Program Manager, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Facing Environmental & Climate Challenges through the lens of Buddhism
Kimberly Hillebrand joined the Kaufman Interfaith Institute in October 2019 with more than 20 years of nonprofit work in development and program management. She is an ordained Buddhist Dharma Teacher (Ven. Ai Su) at the Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple, with 20-years practice in metta meditation (loving kindness). Thanks to a collaboration with the Fetzer Institute, Kim is working to support and expand interfaith programming in the southwest Michigan area.
Environmental degradation and climate change were not a concern in the Buddha’s lifetime 2,500 years ago. He did understand that communities could be detrimentally affected by the practices of his followers, so he gave instructions that nuns and monks should never relieve themselves in or near running water, as that practice could affect the quality of the water downstream. The Buddha also cautioned nuns and monks to not damage habitats or kill any living being while constructing new housing.
Nowadays, with emerging understanding about the science of climate change, and real-time examples of how our planet is declining in health due to human-driven actions, there has been a renewed effort on the part of teachers from all branches of Buddhism to integrate Buddhist teachings into practically addressing the environmental and climate challenges we face today.
Following are several foundational teachings that may shed some light on how to face environmental and climate challenges through the lens of Buddhism:
The Four Noble Truths:
The Four Noble Truths were the first teaching the Buddha offered after he attained enlightenment underneath the Bodhi tree. This teaching deals primarily with suffering and the relief from suffering. The Four Noble Truths are the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads out of suffering. The Noble Eightfold Path is a part of the fourth Noble Truth and offers eight practices that lead to a relief of suffering. One practice is “right mindfulness,” which suggests that if you are mindful of the effects of your thoughts, words, and actions in the world, you can avoid causing harm to living beings and the planet.
In “The Four Truths of Climate Change,” Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Dr. David Tetsuun Loy, and Dr. John Stanley wrote, “The four noble truths provide a framework for diagnosing our current situation and formulating appropriate guidelines – because the threats and disasters we face (related to climate change) ultimately stem from the human mind, and therefore require profound changes within our minds. If personal suffering stems from craving and ignorance—from the three poisons of greed, ill will, and delusion—the same applies to the suffering that afflicts us on a collective scale. Our ecological emergency is a larger version of the perennial human predicament.”
The Five Moral Precepts:
The Five Moral Precepts are guidelines related to abstaining from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication. Related to the environmental and climate crisis we face, the first two precepts are most applicable.
The first precept speaks to the choices we make about the foods we consume, the items we buy, the energy we use, and the destruction of land for new infrastructure that can cause extreme loss of life and biodiversity within our planet’s ecosystems. Buddhists are encouraged to embody metta (loving kindness) and compassion to all living beings and to treat them equally, without exception. This first precept is related to ‘ahimsa,’ which means to do no harm.
The second precept is related to stealing, which could mean the taking of anything from a physical item, an idea, or even stealing someone’s peace of mind. Within the context of environmental destruction and the climate crisis, destroying the natural habitats of living beings is taking away something that does not belong to us. Further, the actions we take, or our inaction, will steal the opportunity of future generations to live in healthy communities, with clean land, air, and water, and to enjoy Earth’s natural beauty. By not acting mindlessly, or selfishly, we can protect the environment from destruction and exploitation and stem the tide of human-caused climate change for the benefit of our children and grandchildren and beyond.
Karma and Interconnectedness:
The word “karma” means “action” in Sanskrit. It is an energy that is created by our every thought, word, and action. We all create karma every second, and this karma affects us and all others every second. For this reason, Buddhists believe that it is possible to change what happens in the future based on changing our thoughts, words, and deeds in the present. Nothing is written in stone.
Paired with karma, the interconnectedness of all things is an important consideration within the climate crisis conversation. Interconnectedness means that all living beings, including our planet, are inextricably interconnected in a way that is impossible to separate. Our thoughts, words, and actions within this web of interconnection cause ripples (or karma) that will be felt far into the future. Doing harm to one part of this whole is the same as harming all of it.
In conclusion, humanity must act on the root causes of the environmental and climate crisis, which is driven by greed, thoughtlessness and indifference. Collective change begins with individual transformation. And in order to effect the kind of change that will alter our collective trajectory as it relates to the climate crisis and the destruction of our environment, we must first transform our own greed, ill will (or indifference), and delusions into compassion, harmony, and love for all living beings.
“When we harm the earth, we harm ourselves,” according to Sister Chan Khong, of the Plum Village International Community of Engaged Buddhists. “The earth is not just our environment. The earth is our mother. We are all children of the earth, and we must help one another as brothers and sisters of one big planetary family. We must take action, not out of a sense of duty but out of love for our planet and for each other. The Buddha has shown us that we can all live simply and still be very happy.”
For those celebrating the Buddha’s birthday on April 8, or later in the spring depending on your branch of Buddhism, may you be happy and healthy!