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Can Buddhism Meet the Climate Crisis?

David Loy makes clear what Buddhism offers in the face of climate change. From the Spring 2019 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly.

Kota Garut, Indonesia (September 2015). Photo by Dikaseva / Unsplash.

It is no exaggeration to say that today humanity faces its greatest challenge ever: in addition to burgeoning social crises, a self-inflicted ecological catastrophe threatens civilization as we know it and (according to some scientists) perhaps even our survival as a species. I hesitate to describe this as an apocalypse because that term is now associated with Christian millenarianism, but its original meaning certainly applies: literally an apocalypse is “an uncovering,” the disclosure of something hidden—in this case revealing the ominous consequences of what we have been doing to the earth and to ourselves.

Climate issues are receiving the most attention and arguably are the most urgent, but they are nonetheless only part of a larger ecological crisis that will not be resolved even if we successfully convert to renewable sources of energy quickly enough to avoid lethal temperature increases and the other climate disruptions that will cause.

The climate crisis is part of a much larger challenge that includes overfishing, plastic pollution, hypertrophication, topsoil exhaustion, species extinction, freshwater depletion, hormone-disrupting persistent organic pollutants (POPs), nuclear waste, overpopulation, and (add your own “favorite” here…), among numerous other ecological and social problems that could be mentioned. Most if not all of these disorders are connected to a questionable mechanistic worldview that freely exploits the natural world because it attributes no inherent value to nature—or to us, for that matter, since humans too are nothing more than complex machines, according to the predominant materialistic understanding. This larger view implies that we have something more than a technological problem, or an economic problem, or a political problem, or a worldview problem. Modern civilization is self-destructing because it has lost its way. There is another way to characterize that: humanity is experiencing a collective spiritual crisis.

The challenge that confronts us is spiritual because it goes to the very heart of how we understand the world, including our place and role in this world. Is the eco-crisis the earth’s way of telling us to “wake up or suffer the consequences”?

If so, we cannot expect that what we seek can be provided by a technological solution, or an economic solution, or a political solution, or a new scientific worldview, either by themselves or in concert with the others. Whatever the way forward may be, it will need to incorporate those contributions, to be sure, but something more is called for.

This is where Buddhism has something important to offer. Yet the ecological crisis is also a crisis for how we understand and practice Buddhism, which today needs to clarify its essential message if it is to fulfill its liberative potential in our modern, secular, endangered world.

Just as climate change is only part of a much larger ecological crisis, so ecodharma is a small part of socially engaged Buddhism, and indifference or resistance to ecodharma is part of a larger problem with socially engaged Buddhism in the US. In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008 the two largest engaged Buddhist organizations, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Zen Peacemakers, almost collapsed due to severely reduced financial support, and since then they have struggled on—often quite effectively, I’m pleased to add—in much reduced circumstances. Noticeably, however, some other Buddhist institutions are thriving financially. In the last few years, for example, Spirit Rock in Northern California successfully fundraised for a multimillion-dollar expansion program. Noticing this difference is by no means a criticism of that accomplishment, yet the contrast in public support is striking. Serious money is available for some high-profile meditation centers, where individuals can go on retreat, but apparently not for organizations that seek to promote the social and ecological implications of Buddhist teachings.

This doesn’t mean that socially engaged Buddhism has failed. In some ways it may be a victim of its own success, in that some forms of service—prison work, hospice care, homeless kitchens, and so on—are now widely acknowledged as a part, sometimes even an important part, of the Buddhist path. Note that this is usually individuals helping other individuals. My perception is that over the last generation Buddhists have become much better at pulling drowning people out of the river, but—and here’s the problem—we aren’t much better at asking why there are so many more people drowning. Prison dharma groups help individual inmates who are sometimes very eager to learn about Buddhism, but do nothing to address the structural problems with our criminal justice system, including racial disparities and overcrowding. In 2014 the number of homeless children in the US attending school set a new record: about 1.36 million, almost double the number in 2006–2007. Why does by far the wealthiest country in human history have so many homeless schoolchildren and by far the world’s largest prison population?

Buddhists are better at pulling individual people out of the river because that is what Buddhism traditionally emphasizes. We are taught to let go of our preconceptions in order to experience more immediately what’s happening right here and now; when we encounter a homeless person who is suffering, for example, we should respond compassionately. But how do we respond compassionately to a social system that is creating more homeless people? Analyzing institutions and evaluating policies involves conceptualizing in ways that traditional Buddhist practices do not encourage.

A similar disparity applies to the ways that Buddhists have responded to the climate crisis and other ecological issues. My guess is that most people reading this have so far been little impacted personally by global warming, except perhaps for slightly larger air-conditioning bills. We have not personally observed disappearing ice in the Arctic or melting permafrost in the tundra, nor have we become climate refugees because rising sea levels are flooding our homes. For the most part, the consequences are being felt elsewhere, by others less fortunate. Traditional Buddhism focuses on individual dukkha due to one’s individual karma and craving. Collective karma and institutional causes of dukkha are more difficult to address, both doctrinally and politically.

I’m reminded of a well-known comment by the Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Is there a Buddhist version? Perhaps this: “When Buddhists help homeless people and prison inmates, they are called bodhisattvas. But when Buddhists ask why there are so many more homeless, so many people of color stuck in prison, other Buddhists call them leftists or radicals, saying that such social action has nothing to do with Buddhism.”

Perhaps the individual service equivalent that applies to the climate emergency is personal lifestyle changes, such as buying hybrid or electric cars, installing solar panels, vegetarianism, eating locally grown food, and so on. Such “green consumption” is important, of course, yet individual transformation by itself will never be enough.

Imagine Buddhism as an iceberg where all types of social engagement, including ecodharma, form the tip at the top. Beneath them, but still above sea level, is something much bigger and still growing: the mindfulness movement, which has been incredibly successful over the last few years. Within the Buddhist world, however, it has also become increasingly controversial. Here I will not delve into that debate except to note that although mindfulness practices can be very beneficial, they can also discourage critical reflection on the institutional causes of collective suffering, what might be called social dukkha.

Bhikkhu Bodhi has warned about the appropriation of Buddhist teachings, and his words apply even more to the commodification of the mindfulness movement, insofar as that movement has divested itself of the ethical context that Buddhism traditionally provides: “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” In other words, Buddhist mindfulness practices can be employed to normalize our obsession with ever-increasing production and consumption. In both cases the focus on personal transformation can turn our attention away from the importance of social transformation.

The contrast between the extraordinary impact of the mindfulness movement and the much smaller influence of socially engaged Buddhism is striking. Why has the one been so successful, while the other limps along? That discrepancy may be changing somewhat: an increasing number of mindfulness teachers are concerned to incorporate social justice issues, and the election of Donald Trump has motivated many Buddhists to become more engaged. Nonetheless, the usual focus of Buddhist practice resonates well with the usual appeal of mindfulness, and both of them accord well with the basic individualism of US society—“What’s in it for me?” But are there other factors that encourage this disparity between mindfulness and social engagement? Is there something else integral to the Buddhist traditions that can help us understand the apparent indifference of many Buddhists to the ecological crisis?

The Challenge

A few years ago I was reading a fine book by Loyal Rue, titled Everybody’s Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution, and came across a passage that literally stopped me in my tracks, because it crystallized so well a discomfort with Buddhism (or some types of Buddhism) that had been bothering me. The passage does not refer to Buddhism in particular but to the “Axial Age” religions that originated around the time of the Buddha (the italics are mine):

The influence of Axial traditions will continue to decline as it becomes ever more apparent that their resources are incommensurate with the moral challenges of the global problematique. In particular, to the extent that these traditions have stressed cosmological dualism and individual salvation we may say they have encouraged an attitude of indifference toward the integrity of natural and social systems.

Although the language is academic, the claim is clear: insofar as Axial Age traditions (which include Buddhism, Vedanta, Daoism, and Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) emphasize “cosmological dualism and individual salvation,” they encourage indifference to social justice issues and the ecological crisis.

What Loyal Rue calls “cosmological dualism” is the belief that, in addition to this world, there is another one, usually understood to be better or somehow higher. This is an important aspect of theistic traditions, although they do not necessarily understand that higher reality in the same way. While all of the Abrahamic traditions distinguish God from the world God has created, classical Judaism is more ambiguous about the possibility of eternal postmortem bliss with God in paradise. For Christianity and Islam, that possibility is at the core of their religious messages, as commonly understood. If we behave ourselves here, we can hope to go to heaven. The issue is whether that approach makes this world a backdrop to the central drama of human salvation. Does that goal devalue one’s life in this troubled world into a means?

Does Buddhism teach cosmological dualism? That depends on how we understand the relationship between samsara (this world of suffering, craving, and delusion) and nirvana (or nibbana, the original Pali term for the Buddhist summum bonum). Despite many references to nibbana in the Pali Canon, there remains something unclear about the nature of that goal. Most descriptions are vague metaphors (the shelter, the refuge, and so on) or expressed negatively (the end of suffering, craving, delusion). Is nibbana another reality or a different way of experiencing this world? The Theravada tradition emphasizes parinibbana, which is the nibbana attained at death by a fully awakened person who is no longer reborn. Since parinibbana is carefully distinguished from nihilism—the belief that physical death is simply the terminal dissolution of body and mind—the implication seems to be that there must be some postmortem experience, which suggests some other world or dimension of reality. This is also supported by the traditional four stages of enlightenment mentioned in the Pali canon: the stream-winner, the once-returner (who will be reborn at most one more time), the nonreturner (who is not yet fully enlightened but will not be reborn physically after death), and the arhat (who has attained nibbana). If the nonreturner continues to practice after death, where does he or she reside while doing so?

If nibbana is a place or a state that transcends this world, it is a version of cosmological dualism. Such a worldview does not necessarily reject social engagement, but it subordinates such engagement into a support for its transcendent goal, as Bhikkhu Bodhi explains:

Despite certain differences, it seems that all forms of classical Buddhism locate the final goal of compassionate action in a transcendent dimension that lies beyond the flux and turmoil of the phenomenal world. For the Mahayana, the transcendent is not absolutely other than phenomenal reality but exists as its inner core. However, just about all classical formulations of the Mahayana, like the Theravada, begin with a devaluation of phenomenal reality in favor of a transcendent state in which spiritual endeavor culminates.

It is for this reason that classical Buddhism confers an essentially instrumental value on socially beneficent activity. Such activity can be a contributing cause for the attainment of nibbana or the realization of buddhahood; it can be valued because it helps create better conditions for the moral and meditative life, or because it helps to lead others to the dharma; but ultimate value, the overriding good, is located in the sphere of transcendent realization. Since socially engaged action pertains to a relatively elementary stage of the path, to the practice of giving or the accumulation of merits, it plays a secondary role in the spiritual life. The primary place belongs to the inner discipline of meditation through which the ultimate good is achieved. And this discipline, to be effective, normally requires a high degree of social disengagement.

—“Socially Engaged Buddhism and the Trajectory of Buddhist Ethical Consciousness” Religion & West, issue 9

Bhikkhu Bodhi distinguishes between the Theravada understanding of transcendence, which sharply distinguishes it from our phenomenal world, and the Mahayana perspective, which understands transcendence to be the “inner core” of phenomenal reality. Nevertheless, in his view both traditions begin by devaluing phenomenal reality. The question is whether “transcending this world” can be understood more metaphorically, as a different way of experiencing (and understanding) this world. Nagarjuna, the most important figure in the Mahayana tradition, famously asserted that there is not even the slightest distinction between samsara and nirvana: the kotih (limit or bounds) of nirvana is not different from the kotih of samsara. That claim is difficult to reconcile with any goal that prioritizes escape from the physical cycle of repeated birth and death, or transcending phenomenal reality.

In place of a final escape from this world, with no physical rebirth into it, Mahayana traditions such as Chan/Zen emphasize realizing here and now that everything, including us, is shunya (Japanese: ku), usually translated as “empty.” Shunyata “emptiness” is thus the transcendent “inner core” of phenomenal reality that Bhikkhu Bodhi refers to. That all things are “empty” means, minimally, that they are not substantial or self-existing, being impermanent phenomena that arise and pass away according to conditions. The implications of this insight for how we engage with the world can be understood in different ways. It is sometimes taken in a nihilistic sense: nothing is real, therefore nothing is important. Seeing everything as illusory discourages social or ecological engagement. Why bother?

The important point here is that “clinging to emptiness” can function in the same way as cosmological dualism, both of them devaluing this world and its problems. According to Joanna Macy, this misunderstanding is one of several “spiritual traps that cut the nerve of compassionate action.” According to Macy, to see this world as illusion is to dwell in an emptiness that is disengaged from its forms, in which the end of suffering involves nonattachment to the fate of beings rather than nonattachment to one’s own ego. But the Buddha did not teach—nor does his life demonstrate—that nonattachment means unconcern about what is happening in the world, to the world. When the Heart Sutrafamously asserts that “form is not different from emptiness,” it immediately adds that “emptiness is not other than form.” And forms—including the living beings and ecosystems of this world—suffer.

Many educated Buddhists today aren’t sure what to believe about a transcendent “otherworldly” reality, or karma as a law of ethical cause and effect, or physical rebirth after we die. Some wonder whether awakening too is an outdated myth, similar perhaps to the physical resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. So it is not surprising that a more secular, this-worldly alternative has become popular, especially in the West: understanding the Buddhist path more psychologically, as a new type of therapy that provides different perspectives on the nature of mental distress and new practices to promote psychological well-being. These include not only reducing greed, ill will, and delusion here and now, but also sorting out our emotional lives and working through personal traumas.

As in psychotherapy, the emphasis of this psychologized Buddhism is on helping us adapt better to the circumstances of our lives. The basic approach is that my main problem is the way my mind works and the solution is to change the way my mind works, so that I can play my various roles (at work, with family, with friends, and so on) better—in short, so that I fit into this world better. A common corollary is that the problems we see in the world are projections of our own dissatisfaction with ourselves. According to this spiritual trap, “the world is already perfect when we view it spiritually,” as Joanna Macy puts it.

Notice the pattern. Much of traditional Asian Buddhism, especially Theravada Buddhism and the Pali canon, emphasizes ending physical rebirth into this unsatisfactory world. The goal is to escape samsara, this realm of suffering, craving, and delusion that cannot be reformed. In contrast, much of modern Buddhism, especially Buddhist psychotherapy (and most of the mindfulness movement), emphasizes harmonizing with this world by transforming one’s mind, because one’s mind is the problem, not the world. Otherworldly Buddhism and this-worldly Buddhism seem like polar opposites, yet in one important way they agree: neither is concerned about addressing the problems of this world, to help transform it into a better place. Whether they reject it or embrace it, both take its shortcomings for granted and in that sense accept it for what it is.

When it comes to the ecological crisis, Buddhist teachings do not tell us what to do, but they tell us a lot about how to do it.

Neither approach encourages ecodharma or other types of social engagement. Instead, both encourage a different way of responding to them, which I sometimes facetiously call the Buddhist “solution” to the eco-crisis. By now we’re all familiar with the pattern: we read yet another newspaper or online blog reporting on the latest scientific studies, with disheartening ecological implications. Not only are things getting worse, it’s happening more quickly than anyone expected. How do we react? The news tends to make us depressed or anxious—but hey, we’re Buddhist practitioners, so we know how to deal with that. We meditate for a while, and our unease about what is happening to the earth goes way…for a while, anyway.

This is not to dismiss the value of meditation, or the relevance of equanimity, or the importance of realizing shunyata. Nevertheless, those by themselves are insufficient as responses to our situation.

When it comes to the ecological crisis, Buddhist teachings do not tell us what to do, but they tell us a lot about how to do it. Of course, we would like more specific advice, but that’s unrealistic, given the very different historical and cultural conditions within which Buddhism developed. The collective dukkha caused by an eco-crisis was never addressed because that particular issue never came up.

That does not mean “anything goes” from a Buddhist perspective. Our ends, no matter how noble, do not justify any means, because Buddhism challenges the distinction between them. Its main contributions to our social and ecological engagement are the guidelines for skillful action that the Theravada and Mahayana traditions offer. Although those guidelines have usually been understood in individual terms, the wisdom they embody is readily applicable to the more collective types of engaged practice and social transformation needed today. The five precepts of Theravada Buddhism (and Thich Nhat Hanh’s engaged version of them) and the four “spiritual abodes” (brahmaviharas) are most relevant. The Mahayana tradition highlights the bodhisattva path, including the six “perfections” (generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom). Taken together, these guidelines orient us as we undertake the ecosattva path.

Social engagement remains a challenge for many Buddhists, for the traditional teachings have focused on one’s own peace of mind. On the other side, those committed to social action often experience fatigue, anger, depression, and burnout. The engaged bodhisattva/ecosattva path provides what each side needs, because it involves a double practice, inner (meditation, for example) and outer (activism). Combining the two enables intense engagement with less frustration. Such activism also helps meditators avoid the trap of becoming captivated by their own mental condition and progress toward enlightenment. Insofar as a sense of separate self is the basic problem, compassionate commitment to the well-being of others, including other species, is an important part of the solution. Engagement with the world’s problems is therefore not a distraction from our personal spiritual practice but can become an essential part of it.

The insight and equanimity cultivated by eco-bodhisattvas support what is most distinctive about Buddhist activism: acting without attachment to the results of action, something that is easily misunderstood to imply a casual attitude. Instead, our task is to do the very best we can, not knowing what the consequences will be—in fact, not knowing if our efforts will make any difference whatsoever. We don’t know if what we do is important, but we do know that it’s important for us to do it. Have we already passed ecological tipping points and civilization as we know it is doomed? We don’t know, and that’s okay. Of course we hope our efforts will bear fruit, but ultimately they are our openhearted gift to the earth.

It seems to me that, if contemporary Buddhists cannot or do not want to do this, then Buddhism is not what the world needs right now.

Adapted from Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Precipice, published by Wisdom (January 2019)

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