On May 2, 2019, the parliament of the United Kingdom declared climate emergency. The undertaking of this action at the governmental level is an important step in taking seriously the current ecological and climatic crisis. The destruction of the environment and climate change have reached dimensions that, if unchecked, threaten the very survival of humanity on this planet. The possible future scenarios are truly devastating: oceans becoming acidic and fish dying, extinction of the majority of animal species, large areas of fertile land turning into deserts, massive depletion of drinking water supplies, crop failure, large-scale migration, and warfare in competition for dwindling resources. Such scenarios are so horrible that one would rather not think about them. Yet, avoiding to think about it is a factor contributing to the present crisis. A tool is required to counter such avoidance and also the tendency to succumb to “catastrophe fatigue,” which tends to prevent the taking of meaningful action. As noted by Tokar (2018, p. 182)Tokar, B. (2018). On social ecology and the movement for climate justice. In S. G. Jacobson (Ed.), Climate justice and the economy, social mobilization, knowledge and the political (pp. 168–187). … Continue reading, “while some authors focus on the most dire future scenarios, hoping that people can be shocked into realizing the magnitude of changes that are necessary, this approach appears more likely to inspire despair and withdrawal than meaningful action.”
The possible future scenarios … are so horrible that one would rather not think about them. Yet, [this avoidance] is a factor contributing to the present crisis.
Here, mindfulness can offer a much-needed solution. It can become a central tool to enable facing the horror with inner balance and, based on that, then taking the steps needed to transform what might well be the most serious challenge human beings have ever faced in their history. With mindfulness, this challenge could be transformed into an opportunity to increase global awareness and move to a level of interaction among human beings that gives precedence to the common welfare over individual profit in order to maintain the living conditions required for the survival of human civilization.
Moral Decline and the Environment
Already the texts of early Buddhism, roughly reflecting the period between the fifth and third century BCE (Anālayo 2012)Anālayo, Bh. (2012). The historical value of the Pāli discourses. Indo-Iranian Journal, 55, 223–253. https://doi.org/10.1163/001972412X620187., envisage the possibility of a serious deterioration of the ecological conditions on the earth. The relevant passage describes how poor political administration and a gradual moral decline among the population affect the environment, whose deteriorating conditions in turn lead to further loss of moral standards. The discourse is extant in Pāli (DN 26) and in two Chinese parallels (DĀ 6 and MĀ 70), which vary in the detail with which they describe the impact of moral decline on the environment.
The passage translated below is based on extracts from one of the Chinese versions, which fit the current crisis particularly well. The relevant parts describe an unspecified time in the future when a low point in moral behavior and living conditions will be reached:
At that time one no longer hears in the world the names of ghee, rock honey, dark rock honey, or of any sweet delicacies. Rice seeds and rice seedlings turn into grass and weeds… at that time many thorny bushes grow on this earth and there are many mosquitoes, gadflies, flies, fleas, snakes, vipers, wasps, centipedes, and poisonous worms … on the surface of the earth there appear only clay stones, sand, and gravel … at that time [human] beings are capable of being extremely evil and there is no filial piety towards parents, no respect for teachers and elders, no loyalty, and no righteousness. Those who are rebellious and without principles are esteemed…on seeing one another, [human] beings constantly wish to kill one another. They are just like hunters on seeing a herd of deer. Then on this earth there are many ravines, deep gorges with rushing rivers. The earth is a wasteland. Human beings are scarce. People go about in fear. At that time fighting and plundering will manifest.
The similarities between the above description and the potential scenarios resulting from climate change are striking. What was seen as a far distant future in the ancient Indian setting seems from the contemporary perspective to have come rather close in time, even imminent.
Viewing the ecological challenge in terms of the states of mind that are responsible for it can help to keep a focus on the main issues at hand and avoid generating personal animosity toward certain individuals in political and economic leadership positions.
The other two parallels are considerably less detailed, so the excerpts translated above are specific only to this particular discourse. This makes its description peculiar to a single lineage of textual transmission, rather than representing an “early Buddhist” consensus on the details of the repercussions to be expected of moral decline. For developing an early Buddhist perspective on a particular teaching, material common to different lineages of textual transmission needs to be identified. In the remainder of this article, most passages will be taken from several parallel versions, in order to ascertain to what degree a common message emerges through comparison.
Although differing in the level of detail provided by their depictions of the future moral and ecological decline, the above discourse and its two parallels do agree in the main aspects of their presentation. They also concord in indicating that a change for the better results from an improvement of the mental attitudes and moral conduct of the population. Such improvement on the personal level similarly affects the environment, which gradually recovers from its desolate condition.
Viewing the ecological challenge in terms of the states of mind … also serves as a reminder that these states are common to human beings, which can aid in creating a sense of commonality, … precisely the type of mental attitude needed to tackle the crisis.
In all three versions, the entire description functions as a parable and should therefore not be taken too literally. Nevertheless, the basic message this parable conveys is meant seriously and for this reason is quite appropriate to the present-day situation.
Ethics of the Mind
The current ecological crisis has also received attention from contemporary Buddhist leaders. The Karmapa (2013, p. 87)Karmapa, H. H. (2013). The heart is noble, changing the world from the inside out. Boston: Shambhala Publications., for example, offered the following assessment:
one area crying out for attention is our treatment of our natural environment. Protecting the environment that we all rely on for our survival is an immediate way to care for all beings. We have seen that the global culture of consumerism that has been so devastating for our planet stems from an emotional force that creeps into human hearts–the force of greed. In that and other ways, human attitudes and feelings are causing large-scale destruction of our physical environment. Therefore our efforts to protect the environment are best effected by making changes to our attitudes.
The decline of moral behavior, described in the passage translated above, springs from the mind. Hence, the canonical passage also points to a need to change mental attitudes. Of particular relevance here are three root defilements recognized in Buddhist thought: greed (or sensual lust), anger (or ill will), and delusion. These three are the roots of what is unwholesome, in the sense of being detrimental for oneself and others. Their relationship to unethical or unwholesome conduct emerges from the following passage, extant in Pāli and Chinese:
Whence do unwholesome conducts originate? Their origin is also stated: it should be answered that ‘their origination is in the mind.’ What mind? For the mind is manifold, variegated, and diverse. The mind that is with greed, with anger, or with delusion; unwholesome conducts originate from here.
Whence do unwholesome conducts arise? I declare the place from which they arise. One should know that they arise from the mind. What kind of mind? If the mind is with sensual lust, with ill will, or with delusion, one should know that unwholesome conducts arise from this kind of mind.
On adopting the perspective provided in these two passages, the current climate crisis could be considered from the viewpoint of the three root defilements. These are the conditions for unwholesome conduct and in the long run for a deterioration of the environment in the way depicted in the passage translated earlier.
Viewing the ecological challenge in terms of the states of mind that are responsible for it can help to keep a focus on the main issues at hand and avoid generating personal animosity toward certain individuals in political and economic leadership positions. It also serves as a reminder that these states are common to human beings, which can aid in creating a sense of commonality and thereby engendering precisely the type of mental attitude needed to tackle the crisis.
Mindfulness of States of Mind
The three root defilements are objects for contemplation of the mind, the third establishment of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna/smṛtyupasthāna) in the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta and its two Chinese Āgama parallels (Anālayo 2013)Anālayo, Bh. (2013). Perspectives on satipaṭṭhāna. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications https://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/pdf/5-personen/analayo/perspectives.pdf.. The task in all three versions is to recognize when greed, anger, or delusion are present and also when they are absent.
When acting in response to the ecological crisis, mindful monitoring … to detect the potential impact of any of these three root defilements [of greed, hatred and delusion] remains crucial.
Only when the mind is at least temporarily free from these three detrimental mental conditions can its potential to understand and find appropriate responses to any problem be fully tapped. Hence, be it in formal meditation or when acting in response to the ecological crisis, mindful monitoring of the mind to detect the potential impact of any of these three root defilements remains crucial. Such monitoring or inspecting of states of mind, either one’s own or those of others, finds illustration in looking into a bowl of water to see the reflection of one’s face. This illustration, found in a Pāli discourse and two parallels extant in Sanskrit and Chinese, proceeds as follows.
Great king, it is like a woman or a man who are young, youthful, fond of adornment, who were to examine the reflection of their face in a clear bright mirror or in a bowl with clear water. Being with a spot, they would know they are ‘with a spot,’ and being without a spot, they would know they are ‘without a spot.’
It is like a clear-sighted person who has taken hold of a round mirror that is very clear and were to examine the image of one’s own face.
It is like a person who, by employing clear water to look at oneself, will detect with certainty what is attractive or repellant.
Similar to holding up a mirror to see one’s face, with mindfulness established it becomes possible to monitor the condition of the mind and recognize whether one of the three root defilements is present or absent. This mirroring potential of mindfulness practice is crucial, as it provides the indispensable precondition for being able to do something about the presence of greed, anger, or delusion. As long as their presence remains unnoticed, little can be done to emerge from them. One is at their mercy, in the sense of acting and reacting in ways that, instead of reflecting the actual demands of the situation at hand, result from the distorting influence of these defilements.
In the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta and its two Chinese Āgama parallels, contemplation of the mind starts off by directing mindfulness to one’s own mental condition and then turns to that of others. In line with this procedure, training in mindfulness could begin by discerning the presence or absence of the three root defilements in one’s own mind, as a foundational training for then discerning their presence in others. Already this foundational training can be directly related to the current crisis, in the sense that the challenges it poses can lead to three unhelpful reactions: denial, anger, or resignation. These can conveniently be correlated with the three root defilements of greed, anger, and delusion.
When faced with information about ecological destruction and climate change with their potential repercussions, it is a natural reaction of the untrained mind to want to avoid and forget about it, in order to be able to continue enjoying the pleasures of this world without having to worry too much about the consequences. In this way denial, which can be considered an expression of the root defilement of greed, prevents reacting appropriately to what is taking place. The forces of greed are strong enough to have made denial an intentionally cultivated strategy by some leading politicians and high-level executives of companies who would be affected by actions taken to counter the crisis. A common mode of such denial is to pretend that the information we have is not sufficiently well established to be taken seriously.
When faced with information about ecological destruction …, it is a natural reaction of the untrained mind to want to avoid and forget about it, … to continue enjoying the pleasures of this world without having to worry too much about the consequences. In this way denial, … an expression of the root defilement of greed, prevents reacting appropriately to what is taking place.
Yet, regular reports by international committees of scientists abound, summarizing our current level of knowledge. There can be no doubt that the situation is serious and that it demands swift action. In fact, it is in principle enough to know that a threat is probable; there is no need to be absolutely certain. This is part of how human perception works, which involves “perceptual prediction” (Anālayo 2019)Anālayo, Bh. (2019). In the seen just the seen: mindfulness and the construction of experience. Mindfulness, 10, 179–184. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-018-1042-9.. On suddenly seeing a dangerous animal in front, one will react on the spot. One cannot afford to wait until all possible information about the animal has been gathered and one is completely sure that the animal is indeed intent on attacking, since, by then, it may be too late. Similarly, faced by the probable outcomes of the current crisis, it is time to act now, before it is too late.
Yet, the tendency to want to forget about it can exert a strong influence that is hardly noticed, unless mindfulness is established. From this viewpoint, the global crisis can become an opportunity for regular mindful scrutiny of the mind in order to detect the potential influence of the root defilement of greed, however subtly it might manifest, in fostering denial.
Another type of reaction to the crisis is anger. As just mentioned, some leading politicians and high-level executives are actively working to prevent appropriate changes from taking place. Yet, getting angry with them is not a solution. For one, to some degree, almost all human beings contribute to the problem. Let the one who has never driven a car, taken a flight, eaten food imported from abroad, worn clothing manufactured in a distant country, etc., throw the first stone.
There is definitely a place for stern and strong action, but this should better come with inner balance rather than aversion.
Besides, at least from an early Buddhist perspective, even righteous anger is a defilement of the mind. There is definitely a place for stern and strong action, but this should better come with inner balance rather than aversion. Inner balance is crucial for any possible activity to achieve maximum benefit. From the viewpoint of mindfulness practice, getting angry equals succumbing to one of the root defilements and thereby to what has contributed to and sustains this very crisis. Anger is a problem and not a solution. A solution can only be found when the mind is not clouded by defilements and therefore able to know and see things accurately.
The Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta and its two Chinese Āgama parallels list anger not only as a state of mind under the third establishment of mindfulness but also as the second in a set of five “hindrances,” called such because they hinder the proper functioning of the mind. A set of similes describes the effect of each of these five hindrances on the mind. Extant in a Pāli discourse and a parallel in Sanskrit, the set of similes involves a bowl of water used to look at the reflection of one’s own mind. Being angry compares to the water being heated up so that it is boiling:
Monastics, it is like a bowl of water that is heated by fire, boiling and bubbling up. Then a clear-sighted person who were to examine the reflection of one’s own face would not know or see it as it really is.
It is like a bowl of water that is heated by fire, greatly heated, boiling and bubbling up. Then a clear-sighted person who were to examine the reflection of one’s own face would not see it [properly].
The simile employed here relates to the other one translated earlier, which compared contemplation of the mind to looking into a bowl of water or a mirror. The present example complements this by indicating in what way an angry condition of the mind can be recognized: one feels heated up and ready to boil over.
The inability to see one’s own face when the water is boiling illustrates how a mind in the grip of anger is unable to see accurately what is for one’s own benefit and for the benefit of others. The force of anger distorts perceptual appraisal of the situation and does not allow a balanced and correct discernment. Such a condition of the mind needs to be recognized with mindfulness; it calls for refraining from taking action until the mind has cooled down, as only then does it become possible to see things in proper perspective. In sum, the current crisis is best handled with a mind that is not boiling in anger.
The third reaction to the crisis to be discussed here is resignation. This can be related to the root defilement of delusion. It manifests in a sense of feeling overwhelmed and helpless. As a single individual, it just seems so hopeless to try to effect any change. What is the point of even trying? Yet, society is made up of individuals and does not exist apart from them. The question is not whether a single individual can bring about all required change alone. The question is rather whether every single individual can contribute to the required change. This is indeed the case. The step taken by the UK parliament is ample proof for that. It comes in response to the lobbying of ecological activists and thereby to acts undertaken by individuals.
As a single individual, it just seems so hopeless to try to effect any change. What is the point of even trying? Yet, society is made up of individuals and does not exist apart from them.
By way of countering the impact of the type of delusion that leads to resignation, it can be helpful to approach the situation from the viewpoint of the early Buddhist conception of conditionality. In a nutshell, this teaching implies that anything experienced, bodily or mental, is the product of various causes and conditions. Such a vision of causality can be employed to counter the assumption of mono-causality, be it held consciously or unconsciously, in the sense that just a single cause is held responsible for a particular situation or problem. Such an assumption can easily lead to searching for a single culprit that can serve as the scapegoat for one’s feelings of negativity. It can also result in overestimating one’s own personal responsibility and as a result falling prey to feelings of helplessness in view of the magnitude of the problem. Viewing oneself and others instead as co-participants in a large network of conditions can help to counterbalance such tendencies.
From this viewpoint, then, even small steps taken in daily life are significant. They are significant not because on their own they will change the whole world. They are significant because they contribute to a network of causes and conditions that can change the whole world. Divested from the pressure of having to yield immediate and tangible results, such small steps can become an embodiment of mindfulness practice. Be it living more simply, shifting to a vegetarian or vegan diet, recycling, or forgoing unnecessary travel by car or plane, these deeds become meaningful not because the world will change if one individual acts in this way. They become meaningful because they embody awareness of the global crisis and express it on the individual level as a form of training in mindfulness and ethical responsibility.
Even small steps taken in daily life are significant … because they embody awareness of the global crisis and express it on the individual level as a form of training in mindfulness and ethical responsibility.
Of course, the more who act in this way, the greater the effects will be. This ties in with the internal and external dimensions of mindfulness, where the internal builds the foundation for the external. It is precisely through embodying what needs to be done on the personal level that the outside world can be positively affected. In this way, mindfulness can become a way to protect both oneself and others, a topic to be taken up again below [forthcoming in part two of the series] in relation to a simile describing the cooperation of two acrobats.
Just as mindfulness enables being with physical pain without either switching off or else resisting (Anālayo 2016)Anālayo, Bh. (2016). Mindfully facing disease and death, compassionate advice from early Buddhist texts. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications., similarly, mindfulness can ease the mental pain of facing the horror of what human beings are doing to themselves. By training oneself to face the crisis with mindful balance, one will be able to embody mindfulness in an authentic way and share this attitude with others, inspiring them to cultivate the same. Equipped with this attitude, any ecological activism to confront the crisis, which can manifest in various ways (Cassegård et al. 2017)Cassegård, C., Soneryd, L., Thörn, H., & Wettergren, A. (2017). Climate action in a globalizing world, comparative perspectives on environmental movements in the global north. New York: … Continue reading, has the greatest potential for success.
Abbreviations EĀ, Ekottarika-āgama; DĀ, Dīrgha-āgama; DN, Dīgha-nikāya; MĀ, Madhyama-āgama; MN, Majjhima-nikāya; SN, Saṃyutta-nikāya; T, Taishō edition
|↑1||Tokar, B. (2018). On social ecology and the movement for climate justice. In S. G. Jacobson (Ed.), Climate justice and the economy, social mobilization, knowledge and the political (pp. 168–187). New York: Routledge.|
|↑2||Anālayo, Bh. (2012). The historical value of the Pāli discourses. Indo-Iranian Journal, 55, 223–253. https://doi.org/10.1163/001972412X620187.|
|↑3||Karmapa, H. H. (2013). The heart is noble, changing the world from the inside out. Boston: Shambhala Publications.|
|↑4||Anālayo, Bh. (2013). Perspectives on satipaṭṭhāna. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications https://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/pdf/5-personen/analayo/perspectives.pdf.|
|↑5||Gnoli, R. (1978). The Gilgit manuscript of the Saṅghabhedavastu, being the 17th and last section of the Vinaya of the Mūlasarvāstivādin. Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente.|
|↑6||Anālayo, Bh. (2019). In the seen just the seen: mindfulness and the construction of experience. Mindfulness, 10, 179–184. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-018-1042-9.|
|↑7||Anālayo, Bh. (2016). Mindfully facing disease and death, compassionate advice from early Buddhist texts. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications.|
|↑8||Cassegård, C., Soneryd, L., Thörn, H., & Wettergren, A. (2017). Climate action in a globalizing world, comparative perspectives on environmental movements in the global north. New York: Routledge.|