Presented to Global Buddhist Congregation, Delhi, November 2011, convened by Asoka Mission

Gabriel Lafitte

[DISCLAIMER: This presentation makes a case for inner transformation as the foundation for effective action in the world to deal constructively with global challenges such as climate change. The author has not experienced the deep inner transformation which Buddhist practice enables; but has had the great fortune to be close to a community led by a Buddhist master, seeing many of his friends well on the way to deep transformation of their being. Please do not read into this case for Buddhist transformation of the self any suggestion that the author claims such experience.]

The scientists have failed to persuade us to act effectively to deal with not only the innumerable local crises of biodiversity loss, but also the planetary crisis of climate change. National politicians are bogged down in short term selfish considerations of competitive national interest. Popular opinion is in a state of denial, not wanting anything to change, insisting that others go first or nothing can be done. Rationality has failed us; urgency has failed us; emotional appeals to leave a livable world for our grandchildren have failed. If science and rationality, urgency and emotionality have all failed to move us, where can we find the basis of a constructive response?

In the face of such denial and inaction, the scientists and the climate change movement are responding with ever sharper rhetoric of crisis, danger, collapse even the prospect of planetary annihilation. They also turn to the new “science” of behavioural economics, to engineer behavioural change by attaching an emotion to doing the right thing. The turn to behavioural engineering is part of the tendency, in rich countries, to make environmentally responsible behaviour a largely individual personal choice, a lifestyle statement. That’s unlikely to achieve much.
Throughout the richest countries, selfishness, xenophobia, resistance to change, complacency and short-term greed are on the rise, with an implicit consensus that environmental action to save the planet is a luxury for some other time in the future. Let’s be moral, but now right now. The right time to establish a global cooperative regime to reverse climate change is never now. The UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Durban, on at the same time as this Global Buddhist Congregation, is likely to fail.

The response of the climate scientists is that what we need is that rationality should overcome emotionality. Not only is that utterly improbable, the false dichotomy between head and heart privileges the climate scientists as the priesthood of a new secular religion which claims absolute authority as the singularly qualified knowers of objective truth. That is reminiscent of the truth claims of the three Semitic religions in their authoritarian phases. The last thing we need is a new ideology, which privileges its insiders as the only ones with access to truth; relegating the rest of us as emotional fools.

The global negotiations are stuck in old dualisms, with little sign of a fresh approach. As Buddhists, what to do? Are there authentic Buddhist responses that offer useful, productive alternatives to this repetitive round of crisis and denial, urgency and indifference, doom and selfishness, blame and counter blame, fear and hope, hope and fear? As Buddhists we could simply take sides. That’s a habitual, ingrained response, but it leads only to blame and counterblame, not a common approach.

Or we can transcend dualism, as do many Buddhist masters marshalled to contribute to the 2009 book “The Climate Emergency: A Buddhist Response” (Wisdom Books). We can advocate global action to halt global warming, while taking care not to adopt the same rhetoric, the same discourse as the climate movement.

Maybe we feel more readily drawn to the individualistic turn that the climate debate is taking. Even if we can’t save the planet, we can live our own lives moderately and reduce our ecological footprint. This is worth doing. But it is hard to see much coming of it. The danger is that it contributes to the current mood, in rich countries, for some of the richest people to brand themselves supercool by making a public lifestyle statement through their consumer choices. They choose to live in an ecofriendly house that recycles water, is fitted with solar panels etc. They invest their savings in an ethical investment fund that pays poor people in poor countries to not cut down existing trees.

Such moves achieve little, and are full of hidden costs. Individuals drawn to declare their lives are carbon neutral seldom have much idea of the actual environmental cost of constructing that eco-friendly passive solar ultra hip new house. The example they set is not an option available to many people. It is more a way of differentiating themselves, and creating a desire in others to be more like them, a form of tribal identification. This too has a limited future; is still mired in envy, pride, hope and fear.

As Buddhists, we do say that each of us needs to change from within, as the basis of any social change, but that inner change need not be driven by emotions, especially tribal emotions of mass longings and mass repudiations. That is a classic Buddhist response and could be fruitful.

But the issue goes deeper. Basically, the whole debate has been conducted as a moral question. Should we put planet first or my nation, or my family first? As long as this is a debate about morals, we have already yielded ground; the debate is no longer grounded in the reality of each breath, which is beyond morality.

Morality is an insufficient argument for the changes needed, especially in the richest democracies, where politics is driven by short term populist fantasy that it will forever be true that nothing much need ever change, no sacrifices are necessary. Wishfully, many think that somehow science and technology will always rescue us, and those calling for us all to become more moral are an elite seeking to impose on the masses their elitist agenda. In public opinion polls, people always say they have moral principles, that they prefer free range eggs over factory hen eggs, and renewable energy over fossil fuels. But voters are also quick to believe they should be exempt from any collective effort to make such moves mandatory, through legislation. There will always be populist politicians who pander to the chronic sense of dissatisfaction with life, encouraging us to focus that diffuse sense of disappointment by blaming the moralists of climate change who urge us to lead frugal lives.

What is the Buddhist alternative? In the face of these very human tendencies towards certainty, resistance to change, denial and self-centredness, any effective alternative needs, at all times, to be flexible, playful, fluid, responsive, open-minded yet also fair-minded, decisive, ready to act effectively when the moment is right. In short, we need insight, depth, wisdom, confidence, compassion and power; which happen to be innate capacities Buddhist practice discovers, in the process of spiritual growth under the tutelage of an enlightened teacher.

We need leaders we can actually trust. Such trust grows gradually as we witness their consistent capacity to transcend self-centredness and a habituated us-them mentality. There are enlightened ones among us, who not only understand the teachings of the Buddha but actualise them in their own lives, who have realised the infinitely powerful nature of the mind, whose compassion arises immediately and spontaneously in response to circumstances, without the need for a moral code or ideology. Having realised the nature of mind, and of all phenomena, they are free, unencumbered by self-reference, available to others as embodiments of ultimate wisdom. They embody compassion, wisdom and power. They bring to life the texts and historic exemplars of Buddhism’s rich history, they are flesh and blood, can be observed over long periods to make sure they are the real deal.

If we are not to succumb to despair at the foolishness and short term greed of a world addicted to consumption, indifferent to the legacy we are leaving our own children and grandchildren, who shamelessly rob not only the past and the future, as well as predating on the present, we must have inspiring role models we can trust. We must know, experientially, that there are people among us who have genuinely transcended such heedless indifference to consequences. We must know, at any moment, that there are profoundly sane people in our midst who do see how interdependent is all life, whatever its form. We need to know that the example of the historic Buddha was not a singularity, a unique awakening the rest of us can only hazily guess at. As Buddhists we can do more than venerate a very venerable history, we can live it.

If we allow ourselves to get close to such people, they become our internal climate changers. With their clear minds and equanimity for all (including those who do them harm), they burn away the clouds of ignorance, confusion, greed and aversion. They turn down the temperature of our desires and dislikes, not through magical powers, but through example, persuasion, logic, genuineness and especially by holding up a mirror so we see ourselves as we are. They awaken in us a greater generosity, openness, responsiveness, clarity, inner strength and appreciation of others, as they are.
They teach us that the air we consciously breathe, as the tool of learning how to focus, is the atmosphere of the planet, not a sewer to dump endless wastes into. Each breath, several times in each minute of our life, joins us to the entire planet: a truth so obvious it is forgotten, so close it is not seen. Much of the profound truth of Buddhism is too simple to be believed, too close to see. The air that envelops us is a given, not warranting a moment of consciousness: how else could we so casually shit in our own nest? The brown haze pervading the motionless post monsoonal autumn air of Delhi, or any major Asian city, remains invisible and unnoticed even when it makes us cough, our eyes water. Conscious, mindful breathing is the start, of the way back to holding the mind steady, in order to awaken to profound insight.

These are the sources of a deeper confidence that is the alternative to the reign of hope and fear, right and wrong that drives the human world, the endless cycle.

But, many Buddhists and ecologists will say, the situation is urgent; we cannot wait while a few more people gradually cultivate a deeper awakening. The world is already on fire, we are in an emergency.
Whether these times we are living through right now really are an emergency, a tipping point, will only be known for sure decades afterwards. It may be that this is an emergency, of planetary proportions; or it may be that the emergency is still emergent. But what we do know is that people often respond badly to emergencies, are unprepared, unwilling to believe it can happen to them even as the flood, earthquake or fire erupts. While there are always people who behave heroically, most of us are shocked, numbed and unable to fully and honestly experience our loss and pain, when the emergency occurs. And once it has passed, we seldom learn much, reaching instead for a few simplistic things that should be different next time.

The downside of insisting that the situation is urgent is that it breeds a defensive, resentful indifference in many, perhaps most people. The more we third pole campaigners stridently proclaim the urgency of the situation, the more we turn people off. For some it is just too much to cope with, and they tune out. Some feel they have many times heard experts warn of some terrible danger, such as asteroids crashing into the earth, for which only experts have the (expensive) answer. Meanwhile, people have children to feed, let others pay heed to such remote threats. The rhetoric of urgency is counter-productive, especially if we keep it up for years. People just say: if it really was urgent, it would have come to a head by now. Some people just can’t imagine that an invisible gas in the air, measured in parts per million, could change everything.

So, even if the situation actually is urgent, change will take time. We need to find ways to help people reconnect. Now a majority of the planetary population lives in cities, which seem immune to laws of nature, natural scarcity, dependence on seasons and natural cycles. We have the illusion we have conquered nature, and our capacity for mastery is infinite. If there is a climate problem, science and technology will solve it. This naïve hope for a magical solution is encouraged by politicians who lack the courage and confidence to govern, to reveal the inconvenient truths of a planet where oil will soon run out except for the super rich.

It will take time before people will be willing to consider the possibility that there is not always a magical, painless win-win solution; that we will have to simplify our lives and reduce consumption. At present, those who say such things are routinely dismissed as extremists, radicals on the fringe, not to be taken seriously.

Even if we find simple, clear and direct ways to encourage people to reconnect the dots, to rediscover that we too are animals and cannot subdue the earth forever, it will take time. But as Buddhist we know that people do awaken. We know that it is inherent in human nature to awaken from slumber, stupor and delusion, that all of us are awakening, if only momentarily, at any time. The way out is to encourage such momentary awakenings, even if it takes a generation or more to gain sufficient momentum to change direction on a social and even planetary scale. This is the attitude of “minimum needs and maximum contentment” as Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche succinctly puts it.

It will take a generation because, even when people do awaken to their interdependence, they may still be confused by the proposed solutions on offer. We could be in for another round of big corporations spending far more on advertising how green they are, than they spend on actually reducing the carbon they emit, leaving everyone with the impression that the problem has now been solved. Exhausting such corporate spin, greed disguised as green, is not achieved overnight.

Yet the realised Buddhas among us never give up, and are always alert to opportunities to do something meaningful and constructive. Such moments are often fleeting, such as the popular groundswell in rich countries in 2007 that we must get real about climate change. While there was remarkable popular consensus, in the old polluting countries at least, it evaporated as fear of more immediate financial losses took over.

As Buddhists we will not be so disheartened by such groundswells. We will not respond to the dashing of the high hopes of a few years ago by despairing, or stridently lecturing people on their irrationality. The science of climate change is too important to be left to the scientists. The business of including costs to the environment in the cost of being in business, is too important to leave to the corporations which, as we have seen, cannot even save themselves from destroying the wealth they have created. The politics of a new global treaty to effectively limit global warming is unquestionably too important to leave to politicians whose re-election depend s on telling people only what they are already habituated to hear.

There is space for Buddhist voices, speaking plain truths quietly, without anger or self-righteousness. People are searching for, hungry for basic truths, coming from those without vested interests. People can accept unwelcome truths only if spoken without animosity or accusation, without blame or emotional subtext. When the message is delivered by someone with an agenda, an axe to grind, people get suspicious, focusing on the messenger, rather than the message.
Buddhists, who have transcended personal bias and emotional investment in outcomes, will make the best messengers and educators, best able to persuade people to do something quite unusual, almost unprecedented in human history; to consider the planet as a whole. The cosmopolitan citizen of the world is an old idea, but seldom realised. It is only very recently that science has proposed a new idea: that there are many regional, local and microclimates, but there is also one interconnected planetary climate, and that human activity is capable of altering it for the worse, thus also capable of altering it for the better. This may not be new to those versed in Buddhist cosmology, but it is new to almost everyone alive today, whose boundaries extend at most to the national border.

The realised, confident, fluid, skilful Buddhas among us are especially able to help the helpers, to train the trainers, and educate us to be mindful of the needs and limits of our planet. If we look at some of our teachers, who went from being princes of an established church to becoming dispossessed refugees, we can see the depth of their adaptability. From being outcasts in a strange land, they have quietly become the guides to the opinion leaders and culture shapers of the modern world, not only in western countries but increasingly now in greater China too.
Our Buddhist teachers have steered many towards awakening into a more grounded, authentic, capable and effective way of living; guiding a new generation who increasingly become effective and capable community leaders, able to participate in global negotiations skilfully, and without the extremes of despair, urgency, hectoring or claiming to be uniquely qualified knowers of absolute truth. In four decades, the Tibetan lamas have arrived in the heart of the modern world, as guides those with ready access to all external sources of abiding happiness, who are ready for the turn within. The influence of these magnetically attractive beacons of clarity, contentment, insight and power will only grow.
The tools of transformation are not at all mysterious. Innumerable Buddhist texts and manuals, auto/biographies and even pilgrimage guides describe with precision how the mind works, how it is obscured by habits and fixations, how the full, fluid power of the mind can be understood, experienced and realised under the guidance of one who is already fully awake and alert to the dangers of veering astray. The mind can become mindful, fully self-cognising, no longer opaque to itself, reduced to a mere instrument for apprehending all else. But this is, they say, an unlearning of the surface complexities of life, that enables an embodied, experiential discovery of what really matters, which is the nature of mind. Once the mind is able to rest in that experience, effortlessly mindful and present in all circumstances, much is possible, the texts say. This is achieved only in the intimate bond between teacher and student, a mind-to-mind encounter of great directness that enables correction of any tendency to make mind itself yet again a product, yet another artefact embellishing egoic habits. It is not a solitary path. Very few of those who fully awaken do so alone, under a tree. Most need to be subtly steered by one who has taken the path.

In 2011 we celebrate 2600 years of Buddhist awakening, a long, cumulative, collective experiment in awakening. If in all that time the historic Buddha Shakyamuni was the only one to fully awaken, that would be sad. We could only deify him, placing his attainment utterly out of reach. But those 2600 years have been full of deep meditative experiences, which radically alter how the world and the self are seen and understood. As more and more practitioners over those centuries fully awoke, there grew an extraordinary richness of words, images, dances, embodied practices that encourage others onto the path. The flourishing of Buddhist art, literature, music, dance etc open up myriad entry points into the discovery of the nature of the mind, for people of widely varied dispositions. They all point, as suggestively as any metaphor can point, to the singular discovery of the nature mind and phenomena, and the workability of this difficult, politicised, passionate world.

Buddhism has evolved. This is a cause for rejoicing. The superficial diversity of Buddhism in its many national colourations, its absorption of the old gods and artforms and indigenous genius of the different peoples who became Buddhist, is something to celebrate, even as we find ourselves bewildered by the seeming differences. Buddhism, unlike the three great semitic religions, is not a religion of the book, of just one book, revealed at one historic moment to one writer of the divine word. Buddhism need not be reduced to just one method, whether it is rigorous insight meditation or devotional chanting or whatever.

What matters is that, as Buddhists, we retain a collective confidence that the example of the historic Buddha is replicable, and that people around us exemplify the same penetrating, luminous, all-accomplishing wisdom that Buddha Shakyamuni discovered. As long as we are confident that, as a global sangha, there will always be those among us who rediscover what the Buddha himself rediscovered (and did not invent), we confidently move in a troubled, confused world.

Some would reduce Buddhism to just one method. Some would have us reduce Buddhism to just one moral stance on the conflicts and confusions of our time. Engaged Buddhism takes an oppositional stance to established authority, implying that true Buddhists always stand in opposition to authority, speaking up for the victims of oppression. That is partiality, another dualism, a mere reversal of the entrenched dualism that privileges authority and demeans the outsider. A more inclusive approach has compassion for oppressed and oppressor, as the Buddha himself had when he offered a jewel to a king, because, in his neurotic royal mind, the king was the neediest person in the kingdom. Taking an oppositional stance can lead to depression, and urgency, because everywhere there is crisis, and little time to remedy great wrongs.

To some, this will smack of Buddhist triumphalism, a partisan championing of a few. Although I find their rise remarkable, they do not particularly draw attention to themselves or claim influence. To some, the diasporic spread of Buddhism to the west over 40 years is too slow to have much effect, given the needs of the time.

To maintain an oppositional stance requires all effective action to arise from democratic agreement, in which everyone is empowered and equal. This is exhausting and often ineffective, since new alternatives are hard to articulate beyond vague reference to a Great Turning to be hoped for. The past 2600 years since the awakening of the Buddha do offer an alternative, which is to trust in the authority of those Buddhist teachers who show, not only in their words but in their being, that they have fully awakened.

That is not the same in trusting Buddhist authority simply because it claims historic precedent or sanction. There will always be those who proclaim themselves to be Buddhist leaders, who make war on outgroups, or do violence in other ways. We should trust only those who show themselves to be consistently trustworthy, avoiding the extremes of permanent opposition, or automatic loyalty to established Buddhist authority. The Buddha himself advises us to test all teachings, to make sure they are genuine, and then to have faith.

We could suggest the voices of the climate movement and the climate scientists are deeply inflected with the prophetic tradition of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The prophet is the voice of righteousness crying in the wilderness, a voice urgently demanding of everyone that they repent of their wicked ways, or the creator will smite them all. In a secular age, where scientists see all religions as irrational, we can hardly expect the scientists and the righteous climate campaigners to reflectively discover that they have taken unto themselves the mantle of the prophets of the Torah/Old Testament.

If Buddhists do adopt this prophetic tone of righteous despair, it will not be the first time the Buddhist response to modernity has been mimicry. One has only to think of the Young Mens Buddhist Association of British Ceylon, a conscious copy of the YMCA, as a way of organising Sinhala Buddhists into a social force. But do we want to become just another force trying to muscle its way into public contention, claiming righteousness is on our side?
The prophetic tradition is a battle between darkness and light, right and wrong. The climate debate is full of such dualistic rhetorics. Buddhists can do better than choosing a side, and joining in the contention, of which there is no end. Buddhism provides profound and powerful trainings in making the world workable because the mind is workable, capable, luminous and untainted by the habits of selfishness, short-term advantage, denial and competition which drive the climate debate over our planetary future.