What Would Buddha Do?

By Joseph Mishan

Here is the video and transcript of the talk Joe gave at the What Would Buddha Do? people’s assembly on 3rd Feb.

A commentary on 3 questions:

  • What are appropriate responses to the Climate and Ecological Emergency
  • What can climate activists learn from Buddhism
  • Where does Buddhism and XR-style activism converge and diverge

As Buddhists we are asked to face into the truth of the way things are. I think it’s really important to enter this discussion with full awareness of what is at stake; with awareness of the extent and gravity of the Climate and Ecological Emergency that we are facing. Otherwise it can become an interesting absorbing, even fascinating discussion that is divorced from the real world and so lacks urgency and reality.

I’m sure a lot of you perhaps all of you, will be familiar with the facts of the Climate and Ecological Emergency, but I know from my own experience that it’s so easy to forget and to drift into complacency or into numbness.

So I’m going to do a very brief whistle stop tour of the facts of the crisis

We now know that the rate of extinction of species means that we are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction event. Human activities have caused the world’s wildlife populations to plummet by more than two-thirds in the last 50 years. And humans plus domesticated livestock now account for 96% by biomass of all life on Earth.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is approaching a level not seen for at least 800,000 years. On our current trajectory we are heading for a global average temperature increase of at least 3.2%C which could occur as early as 2060 according to a recent UN report. This would intensify mass extinction and large parts of the globe would become uninhabitable. We can expect starvation, intensified extreme weather events mass migration and armed conflict. We have 8 years to reduce CO2 levels by 45% if we are to have any chance to avoid this.

The Earth’s oceans are acidifying, heating up and rising as a result of atmospheric heating and the C02 increase. Acidification is causing mass die-offs of coral reefs which are the breeding ground for many species of fish and feed a large proportion of the population. Half of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to death since 2016. We can expect further escalation of extreme storms, storm surges and flooding. This will effect coastal cities and communities across the planet.

And it is important not to forget the fact that poorer communities and countries around the world are the first to experience these impacts  although they have done least to contribute to the problem.

James Hansen former director of NASA, who is outspoken on climate crisis, has said that the Earth’s warming has brought us to the “precipice of a great tipping point”. If we go over the edge, it will be a transition to “a different planet”, an environment far outside the range that has been experienced by humanity. There will be no return within the lifetime of any generation that can be imagined, and it will exterminate a large fraction of species on the planet”

Is there hope in all this?

Yes. There is hope. The chief of the UN Environment Programme this:

‘Is it possible to avert disaster: Yes? Absolutely. Will it take political will? Yes. Will we need to have the private sector lean in? Yes. But the science tells us that we can do this.”

And I think the new Biden administration in the USA is looking really impressive and hopeful, with the climate issue being embedded in the structure of Government, new initiatives and jobs, and a lot of consultation and involvement of impacted minorities. There are also many signs from industry;  from car manufacturers to even the banking world that world is waking up to the crisis.  But action needs to be swift and radical. We will see what COP26 in Glasgow brings: XRBuddhists will be there making it happen of course.

It’s against this background then that I’d like to share a few reflections on the questions in front of us. I hope this will be food for thought.

I’m going to offer some reflections drawn from my own personal experience and perspective of activism which I hope will provide some fertile ground for the discussion we are going to do in our groups.

The climate crisis is, and will be, the cause of widespread suffering, particularly within communities that are often largely ignored. This includes non-dominant cultures in the global south and non-human species across the globe. It’s easy to get overwhelmed or numbed out by the statistics, and to forget about how much suffering is, and will be, experienced.The image of a koala bear wandering listlessly as if bewildered, in a burning forest in Australia last year with its fur smouldering, was so painful to watch. The fact that now only 4% of all life on earth by mass is wild, is a devastating statistic, and the image of hundreds of endangered sea turtles washed up dead coast of Mexico last year because of early floods was just really hard to look at.

So what can I do? Referring back to the first question What are appropriate responses to the Climate and Ecological Emergency?’

You may be aware that the phrase ‘an appropriate response’ is from Zen master Wun Yen in the 9th century. It was a typically pithy Zen response to the question from a student which was “What are the teachings of your entire lifetime?” and Wun Yen simply said, “An appropriate response.”

I think there are 3 points when addressing the appropriateness question (which I take to be a koan): firstly, what is an appropriate response to the level of urgency, secondly what is an appropriate response in view of our personal capacities, and thirdly what is an appropriate response in view of our alignment with our precious faith tradition.

I’m going to look at each in turn.

Starting with the level of urgency. The threat to the planet is imminent. It would surely be foolish to sit in the path of a No 52 bus whilst contemplating the essential emptiness of all phenomena. It is appropriate to do what we can to get out of the way. You may be aware of the Pali word ‘samvega’. Samvaga means ‘spiritual urgency’  – ‘a chastening sense of our own complacency in the face of suffering’. It refers to waking up to the realities of old age sickness of death, of how we have been living so blindly and complacently. Biku Bhodi has said that in the light of the climate and ecological crisis that: “we are invited not to panic, but to fiercely and decisively response”. This does not determine what we do, but does  informs the urgency and energy with which we do it.

Second, what is appropriate to our personal capacities – our talents and our passions? There are many and varied ways we can engage in this crisis, and it makes sense to find a way to engage which is in alignment with our abilities, our interests and our life circumstances. We need most of all to engage with what moves us; what evokes our passion and our compassion.  As  Howard Thurman the civil rights activist has said:

“Ask what makes you come alive, and go and do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

And thirdly, how we act needs to be appropriate to or in alignment with our our faith tradition; because our faith is an invaluable and irreplaceable sustaining and guiding force, especially in this time of crisis. With its depth, its richness and its clarity our faith is an indispensable compass which we can return to time and time again.

And to now speak to the question ‘what can climate activists learn from Buddhism’: I’d like to show you some images from our actions. And I’d invite you to be aware of what is evoked in you when you see these photos:

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What I see in these images is embodied equanimity in the face of threat  – the threat from police ranks or a disapproving public; and equanimity in our willingness to face into the threat of the climate emergency. And I would submit that the Buddhist deliberate cultivation, and capacity for equanimity as an embodied experience is a key quality that is perhaps unique to Buddhism . Although I would be interested to hear from other faith traditions on this point.

I’d like to add though that engagement in NVDA is also a means by which our practice develops and deepens. Perhaps in particular our capacity to hold strong emotions like fear, agitation or intense excitement are stretched and challenged during engagement. So while we approach action with equanimity our equanimity is also developing. It is after all when are challenged that we make progress on the path: insight and development is rarely the result of an easy life. I have to add that In my experience it is surprising how often joy and love arises as we witness the courage and beauty of our fellow activists.

A few comments now on Where do Buddhism and XR diverge and converge.

Is being a nuisance to the general public, being loud, or openly opposing something, which are all part of the XR approach to activism, in keeping with our faith? How does it sit with us?

Perhaps this partly depends on how we frame and approach what we are doing. The felt experience of seeing ourselves as simply being in opposition to is radically different I think than taking a stand for something we hold dear. Even though they might both result in the same action. An oppositional stance is aimed at the wrongness of the other – the damage done by oil exploration for example – and can lead into by blame and outer-directed anger. Taking a stand against oil exploration on the basis of the damage and pain inflicted upon wildlife or indigenous people comes much more from compassion, and results in the quality of fierce passion.

But there may be actions that XR do that we feel after reflection, are beyond our vows to non-harming or right speech or action. This is for each of us to determine in conversation with our Sanghas. And can we include the possibility that there are times when we are clinging to our faith or hiding on our cushions rather than just taking refuge? So instead of using our faith and practices as a root from which we grow into the world, we stay safe and protected. This goes back to the question of personal appropriateness again which I referred to above: have we found what really matters to us in all this; and what is right for us at this time in our lives?

There is also the question, what is activism actually anyway? Is talking to friends about the climate crisis, or engaging in forums like this part of activism? Is sitting in vigil in our gardens or a public place a form of activism? My own decision to risk arrest was undoubtedly the culmination of an internal  movement which started with less direct actions. Perhaps we might think about our contribution, what ever it is, as a small stream or tributary – one of many such streams – that feeds into a powerful river. We should not lose sight of the fact that we are all a part of something much larger than ourselves.

So to conclude

It is often said that there are two wings to the Buddhist path: wisdom and love, which suffuse and balance each other. Drawing upon these resources we can be steady and powerful. From this place of interconnection beyond our small sense of self, from our experience of the lived reality of interconnectedness, we can perhaps if we listen deeply, get an inkling of what our earth needs of us and what our heart needs; and perhaps find that they are after all, the same. This is to invite our Buddha nature. To ask what would the Buddha do is also to ask: how does the Buddha within speak to us from our hearts when we listen, in those rare and precious moments of deep silence, when we contemplate the terrible suffering that is already being afflicted upon our world.  And when we contemplate too , the beauty of the potential that is within this human form, and which is reflected in the life forms with which we are privileged to share this world?

So these are some thoughts and reflections which I hope might be of some use as you go through the next hour or so.

My invitation is to listen deeply, to listen patiently without expectation to what emerges in you. There is no right or wrong feeling or thought. Only the invitation to remain as far as possible in contact with yourself as we  lean into the realities of this crisis; into this suffering world which yet still so alive, and so astonishingly complex and so achingly beautiful. 

Posts and articles are the views of their authors and not necessarily of the XR Buddhists group.

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