An address at “SLO Faith Communities Respond to the Pope’s Message,” sponsored by People of Faith for Justice, October 1 2015
About a month ago, I went to the annual potluck picnic of the White Heron Sangha—a Buddhist meditation fellowship I’ve been attending for several years. It took place at a beautiful home and retreat center in Squire Canyon, and during the meal I was asked by a couple of people if I would be willing to substitute for one of the Sangha’s leaders in representing the Buddhist community at tonight’s program. He couldn’t be here because he was heading off to a retreat in India.
Being only a marginal Buddhist myself and a burnt-out former climate activist, I was reluctant to agree, but I found myself saying “yes” as I recalled recently hearing about Pope Francis’ wholehearted willingness to take on the issue.
Having organized large Earth Day events and teach-ins called Focus the Nation on Global Warming at Cal Poly, I turned my back on the cause in 2009 after witnessing the failure of the international Helsinki talks and the growth of Climate Denial, driven by the influence of Fossil Fuel companies. I shifted my attention to family– raising two grandsons—to the community– building the SLO City Farm–and to myself– swimming, meditating and engaging with the Sangha.
But I found that this shift—liberating at first—was leading to a growing discomfort.
So, responding to the pressure of my fellow congregants, I started reading Laudato Si, the Encyclical I’d heard about. And I kept reading over several days…all 200 pages.
It was a disturbing experience—a stark and comprehensive reminder of what I had been trying to forget. It eloquently described how what was foretold years ago in the books I read in the Faculty Sustainability Book Club at Poly has now come to pass: the accelerating decay of nature and the increasingly desperate Darwinian battle between rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged, progressives and obstructors. The gloomy prospect came closer to home because of the California drought, the fires, and the aching fatigue brought on by our late September heat.
But I also found the document encouraging. Francis was mobilizing vast reserves of spiritual energy and institutional authority behind what seemed like a flagging cause—to save us from ourselves. His approach labeled Integral Ecology, that fused scientific and religious reasoning, material and spiritual principles, political and moral urgings, and public and personal arenas, felt both prudent and absolutely true.
Two years ago I registered for a fourteen-day silent retreat that’s scheduled to begin late this month. To prepare for it, I’ve been waking up at 5:00 a.m and meditating for an hour, occasionally experiencing deep concentration and serenity. But after I started reading the Encyclical, these sessions soured. My mind got distracted, uneasy, impatient for the ending gong. One morning I realized if this kept up, there was no way I was going to leave everything at home behind just to grow more anxious and uncomfortable at the retreat. And then came an understanding of what had happened. I’d heard the spiritual call to action. Whether or not I would go on retreat, I could no longer ignore it.
After I got the boys to school I returned to the Encyclical and came across this passage:
[What] some committed and prayerful Christians…need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them…”
The power of my conversion was amplified by the source of the summons—the Buddhist Sangha, and specifically a person known to me then only as a fellow member of that Sangha—Sharon Rippner, who happens to be the person who organized this forum.
Later that day she sent me the discussion questions I was supposed to prepare. First: “reflect on how your faith tradition resonates with the observations and urgings of Pope Francis.”
Not having any answer, I emailed an old friend from the sixties, Taigen Dan Leighton, who’s become a prominent Buddhist monk but has remained a political activist. He alerted me to a proclamation signed by thousands of Buddhist practitioners and by leaders such as the Dalai Lama, the Karmarpa, and Thich Nhat Hanh, and which represents “a global Buddhist statement,” arguably as authoritative as the Pope’s Encyclical. Entitled “The Time to Act is Now, A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change,” it’s to be presented this December to the 21st UN Conference of the Parties, the successor to the Copenhagen, Cancun, Kyoto, and Rio meetings of world governments attempting to find ways to address the crisis together. (http://www.oneearthsangha.org/articles/the-time-to-act-is-now/)
Much like the Pope’s Encyclical, The Declaration begins with a description of the urgency of the present situation and then relates both causes and solutions to traditional core principles of the religion:
There has never been a more important time in history to bring the resources of Buddhism to bear on behalf of all living beings. The four noble truths provide a framework for diagnosing our current situation and formulating appropriate guidelines—because the threats and disasters we face 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.
However, the declaration shifts from the traditional Buddhist emphasis on individual liberation to the collective, from the mind to the world, from contemplation to action. It urges us “to adopt behaviors that increase everyday ecological awareness and reduce our ‘carbon footprint,’” but more prominently to “make institutional changes, both technological and economic…to ‘de-carbonize’ our energy systems as quickly as feasible by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources,” to “reverse the destruction of forests,” and to “to move together towards an economy that provides a satisfactory standard of living for everyone ….”
The second part of Sharon’s question asks “how your faith community might engage in courageous actions to address the problem of climate change”
The issuance of this Declaration is an example of how the Buddhist faith community has exercised the courage to move from personal issues involving its members as individuals to addressing our collective karma and to taking action to improve it.
According to the Declaration, “If political leaders are unable to recognize the urgency of our global crisis, or unwilling to put the long-term good of humankind above the short-term benefit of fossil-fuel corporations, we may need to challenge them with sustained campaigns of citizen action.”
Campaigns of Citizen Action involve participating in educational and lobbying groups like the Citizens Climate Lobby (https://citizensclimatelobby.org/), Fossil Fuel Divestment campaigns like Gofosselfree.org, and in public demonstrations like last year’s amazing Climate Marches organized by the grassroots alliance 350.org Specifically they require joining an association like “One Earth Sangha,” whose tagline is “a Buddhist response to Climate Change and other threats to our home.” (http://www.oneearthsangha.org)
Groups of people supporting one another within each of our congregations can educate and persuade other members and help build a huge groundswell that’s supported not primarily by money or interest or fear, but by the counterforce of conviction and group solidarity.
Every church, synagogue, mosque and sangha represents an opportunity for transformation here and now.
The message that we need to spread is one of faith that averting climate disaster is still within our ability. We have the technology today to switch from fossil fuels to renewables worldwide; we have the money, if capital devoted to outmoded technologies is invested in renewables with a long-term profitable return. We also have the political capacity to make this happen through the simple and tested means of a carbon tax.
What we have lacked since the problem of climate change first surfaced thirty years ago is the political will, and that depends on every one of us as individuals, and more significantly, as individuals interacting with other individuals in existing communities, in particular in faith communities, just as we are doing on this occasion.
“What teachings from your faith tradition give you hope for our ability to make the necessary changes, given the dire situations which currently confront us.”
Buddhism for me is not really a faith, it’s hardly even a belief system, and I know very little about its vast array of traditions. My engagement is with a habit of practice, a set of moral principles shared with most religions, and a particular community of people.
But my experience of recommitment to climate activism over the past few weeks does involve faith, which I think of as the mind’s willed leap across a gap from one state of resolve to another.
That occurs in an instant that seems timeless—something alive both before and after the chronological event. This notion is supported by the Buddhist metaphysical doctrine of the limitlessness of the present moment.
The leap of faith is associated with what St. Paul called the evidence of things unseen—the voice of conscience, the breaking of one set of causal chains and substitution of another, the shift of perspectives, the inspiration of other people’s examples.
Faith produces sacrifice and is supported by sacrifice, which is the deliberate acceptance of suffering. Taigen Dan Leighton states
Suffering wakes us up, which is why the Buddha began his teaching with the First Noble Truth of Suffering. Now humanity is faced with suffering that will sooner or later shake us out of our complacency and make us come to terms with the consequences of living unsustainably in a world of limited resources.
Pope Francis says “Our goal is … to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”
Buddhist practice also equips us for this acceptance. According to Taigen Dan: “Meditation… helps individuals to develop more calm and patience, a wider capacity to be helpful in the face of distress. Pope Francis says: “We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present … without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.”
Another Buddhist doctrine is the importance of Sangha, or congregation, for the support of faithful practice. As mentioned earlier, building support within the Sangha is an effective way of mobilizing action in the political sphere. But partnering with people of shared convictions also strengthens the faith of those convictions, the faith that the struggle can be won. Membership in the Sangha of millions of people around the world, both religious and non-religious, who share that faith, is open to us all.