The Zen of Climate Change

Fifteen of the world’s most well-known Buddhist leaders, potentially representing more than one billion adherents of the spiritual path of Buddhism around the globe, released a public statement on October 29, 2015, calling on world leaders to take urgent, meaningful steps to deal with planetary climate change. Among those those who signed the statement were the renowned Dalai Lama of Tibet and Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

“Together, humanity must act on the root causes of this environmental crisis, which is driven by our use of fossil fuels, unsustainable consumption patterns, lack of awareness, and lack of concern about the consequences of our actions,” the statement reads. “We call on world leaders to recognize and address our universal responsibility to protect the web of life for the benefit of all, now and for the future.”

This, I have to confess, sent my spirits soaring. It was a significant move that helped put Buddhists the world over on the right side of this issue, especially at this critical moment in human history. The statement by Buddhist leaders was obviously meant to influence the planned United Nations climate talks in Paris, France, and it was right on time.

It came on the heels of the Pope, representing the Catholic religion, making a similar pronouncement not long before. Finally, I thought, religious leaders are taking a stand for the Earth and getting their followers behind them. If we could get all of the world’s religious faiths and factions to do the same thing, we might actually have a chance at dealing with the ecosystem breakdowns and environmental disasters that have become all too common in recent years. We have indeed arrived at “a crucial crossroads where our survival and that of other species is at stake as a result of our actions,” according to the Buddhist statement, and the time to commit to action and follow it through is now facing us all.

The statement was also heartening in another sense for me: It showed how the notion of “engaged Buddhism”, a term coined and put into action by Thich Nhat Hanh during the American war on Vietnam decades ago, has taken root and been accepted by Buddhists of various factions and nationality on issues of international concern. People are coming together, recognizing a common destiny among humans and other living beings, and taking action to try to make positive change happen.

Engaged Buddhism, like the idea of liberation theology in Christianity, for me signifies a moving away from organized religions as enslavers of human thought and judgers of all things right and wrong. Religions have traditionally been safe, comfortable havens that deal only with matters of the spirit and getting a seat beside God in the hereafter. With planetary destruction on a level never seen before upon us today, religions are also showing that they can be houses of social change and urgent action on matters happening outside the temple doors — matters affecting every single living species on the Earth at a vital juncture in time.

Whether such bold steps by organized religions are too little, too late to save the planet at this point is something we will find out soon enough in the coming years. Yet it is a good start, and we should applaud those religious leaders, wherever they are, who dare to stand up and call for action. The world is full of problems at the moment and each problem is important to for us to deal with and try to resolve. But surely the biggest one of all, the survival of our own selves on our only home, has to rank at the top.

“Cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion, we will be able to act out of love, not fear, to protect our planet,” the Buddhist statement reads. Yes. Love has to be the primary motivation here, and compassion and interconnectedness the practical tools we can use to help us move forward — right now, today — on the critical issue of global climate change.

More can be found here on the Buddhist response to global warming, a website providing plenty of useful resources with which to follow up and follow through.

Given the times we live in, the recent Buddhist leaders’ statement on climate change is truly impressive and inspiring. But it won’t mean a thing in the long run if leaders of other religious faiths and other Buddhist factions around the world do not step up to the plate and make a commitment on this as well. That’s where we all come in, working from the grassroots up to make sure that leaders everywhere get the message loud and clear and are emboldened to act. And act they must, for the sake of us all.

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