A triptych of photos depict a man sitting in a meditation posture as water rises around him

Is Our Practice Enough?

Clair Brown on how Buddhists’ vow to end suffering must go beyond the individual to a global understanding of how our suffering—and happiness—is connected to all living beings on our planet.

By Clair Brown

“Faya, Maldives,” 2017. Photo by Chris Jordan.

As a Buddhist and an economics professor, I continually aspire to integrate my spiritual practice and my economics work, with the intention of creating a better world for all beings.

Today, we face a number of interrelated crises on a monumental scale: climate catastrophe, widening social and economic inequality, and seemingly endless wars resulting in the deaths of countless individuals, combatant and civilian alike. Species are becoming extinct at an unparalleled speed. Family farms are unable to survive in the face of extreme heat and unproductive soil. Small island nations are at risk of sinking into the ocean as our sea levels rapidly rise. People everywhere are suffering from flooding, fires, droughts, and life-threatening heat waves. 

In the midst of all of this, how do we, as Buddhists, live ethically, in accord with what the dharma teaches about right action, right speech, and right livelihood? For many Buddhists, both monastic and lay, the answer is to focus on our own individual practice and behavior. In meditation practice, we experience our inner prosperity and true nature. Off the cushion, we seek to act from wisdom and compassion. Certainly, cultivating both a daily meditation practice and awareness in our daily interactions with others are admirable goals. But are they enough? 

I believe our vow to reduce suffering means we must take action to abate the widespread global suffering caused by climate change, and not only at the personal level. While reducing carbon emissions by changing our own behavior—living more simply and lowering our own carbon footprint—is an important step, personal action, even when aggregated across thousands, or millions, of people, is woefully inadequate. 

As a result of the oil industry’s campaign over the last fifty years to convince the public that oil and gas are both safe and necessary for maintaining the extravagant living standards common in industrialized nations, most of our energy comes from fossil fuels (oil, methane gas, and coal). Halting our climate crisis requires that we stop using fossil fuel energy and use clean renewable energy and regenerative agriculture, along with  reducing wasteful consumption. This will require the transformation of our economic systems and lifestyles, in the United States and around the world. Together we can work to create modern, clean energy and just economic systems in our countries. The public must demand that our governments stop using and subsidizing fossil fuels and invest in power systems that use renewable energy, and subsidize regenerative agriculture rather than industrial agriculture. Wealthier nations must commit to help their more resource-constrained neighbors to develop clean energy infrastructures. 

For me, climate work is both compatible with my Buddhist practice and a fundamental part. Living an ethical life means being actively engaged in stopping society’s use of fossil fuels and factory farming in order to reduce suffering, now and in the future. My commitment to right action guides me to work with other activists to bring people together to care for the planet. We can’t know the outcome of our climate-related activities to reduce carbon emissions and local air pollution, but we know that, because we are interconnected in one ecosystem, caring for nature helps all life. 

There exists a long history of engaged Buddhists working to relieve suffering and help society in a variety of ways. During the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers strove to end war and bring about peace through peace walks and writings. Today, engaged Buddhist groups such as Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Buddhist Global Relief dedicate themselves to feeding impoverished and hungry people around the world. And contemporary Buddhist teachers such as David Loy teach that the planet’s suffering is inseparable from our individual suffering and point to the possibility of society applying the Four Noble Truths to attain a kind of collective enlightenment. 

As we come through our Buddhist practice to experience the interdependent nature of our world, we see that true wealth goes beyond material possessions. Caring for and sharing our common home and enjoying nature’s bounty increase the prosperity and well-being of all. Once we know that our well-being and the well-being of the natural world are one and the same, how can we stand by and allow the devastation of the environment to continue? We must do everything in our power to care for our home. 

We must collaborate with climate organizations to put a stop to false solutions and work toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. We join together to find solutions to the climate crisis in a way that reflects our interdependence with all beings and supports our vow to live ethically to help make the world a kinder, more compassionate place. These are some of the ways I apply the eightfold path to the social and economic system that is causing global warming, even though the outcome is uncertain and the process is without end. Our engagement can make a difference in the speed of change and in the well-being of all, as long as we stay on the path of healing. Engaged Buddhist activity is the social counterpart of our individual practice on the cushion. Both are valuable and both bring healing.

Toward that end, scientific and public policy insights can be as valuable as spiritual insight. We can use climate science to study how specific technologies will impact the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. We can learn from researchers who tell us that policies such as carbon capture with sequestration, “renewable” diesel, and blue hydrogen, which are being advocated by the oil industry as ways to use lower carbon (or abated) oil and gas, will continue to overheat the planet beyond the United Nations’ stated target goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. 

In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps the best-known engaged Buddhist of our age, “Caring about the environment is not an obligation but a matter of personal and collective happiness and survival. We will survive and thrive together with our Mother Earth, or we will not survive at all.”May we join together as engaged Buddhists to heal the earth, and heal ourselves, for the benefit of all. Together we can make a difference to reduce the global suffering caused by climate change as we progress along our Buddhist path.  

Clair Brown

Clair Brown

Clair Brown, PhD, an economics professor at UC Berkeley, is the author of Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science. She practices engaged Buddhism in her climate justice activism with several organizations working on California climate policies.