Care for the environment: Buddhist response to climate change

Vesak 2008

Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his speech at the Vesak celebration in 2006 described “The challenge to the Sangha in the 21st century”. He said: “I think of the reckless ways in which we are degrading our environment — our air, our water, our soil, our food – without any concern for future generations. In my view, it is a task for the Sangha to serve as the voice of Buddhist conscience in the world.”

Partly in response to this call by Bhikkhu Bodhi, the 2008 celebration of Vesak, held for the first time in Vietnam, will ~ also for the first time – host a workshop called “Care for Our Environment: the Buddhist response to Climate Change”. Our Vietnamese hosts and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh are to be congratulated for this very important initiative.

The papers in this volume bring together the presentations that will be made at this workshop. Several scientists, Buddhist practitioners and Buddhist scholars reflect on the reality and importance of human-induced climate and environmental change, and show how and why Buddhists can respond and contribute to the solution and adaptations that will be needed.

Human-induced climate and environmental change are two great threats to the future well-being of humanity. They are also immensely important issues for non-human species and ecosystems. For several centuries, human activity has been altering the chemical composition of the global atmosphere, particularly through the emission of carbon dioxide and methane. These gases, together with some others, are called “greenhouse” gases. They exist at increasing concentrations in the atmosphere. Unlike many other forms of pollution, they are mainly invisible and odourless once mixed into the atmosphere. Humans are also altering the landscape, clearing forests, growing crops and raising livestock. These activities affect the global climate and alter the habitat for many species.

Until recently, these changes have accumulated very slowly through the activities of many previous human generations. However, their rate of increase is quickening. Although the worst effects on human well-being from climate and ecosystem change are still in the future, the slow rate of accumulation and the difficulty of removing these gases mean that humankind has to act urgently and on a massive scale if the worst changes are to be avoided. This is a very big challenge. It cannot be left to any one group. All of humanity will have to be involved.
The current glaciers and polar ice will melt further as the world continues to warm. This is likely to substantially elevate sea level in many parts of the world, including Vietnam and Bangladesh in Asia. Agricultural productivity will also be affected, endangering regional and global food security. The distribution of such diseases as malaria and dengue fever is likely to alter. Some nations will need to spend huge resources to protect coastal infrastructure against a combination of rising seas and stronger storms. Warmer and more hospitable environments are likely to emerge at high latitudes. These will drive increased migration. This migratory pressure may itself prove problematic. In short, climate and adverse environmental change are likely to substantially alter the global physical and human geography in this and the coming centuries. A great deal of co-operation, compassion and hard work is required to avoid profoundly harmful effects upon human well-being.

Modern science, technology and communication are the tools which can make successful adaptation possible. But human values and ethics — including those taught by the Buddha — are needed if we are to use those tools in ways which can successfully meet these challenges.

In his article, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh proposes that we want to offer the best kind of thought, speech and physical action to the world as a beautiful continuation of ourselves. He reminds us that we are our environment and encourages us to transcend the duality between our five skandhas and our environment, and that we should therefore take care of our environment. He says we help create our social and natural environment and argues that genes need the environment to be turned on. Therefore we should assure that we are in a good environment and that we help improve the quality of our environment. The Zen Master explains the practice of appropriate attention that waters good seeds in our consciousness. He states that the current difficult situation has been created by unmindful production and consumption. He reminds us that our way of eating and producing food can be very violent and that the reduction of our meat consumption can help to change the situation of our planet. Concerning the teachings of impermanence he explains that we have to accept the death of our civilization if we are not wise in our actions. He warns that we should not become victims of despair and fear, but touch the truth of impermanence and find peace and therefore hope. Then we can make use of the available technology to save our planet. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says that we have the power to decide the destiny of our planet, and that only with a collective awakening can a future be possible.

Venerable Thich Gia Quang describes the problems environmental pollution is causing. He states that although poor people constitute 80% of the world’s population, they consume merely 20% of natural resources and energy. He poses the question of how we are going to harmoniously find the right balance between economic development and environmental preservation. Buddhism can help to offer solutions by guiding human beings to do good deeds and lead a harmonious life with one’s surroundings, he states. He opts for applying the Eightfold Noble Path as a remedy for worldwide problems. Lastly, he describes the efforts of the Vietnamese government for environmental healthcare.

Venerable Thich Dat Dao and Prof. Dr. Mai Tran Ngoc Tieng focus specifically on the effects of environmental destruction and global warming on the population, economy and the environment of Vietnam. Furthermore they elucidate what Buddhism can contribute to solving environmental problems and point out the positive effects of compassion, tolerance and the insight into inter-relatedness. The authors propose that every Buddhist should help by keeping the environment clean, living simply, managing population growth and not creating any conflict with neighboring countries. They propose that Buddhist education programs should be developed with basic courses in ecological science to increase the awareness of protecting lives on earth.

Johan af Klint and Jan Wihlborg remind us of the Buddhist teaching on impermanence and change. They argue that in Buddhism there is a close link between the moral status of humans and the natural resources available to them. They call for eliminating the “three poisons” greed, hatred and delusion by means of “Learning to do good, ceasing to do evil and purifying the mind”.

Dr. Manpreet Singh points out that consumerism and climate change are closely related. He notes that the implications of ecology, as of Buddhism, can be perceived .as subversive in a materialistic, consumerist world. He states that among scholars today there is an increased interest in Buddhist philosophy and principles – of compassion, simplicity, generosity, contentment and the pervading interconnectedness of nature and living things – to address the ecological challenges in the light of climate change.

Jeff Waistell asks “What is nature teaching us?” His paper uses haiku to explore the merging of self and nature. He calls for a more direct encounter with nature and enhanced mindful awareness, simplicity, frugality, love and appreciation of our world. Most importantly, he implores us to wake up from our “sleep-walk towards destruction”.

Dr. Tran Tien Khanh, Dr. Tran Tien Huyen, and Nguyen Khoa Dieu Le point out that global warming is basically caused by the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance. According to the authors, global warming can also be studied by applying basic Buddhist teachings: the Middle Way, the Eightfold Noble Path, and the principle of Dependent Origination. The Tue Quang Foundation has helped to mount legal challenges to stop the building of more coal-fired power plants in the USA. Programs have been promoted to grow environment-friendly plants in Vietnam, like Moringa for fighting malnutrition and Jatropha for producing biodiesel. Also free weather forecasts have been provided for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos
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Scott Schang writes that the core cause of climate change is that we are living unsustainably. He shows the relationship between precepts and laws. In examining the roles of communities and individuals, he states that for climate change legislation to work, all levels of society must be involved. He draws a parallel between the process of creating laws to address climate change and the Buddhist approach to address suffering. For laws to be accepted, the perceived benefits must outweigh the costs. He explains the central role of mindfulness and watering positive seeds in the collective consciousness in order to approach climate change law as a community, and the important role of deep listening and compassionate dialogue in this process.

Bhikshu True Dharma Sound (Bernd Ziegler) describes spiritual practices that can be used in the face of the crisis of global warming. These include practicing with fears of our death as an individual and as a civilization. He explains projects that have been implemented at Deer Park Monastery, USA to counteract global warming. Finally he explores the effects of eating less meat or enjoying a vegetarian diet on land degradation, climate change and water pollution.

These papers lead us to a greatly increased understanding and awareness of climate and other forms of adverse environmental change not only in the Buddhist world, but globally. Practicing the Buddhist principles of mindful consumption and a Middle Way which shuns profligate waste and over-consumption, must become a main priority in all countries in which Buddhism is dominant, well-established or embryonic. Finally, Buddhism stresses non-violence and the value of all sentient beings. If humanity is to save itself, the insight of interbeing, the interrelatedness with all beings, will be needed so that we can recognize that other species and ecosystems, no matter how humble or magnificent, also warrant an enduring place. Humans have for millennia modified nature. But the scale and reach of such changes has never been as great as the past several decades. A sustainable, civilization requires a balance between our own well-being and that of nth requires recognition that of other species. It also requires recognition that our demands upon the Earth cannot limitless. And it asks for the further development of wisdom and compassion in individuals, families, nations and international institutions, so our actions can be appropriate and skilful.