It has (very belatedly) come to my attention that this post – which I intended to publish two Saturdays ago – never got posted at all.
I met Rick Heller a few weeks ago at a panel discussion about climate change attitudes in Massachusetts (that’s not him in the photo, by the way). Rick, along with members of the Harvard Humanist and the Cambridge-Somerville Secular Buddhist communities, founded the Seeing the Roses initiative based on the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. The idea, in a nutshell, is that paying loving attention to the present moment can enhance awareness and connectedness to the natural world and, thus, motivate lifestyle changes that reduce environmental impact. My conversation with Rick was one of several encounters around that time that prompted my exploration of faith-based climate action.
But when I introduced that idea here on Climatide, Rick took issue with it:
I would quibble with the use of the word “faith” however, because with regard to Buddhism, mindfulness is seen as a practice that the historical Buddha arrived at through psychological introspection. The Buddha never claimed to have received communications from a divine being that had to be taken on faith. Also, recently published neuroscience research has found that mindfulness can cause lasting (presumably positive) changes to the brain.
I have been using “faith” and “religion” fairly interchangeably. Without getting into a full-blown semantic argument, I will freely admit that there are, in fact, subtle differences which vary depending upon whom you ask.
What’s more interesting to me than the semantic argument is the distinction between internal and external motivators. Christian and Jewish climate action is based on Biblical, Papal, and Talmudic teachings. In other words, someone outside yourself telling you what you should do. Of course, there are also Buddhist teachings that come into play, as Rick went on to explain:
My initiative was inspired by a dharma talk by Andrew Olendzki of the Barre Center for Buddhist Students. He spoke about how the environment was being degraded because of what Buddhists call “The Three Poisons,” namely greed, hatred and delusion. It’s pretty clear how greed contributes to environmental damage. Hatred, in the sense that it is used, does not only refer to hating people, but also to hating experiences and trying to avoid them—like hating to wait for anything and needing things NOW. Delusion is not understanding what really makes us satisfied. In my opinion, messages in the media that tell us we need to make a lot of money and spend a lot of money in order to be happy purvey this kind of delusion.
These same Three Poisons are referenced in a pan-Buddhist statement on climate change that endorses working to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to 350 parts per million through personal, societal, and political change. The Dalai Lama was the first to sign that declaration.
In other places, Seeing the Roses and other Buddhist climate action groups draw on the connection between consumerism and climate change, and link that to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:
- Life is suffering (although this can also be interpreted as temporary, ephemeral);
- Suffering is caused by craving;
- There is an end to suffering;
- The end of suffering is achieved through wisdom, ethical living, and mental discipline.
So there are obviously influentials and teachers – the Dalai Lama chief among them – who can articulate a vision for Buddhist climate action, and core teachings that they draw upon in doing so.
But there is a strong emphasis on arriving at one’s own personal eco-philosophy based on meditation, introspection, and first-hand experience with the natural world. This practice, known as ‘deep ecology,’ has a very secular feel to it. It originated with philosophers and environmentalists – Arne Naess, Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Aldo Leopold. Poking around the videos and writings on the Eco-Buddhism website, you’re more likely to encounter those and more contemporary environmental scientists than an orange-clad Buddhist religious leader.
In other words, eco-Buddhism doesn’t ask practitioners to take anything on faith. Rather, it urges each individual to learn and experience for oneself.
For more on faith-based climate action:
- Grassroots Jewish climate action
- Evangelical Christians deeply divided on climate change
- Catholic leaders call for climate action