Attending to Suffering

Why pay attention to climate change? Because it is happening. In this first of a four-part series of posts transcribed from a July 2013 talk “The Dharma of Climate Change,” Dharma teacher Chas DiCapua invites us to attend, as part of our practice, to what is present and causing suffering. You can listen to the full audio below, generously made available by Dharma Seed.

Image from the October 2013 coal slurry spill in Alberta, Canada.

Image from the October 2013 coal slurry spill in Alberta, Canada.

How many times have you heard yourself or another student ask, “Why should I pay attention to this?” and the teacher says, “Because it is what is happening.” This is common instruction. We bring awareness of what is happening because it is presenting in our life at that moment.

There is one thing that is happening now that is not unique to any one of us. It is and will be impacting each of us for a long time. This thing is global climate change.

The reason to be aware of climate change is, on a certain level, the same reason you want to be aware of a pain in your knee. Why? Because it is happening. In order to have a correct or helpful relationship with what is happening it is good to get to know it, learn about it, connect with it, and consider what our relationship to it might be. We do that with everything – a thought, the sound of a cricket, a pain in our body. And so, because it’s happening, the practice tells us it would be good to pay attention to global climate change as well.

Paying attention to climate change can be difficult. Even as you read this, you might want to keep checking in with your bodies – perhaps notice any reactivity you might have. Now, this is not going to be a gloom and doom discussion, so you don’t have to worry about that. But it would be good to stay connected and feel your way into the question, “How am I relating to this?”

I am not going to go in to a lot of statistics, like how many feet sea level is going to rise, or how many degrees Celsius the average temperature is going to go up, or by what date will there be no ice in the arctic. That information is out there. It is available and easy to find. This is more about beginning to grapple with this situation that is impacting us now and will continue to effect us at a greater and greater level far into the future. This is going to keep going so it’s very important to consciously turn towards what is occurring.

Smoke and Mirrors

There is an interesting study in which the study subjects were put into a room and told to fill out a form. The subjects were lead to believe that filling out this form was the purpose of the study. In the room where the participants were working was an air vent. The conductors of the study, after the participants began filling out their forms, pumped smoke into the air vent. When that happened the people would see the smoke, leave the room, and go to the researchers and say “There is something wrong in that room! Smoke coming out of the vent!” This was a very natural and appropriate response.

The researchers conducted the study again, with different participants, only this time alongside the five subjects was one “plant” (who appeared to be a survey participant, but was actually “in” on the study). When the researchers pumped smoke into the room this time the plant pretended not to notice it. This person just kept filling out their form as though nothing was wrong. The study was conducted many times and each time the people who were participating in the survey displayed the very same behavior: they would look at the person who wasn’t reacting to the smoke and then they too would turn back to their work and continue to fill out their forms. The survey subjects did not get up and leave the room or respond in any way to the smoke until much, much later.

The impact of that person carrying on with business as usual was strong. In the face of one person disregarding the smoke, the natural inclination of the other participants to respond to danger went out the window.

I tell this story because this is where we are with climate change. The smoke is coming through the vents. It is very clear. But there are strong forces, which I will talk about, that are carrying on with business as usual and we all get caught up in it. We get frozen. There is no national dialogue. We are like those people who say, “Oh, someone is not reacting to this. I guess I don’t need to react, either.” For this reason alone it is helpful to consciously turn towards and start to talk about climate change. So that we break the freeze.

No Escape

For us as Dharma practitioners the purpose of this talk is to show how the teachings can shed light on the forces that have led us to this point as well as what an appropriate response might be. To be clear, climate change is not a political issue. I am not talking politically, from one side or another. Of course, climate change is discussed in politics, but what I am addressing is the truth of what is happening right now, what is going to happen in the near future, and what will be happening in fifty to a hundred years from now.

The biosphere – that layer of life on the earth that begins a few inches down in the soil and rises up through the atmosphere to where birds and insects live – is very thin. And right now, it is rapidly changing – faster than it ever has in history. The species that live in this biosphere, and in turn make up part of it are suffering, are dying off. We are currently in the midst of the largest species die-off, or mass extinction, since the passing of the dinosaurs some 60 million years ago.

People are suffering and they will continue to suffer at an exponentially increasing rate as time goes on. This is not a political issue, this is a moral issue. It transcends political, cultural, and religious boundaries because it is happening to the whole planet.

Now I just want to say even though all people are impacted, and will be increasingly impacted by climate change over time, not everyone will be impacted in the same way. Unfortunately, as with other factors such as political and economic turmoil, people who are the most advantaged are buffered against harm. The people with the least advantage bear the brunt of the destruction. It is this way with many things and it will be this way, at least to some degree, with increasing climate change.

So the people who are disenfranchised are going to bear the brunt of the suffering, but everyone will be impacted. Because even the people who might be quite buffered from the effects of climate change will experience something. Part of the way that people with advantage experience climate change will depend on how they work with that gap between themselves and disenfranchised people. If they don’t bridge that gap in some way but instead just stay in the white castle they may not, for some time, be impacted on the physical level. But to do that, to cut themselves off in this way, will have an impact.

The analogy that comes to me is what happened when the Titanic sank. The people who were in first class had life boats, and the people in second and third class did not. So there the people from first class were in their life boats while the ship was sinking and the people from second and third class were drowning. Yes, they were safe and dry in their boats. But they had to live with the knowledge that they didn’t row back. They didn’t bridge that gap.

So everyone is going to be impacted. Everyone is going to have to deal with climate change in one way or another. For some the effects may be more physical. Other people might be dealing with it more on the level of the heart and the mind. But it is a part of everyone’s reality from here on out.

The Dharma of Climate Change

So, that is about as grim as this series of posts is going to get! What I am going to explore, in the next three installments of this series, are these two questions:

  1. How do the teachings of the Dharma shed light on the causes of global climate change.
  2. How can we respond to such a huge issue, and what might an appropriate response be.

In part 2, “How Did We Come to This?”, Chas explores the roots of global climate change.

This transcription has been edited for readability as a Dharma article. Stay tuned for the third of four posts transcribing Chas’s talk. If you prefer, listen to the full talk here on DharmaSeed:
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.

The Green Sangha in in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, US. is honoring Arbor Day with a gathering of earth stewards to plant native trees.

A Calling for Our Time: Feedback on Teachers’ Statement

The Earth, #1

Image used by permission from Markus Reugels, LiquidArt

A group of over 30 Dharma teachers from around the globe have been working since June on a statement that clarifies the relationship between the Dharma and climate disruption and the responsibility Buddhists have to meaningfully engage in the issue.

[UPDATE Jan. 8th, 2014] The statement below is an initial draft, published here to solicit feedback from the community. A new statement, incorporating feedback from teachers and sangha members, is now available and Dharma teachers are seeking your signature.

The group has also  described 16 core Dharma principles that apply to climate disruption.The collaborative is seeking questions and feedback from you, as the members of One Earth Sangha, and other Dharma practitioners on both the statement and principles.

You can give your feedback on the statement publicly using the comment form below.  The 16 Core Dharma Principles is offered in a separate post where you can also comment. We invite you to carefully read this statement and, as a practice in mindfulness, notice what arises with in you.  In particular, you might respond to these two questions:

  1. Given that you’ve come to this website, we imagine that you are already interested and perhaps active in the response to climate change. How does the statement resonate personally with you?
  2. Now look out to your local sangha and help us imagine how they might respond. Do you expect that this statement would resonate with members of that sangha, especially those who are not engaged or active on climate issues? If so, why? If not, why not?

As an act of generosity for the community and the cause, we invite you to share your responses with the working group and the rest of our sangha using the comment form below.  We as the coordinators of One Earth Sangha will be participating in the conversation with our own perspectives. As always, we invite you to fully speak your truth and exercise wise-speech. If you prefer to email the teachers directly, send your message to Thanissara Weinberg and Bob Doppelt.

Dharma Teachers Collaborative Statement About Climate Disruption

The Problem

Today we face an unprecedented crisis of almost unimaginable magnitude. Escalating climate change is altering our global environment so drastically as to force the Earth into a new geological age. If we continue on this trajectory without making fundamental changes, in mere decades we are almost certain to trigger planetary disasters. Ultimately, we may undermine the pillars of human civilization.

When we openly accept the fact that we are jeopardizing the Earth’s life support systems, we may experience a profound shock. Our own reaction unites us with family, friends, and many others who may share our distress. The need to negotiate these feelings, within ourselves as well as with others, is an increasingly common experience. It is because of the enormity of this crisis that we must draw together to find the most skillful ways to respond, both privately and in the larger sphere of social and political discourse.

Origin of the Problem

Climate scientists are nearly unanimous, with 95% or greater certainty, that climate disruption is the direct result of human activity. As we burn fossil fuels, clear forests, and rely on industrial systems of agriculture for our food, we spew ever more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, trapping heat and warming the planet. As global temperature rise, many fertile regions will lose their fecundity. Food and water scarcities will spread, resource wars will become commonplace, and states may collapse. Subtle feedback loops, as yet unknown, may accelerate this process faster than we expect.

But climate change is more than a mere byproduct of unbridled economic activity. From a deeper perspective it can be seen as a collective manifestation of ignorance, craving, and delusion, as the outcome of flawed assumptions that operate both at systemic and personal levels. Our market economy revolves around the twin goals of profit making and consumption, even at the expense of a stable planet. The fossil fuel corporations try to convince us we can continue to burn oil, gas, and coal forever, without damaging the natural systems that life depends on.  The media sustain this illusion with distortion and disinformation. We ourselves buy the lies with our complacency, believing we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, without having to face the consequences. Climate disruption clearly shows just how delusional those beliefs are.

Looking for a Solution

The perilous course on which we have embarked should demonstrate to us the need to envision new directions for our collective future. We must recognize the finite sustaining capacity of the Earth and the fragility of the web of life in which our own lives are enmeshed. We must replace our obsession with exponential growth and profit at any cost with a future of sustainable development: a world powered by clean energy, where poverty is eradicated, where population growth has been stabilized, and where natural systems— oceans, forests, soil, etc.—have been restored.

We must acknowledge, too, our moral responsibility to all people across the planet and to generations yet to come. By widening our focus to encompass the happiness and wellbeing of all and the preservation of the natural environment, we can minimize the suffering we are creating for the Earth and her species, other people, and ourselves. We also have a special responsibility to the most vulnerable and marginalized among us, who have contributed least to climate disruption but will suffer the most, at least initially.

A Path Toward The Solution

We already have the know-how, skills, and tools needed to reduce carbon emissions to manageable levels and eventually re-stabilize the Earth’s climate and natural systems. But action and not merely belief is necessary. Recognizing the impending crisis we are facing should move us to take personal responsibility for helping forge a solution.

The kind of action required is threefold: personal, communal, and systemic.

  • First, we must each live with greater mindfulness and moral integrity, which entails curbing our desires for material acquisitions, being frugal in our consumption of resources, and paying more attention to our use of energy.
  • Second, we must engage our friends, neighbors, and communities in honest and peaceful dialogue, to ensure they understand the gravity of our situation and are willing to join us in action.
  • And third, we must be ready to act at the systemic level, by seeking more sustainable alternatives to the deep structures—social, political, and economic—responsible for  climate change.

Each of these modes of engagement is critical. Individual effort enables us to contribute directly to protecting the planet, to live up to our personal ideals and serve as a model for others. Initiating conversations with friends and communities mobilizes people to engage in local action, the seed from which wider transformations can ripple out. And systemic change is needed to actually and effectively reduce carbon emissions.

Some types of systemic change will be technological: rapidly replacing our reliance on dirty fossil fuels with clean, renewable sources of energy; shifting from industrial-scale agriculture to small-scale ecologically sustainable agriculture. Some changes will be ideological: replacing a scheme of values that exalts private profit, competition, material consumption, and individualism, with a scheme that extols human relationships, cooperation, and spiritual self-cultivation. And some changes will be structural. Above all we must replace profligate political, social, and economic systems with new paradigms more conducive to human flourishing and to harmony between humanity and the earth.

These new paradigms and systems should acknowledge that humans are part of the earth, which is not just our home, but our mother. We can no longer pursue luxury and convenience at the cost of the biosphere. We must develop ways of living together that cherish the other living beings that, together with us, compose the earth’s ecosystems. In this we should not be afraid to engage politically, thinking we will thereby be “tainting” our spiritual practice. If change is going to occur at all, we have to stand up against the powerful vested interests that infiltrate the halls of power; we have to put pressure on our elected representatives to follow the call of moral integrity and the trail of science, not the call of the fossil fuel corporations and the trail of dogma.

As we each awaken to our responsibility to preserve the planet, we may feel awed by the immensity of the challenge. We should take heart, however, and know that on numerous past occasions people committed to human decency have, by concerted effort, overcome even the most entrenched systems of oppression. Never before has the need for concerted effort been so urgent as it is today. To engage skillfully, it is imperative that we join hearts and hands to support each other and all those seeking more sustainable models of human life. We’re facing what might well be the biggest wake up call in all human history and thus we must bring all our resources of creativity and compassion, of love and intelligence, to bear on our response.

At this moment of great crisis the Earth herself—along with her myriad innocent species—calls each of us to be her protectors. To effectively respond to this call to action, we already have the guidance we need in the principles laid down in the Buddha’s teachings. What we need is clear minded courage: courage to recognize the truth of our situation, courage to speak up and convey the truth to others, and courage to promote changes in the larger structures that govern our lives. When we come together to celebrate our love for the natural world and the beings that inhabit it, when we speak the truth about climate change, when we take a stand to counter the forces that threaten our climate, we reclaim our own inner stability and strength and live closer to the truth, closer to the Dharma. We must seize the opportunity before us, for our own sakes, for countless others across the globe, and for future generations, putting our differences behind us and working in harmony to create a sustainable future. Together, we can ensure our descendants and fellow species will inherit a viable planet. Individually and collectively, we will be honoring the great legacy left by the Buddha and fulfilling our heart’s deepest wish to serve and protect all life.

16 Core Dharma Principles to Address Ecological Crises

Gothic Wood - Used with permission from Dharma practitioner Steve Solinsky

Gothic Wood – Used with permission from Dharma practitioner Steve Solinsky

In June of 2013 Dharma Teachers Climate Collaborative, a global working group of leading Vipassana teachers developed the sixteen principles below as a companion to the The Earth as Witness:International Dharma Teachers’ Statement on Climate Change. This list was made available for and incorporated feedback from the One Earth Sangha community.

The following Dharma principles directly apply to the issue of climate disruption:

  1. Reverence for life: From this point forward climate disruption is the overriding context for all life on earth, including humans. What we humans do will determine what life survives and thrives and in what form and locations.
  2. Happiness stems from helping others:  Our greatest personal happiness comes when we give of ourselves and help others. For example, many people instinctually help our neighbors after a natural disaster, which indicates that altruism and the desire to help others is built unto our genes. We must grow and apply this to the marginalized among us that are at least initially hit hardest by climate disruption. This is the very opposite of the greed and self-centeredness that dominates today.
  3. We suffer when we cling: The very nature of happiness is dependent on our capacity to give up our attachments and help others. This same principle must now be elevated and applied to public policies of all types.
  4. The ethical imperative: All beings matter. We should act in ways that are beneficial for both self and others, acting out of a commitment to altruism and compassion for others.
  5. Interconnection and interdependence: We must dissolve objectification of other people and nature and overcome the belief in a separate self that leads us to through a sense of kinship. Even as we let go of the delusion of an individual self that is separate from other people, we must let go of the delusion that humanity is separate from the rest of the biosphere. Our interdependence with the earth means that we cannot pursue our own well-being at the cost of its well-being. When the earth’s ecosystems become sick, so do our bodies and our societies.
  6. Renunciation, simplicity: To resolve climate disruption we must be willing to renounce attachments to things to contribute to the problem and live more simply.
  7. The relationship between the First and Second Noble Truth and capacity to learn to work with difficult states: Understanding the suffering we have created symbolized by climate disruption and how it came about and that we can learn not to identify with it and instead work through distressing states such as fear, despair, etc.
  8. Opening to suffering as a vehicle for awakening: The suffering caused by climate disruption provides an unprecedented opportunity for humans to learn from our individual and collective mistakes and manifest a great awakening. It is a special opportunity like never before. We can find ways to be happy—we can “tend and befriend” rather than fight (among ourselves), flee, or freeze. We can acknowledge that this is the way things are now, open to the suffering rather than becoming attached, and think and act in new ways.
  9. The interconnectedness of inner and outer, the individual and the collective (or institutional):  Climate disruption provides an unprecedented opportunity to understand the roots of the problem—which relate to the ways our minds work and how those patterns become embedded in collective and collective/ institutional practices and policies. This awareness can open the door to new ways of thinking and responding that will eventually produce different institutional practices and policies.
  10. Connection to diversity and justice issues. The Dharma principles and narratives must also apply to issues or diversity and social inclusion and justice. The beliefs in separateness etc that has produced the climate crisis also leads to social inequity and exclusion. People of color and other marginalized groups must be included.
  11. Buddhism as a social change agent: The principles of Buddhism help us engage with life, not remove ourselves from it. The Buddha was actively engaged with his social and cultural contexts and for Buddhism to have relevance today it must help people understand how to engage in today’s political and social contexts.
  12. Adhitthana or determination: We are called to develop resolve, determination, and heroic effort now. We must have the courage to realize that we are being called to engage in this issue and that living the Dharma will see us through the hard times.
  13. This precious human birth is an opportunity: We must always remember that it is a rare and precious thing to be born as a human and we have been given a rare opportunity to act as stewards because humans are not only the source of destruction—we are also the source of great goodness.
  14. Love is the greatest motivator: Our deepest and most powerful action comes out of love: of this earth, of each other. The more people can connect with and feel love for the Earth, the greater the likelihood that their hearts will be moved to help prevent harm. Children should therefore be a top priority. Need to help people realize what they love about life and what will be lost as climate disruption increases.
  15. The sangha—and other forms of social support–are essential: The reality of climate disruption is a profound shock to many people and the only way to minimize or prevent fight, flight, freeze responses is to be supported by and work with others so people will not feel alone, can overcome despair, and develop solutions together. We need to go through this journey together, sharing our difficult reactions and positive experiences in groups and communities.
  16. The Bodhisattva: The figure of the Bodhisattva which is a unifying image of someone who is dedicated to cultivating the inner depths and to helping others, is an inspiring figure for our times.

What Followers of the Dharma Can Do In Body, Speech and Mind

To effectively respond to this call to action, followers of the Dharma can hold a vision of a world that is not moving towards destruction, a world that is sustainable, a world that is powered by clean energy, no longer burning fossil fuels, a world where poverty is eradicated, population growth is stabilized and natural systems – oceans, forests, soil, etc. – are restored. We can speak about our love for the natural world, children and animals, and how solving the problem of climate change is essential for their future. When there is talk of unusual weather, storms, droughts, floods, fires, increased food insecurity, spread of hunger, water shortages, spread of tropical diseases, and so on, we can point out that climate change is the primary cause.

We can inform ourselves by reading a few key articles like Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math by Bill McKibben or Our Society Is Living a Massive Lie About the Threat of Climate Change — It’s Time to Wake Up by Margaret Klein or by watching the “Do the Math” movie.  We can also get together with friends to read and discuss landmark books like Eaarthby Bill McKibben and World on the Edge by Lester Brown. We can connect with a group like that is consistently telling the truth about climate change and organizing events that move our social and political systems towards solutions and participate in those events. When we come together to celebrate our love for the natural world and the beings that inhabit it, speak the truth about climate change, and take a stand to turn the forces that threaten our climate, we reclaim our own inner stability and strength and live closer to the truth and therefore closer to the Dharma.

Holding Space: Reflecting on the First Earth Care Week


Meditation is about awareness of what is going on – not only within oneself, but all around you. Care for yourself first, then you can care for others. You have to learn how to help others while still practicing mindful breathing … Dwelling in the present moment is the only way to truly develop peace and transform our suffering, both in oneself and in the world.

– Thích Nhất Hạnh

Today is the last day of the first Earth Care Week, an event our community will recognize the first week of each October. We at One Earth Sangha have been delighted by the response. Emails to gro.a1594570225hgnas1594570225htrae15945702251@tce1594570225nnoc1594570225 kept us updating our schedule of events well into the week itself .  As a community, we can notice, appreciate, absorb and allow ourselves to be moved by this experience.  We can reflect together on what emerged and explore the implications for our practice and for wise and compassionate action.  We at One Earth Sangha, still so new and eager to learn, are excited about hosting this ongoing community conversation about what it means to express a Buddhist response to climate change.

Our list of events (likely incomplete!), included a diverse set of offerings across the US, Canada and the UK of dharma talks, day-longs, film screenings, children’s programming, nature walks, sustainability projects, peaceful demonstrations and direct care for natural environments.   Now as the week concludes, we invite everyone to take this moment to breathe in all that we experience.

Perhaps we opened up to sincere gratitude for the miracle of each life, including our very own, and the grand symphony of the biosphere.  We may have allowed ourselves to experience then the pain we feel for a world so imperiled by our collective actions. Our hearts may have broken or our anger flared at the injustice of climate change with the very real costs to those least responsible.  Some of the testimonials we’ve heard so far bear witness to the reality that climate change, the enormity and the gravity of the situation at hand, can be overwhelming.  At the same time, we may have noticed some new possibilities and learned more about humanity growing awareness and creativity kicking in, as Bill McKibben says, like an immune response just as the planet’s fever rises.  We might experience a re-connection to life in which caring directly for life changes us.  And, in contrast to the messages we receive about our powerlessness, we might hear the stories of the early abolitionists, Indian independence, civil rights or farm worker movements that reveal the possibilities of what we can do together.

As the initiatives of this week continue to unfold, and as the work we have done together continues to sink deeper, we can be encouraged and emboldened by essential dharma: we are all connected; our love, our attention, our actions, these truly matter. One way we can see ourselves in a larger, interconnected framework is to set the actions of our sanghas during Earth Care Week into the context of a larger, inter-faith movement underway. Interfaith Power and Light, Green Faith, and Interfaith Moral Action on Climate are examples of the way in which people of all walks of life are recognizing the moral and spiritual dimensions of our current environmental crisis. Truly this is a moment to rejoice in the larger response, take heart in the power of attentive presence, and experience, with great appreciation, our love for this precious jewel we call home.

Each pearl contains the reflection of every other pearl. Each pearl is contained within every other pearl. If you touch the net anywhere, it is felt everywhere.

– Bernie Glassman

Core to the mission of One Earth Sangha is to engage in conversation about how to work skillfully with our present situation.  We want to hear from you.  Even if your sangha didn’t explicitly observe Earth Care Week, please share with us your experiences in connecting with loving presence to the truth of climate change and, perhaps share your ideas for how we all might respond with wisdom and compassion.  What was hard, what was easy, what surprised you, what seems newly possible?

Please feel encouraged to share using the comment box below.  Let the dialogue be an occasion for mindfulness, welcoming with loving presence all that arises.  As always, we practice the path of wise speech, consistently respectful and truly welcoming of diverse opinions.