Climate Change & the Buddha Dhamma
A reflection on practice by Sayadaw Vivekananda
A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report tells us that , “It is extremely likely…that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Given this, what should be our attitude towards nature and the environment be? We can turn to the wisdom traditions of the world’s religions in search of inspiration.
The Buddhist community has pondered the issue of climate change deeply over the last couple of decades. As early as June 1986, H.H. Dalai Lama offered “An Ethical Approach to Environmental Protection.” The seminal 2009 book “A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency” brought together contributions from Buddhist teachers in many traditions and helped to focus the attention of the Buddhist community on climate change issues.
Well-known Buddhist ethicist Peter Harvey wrote “…the Buddhist ideal for humanity‘s relationship with animals, plants and the landscape is one of harmonious co-operation. Buddhism emphasizes a disciplining and overcoming of the negativities within the conditioned nature of the human heart. Such an approach goes hand-in-hand with a friendly attitude to the environment.”
The Buddhist practice of loving kindness or metta invites us to wish for the welfare and happiness of all beings: “Whatever living beings there be: feeble or strong, tall, stout or medium, short, small or large, without exception: seen or unseen, those dwelling far or near, those who are born or those who are to be born, may all beings be happy!”
Compassion or karuna moves the heart of the good towards observing the pain of others, inspiring us to shelter and embrace the distressed. The Pali commentaries explain karuna as the desire to remove harm and suffering or dukkha from others. Witnessing the suffering of species threatened by extinction calls us to alleviate this suffering.
Movements such as Buddhism and Jainism in India have emphasized ahimsa or non-violence. This practice encourages sympathy (daya) and a trembling of the heart (anukampa) for living creatures, cultivating increased empathy with them based on awareness that others dislike pain and death just as much as we do. As the Dhammapada notes, “All tremble at violence, all fear death. Comparing oneself with others one should neither kill nor cause to kill.”
The law of karma supports compassion and motivates us to follow this precept, as we cannot intentionally harm beings without bringing harm to ourselves in the future. Thus when the Buddha found some children molesting a snake with sticks, he said, “Whoever, seeking his/her own happiness, and who harms pleasure-loving beings with the rod gets no happiness hereafter.”
Out of gratitude for the bounty of resources nature provides us, we should protect and care for nature. The Petavatthu states: “If one were to sleep or sit under the shade of a tree, one may not break the branches of that tree. If one does so, one is an evil, false friend.”
H.H. Dalai Lama leaves no doubt about our responsibility to take action to protect the future of our planet and ensure the survival of human kind: “The key thing is the sense of universal responsibility; that is the real source of strength, the real source of happiness. If our generation exploits everything available—the trees, the water, and the minerals—without any care for the coming generations or the future, then we are at fault, aren’t we?”
You can find a fuller version of this reflection, complete with citations, by clicking HERE.
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