Most western convert Buddhist communities have had the luxury of regarding “activism” for social or environmental justice as an optional or supplemental activity some people take up because they have the time, kind of like a hobby. The truth is, many of us are so busy it’s difficult to imagine finding time for activism regarding the climate emergency. However, we may not have a choice – at least not if we hope to avoid extinction. And if there are no sentient beings, there are no buddhas.
Quicklinks to Content:
Some Buddhist Responses to the Climate Emergency
Buddhist Resistance to Addressing the Climate Emergency
Arguments for Buddhist Action
The Imperative to Act, Despite the Disruption It May Cause to Our Daily Lives
Rising to the Challenge of the Great Turning
Last week I participated in an act of civil disobedience with my local chapter of Extinction Rebellion. Extinction Rebellion, to use its own words, is “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience to achieve radical change in order to minimise the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse.”[i] There’s no lack of evidence we’re facing the real possibility of extinction, and are currently witnessing ecological collapse on a global scale, but Extinction Rebellion – along with a number of other significant environmental and climate change movements – have dramatically increased their activities since the recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The IPCC report, released in October 2018 and compiled by respected climate scientists from all over the world, says that if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (and even with that level of increase the predictions are grim), we only have until around 2030 to decrease our global net human-caused CO2 emissions by 45% below 2010 levels.[ii] And, in case you hadn’t noticed, our emissions aren’t decreasing, they’re already far above 2010 levels and still increasing. Quickly. In other words, our governments have to do a complete 180 in order to mitigate mass extinction, ecological collapse, water shortages, monster storms, widespread crop failures, and all the other horrors already happening across the planet.
Our governments aren’t about to make the changes recommended by the IPCC report without massive pressure from us, the people, and I believe we won’t achieve the kind of pressure we need without widespread civil disobedience. Fortunately, enter Extinction Rebellion, whose completely non-violent, creative, even artistic and joyous actions have had an impressive impact so far! Ironically, I feel a glimmer of hope for the first time since I was a child, when I noticed we were completely trashing the planet. I plan to attend upcoming Extinction Rebellion actions and even risk arrest – dressed and clearly identifying as a Zen priest.
I won’t spend the rest of this episode trying to convince you we’re facing an immediate climate and ecological emergency. I’m no expert, and there are plenty of others beginning to do that. Instead, I want to talk about how Buddhism relates to the climate crisis.
Some Buddhist Responses to the Climate Emergency
What are Buddhists doing about the climate emergency so far? A full ten years ago, Wisdom Publications put out a book with essays by a wide variety of Buddhist teachers and scholars called A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency. All of the authors lamented what we’re doing to our planet, and encouraged Buddhists to challenge the forces of greed, hate, and delusion that have led to this mess. A couple of great books on this subject have been published recently – most notably Stephanie Kaza’s Green Buddhism: Practice and Compassionate Action in Uncertain Times and David Loy’s Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis. Both authors offer great suggestions for how to use Buddhist teachings and practices to find your moral bearing, deal with difficult emotions and reactions, and provide stability and guidance as you take whatever actions you feel you need to. Many of these kinds of Buddhist resources and reflections, however, do an elegant job of arguing that Buddhists should be concerned about the natural world, and that Buddhist teachings and practices can be a great asset as we try to live in greater harmony with it – but they tend to stop of short of specific calls to action, leaving that up to the individual to figure out.
On the more active side, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship was established in 1978, promoting what has come to be called “Engaged Buddhism,” and the climate emergency has naturally come to be on their radar more and more. Members of that organization have long worked for social, racial, and environmental justice, arguing that such activities on behalf of other beings is an essential part of the Buddhist path. This sentiment is expressed in a post by David Loy from 2014, originally in the Huffington Post, and reposted on the Buddhist Peace Fellowship website:
“Maybe every modern generation feels confronted by some crisis that will affect the fate of the world, but unless your head is buried in the sand (or some Buddhist equivalent) it’s impossible to be ignorant of the extraordinary planetary emergency that confronts us today. The recent IPCC report states clearly that ecological collapse no longer merely threatens — we are well into it. It’s become apparent that civilization as we know it is about to be transformed in some very uncomfortable ways by climate breakdown, mass extinction of species, resource depletion and various types of pollution — perhaps including some kinds we don’t even know about yet.
“Such is the critical situation we find ourselves in today, and Buddhists, like everyone else, need to face up to it quickly. If you are not at least dimly aware of these urgent problems, then either you are not paying attention or something is wrong with your ability to see. I suspect there is a special place in hell (the Buddhist hells as well as the Christian ones) reserved for those who refuse to give up the self-centered indifference that allows them to meditate indefinitely on their cushions while the rest of the world goes to hell.”[iii]
I’m sure there other Buddhists and Buddhist groups mobilizing to fight climate disruption and ecological collapse and all related issues; I don’t mean to imply my list is exhaustive in any way. If you’re interested in this topic, Stephanie Kaza gives a good overview of past and current movements, efforts, and leaders in ecologically-focused Buddhism in her recent book, Green Buddhism.
Buddhist Resistance to Addressing the Climate Emergency
Still, even with the climate crisis, in most Buddhist circles I know of, those identifying as “engaged Buddhists” are a relatively small and fringe group. They’re usually viewed by the rest of their sangha members as having a nice special interest, kind of like a hobby, and when the engaged Buddhists encourage others to act, they’re often met with disinterest if not outright annoyance.
Many western Buddhists – and by that, I mean primarily white, convert Buddhists – would find it remarkable, or even controversial, that I would choose the climate crisis as a topic on a Buddhist podcast or speak about it as a teacher at my Zen center, let alone talk about it regularly, or advocate civil disobedience. (Note: I’m honestly not sure how Asian American heritage Buddhist communities feel about environmental or social justice issues, although I know what we might call “activism” is much more common in Asian Buddhism than it is in western, modernist Buddhism.)
Talking about climate change in Buddhist circles has become somewhat more acceptable over the last ten years, as more and more dire environmental reports come in, and our personal lives are touched by cataclysmic storms, water shortages, and increasingly common and severe wildfires. For the most part, however, discussions about environmental issues are still seen as political, and potentially divisive. Amazingly, liberal Buddhist centers everywhere restrain their conversations about the climate crisis in part because they fear alienating any conservative climate-change denier or anti-environmentalist who might have wandered into the place undetected – even though the likelihood of that at most centers is almost nil. The idea is that Buddhism is for everyone, and we should never tie the religion or the practice to any particular political agenda.
Even when Buddhist communities discuss something like climate change, their discussions tend to be limited to green consumerism – trying to minimize our use of plastic, drive fuel-efficient cars, use ecologically-friendly cleaning products, be vegetarian, and be aware of how our clothes are made. These conversations frequently devolve into debates about levels of environmental purity, and leave people feeling one of more of the following: 1) Self-satisfied and convinced they’re doing everything they can about the climate crisis; 2) guilt-ridden and inadequate, or 3) averse to any conversations about environmental or social justice issues because they just lead to subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) shaming and one-upmanship with respect to green consumerism. Actually, I think most of us experience that third feeling.
Then there’s the prevailing idea that a Buddhist temple or center is a place for inwardly-turned practice. By helping people alleviate their own suffering and cultivate wisdom, peace of mind, and compassion, Buddhist teachers and sanghas equip people to go out in the world and help. In other words, Buddhism should benefit the world indirectly, through individual Buddhists. According to this line of thinking, it might be appropriate to discuss our concern for the planet in a general, spiritual way within the context of sangha, or to conduct ceremonies to embody our love or concern for the planet and its beings, or even express our grief or remorse about our participation in systems that are causing such destruction. However, the thinking goes, it’s not the place of Buddhist sanghas or teachers to adopt a cause and advocate for social or political change.
Arguments for Buddhist Action
I agree that we shouldn’t tie Buddhism to any particular political agenda… but what do we mean by something being “political”? My sense is that people perceive something as political the moment the discussion seems to endorse or favor particular political parties, platforms, politicians, or policies. We may get together and lament the suffering in the world, and agree in a general sense that something should be done about it, but as soon as we get to the particulars – what should be done, who should do it, how it should be done, and when – we’ve wandered into the no-man’s-land of politics, which doesn’t belong in a Buddhist center. This is part of why most Buddhists wanting to be of benefit in the world stick to personal outreach and service – visiting prisons, hospice work, serving at food banks, etc. – rather than coming together to work for systemic change. No risk of direct, personal, compassionate outreach becoming political.
And yet, what if something so egregiously contradicts our principles and threatens the welfare of living beings, we must act to bring about change or face dire consequences – the least of which will be our own moral bankruptcy? Inevitably, any action we take to create lasting change will end up being, at least in part, political – because ultimately the definition of political is “having to do with our systems of governance and laws.” Those working for the abolition of slavery had to get political, as did those fighting for women’s suffrage and civil rights for people of color. We’ll have to get political in order to make any headway against racial oppression in our so-called justice system, or to end the persecution of refugees and migrants.
“Okay, then,” some Buddhists might say, “Go ahead and work for change, but do it as an individual. Don’t expect the sangha to take up your cause.” Presumably, something might threaten enough people in a sangha that the community would feel an imperative to respond as a community, but the threshold over which an issue needs to get in order to be adopted as a priority by a western, convert Buddhist community seems incredibly high sometimes. Black men being shot by police in the same city as a center generally doesn’t push Black Lives Matter over that threshold, probably because so few western convert Buddhists are black (with the exception, of course, of the Soka Gokkai sect, which unsurprisingly has been overtly socially engaged since its beginnings in the 20th century[iv]). Homeless encampments the size of small villages don’t push the issue of affordable housing over the threshold, probably because few convert Buddhists have to worry about homelessness. ICE raids on our neighbors don’t push immigrant rights over the thresholds of most Buddhist centers, probably because most of us aren’t recent immigrants.
One of the things that excites me about the climate crisis is that it’s relevant to all of us. Sure, a handful of super rich people might be able to live our ecological Armageddon in some heavily-guarded luxury bunker somewhere, but I won’t really envy them that existence. Because the ability of our planet to support human life is under threat, and because a conservative and reliable report said we until 2030 – at the latest – to get our act together, it’s starting to be acceptable to talk about the climate crisis in polite company. It’s starting to seem reasonable to more and more people to propose that we need to do something beyond green consumerism. It might soon become okay to venture, within Buddhist circles, into territory that will eventually turn political.
Another important thing excites me about addressing the climate emergency – if you can call it “excitement.” As Naomi Klein argued in her book by the same title, this changes everything. In order to mitigate and reverse global warming and ecological collapse, we have to change our economic and political systems, along with our entire way of relating to nature as a resource to be used up for maximum profit. We have to change our lifestyles, embracing simplicity and learning to focus more on our local communities. And we have to address the world’s heinous global, racial, and economic inequality and injustice – because there is no planet B, and we’re all in this together. We need unprecedented global solidarity in order to avoid ecological breakdown, and that won’t happen if most of the world is suffering while a small fraction of us continue to hold on to all the privilege and wealth.
It’s like the world – the planet and all the life on it – is a body we’ve been abusing for a long time with alcohol, drugs, overeating, and recklessness. We’ve learned to ignore – or at least live with – the many aches, pains, wounds, and illnesses we’ve accumulated because of that abuse, because the last thing we want to do is change our behavior. But now we’ve received a terminal diagnosis and we have to change our whole lifestyle, or else. In some senses that terminal diagnosis is a blessing, because nothing less would provide sufficient motivation for us to stop our sad and harmful actions.
The Imperative to Act, Despite the Disruption It May Cause to Our Daily Lives
To be fair, as I think about my own Zen community, we mostly don’t adopt an issue as a community because we’re all so busy. It’s hard enough for most people to find a couple of hours in their week to come meditate and study Buddhism together. Those couple of hours is a time of regeneration and refuge from the craziness of the world, and allows people to feel connected and sane. The rest of the time we’re struggling to make ends meet and take care of our lives. How can we possibly add Buddhist activism to the mix?
I don’t know, but in the case of the climate crisis, I don’t think we have a choice. It’s sad to admit that activism on behalf of people of color, immigrants, and the poor seems somehow optional to most of our largely-white western convert Buddhist communities – a special service project we might take on when we find we have the time. Nevertheless, this is human nature: We really start to care when it’s our own lives, or the lives of our children, on the line. And who can ignore 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg’s words?
“In the year 2030 I will be 26 years old. My little sister Beata will be 23. Just like many of your own children or grandchildren. That is a great age, we have been told. When you have all of your life ahead of you. But I am not so sure it will be that great for us.
“I was fortunate to be born in a time and place where everyone told us to dream big; I could become whatever I wanted to. I could live wherever I wanted to. People like me had everything we needed and more. Things our grandparents could not even dream of. We had everything we could ever wish for and yet now we may have nothing.
“Now we probably don’t even have a future any more.
“Because that future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money.”[v]
When I read the text of Thunberg’s speech to the UK members of parliament, even though I’ve read it many times, my eyes fill with tears. As they do when I read about the massive die-off of insects worldwide, or contemplate a world without polar bears or monarch butterflies, or read about how almost two dozen cities in India may be without fresh water by 2020.[vi] The list goes on… I used to bookmark certain articles I found online in a folder called “Dire Circumstances,” so I wouldn’t get too complacent. Now I don’t bother anymore, because I encounter multiple articles every day reflecting the climate crisis, ecological collapse, resource depletion, and toxic pollution.
As Buddhists, perhaps we could take Pope Francis’ approach to climate change as an example. He recently released a 180-page encyclical letter called “On Care for Our Common Home.” It begins:
“…Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us… This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”[vii]
The pope’s letter goes on to describe the environmental issues facing our planet in great detail, and points out how human actions are to blame, quoting his predecessor:
“Benedict urged us to realize that creation is harmed ‘where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.’”
Also in the pope’s encyclical is a section on how solutions to our crisis will have to be multifaceted, including addressing global inequality, and a criticism of how weak the responses to the climate crisis have been so far. He also offers scriptural references to back up his teachings about our care for our common home.
Buddhism also offers many teachings that point to our moral responsibility to care for life on this planet, and many wonderful teachings and practices to give us the strength and clarity to do this work. The Buddha’s Eightfold Path includes Right Livelihood, which in this day and age extends far beyond the kind of job we have to all of the ways we satisfy our material needs and wants. The practice most recommended for spiritual peace is to live the life of a monastic, in which your material possessions amount more or less to a set of robes and a bowl to eat out of – and real-life monastics demonstrate this lifestyle can be one of profound contentment. Our moral precepts include the vow not to kill, but to cultivate and encourage all life. We vow not to steal, but honor the gift not yet given. The problems of humankind can be traced to the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion. Mahayana Buddhism teaches us that it’s only an illusion that we’re separate from other living beings – that, in fact, we’re completely interdependent with everything in the universe. The noblest spiritual path is that of a bodhisattva, who vows to save all beings along with herself.
Rising to the Challenge of the Great Turning
There is a strong basis in Buddhism for acting to save our planet from the worst effects of climate disruption. The only question is how – but we shouldn’t balk at taking a stand just because we don’t know the best way to help. To borrow the words of Greta Thunberg again:
“Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.
“Sometimes we just simply have to find a way. The moment we decide to fulfil something, we can do anything. And I’m sure that the moment we start behaving as if we were in an emergency, we can avoid climate and ecological catastrophe. Humans are very adaptable: we can still fix this. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long. We must start today. We have no more excuses.”[viii]
One of the greatest things Buddhism can offer us, as practitioners, in our work to save our planet is this: The basic premise of Buddhism is that your experience of the world is mostly dependent on the state of your own mind and heart. In other words, through practice, despair can be transformed into loving, unconditional determination to do everything we can. Overwhelm can be transformed into deeper connections with other people, the support of whom we are going to need. Fear and anxiety can be transformed into courage, which will allow us to realize our full potential.
Over the next couple of months, I’ll be exploring these kinds of transformations at my Zen center, Bright Way Zen. We’ll be focusing on Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. The book isn’t explicitly Buddhist, although Macy is a Buddhist and her work is deeply inspired by, and compatible with, Buddhism. Macy contrasts passive hope with active hope:
“Passive hope is about waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire. Active Hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for… Since Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express.”
My favorite part of the book Active Hope is how it presents the mess we’re in as an awesome opportunity. Macy and Johnstone outline three stories we can operate within. We can live in the “Business as Usual” story, denying the crisis we’re in and simply continuing as we have been. We can live in the “Great Unraveling” story, where we live in perpetual alarm and sadness as we witness the destruction around us. Many of us, I think, bounce between these two stories and experience increasing amounts of cognitive dissonance by doing so. There’s a third story, though, which Macy and Johnstone suggest we chose to live in instead. They call it “The Great Turning” and they “see it as the essential adventure of our time. It involves the transition from a doomed economy of industrial growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the recovery of our world.”
We may not be able to save the polar bears, monarch butterflies, or much of humanity… but don’t we want to say we did our best, even if we died trying?
A common response to a suggestion that you should be doing more than you’re already doing about such-and-such a problem is, “But what can I do?” However, there’s no room for shame or any sense of inadequacy in the face of our crisis. Pope Francis points this out in his encyclical:
“As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: ‘Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation’. All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.”
Finally, why do we need to address the climate emergency as Buddhists? Of course, not everyone who identifies as Buddhist will necessarily want to publicly connect their spiritual practice or community with whatever actions they take. For many of us, though, our Sangha is our greatest source of social and spiritual support, especially when we’re facing something difficult. Who else would we want to ally ourselves with more than our Sangha members, if they’re willing? What would feel more encouraging and supportive than taking action with Sangha members who can pause and meditate together, or practice metta for the police officers who are coming to arrest us for civil disobedience? Who can stave off despair by opening up to luminous Mind?
Also, for me, my concern for the planet and all life arises from the same bodhi mind that set me on the Buddhist path, so my spiritual life and my sense of imperative about the climate emergency are inseparable. I hope more and more Buddhists will join me in this fight, and future generations can look back at us like we look back at Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Christians who stood on the frontline in the struggle for civil rights because they felt their faith compelled them to do so.
[iii] http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/what-would-the-buddha-do/ and https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-would-the-buddha-do_b_5085001?guccounter=1
[iv] Why Are There So Many Black Buddhists? https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/black-buddhists/
[v] ‘You did not act in time’: Greta Thunberg’s full speech to MPs. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/23/greta-thunberg-full-speech-to-mps-you-did-not-act-in-time
[vii] On Our Care for Our Common Home, and encyclical by Pope Francis: https://w2.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si_en.pdf
[viii] ‘You did not act in time’: Greta Thunberg’s full speech to MPs. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/23/greta-thunberg-full-speech-to-mps-you-did-not-act-in-time