When I was invited to write a short essay on the climate crisis, my first thought was that I didn’t have much to contribute on the subject of global warming. Although I am aware of the magnitude of the problem, perhaps like many others, I have not spent much time reflecting on it or seriously considering what I could do about it. It was this response that then piqued my interest. Why hadn’t I spent time thinking about one of the major problems confronting our planet? Why had it slid to the back-burner of my interests?
Two related teachings from quite different traditions began to shed light on these questions, light that illuminates other important issues in our lives as well. The first is a teaching from the great 12th-century Korean Zen master Chinul. His framework of teaching is “sudden awakening/gradual cultivation.”
Although we have awakened to original nature, beginningless habit energies are extremely difficult to remove suddenly. Hindrances are formidable and habits are deeply ingrained. So how could you neglect gradual cultivation simply because of one moment of awakening? After awakening you must be constantly on your guard. If deluded thoughts suddenly appear, do not follow after them.… Then and only then will your practice reach completion.
We have probably all had moments of what we might call a sudden awakening to the truth of global warming: reading different newspaper accounts, watching Al Gore’s impactful film An Inconvenient Truth, times even of deriding those who don’t believe it’s happening— “How could they not believe the obvious scientific truth of it all?” Yet those moments can quickly pass, and the beginningless habit energies of forgetfulness, other desires, and basic ignorance resurface once again.
Here is where Chinul’s emphasis on gradual cultivation can be a template for our own awakening. We need to repeatedly remind ourselves of the situation and not settle for a generalized understanding that climate change is a problem. We need to be willing to make some effort to keep ourselves informed, over and over again, so that we don’t fall back into deluded thinking: “How could you neglect gradual cultivation simply because of one moment of awakening?”
What might motivate us to make this effort? A powerful motivation for doing this is the feeling of compassion. In the Buddhist understanding, compassion arises when we’re willing to come close to suffering, not as an abstraction, but in the reality of how lives are affected. What do people do when unusually strong and more frequent hurricanes devastate their homes and means of livelihood? How do people find food when traditional rain patterns are disrupted, when glaciers melt and rivers dry up, when island nations are submerged? Are we willing to open to these situations of suffering with an immediacy of feeling? The poet Mary Oliver expresses the challenge of this in her poem “Beyond the Snow Belt”: “…except as we have loved, / All news arrives as from a distant land.”
A second teaching that offers insight into the problem of rationalized disinterest is found in the words of Shantideva, an eighth-century Indian adept. He wrote, “We are like senseless children, who shrink from suffering but love its causes.” None of us desire suffering, whether it be the consequences of climate change or other painful circumstances of our lives, yet we are often addicted to the very causes of that suffering.
What is the way out of this unhelpful cycle? Ajahn Chah, the great Thai forest meditation master, said that there are two kinds of suffering: suffering that leads to more suffering, and suffering that leads to its end. If we can learn to understand the suffering and open to the reality of it, then instead of simply being overwhelmed by it, we can investigate its causes and begin to let them go. Here is where we can be a support for each other. Individually, we might feel that global problems are beyond our capacity to solve. What I have noticed, though, in the Insight Meditation Society community is that if one or two people take the lead in making even small changes, it energizes the whole community. And if, for whatever reason, we don’t feel ready to take a leadership role, it is helpful to acknowledge that and encourage those who feel inspired to do so. We can then be carried along in the slipstream of their energy, strengthening our own commitment in the process.
This article originally appeared in Tricycle Magazine, vol. 18, no. 4, Summer 2009. It is reprinted here with the generous permission of the author.