Author, Zen Buddhist practitioner/teacher, and professor David R. Loy on how a “new understanding of the self” is what will be required of us in order to turn our planet’s climate crisis around.
“We need a kind of collective awakening. There are among us men and women who have awakened, but it’s not enough; most people are still sleeping… If we awaken to our true situation, there will be a change in our collective consciousness. We have to do something to wake people up. We have to help the Buddha to wake up the people who are living in a dream.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, in A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency
As I sit down to write these words, the most important meeting in the history of humanity is going on. Yes, I know that sounds hyperbolic – if you don’t know what’s at stake. Delegates and concerned citizens from every nation on earth have gathered in Copenhagen to determine our collective response to climate change, the greatest threat ever to our species. Unfortunately, it looks unlikely that they will agree to do what needs to be done to address that challenge.
What does the Copenhagen conference have to do with Buddhism? In May this year Wisdom Publications released a book that I helped to co-edit, A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency. It includes original contributions from many important Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. As the cover blurb put it, “Never before have so many teachers from all Buddhist traditions – Zen, Vajrayana, Theravada, Vipassana; from the West and the East – come together to offer a unified response to a matter of utmost urgency.” Because of this urgency the book was put together quickly, and the immediate response to our request by so many busy contributors was heartening.
I don’t want to say anything more about that book, which is readily available, but here I’d like reflect on a remark in the book by Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted above, that we need a “collective awakening.” If he is right – and I think he is – our collective situation is more dangerous than we have realized, and perhaps the only solution that will actually work requires something much more profound than political horse-trading or limits to carbon emissions. Let me explain.
Right now most (though not all) of the official delegates in Copenhagen are involved in the usual political stand-off: trying to reduce one’s own CO2 emissions as little as possible, while trying to get other nations to cut their emissions as much as possible. An important part of this game is the “cap and trade” system: if you reduce your emissions more than legally agreed, you can sell the difference to others as “pollution rights” – thus giving them the right to emit the CO2 that you didn’t.
This way of “commodifying” carbon emissions fits nicely into our economic system, which tends to commodify everything into something that can be bought and sold. But what if commodification itself is the problem, rather than the solution? Most climate scientists emphasize that, to avoid “tipping points” that would lead to runaway global warming, we need very drastic cuts in our collective carbon emissions. According to James Hansen, perhaps the world’s most respected climate scientist, we need to stabilize the amount of atmospheric carbon at approximately 350 parts per million – yet emissions have been increasing over the last decade and we are already up to about 390 ppm, which means we even need to find ways to sequester some of the carbon that is already in the atmosphere. Given the severity of our situation, we should focus on helping each other reduce emissions in every possible way, not salivate over the profits to be made from selling CO2 pollution rights.
This seems obvious to me; why, then, is it so difficult to see, and to respond accordingly? Because it requires a new worldview – perhaps nothing less than the “collective awakening” that Thich Nhat Hanh refers to.
The basic difficulty about responding to the “climate emergency” – and a host of related eco-crises such as desertification, and what is happening to the world’s oceans, and mass extinction (half of the earth’s plant and animal species may disappear by the end of this century) – is that climate change requires us to notice something we normally prefer to ignore or resist: that we are not separate from each other, but interdependent, and that we must therefore also assume responsibility for the well-being of each other. This involves a very different way of thinking and acting, and probably requires a new international political and economic order. Radical stuff, to be sure, yet global warming may be making such a transformation inescapable.
We know that atmospheric carbon respects no borders. If developed countries drastically cut their emissions, while China and developing nations do not, then the problem will not be solved, and we will all fry together. The argument of the poorer nations is that they didn’t create the problem; it is the wealthy nations who emitted that fossil-fuel carbon as they industrialized, and why shouldn’t developing nations be able to escape their desperate poverty by modernizing in the same way? The fact that 6.8 billion people cannot possibly enjoy the same affluence as most people in the United States may be scientifically conclusive – the earth does not have enough resources — yet it is not morally persuasive in the face of an inequitable global economy that continues to benefit a few at the cost of the many.
In the past Western nations could use their technologies (including weapons, of course!) to dominate the rest of the world and exploit its resources, but suddenly we find ourselves in a new situation, where each nation is now directly dependent upon the good intentions of other nations, whether developed or undeveloped. We have to pull together if human civilization as we know it is going to survive the next few centuries. But why should the poor people in poor countries pull together with me in the U.S.? What’s in it for them? Bare survival, perhaps, but not much more, unless those of us enjoying a comfortable life in wealthy nations start thinking in a less self-centered way. It’s no longer enough to act in ways that (seem to) benefit us personally, or benefit our own group or nation. We are called upon to “wake up” and realize that what is good for me can no longer be pursued at the expense of what is good for everyone else.
“Everyone else” includes the whole biosphere, not just other human beings. This realization must involve a deep appreciation of the fact that humans are part of the biosphere, and the responsibility that implies. Our unique self-awareness does not “liberate” us from the earth, any more than having a brain frees the head from the rest of the body. It simply means that with human beings the biosphere has become conscious of itself. This implies that the human species also has a unique responsibility: like it or not, we are stewards of the earth, and the first and foremost responsibility of humanity is to cherish and take care of the earth, because that is how we take care of “ourselves.”
The earth is much more than a home to us: it is our mother, in fact more than a mother, because our umbilical cord is never severed. The air and water and food that circulate through me are part of the great circulation that encompasses the whole biosphere. This means that all its self-replicating life-forms, including us of course, are really part of each other – something that the climate crisis forces us to realize, and adapt to.
This implies, among other things, a new international order emphasizing cooperation and mutual assistance rather than a competitive “zero sum game.” Up to now, human history has largely been a story of ruthless competition, aggression and exploitation. Unless those of us in powerful countries prefer to accept a world dictatorship prepared to ruthlessly trample on democratic principles and human rights everywhere, that game is just about finished. We need a new story.
What I’m really talking about, of course, is a new understanding of the self. This is where Buddhism comes in, because Buddhist teachings critique the usual understanding of ourselves as separate from others, and emphasize instead the interdependence of everything. What the “climate emergency” does is up the ante, considerably. Suddenly a lot more is at stake – maybe everything. Up until now, Buddhism has been largely an individual path of spiritual development. A few people here and there have awakened, and some societies have become more compassionate than they would have been without the dharma and the sangha. But now we must reconsider whether that’s enough.
If Thich Nhat Hanh is correct that we need a collective awakening, we’re in a new ballgame. Because of what we’ve done to ourselves, by doing it to the earth, humanity is now called upon to take another step, perhaps a step as significant as what happened about ten thousand years ago, when agriculture was developed. If so, Buddhism and other religions are also called upon to take another step, from traditional focus on individual salvation to a more collective transformation.
That leads me to some final speculations.
What is most distinctive about Buddhadharma, it seems to me, is the connection emphasized between dukkha (suffering or “unsatisfactoriness”) and the delusion of self. Fundamentally the (sense of) self is dukkha, and to awaken is to realize the nonduality between oneself and the rest of the world. As Dogen put it, “I came to realize clearly that mind is nothing other than rivers and mountains and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.”
In other words, our normal sense of self-consciousness is the delusion at the root of our chronic unhappiness, because it involves a misunderstanding of what the self really is. But this type of dualistic self-awareness is what has distinguished homo sapiens sapiens from the other primates, and has been responsible for our extraordinary evolutionary success. Today, however, we can also see more clearly than ever before the limitations of such deluded self-awareness, and the collective need to go beyond it.
Nietzsche said that “man is a rope across an abyss.” For him this rope stretched between the animal and the “superman.” If we replace “superman” with “being awakened,” perhaps Nietzsche was on to something. Is Thich Nhat Hanh pointing at the same thing, by calling for a collective awakening?
I am struck by the image of an abyss that yawns beneath us, threatening to swallow us up. Is there something inherently unviable about the dualistic type of self-consciousness that we human beings normally have? Is the dukkha that accompanies that limited kind of awareness too much for us to cope with? Is that the source of our self-destructiveness? Is that why we’re smart enough to create immensely powerful technologies, yet not smart enough to use them wisely?
Then are enlightened beings harbingers of a more nondual way of understanding and living, one that urgently calls to all of us today? Not necessarily a new species: genetically-coded biological evolution is not the only kind of evolution. There is also cultural transformation. Has some such collective development become necessary, if human civilization is to survive and the biosphere to thrive?
These final thoughts may be a “speculation too far,” but critical times require something beyond our usual ways of thinking. In any case, it’s becoming clear that the worldview responsible for this crisis will not survive it. That brings us back to Buddhism, which has a lot to contribute to the new worldview that humanity is groping toward.
Pete D. says
David – thanks for the thoughtful and well-written piece. Assuming we agree with you (and Thich Nhat Hanh) that a 'collective awakening' is in order, then as Buddhists, what are we called to do? One concern is that even in many places where the dharma has long been known, the cultures have not been especially peaceful nor kind to the earth. Probably because awakening has been fairly uncommon even where Buddhism is widely accepted, even respected. How to change that in the West, where Buddhism is not widely accepted, and where most of the greenhouse gas problem has been created?
The more I deepen my practice, the more I try to be a good steward of the earth. I'm trying to generate less trash. I'm trying to use cloth towels instead of paper towels. I'm recycling at home and at the office. I've bought reusable containers for my water and my coffee and tea so I'm not throwing away cups. However, a few hundred years ago people were SURE the earth was flat. They were SURE the sun "revolved" around the earth. Doctors believed that bleeding people would cure illness. I don't know that the "science" and consensus around climate change isn't the same as anything of these other false ideas.
I guess I think you can consider taking care of the planet as a good thing–irrespective of climate change.
The other thing, and I constantly think about this when I think about the "environmental crisis," is that humans are relatively new kids on the block. While the greenhouse gas problem may end or complicate human life, it certainly won't end life on earth. Humans are just one species. Species come into existence and end all of the time based upon a variety of factors– including how successfully they adapt to changing environments.
Humanity's tool making adaptation has given it an unparalleled ability to control the environment. Perhaps there's a reason this ability is relatively unique. Can you imagine if other creatures could do what we do on the scale we've done it?
Buddhism teaches us that everything is impermanent. Buddhism also teaches us to understand and accept the law of karma (cause & effect).
All that's to say, I just wonder if it isn't our time.
Ron Purser says
A nice essay–ecocentricism is in the eye of the beholder. What you are suggesting is opening our Dharma eye so we can behold the nonduality between humans/environment. It seems Western Buddhism has not really embraced the law of karma as much as other Buddhist tenets….that is hard pill swallow for hyper-individualistic cultures that see themselves as free of social and ecological contexts….
6 realms of existence & rebirth is accepted in Buddhism. If planet Earth can no longer support life, where do we go then? Precious human existence will be even rarer than it is now.
I asked my Teacher about humans & climate change. He said that humans will continue to inhabit the earth, just not many of them. Life will be extremely hard with much suffering & life-span will be short & continue to get shorter & shorter. He also said that this kalpa has a long way to go before it ends as we are only about half way through. If we allow the planet to tip into climate crisis, we are condemning them to a life which will be unbeliveably hard & where it wil not be easy to come across the dharma, nor have the time to practice. He spoke about heat being the equivalent to 7 suns.
Suffice to say that the human realm is regarded as the easiest realm in which to attain enlightenment. The belief in rebirth means that Buddhists have a moral responsibility to do what they can to ensure that the planet does not become inhabitable, not just for humans, but for all sentient beings. (It is my personal belief that all humans have this responsibility regardless of philosophical or religious persuasion.) We must do what we can to prevent the large scale extinction of species predicted by the scientists if we carry on 'business as usual.' To opt out of this responsibility to demonstrate ignorance & a lack of compassion. We will be putting our selfish needs before the welfare of others.
We need to increase our practice, but also become active within the community. Remaining isolated in our room doing practice is only going to help as much as we are spiritually developed. We need to engage with the community & do what we can to educate about climate change & work to protect the environment & all the other sentient beings who inhabit this planet for they are our responsibility too. Less greed, more contentment, more practice, more engagement. This is what our Boddhisattva Vows were all about in my opinion.
Forgive the rave from an unenlightened person. I feel passionate about this subject & cannot believe the general lack of involvement everywhere. If you haven't read the Buddhist Response to Climate Emergency, I highly recommend it.
Thank you so much for writing from the heart as well as the head. This takes courage as well as intelligence.
The realization that there was an "I" that stood firmly and obstinately in the path of personal change was an important factor that pushed me into exploring Buddhism three years ago.
In the interval, I've talked with many family, friends, and fellow American Buddhists about what "we" would be willing to change in order to limit our greenhouse emissions and I have found a willingness to make all kinds of promising "small" changes. People have been willing to shop more intelligently and even sacrifice time and money for a better future.
Sadly, I have also found that when a conflict appears between a strongly held desire, such as, hopping on an airplane to visit family or go on retreat thousands of miles from home, and global needs (one long-distance round-trip can easily double a person's annual emissions). People, Buddhists or otherwise, once they become accustomed to certain modes of behavior, no matter how high-emission/high-consumption they may be, find them extremely hard to give up. There seems to be a certain deeply held core of "I deserve this" type of thoughts that are extremely hard to give up. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
David, unless there are a few billion Bodhisattvas in the wings, I fear that a collective awakening may not come in time to get us to Dr. Hansen’s 350 target. Even if we do accomplish drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, there is sufficient CO2 in the atmosphere to continue to raise global temperatures for decades to come. This will result in increased suffering of many beings, human and other, on an unparalleled scale. But as annica rules supreme, as Buddhists, we must try to share ideas of interdependence with others, continue to mitigate as we can, begin to plan for adapting and work hard to alleviate suffering as we can. As for the long term, we may not have as many realm options in future lives here on Mother Earth, but who knows what lies beyond our own world?
Peter Doran says
I read your piece on Copenhagen as a veteran of climate negotiations at the UN. I have a growing interest in what Buddhism has to offer the debates on climate and consumption; but wonder if calls for 'collective awakening' will cut it.
I think a more effective strategy/message from the Buddhist tradition must combine a number of elements:
a. Clarification of the social and economic roots of the environmental crisis
b. Using Buddhist philosophy and concepts to explain the resulting experience/understanding of the 'self', 'individualisation', and the eclipse of the 'citizen' by the 'consumer'. (Calling attention to the importance of contemporary forms of askesis (e.g. mindfulness) in the work of renegotiating our relations to the world, the market and to others.
c. Putting the environment, the economy and community at the heart of a socially engaged vision of Buddhism, which must be an inherent part of the West's embrace of the Buddha's teahcings.
Peter Doran says
d. An in-depth contribution to global civil society's and activists' understanding of the relation between well-being (now) and the prospects of local/global transformation (tomorrow).
e. Support and contributions to the emerging debates in the West on redefining prosperity in the image of well being and equity (see the UK Sustainable Development Commission's report on redefining prosperity; and Zarkoze's commission in France).
I think we need a 'new materialism' consistent with the teachings of Dogen's zen, and a self-conscious attempt to ground and popularise our understandings of Buddhist teachings by inserting our interventions more firmly within those 'openings' or 'pressure points' where the demands of secular debates are opening up opportunities for far-reaching contributions.
Dr Peter Doran