Each Friday, we share three topical longreads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. This week, Buddhadharma editor Tynette Deveaux shares why we must put the Buddhist teachings to work in the face of climate change. Sign up here to receive the Weekend Reader in your inbox.
It seems we’re at a crossroads with climate change. The choice before us is either to lean in to the reality of it and take meaningful action or to ignore what we are seeing and feeling around us and go about our lives as though we weren’t hastening our own end. This crossroads isn’t exactly new; after all, we’ve known about global warming for decades. But ever since the IPCC report came out last October stating we need to get things under control by 2030 if we are to have any hope of averting an irreversible climate catastrophe, the world has been placed on notice.
In his address to the United Nations, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi explains that the Buddha’s diagnosis of climate change would rest with the human heart, and more specifically with the roots of craving and ignorance. He reminds us of the parable of the burning house in the Lotus Sutra, in which the children continue to play with their toys while flames surround them. Today, he points out, we are those foolish children going about our everyday lives while our one and only home — the Earth — literally burns.
Whether it’s the raging fires in the Amazon or the devastating hurricanes and floods that are obliterating entire communities, more and more we are forced to confront the high stakes of climate destabilization. We are also forced to examine our reactions and actions (or inaction) in the face of it all. For those of us who embrace the Buddhist teachings, it’s an interesting test of sorts.
Ahimsa, or non-harming, is a fundamental tenet of Buddhist ethics. It seems straightforward enough on paper, but what does it actually mean to live by this principle when we are witnessing entire species becoming extinct and people dying from heat waves, droughts, and storms brought on by global warming? Who are we harming with our lifestyle choices or with our silence on climate justice? Are we brave enough to ask and see?
What about interdependence, another cornerstone of Buddhism? Do we truly understand how we are interconnected with all other people, birds and animals, the water, air, and land — and appreciate the responsibility that comes with this?
And as we experience the fear and panic that climate crisis brings, are we stepping forth as bodhisattvas to help or are we looking out for number one and shoring up our mental defenses to try to insulate ourselves from others’ pain?
There will be many tests to come, and many opportunities to put the Buddhist teachings to work. If we believe in the Buddha’s awakening and our ability to do the same, we must awaken to the climate crisis as well. And we must act, quickly.
—Tynette Deveaux, editor, Buddhadharma
Check out the upcoming Global Climate Strike, September 20–27
In this time of so much loss, says Joan Sutherland, we need to come to terms with grief.
We’re entering a time of unimaginable losses, including the possible end of human life on Earth. If we hope to change this, we have to reckon with the fact that whatever we’re doing now isn’t working, since we’re still headed for the cliff, and something is preventing most people from engaging with the emergency, despite all the warnings. It’s possible that an important part of that something is a fear, conscious or unconscious, of the sorrow to come. How will we bear this grief? And won’t grieving make it harder for us to act? But I’m wondering if it is not grief that weakens us, but all we do to avoid it. Perhaps we need, instead, to include it. Grieving won’t keep us from acting, but it will change how we do so, in ways that make a great difference.
At this year’s United Nations celebration in recognition of Vesak, Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi gave an address about our need to confront climate change.
Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi: It is said that the Buddha appears in the world out of compassion for the world to promote the good of all humanity. Now we have a clear idea of the collective dangers that we face today and we can see on the horizon a glimmer of hope for a better shared future. Now we must walk the path, the path that will take us towards the future we are presently hoping for. We know the direction in which we have to move. Now, we have to start moving before it is too late.
Environmentalist Stephanie Kaza invites us to consider how Buddhist principles can help us nurse the planet back to health.
The first noble truth begins with the suffering that arises from the inevitability of change and loss. Facing this suffering and the delusions it generates is where Buddhist practice begins. In the precepts of the Order of Interbeing, Thich Nhat Hanh urges, “Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering.” He directs students to be present with suffering to understand the nature of existence. This requires patience and equanimity in the face of disturbing realities — a clear-cut forest reduced to stumps, a once-lush river deadened by chemical waste, a coral reef blasted by dynamite fishing. It is not easy to gaze clear-eyed at these troubling results of human activity.