We are the Earth

Earth Day.  I remember the first Earth Day in 1970.  I was a senior in high school.  We had an assembly out on the football field and listened to a couple of speakers.  Not a big deal.

Forty-seven years later, it is a very big deal.  This year, there are plenty of interesting events to participate in, including a March for Science to take place today in more than 500 cities around the world.  According to the organizers, 13,500 people have signed up to attend the San Francisco march and science fair alone, while an additional 17,000 have expressed interest in the events via social media channels.

The President of the United States says that climate change is a Chinese hoax, a truly irresponsible stance driven in all probability by a dislike of regulations rather than any philosophical outlook, for I suspect this man has few core beliefs outside of those about his own greatness.

In the U.S., climate change denial is wrapped up with religion.  The SF Chronicle reports, “Many evangelical Christians believe that stewardship of the Earth and taking care of the poor and sick are core to their faith.”  8 in 10 evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump, and what I find interesting is that many of these Christians believe that God gave humans dominion over the earth, yet few of them believe that human action has much of an effect on the environment.

Buddhism and Taoism are more sympathetic to the idea of climate change, because these religious philosophies, as they have been practiced in China and Japan, view nature as a partner in the quest for spiritual development, as opposed to a thing to exert dominion over.

Lao Tsu, in the Tao Te Ching, says

Humanity follows Earth.
Earth follows heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
Tao follows what is natural.

“Heaven” signifies a natural order or organizing principle of the Universe, the “way of heaven.”  The way of Tao is to be in harmony with the way of nature.  The ancient Taoists saw this as not only our nature but also, our duty.

Buddhism teaches the oneness of self and the environment (esho funi).  If there is something wrong with the environment, then it is only a reflection of a “wrongness” within ourselves.  Human beings suffer the disease of separation – separation from the environment and each other.  We are not in harmony with nature.  We must continue to change our concept of the environment, appreciating the interconnectedness of nature and all things.

Several years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh published a book titled Love Letter to the Earth.  In Chapter 1 “We are the earth,” he writes

“At this very moment, the Earth is above you, below you, all around you, and even inside you.  The Earth is everywhere.  You may be used to thinking of the Earth as only the ground beneath your feet.  But the water, the sea, the sky, and everything around us comes from the Earth.  Everything outside us and everything inside us comes from the Earth…

The Earth is not just the environment we live in.  We are the Earth and we are always carrying her within us.”

We are the Earth.

We are nature.

We are the environment.

The key to the problem of climate change is to change people’s minds.  The survival of the planet is too important to allow people to be in denial about climate change or to ascribe the coming catastrophe to a ludicrous conspiracy theory.

“Thus when we say that all sentient beings have within them the Buddha-essence or the Buddha-nature we mean that all sentient beings have minds which can change and become Buddha’s minds.”

– Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations

In this case, having a Buddha mind means being a bodhisattva of the earth, that is, a steward of the earth, taking on the planet’s sufferings, vowing to liberate all things in nature.

I know that I am not doing enough.  If I want to change the environmental crisis, I must first change my mind.  If I want to see pure air and water, I must first purify my mind.  I must go to that place within where I know without doubt, without denial, that I am the Earth.


“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Nearly a month ago I reported how the Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective published a letter directed to world leaders participating in COP21, the recently concluded climate change conference in Paris. The letter, signed by Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and 13 other well-known Buddhist teachers, urged the leaders at COP21 to act on climate change.

From the reports I’ve seen, the general consensus seems to be that the conference was a success, even “historic.” There are others who are less enthusiastic; scientists are cautious and environmentalists skeptical.

A headline in The Guardian suggested the agreeement will herald “the end of the fossil fuel era.” But, also in The Guardian, Dr. James Hansen, who first testified before Congress about greenhouse gases in 1988, and is known as “the father of climate change awareness”, shared his doubts about what the conference accomplished, saying “There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

The agreement aims to hold the increase of the global average temperature to “well below” 2C and to pursue a goal of 1.5 C.  Some say that the world leaders went further than ever before by defining the allowable amount of future climate disruption.

Evidently, the conference was not only historic but also dramatic. Saturday afternoon, the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius presented the draft that was soon agreed to by the conferees.

Fabius’ remarks were being translated by a member of the UN’s translation staff. As he began to thank those who had worked to put the deal together, Fabius’ voice began to falter and even the translator became emotional. A report I read stated that the translator began to cry as Fabius concluded his speech with a quote from the late Nelson Mandela:

Let me conclude. One of you mentioned the other day a famous quote by Nelson Mandela, most suited to the occasion: ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done.’

I would like to add a few more words, by the same hero: ‘None of us acting alone can achieve success.’

Success is within reach of all our hands working together.”

There is not much that needs to be added to that.  It is rather obvious that it will take the entire world working together to win over the global threat of dangerous climate change.  You can view the full speech, with English translation, on the UN website.


Paris, Climate Change, Snow and Snow Leopards

Due to concerns about terrorism following the attacks in Paris, French police have revoked permission for a Paris rally to demand strong action on climate change. The demonstration was to be held November 29. The U.N.’s 21st annual conference on climate change, COP21, is scheduled to begin on the next day, with world leaders, business executives, and official delegates from 195 countries attending.  They will have until Dec. 12 to agree about a possible new global agreement aimed at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.  And more than 3,000 journalists and thousands of environmental activists will be watching, along with many others around the world.

This past September, the Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective was formed to “facilitate a Buddhist contribution” to the COP21. They put out a letter calling on world leaders to act on climate change. It was signed by the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and 13 other well-known Buddhist teachers.

Tibet_Himalayas2One of the signatories, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, claimant to the 17th Karmapa, an important position in Tibetan Buddhism, said in a recent interview “Given that the rate of warming in the Tibetan plateau is at least two times greater than the global average, we know flooding and droughts are bound to worsen.”

Earlier this year, a group of Tibet’s exiled leaders, including the Dalai Lama, warned that two-thirds of the glaciers in the Tibetan plateau may disappear by 2050 because of climate change.

The Tibetan Plateau is the highest plateau in the world, with an average elevation of over 16,000 feet, and contains the largest tropical glaciological area in the world. It is home to 37,000 glaciers that feed Asia’s largest rivers, including the Ganges, the Mekong and the Yangtze. More than two billion people in over a dozen countries depend on the water provided by the snow and ice of the Tibetan Plateau. And, it has experienced rising temperatures of 1.3 Celsius over the past five decades, which is actually three times the global average.

And then there’s the snow leopard. I don’t know how many of these beautiful animals once roamed that area, but it is estimated there are only 4000 left. October 23 was the first International Snow Leopard day and the World Wildlife Fund released a new report that said, “Urgent action is needed to curb climate change and prevent further degradation of snow leopard habitat, otherwise the ‘ghost of the mountains’ could vanish, along with critical water supplies for hundreds of millions of people.”

I understand there are 81 Buddhist monasteries in Tibet that send out patrols of their local areas to protect the leopards from poachers and they also educate the local communities about environmental protection. These Buddhists understand that dharma means not only finding inner peace but also taking external action.

Whether or not the leaders at the UN climate conference will take action as well is the crucial question. The Buddhist approach to climate change is based on the doctrine of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada), the interconnection of all things in the universe. Coming in the wake of the recent jihadist activity, the Paris conference could be a unique opportunity to explore the links between climate change and terrorism.

Jason Box and Naomi Klein write in the New Yorker: “The connection between warming temperatures and the cycle of Syrian violence is, by now, uncontroversial.” The authors quote a recent comment by Secretary of State John Kerry: “It’s not a coincidence that, immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record. As many as 1.5 million people migrated from Syria’s farms to its cities, intensifying the political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil in the region.”

Box and Klein express hope for the conference in Paris to succeed. They pose the question, “What if, instead of being pushed aside in the name of war, climate action took center stage as the planet’s best hope for peace?”

I find myself cynical about such things nowadays. I expect the usual dog-and-pony show. But Andrew Steer, president of the US-based World Resources Institute, believes the recent terror attacks will stiffen “the spine in terms of determination to really solve what is the greatest collective action problem in history.”

Finally, I recently read about a woman, Marie Byles (1900–1979) who was a key figure in the development of Buddhism in Australia. From the 1940s she developed an eco-Buddhist worldview and Buddhist environmental ethic. In a work titled “Adapting Buddha’s Teaching to Modern Conditions”, she wrote,

“The Buddha spoke of avoiding ‘onslaught in creatures’ and had he been alive today with the rapid destruction of earth itself, he would certainly have included the earth along with creatures as not to be slaughtered.”

Human beings suffer the disease of separation – separation from the environment and each other. We must continue to change our concept of the environment. Far too many people still see humans as rulers of the planet. Instead, we should be the harmonizers.

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Painting by Nicholas Roerich 1933


The Dual, the Non-Dual, and the Dominion Mandate

Maybe I’ll be there to shake your hand
Maybe I’ll be there to share the land
That they’ll be givin’ away
When we all live together

– The Guess Who

I can’t say that I am a big fan of the institution of the Pope, but then since I’m not Catholic, my opinion about the Bishops of Rome doesn’t count for much. I can say that I am glad to see the new guy, Francis, making efforts to drag his church into the 21st Century. You may have heard about his recent statements on climate change. What you may not know is that it is more than just a few remarks, it’s a 192-page document called an encyclical, which is a papal letter sent to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. In this document leaked to the public, he says climate change is real, he argues for a new, positive relationship between religion and science, and he criticizes those who are skeptical about climate change for being in “denial.”

And, in what I think is a major step, he says that Christians have misinterpreted the Bible. According to Francis, the book of Genesis lays out “three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.” He says that these relationships have been broken and states “This rupture is sin,” which has “distorted our mandate to ‘have dominion’ over the earth. It’s too bad he didn’t reject the notion of “dominion.” If he had, it would have been truly revolutionary.

The so-called dominion mandate has been the focal point of criticism of the Christian approach to the environmental ethics. The critique is that it has enabled humans to view the earth as merely a tool for human needs. This notion of dominion created the Industrial Revolution and resulted in the wholesale devastation of our planet. There is nothing inherently wrong about using nature, but abusing it is another matter. The Industrial Revolution changed the world, but it would have been better if the changes had occurred in a more responsible manner.

I’d like to mention (and you knew I would) that the view of Eastern philosophy is completely opposite. Western religious philosophy established a dualism in separating human life from nature, and as you know, Buddhism and Taoism are based on non-dualism. In ancient Buddhist texts, there are very few instances where the intrinsic value of nature is directly addressed. However, the oneness of “man” and nature has been a major theme in Taoism from its earliest beginnings.

Yin-Yang, the Taoist symbol for non-duality
Yin-Yang, the Taoist symbol for non-duality

For the Taoist sage, the environment has always been in an intimate relationship with wisdom or what we Buddhist’s call enlightenment. The highest wisdom is the penetrating insight of the interdependency of all things, and this inter-connectedness is expressed in the sage’s identification between his true nature and nature itself. T’ien-t’ai Buddhism went even further when Chih-i declared that there is nothing in the entire universe that is not within the mind.

We don’t have dominion over the land, it is not our inheritance, or something we bequeath to our children. We participate in nature. We share the land. We are its caretakers only in the sense that we take care of each other.

One writer I’ve read says that the passage I quote below is Chuang Tzu’s attempt to “undermine the whole metaphysical debate: how can one know what is natural and what is human? How can one possible justify the claim that humans are part of nature or the contrary claim that they are not?”* To me, it is a bit simpler. Chuang Tzu is pointing to the non-dual nature of reality. On one hand, we know that things are physically separate, but on the other, everything is equal and one.

One who knows what nature is, and knows what it is that is human, has reached the peak of wisdom. Whoever knows about nature and humanity what nature does lives a life grounded in nature . . . However, there is a difficulty. Knowing is dependent on objects, but the objects of knowledge are transient and therefore uncertain. How can one know what we call nature is not really human, and what is human is not is not really nature?”

from Chapter Six “The Great and Honorable Teacher”

So, now the Pope has joined the chorus of those who call for urgent action on climate change. I wish he had gone further, but a small step in the right direction is better than nothing. Someone over at Fox News called him a Marxist and the “most dangerous man on earth.” Sorry deadhead, the most dangerous are those who just don’t get it, who refuse to understand the earth is a giant, living organism and we humans are the cancer threatening its existence – our existence.

Moving images, poignant words, and a classic song:

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* Perrenboom, R.P. “Beyond Naturalism: A Reconstruction of Daoist Environmental Ethics.” Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of Thought. Ed. J. Baird Callicott , James McRae. SUNY Press, 2014. 152


Harmonizing Our Planet

A draft UN report to be approved this week says that climate change may have “serious, pervasive and irreversible” impacts on the planet and human civilization, but that governments still have time to “avert the worst.”

A recent paper released by the Department of Defense, “Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap,” labels climate change a “threat multiplier” because “it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism.” Climate change is also classified as an Immediate Security Risk, one that approaches the level of the Cold War threat as nations with nuclear arms struggle to deal with resource shortages and environmental dislocations.

While other countries, especially those that belong to the European Union, are taking climate change seriously, here in the United States there is still a great deal of skepticism about it. Hopefully, this warning from one of America’s most “establishment” institutions will help change that. In the meantime, according to Reuters, the United States has stated that much of the information contained in the UN report “may be impenetrable to the policymaker or public.” Whether this means we are too thickheaded, or if our minds are simply closed, I don’t know. Probably a combination of the two.

But I do feel, as I’m sure most of you do, that we must continue to change our concept of the environment. Far too many people still see humans as rulers of the planet. We should be the harmonizers of our planet.

Human beings suffer the disease of separation – separation from the environment and each other. Buddhism sees this as a root cause of all suffering.  To meet the challenge of harmonizing our planet, each of us should try to establish harmony in our life, and share harmony with others.

Harmony is not just some lofty or pleasant notion to aspire to, it is practical, even critical. The EPA says,

Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

What the EPA describes is being called environmental wisdom worldview.  Survival for all depends on how well human beings sustain the earth. Historically, we have not done a very good job. This “new” environmental wisdom mirrors the wisdom found in the principle of interdependency taught by the Buddha 2500 years ago. How successful we will at implanting this wisdom depends, I think, on how well we can grasp another bit of Buddhist wisdom, shared by Taoism, that if your harmonize your inner world, you will be capable of acting with wisdom in your relationship with the external world.

Do you think you can conquer nature and control it?
I do not believe you can succeed
Nature is sacred
One cannot control it
If you try to control it, you will ruin it
If you try to hold it, you will lose it

– Tao Te Ching