176 - Una Historia de mi Viaje Espiritual Parte 3: Un Fénix se Levanta de las Cenizas de la Desesperación
179 - Inadequacy to Abundance: Rewriting Our Self-Narrative

Declare a “climate war?” It may seem strange for a Buddhist to suggest we declare war on anything, but I think it is the most natural and constructive way for us to shift into the mindset we need. In Buddhism, we wage war on the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion, not on people. We wage war out of love for all beings. In wartime we come together for the common good. We sacrifice with dignity, and help one another summon all the strength and hope we can. We all contribute to the war effort, whether it is by serving on the frontlines, darning socks for those on the frontlines, or broadcasting messages to keep up morale.



Quicklinks to Content:
Zen Means Facing Reality, Here’s Our Reality
Challenges and Questions in Facing the Climate Emergency
Declaring a Climate War: Shifting to a Wartime Mindset
The Buddhist View of Battles and War
The Power of Declaring a Climate War
Maintaining Faith That We Can Win the Climate War


As I sat down to produce this podcast episode, My mind was churning. My heart was conflicted. My gut felt tight.

What kind of episode could I produce for you? I want to touch your heart and support your practice. I want to celebrate with you the rich tradition of Buddhism, Zen, and meditation.

But I also found it impossible to choose a Buddhist topic and talk about teachings or practices in a way that ignores our climate and ecological emergency. I just couldn’t do it. It feels like inviting you into a burning house for a leisurely cup of tea.

I decided to produce this podcast directly from my heart. I remind us of the reality of the climate emergency, and then argue that the most appropriate response is declaring a climate war – as individuals, communities, states, and nations: A war on global heating and ecological breakdown. This is the only way we know of, as human beings, to shift into the mindset we need. I then explain how the imagery of war and battle fits with Buddhist practice.


Zen Means Facing Reality, Here’s Our Reality

First and foremost, Zen is about facing the truth. Common sense tells us that when the truth is painful and daunting, relief lies in escape, distraction, or at very least effective coping mechanisms. In contrast, Zen tells us freedom lies in facing reality dead on.

The reality right now is that our planet’s natural life-support systems are crashing. Rain fell at the summit of Greenland for the first time in human history. The second-largest fire in California history has caused the evacuation of thousands and continues to rage, and the out of the 20 largest fires in California since good records began in 1932, 12 have occurred in the last ten years, and 10 of them were in the last 5 years. People on the west coast of the United States, as well as in Greece and Algeria, now live in fear of being burned alive by fires moving too quickly to flee. Heat domes, prolonged droughts, and nonstop killer storms cause death and destruction across the globe and threaten the agriculture on which we all depend.

All of this global heating, climate chaos, and ecosystem collapse has been predicted by scientists. Their predictions began in earnest 30 years ago, and, if anything, things are unraveling faster than anticipated. Yes, the planet has been through massive changes before, but not with human civilization clinging to it. Change at the scale and speed we’re experiencing will cause – and is already causing – unimaginable human suffering and the destabilization of our governments, economies, and food production systems.

And then there are the looming possibilities of abrupt and catastrophic shifts in planetary systems like the ocean currents which are probably not going to happen within our lifetimes, but honestly, is “probably” enough of an assurance to let you sleep peacefully? That’s like someone telling you there’s giant sinkhole developing under your house but it’s okay because it probably won’t collapse and swallow you in the night. What degree of probability would you be willing to accept in this case? A 5% chance of the sinkhole collapsing in the next ten years? A 1% chance? Or would you get the heck out of your house until the problem was dealt with?


Challenges and Questions in Facing the Climate Emergency

We don’t want the reports we’re hearing about the climate emergency to be true. We don’t want to it be that bad. I certainly don’t. I feel like my denial is a thick blanket from which I have – even now – not yet fully emerged. Maybe the problem will go away. Maybe the incremental changes we’ve been making over the last few decades will finally amount to something. Maybe the Democrats or Republicans will finally take radical action despite the pressure from all the lobbyists invested in business as usual. Maybe they’ll invent super technological solutions that will let us keep consuming as we are. Maybe someone else will take care of this problem.

As you know, I’ve been wrestling with the reality of the climate crisis for some time. My first podcast episode on it was over two years ago, in June 2019 (104 – Buddhists: It’s Time to Address the Climate Emergency). I’ve asked myself many questions:

  • How can I inspire more Buddhists to wake up to the severity of the climate crisis?
  • How can I help motivate people to take action?
  • How can I help people find worthwhile and appropriate actions to take?
  • How do I support people in their grief and fear without rubbing their noses in it all the time?
  • How much am I personally willing to sacrifice in order to follow my conscience and devote whatever I can to climate emergency movement?
  • What is my role as Zen teacher in all of this? Is it just to comfort people as life around them falls apart? Or is it to use my spiritual authority to call my people to action in the spirit of Martin Luther King and Gandhi?

Now I am moving into new territory in this journey I never intended to set foot on.


Declaring a Climate War: Shifting to a Wartime Mindset

I think we need to shift into a wartime mindset. We – as individuals, communities, states, and countries – need to declare war on global heating and ecological collapse. We need to recognize we’re no longer living in peacetime, and that preventing the complete breakdown of earth’s natural life-support systems must take priority over everything else. This isn’t one issue among many – I’ll do my volunteer work in climate, while you work in improving education, and someone else seeks greater inclusivity for LGBTQ kids, and someone else advocates for greater opportunities for new immigrants.

Don’t get me wrong, all of those causes I just listed are incredibly important. Unfortunately, those of us who identify as activists are so used to vying for people’s support and attention, the calls of climate activists have sometimes been perceived as a particularly sick kind of self-promotion. “My issue is more important than your issue!” Sadly, like it or not, global heating and ecological destruction is the most critical problem of all. We are literally burning up billions of years of natural resources in a matter of decades and facing the end of life as we know it. It’s as if we have come upon a sick and starving baby in a burning house. She desperately needs medical treatment and food, but first we have to get her out of the burning house.

I was inspired to pick up the idea of declaring war on the climate and ecological emergency by Margaret Klein Salamon. During my July sabbatical, I read her excellent book, Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth. I would love every person alive today to read this book. It is short, to the point, down to earth, personal, and practical. Salamon compassionately addresses our personal responses to the climate emergency – our denial, intellectualization, willful ignorance, dissociation, etc. – and encourages us to face the truth. Her arguments for doing this aren’t Zen, but they are very aligned with Zen thinking.

Salamon makes the case that we can only be saved now by a society-wide mobilization such as that undertaken by the United States during World War II. She talks about this as shifting from “normal mode” into “emergency mode,” and offers a handy chart of the differences between these two modes. For example, in normal mode we have many balanced priorities, and our resources are distributed across those many priorities, and some resources are saved for the future. In emergency mode there is an overriding priority to solve the crisis, and there is a huge allocation resources toward the solution. In normal mode we derive our self-esteem largely from individual accomplishments, while in emergency mode we derive it from our contributions to solution.

The more I thought about Salamon’s ideas, the more I realized that as human beings we can’t deal appropriately with the climate emergency unless we declare war on it. It’s the only way we can make sense of it and spur ourselves and our governments to the radical action needed. Even those of us unfamiliar with living through a war understand what war time means. It means we’re all in this together against a common threat, and therefore need to temporarily set aside our differences even with people we ordinarily despise. It means it’s time to sacrifice for the common good. It means it’s time to be brave and do your very best while facing terrifying situations. It means it’s time to be noble instead of self-absorbed and whiny. It’s time to ask yourself what’s really important and remain grateful for what you have even if you end up deprived of the material comfort, pleasures, and security you may be used to.


The Buddhist View of Battles and War

You might wonder how a Buddhist can be advocating waging war on anything, because wars and battles usually involve violence and death, enemies and aggression. However, there are other kinds of wars besides those involving human beings killing one another with weapons. As you will recall from many of my past episodes, our tradition includes the path of the bodhisattva, a being who not only vows to pursue enlightenment, but also vows to free all living beings before retiring into well-earned eternal peace. This is a series of verses attributed to the 13th Dalai Lama I have shared on the podcast before (138 – Buddhist Images of Fierceness and Compassionate Anger), and I still haven’t gotten my hands on the original source for it, but here it is:

 “The Bodhisattva is like the mightiest of warriors;

But her enemies are not common foes of flesh and bone.

His fight is with the inner delusions,

The afflictions of self-cherishing and ego grasping,

Those most terrible of demons

That catch living beings in the snares of confusion

And cause them forever to wander in pain, frustration and sorrow.

Her mission is to harm ignorance and delusion, never living beings.

These he looks upon with kindness, patience, and empathy,

Cherishing them like a mother cherishes her only child.

She is the real hero, calmly facing any hardship

In order to bring peace, happiness and liberation to the world.”[i]

Standing up for what’s right and fiercely demanding change doesn’t have to involve hatred, enemies, or aggression. History has shown us it is entirely possible to push governments and societies into massive changes nonviolently. In fact, research suggests[ii] nonviolent civil resistance is a more effective and reliable way to create change than violent insurrections and revolutions. However, just because a movement is nonviolent doesn’t mean it isn’t disruptive, confrontational, assertive, determined, and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order achieve its aims.

The ideals of Buddhism overlap with the ideals of nonviolent civil resistance beautifully. The 13th Dalai Lama describes how the bodhisattva never hurts living beings, but instead looks upon them with kindness, patience, and empathy. In effective nonviolent resistance, we also seek to stop or promote certain actions, but do not devolve into hatred or blame. As one of our core values in Extinction Rebellion says, “We avoid blaming and shaming – We live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame.”[iii] We aim to function this way not only because it’s moral, but because it’s effective.

Ultimately, civil resistance converts enough hearts and minds that the tables turn. With respect to the climate emergency, we pin our hopes on the fact that no one is actually happy living a life of self-cherishing and ego grasping. No one is actually at peace in willful ignorance and delusion, thinking it’s possible to simply enjoy ourselves while living in a way that’s dependent on permanent destruction of the natural world and the brutal exploitation of other human beings and living creatures. Gandhi and Martin Luther King both faced frightening repercussions for their resistance and ultimately assassination, but both adamantly preached love, even for our enemies. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha said “Hatred never ends through hatred. By non-hate alone does it end. This is an ancient truth.”[iv]


The Power of Declaring a Climate War

Still, love and compassion assumed, the imagery of war, battle, and fierce confrontation helps unlock something deep inside us human beings. We evolved to protect ourselves, our mates, and our offspring. Once societies evolved, we extended that sphere of protection to members of our tribe. Our natural urge to protect life is pure. It’s not based in hatred or greed. It doesn’t have to be tied up in complex agendas, our sense of identity, or politics. Our urge to protect life is what brings people together during natural disasters, inspiring acts of heroism and profound generosity.

And when we’re fighting a war, everyone is needed. You may be on the frontlines, or you may be sending food to the frontlines. You may be planting a victory garden so there are more resources available to those fighting, or you may be broadcasting music or humor to boost the morale of the troops. You accept rationing with pride instead of anger, and respond with frugality and ingenuity because you understand the need to allocate as many resources as possible to the war. Because you are doing what you can, you feel pride in any victories and stay emotionally connected to the overall effort. Every positive contribution is seen as part of the larger war effort, even it simply means maintenance of our families and communities so there remains a reason to win the war. Even when the situation looks dire, you understand that you have to keep hope alive and never give up, and you encourage those around you to take the same attitude. Giving up is not an option.

In the case of the climate and ecological emergency, the trick is getting our society to recognize the necessity for declaring a climate war, and then demanding our governments do so. Those invested in continuing business as usual for as long as possible don’t live across an ocean from us, they are among us. To some extent, we ourselves are similarly invested.

This is where we need to remember we are declaring war not on people, but on the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion. The three poisons got us into this emergency and threaten to propel us right off the cliff into extinction. Traditionally, Buddhism has spoken clearly and often about waging war on our own internal greed, hate, and delusion. Now it’s time to apply the same determination and practice to the three poisons as they manifest in our governments, economies, and other social systems.


Maintaining Faith That We Can Win the Climate War

It may seem at times like we face impossible odds in trying change the course of global heating and ecological breakdown. However, in the past we have shown time and time again that human beings are capable of incredible, even unimaginable things. We brought the entire world to a halt in a matter of weeks because of COVID. There are endless lists of innovative projects we could embrace that would get us off fossil fuels and actually create a better life for all, we just need the political will to prioritize them (see the book Drawdown.) No matter what happens, we have to be able to say we tried our best to save humanity.

I’ll leave you with the most encouraging story I know. It is related in the book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. Joanna Macy was speaking with her teacher, Dugu Choegyal Rinpoche, who gives her this version of a twelve-centuries-old Tibetan Buddhist prophecy: The Shambala Warrior (click link to read)

Chills run down my spine every time I read the phrase, “The Shambhala warriors know they can [succeed] because the weapons [they are trying to dismantle] are manomaya, mind-made… These weapons are made by the human mind. So they can be unmade by the human mind!” Practically speaking, there are many reasons for despair when we contemplate making the necessary changes to our governments, economies, livelihoods, social systems, and ways of life. People are bitterly divided and it seems difficult to achieve even small improvements.

However, as the Shambala prophecy says, the problems we are facing are created by the human mind. At least in theory, there is absolutely no reason our world can’t start a process of radical transformation tomorrow. The only thing standing in the way are the three poisons: Greed in the form of attachment to wealth, hate in the form of fear of and competition with other individuals, groups, and nations, and the delusion that we can achieve lasting happiness at the expense of other living beings and systems.

We know from experience that compassion and wisdom are every bit as natural to human beings as the three poisons. Sometimes our ideals and hopes of peace and love seem like wishful thinking in the middle of world of selfishness and misery, but they are not. Another world is possible, and it is time to fight for it.



[i] This passage is said to come from the 13th Dalai Lama’s “Discourse on the Great Lam Rim” but I haven’t been able to find that text. Part of the passage is quoted in Lama Surya Das’ Buddha Is as Buddha Does, in the introduction.
[ii] See Erica Chenoweth’s Why Civil Resistance Works.
[iii] https://extinctionrebellion.uk/the-truth/about-us/
[iv] The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations. Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.


176 - Una Historia de mi Viaje Espiritual Parte 3: Un Fénix se Levanta de las Cenizas de la Desesperación
179 - Inadequacy to Abundance: Rewriting Our Self-Narrative