Taking action on Ecological Crisis
by Craig Behenna, Australia, May 9, 2019
I met Maija Kaunismaa at the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 2018 when I was a Resident student and she was working as Artist-In-Residence. Maija wrote much of her latest album, The Pine House Songs, at the Center and over that month, as we became friends and explained the landscape of Los Angeles, I saw Maija’s musical process – and had the chance to watch the formation of her album first hand.
Maija brings heart and honesty to her lyrics and melodies. Steeped in musical craft and with a distinguished career as a composer for theatre, Maija’s lyrics draw on the present-moment observation of the emotional reality and the presence of life going on around her. From all the craft now comes great clarity and simplicity, which, like her zen practice, belies power, depth and a deep concern for the world, our environment and the future we must all confront as monumental change looms around us.
Craig: The obvious question first: why this song? It has a long history and it must have had a personal resonance for you to record it.
Maija: I have always felt really connected with the lyrics of Reino Helismaa. He’s a very famous songwriter here in Finland and all generations born after the WW2 have grown listening to the songs he wrote. I felt the lyrics deserved a new tune, as I believe all songs originate in the text. I also felt the text has a very wide appeal. That’s a sign of good universal songwriting. I felt that it spoke to the people in the war-torn country where deep intimacy between lovers was a very special bond that rebuilt not only this country, and much of the human civilization. After the translation into English was made and recorded, I realized it wasn’t a love song between two people, but rather a love song for the Mother Earth itself.
Craig: The lyrics talk about acceptance both of ourselves and of the cruel and painful things we have done to each other. Especially with the music video you’ve made, it makes it a very different kind of love song – it has a very personal quality but talks about a much bigger picture. Can you talk about how you came to the realization that you were making this recording to talk about climate change and the situation we face?
Maija: The video originated from the realization that it was a love song for the whole Earth, not just a song for a person. It was my husband Mikko’s idea to speak about cruelty. He made the translation and reworked the text quite a bit. But it is really true that we should acknowledge that we can be really cruel, not only for the people we love but in this case we’ve been cruel in a massive scale to the whole ecosystem. I believe that we should accept this cruelty and really let that sink in and think about what it means. Then acknowledge that there’s love and we need to show it. I guess it should be a no-brainer in the climate issue since it is our own existence that’s at stake. If we don’t act now, we will perish. We need nature, but nature doesn’t necessarily need us.
Craig: You’re a Zen practitioner and you are very prominent in the work of the Zen Peacemakers in Finland and beyond. How does your Buddhist practice influences and inspires your songwriting and creativity?
Maija: Much of the material in this upcoming album was written at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, where I have been on a scholarship as an Artist-In-Residence. I guess it is not just the equanimity that arises from a regular meditation practice that helps creative people to tap into the vastness of their own capabilities. I believe that’s one of the fallacies raised by the Mindfulness movement. Buddhist practice raises a question of the emptiness of the own “self”. That’s a very important part of the practice. At some point, the practitioner experiences how the “self” let’s go. I believe that’s a key to true creativity. We’re often so stuck on the idea that we have a grounded self, and we try to make it more solid by creating an artificial structure to secure it. This might include branding ourselves through appearance, or craving ever more money and fame. When we let go of that, we liberate a vast open space for creativity.
Craig: How has your work with the Zen Peacemakers influenced the making of this track and the video clip? What made you realize that recording this song was going to be a part of your action to combat the climate emergency we’re facing?
Maija: What my practice as a Peacemaker has taught me, is that nothing is separate, it’s all interconnected. Therefore my work as an artist cannot be separated from my actions as a human being. I guess it all actualized when the song was already done and I had the chance to take some distance and truly listen to the message that was written in it. That’s when the realization came, that we’ve been cruel for the Mother Earth, and we should really take the responsibility. I believe the artists carry a very important role in societies with their freedom. It is just like the German playwright Bertolt Brecht said that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” There’s a very deep message in it. Of course, our art reflects the social reality in which we live in, it’s not separate either. We also carry the whole cultural evolution on our shoulders. But our work comes with responsibility. The world has neglected the important warnings on the climate emergency, and the pace of climate disruptions has been much faster due to complex feedback loops. We are now standing at the edge and we should all face the cruel reality of our own collective inability to act because we were much too comfortable. But now it’s hammer time! We cannot run away any longer.
Craig: As a society, it seems we’ve become more and more disconnected from the reality that we are part of the world, to the point that the world’s ecosystem is showing symptoms of strain and collapse and yet our social and political systems are slow to wake up. How do you talk about this as an artist? How do you engage people?
Maija: We can all show an example for others with our own actions. We can also educate our kids. But our own actions, no matter how collective, is no longer enough. We should all strive to change the institutional systems and governance through our actions. I’ve participated in marches and actions organized by the Extinction Rebellion. I believe in nonviolent actions and civil disobedience, but I’m also afraid it might be late. That’s why I try to reach out with my music. The artists are not bound by certain social structures and institutions. That’s a huge asset. But we also lack much of the social webs some other members of the society might have, like financial stability. Therefore it also takes some courage to tackle these issues, but I cannot see many options to what I’m doing. I’m also happy to see people collaborating with larger NGO’s with their projects to get their voices heard. I’m also happy to see much of the art done despite the lack of marketing resources the big record labels might have. But I really believe art should be free from economic restraints to some extent, and it should be used as a hammer, just like Brecht suggests. I also cannot see art being just a tool for better performance at workplaces or seen as a medium to bring wellbeing and health benefits to citizens. I see the current climate emergency as a sign that we, as a civilization, have failed completely. Art should not be dragged down with capitalism and market interests. It should be seen as a hammer that can rebuild as well.
Craig: In the socially active Buddhist work you do, you’ve referred to Ecodharma as an important part of how we work with the challenges of climate change. Can you talk a little about Ecodharma? What is it, how does it impact your work, and how can you see this song, in particular, being part of it?
Maija: Our Peacemaker activities have been influenced by the current Ecodharma-movement and we’re working closely with philosopher and zen teacher David R. Loy, who recently published a first major study on Buddhist thoughts and how could they serve the humanity in this current ecological crisis. David’s book is titled “Ecodarma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis.”
Craig: What do you hope other people will take from this song? What impact do you hope it will make?
Maija: One of the great gifts to humanity that Mahayana Buddhism has given is the concept of the Bodhisattva, a kind of selfless peacemaker who works for the benefit of all others just for the reason that there’s work that has to be done. Many activists around the world suffer tremendously as their actions are not having the results they wanted to see, and they were not able to attract enough people for their cause. Buddhist practice can help people to see that there’s work to be done, and we should all do the best we can, but not get attached to the outcome of our actions. There’s even a notion, that the bodhisattva has no right to know whether her actions will ever have the consequences she wanted. This idea has lately expanded to include environmental activism and Joanna Macy and some other people have coined a new term called the Ecosattva.
Craig: You’re known for your composing but this recording is the first single for your first solo album as a singer/songwriter. What inspired you to make the move into singing and songwriting?
Maija: Some time ago I felt the need for writing. I’ve always loved poetry, it’s like distilled reality. Some great writers have this amazing ability to take the essence of our world and distill the things they feel into writing that has the power to change our cognition. To really change to way we perceive reality and our own place in it. That’s closest to magic and alchemy in my view. But I had this sense that I really had something to say, but I cannot say if anyone else thinks the same way about my writing. But I just wanted to be honest with my feelings. I have a sense that we all suffer, and we all suffer the same way. We all have traumas, and all kinds of things that we think make us special. But what I’ve noticed is that we’re not that special, we all share similar experiences. I feel it’s really important to write truly, and express our individual vulnerability. There’s always someone who finds solace from the way we see the world, as we’re all interconnected.
Listen to Maija’s song “Happiness I Gave Away” through these channels:
Maija Kaunismaa is a Finnish composer, musician, singer, and vocal coach. She has been an Artist-In-Residence at the Zen Center of Los Angels (ZCLA) since 2017 where she is a formal Soto zen student with teacher Roshi Egyoku at ZCLA and where she does her own work as an artist.