Impermanence, anicca in Pali, is the underlying fact of reality upon which the Buddha based his teachings of liberation. Things change. Accepting change and being willing to let go of what was is often seen as a great challenge.
But there is a more inspirational aspect of change that the Buddha also taught: Human beings can wake up from their ignorance to see things in a new way. This can happen not only individually, but also culturally. Entrenched conventional ignorance can undergo a paradigm shift and transform into a new, clearer way of understanding. Change based in greater wisdom and compassion can sometimes seem to move at a glacial pace. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But sometimes—with decades of hard-fought efforts behind it—a huge shift in thinking can happen seemingly overnight.
In recent times we’ve witnessed massive shifts in consciousness such as the recent landmark decision by the Supreme Court that, with one swift blow to prejudice, established same-sex marriage as the law of the land. And, as so often is true, suffering can wake us up out of complacency to suddenly see things in a new way. The Charleston tragedy of nine good-hearted Christians murdered by a confused, angry young man swiftly awoke even the staunchest Southern conservatives to the fact that the Confederate flag is a symbol of hatred that has no place flying in front of the state courthouse, regardless of the tradition some ascribe to it.
Not only is change possible, it is inevitable. And it can happen like a thunderbolt, altering the way the whole society thinks once it is forced to wake up to what’s true. This possibility may apply to the great issue facing all of humanity at this time: climate disruption. It’s understandable that so many knowledgeable experts on climate change are filled with discouragement and despair. Never before have we so clearly seen humankind’s greed and denial steering civilization onto a course toward self-destruction.
At the same time, never before has there been so much self-awareness and concern for the planet. As Roger Walsh, MD puts it, “We are in a race between fear and consciousness.” In the long run consciousness trumps fear, but it’s uncertain whether time is on our side. Although there’ is good cause for despair we also can be inspired by the rapid shift happening in our collective consciousness around this issue. A quick Google search on climate change shows 141 million entries! In the last ten years the crisis has become an accepted concern for communities all over the world and fills the news every day. And no one can deny the dedication and commitment of millions who are working tirelessly for a better, more sustainable world.
With so much at stake, the forces of goodness are speaking up louder and more courageously than ever. Pope Francis, embodying Jesus’ teachings of love and compassion, has now become a voice of conscience on climate change, not only for 1.2 billion Catholics, but for all.of us. In his recent landmark Encyclical, he argues strongly and convincingly that we need to be accountable for the damage we’ve done to our planet. Even more, he asks us to see the toll our greed has taken on the most oppressed and to willingly take on the responsibility we have as stewards in actively caring for both the marginalized and the planet with our love.
While admonishing us for mistreating the beautiful home we all share, he expresses faith that we are up to the task of making this a better world: “Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good and making a new start.”
As Pope Francis adds his powerful voice to this wake-up call for humanity, many think it’s time to shake off thoughts of despair and hopelessness and envision a new story for humanity. The Buddha said, “We are what we think. With our thoughts we make the world.” One way to hold our current crisis is to see it as what Andrew Harvey calls “a dark night of the species,” analogous to the well-known “dark night of the soul” of one’s individual spiritual journey. Suffering wakes us up, which is why the Buddha began his teaching with the First Noble Truth of Suffering.
Now humanity is faced with suffering that will sooner or later shake us out of our complacency and make us come to terms with the consequences of living unsustainably in a world of limited resources. Although there will undoubtedly be unavoidable dukkha, we could also view this as a unique opportunity to embody a new way of living.
Yes, many despair that things are moving too slowly and there might not be enough time to make a difference. Who knows? But since the degree of suffering experienced by all living beings depends on whether we wake up sooner or later, it makes sense to do what we can to support our awakening on the earlier side.
When enough people hold a shared vision of possibility, miracles can happen. Nelson Mandela, who was instrumental in the downfall of Apartheid, spoke of the “multiplicity of courage.” He said that when people come together for a cause they feed off each other’s commitment. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts and amazing things are possible. Once a tipping point is reached conventional wisdom can change at breathtaking speed.
And what does this mean for Buddhist practitioners? Bob Doppelt, long-time dharma practitioner and sustainability expert once told me has said: “The Dharma holds the key to shifting our culture’s thinking on this issue.” Whether it’s called Buddhism or simply “consciousness” we need to start understanding this situation from a dharma perspective. And with mindfulness having such a major impact in so many spheres of our culture from business to education to health there is an opportunity to affect thinking like never before.
Arnold Toynbee, the great historian, is said to have predicted that the most significant event of the 20th century may be the coming of Buddhism to the West. Why? Because Buddhist philosophy highlights several key universal truths that are at the heart of the shift of consciousness needed to save the planet from man-made destruction.
The first of these is the understanding of the interconnectedness of all life. As conservationist John Muir put it, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” This planet and its resources are not given to us to use as we like. We are part of an amazingly complex inter-dependent ecosystem. When we disrupt the delicate balance of life on this planet, it not only has grave consequences for other species, it’s also a suicidal path for all beings.
Intrinsic to Buddhist philosophy is a basic understanding of the law of karma: actions have consequences. This truth is not restricted to Buddhism, of course. Jesus taught, “As you sow, so shall you reap.” However, now more than ever we need to connect the dots so that those in power can clearly see that it’s in their own interest to leave a healthy and vibrant planet for their grandchildren, if not right now for the rest of us.
And as any good Buddhist knows, compassion is the natural by-product of an awakened heart. The situation now calls us to embody that caring heart not only in our perspective but also in our actions. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Compassion is a verb.” Bhikkhu Bodhi, the foremost translator of the Pali Canon is a clear voice for courageous action. In his forceful essay “A Challenge to Buddhists“ he believes that “the special challenge facing Buddhism in our age is to stand up as an advocate for justice in the world, a voice of conscience.” He calls this “a deeply moral challenge marking a watershed in the modern expression of Buddhism.”
These days many dharma practitioners are more than ever wondering how their practice can address the reality of climate change with many asking, “What can I do that could make a difference? What does my practice have to offer this dire situation?” For those who are seriously looking for answers, you and your sanghas are invited to explore the online Ecosattva Training hosted by One Earth Sangha. The purpose of the training is to integrate our dharma practice with the current climate crises so that we can engage directly with our experience and discover how to bring our practice to this complex issue.
The Dalai Lama has said that world systems come and go. We don’t know what the future holds, but if we know we’ve done what we can we’ll be able to respond to our situation with greater equanimity Angeles Arrien, cultural anthropologist and visionary, taught that “Action absorbs anxiety.” Our own commitment can become a catalyst for those around us to express their caring as well. As Dharma students we have what Julia Butterfly Hill calls a “joyful responsibility” to do what we can to bring more consciousness into the world. Not only is goodness our basic nature, it’s contagious and what we do affects others in very powerful ways. If we accept that a positive response is possible, we can become a part of the tipping point that could make a huge difference to humanity, all other life forms and a planet crying out for our loving care.