Religion and science make strange—and rather uncommon—bedfellows, so what was an article by the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa doing in the peer-reviewed science journal Conservation Biology?
The Karmapa, in case you don’t know, is like the Dalai Lama in that he is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who is thought to reincarnate repeatedly as himself. He is now on his 17th such incarnation, and, like the Dalai Lama, is living in exile. His role is to preserve certain central traditions and to serve as head of a particular school within Tibetan Buddhism. He is a young man, not yet thirty, and his exile began in his teens with a daring leap out a window. Conservation Biology asked him to write an article for them on his version of environmental Buddhism, and published it a few years ago.
The Karmapa comes to the environmental movement from an unusual angle–American environmentalists seldom hear from Tibetan religious leaders–but unusual angles often offer an important view. Tibet seems like a very far-away place to many people, and might not immediately spring to mind in discussions of climate change, but Tibet is one of the fastest-warming places on the planet. Traditional Tibetan culture is nomadic and pastoral. If the basic ecology of that country’s grasslands changes, then the culture that goes with that land could be lost. Further, as His Holiness points out, the Tibetan Plateau has been called “the third pole” because of how much ice is locked up in its mountain glaciers. Those glaciers feed six major Asian rivers, providing a reasonably consistent flow of water to well over a billion people. If those glaciers melt, that reasonable consistency will be gone.
The article the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa writes in response to this crisis builds on his perspective as a religious teacher. For him, it is not enough to study environmental science and to work to change national policy. As he writes, “we have to connect these challenges to the individual choices people face on a daily basis.” His Holiness the Karmapa calls for nothing less than a personal reorientation towards compassion.
The Karmapa has a point.
Climate change is being created by the small, every-day choices of billions of people, from driving to buying to voting. It’s not that any of us want the biosphere to destabilize; many people care deeply and genuinely about the planet. The problem is that there are other things we also want.And we’re just not in the habit of thinking about the planet when we go to make decisions that are small, ambiguous, or sprung on us by surprise.
Our habits are the enemy of our good intentions because they are based on an orientation of the heart that is deeper than our well-educated minds. In our hearts, most of us don’t seem to believe climate change, or any other serious environmental problem, is real. This is why we have not demanded the political and commercial leadership we need to carry the day, why democratically elected leaders have suffered almost no political consequences for doing next to nothing about climate change for the past 30 years.
With a reorientation of the heart, the momentum of habit will swing around, and these painful, difficult choices will seem like total no-brainers. We’ll get out of our own way, and we’ll have a chance.
Religions, at their best, concern themselves with reorientations of the heart.
I do not mean to single out Tibetan Buddhism, only that a Tibetan Buddhist teacher happened to both catch my attention and articulate and expand upon a point I’d already been thinking about. Other religions approach the environmental crisis in other ways; some Christian groups see dealing with climate change as part of their duty towards the poor, for example. I certainly do not mean that environmentalism is itself a religion or that environmentalists must be religious. What I mean is that climate change is a psychological and personal issue–a spiritual issue–as much as it is a political and technical challenge. People who study the heart and the spirit belong in this conversation as much as people who study the climate and the economy do.
Among all the valid and important ways to deal with the climate crisis, the reorientation of the heart towards compassion is the one I hear the least about. We don’t need laws and educational programs and tax incentives to avoid literally soiling our own beds, so why is bringing ourselves to quit metaphorically soiling our own beds so persistently difficult? Why do people who would never in a million years steal water from one Asian child persist in indirectly denying water to millions of Asian children? Somehow, we’ve gotten into the habit of not paying attention to what we’re doing.
The radical compassion the Karmapa calls for could help.
As a teenager, I was quite interested in Zen Buddhism, though I’m not Buddhist as an adult, and Zen is very different from Tibetan Buddhism. Still, one of the little stories I read then springs to mind now as appropriate.
A seeker approached a monk, asking for the secret of Enlightenment or the meaning of life, or whatever else seekers approach monks to ask for. The monk simply wrote one word on a slip of paper and handed it over; ATTENTION. The seeker said yes, but what does “attention” mean? The monk took back the piece of paper and wrote some more words on it; ATTENTION MEANS ATTENTION.
Attention means attention.