Is Climate Change a Crisis for Buddhism? A Conversation with David Loy

On Tue, 27 February, 2018 - 12:48
mokshini's picture

This video is a webinar from the oneearthsangha network, in which David Loy shares some interesting thoughts on the current state of Buddhism in the West. 

For David Loy, the current ecological crisis is at the same time a crisis for our understanding of Buddhism. Do have a listen to the video; alternatively is a summary of some of the points David Loy makes in this talk. 

Notes on David Loy talk  (bold = my emphases) 

In what ways is this ecological crisis a crisis for our understanding and practice of Buddhism?

 He approaches this topic through use of two metaphorical ‘icebergs’ – the point about icebergs being that they are largely invisible. Only the top 1/5 is visible – the other 4/5 is invisible and beneath the surface -  but of course supporting what we can see.

 The first iceberg is our situation: we are not just facing a critical ecological situation. At the top is challenge of climate change, ‘global warming’  - i.e.  a euphemism for something that would be better described as ecological breakdown or climate emergency.

There are three aspects we could point to - 

a) ecological breakdown does seem to be the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced

b) it is not an external threat – it is something we are doing to ourselves; imagine how differently we would feel if it was some alien that was pumping carbon into our atmosphere! How quickly we would bond together to act against that. But we are doing it to ourselves and that makes it hard to figure out what to do;

c) a lot of happening, we are responding as a global civilization to this challenge - but we are not doing enough. We are not responding sufficiently and the question is why aren’t we?

That is the very tip of the iceberg! But the overwhelming challenge of climate emergency can divert from the fact this is just one part of a greater ecological crisis:

Look at the oceans – they are becoming warmer, more acidified, damages coral reefs; but that is by no means everything that is going on with the oceans: plastic! every square meter of the ocean has plastic particles in it! Rubbish patches …. By 2048 it is predicted all the major fishing areas will be fished out - if this goes on quite soon there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish and marine life - a staggering thought.

But of course, there is more - most shocking of all we are in the midst of one of the greatest extinction events; and only due to US. By the end of the century 50% of species will be extinct. There have been five other major previous extinction events - this is the fastest ever. 

And even this is not on - you could go on and on – what is happening with butterflies, with honey bees, desertification, shortage of clean water, destruction of tropical rainforests; impact of nuclear waste, – etc. etc.

 The current climate breakdown and the ecological crisis are at the tip of the iceberg – but both of these are above the surface: but what do both imply what is below the surface?

The point here is that it may be possible that we can change global warming and shift over to renewable energy but that won’t shift the ecological crisis; because the ecological crisis – the visible part of the ice berg -  is a symptom of much much bigger: A symptom of a human situation that has lost its way. (cf Joanna Macy)

Our collective preoccupation with never-ending economic growth and consumption, consumerism - it is an obsession, a religion. This fundamental re-orientation of our civilization is incompatible with our finite planet. The Buddha would have had quite a bit to say on this – why this fixation on growth can’t give us the kind of happiness we seek. 

But to understand better the relationship between the top part of the iceberg, the ecological crisis, and this larger part, the human predicament; I’ll unpack an example: of overfishing and what the Mitsubishi conglomerate is doing.

Example: of Mitsubishi and blue fin tuna: apparently the Japanese love blue fin tuna – and they are severely overfished. But Mitsubishi have bought up a large share of the blue fin tuna and keep them frozen – because they will command massive prizes once the blue fin tuna is semi extinct. From an ecology perspective – it is obscene. From an economic perspective it is quite rational: the fewer blue fin tuna the higher the prices. And if Mitsubishi don’t do it, someone else will. 

This example points to the fundamental perversity built into of the economic model we follow, which is based on using the natural world as a means to that goal. It is based on assumption that the satisfaction of our desires will gives us happiness.

This is ironic especially if you consider that in itself money is worthless – though as an agreed means of exchange we can buy nearly anything from it. Money symbolizes happiness. The problem being that this symbolic possibility of money overshadows our real sources of wealth.

Money equals happiness: and in its pursuit we destroy real wealth – our healthy oceans, forest, our biosphere. We end up sacrificing what is of real value for something and to maximize something for something that in itself has no value.

The whole ecological crisis is an urgent symptom of a larger problem, this perverse logic, the collective focus of a civilization on ever increased production and consumption, which requires ever more exploitation of our natural resources, sooner or later will have to come up against the limits of the biosphere.  

Many dharma teachings are relevant here – especially those on interdependence and of duality.  The ecological crisis shows that up -  when China burns coal- the emissions don’t just stay over China; when Japan has a nuclear disaster at Fukoshima this affects other nations; the radiation released into the sea doesn’t just stay in Japanese waters.

The ecological crisis challenges our whole way of understanding; it seems to require us to realize non-duality; highlights the greatest duality between that of humanity and that of the earth; and the ecology crisis is saying it is not going to work anymore until we realise that we are all affected by it.

The ecological crisis teaches us that if the earth gets sick, we get sick. It is the basic teaching of karma. Ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis as if the earth is telling us to wake up.


Second iceberg: Buddhism:

The ecological crisis and the larger civilization crisis is just as much a crisis for Buddhist teaching: it requires us to clarify the essential message of Buddhist teaching if it going to fulfil its liberative potential in the modern world: in other words, Buddhism itself has to wake up.

 It is another iceberg: At the very tip of it is ecodharma, i.e. what unites us- and it is gratifying that Buddhist interest in ecodharma has been growing. BUT here is my question: the ecological crisis has been front page news for almost 25 years - why has it taking Buddhists so long to wake up to it??

There have been workshops and teachings on this for decades. Why is there indifference or even resistance to exploring the implications? That is still the case. When the teacher announces that the topic is to be ecodharma, fewer people turn up. People avoid it when we talk about Buddhist ecology. What is going on?? 

 Ecodharma is just the tip of a larger issues which we can call social engagement in general. At the time of the recession of 2008 the two biggest ecology/social engaged Buddhist organizations in US basically collapsed financially – why?? Why isn’t the money there for social engagement?  

On the other hand, it is not that engaged Buddhism has failed – you could even say it is the victim of its own success – it is now generally accepted that it can be part of one’s path to work in hospices or working with the homeless, or prison dharma. So, we have become better in pulling people out of the river. We accept that is OK to help pull people out of the river – but we are not so good at asking, why are there so many more people in the river these days?? Who is pushing them in upstream?? 

It is still flabbergasting that in the US, the richest nation on earth, there are over 1 million school children who are homeless.  And there is a growing gap between rich and poor – 1% own more than the other 99%, not just in the US. 62 individuals are wealthier than the bottom half of humanity.

I am reminded of a famous line of Brazilian bishop - “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist” - [name??}   Is there a Buddhist version? So it is OK to help people in prison or homeless people and we are called bodhisattvas. but when we ask why are so many people in prison, then we are told that is nothing to do with Buddhism- that is leftism/radicalism/ politics etc. Really?! 

Both forms of engaged Buddhism are at the top of the iceberg - below the tip of the iceberg that is something that has become more popular – contrast social engagement with mindfulness movement. This is mainly and often great – though not without controversy, especially in its relation to business and corporations. Important to point out although mindfulness can be beneficial this can stop or discourage critical reflection on the institutional causes of suffering.

 Bikkhu Bodhi has warned: Buddhist practices can easily be used to justify and stabilise the status quo and be used to support and reinforce capitalism. Mindfulness can be used to support the submerged part of the first iceberg and our preoccupation with never ending growth. 

The contrast is – mindfulness movement is so successful, and Buddhist social engagement is much smaller and struggling on: it is the contrast between the two that makes us ask the question: what is there below the surface – what is there within the Buddhist tradition that is maybe encouraging this way of understanding and practising Buddhism??

Buddhism will decline if it becomes evident that it hasn’t got what Is needed to face the great challenges of the today. 

There are two basic problems, two sides of the same coin:

Cosmological dualism vs individual salvation: both have encouraged an attitude of indifference towards natural and social systems.

 First, cosmological dualism: the idea there are two realities: ‘down here below’ and ‘heaven’. Inevitable in the distinction there is a devaluation of this reality; in fact, this reality becomes a means to an end to attaining ‘heaven’. 

In Buddhism: is there is a devaluation of this world of suffering and craving and delusion, is there the idea that we need to transcend it, in some way escape it? Transcending this world so we are not reborn, so we don’t come back to this world of suffering. It is of course more complicated than this – as it is pointed out that samsara is not really different to nirvana; but it is one strong tendency.  Do we understand nirvana in such a way that we undervalue our life in this world?

 In Buddhism there is very much the idea that Awakening as an individual is the aim, that the good thing is not to be reborn:  it is more complex of course – but it is tendency that tends to devalue this kind of world. Ending rebirth in this unsatisfactory world - that is the traditional attitude.

Modern science hasn’t discovered anything yet that supports a higher reality – so perhaps it is not surprising that Buddhism has developed as a programme that helps us with personal problems. Buddhism is providing a new perspective in psychology, and helps sort through our emotional life, helps us with working through personal traumas and problems – with our ‘monkey mind’; it is more a secular Buddhism. It is certainly providing exciting perspectives on modern psychology. The basic presupposition of this type of Buddhism is that “the core problem is the way my individual mind works so the solution is to work on my mind”. So we become a better spouse, a better worker, a better friend. My life goes more smoothly.

 Notice the pattern in traditional Buddhism – it is about escaping this world, transcending the world; in contrast a lot of Modern Buddhists make much more of harmonizing with this world, adjusting our mind. 

Neither is concerned with transforming this world.  Both tend to take this world for granted and in that sense tend to accept it as it is. There is very much emphasis of changing our mind to be happier and relate better to the world: it is not society that is the problem, it is just me. Neither of these approaches encourages ecodharma or other types of social engagement –

Again, whether you understand the path as transcending this world, or whether you understand it as changing you mind in response; it doesn’t encourage you to look for causes of social dukkha, the institutionalization of greed, ill will and delusion in the structures the ways of society are working.  

Both of these main ways of understanding B end up promoting a distinctly a Buddhist type of way of responding to the ecological crisis. E.g. when I read something disturbing, e.g. ecological; what happens: I feel somewhat distraught, discouraged, anxious – but hey, I’m a Buddhist practitioner, I know what to do and how to cope with that – I do meditation, and what happens, I can let go of anxiety and distress. [Cf with Vaddhaka’s quote of Zizek in his book The Buddha on Wall Street] 

Basic point: this Ambivalence about the nature of awakening is challenge we need to resolve: we can’t accept this anymore. it is not a matter of saying “we are meditating to kind of check out from this world, we don’t want to be bothered by these problems”; or, ” We are meditating to resolve the stress of the mind, so we can harmonize more with the world”; 

We do need to clarify what the essential message of Buddhism is. And I think it is neither one of those. Neither one of those honours what the best of the tradition has to offer us here.

 My suggestions is another way of understanding the Buddhist path: the Buddhist path and practice is not about escaping the world, or harmonising with it, it is about deconstructing and reconstructing how we experience the world and in particular ourselves in relating to the world. 

We can transform our minds so we experience the world in a different way. So, it is not just our minds, but it is the way the world is experienced. What I am getting at here is that the fundamental dukkha is due to the sense of a separate self, i.e. the duality the sense that I am here and the rest of the world is ‘out there’;

We resolve this dukkha be deconstructing this sense of self when we meditate – and by reconstructing, and that is what is going on with transforming our motivations, which is of course the key of what the Buddha was talking about. The Buddha was emphasizing motivation, it is by changing our motivation that we understand the world in a different way. We don’t need to worry about the consequences, what we need to be concerned about is our motivation here and now.  How we respond to the situation is what matters – not just personal individual ones, but larger social challenges.

 To conclude: please note the really important social implication – if what I am saying is true – if this is a better way to understand, that we individually can deconstruct and reconstruct our way of relating to and experiencing the world; this also applies to our social situation, including ecodharma: we start to wake up and realize that we are not separate to each other and not separate from this earth. We need to realise that the way we relate to earth, the way we live, this too has to be deconstructed. Which means not only social engagement understood as service, helping people individually; but finding ways to address the problematic economic and political structures. The institutionalized forms of greed, hatred and delusion. An economic system where we never have enough. The institutionalization of ill will - treatment of prisoners, and military. And the institutionalization of the media which aren’t really interested in the truth, educating and informing us but rather grabbing our attention so they can sell it to the highest bidder or advertising.

We have to see these problems for what they are – as institutionalized versions of the three poisons which the Buddha pointed to as the roots of evil. They are institutionalized versions of greed, hatred and delusion – once we see that, the path of personal transformation and the social transformation are not separate to each other and we have to work on both. They need each other.

 This is a huge challenge. If we don’t want to do that, then we really need to ask if Buddhism not what the world needs right now. The Buddhist traditions have extraordinary potential to help us face the crises – but if we are not willing to do that we need to find other ways.

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parami's picture

thanks for posting this Mokshini. I will try to watch the video - I think David Loy always makes interesting points so I look forward to this.


Vajracaksu's picture

Thank you very much for this Mokshini (I read just your notes.) He makes many fine points and I very much resonate with his fundamental conclusion:

“…the path of personal transformation and the social transformation are not separate to each other and we have to work on both. They need each other.”

There are quite a few typos etc. in ghe notes. If you have the time, just polishing it up a bit will be helpful but thank you for bringing this to our attention and for your hard work.

Kind wishes