The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


Climate Change and Buddhists

This is another installment in my series on climate change and religion in America. I have already covered Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, African-American Protestantism, mainline Protestantism, Islam, and the Neopagan continuum. I am not a religious scholar, but I look at the publicly available information through the lens of climate change and I share what I find.

It is hard to say for sure how many Buddhists there are in America, in part because many practice independently or in informal groups. Also, many American Buddhists are of Asian ancestry, a group that many demographers largely ignore. Estimates vary from one to six million. Perhaps two-thirds of these are of Asian ancestry. The remaining third is mostly but not entirely white. All told, at most 1% of the US population is Buddhist.

And yet, this one percent has been oddly influential in the American environmental movement. Michael Soul√©, the founder of conservation biology (a branch of science specifically applied to environmental conservation) is Buddhist. So is Gary Snyder, a major artistic and philosophical voice for the movement. So was Henry David Thoreau, after a fashion–Thoreau identified with many religions and none, being careful to remember that all religions are human constructs. But that reticence about commitment to any one philosophy is itself a very Buddhist thing. He was heavily influenced by Buddhist writings and occasionally referred to himself as a follower of the Buddha, or was referred to that way by people who knew him. And H.D. Thoreau was not only an influential writer and philosopher, a point of inspiration for many later environmentalists, he also discovered the process of ecological succession.

Some Definitions

One more reason that it is hard to say how many Buddhists there are in America is that no one needs anyone else’s permission to be Buddhist. Although there are certainly initiatory lineages within Buddhism, where certain wisdom is transmitted formally from teacher to student, it is also possible to study and practice alone, without ever identifying as Buddhist to anyone else. Not only are the latter hard to count, but the validity of their practice makes it hard to say who is Buddhist and who is not. Can a person who practices Zen meditation regularly, but ignores the rest of the teaching, properly claim to be Buddhist? What about people who claim no religion at all but, like Thoreau, live in a very Buddhist way? It is reasonable to suppose that the influence of Buddhism on American culture extends far beyond the lives of those few who are definitely Buddhist, in part because of the uncountable people (me among them) who have incorporated some Buddhist element into their lives.

Buddhism is sometimes described as a philosophy and not a religion, in part because it has no gods. The Buddha himself was a man, notable only for having achieved enlightenment first. His name was Siddhartha Gautama, and he lived in India. And yet, some sects do have gods and goddesses, or at least figures that seem analogous to them. Siddhartha Gautama certainly lived in a culture that worshiped gods and goddesses and he did not begin his teaching by attempting to convert others to atheism. Many modern Buddhist traditions are rich with stories of saints and miracles and various types and processes of reincarnation–clearly religious beliefs of a type the Buddhism the philosophy is not supposed to have, either.

Instead, it might be more¬† accurate to say that gods and goddesses and miracles and heavens and hells are beside the point. A Buddhist teacher might believe in all those things, but not bother to pass them on to the student because the important thing is to wake up to the reality of lived experience. Buddhist teachings and practices are, to some extent, portable, able to be adapted to other belief systems–including atheism.

Buddhism is not a belief or a faith. It is a practice.

As with other religions, Buddhism exists in many different forms. Perhaps surprisingly, not all forms involve meditation at all. Even those that do emphasize meditative practice go beyond it to include a definite moral code and a system of values. The American Buddhist perspective is also complicated by the fact that it flows through and across many different cultures; Buddhists differ not only by sect but also by ethnicity, national origin, and race, things that may be beside the point of religion but are often very much to the point for actual human beings.

Despite the variation among American Buddhism, though, I am going to treat it all as one unless stated otherwise. There are just too few Buddhists in the US for me to address the differences among them in an article this brief.

Buddhism and Climate Change

Buddhism has a reputation for sympathy to the natural world, a recognition that all life in connected. While the reality is a bit more complex, the reputation is not entirely undeserved. Not surprisingly, Buddhist leaders from all over the world have come together to issue a declaration on the importance of doing something about climate change. In some ways, this declaration is no different than those written by any other group of religious leaders I have profiled (whether or not many adherents pay attention). There are a couple of distinctively Buddhist points, of course.

In grounding their concern in specifically Buddhist concepts, the authors describe environmental responsibility as an outgrowth of the principle of non-harm or non-violence–the same principle that leads many (though not all) Buddhists to be vegetarians. In so doing, the authors recognize the inherent moral worth of non-human life. At the end of the document, they write movingly of how neither other life forms nor future generations of humans can speak up on their own behalf. “We must listen to their silence,” they say, and speak and act for them.

But this is not a specifically American Buddhist response, nor does it tell us much about what ordinary Buddhists say or do about climate change. And since polls cannot accurately assess even how many American Buddhists there are, it seems foolish to look to a poll for answers here.

It is not difficult to find people–including Americans–online talking about climate change and Buddhism. Some of these writers express frustration that Buddhists aren’t doing more about the issue. Apparently, the justifications for inaction include a desire to achieve enlightenment first before trying to help the rest of the world and the idea that “all is void” and therefore environmental destruction does not matter. Of course, there are grave philosophical problems with both assertions and either can be easily refuted with other Buddhist ideas. But, most likely, Buddhist inaction is just like Christian inaction in that neither really has much to do with the theological weight of the atmosphere.

But how many Buddhists are complacent verses active on climate change? It’s hard to say–and it may not matter, at least not in the US. There are, after all, very few American Buddhists, and whether the majority do something about the greenhouse effect or not will not swing the political center of gravity very much. What does matter is whether those Buddhists who do care about climate change find something in Buddhism that helps them become more effective in their work–and what Buddhism can offer in the way of perspective to the larger society of Americans who are “sort of” Buddhist, Buddhist-influenced, or even just know somebody who meditates sometimes.

Some time ago, I posted a discussion of an editorial on climate change by the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, a Tibetan spiritual teacher. While he is not American, the journal that published his essay is. He was speaking to Americans, among others. That essay was interesting for its description of the climate crisis as, first, a failure of compassion–and for its framing of the issue in spiritual terms able to transcend divides of religion and culture. Perhaps that is what Buddhism can give.