Why Look to Buddha’s Principles, and Apply them to Climate Change?
Short answer: They Work
Looking back in history for the most practical and appropriate examples that brought about non violent social and economic reform of the type and scale we need today we find the Buddha Siddhartha outstanding. 2500 years ago Siddhartha had looked back to the example of the Buddha Dipankara a social reformer thousands of years before him.
The name Buddha means one who knows (the truth of existence). Siddhartha taught the truth in times of great delusion.
Buddha Siddhartha was an ordinary person who had realised the truth that there is no self. The idea that there is no self may sound ridiculous at first, it takes time to understand its meaning and more to apply. When applied it is easy and natural to consider the collective interest of all life on earth and delusional to see the current problems from self or self interest. Without the boundary of self there is no hierarchy and no Supreme Being or entity that is going to turn up and save the world. This is not an abstract or divine state of being but available to anyone here and now.
Questioning self is important in this current crisis because the ignorance that leads to inaction is driven by our attachment to an ‘I’, ‘me’ or self. So when we are faced with everyday decisions about what we do, our priority is our selves and we ignore our collective responsibility.
When we refer to ‘Buddha’s principles’, we are not talking about the organised religion called “Buddhism” and its multiple sects which developed after the death of Buddha Siddartha. Many of these sects require faith, imply divinity and supernatural agency. Siddartha did not present a religion in the modern sense but principles, concepts and teachings. What Buddha taught has nothing to do with a God, and nothing to do with life after death or anything to do with rituals, ceremonies or sacrifices. Buddha viewed these as trappings which lead to inaction in society.
Buddha did teach consistently about self conquest: realising not self, he did teach about realising the existence of stress and finding ways to remove stress. He was focused on the social needs of people and how we relate to each other to solve the problems of the day. Buddha walked around the towns and villages giving guidance to who ever asked for it. At times telling them off or pulling them up about their views or actions which led to negative outcomes in society. In Buddhas time 2500 years ago issues such as the attitude to killing was a big problem. Religious sacrifices of huge numbers of animals for attaining merit from the ‘gods’ were a common practice. Inequality was propagated in the society by way of a religious caste system which prescribed a persons life opportunities by their chance of birth. There were also many kingdoms at war over resources such as water supply. The lives of the poor and vulnerable were seen as being less valuable than the rich and powerful.
So Buddha devised a way for people to reflect on their every day experiences to see what actions and behaviours in our lives cause us to suffer and what behaviours and actions cause us wellbeing and happiness. Then once we find what is beneficial, building the will inside us to live by them. This reverting back to our direct experience in our own lives is the ultimate basis for judgement. Teachings such as the Kalama Sutta describe this in detail. In the context of solving modern environmental problems such as climate change this means observing what behaviour causes collective well being and collective harm for all present life as well as future life. We are all the same, harming others is harming ourselves, and harm is harm.
Realising that there is no self does involve concerted effort, it is hard to find opportunities in a busy life full of diversions. But we can experience brief moments in our every day lives where the strong sense of ‘me’ is lessened and there is a heightened sense of unity like attending a football game where everyone is enjoying it, a protest march, working together on a practical project with shared purpose or simply sitting quietly in meditation.
Buddha was very practical and the refuge created by the community gave opportunities for developing further understanding and loving kindness to counteract the hard edged self interested ignorance driven way of life prevalent in the rest of society. This happened as practical training as well as learning in the form of dialectic. This is what we need now.