Climate Change is already causing immense suffering on our planet and that will likely continue and increase. In this final of our four-part series of posts transcribed from a July 2013 talk “The Dharma of Climate Change,” Dharma teacher Chas DiCapua reveals that we have the opportunity to awaken from the nightmare of separation. We can come, choice by choice, to embody our deepest nature, compassionate wisdom.
I’ll begin this last portion of my talk with this selection of Bob Doppelt’s book, “From Me to We”. Doppolt is a dharma practitioner, and you can hear some of the dharma wisdom coming through what he writes:
“Economic breakdown, rising unemployment, and escalating political hostility, coming at a time of intensifying climate upheaval (storms, floods, heat waves, and droughts) have left us all confused and despondent. Everywhere we look the systems we depend on seem to be collapsing. At first reaction is to blame others for these problems … [b]ut we often project onto others the very things we need to examine in ourselves. The economic, social, and environmental ills we face today are of our own making. They are the outcomes of how we see and respond to the world. Unethical corporations and disreputable politicians might seem to cause the most egregious harm, but they are merely taking today’s dominant cultural perspectives to the extreme. The challenges our society faces today illuminate the changes each of needs to make inside ourselves.”
How does our dharma practice help us look at ourselves in this way? To begin our exploration, let’s turn to the Dhammapada – a collection of what you might say are the most pithy teachings of the Buddha. This is the very first quote of this collection, so you might say it has some weight. In the words of the Buddha: “All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind. Speak or act with a corrupted mind and suffering follows, as the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox. All experience is preceded by mind, lead by mind, made by mind. Speak or act with a peaceful mind and happiness follows like a never departing shadow.”
Okay, but what is a corrupted mind? And what is the peaceful mind that the Buddha was speaking to? How do I know what a corrupted mind or what a peaceful mind is? How do I know what actually leads to happiness, and what actually leads to suffering? The answer is, through our practice – through our own experience. It is not from me or another teacher saying it or something you read in a book. You know, yourself, what actually leads to happiness and what leads to suffering.
Ajahn Chah said, “If you want to understand your own mind, then sit down and look at it.”
It is that simple. This is what we are doing with our practice. We are learning that see that we create our own world, moment by moment. When I say create, I don’t mean by magic. What I mean is, if there is a lot of fear in my mind and I don’t identify it, I am living in a fearful world. If there are strong feelings of love and compassion within me then the world I live in, in that moment, is a very loving and compassionate world. So we don’t create the world magically, but we do create it. Patterns of the mind lead to physical constructions of reality. Global climate change has been created by the mind. Created by strong greed, sense desire, and fear, which takes us to the last dharma principle that I want to talk about.
If you dig down to the bottom of why human beings suffer what we discover is that we mistakenly take ourselves to be solid, unchanging entities that exist separately from everything else. This is what the Buddha referred to as ignorance: the “root defilement”. Look closely. Use your practice to connect with and look closely at your own experience. If I look closely, I can see that the degree to which my thoughts revolve around what I want, what’s good for me, what would be most pleasurable for me and then, conversely, what I don’t want, what would be least pleasurable for me – the degree to which this is the predominant paradigm in my mind, running the show, is the degree to which I don’t see or understand that how I live impacts all other life – that we are connected, deeply connected. Why don’t we see this? Because we’re not looking. I can’t see that I’m connected to you if I’m so involved with me. It’s not rocket science. If we are so involved with ourselves we are not going to know or understand that we’re connected.
This intense focus on self and this belief in a separate self also invokes a tremendous amount of fear that I won’t get what want or what I need. So, a strong sense of separate self and fear are bound together. They are inseparable. The more our world revolves around a solid, separate sense of self, the more afraid we are and the more we consume and try to manipulate our environment to quell that fear. It is this consumption and manipulation of our environment, in reaction to being afraid that we won’t get what we want and need (which itself stems from this mistaken view that we’re separate) that is at the core of how humanity has gotten to this point. Not just in climate change, but in all sorts of difficulties that we’re having. This is, if you dig down and ask why, the core reason. And it is at the core of why global climate change is happening.
This is by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (a Tibetan master from the last century): “One sees that all human suffering results from one’s own and other’s fundamental ignorance, which misconstrues the infinite display of illusory appearances as being composed of separate, permanently existing entities.”
Remember wise view? This is wrong view, this view of separate self. This wrong view is a self centered view of the world, a view that does not see clearly how we create our own suffering. But when we connect – by training our hearts and minds to connect, to be present – then we can come to know: How does it actually feel to focus so much on ourselves? Spending our resources of time, attention, creativity, and money just on ourselves – trying to make ourselves more comfortable, have more pleasant experiences, and keep away unpleasant experiences – what is that experience actually like? We want to look at this, see for ourselves, each of us. When I look at what this feels like for me I notice that it feels isolating, deadening, cut off, not connected to life. Then we want to look and see: how does it actually feel to share our time, energy, money, and other resources with others? How does it feel when we’re generous? We want to look and see. For me it feels good, it feels right, it feels enlivening, connecting, open. We love that! Even when we’re not used to it.
Here is a simple example of what I mean, and some of you may have experienced this. Think about what it’s like after a significant weather event, like a hurricane or really bad storm, when you go out to your neighbor – somehow who, previous to this, you don’t talk to much. It’s not because of any ill willl, you’ve just each been going about your own life and don’t talk much. But after the blizzard, the hurricane, whatever the event is, you go over and you ask, “Are you okay? Do you need anything? The electricity is out, but I have a generator and a freezer, so if you want to keep your food over here please bring it …” We feel ourselves open and be generous with our resources, and it feels so beloved to do that. Something like a big weather event takes us out of our little world and tells us it is okay to reach out now. This is what’s called for now. It gives us permission and we jump on it, because we love it.
So based on all this, how can we respond to global climate change? What would be an appropriate response? This response needs to include a change in world view from each individual for themselves to one where we’re all in this together, as Bob wrote in his book, “From Me to We”. And this is supported by neuroscience that tells us we’re wired to cooperate – that’s how we are put together.
Listen to what Joanna Macy has to say about this in her book Active Hope: “What inspires people to embark on projects or support campaigns that are not of immediate personal benefit? At the core of our consciousness is a wellspring of caring and compassion. This aspect of ourselves, which we might think of as our connected self, can be nurtured and developed. We can deepen our sense of belonging in the world like trees extending their root systems. We can grow into connection, thus allowing ourselves to draw from a deeper pool of strength, accessing the courage and intelligence that we so greatly need right now. This … involves insights and practices that resonate with venerable spiritual traditions, while in alignment with revolutionary new understandings from science.”
So, it’s not that we don’t have a wellspring of caring and compassion within. We do. We all do. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that these minds, that we are constantly creating the world with moment by moment, are often deluded and not seeing things as they actually are. From not seeing cause and effect to not seeing the incredible interdependence of things to believing in a solid, separate self – we project this mistaken reality onto life and then live life as though it were real. We make decisions, individually and collectively, on that mistaken view.
The result of this delusion in the human heart and mind is widespread feelings of fear, isolation and disconnection from life. The result in the outer world is simply a manifestation of this collective deluded and fearful inner world. So I want to suggest that a very appropriate way to address global climate change is to look at the root issues of why we do what we do. Understand it, each of us, for ourselves.
If we can summon up the courage to look closely at our hearts and minds, and see for ourselves how we mistakenly create our own and others’ suffering, then not only will we begin to mitigate the causes and therefore the effects of global climate change but we will spontaneously open to that wellspring of caring and compassion that Joanna Macy spoke of. We will open to a level of energy and creativity that has not been known to us, although when we feel it we will know that it was already there. We’ll begin to get in touch with the depth of our natural love and compassion for all of life. And the mind’s natural radiance, that shines the light on the truth of suffering and its causes and on the truth of happiness and its causes, will dawn.
If there ever were a more perfect situation for dharma practice than global climate change, I don’t know what it would be.
It is actually a great situation to practice with because it is demanding us to engage in dharma practice and to see things as they are. It is screaming for us to do that. And if we do, we can turn this impending human tragedy into a vehicle for awakening of the human heart and mind. Because it is such an intense thing, the power of that intensity can be transformed into the power of awakening. It all starts by learning to be present to ourselves and what is present in the moment. It all starts with that and it all ends with that.
I want to close with a quote that speaks to the wonderful transformation that can happen from taking something that is difficult and having it be this jewel for awakening. This is a poem by Jennifer Welword called “Unconditional”.
Willing to experience aloneness, I discover connection everywhere.
Turning to face my fear, I meet my warrior within.
Opening to my loss, I gain the embrace of the universe.
Surrendering into emptiness, I find fullness without end.
Each condition I flee from pursues me.
Each condition I welcome transforms me and becomes itself transformed into its radiant, jewel-like essence.
I bow to the one who has made it so.
Who has crafted this master game.
To play it is true delight.
To honor its form, true devotion.
This transcription has been edited for readability as a Dharma article. Listen to the full talk from Dharma Seed:
The Dharma Of Global Climate Change
Chas DiCapua is currently the Insight Meditation Society’s Resident Teacher, and has offered meditation since 1998. He is interested in how each person can fully and uniquely manifest the dharma. He teaches regularly at sitting groups and centers close to IMS.
J Henry Fair’s photographs document a chilling array of environmental threats, including petroleum extraction in the Alberta Tar Sands, mountaintop removal coal mining, brown coal mining, hydraulic fracturing, fertilizer production, coal ash disposal, factory farming, and the Gulf oil spill. In some of his photographs, the destruction is unmistakable; in others, it’s transformed into abstract art, hauntingly beautiful and, on first glance, divorced from its context. His work brings the viewer face-to-face with the truth of the way things are on our planet.
In the interview below, we explore the visual koan of beauty, scale, and destruction represented by Fair’s work. What is the role of “looking” in waking up to the truth?
One Earth Sangha (1ES): Images in your Industrial Scars project seem to take the ugliness of environmental catastrophe and transform it into beauty. How do you think about the role of beauty in these images?
J Henry Fair (JHF): You know, the pictures only work because they’re beautiful. Beauty is something that stimulates a sympathetic, pleased response in the viewer. Only if these images stop people and make them pause from using their smartphones for one second, from that text that’s coming in, only then will they take the time to think about them, and the cognitive dissonance that’s created by seeing something which is horrible but compelling at the same.
1ES: So you’ve got to have the beauty to pull the person in and hold them there . . .
JHF: Sure—for them to even consider the message.
1ES: Right:“Wow! That’s beautiful! What is that?”
JHF: Exactly! And as soon as they say, “What is that?” I’ve got them. That’s exactly what I’m after: “Hey, what is that?” And then hopefully we can also stimulate the question, “Well, what’s my part in that?”
1ES: When we look at the deep interdependence of all of life, including the Earth, as one entity, then that’s part of who we are. So when we look at your images, we experience a wounding, not as something out there, but of our own larger self. Your work seems to illustrate this understanding for when we look at these images, it can hurt. And the fact that it hurts is proof that we’re deeply connected. Do you personally have any sense that you’re telling that story, that this is the wounding of our larger body?
JHF: Very much. I have started referring not to the environment—and I really don’t like this phrase, “Oh, we’re destroying the planet.” No, we’re destroying ourselves. This idea of humans being separate from nature is of course a ridiculous idea, and totally unworkable on any level.
1ES: One of the unique aspects of your images is how they convey the shocking scale of industrial wounding. In viewing a single image, we might get a felt sense of the harm we’re doing to the Earth, from the microscopic to the landscape level. How does scale factor into your images?
JHF: Well, that’s one of the reasons why the images are so effective, is trompe l’oeil, that they do play with our perception of space, which I do purposely of course by looking for abstract patterns, and then including one small detail to give the viewer a clue as to what’s happening there. So yes, I’m playing with those things—those senses of scale—purposefully. … I want to create something that is on the first glance abstract, but beautiful, using these Renaissance rules of perspective and light and dark to create an abstract piece that pleases the eye. But then I will include some little reference to reality that brings the viewer back to understanding that, no, this is real, this is happening . . . And also to give some inclination that something is amiss. So maybe it will be just a little barrel floating in this ocean of waste. Or maybe a tiny little bulldozer. Or pipes lying on what could be an abstract mountain range, and then suddenly you see this detritus of pipes.
1ES: Your Industrial Scars project shows us how human activities such as petroleum extraction in the Alberta Tar Sands, mountaintop removal coal mining, hydraulic fracking, and factory farming are harming the Earth. For many of us, these activities are occurring far away, out of sight. Buddhism as a practice invites us to look at things as they really are, with the full understanding that just doing that is a courageous practice. And that once we see how things are, then it falls to us to make the connection between insight and action. Does this perspective express something of what you’re after in your images? Are you looking for people to change their actions as a result of actually seeing what’s happening?
JHF: Yes, my long-range goal is to get people to change their actions. Because we know that the flap of the butterfly’s wing on one side of the planet causes a storm on the other. That smartphone that I decide not to buy saves the life of a lowland gorilla in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [where a metallic ore used to make cell phone capacitors is mined]. This chain exists. We can’t see this chain—our economy hides it from us—but this causal chain exists. It’s a fact: If you buy a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant, you’re supporting deforestation of the Amazon—and a whole bunch of other stuff—by virtue of the fact that that cow was raised by cutting down Amazon forests. But these are very long chains of causality, and we’re not trained to see them, and they’re certainly obscured from our view. So I try to make art which hints at those chains of causality.
These are very long chains of causality, we’re not trained to see them, and they’re certainly obscured from our view. So I try to make art which hints at those chains of causality.
1ES: As one looks at a chain of cause and effect, it compels a different kind of response. It sounds as if this connects with your long-term vision. What is your hope for your work?
JHF: That people viewing my work will first change their individual behavior—not buy that smartphone. I want them to change their individual behavior and do what’s right for them, for the planet, and mostly, for their children. I mean, that’s what we’re really talking about here, is what are we going to hand to the grandchildren? So I would first like for people to look at my work, consider their involvement, and become concerned, and therefore change their behavior . . . and then speak up and be very, very noisy about what they have learned. I figure we need 5%–7% of people who are radically sustainably-minded citizens, who spend every dollar as if their grandchildren depended on it. If we had 5% or 7%, I think we could really cause change. And everyone must find their own . . . I can’t say, “Buy this toilet paper,” even though I can tell you that if you buy one of the big-name toilet papers, I can show you the old-growth forests in Canada where it’s cut down, and I can tell you about the climate change that it produces. I can tell you about the habitat that was destroyed and the carbon that was released. But it doesn’t work if I say buy green toilet paper. People have to understand and realize that everything matters; every little thing matters.
1ES: So examining our individual choices, and then continuing to make this a larger and larger social conversation. . . . Yet many of us find it difficult not to turn away from the realities you photograph. How do you personally cultivate hope while facing these realities? Is beauty part of what nourishes you as an artist?
JHF: There is beauty. And humankind is a wondrous species, and so mysterious. The land that killed 6 million Jews is also the land that produced Bach, Mozart, and Einstein. It’s the same people. Miracles happen. You just basically can’t give up hope. Without hope, there is no light.
1ES: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we close?
JHF (laughing): Turn out the lights when you leave the room! Think about the consequences of everything you do. Before you buy that next smartphone, think about the consequences. And if you see any consequences, send me an email, and I’ll go photograph them!
View more of J Henry Fair’s work on his website.
There are two kinds of suffering: suffering that leads to more suffering, and suffering that leads to its end.
With the release yesterday of the National Climate Assessment, the Obama Administration is naming climate suffering. For U.S. citizens, the report clarifies that climate change is not just a problem for future generations or far away people; its effects are with us, here and now. It also shows that the choices we’re making now will indeed have great impact on our children and their children, near and far. How is it that we have and might continue to remain disconnected from these truths? And how can we respond from a place of wise discernment and great compassion?
Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, has studied and practiced Buddhist meditation under eminent teachers from India, Burma, and Tibet and has been leading insight and loving-kindness meditation retreats since 1974. In the article below, he reflects on the forces that keep us in denial about the climate crisis — and the awakening that can lead to change.
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.