Practice in a Time of Climate Crisis

In Buddhist circles the word ‘practice’ is often used referring solely to meditation practice. In a broader sense, however, practice is whatever we do to develop our minds and hearts so that they become less a source of suffering for ourselves and for others.

What does it mean to ‘practice’ in a time when (in the absence of efforts to the contrary) the tendency of human minds to act out of greed and delusion is rapidly dragging the planet towards catastrophic environmental destruction? ‘Sharkwars’ conservationist, Rob Stewart sums the situation up this way.

By mid-century if we continue on our current trajectory we face a world with no fisheries, no coral reefs, no rainforests, declining oxygen concentrations, and nine billion hungry thirsty people fighting over what remains.

This past summer, two highly respected Buddhist monastics presented talks on the urgent need for serious, comprehensive action to address the Climate Crisis. Bhikkhu Sujato spoke at the Skyadhita 2019 conference in Leura, NSW, Australia. Bhikkhu Bodhi addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. While the Venerables emphasized different aspects of what we are called to do in the face of mounting environmental devastations, they both spoke of being honest with ourselves and with each other about the severity of what is happening as the necessary first step.

At the United Nations, Bhikkhu Bodhi offered these observations:

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...

It is the delusion in our own minds that makes us lull along complacently in the established routines of life instead of rising up to take the necessary action ...

If we go on retreating into denial go on drifting along complacently, we will reach a point where all we can say is, ‘It is now too late.’ If we’re to avoid that end point, we have to act effectively and to act without delay.

Bhikkhu Sujato also spoke of the importance of looking squarely at the evidence presented by current climate scientists. In doing so, he, along with those scientists, sees that so much damage has been done that at this point it is already too late to avert cascading catastrophic environmental destruction and the resultant social collapse. Sujato understands that is not easy for people to deal with the feelings that follow when we see the full scope of what is coming.

Those among you who accept the probability of the coming climate collapse will know what I’m talking about. Acceptance is a long process, and a hard one. But to speak of it is still taboo: you will be attacked, dismissed, patronised, or at best, greeted with an awkward silence. Your friends will kindly wonder if you have a mental illness. They will, in all seriousness, tell you that they get by by simply ignoring the problem, and recommend this as a healthy option. I’ve experienced all these things, and everyone I have spoken to on this has experienced it too. Right at the time when you long for connection, when you feel the fragility of what we have and the need for understanding and support, the support you need is just not there.

Bhikkhu Sujato pointed out a few ways that Buddhist practitioners can bring important resources to coping with the Climate Crisis.

What then might we, drawing upon the best of our Buddhist traditions, have to offer the world in this time of unprecedented crisis? We must start by speaking the truth; and just this much is already a great deal. Too many of us harbor our worries and fears in secret, unable to speak them because, well, when is the right time to talk about the end of the world? Far from bringing despair to people, many are already facing a quiet despair. Even little children view the future through the lens of apocalypse rather than utopia. Our Teacher has taught us that all things are impermanent, that we should not hide from change, but should live each day in awareness and compassion ...

Perhaps the most powerful thing we have to offer is renunciation. The joy of simplicity and contentment. The knowledge, learned from our own experience, that with a simple life comes clarity and ease ...Too often renunciation is seen as a purely monastic virtue, when it is there for everyone in Right Thought of the Noble Eightfold Path. It will not be long before renunciation is no longer a choice. Our children will have less than we, and their children less still …

The Buddha said that good friendship is the whole of the spiritual path, and creation of meaningful intentional communities (Sangha) has always been a core aspect of his dispensation, and through the Sangha, the Dhamma has survived for 2,500 years. In the days to come, those who survive will not be the preppers or the survivalists in their bunkers, or the billionares with their walled estates and private armies. It will be the villagers and the tribespeople. Those who know how to work together, to create local, small-scale systems of work and exchange, who understand and respect the land and the sky and the water, the beasts and the plants. These are skills still found in Buddhist villages across Asia—perhaps we should start learning from them.

Bhikkhu Bodhi asked us to use our imaginations to picture the possibilities for realizing the radical social change that is necessary in order to deal with the 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 which 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 allow all people to flourish economically, socially, and spiritually...

We know the direction in which we have to move. Now we have to start moving before it is too late.

I was born in 1950. The fact of the Holocaust provided a profound guiding lesson in morality for my generation. The question, ‘How can people have done such a thing to other people?’ disturbed and challenged many of us deeply. And while the answer to that core question remained illusive to my child mind, two conclusions from the Holocaust stood out clearly: ‘I was just following orders.’ is no excuse, and the claim that ‘I didn’t know what was happening.’ is unbelievable when the cattle cars crammed with human cargo were everywhere to be seen.

Surely we see the smoke bellowing from the fires of the crematoriums. Surely we smell the burning human flesh floating on the breeze.

It will at times feel overwhelming to face the way things are. But isn’t facing difficult realities exactly what the Buddha’s path trains us for? When we feel overwhelmed, it can be hard to know what to do. Let’s remember that we don’t have to know all of the answers in order to find a good enough next step.

Here are four things we can do today:

  • We can try to see clearly – without delusion – what all of the reputable scientific evidence tells us is undoubtedly coming unless we take a hard turn in a different global practices direction within the next ten years. This recent article in the NY Review of Books makes a good start in that direction.

  • We can stop telling our children things that are not true, and start trying to prepare them to live in the world that they and their children will be left with even if we do make major systemic changes in our lifetimes.

  • We can learn about and consider participating in the growing international mass nonviolent direct action movements such as those sponsored by organizations like Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Fridaysforfuture, the student strike organization begun by teen activist Gretta Thunberg.

    A story in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha tells of how at one time a bandit named Aṅgulimāla terrorized the countryside. One morning the Buddha went out looking for Aṅgulimāla despite warnings from those he passed along the way. The Buddha found Anguilimala and said 'Stop.' Anguilimala, moved by the Buddha’s compassion and wisdom did stop. The bandits looting and killing across our countrysides today are not just individuals. They are social systems. They are corporations and the governments that enable them to do whatever they think is necessary in order make as much money as possible no matter what the costs. It is time to follow the Buddha's example. To speak to the Aṅgulimālas of our time and with every bit of compassion our hearts can offer to say, 'Stop.'

  • And, finally, we can talk with each other in our practice communities. We can offer each other support, and we can explore how our practices and our understandings of what the Buddha taught can help us to live in these times in ways that are meaningful and true to our values. If we don’t have a practice community to support us in these efforts, we can try to find one, or start one ourselves.

Bhikkhu Sujato closed his talk with these words.

I don’t come here to bring you hope. It’s too late for that. We don’t need hope; what we need is courage. Stay close to each other, support each other, live simply in the real world, and listen to the truth whispered to you in the trees. Never be afraid to step forward and show leadership to share your wisdom and compassion. As spiritual practitioners, it is up to us to show honesty and realism, to set an example of how it is possible to live in the face of radical change. Impermanence is core to our philosophy: are you ready to live it? This world, this beautiful fragile world, needs you more than you know.