Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Climate Change Crisis

Our House Is On Fire, Yet We Still Play with Toys

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

 {Note from the blogger … Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, the renowned Buddhist scholar and climate change activist, gave this keynote address at a recent event at the United Nations. The following edited version of his prepared remarks was printed in the latest newsletter from his charitable organization, Buddhist Global Relief.  I am posting it in its entirety here for all readers of The Liberal Buddhist blog, as it speaks so eloquently and so urgently to what we all need to be doing – individually and collectively – in response to the looming climate crisis.}

The Buddha is often praised as the embodiment of peace, tolerance, good will, and compassion. However, while he certainly exemplifies these qualities, in no way do they exhaust his role or the content of his message. The Buddha was not merely a benevolent sage, but was above all an astute analyst of the human condition, one whose insight is perhaps unrivaled in the entire history of human thought. He was a physician who provides an acute diagnosis of human suffering, and a surgeon who draws out the darts of suffering that have pierced the human heart. The texts describe him as mūladassāvi, “the seer of the root,” the one who has seen into the deepest and most obscure roots of human misery. These he has summed up in the twin vices of ignorance and craving, and in the three stains of greed, hatred, and delusion.

The ancient discourses of the Buddha speak of the causal origins of suffering primarily in the framework of the quest for individual emancipation. They show how the mental afflictions ravage our personal lives, and the texts lay down a path that enables us as individuals to free ourselves from inner bondage. Today, in a world that has been joined into a single interdependent global order, we need to examine how this process of causation operates at wider levels, how it generates suffering in the collective dimensions of our lives. On the basis of this examination, we can then determine what changes are needed in our societies, political institutions, and global policies to avoid the adversities we face as an international community.

Of all the dangers we face together, the most formidable, most overarching, and most ominous is without doubt the one usually called climate change, but which should more correctly be called “climate destabilization” or “climate disorientation.” We live at a time when the climate has become increasingly erratic, unpredictable, and destructive. Almost every week a new report comes out about new thresholds being crossed in our descent into climate chaos: rising levels of carbon emissions, increases in global temperature, warmer and more acidic oceans, endangered species, vanishing glaciers, melting ice sheets. Yet these reports gain hardly any attention in the mainstream media, which in itself is a symptom of how subtly we conceal from ourselves the true gravity of our situation.

The Buddha’s discourse known as the Fire Sermon opens with the stark declaration: “Everything is burning, everything is on fire.” A Mahayana scripture, the Lotus Sutra, elaborates on this image with the parable of a burning house. Inside the house, the children continue to play with their toys, oblivious to the flames blazing on all sides. In the sutra, the house represents the world, and the foolish children playing inside represent people—we ourselves as we enjoy our fleeting pleasures amid the flames of old age and death.

Today the image of the world as a burning house has become literally true. Each year we see the signs of a destabilized climate becoming ever more destructive, ever more deadly. Powerful hurricanes and cyclones rip across whole regions, reducing them to shreds. Heat waves become hotter and last longer. Extended droughts turn fertile land barren. Coasts are being eroded and whole island-nations swallowed up by the sea. Violent floods pour down upon towns and cities, and wildfires reduce millions of acres of precious forest to cinders.

The long-range consequences of our escalating carbon emissions are even more ominous. These will take decades to become fully manifest, but as we continue pumping carbon into the atmosphere, they become ever more imminent. If we continue with business as usual, by the end of this century whole regions of the planet may become unfit for human habitation, leading to hundreds of millions of tragic deaths and mass migrations on a scale not yet seen. The world’s food supply will be drastically reduced, sharply increasing the numbers of people afflicted by hunger and malnutrition. In some countries the very foundations of social cohesion may collapse, plunging those nations into chaos.

We know what lies behind climate change. The causes have been described with scientific accuracy. They include our reckless burning of fossil fuels, our unwise practices of land clearance, the dominant industrial model of agriculture, and an economy that thrives on the dizzying cycles of production and consumption. The Buddha’s diagnosis would take us a step deeper and trace the origins of the climate crisis to the human heart, revealing that what underlies it is the interplay of craving and ignorance, of greed and delusion—especially the wrong view that we can recklessly exploit the resources of the planet and expel the toxic waste into our environment without eventually having to reap the consequences.

Greed and ignorance operate as a pair, both in the mind and in the wider dimensions of our social systems. Decades ago, even in the 1980s, the fossil fuel corporations knew that the burning of oil and coal would alter the climate, but they hid the evidence and promoted skepticism about the science, preventing the public from seeing the real dangers of increased carbon emissions. They put greed for profits over sanity; they followed the rules of corporate success rather than the decrees of social responsibility. Criminal behavior hid behind a cloak of ethics, as respectable corporate executives wreaked havoc on our planet. Even today, rogue institutions, lobby groups, and “think tanks” funded by fossil-fuel interests continue to spread disinformation, often with the help of a gaggle of maverick scientists.

But we are not completely innocent ourselves. It’s the delusion in our own minds that lets us flow along complacently in the established routines of everyday life instead of rising up to take necessary action. Again, it is delusion, or ignorance, that makes us think we can flourish while the earth’s geophysical systems spin wildly off course. Just earlier this year, the U.S. Secretary of State even spoke of how, once all the Arctic sea ice is gone, new trade routes will open up to facilitate trade and vast resources of oil, gas, and minerals will become available to us. As if anyone could thrive on a desolate planet!

If we go on retreating into denial, or drifting along in bland complacency, we will soon reach a point where all we can say is, “It is now too late!” If we are to avoid that endpoint, that cliff of despair, we have to act effectively, and to act without delay.

The Buddha once compared his disciples to four kinds of horses, which differ in how they respond to their master’s whip. The best horse submits to its master as soon as it sees the shadow of the whip. The dullest horse must get a beating before it submits. Decades ago we already saw the shadow of the whip, and we are now receiving blows. To avoid the most brutal beating we have to act fast, with courage and a clear understanding of the changes demanded of us.

We need definite changes in the ways we generate energy, in modes of transportation, in building design, in industrial and agricultural technologies. But the Buddha would say we also need internal changes, changes in our values, in our ways of life, in the way we think and our habits of mind. Ultimately it is these mental attitudes that lie behind the climate crisis.

At the communal level, we need to dismantle a social system driven by the quest for limitless profits in a finite world. We need to get rid of a system that endorses ruthless competition, exploitation, and violence against other people and the natural world. We have to dispel the illusion that it is possible for a few to flourish while millions die of hunger and poverty and billions live at the very edge of survival. Instead we must adopt new values that give priority to cooperation and collaboration, to living in harmony with nature. We need to enshrine kindness, mutual respect, and compassion at the center of our policies and institutions—in our educational systems, too, beginning with the elementary level. We must envision modes of communal life that enable all people to flourish economically, socially, and spiritually, and then find ways to actualize our visions.

It is said that the Buddha appears in the world out of compassion for the world, for the good of all humanity. His task is to point out the path to liberation; our task is to walk the path. We now have a clear idea of the collective perils we face today, and we can see on the horizon glimmers of hope for a better shared future. We may not know in all its details the path that can redeem us, but we know the direction in which we must move. Now we have to start moving, and moving fast, before it’s too late.

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