’s a good question. Yes, there’s a lot of potential there (in universities) but also in some of the monastic communities that are paying more attention to the ethical basis in terms of what I like to call karma based ethics. There’s tremendous potential for some of the more traditional Buddhist communities (particularly monks and nuns) to play a real important advisory and modeling role in this.
I wanted to call your attention to the foreword in my book which is written by Venerable Ajahn Pasanno. He is part of the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah. They have monastery just about half an hour north of us.He has done really remarkable work both in Thailand and here on major environmental issues.
Of course it’s not only happening at Buddhist monastic institutions. I have a friend, Reverend Heng Sure, who is known for his three steps one bow pilgrimage for world peace. He’s a senior monastic in the Dharma Realm Buddhist Institute, director of Berkeley Buddhist Monastery and very active in inter-faith events. He allowed me to tag along one year to a monastic conference at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. There was a retreat there of monastics from all different religious traditions to talk about what their monastic communities were doing in terms of preserving the environment. So I was very pleased that I had an opportunity to participate and learn from all these monastics. This was more than ten years ago and they already had a very sophisticated approach to these issues. I think there’s potential there.
Pacific Roots Magazine: On page 52 you note that “Our greatest slow boil threat may be one you may not even know about- the radical decline of empathy due to social media. Buddhism teaches that our personal problems and the problems of the world are best solved through the application of great compassion. It is our most powerful tool for ending human suffering.” Can you share more about this concern for digital media’s effect on our capacity to develop and cultivate compassion?
Dr. Epstein: I think we have to constantly keep in mind the balance of the potential benefits of these media versus the potential harms of technology.
For example, the Buddhist Text Translation Society (that published my book) is very active in various parts of the world using the internet to spread Buddhist teachings, including my book. They’re reached hundreds of thousands (perhaps even millions) of people both in the West and in Asia particularly (such as mainland China). There are a tremendous number of people for whom their entree into the Dharma has been via the internet and all the associated technology.
But the danger with the digital world is that it only treats “big data” as real, if that makes any sense. Anything that does not fit into the category of digital description is not considered to be real. The problem is that if you only admit that things that can be digitally described are real, than that leaves out everything that is of importance in Buddhism, starting with ethics. We somehow have to make sure that we don’t mistake digital descriptions for awakened mind. So how do you do that? My particular Buddhist teacher, the late Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, said to use the Four Pure Abodes, also called the Four Unlimited Minds, mental states, as a kind of test to see if we’ve gotten off track or not. The four are: Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity. So I think if we use these fours aspects of Buddhist teaching and practice to see if what’s going in on digital Buddhism is measuring up to those four standards then maybe we’ll be ok.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of interesting points you touch on there. I would like to go back to something you said earlier about the Buddhist Text Translation Society and how for many people they reach, their introduction to Buddhist teachings is online. Why is that? Because the mediums they are using are primarily digital devices so that is why they are being reached there? So, basically, go where the people are.
Dr. Epstein: Exactly.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Interesting. I also want to go back to the inspiration for the book as a whole. You’ve addressed what compelled you to write this book earlier in our conversation here. Did you find when you were writing this that it felt like a pioneering work or were you already familiar with a whole body of texts about environment, technology and Buddhist ethics?
Dr. Epstein: What the book is made up of, for the most part, are very lightly edited versions of talks I have given to various audiences over the years, from about 1990 to 2017. They are collected essays we lightly edited. The way the book came about was that some Buddhist nuns who were interested in some of these issues and heard some of my talks, encouraged me to publish them so that they would reach a larger audience. They volunteered to to most of the work and I was so moved and grateful that I thought, ‘If they’re willing to do all of this then how can I not go along and do what I can do get this book out.’
Pacific Roots Magazine: What specifically did they do to help bring the book to reality?
Dr. Epstein: They edited, did book design, copy editing, arranged for printing and distribution and arranged for me to give a talk to the greater local Ukiah community about the book and some of its main ideas.
Pacific Roots Magazine: I had one question on a part of your book that was very moving to me. On page 34 you wrote that in terms of viewing our current environmental crisis from a spiritual perspective, “the situation does not seem very encouraging, primarily for three main reasons. One, it is very difficult to change course at this point. In Buddhist terms, the karma is too heavy. Two, most people don’t seem to realize the seriousness of the situation; and three, that there is very little indication that we will fix the problems in time or that there is even much consensus of view about what needs to be done.”
I both appreciated and learned quite a lot about Karma, causality and intention through your writing, but this observation you made really struck a chord in me. I think about the current youth movements and the fact that I am a mother in my 40’s to two young children. This affects my view of the current ecological crisis and supports an inclination to be learning about potential solutions. However I think it’s important to recognize that, as you note, “the karma is too heavy”. It feels critical to have this as a base awareness, to know that there is a lot of work to be done. It really struck me on a cure level to read that.
Dr. Epstein: Let me share a personal experience with you. I was really happy to learn that you’re involved in the vegan movement and have interest in that. I have a son who is 35 now and when he was in elementary school, I took him to a place a few hours away in Northern California called Farm Sanctuary. Have you heard about Farm Sanctuary?
Pacific Roots Magazine: Yes, yes I have!
Dr. Epstein: I had never been there. The person who had donated the land for that sanctuary was a Computer Science Professor at San Francisco State University who put on an international animal rights conference at SFSU in 1990 and she invited me to give a paper about animal rights and Buddhism. That was really the first time that it occurred to be that maybe there was something more people were getting interested in and I should do more in this area.
I decided to take my son, who was in elementary school at the time, to Farm Sanctuary. I was feeling pretty smug as a long time vegetarian when I went. One of the volunteers who took us around asked us if we were vegans or not and we said “No, vegetarians, not vegans.” She proceeded to blast us about the causes and conditions of dairy aspects of suffering and were we aware that when we ate dairy we were supporting the routine killing of male calves. It really hit me right in the gut. The visit had a big effect on my son but it probably had, to my great surprise, a bigger effect on me.
Pacific Roots Magazine: That’s quite profound actually, to have been exposed to that awareness in the early 90’s. Veganism has only really been entering mainstream awareness the past couple of decades. Of course we know that consumption of mainly plant based diets is nothing new or “modern” for humans, but this aspect of veganism as a movement is really pretty recent.
Dr. Epstein: Yes. Earlier on in our Buddhist communities, our teachers had really emphasized doing “Liberating Loving Beings Ceremonies” There is a lot of controversy in Asia about how they do it. The basic idea is that people go and get live animals that are about to be killed (usually for food), buy them and release them.
So this is part of my Buddhist experience. There’s the practical aspect of what’s involved in doing that – doing it in a good and environmentally proper way is a big challenge. But also looking at the wholesale killing of animals from a Buddhist view. From a traditional Buddhist point of view, you have these literally billions of animals being killed and in their intermediate life suffering greatly and being very angry. So we’re talking about a cloud of killing karma over the entire planet that’s affecting everything we do. So I really think that Buddhist teachers need to emphasize this aspect of Buddhist teaching more.
A lot is happening, particularly within the Tibetan Buddhist world, which has been very much identified with meat. I think they’re making some important inroads into going in the direction of vegetarianism and veganism in their monasteries and communities.
Chinese Buddhism has pretty much always been vegan.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Yes, I’ve heard about that. I’m definitely looking forward to learning more about this. Hearing about the spirit of environmentalism at all the various dharma centers worldwide as well as learning how practices have changed at these centers over the recent decades should be really fascinating- to learn how they are paying attention to ecological issues on a local as well as planetary level.
Dr. Epstein: Let me share a quick story with you. When I graduated from college, I came out to the West Coast. It was one of the few places (this was in 1965) where they were teaching Buddhist meditation which I wanted to find out more about. And I found this teacher, this Buddhist monk from China living in this slum apartment, and I started meditating with him. I didn’t know anything about Buddhism really but what I knew was from direct meditative experiences. After meditating with him for five or six months, I realized he was really a quite remarkable monk, totally without any sense of self and it was this big realization for me. One day I was sitting on this steps of this slum apartment building where he was living, no knowledge of Buddhism, but I knew him now about six months and he gives me this little bilingual pamphlet in English and Chinese. So this is the first teaching I get from him and the pamphlet is “Why you should become a vegan.”
Pacific Roots Magazine: Really!? That is fascinating! I would love to see those pamphlets, I wonder if any are around anymore.
Dr. Epstein: That’s a good question (laughs). I still have the one he gave me around here somewhere.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Yes that’s archival material!
Dr. Epstein: Yes, it was a little bit of text with wood block illustrations to illustrate each point about why we should be vegan. But it was all from a Buddhist point of view. It had nothing to do with health matters.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Truly interesting. I hope to one day see those. I also would like to thank you greatly for your time.
Ron: My pleasure.
Responsible Living: Explorations in Applied Buddhist Ethics—Animals, Environment, GMOs, Digital Media is available from the Buddhist Text Translation Society here