Written by Lauren Howard Coleman, Shantideva Meditation Volunteer
Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. As Christians…we wish to commit ourselves to the conscious and responsible care of our common home. To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it. ~ Pope Francis
On September 25th, Shantideva Meditation Center members attended the Light the Way Vigil at the United Nations, in order to show solidarity for the Pope’s message to the United Nations General Assembly the next morning. Representatives from a total of 19 Buddhist temples, centers and sanghas were in attendance at the Interfaith Vigil at Dag Hammarskjold Park. This was one of 75 worldwide vigils taking place that day. The Light the Way vigil was followed by a larger public event and an overnight interfaith Prayer Vigil at Our Church of the Savior. Some of the most poignant memories occurred in the early morning hours of the overnight vigil in which meditations, mantras, vows and prayers were shared during the Buddhist Hour in the sanctuary of the church. Special mention should be given to our own Jacqueline Rossi, who stayed the entire night of the vigil, and still had the wherewithal to share in the reading of the Shantideva Prayer at 6:30 AM!
In an unprecedented show of action, Pope Francis has bravely come out to not only draw attention to the severity and priority of climate change, but also to the socio-economic and political trends that contribute to it. He has boldly pointed out that the impacts of climate change are not equally distributed, but harms the world’s poorest with the greatest severity. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, a spiritual ambassador for OurVoices, the multi-faith advocacy group for climate awareness that was responsible for organizing the Light the Way Vigil, wrote in an article appearing in Tricycle Magazine, “A Buddhist Response to Pope Francis’ climate encyclical”:
“While the Pope points out the obvious fact that climate change affects everyone, he strikes out in a bold, even audacious direction, by emphasizing that the impacts of climate change are not evenly distributed. Rather, the entire process of extracting and burning fossil fuels hits the world’s poor with disproportionate severity, thus making climate change an issue of social justice as well as a challenge to our survival… Tackling the crisis, for the Pope, calls for a comprehensive solution that reaches right down to the foundations on which the global social and economic system is built.”
It is widely held that the reason for the Pope’s radical activism, his lengthy missive on climate change in his encyclical, and in his address to the United Nations and to the US Congress, is the pope’s desire to influence the critical UN climate meeting in Paris in December, where countries will try to conclude 20 years of negotiations with one universal commitment to reduce harmful emissions. Already 87% of the participating nations have submitted targets for reducing carbon emissions. India, the third largest industrial polluter in the world, was the last major country to issue its plan on October 1st, and has committed to cutting emissions by 33-35% by 2030. Although we still have a lot of work to do, this is a huge and unprecedented step in the right direction.
So what about our own engagement as Buddhists on the global front, and within our communities? Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi also addresses this point in his article. In the past, Buddhists have been reticent to engage in political agendas. Traditionally, he points out, Buddhists have regarded politics with distrust, and thus have been reluctant to advance Buddhist values in the public arena. “For the traditionalist,” writes Bhikkhu Bodhi, “the most effective way we can combat climate change is by altering our personal habits and… to purify our minds.” And although these are certainly commendable and helpful means from a personal Buddhist perspective, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi further states that such a view of practice does not “measure up to the immensity of the challenge we face today.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s words, way back in 1986 carried much the same message: “It is not difficult to forgive destruction in the past, which resulted from ignorance. Today, however, we have access to more information, and it is essential that we re-examine ethically what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations. Clearly this is a pivotal generation.” He concluded that message back then with a call to “act before it is too late.”
It has become increasingly clear to Buddhist communities in all traditions that we must also step up to the plate, and address this crisis on several fronts:
- Personally, in aligning ourselves with our own Buddha nature, and through a sense of personal agency, recognizing that the world becomes a better place not only because of what we do, but because of who we are;
- That through community and collaboration we can be more effective. Community represents the shift from individualism towards something collective and much more powerful than what we can achieve on our own;
- By taking refuge in the Dharma and our Dharma communities we are more mentally and emotionally capable of addressing what might otherwise be perceived as insurmountable and hopeless causes; and
- Through active engagement and participation on the global level we give support to our values and fulfill our vows to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings.
There is no way we can do this on our own. An isolated individual is not as powerful as a political and economic system. However, when we join hands together and face these challenges that seem so daunting, it not only becomes that much more effective, but it also makes it that much more bearable and sustainable. And looking back at our participation in the multi-faith vigils in September, it is apparent that something wonderful and beautiful is emerging. When we see the multi-tradition Buddhist community coming together for a common good along with the voices of so many faiths, it reminds us that as a larger community, we also have a larger and more substantial voice. And in this we can also have great hope.