Can Buddhism Meet the Climate Crisis? Part 1 of 2, by David Loy

The challenge that confronts us is spiritual because it goes to the very heart of how we understand the world, including our place and role in this world. Is the eco-crisis the earth’s way of telling us to “wake up or suffer the consequences”?

It is no exaggeration to say that today humanity faces its greatest challenge ever: in addition to burgeoning social crises, a self-inflicted ecological catastrophe threatens civilization as we know it and (according to some scientists) perhaps even our survival as a species. I hesitate to describe this as an apocalypse because that term is now associated with Christian millenarianism, but its original meaning certainly applies: literally an apocalypse is “an uncovering,” the disclosure of something hidden—in this case revealing the ominous consequences of what we have been doing to the earth and to ourselves.

Climate issues are receiving the most attention and arguably are the most urgent, but they are nonetheless only part of a larger ecological crisis that will not be resolved even if we successfully convert to renewable sources of energy quickly enough to avoid lethal temperature increases and the other climate disruptions that will cause.

The climate crisis is part of a much larger challenge that includes overfishing, plastic pollution, hypertrophication, topsoil exhaustion, species extinction, freshwater depletion, hormone-disrupting persistent organic pollutants (POPs), nuclear waste, overpopulation, and (add your own “favorite” here…), among numerous other ecological and social problems that could be mentioned. Most if not all of these disorders are connected to a questionable mechanistic worldview that freely exploits the natural world because it attributes no inherent value to nature—or to us, for that matter, since humans too are nothing more than complex machines, according to the predominant materialistic understanding. This larger view implies that we have something more than a technological problem, or an economic problem, or a political problem, or a worldview problem. Modern civilization is self-destructing because it has lost its way. There is another way to characterize that: humanity is experiencing a collective spiritual crisis.

The challenge that confronts us is spiritual because it goes to the very heart of how we understand the world, including our place and role in this world. Is the eco-crisis the earth’s way of telling us to “wake up or suffer the consequences”?

If so, we cannot expect that what we seek can be provided by a technological solution, or an economic solution, or a political solution, or a new scientific worldview, either by themselves or in concert with the others. Whatever the way forward may be, it will need to incorporate those contributions, to be sure, but something more is called for.

This is where Buddhism has something important to offer. Yet the ecological crisis is also a crisis for how we understand and practice Buddhism, which today needs to clarify its essential message if it is to fulfill its liberative potential in our modern, secular, endangered world.

Just as climate change is only part of a much larger ecological crisis, so ecodharma is a small part of socially engaged Buddhism, and indifference or resistance to ecodharma is part of a larger problem with socially engaged Buddhism in the US. In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008 the two largest engaged Buddhist organizations, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Zen Peacemakers, almost collapsed due to severely reduced financial support, and since then they have struggled on—often quite effectively, I’m pleased to add—in much reduced circumstances. Noticeably, however, some other Buddhist institutions are thriving financially. In the last few years, for example, Spirit Rock in Northern California successfully fundraised for a multimillion-dollar expansion program. Noticing this difference is by no means a criticism of that accomplishment, yet the contrast in public support is striking. Serious money is available for some high-profile meditation centers, where individuals can go on retreat, but apparently not for organizations that seek to promote the social and ecological implications of Buddhist teachings.

This doesn’t mean that socially engaged Buddhism has failed. In some ways it may be a victim of its own success, in that some forms of service—prison work, hospice care, homeless kitchens, and so on—are now widely acknowledged as a part, sometimes even an important part, of the Buddhist path. Note that this is usually individuals helping other individuals. My perception is that over the last generation Buddhists have become much better at pulling drowning people out of the river, but—and here’s the problem—we aren’t much better at asking why there are so many more people drowning. Prison dharma groups help individual inmates who are sometimes very eager to learn about Buddhism, but do nothing to address the structural problems with our criminal justice system, including racial disparities and overcrowding. In 2014 the number of homeless children in the US attending school set a new record: about 1.36 million, almost double the number in 2006–2007. Why does by far the wealthiest country in human history have so many homeless schoolchildren and by far the world’s largest prison population?

Buddhists are better at pulling individual people out of the river because that is what Buddhism traditionally emphasizes. We are taught to let go of our preconceptions in order to experience more immediately what’s happening right here and now; when we encounter a homeless person who is suffering, for example, we should respond compassionately. But how do we respond compassionately to a social system that is creating more homeless people? Analyzing institutions and evaluating policies involves conceptualizing in ways that traditional Buddhist practices do not encourage.

A similar disparity applies to the ways that Buddhists have responded to the climate crisis and other ecological issues. My guess is that most people reading this have so far been little impacted personally by global warming, except perhaps for slightly larger air-conditioning bills. We have not personally observed disappearing ice in the Arctic or melting permafrost in the tundra, nor have we become climate refugees because rising sea levels are flooding our homes. For the most part, the consequences are being felt elsewhere, by others less fortunate. Traditional Buddhism focuses on individual dukkha due to one’s individual karma and craving. Collective karma and institutional causes of dukkha are more difficult to address, both doctrinally and politically.

I’m reminded of a well-known comment by the Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Is there a Buddhist version? Perhaps this: “When Buddhists help homeless people and prison inmates, they are called bodhisattvas. But when Buddhists ask why there are so many more homeless, so many people of color stuck in prison, other Buddhists call them leftists or radicals, saying that such social action has nothing to do with Buddhism.”

Perhaps the individual service equivalent that applies to the climate emergency is personal lifestyle changes, such as buying hybrid or electric cars, installing solar panels, vegetarianism, eating locally grown food, and so on. Such “green consumption” is important, of course, yet individual transformation by itself will never be enough.

Imagine Buddhism as an iceberg where all types of social engagement, including ecodharma, form the tip at the top. Beneath them, but still above sea level, is something much bigger and still growing: the mindfulness movement, which has been incredibly successful over the last few years. Within the Buddhist world, however, it has also become increasingly controversial. Here I will not delve into that debate except to note that although mindfulness practices can be very beneficial, they can also discourage critical reflection on the institutional causes of collective suffering, what might be called social dukkha.

Bhikkhu Bodhi has warned about the appropriation of Buddhist teachings, and his words apply even more to the commodification of the mindfulness movement, insofar as that movement has divested itself of the ethical context that Buddhism traditionally provides: “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” In other words, Buddhist mindfulness practices can be employed to normalize our obsession with ever-increasing production and consumption. In both cases the focus on personal transformation can turn our attention away from the importance of social transformation.

The contrast between the extraordinary impact of the mindfulness movement and the much smaller influence of socially engaged Buddhism is striking. Why has the one been so successful, while the other limps along? That discrepancy may be changing somewhat: an increasing number of mindfulness teachers are concerned to incorporate social justice issues, and the election of Donald Trump has motivated many Buddhists to become more engaged. Nonetheless, the usual focus of Buddhist practice resonates well with the usual appeal of mindfulness, and both of them accord well with the basic individualism of US society—“What’s in it for me?” But are there other factors that encourage this disparity between mindfulness and social engagement? Is there something else integral to the Buddhist traditions that can help us understand the apparent indifference of many Buddhists to the ecological crisis?

Read part 2 of this essay …. The Challenge.

Originally published as Can Buddhism Meet the Climate Crisis in the Spring 2019 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly. Adapted from Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Precipice, published by Wisdom (January 2019)


David Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition. His many essays and books have been translated into numerous languages. His articles appear regularly in the pages of major journals such as Tikkun and Buddhist magazines including Tricycle, Turning Wheel, Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma, as well as in a variety of scholarly journals. Many of his writings, as well as audio and video talks and interviews, are available on the web.

David is especially concerned about social and ecological issues and believes that there is an important parallel between what Buddhism says about our personal predicament and our collective predicament today in relation to the rest of the biosphere.  David Loy is one of the founding members of the new Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, near Boulder, Colorado. Please visit the website at rockymountainecodharmaretreat.org for more information.

Images: Featured) Earth by hslerg1, 1) Climate Change by TheDigitalArtist, 2) Drought by Photocurry, 3) Factory Ruin by  manolofranco,  Pixabay License
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