Facing Ecological Crisis with the Buddha

An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a speech delivered at a “Spiritual Earth Day Celebration” held in Willimantic, CT, It was published in the Neighbors newspaper based in the “quiet corner,” northeastern CT USA in April, 2023.

We live in scary times. Catastrophic climate change looms. Insect populations are plummeting across the world. Nano-plastics suffuse our environment. We’ve begun the 6th Great Extinction on planet earth. Our children are revolting against the actions of a system they (rightly) see as stealing their future…

The spiritual path the Buddha gave us, the Noble Eight-Fold Path, offers us guidance and solace in these very challenging times. We can choose to learn and follow this path – whether we are “Buddhists” or not.

This wisdom is timeless, part of what Aldous Huxley called “The Perennial Philosophy.” It doesn’t belong to Buddhists. It can be adopted and adapted by anyone, regardless of religious tradition or beliefs (or lack thereof).

This is partly because it’s not so much about what you believe as what you do.

Yes, the teachings of the Buddha contain many concepts & ideas, but they are offered in a pragmatic and empirical spirit: we use them, practice them, and see how they work for us.

The practice is about how to be content in the present moment. How not to suffer, even as suffering, hatred, greed, want, and confusion, rage around us. We learn the important disctinction between suffering and the aversive stimuli that we, conventionally, believe directly cause that suffering. We learn how there is suffering hidden even in pleasurable stimuli and in desire.

The first Noble Truth the Buddha taught acknowledges that discontent, dissatisfaction, and pain are inevitable in the individual lives of sentient beings. All of us will grow old, experience sickness, and, ultimately, be separated from everything we hold dear.

The second Noble Truth tells us that it’s our emotional clinging that precipitates suffering – a clinging to things that, inherently, cannot not be clung to. It’s like trying to keep a barge from flowing down river by tightly grasping a rope. We must learn to let go if we wish to avoid rope burn.

The third Noble Truth says we can end this suffering. (This is the Buddha’s “good news.”) And the Fourth Noble Truth tells us how.

This “how” is the Noble Eight-Fold Path I mentioned earlier, the spiritual path the Buddha offers us. The eight parts of the path fall into three “Trainings.” Practitioners use the trainings to develop, hone, and purify their hearts and minds. I’ll call the trainings Wisdom, Mind, and Action. How can these three Trainings guide us in these troubled times?

Wisdom is a gut-level understanding of the Four Truths above… and also that we are all connected. Nature and humanity are one. There is no “away” in “throw away.”(1) This is the fundamental insight of Ecology – and a truth known long-before by all indigenous cultures. The late great Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh called it “interbeing.”

But it’s one thing to “know” this intellectually and another to feel it at such a deep level that we naturally act from that understanding.

If we identified with all humanity, how could we war? If we truly knew our intimate embeddedness in nature, how could we create and dump toxic wastes into the land, sea, and air? If we felt our kinship with all sentient beings, how could we eat and exploit others? (And thus greatly contribute to global heating…)

Wisdom is also the knowing that everything – all things(2) – are impermanent. Nothing lasts, everything changes. All living things will die. In 300 years, unless we become very famous, we will be forgotten.

Without Wisdom, we are deluded… we will cause harm… and we will suffer.

What I called the “Action” part of the path deals with how we treat one another. What is the most skillful way to speak, act, and earn our livings so that harm is not done to ourselves and others? What are the kinds of thought and intentions that naturally lead us to acting skillfully in the world?

The Buddha tells us that we can develop wonderful qualities of the heart and mind that illuminate our way and give us a wholesome motivation to act from. These are: compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, and nondiscrimination. When we see suffering in the world, we meet it with an open, undefended, heart of compassion. We practice an attitude of loving-kindness and good will toward all beings. We take joy where we find it and rejoice in the good fortune and happiness of others. And we apply these divine qualities equally to everyone, even our enemies.

To the extent that we do act to change the current destructive path our society has taken, we are often motivated by fear and anger. These might be natural, but they are not the most effective motivations. Fear often paralyzes. Or it can lead to panic – and who acts wisely when they’re panicked? Anger involves a tightening and a closing of the heart. It turns others off, saps our energy, and leads to burn out. Fear and anger are suffering and they cause suffering.

Activism – our attempts to transform the horrors we face – can, instead, be motivated by the divine and wholesome qualities I mentioned. Action thus motivated is inclusive, joyful, energizing, helpful, and recruits others to the cause.

Ghandi was one of the most effective activists in history. I ask you, was he motivated by anger and fear, or by love and compassion? Ghandi was not a Buddhist. Nor need you be.

Finally, we have the Mind Training part of the path. This is the part that involves meditation and the “mindfulness” we hear so much about. With meditation and mindfulness, we begin to wake up, become aware of what’s happening in the here and now, in our bodies, hearts, and minds. We develop focus of mind and “present moment awareness.” By focusing our awareness on our bodies, thoughts, feelings, and motivations, we start to see how we act unskillfully, motivating us to let go of the harmful patterns and adopt healthier habits of mind, increasing our energy and effectiveness.

Rooting ourselves in this one and only (but eternal) present moment, the only place where life actually happens, the only moment in which we can act, we are less likely to be swept away by fear of a highly uncertain future or regret for a past irretrievably gone. Mindful of how thoughts, facts, media, people, substances, foods, ideas… impact our hearts and bodies, we are less likely to be driven and overwhelmed by unskillful motivations and unconscious urges and habits. We begin to wake up.

Following this path, we might better navigate the coming changes; the greatest threat ever encountered by our species. Indeed, one of the greatest threats ever faced by life on earth. By learning to let go of our clinging, we can not only accept the radical changes to our society necessary for human survival, we can each, individually, face our inevitable loss of everything we know. With the wisdom we’ve been given, we can weather the coming storms… both within and without.

1. For example, those nano-plastics that suffuse our environment and our bodies were once our soda bottles, clothes, packaging, even our shampoo.
2. Actually, all “compounded” things. Some types of subatomic particles may last forever.

John Schwenk, an engineer by profession, lives in Willimantic where he coordinates a meditation group on Sunday nights and occasionally teaches free informal courses on the Buddhist teachings. He can be reached at johnschwenk.com.