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Can Buddhism Save the Planet?

Buddhism may be our planet’s only real hope, say David Loy and John Stanley. They’re calling for an international gathering of Buddhist leaders to address the ecological crisis before it’s too late.

If we continue abusing the earth this way, there is no doubt that our civilization will be destroyed. This turnaround takes enlightenment, awakening. The Buddha attained individual awakening. Now we need a collective enlightenment to stop this course of destruction. Civilization is going to end if we continue to drown in the competition for power, fame, sex, and profit.

— Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power

By Lion’s Roar

© Tomas Sánchez, courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York, Roberto Ramos Collection

Buddhism may be our planet’s only real hope, say David Loy and John Stanley. They’re calling for an international gathering of Buddhist leaders to address the ecological crisis before it’s too late.

If we continue abusing the earth this way, there is no doubt that our civilization will be destroyed. This turnaround takes enlightenment, awakening. The Buddha attained individual awakening. Now we need a collective enlightenment to stop this course of destruction. Civilization is going to end if we continue to drown in the competition for power, fame, sex, and profit.

— Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power

We live in a time of great crisis, confronted by the gravest challenge that humanity has ever faced: the ecological consequences of our collective karma. Scientists have established beyond any reasonable doubt that human activity is triggering environmental breakdown on a planetary scale. There is an increasingly urgent need for Buddhists to reflect upon our ecological predicament and bring to bear the resources of our great traditions.

Global warming in particular is happening much faster than predicted even a few years ago, occurring most rapidly at the Poles. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecast that the Arctic might be free of summer sea ice by as early as 2100. It is now apparent that summer sea ice will disappear within five years. According to the same IPCC report, all Himalayan glaciers are likely to disappear by 2035. Not surprisingly, Tibetan Buddhists are especially sensitive to this problem. The Dalai Lama has remarked: “Older people say that these mountains were covered with thick snow when they were young and that the snows are getting sparser, which may be an indication of the end of the world.”

Climate change, the most consequential of a number of ecological crises, plays a major role in many of the others—for example, in the extinction of many of the species that share this Earth with us. Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s most respected biologists, is among those who predict that half the world’s plants and animals could be extinct by the end of this century. What does this mean for bodhisattvas, who traditionally vow to save all sentient beings?

We don’t like to think about this ecological crisis, any more than we like to think about our own mortality. Yet an increasing number of scientists believe that the survival of human civilization, and perhaps even the human species, is now at stake. We have reached a critical juncture in our biological and social evolution.

As eco-philosopher and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy points out, denial of what is happening is itself the greatest danger we face. Repression carries a high price: according to many psychologists, people in advanced industrial societies are psychically numbed as a result of being cut off from nature, unable to feel the beauty of the world—or respond to its distress. The pervasive influence of advertising works by promising to fill this void. We spend our time pursuing substitutes that never satisfy, because we can never get enough of what we don’t really want. Yet haunted by a vague dread, we become more obsessed with the competition for power, fame, sex, and profit.

The effectiveness of corporate misinformation about global warming suggests that our most immediate problem is lack of awareness—which brings us back to Buddhism. The Buddhist path is about awakening from our delusions. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, we need a collective awakening from our collective delusions—particularly from delusions that have been skillfully manipulated by fossil-fuel corporations. We cannot simply rely upon our present economic and political systems to solve the problem, because to a large extent they are the problem. Rather, we need to make conscious choices based on greater awareness of our true situation.

The eco-crisis makes it clear that the kind of consumerist society we take for granted today is toxic to the environment. Continuing business-as-usual is a grave threat to our survival. To address our obsession with consumerism, we need different perspectives on the predicament and potential of the human condition. New technologies cannot save us unless they are combined with a new worldview. We need to shift our emphasis from fostering never-ending economic and technological growth to healing the relationship between our species and the Earth.

Destruction of nature and natural resources results from ignorance, greed, and lack of respect for the Earth’s living things. This lack of respect extends even to the Earth’s human descendants, the future generations who will inherit a vastly degraded planet if world peace does not become a reality and destruction of the natural environment continues at the present rate . … Clearly this is a pivotal generation.
—The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, from Collected Statements on the Environment, 2007

Buddhism offers no easy solution to our environmental crisis. However, its teachings on impermanence, interdependence, and non-self provide valuable insights into the nature of our ecological predicament. Moreover, its focus on greed, ill will, and the delusion of a separate self as the root of suffering points us in the direction of relief, for these three poisons function institutionally as well as personally. Collectively, we suffer from a sense of self that feels not only disconnected from others, but from the Earth itself.

In contemporary terms, the sense of self is a psychological and social construct, without any self-existence or reality of its own. The basic problem with this self is its delusional sense of duality. When we construct a separate self inside, we simultaneously construct an external world that is different from “me.” The Buddhist perspective teaches that this feeling of separation is uncomfortable (dukkha), because a delusive, insubstantial self is inherently insecure. In response, we become obsessed with things that (we hope) will give us control over our situation, especially in regards to the competition for power, fame, sex, and profit that Thich Nhat Hanh refers to. Ironically, however, such preoccupations usually just reinforce that problematic sense of separation.

The Buddhist solution to this predicament is not to get rid of the self. This would be impossible, since there never was a self. Rather, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” When I realize that “I” am what the whole world is doing, right here and now, then taking care of “others” becomes as natural as taking care of my own leg. This realization is the vital link between wisdom and compassion. My own well-being ultimately cannot be distinguished from the well-being of others.

Our individual predicament corresponds precisely to our ecological predicament today. Human civilization is a collective construction, which has led to a collective sense of separation from the natural world, a sense of alienation that causes dukkha. Our response to that alienation has been a collective obsession with securing or “grounding” ourselves technologically and economically. But no matter how much we consume or how much we dominate nature, it can never be enough, because the basic problem is not insufficient wealth or power, but the alienation we feel from the Earth. We cannot “return to nature” because we have never really left it. We need to wake up and realize that the Earth is our mother as well as our home—and that in this case, the umbilical cord binding us to her can never be severed.

In the face of such global problems as the greenhouse effect, individual organizations and single nations are helpless. Unless we all work together, no solution can be found. Our mother earth is teaching us a lesson in universal responsibility.
—The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, from Collected Statements on the Environment, 2007

Given the failure of our economic and political systems, today’s religions have a special responsibility to foster a new collective worldview. This is an opportunity for religions to rise to the challenge in a way that no other institutions seem able to do. To accomplish this, religions need to learn more about talking to and learning from each other. How can they do that unless different groups within each religion first communicate effectively? The worldwide eco-crisis challenges us as Buddhists to work together and to learn from each other in order to respond appropriately.

By clarifying the essential dharma of the Buddha, inherent in its diverse cultural forms, we can strengthen its vital core message for this pivotal time. Although Buddhist institutions—like other religious institutions—tend to be conservative, the Buddhist emphasis on impermanence and insubstantiality implies an openness and receptivity to new possibilities that we certainly need now. If the various Buddhist traditions were to gather to draft a joint response to the climate emergency, what an inspiring example Buddhism would provide to the other world religions.

We believe that this time of extraordinary crisis calls for an international conference that will bring together leaders from all the Buddhist traditions to consider such a collective response. The urgency of our situation may also imply a Buddhist Council—something that has happened only six times previously in the history of Buddhism. The first Buddhist Council took place in Rajagaha soon after the parinirvana of the Buddha, according to the Pali Canon; the sixth occurred in Rangoon (Yangon) in 1954.

Since few Buddhist leaders are experts in climatology, the proposed meeting could begin with an overview of the most recent data and its implications, presented by respected scientists who would also be able to suggest a variety of possible responses. The rest of the time would be devoted to intensive discussions among the participants, sharing Buddhist perspectives on this critical moment and working toward an understanding that would include joint recommendations for how the worldwide Buddhist community might respond. Our unity would offer a powerful example to other religious traditions. Perhaps we could all then join in an effort to counterbalance the economic forces that have dominated and sidetracked the debate so far.

In proposing an international meeting of Buddhists, we have already begun preliminary discussions with major Tibetan lineage holders, including Thrangu Rinpoche, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche. The response has been very positive. As well, we are reaching out to Theravada, Zen, and Pure Land teachers and their organizations in Asia and the West. We are proposing that the meeting be convened next year, leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2009, which is expected to adopt a treaty that will succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

Whether such a gathering is to be considered an international conference or a Buddhist Council, it is important that the various Buddhist traditions have an opportunity to meet and consider our collective situation carefully. All the previous councils assembled to affirm and preserve the dharma and Vinaya, but today’s crisis calls for something radically different. Instead of turning inward and focusing on clarifying the buddhadharma itself, Buddhist teachers need to turn outward and ask how the buddhadharma can help us to understand and respond to our planetary emergency.

The environmental crisis is also a crisis for Buddhism, not because Buddhism will suffer if human civilization suffers, but because Buddhism is the religion most directly concerned with the alleviation of suffering—the dukkha of all living beings. Buddhism has something distinctive to contribute at this crucial time, when humanity needs to marshal the best of what it has learned over the course of its history. We need new kinds of bodhisattvas who vow to save not only individual beings, but also the life-support sys-tems and suffering species of a threatened biosphere.


David R. Loy is Besl Chair Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati. His most recent book is Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (Wisdom Publications, 2008). He is a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage.

John Stanley is a biologist based in Ireland. He and his wife, Diane, are longtime practitioners in Dudjom Rinpoche’s lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. They recently established the website Ecological Buddhism (ecobuddhism.org), a Buddhist response to the global climate and energy crisis.

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