THE BLOG
10/02/2013 08:39 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2013

Earth Care Week: Buddhists Respond to Climate Change

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As a Buddhist teacher I've been interested in finding true happiness through directly opening to suffering. A major interest and focus of my teaching has been awakening the natural joy that is within us. But two years ago after reading Bill McKibben's brilliant, sobering book, Eaarth, I had to face the harsh realities of climate change. My optimism was shaken as I came to terms with the fact that the future looks pretty bleak.

Although the current picture can seem pretty depressing, it's also been heartening to see that more and more people are starting to become aware of the dangers connected with the most crucial issue facing us today. As a wise friend of mine says, "We're in a race between ignorance and consciousness."

This past June fifty senior teachers met at an International Vipassana Teachers Conference at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Calif., where I teach. On the agenda was Climate Change: specifically the role Buddhism might play and the responsibility of those who share the teachings.

As the teachers attending energetically discussed the issue, across the floor was a scroll of 2000+ names of meditation students who had signed a request for teachings and guidance on wise response to Climate Change. Leading the discussion was Bob Doppelt, a longtime practitioner who coordinates the National Partnership for Climate Solutions, a non-partisan group of organizations that has worked with the White House to encourage and support their efforts in dealing with Climate Change.

Bob's very moving and provocative presentation was based on a book he wrote From Me to We which outlines five principles needed to shift the consciousness of the population in a meaningful response to the imminent danger. How would we respond to this challenge?

As a result of that gathering this week, October 1-7, Buddhists around the U.S. and abroad are participating in the first annual Earth Care Week. Communities are gathering to share teachings and participate in activities exploring climate change as ground for our awakening. The website One Earth Sangha has been established to be a repository for these teachings and exchange of ideas with regard to the Dharma and Climate Change. You can get a sense of some activities planned for this week here. Perhaps you'll be motivated to organize something in your own community. You don't have to be a Buddhist; your care and support of the Earth is enough.

In the last few months since the June gathering teachers have been responding. Jack Kornfield, one of the leading Buddhist voices recently did a video for www.demandcleanpower.org. And a core group of Buddhist and mindfulness community leaders have signed a letter urging President Obama to reject the Keystone Pipeline.

A group of teachers have also been holding conference calls with Bob sharing ideas and activities drawn from Buddhist philosophy to help inspire practitioners. These conversations have been very lively and productive including some of the most respected leaders in Theravada Buddhism such as Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi and Tara Brach. They largely focus on the central teaching of Buddhism, The Four Noble Truths, as applied to climate change: 1) There is suffering, 2) There is a cause of suffering, 3) There is an end to suffering, 4) There is a path leading to the end of suffering.

I personally have been inspired by Andrew Harvey's vision of a new wave of "sacred activists" who combine the mystic's love of peace with the activist's love of justice. Harvey, in his book The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism, likens the crisis we're facing to the "Dark Night of the Soul" which precedes spiritual awakening. In the same way, he sees our situation as a "Dark Night of the Species" which has the potential to usher in a new Awakening for humanity. Certainly, in classical spiritual cultivation, suffering is often the catalyst that shakes one out of complacency to a genuine possibility of liberation.

Yes, the reality is that there will likely be immense suffering in the coming years for all species human and non-human. And, unfortunately, those in the poorest circumstances who have less to do with causing climate change will be hit hardest.

But as we go through this crisis together in the coming years, humanity will be presented with a huge opportunity. We just might wake up and realize how precious life is and how much we love this planet and all the life on it. We can discover a new way of living together where greed is not the main principle driving success, oil is not king and huge corporations run by a small group of the rich and powerful aren't the ones who makes the rules for the rest of us.

Going through the consequences of climate change will likely be the greatest test mankind has ever faced. As more and more people realize what lies ahead, the earlier we change our thinking and behavior as a species, the less suffering there will be. Although it might seem futile to some, consciousness on issues can change very quickly. We've seen this with women's rights, an African-American as president and gay marriage. I remember many years ago coming across a study that said what is needed to change public opinion and conventional wisdom on an issue is a 7 percent shift in viewpoint.

It's not too late to make a meaningful difference. As Angeles Arrien says, "Action absorbs anxiety." And wise action coming out of love is contagious. Minimizing the disasters through wise action will take tremendous courage, perseverance and commitment on the part of everyone who deeply cares about the future of our civilization. But when we look at the alternative, the price of staying asleep will be filled with unimaginable suffering.

Margaret Klein wrote in a recent, powerful article: "Our society is living a massive lie about the threat of climate change. It's time to wake up." We can all be part of this waking up. As Buddhists around the world participate in Earth Care Week, I hope you will be inspired to express your caring in ways that contribute to the well-being of us all. Perhaps an annual Earth Care Week or Earth Day won't be something that we mark on a calendar but rather our natural way of being as a species and as responsible stewards on this amazing planet that is our home.