The long read!!! Sorry about that. Big subject. What can Buddhists do?
(Jul 2022: Wrote this before all the heat waves, fires, drought, melting glaciers, and floods of the last few years. So, still relevant.)
Since then, FB friends have been asking me to do an article on Buddhism and climate change. That is except for those who are telling me it’s a conspiracy and that they’ll boycott this blog if I do. Their version of events may be more comforting, and there is a sense in which everything we see is merely a hoax of our ignorance; but just in case the majority of scientists also have a point about global warming I decided to have a go. Especially as I have just spent several days wearing one of these masks. (Ed 2022: Little did we know — Covid was a year off.) And in response to some other criticism that has come my way for talking about this subject, I would like to say that for me this is not about politics — ie, I am not trying to scare anyone into voting in any way. As you’ll see, this article is all about Dharma responses to the rapidly deteriorating environments of our world, which anyone can apply, regardless of their political views.
Having said that, I don’t feel qualified to speak for all Buddhists on climate change, given that Buddha didn’t address the subject directly and I am by no means an expert. But I can start a discussion that you’re invited to join in and/or to argue with below. Rather than break this article up, I have put it all here to make that discussion/argument easier.
We can also, as some have requested, brainstorm concrete pointers on how to behave responsibly and lead by example all in the comments below. Hopefully this process will contribute to the consciousness-raising needed on our planet if we are to survive.
Okay, here goes.
First off, a life in the day …
Last week I flew into San Francisco just as people were doing their best to fly out. I had thought that flying into DC during the emotional midterms was close enough to the action, but I was greeted at the airport in SF with a mask and dense toxic air thanks to the biggest fire in California history burning 120 miles away, already the size of SF and Oakland combined.
And I realized just how much I take good air for granted. How I automatically assume I can throw open windows and doors to let in the fresh air without starting to cough and experience a headache. How the choice boils down to fresh air or CO2 build up. How odd it is to be in one of the most beautiful places on earth where you are advised to stay indoors. How much I take outside in general for granted.
The fire has affected so many thousands of innocent beings — due to the strong winds, it spread at the rate of 3 football fields a minute, so how could humans or animals have outrun that wall of flames? (If they hadn’t succumbed to the heat and fumes first.) 83 humans so far declared dead, still over 500 missing, and how many animals dying in pain and fear? Saw footage of grown men crying — grown men with tattoos crying — because they have lost everything or everyone. Saw images of the makeshift shelters in a Walmart parking lot – not exactly Paradise any more. Down the coast in Malibu, likewise, deadly fire licking a place once synonymous with Paradise. Sure, it is possible to improve forest management – but don’t tell me these rapidly escalating fires or hurricanes are nothing to do with climate change.
I got to thinking about the homeless, who have nowhere to escape the air. On Monday, Choma and I went to Oakland to visit a friend John, who is a research coordinator on senior homelessness (and appears in this thoughtful article I found). It’s frightening to find yourself on the streets when you are over 55 and NEVER expected to end up there. So many people are just a pay check away. I wouldn’t want it for even one day, yet getting off the streets once you’re old and prematurely ill is hardest of all.
Meantime, air quality around the world means that 9 out of 10 humans don’t have clean air, EVER. And they don’t have masks either, plus it isn’t much fun wearing those things for long, they’re awkward and make it hard to breathe – you can’t wait to take them off at the first opportunity …
(Update: Clearly I wrote this article before our global pandemic made mask wearing a fact of life … )
7 million people a year die from bad air, according to WHO. And don’t even get me started on the water I take totally for granted as well.
Which also reminds me of all those incarcerated with little to no access to fresh air, spending up to 23 hours a day in often windowless cells. Those prisons must be as stuffy and smelly as hell, and I hadn’t even thought about that element of being locked up until now.
Which leads me to think about what life must be like for the pigs and chickens and cows locked up in all the stinking factory farms, hidden from us in plain sight. Or for that matter what life is like for the animals and fish in the Dallas Aquarium I visited two
weeks ago – how on earth is this fish ever going to get out of there, not just out of the Aquarium but out of the lower realms? What is that going to take? Human problems are a cake walk in comparison; and this despite the fact that human mental health problems around the world are reaching epidemic proportions.
I could keep musing like this forever on the problems in our world. One item leads to another and then to another. It seems never-ending.
It is time to break free from samsara
But that is the thing about samsara — it never is just about one thing. Or one calamity, I should say. It is about calamities on all fronts – climate change, for sure, and fossil fuel profiteering, but also homelessness, mass migration, poverty, pandemics, intolerance, racism, consumerism, cancer, greed, fascism, starvation, cruelty, hurricanes, factory farming, war, terrorism, shootings, etc, etc, etc. (And that’s just the humans). When this karma starts to ripen on us, we cannot outrun it any more than people could outrun the fire.
Bizarrely enough, this may be the place to start talking about climate change. It is part of a far bigger and more interconnected problem than most people even realize – it is the problem of samsara itself, the vicious cycle of impure life. If we have delusions, we are all caught up in it, like fish in a net.
Even the uber wealthy are not immune – just ask those celebrities who lost their homes in Malibu last week — and even the most powerful humans on this planet are just as bound up in the vicious cycle of birth, ageing, sickness, and death. As it says in the powerful prayer called Request to the Lord of all Lineages, which Geshe Kelsang is encouraging people to contemplate deeply every day:
In this cycle of impure life, samsara,
There is no real protection from suffering.
Wherever I am born, either as a lower or higher being,
I will have to experience only suffering.
We need very deep solutions, or this is all any of us will ever be able to expect. However, according to Buddha solutions do exist, if we are prepared to look for them not just outside but within.
In samsara we can assume the worst and we won’t be far off, sooner or later. It is no pleasure garden, as Buddha said. We can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The only way all this is going to change is if we change. Who wants to be the same in 5 years anyway? 10 years? The only way to improve is to improve.
Understanding this, I will make continuous effort to cease samsaric rebirth
By striving to permanently abandon its root, self-grasping ignorance. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages
The entire special presentation of Buddha’s teachings called the “stages of the path to enlightenment” (Lamrim) gives us insightful, proactive, and tried-and-tested ways to deal with suffering – I tried explaining that once here: Can we make sense of the senseless? And if we had time e could apply all 21 contemplations just as easily to climate change.
Here I will highlight just some of Buddha’s wisdom. One place to start is karma …
The environmental effects of karma
Our mental actions or karma have four effects, one of which is called “the environmental effect”, whereby:
… our environment and the things that surround us are hostile, dangerous, or uncomfortable. The environmental effect of killing is that the place in which we live is poor and it is hard to find food and other necessities; the environmental effect of stealing is that the place in which we live is barren and plants and crops will not flourish there; and the environmental effect of sexual misconduct is that the place in which we live is unclean and breeds disease. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune
We can ask ourselves whether or not we have created any negative actions of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and so on. If we haven’t, cool, but the chances are we have and thereby created an incalculable number of causes for these kinds of experiences. These are like seeds waiting to ripen as suffering — and once they do we cannot outrun these karmic appearances. We need another approach. As it says in Request to the Lord of all Lineages:
The cause of suffering is non-virtuous actions
And the cause of happiness is virtuous actions.
Since this is completely true
I will definitely abandon the first and practice the second.
We never think calamity will strike until it does. But on what basis can I go around being so complacent, I wonder.
As someone on Facebook put it:
Perhaps I am experiencing a world being destroyed because in previous lives I destroyed the environments of others? It is possible, when I think of things I did as a child to ant’s nests, for example — even in this life I destroyed the environments of others 😮.
You can read all about how karma works in Joyful Path of Good Fortune. It’s life-saving information.
So what are we supposed to do?
I think the answer is that we have to work on different levels. I’ve spoken before about how Bodhisattvas and trainee Bodhisattvas operate on the level of going to the practical aid of those in need, helping others overcome their negativities, avoiding destroying places such as towns, and so on, while at the same time using everything as fuel for the journey to enlightenment so that they can end up helping everyone. As someone said on Facebook:
There must be some combination of inner and outer efforts. Inner efforts to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible for everyone’s sakes! And outer efforts to protect humans’ and animals’ homes, as well as our waters and trees and air.
One thing is for sure: without empathy coming from an understanding of our inescapable interconnection, we are doomed. If we insist on holding onto our self-cherishing like some kind of perverse security blanket, we are doomed. From The New Eight Steps to Happiness:
All the problems of human society, such as war, crime, pollution, drug addiction, poverty, injustice, and disharmony within families, are the result of self-cherishing. Thinking that human beings alone matter, and that the natural world exists to serve human desires, we have wiped out thousands of animal species and polluted the planet to such an extent that there is great danger it could soon be unfit even for human habitation. If everyone were to practice cherishing others, many of the major problems of the world would be solved in a few years.
The power of love and compassion
We should never underestimate the purifying power of a mind suffused with love. Because it is in alignment with reality, it is more powerful than a deluded mind.
It is said that there exists a magic crystal that has the power to purify any liquid in which it is placed. Those who cherish all living beings are like this crystal –by their very presence they remove negativity from the world and give back love and kindness.
A friend today was saying how we could imagine that we are like the trees in a forest — sucking out the carbon dioxide and giving out oxygen.
To find out how to increase love and compassion, and do the magical practice of taking and giving, check out the clear and inspiring instructions in The New Eight Steps to Happiness.
Whenever we are engaged in any outward actions to protest climate change and do something about it, it is worth remembering that these actions will be infinitely more powerful if we do them with a mind focused on love and compassion, and especially if we do them with bodhichitta.
We are all in this together
The Bodhisattva perfections (see below) are all motivated by the compassion wishing to free not just our family and neighbors but everyone from suffering and its causes by fulfilling our own potential for enlightenment. We are all in this together. As someone said on Facebook:
The suffering that we are causing as a species is getting out of hand. We are creating hell-like realms for both other species and the less fortunate of our own species plus the (not so far) future inhabitants of this planet. As Bodhisattvas, our compassion should be such that we are driven to take action.
Different levels of compassion
There are also different levels of compassion that we can work on, explained in Ocean of Nectar:
Living beings are seen to be transient and empty of inherent existence,
Like a moon in rippling water.
We develop compassion wanting to free all living beings from suffering and its causes, but we can also deepen this to take in how much suffering arises from grasping at permanence and grasping at inherent existence, even though we are nowhere near as permanent nor as solid as we believe. Compassion is explained in a very beautiful chapter called A Praise of Compassion, if you get a chance to read that.
Toward planetary health
Here’s a whistle stop tour of the six perfections that a Bodhisattva practices every day, to hopefully whet your appetite – you can discover everything you need to know about these in Geshe Kelsang’s books.
To permanently liberate all mother living beings
From suffering and mistaken appearance,
I will attain the Union of the state of enlightenment
Through the practice of the six perfections. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages
There are so many practical ways to get over our insecure miserliness and help others in our world with our time, money, attention, advice, skills, fearlessness, and so on. John, as mentioned, works to help the senior homeless population every day. Many other friends are social workers, doctors, teachers, film makers, climate activists, etc, etc – all making this world just that bit kinder. We can offset our carbon footprint with some dollars. We can plant trees. We can do many things.
As in most crises, stories of Buddha nature emerge, like that of the garbage collector and the old lady. Though he’d been ordered home, he risked his life to check on some elderly neighbors – discovering the 93-year-old trying to escape the Camp Fire on her Zimmer frame. She had no chance till he showed up and put her in his truck. Then, rather than making her endure a shelter, he took her to his house. His kids love her, so she’ll be there for 2 months until it’s safe to go home.
2. Moral discipline
Moral discipline or ethics involves refraining from harming others by, for example, consciously using fewer plastic bags or eating fewer or no animal products. I don’t know if you know this, but 51% of global warming is caused by animal agriculture. As someone on FB put it:
I believe with all my heart that the planet will begin to heal when we treat all of its inhabitants with respect. There is a very deep interconnection between meat/dairy consumption/production and climate breakdown.
(On this point, we could also work on our realization of emptiness, become like the great Buddhist master Chandrakirti:
Chandrakirti refused to take milk from the cows because he felt it should be saved for their young, and he left them to wander freely on the neighboring hills. Nevertheless, he still managed to provide the monks with an abundant supply of daily produce!
If you want to know how, you can read the rest of the story in Ocean of Nectar.)
We can offset our carbon footprint. (I have started offsetting my flights, using this website.) We can press our world and industrial leaders into investing in sustainable energy, including these 100 companies. We can make Ecobricks out of our plastics. We can rake the forests (kidding 😉)
That is just for starters – I know some of you’ll come up with more ideas below. And there are more pointers here from people who have been thinking about this for 50 years. (In brief: Stop using pesticides. Stop with the single use plastic. Plant a tree. Reduce your footprint. Eat less meat.)
In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says:
If for no reason I begin to perform actions
That cause damage to the environment,
I should recall Buddha’s advice,
And out of respect stop straightaway.
Moral discipline also involves helping others whenever and however we can, all the while overcoming our obsessive self-concern. It is an essential protection for us against creating negative karma, and helps us to purify the tons of negative karma we’ve already created.
3. Patient acceptance
Patience is what we need to get through the day without blaming everyone else for what goes wrong, disliking others or ourselves, feeling upset when we read the latest news, or becoming helpless, fearful, and angry. We need to get from anger to compassion, which is actually a far more passionate though realistic response. As it says in How to Understand the Mind:
Some people are angered by the existence of nuclear weapons or pollution, while others become upset if their food is not to their liking. Whenever we encounter inanimate objects that cause us suffering we should remember the futility of getting angry with such things. ~ page 69
It is degenerate times alright!
With patient acceptance of what is going on — because that is what is going on — we are now in a position to transform adverse conditions into the path to enlightenment. When things get tough, the tough get going, as the saying goes. Buddha predicted that times would degenerate – particularly in five ways:
In this spiritually degenerate time there are five impurities that are increasing throughout the world: (1) our environment is becoming increasingly impure because of pollution; (2) our water, air and food are becoming increasingly impure, also because of pollution; (3) our body is becoming increasingly impure because sickness and disease are no more prevalent; (4) our mind is becoming increasingly impure because our delusions are getting stronger and stronger; and (5) our actions are becoming increasingly impure because we have not control over our delusions. ~ Modern Buddhism (available free)
Our current enormous challenges are more grist to the mill for a mind-training practitioner:
When the container and the contents are filled with evil
Transform adverse conditions into the path to enlightenment. ~ Universal Compassion
The container and the contents refers to our world and everything and everyone in it, filled with the effects of negative actions. And as it explains in Modern Buddhism:
Because of these five impurities, suffering, problems’ and dangers are increasing everywhere. However, through Lamrim price we can transform our experience of all these impurities into the spiritual path that leads us to the pure an everlasting happiness of liberation and enlightenment.
It is worth knowing that impurity and suffering can be transformed – by motivating us into renunciation and compassion for example — because in that case we no longer need to fear it as we have been. We don’t need paralyzing self-cherishing fear, but motivating, refuge-inspiring, and not unpleasant fear that comes from the wisdom understanding deeper causes.
4. Joyful effort
Effort or enthusiasm gives us all the energy we need every day to get over discouragement and hopelessness, even upon reading the latest Climate Report that says we have only 12 years to get our acts together. Effort gives us the power and self-confidence to do what needs to be done for as long as it needs doing, without ever giving up on ourselves or anybody else. As Kadampas recite twice a month in Offering to the Spiritual Guide:
I seek your blessings to complete the perfection of effort
By striving for supreme enlightenment with unwavering compassion;
Even if I must remain in the fires of the deepest hell
For many aeons for the sake of each being.
I agree with this from someone else on FB:
Raising awareness is good and positive encouragement for collective action is good. What I read in the groups I am part of is a lot of despondency by people trying to do their best, but feeling the tide is against them. Encouragement of positive actions, therefore, has to be a good thing, supporting people in the changes they make.
At the same time, I think it’s helpful to know where most usefully to put our time and energy so that we don’t get burned out or despondent, and so as to aim for maximum benefit. As a Dharma practitioner, my main priority is mastering my mind and trying to give others that opportunity – and, when I’m doing that, then I am always doing something useful, so I don’t have to feel so discouraged or hopeless. Someone suggested:
I honestly think, as Buddha teaches, the answer is training our own mind and helping others to do the same. Awakening compassion for all would be the solution. So supporting our local Dharma Centres, volunteering, teaching Dharma, and training our own mind, while setting the example of practising moral discipline and mindfulness around these issues, is the answer for me.
Concentration and mindfulness are essential for mastering our mind, overcoming the distractions of our delusions, and creating the karma for deep and lasting inner peace and happiness. Concentration makes our mind extremely powerful. As it says in How to Transform Your Life:
We can sometimes help others by providing them with money or better material conditions, but we should remember that the greatest benefit we can give is to help them overcome their delusions and find true, lasting happiness within.
And to pull that off for others, we need to start with ourselves.
Wisdom realizing the way things are is the actual and only door out of the prison of samsara, and something we can keep in mind whatever else we are up to, both in and out of meditation sessions.
In general, all those problems and sufferings mentioned above are coming directly or indirectly from our delusions of ignorance, attachment, and aversion, and the negative karma we create in dependence upon those delusions. As someone said on Facebook:
I can certainly work on my delusions and try personally to break free from my uncontrolled desire that contributes to the polluted world, and perhaps also encourage others skillfully to do so — done with the right intention I think this can be powerful purification.
These three so-called poisons poison our minds, spilling over into the world that appears to us because our world is a reflection of our minds. So we have to dig deeper to solve our problems – solving not just outer problems but our inner problems with both compassion and wisdom. Otherwise:
Through technological progress and by organizing society in fairer, more humane ways, we can certainly help improve people’s lives in some respects. But whatever we do will inevitably have some unwanted side effects. The best we can hope for is to provide people with conditions that bring some temporary relief from problems and difficulties, but we cannot give them true, lasting happiness. This is because the real cause of happiness is inner peace, which can be found only within the mind, not in external conditions. ~ How to Transform Your Life (available for free here)
Our polluted world is mere appearance to mind like a dream – we need to destroy the hallucinations of climate change along with all other impure appearances through purification practice and especially through realizing that all the things we normally see do not exist.
The phenomena that I normally see or perceive
Are deceptive – created by mistaken minds.
If I search for the reality of what I see,
There is nothing there that exists – I perceive only empty like space. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages
This brings us back to karma. As things don’t exist from their own side, whatever appears to us depends upon our minds and our karma, both individual and collective. If you want to check this out from Ocean of Nectar, it says:
If a god, a human, and a hungry ghost were to look at a glass containing a moist, liquid substance, the god would see nectar, the human water, and the hungry ghost pus and blood…. There are not, however, three different liquids on the same base. ~ [from VI.71ab]
How am I supposed to remember all this?!!
To keep in mind these different levels of dealing with climate change, I find it truly helpful and inspiring to remember the meaning of Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka, as explained a little bit in this article.
So, out of renunciation, symbolized by Je Tsongkhapa, we are avoiding negativity on a day to day basis, striving to get rid of our inner poisons and attain liberation. My feeling is that we need to do whatever we can on an immediate practical and visible level, setting an example of someone who actually cares — because we do care. It’s all very well talking about getting enlightened for the sake of all living beings, but if we are still part of the brigade trashing our planet we are not setting a very relatable example, and can in fact come over as a complete hypocrite.
We need to be grounded, balanced, and moreorless normal or we will just put people off. Our head can be in the clouds providing our feet are firmly planted on the earth.
Out of bodhichitta, symbolized by Buddha Shakyamuni at Je Tsongkhapa’s heart, we are trying to help others in every way possible. All the while we can be inwardly dedicating all these six practices to the swift purification of our own and others’ negative karma, praying that by this virtue may everyone soon inhabit a Pure Land, the reflection of a pure and blissful mind.
And with our Tantric practice, symbolized by Heruka at Buddha’s heart, we are bringing the result into the path, speedily purifying and transforming our bodies, enjoyments, deeds, AND environments with no time to waste. With Tantra we are already abiding in the solution – and it turns out that reality is not — after all — relentless suffering, but sublime and blissful enlightenment. I would submit that mystics of all traditions can relate to this through experience.
A lot of discouragement comes from having a very limited view of ourselves and helpless view of what we can do — “What can little old me do to prevent climate catastrophe!?!” Tantra gives us the vision we need to feel deeply inspired on a daily basis.
We can find refuge in pure view. Nothing exists from its own side, as mentioned above. So at some point the mandala and Deities, who are the appearance of bliss and emptiness, will feel more authentic to us than this samsaric chicanery. As it says in The Mirror of Dharma on page 25, when …
… we directly experience the union of appearance and emptiness we will directly experience our environment, enjoyments, body and mind as the enlightened environment, enjoyments, body and mind, and we will directly experience ourself as an enlightened being – the union of Buddha, the union of Vajradhara, the union of Heruka, and so forth.
The whole reason for doing this is to lead everyone to the same blissful state.
Four complete purities
I just read this succinct paragraph from Al Gore quoted in this week’s (Sept 2019) Time Magazine:
Humanity is now spewing more than 110 million tons of global warming pollution every day into the exceedingly thin shell of atmosphere that surrounds our planet as if it were an open sewer. The extra heat energy being trapped on earth and exacerbated by man-made climate change is now equal to what would be released by 500,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs exploding on earth every single day, according to James Hansen, a leading climate scientist.
And it made me think of this essential practice of Tantric Buddhism, wherein instead of spewing pollution into the atmosphere we could be emanating wisdom blessings and love. All the time, if we want. Our minds are very very powerful if we focus them, and if everyone started doing this the world would improve very quickly. Even if we alone start doing this, our world will transform, and we’ll naturally be raising global awareness because we are all interconnected.
Having generated ourself as Heruka with a completely pure body and mind, we now imagine that five-colored lights, the nature of our five omniscient wisdoms, radiate from our body and pervade all worlds throughout the ten directions, completely purifying these worlds and the beings who inhabit them. We imagine that all impurities and imperfections of samsaric environments are purified. All rocky and uneven ground is made smooth, all extremes of heat and cold are removed, deserts are transformed into beautiful parks, floods abate, darkness is dispelled — the whole environment is transformed into Heruka’s Pure Land. ~ Great Treasury of Merit
You can find out more about these Tantric practices in the Tantric books. If you don’t know anything about Tantra, you can practice taking and giving and consider the analogy of the magic crystal explained above. There is always something we can do.
Just one more point I’d like to make (and thank you for reading this far! … )
Don’t forget mandala offerings!
One spiritual practice that is astoundingly powerful for offsetting our negative karma and creating the causes for everyone to live in a Pure Land is the mandala offering. We even say, as we offer this completely purified universe to all the holy beings, “May all beings enjoy such Pure Lands.” I am out of time, or else I’d explain how it is that mandala offerings are in fact my favorite Dharma practice, and that is saying something. You can read about them all over the place, including in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra.
Phew. Thanks to Buddha, we need never be at a loss for what to do again.
Over to you! Please feel free to discuss with each other below. I already took the liberty of copying and pasting some of the comments from the Facebook thread to kick it off.