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

“…clinging to emptiness” can function in the same way as cosmological dualism, both of them devaluing this world and its problems

If you missed part one of this article by David Loy, click here to read it.

The Challenge

A few years ago I was reading a fine book by Loyal Rue, titled Everybody’s Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution, and came across a passage that literally stopped me in my tracks, because it crystallized so well a discomfort with Buddhism (or some types of Buddhism) that had been bothering me. The passage does not refer to Buddhism in particular but to the “Axial Age” religions that originated around the time of the Buddha (the italics are mine):

The influence of Axial traditions will continue to decline as it becomes ever more apparent that their resources are incommensurate with the moral challenges of the global problematique. In particular, to the extent that these traditions have stressed cosmological dualism and individual salvation we may say they have encouraged an attitude of indifference toward the integrity of natural and social systems.

Although the language is academic, the claim is clear: insofar as Axial Age traditions (which include Buddhism, Vedanta, Daoism, and Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) emphasize “cosmological dualism and individual salvation,” they encourage indifference to social justice issues and the ecological crisis.

What Loyal Rue calls “cosmological dualism” is the belief that, in addition to this world, there is another one, usually understood to be better or somehow higher. This is an important aspect of theistic traditions, although they do not necessarily understand that higher reality in the same way. While all of the Abrahamic traditions distinguish God from the world God has created, classical Judaism is more ambiguous about the possibility of eternal postmortem bliss with God in paradise. For Christianity and Islam, that possibility is at the core of their religious messages, as commonly understood. If we behave ourselves here, we can hope to go to heaven. The issue is whether that approach makes this world a backdrop to the central drama of human salvation. Does that goal devalue one’s life in this troubled world into a means?

Does Buddhism teach cosmological dualism? That depends on how we understand the relationship between samsara (this world of suffering, craving, and delusion) and nirvana (or nibbana, the original Pali term for the Buddhist summum bonum). Despite many references to nibbana in the Pali Canon, there remains something unclear about the nature of that goal. Most descriptions are vague metaphors (the shelter, the refuge, and so on) or expressed negatively (the end of suffering, craving, delusion). Is nibbana another reality or a different way of experiencing this world? The Theravada tradition emphasizes parinibbana, which is the nibbana attained at death by a fully awakened person who is no longer reborn. Since parinibbana is carefully distinguished from nihilism—the belief that physical death is simply the terminal dissolution of body and mind—the implication seems to be that there must be some postmortem experience, which suggests some other world or dimension of reality. This is also supported by the traditional four stages of enlightenment mentioned in the Pali canon: the stream-winner, the once-returner (who will be reborn at most one more time), the nonreturner (who is not yet fully enlightened but will not be reborn physically after death), and the arhat (who has attained nibbana). If the nonreturner continues to practice after death, where does he or she reside while doing so.

If nibbana is a place or a state that transcends this world, it is a version of cosmological dualism. Such a worldview does not necessarily reject social engagement, but it subordinates such engagement into a support for its transcendent goal, as Bhikkhu Bodhi explains:

Despite certain differences, it seems that all forms of classical Buddhism locate the final goal of compassionate action in a transcendent dimension that lies beyond the flux and turmoil of the phenomenal world. For the Mahayana, the transcendent is not absolutely other than phenomenal reality but exists as its inner core. However, just about all classical formulations of the Mahayana, like the Theravada, begin with a devaluation of phenomenal reality in favor of a transcendent state in which spiritual endeavor culminates.

It is for this reason that classical Buddhism confers an essentially instrumental value on socially beneficent activity. Such activity can be a contributing cause for the attainment of nibbana or the realization of buddhahood; it can be valued because it helps create better conditions for the moral and meditative life, or because it helps to lead others to the dharma; but ultimate value, the overriding good, is located in the sphere of transcendent realization. Since socially engaged action pertains to a relatively elementary stage of the path, to the practice of giving or the accumulation of merits, it plays a secondary role in the spiritual life. The primary place belongs to the inner discipline of meditation through which the ultimate good is achieved. And this discipline, to be effective, normally requires a high degree of social disengagement.

“Socially Engaged Buddhism and the Trajectory of Buddhist Ethical Consciousness” Religion & West, issue 9

Bhikkhu Bodhi distinguishes between the Theravada understanding of transcendence, which sharply distinguishes it from our phenomenal world, and the Mahayana perspective, which understands transcendence to be the “inner core” of phenomenal reality. Nevertheless, in his view both traditions begin by devaluing phenomenal reality. The question is whether “transcending this world” can be understood more metaphorically, as a different way of experiencing (and understanding) this world. Nagarjuna, the most important figure in the Mahayana tradition, famously asserted that there is not even the slightest distinction between samsara and nirvana: the kotih (limit or bounds) of nirvana is not different from the kotih of samsara. That claim is difficult to reconcile with any goal that prioritizes escape from the physical cycle of repeated birth and death, or transcending phenomenal reality.

In place of a final escape from this world, with no physical rebirth into it, Mahayana traditions such as Chan/Zen emphasize realizing here and now that everything, including us, is shunya (Japanese: ku), usually translated as “empty.” Shunyata “emptiness” is thus the transcendent “inner core” of phenomenal reality that Bhikkhu Bodhi refers to. That all things are “empty” means, minimally, that they are not substantial or self-existing, being impermanent phenomena that arise and pass away according to conditions. The implications of this insight for how we engage with the world can be understood in different ways. It is sometimes taken in a nihilistic sense: nothing is real, therefore nothing is important. Seeing everything as illusory discourages social or ecological engagement. Why bother?

The important point here is that “clinging to emptiness” can function in the same way as cosmological dualism, both of them devaluing this world and its problems. According to Joanna Macy, this misunderstanding is one of several “spiritual traps that cut the nerve of compassionate action.” According to Macy, to see this world as illusion is to dwell in an emptiness that is disengaged from its forms, in which the end of suffering involves nonattachment to the fate of beings rather than nonattachment to one’s own ego. But the Buddha did not teach—nor does his life demonstrate—that nonattachment means unconcern about what is happening in the world, to the world. When the Heart Sutrafamously asserts that “form is not different from emptiness,” it immediately adds that “emptiness is not other than form.” And forms—including the living beings and ecosystems of this world—suffer.

Many educated Buddhists today aren’t sure what to believe about a transcendent “otherworldly” reality, or karma as a law of ethical cause and effect, or physical rebirth after we die. Some wonder whether awakening too is an outdated myth, similar perhaps to the physical resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. So it is not surprising that a more secular, this-worldly alternative has become popular, especially in the West: understanding the Buddhist path more psychologically, as a new type of therapy that provides different perspectives on the nature of mental distress and new practices to promote psychological well-being. These include not only reducing greed, ill will, and delusion here and now, but also sorting out our emotional lives and working through personal traumas.

As in psychotherapy, the emphasis of this psychologized Buddhism is on helping us adapt better to the circumstances of our lives. The basic approach is that my main problem is the way my mind works and the solution is to change the way my mind works, so that I can play my various roles (at work, with family, with friends, and so on) better—in short, so that I fit into this world better. A common corollary is that the problems we see in the world are projections of our own dissatisfaction with ourselves. According to this spiritual trap, “the world is already perfect when we view it spiritually,” as Joanna Macy puts it.

Notice the pattern. Much of traditional Asian Buddhism, especially Theravada Buddhism and the Pali canon, emphasizes ending physical rebirth into this unsatisfactory world. The goal is to escape samsara, this realm of suffering, craving, and delusion that cannot be reformed. In contrast, much of modern Buddhism, especially Buddhist psychotherapy (and most of the mindfulness movement), emphasizes harmonizing with this world by transforming one’s mind, because one’s mind is the problem, not the world. Otherworldly Buddhism and this-worldly Buddhism seem like polar opposites, yet in one important way they agree: neither is concerned about addressing the problems of this world, to help transform it into a better place. Whether they reject it or embrace it, both take its shortcomings for granted and in that sense accept it for what it is.

Neither approach encourages ecodharma or other types of social engagement. Instead, both encourage a different way of responding to them, which I sometimes facetiously call the Buddhist “solution” to the eco-crisis. By now we’re all familiar with the pattern: we read yet another newspaper or online blog reporting on the latest scientific studies, with disheartening ecological implications. Not only are things getting worse, it’s happening more quickly than anyone expected. How do we react? The news tends to make us depressed or anxious—but hey, we’re Buddhist practitioners, so we know how to deal with that. We meditate for a while, and our unease about what is happening to the earth goes way…for a while, anyway.

This is not to dismiss the value of meditation, or the relevance of equanimity, or the importance of realizing shunyata. Nevertheless, those by themselves are insufficient as responses to our situation.

When it comes to the ecological crisis, Buddhist teachings do not tell us what to do, but they tell us a lot about how to do it. Of course, we would like more specific advice, but that’s unrealistic, given the very different historical and cultural conditions within which Buddhism developed. The collective dukkha caused by an eco-crisis was never addressed because that particular issue never came up.

That does not mean “anything goes” from a Buddhist perspective. Our ends, no matter how noble, do not justify any means, because Buddhism challenges the distinction between them. Its main contributions to our social and ecological engagement are the guidelines for skillful action that the Theravada and Mahayana traditions offer. Although those guidelines have usually been understood in individual terms, the wisdom they embody is readily applicable to the more collective types of engaged practice and social transformation needed today. The five precepts of Theravada Buddhism (and Thich Nhat Hanh’s engaged version of them) and the four “spiritual abodes” (brahmaviharas) are most relevant. The Mahayana tradition highlights the bodhisattva path, including the six “perfections” (generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom). Taken together, these guidelines orient us as we undertake the ecosattva path.

Social engagement remains a challenge for many Buddhists, for the traditional teachings have focused on one’s own peace of mind. On the other side, those committed to social action often experience fatigue, anger, depression, and burnout. The engaged bodhisattva/ecosattva path provides what each side needs, because it involves a double practice, inner (meditation, for example) and outer (activism). Combining the two enables intense engagement with less frustration. Such activism also helps meditators avoid the trap of becoming captivated by their own mental condition and progress toward enlightenment. Insofar as a sense of separate self is the basic problem, compassionate commitment to the well-being of others, including other species, is an important part of the solution. Engagement with the world’s problems is therefore not a distraction from our personal spiritual practice but can become an essential part of it.

The insight and equanimity cultivated by eco-bodhisattvas support what is most distinctive about Buddhist activism: acting without attachment to the results of action, something that is easily misunderstood to imply a casual attitude. Instead, our task is to do the very best we can, not knowing what the consequences will be—in fact, not knowing if our efforts will make any difference whatsoever. We don’t know if what we do is important, but we do know that it’s important for us to do it. Have we already passed ecological tipping points and civilization as we know it is doomed? We don’t know, and that’s okay. Of course we hope our efforts will bear fruit, but ultimately they are our openhearted gift to the earth.

It seems to me that, if contemporary Buddhists cannot or do not want to do this, then Buddhism is not what the world needs right now.

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,  2) Desert Drought by Cocoparisienne, 3) Art of Religion, by Krystianwin,  4) Barren, Free Photos 5) Sunset Climate change by geralt,  Pixabay License
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