At this year’s United Nations celebration in recognition of Vesak, the Buddha’s birthday, the monk-scholar Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi gave an address about our need to confront climate change. (Or, as he notes we might do better to call it, climate destabilization or climate disorientation.) It is, as he puts it, “a critical condition.”
Watch the speech and read a full transcription of it here.
The permanent representative from Sri Lanka, Rohan Perera, the permanent representative from Thailand, valuable members of the Sangha and distinguished guests. Again, it’s a great honor for me to be able to speak a few words at this auspicious occasion of Vesak celebration at the United Nations. The Buddha is often praised as a teacher of peace, tolerance, goodwill, and compassion. And while he certainly exemplifies and teaches these qualities, they in no way exhaust the full content of his message. The Buddha was not only a benevolent sage, but he was above all and astute analyst of the human condition, one perhaps unrivaled in the history of human thought. He was a physician who provides an acute diagnosis of the human condition and a surgeon who pulls out the dots of suffering that have pierced the human heart. The texts describe him as mula dasavi, the one who has seen into the deepest and the most obscure roots of human misery.
He has summed these up in the twin vices of ignorance and craving or the three stains of greed, hatred, and delusion. The discourses of the Buddha speak of the causal origins of suffering primarily in the framework of the individual quest for liberation. They show how the mental afflictions damage our personal lives and how was individuals. We can free ourselves from them today. However, as the world has been integrated into a single interdependent global order, we have to examine how this process of causation operates at a collective level and then based on this investigation we must determine the kind of changes we must make in our societies, political institutions, and global policies to avoid the adversities we face as an international community. We can call this a global application of sati sof mindfulness and clear comprehension of all the dangers we face together today, the most formidable, the most all-embracing, and the most threatening is the one usually called climate change, but which perhaps might be more accurately called climate destabilization or climate disorientation.
This is a critical condition where the climate has become increasingly erratic, unpredictable, and destructive. Almost every week a new report comes out about new thresholds being crossed, new figures emerged showing how rapidly were descending into climate chaos. Yet these reports receive hardly any attention in the mainstream media. A symptom of how we can seal from ourselves, the real perils that lie just before us. There is a famous sermon of the Buddha called the Fire Sermon, which opens with the statement that everything is burning. Everything is on fire. A Mahayana scripture, the Lotus Sutra, elaborates on this theme with the parable of a burning house. Inside the house, the children continue to play with their toys, oblivious to the flames engulfing them on all sides. The house in this parable represents the world and the foolish children represent people, ourselves, as we remain immersed in our everyday concerns, while we ignore the flames of old age and death consuming our house.
Today, this image of the world as a burning house is becoming literally true. Each year the signs of a destabilized climate become evermore severe, more destructive, and more deadly. All these powerful hurricanes and cyclones, heat waves eroding coasts, violent floods, terrible wildfires, are just the symptoms of a disturbed climate, but the long range consequences are even more dangerous. In the future, we can foresee that whole regions of the planet may become unfit for human habitation. Leading to millions of tragic deaths and mass migrations on a scale not yet seen. The world’s food supply may be drastically reduced, sharply increasing the numbers of starving people. The very foundations of civilized life may collapse, plunging whole nations into barbarism.
We know what lies behind climate change. The causes have been determined with scientific precision. It’s our dependence on fossil fuels, unwise practices of land clearance, industrial models of agriculture, and an economy that thrives on the dizzying cycles of relentless production and consumption. The Buddha’s diagnosis would take us a step deeper and show that what underlies the climate crisis at the most basic level are distortions at the base of the human mind. The interplay of craving and ignorance, greed, and delusion. Decades ago in the 1980s, the fossil fuel corporations knew that the burning of their products would change the climate, but they hid the scientific evidence and promoted skepticism about the science. The greed for profit prevailed over sanity. The rules of corporate success triumphed over social responsibility. It is the delusion in our own minds that makes us flow along complacently in the established routines of life instead of rising up to take the necessary action. And again, it is delusion or ignorance that makes us think that in this, that some can prevail while the Earth’s geophysical systems collapse.
If we go on retreating into denial, go on drifting along, complacency complacently we will reach a point where all we can say is it is now too late. If we’re to avoid that endpoint, we have to act effectively and to act without delay. In a sutta, or discourse, the Buddha compares his disciples to four kinds of horses, which differ in how they respond to the site of their master’s whip. The best horse submits to its master as soon as it sees the shadow of the whip. The dullest horse has to receive a harsh beating before it submits. Decades ago, we already saw the shadows of the whip, the scientific report about impending climate change. Now we are receiving sharper blows, and to avoid the most brutal blows in the future, we have to act courageously to act with clear understanding of the changes needed to avoid this crisis.
We need definite changes in our collective systems and the way we generate energy in modes of transportation and so forth. But the Buddha would say that we also need internal changes, changes in our values and our ways of life. And most of all, in the kinds of thinking, the states of mind that underlie the escalating climate crisis. Above all, we have to turn away from a social system driven by greed, by the quest for limitless profits, by competition, exploitation, and violence against other people and the natural world, social systems that allow a few to flourish while millions, even billions, live on the edge of survival. Instead, we need to envision new collective systems of global integration that give priority to cooperation and collaboration, to living in harmony with each other and with nature, systems that will enable all people to flourish economically, socially, and spiritually.
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. Thank you very much.