Earlier today, June 18, 2015, Pope Francis issued a 184 papal letter or “encyclical” as a teaching to all Catholics and indeed to all who inhabit this planet. Clarifying that climate change represents a dire threat to all of life and is caused by human activity, the Pope is calling for swift and decisive action at all scales, including the UN negotiations later this year in Paris. Today we are publishing two commentaries on the encyclical from Buddhist teachers. In this article, Vipassana/Insight teacher Thanissara draws the connections between the Pope’s message and Buddhist teachings that arrive at the same conclusion: to save ourselves and save our world, we must transform the way we live.
A Buddhist Perspective in Support of Pope Francis’s Call for Climate Action
Since climate change and the global economy now affect us all, we have to develop a sense of the oneness of humanity.
—The Dalai Lama
The release of the papal encyclical “Praised Be” urges us, as global citizens, to take climate change extremely seriously. It also asks us to look deeply at its causes and pick up the challenge to overcome them so we can leave a sustainable world for future generations. This timely communication from Pope Francis is deeply appreciated and welcomed by all informed people of faith, alongside secular and scientific communities, who understand that environmental degradation is the primary issue of our times.
In delivering this message with a clarity rooted in scientific truth, the Pope demonstrates the kind of leadership needed in these frightening times. Some may call the Pope “radical” but the fact is ensuring future generations suffer dire consequences due to our negligence constitutes radical ignorance. In truth, the Pope’s radicalism is wholly worthy of the Christ, and all great religious founders, who changed the course of humanity through the might of their spiritual power.
We have such an example in the Buddha, who also radically challenged inequities such as slavery, attachment to nationalism, privilege and caste, gender discrimination, violence and abuse of animals, all of which generate poverty, oppression, and systemic suffering. At a more intimate level, the Buddha pointed to the force of greed, hatred and delusion within the human mind as the leading cause of a burning world.
Fortunately, the Buddha also pointed to wholesome attributes within this very same mind, such as ethical discernment, wise reflection and investigative awareness. Buddhism teaches that we can overcome greed, hatred and delusion, the causes of climate change, by developing these attributes alongside a variety of ethical and spiritual capacities such as generosity, virtue, renunciation, mindfulness, wisdom, effort, compassion, truth, determination, loving kindness and peace.
While our cosmos is mysterious, what is clear is that for the first time four and a half billion years of evolutionary history, humans now shape the Earth’s destiny.
It is a terrible and poignant moment to realize that due to our apathy, aggression and craving we are on the cusp of rendering the planet unlivable for all forms of life. To absorb this reality is to have one’s heart shattered. The devastation we feel, however, opens us to understanding that we have to change.
Firstly we need the humility to see that our hubris has divorced us from an alliance with nature and the knowledge of our interconnectedness with all life. This truth is deeply understood by First Nation Peoples. Instead of being respected for their wisdom, they have suffered genocide and severe oppression through the ravenous staking of colonial acquisition. The current corporate control of our shared resources, for gross monetary gain, continues these same cycles of exploitation and poverty.
This now has to stop. We need to patently reject the myth of endless growth and instead return to the example of wise elders who live within the natural limitations of the Earth’s capacity. Buddhism teaches that we find the unlimited through inner realization not through endless consumption. To transform our selves through this realization is to transform the world. While Buddhism focuses on inner development, this does not preclude outer activism as demonstrated by the Buddha who worked to uplift humanity while advocating love of all beings and service to the Dharma, or truth.
Together in service, as encouraged by Pope Francis, we are called to undertake a profoundly transformative task. We should do this for the welfare of all. For this we need to end reliance of fossil fuels, sequester current carbon emissions, invest in massive renewable energy, and shift toward plant based diets and local agriculture.
We do not have a moment to loose. Pope Francis said, “The time to find global solutions is running out. There is therefore a clear, definite and urgent ethical imperative to act.” This message is addressed to “every person who inhabits this planet.” Lets join together and start by insisting politicians and world leaders commit to a strong climate agreement. Alone we are vulnerable but together we are unstoppable; together we can bend the course of history.
Thanissara Mary Weinberg is a Buddhist teacher and the co-founder / co-director of Dharmagiri in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Her latest book, written with Kittisaro, is Listening to the Heart: A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism.
You can read our other article on Pope Francis’ encyclical from Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, A Call to the Moral Conscience.
Crises have a way of eliciting clarity. Religious differences constitute one of the dominant sources of conflict in our world yet when faced with a common threat, those differences give way to our shared humanity. As the very systems of complex life on Earth are threatened, the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical or teaching on climate change represents another moment for the world’s faith traditions to affirm all that binds us together and take a firm stand on the need for dramatic change. Today we are publishing two commentaries in support of the encyclical from Buddhist teachers. In the article below, Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi affirms the moral case for acting swiftly and decisively on climate change.
Climate Change Is a Moral Issue
A Buddhist response to Pope Francis’s climate encyclical
by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
On June 18, Pope Francis issued a papal encyclical pointing to climate change as the overriding moral issue of our time. The encyclical boldly proclaims that humanity’s capacity to alter the climate charges us with the gravest moral responsibility we have ever had to bear. Climate change affects everyone. The disruptions to the biosphere occurring today bind all peoples everywhere into a single human family, our fates inseparably intertwined. No one can escape the impact, no matter how remotely they may live from the bustling centers of industry and commerce. The responsibility for preserving the planet falls on everyone.
The future of human life on earth hangs in a delicate balance, and the window for effective action is rapidly closing. Tipping points and feedback loops threaten us as ominously as nuclear warheads.
What heightens the danger is our proclivity to apathy and denial. For this reason, we must begin tackling the crisis with an act of truth, by acknowledging that climate change is real and stems from human activity. On this, the science is clear, the consensus among climate scientists almost universal. The time for denial, skepticism, and delay is over.
Our carbon-based economies generate not only mountains of commodities but also heat waves and floods, rising seas and creeping deserts. The climate mirrors the state of our minds, reflecting back to us the choices we make at regional, national, and global levels. These choices, both collective and personal, are inescapably ethical. They are strung out between what is convenient and what is right. They determine who will live and who will die, which communities will flourish and which will perish. Ultimately they determine nothing less than whether human civilization itself will survive or collapse.
Since religions command the loyalty of billions, they must lead the way in the endeavor to combat climate change, using their ethical insights to mobilize their followers. As a nontheistic religion, Buddhism sees our moral commitments as stemming not from the decree of a Creator God but from our obligation to promote the true well-being of ourselves and others.
The Buddha traces all immoral conduct to three mental factors, which he calls the three unwholesome roots: greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed propels economies to voraciously consume fossil fuels in order to maximize profits, ravaging the finite resources of the earth and filling its sinks with toxic waste. Hatred underlies not only war and bigotry but also the callous indifference that allows us to consign billions of people to hunger, drought, and devastating floods without batting an eye. Delusion—self-deception and the deliberate deceiving of others—is reinforced by the falsehoods churned out by fossil-fuel interests to block remedial action.
We thus need to curb the influence of greed, hatred, and delusion on the operation of social systems. Policy formation must be motivated not by narrow self-interest but by a magnanimous spirit of generosity, compassion, and wisdom.
An economy premised on infinite expansion, geared toward endless production and consumption, has to be replaced by a steady-state economy governed by the principle of sufficiency, which gives priority to contentment, service to others, and inner fulfillment as the measure of the good life.
The moral tide of our age pushes us in two directions. One is to uplift the living standards of the billions mired in poverty, struggling each day to survive. The other is to preserve the integrity and sustaining capacity of the planet. A rapid transition to an economy powered by clean and renewable sources of energy, with transfers of the technology to developing countries, would enable us to accomplish both, to combine social justice with ecological sustainability.
At the very outset, we must start the transition by making highly specific national and global commitments to curb carbon emissions, and we must do so fast. The Conference of the Parties meeting in Paris this December has to show the way. The meeting must culminate in a climate accord that imposes truly rigorous, binding, and enforceable targets for emissions reductions. Pledges and promises alone won’t suffice: enforcement mechanisms are critical. And beyond a strong accord, we’ll need an international endeavor, undertaken with a compelling sense of urgency, to shift the global economy away from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy.
Pope Francis reminds us that climate change poses not only a policy challenge but also a call to the moral conscience. If we continue to burn fossil fuels to empower unbridled economic growth, the biosphere will be destabilized, resulting in unimaginable devastation, the deaths of many millions, failed states, and social chaos. Shifting to clean and renewable energy can reverse this trend, opening pathways to a steady-state economy that uplifts living standards for all. One way leads deeper into a culture of death; the other leads to a new culture of life. As climate change accelerates, the choice before us is becoming starker, and the need to choose wisely grows ever more urgent.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk, translator of Pali Buddhist texts, and the founder of Buddhist Global Relief. He is also a spiritual ambassador for OurVoices, an organization dedicated to bringing faith traditions to climate advocacy. This essay was originally written for OurVoices in connection with the release of Pope Francis’s climate change encyclical.
You can read our other article in support of the Pope’s encyclical from Buddhist teacher, Thanissara, “Praised Be!” – Affirming Pope Francis’ Message to the World.
Last month, on May 14, a number of Buddhist Leaders gathered in Washington, DC to meet with one another and representatives of the Obama White House. A wide variety of pressing issues were presented by various engaged groups with a clear sense of both the their common origins as well as our collective commitment to end the suffering they represent.
One Earth Sangha was represented by both co-founders Lou Leonard and Kristin Barker and we were delighted to give a short presentation on our work. It was a chance to clarify that this community is increasingly engaged on climate change and that One Earth Sangha serves a platform on which we can inspire, inform, enhance and sustain that engagement.
We were deeply honored to meet and converse, even if briefly, with many of the leaders who have been working in this space for a very long time, including Hozan Alan Senauke who served as executive director of Buddhist Peace Fellowship for more than a decade and is now a senior adviser there. In the article below, Alan shares his impressions of the day.
The streets of Washington DC were lined with blossoms and greenery, the prospect of promise. One hundred thirty Buddhist teachers, monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, academics, and organizers met on Thursday May 14 for the first “White House—U.S. Buddhist Leadership Conference,” the subject at hand being “Voices in the Square—Action in the World.”
While I am ambivalent about a designation of Buddhist “leaders” — and can think of many other friends and elders who could have and should have been in the room—in this event the notion of leadership cuts in two directions. A remarkably diverse group of women and men were meeting to shape a common understanding of how to bring our various Buddhist practices into a troubled world. At the same time there was a unique opportunity to be in dialogue with White House and State Department staff interested in finding Buddhist allies to work on issues of climate change, racial justice, and peacebuilding.
Point person for this all-day event was William Aiken, public affairs director for Soka Gakai International., with help from Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi of Buddhist Global Relief, Dr. Sallie King of James Madison University, the International Buddhist Committee of Washington DC, and Dr. Duncan Ryuken Williams of University of Southern California. With all their respective contacts and networks, this was a remarkable gathering, with wide and unique diversity in race, nationality, gender, and Buddhist traditions.
Beginning with welcome and a short meditation, the morning program at George Washington University featured brief presentations on some broad and pressing concerns. A video from Mary Evelyn Tucker and a strong analysis by Bhikkhu Bodhi laid out the Four Nobel Truths of Climate Change. Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams of the Center for Transformative Change made the compelling connection between climate justice and racial justice, saying, “We have in our hearts the willingness to degrade the planet because we are willing to degrade human beings.” Duncan Williams unpacked just one historical strand of U.S. Buddhists’ long engagement with society.
Even more briefly we heard accounts of social change work taken on by a half dozen communities and organizations among us. These presentations could have continued productively for days.
After a vegetarian box lunch and a brief time to make new acquaintances in four topical breakout groups, we all strolled a few blocks to meet with staff at the “working White House” of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. There was a quick hand-off to White House staffers of two Buddhist declarations—one on climate change and another on racial justice. Then followed two and a half hours of staff briefings along with sometimes pointed q & a between Buddhists and staff.
Our discussants were: Melissa Rogers of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Partnerships; Dr. Shaun Casey, the State Dept.’s Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs; Rev. Susan Hayward, Interim Director, Religion and Peacebuilding, US Institute of Peace: and Angela Barranco from he White House Council for Environmental Quality (CON).
Four things stand out from the day. First, that we gathered in collective concern for compelling issues that threaten the survival of all sentient beings, not the interests of Buddhists alone. Second, the rich opportunity and frustrating brevity of being with so many friends and allies. Third, that declarations and tinkering with policy will not bring about the change we need. Particularly in relation to the climate emergency, we cannot go forward on an implicit assumption that our quality of life and consumption can continue as is; that we just have to find cleaner sources of energy. This is not possible. Fourth, that in the “working White House” of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, we were able, Buddhist practitioners and White House staff together, to chant the four Bodhisattva vows, beginning with: Beings are numberless; I vow to save them. Now we must live those vows.
The organizers’ intention and participants’ hope is that this would be the first in a series of meetings in Washington. For this first step to lead in a productive direction that must be the case. It is good to meet a first time but it is only through relationship—among ourselves as Buddhist practitioners and with the ear of those in government—that we will accomplish anything and turn to the work of bodhisattvas.
In his eloquent closing words, Jack Kornfield drew our attention to a quotation at the foot of one of our White House briefing pages. He likened it to the teachings of our great and ancient Tibetan teacher Shantideva. But the source is rather different.
Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times.
—President Barack Obama, February 2008
And after: Leaving the White House grounds, twenty or thirty of us unfurled banners that had been hand-made by BPF friends in Oakland. We walked around the corner from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to stand at the Pennsylanvia Aveune side of the White House holding three banners that read:
- The Karma of Slavery is Heavy—I vow to work for racial justice
- U.S. Militarism Breeds Violence, Not Safety—I vow to work for peace and freedom
- The Whole Earth Is My True Body—I vow to work for climate justice
Hozan Alan Senauke is a Soto Zen priest in the tradition of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. He was ordained by Sojun Mel Weitsman in 1989. Alan is presently head of practice at Berkeley Zen Center in California, where he lives with his wife and two children. He is also Senior Advisor to Buddhist Peace Fellowship, where he served as Executive Director for more than a decade. His most recent book is The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines. This article was originally published on Alan’s blog, Clear View Blog. In another realm, Alan has been a student and performer of American traditional music for more than forty years.