Sunday, January 10, 2010

Buddhism and the Environment

from a talk to the World Buddhist day 2009

Introduction: While in Nepal I had the opportunity to entertain several conversations about the environment with H H Chetsang Rinpoche, head of the Drikung Kagyu Lineage. His Holiness has been for many years an engaged activist on the area, and has promoted conferences and reforestation on several parts of the Himalayas and India. Holiness has asked me to help to promote his environmental concerns inside the Lineage and to help him to prepare material to support the greening of the Drikung Kagyu Lineage, a 830 years old order of Monasteries and Hermitages, now all over the world. Lapchi is one of the places where he has planted trees himself! The monk/yogui in the picture is the head of the Hermitage in Lapchi. We met when we attended the inauguration of the Rinchen Ling Monastery in Nepal, last month. Read stories about Lapchi.

The Talk
Most of us Buddhists have heard the Dalai Lama talks and concerns for the environment in the last 20 years and the latest recomendations and directives given by the Karmapa to monastics and laypeople in his manual for the environment. Mother Earth is in pain and is letting us know. Environmental disasters are happening much faster than predicted only 15 years ago when I was at the UN. Scientific calculations of environmental changes are predicting catastrophic events in a very near future: rising sea levels, increasing cancer rates, vast population growth, depletion of resources, and extinction of species due to direct human assault and to lack of waste management. Human activity everywhere is destroying key elements of the natural eco-systems of which all living beings depend on. It is hard to visualize the future life of humans in the planet.

We all know that buddhism sees ignorance as a source of all suffering. Humans thought the Earth was inexhaustibly sustainable, now we know the extent of our ignorance, and because of that all sentient beings are suffering. The good news is that all cultures and civilizations will have to come together to resolve the problem; however for that to happen, we have to overcome ignorance, wrong views, wrong actions, and afflictive emotions, the very issues that Buddhism is set up to tackle. The Dalai Lama tells us that the destiny of the planet and the quality of our society is a Buddhis concern: "I am interested, he says, in how we Buddhists can contribute to human society." The environment, he says, is not only an ethical concern, but it is matter of survival.

When I engaged in working at the UN with other fellow NGOs, for the creation of an Earth Charter, a declaration of principles to guide our relationship to the planet, I had in mind a Buddhist world view. As we well know, the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda is at the core of Buddhist philosophy. "Dependent arising" states that phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. This is the understanding that any phenomenon exists only because of the existence of other phenomena in an incredibly complex web of cause and effect covering time past, time present and time future.

To say it in another way, everything depends on everything else, or yet in other words: when this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that. A human being's existence in any given moment is dependent on the condition of everything else in the world at that moment, but in an equally significant way, the condition of everything in the world in that moment depends conversely on the character and condition of that human being.

As professional ecologists we can say that this concept is the definition of ecology today, the interdependence and interconnection of eveything in nature, which is the science that studies the relationship between living beings. It is ecology that is telling us that we are very quickly killing the planet and all its life. Ecology now sees the universe and our world as a living system of systems, where everything is interconnected and interdependent. Well, that sounds like a buddhist world view and karma, doesn't it?

Because of the acceptance of this new scientific concept at the UN it was felt the need for a new worldview and a declaration of principles on how to live accordingly, so people everywhere could understand how their local actions could affect the global environment. Hence the slogan: think globally and act locally. Also a new ethics was necessary. In the ethics of karma and the definition of Bodhisatvas, no one has an individual ethical destiny, separate from the destiny of humanity. Karma, as we know means action. Those concepts have been embraced into the body of what is now known as Environmental Ethics, a doctrine that many incognito buddhists like me, helped to develop in a global level.

The effort to create a Charter to reflect principles to guide people's behavior that could help to save the Earth was long overdo within the UN environmental agencies, and among NGOs all over the globe. This effort finally culminated with the finalization of the Earth Charter in 1997. As people we are as responsible for the planet as anybody else, but as Buddhists we are infinitely more responsible because we know, we know about interdependent origination and we know about karma, and we have known for thousands of years. The question is, what can we do beyond living with great compassion and responsibility? Although Buddhism has a long history of protecting the environment and all sentient beings, the call today is for a more engaged karmic action, we must work together and fast if we are going to help stop and revert the process of destruction of the planet. In this endevour we can find some guidance in the Earth Charter and the Karmapa's Environmental Guidelines.

The Earth Charter as it stands today, has been the object of a process of global partnership and discussion, and it contains a preamble in which it includes a view of life as an interdependent ecosystem and sixteen principles to guide our actions.

Principle 7 calls for us to Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth's regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being. It is a call that seems overwhelming and a task for governments. What can we do as monastic communities and as individuals?

First as communities, we can immediately review how we run our temples, monasteries and meditations centers. Are we energy efficient? How do we conserve water? Do our temples, monasteries, and meditation centers recycle? Do we use biodegradeble material, such as detergents, plates and cups? What we do with all the plastic we use everyday? How can we protect the ecosystem of the places where we live? Do we burn or cut wood for the winter and cooking? Do we plant trees? Are we prepared to educate the lay community for specific actions that can be taken, and to help them to understand their responsibility and their participation in local communities?
Our monasteries, temples, and communities can promote efficient methods of waste management and prevent pollution, for example. We can use the Earth Charter to educate children and parents about the importance of their actions for the environment. We can look for partnerships with local, national, and international Non Governmental Organizations to apply energy efficiency to our monasteries, temples and Centers, to properly manage waste, and to prepare educational material for our communities. We must talk about the environment to all people and encourage them to engage in sustainable activities in their homes and their communities. The need today is not just for conservation and protection. We need to change and to promote change. We must take active responsibility for our views and beliefs.

Principle 14 call us to Integrate into formal education and life-long learning the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life. We Buddhists are in a privileged position to bring to life this principle.
Buddhist philosophy provides a rational basis for ecological conservation and engaged activism. Buddhists from all determinations have come forward to work in this global common problem, and their voices have been heard everywhere. Many books were published, conferences were promoted and talks were given, but we are still further away from greening our temples, monasteries and meditation centers, and from resolving the problem. Now that we are engulfed in an economical crisis there is the danger that immediate human interests will again blind our consciousness from the right perception of things and misguide our choices and actions.

The Dalai Lama said that in the past we were ignorant of the environmental implications, despite the fact that Buddhist precepts protects all life, but today we have no excuse, the Earth, He says, is the home of billions and billions of sentient beings. "We must act before it is too late." "Our ancestors viewed the earth as rich and bountiful, which it is. Many people in the past also saw nature as inexhaustibly sustainable, which we now know is the case only if we care for it. It is not difficult to forgive destruction in the past that resulted from ignorance. Today however, we have access to more information, and it is essential that we re-examine ethically what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations."

For Shakyamuni Buddha, the environment was his home. Although he was born in a palace, he found enlightenment under a tree, and when the paranirvana moment came, he placed himself outside to die. The environment is our home and our mother. Peace and survival of life on Earth as we know it are threatened by humans that lack the commitment to humanitarian values. Destruction of nature and natural resources result from ignorance, greed, and lack of respect for life, above all from lack of a daily life awareness. We are ignoring the consequences of what we do with all the material we use in our daily lifes.

We Buddhist, more than any other religion, because of our tenets and principles, have an inherent responsibility to engage in compassionate environmental activism to save the planet for all sentient beings. Let us remember that Buddhism is not anthropocentric, it advocates that all sentient beings pursue happiness, and that the Buddha nature exists in all sentient beings. Buddhist deep ecology sees the whole earth as the buddha nature.

We can educate, produce material and manuals, spread the word, promote workshops, and create community projects for the monastic and the lay community to work together and to bring about change locally. We can examine our home and our community and see what is lacking and work to change it. We must start at home--from our kitchens and trash, comes the most damage to the ecosystems that surrounds us, which impacts the much larger ecosystems. The UN moto is: Think globally and act locally!!

We should ask where does the trash goes when it leaves our homes? Is recycling really reacycling? There are horror stories on the news about the ultimate destiny of our recycling. What are we doing about it, as individuals and as a community? We must distinguish between politics and policy. Our interest and responsibility is with policy, and sometimes we have to deal with policy makers. So be it! But we, who work on awareness and development of consciousness should be able to distinguish between the two and keep an eye on the real goal, and guide our actions by it. It is obviously not easy to promote change with compassion.

Many times and throughout history our understanding of karma and of the six paramitas have had a paralising effect on us instead of promoting the betterment of ouselves and of our communities. When we check those virtues which we are trying to develop, we must check them against several parameters. We should check the meaning of patience, compassion and bodhychita under many lights. Many times we keep silence on abusive and difficult situations because we misunderstand our own doctrines. For instance, by confusing policy with politics we abstain from proper action and engagement in the life of our communities. We must reflect and meditate not only passively but also discriminatively, which is a must in Buddhism. That is where, contemplation as Buddhism sees it, comes in. Take on an issue and its ramifications, connections and interconnections and contemplate, gain insight and then act.

As the Buddha said, find out by yourself. Unfortunatelly, many of us bring to Buddhism our previous religious habits and way of behaving; many of us have been just followers in the past. We might be confused by the constant call to listen to your Guru, but Garchen Rinpoche says that the Guru is inside. When in doubt, ask your teacher and then meditate. Budhism wants people that not only look for bliss and peace of mind, but also, above all, who gain insight on the nature of reality by yourself, and act consequently in your life. We, especially in Vajrayana, many times confuse our devotion to the primordial Guru with individual cult, and follow orders, suggestions and directives from teachers who do not have the ultimate view of reality, and come from very different cultures, giving up our obligation to seek insight and take responsibility for our actions. To develop discrimination we must work hard during meditation, looking into an issue from all sides as if looking through the other side of the mountain before we cant rest on emptness and reach insight. The develpment of mindfulness is also very helpful, but it is important to know, mindful of what?

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