Student’s Question: Climate Emergency – How Best to Act & Help as Buddhists?

A Student writes:

Given the climate and environmental emergency that we are now facing is there any advice you can give for how to deal with our own and others’ fear and distress and also how we can best act and do what we can to help?

 Lama Shenpen:

There are two questions here. First how to deal with our own and others’ fears and distress, the second is how best to act and do what we can to help.

The climate and environmental emergency is a reminder that we are living in Samsara where all is conditioned and impermanent and driven by the results of karma both individually and for whole groups. In this particular situation we can see that much of what is happening is due to greed, hate and delusion on the part of many egocentric human beings.

Delusion has taken the form of thinking things like polluting the atmosphere doesn’t matter or even denial that problems manifesting in our world now come from karmic causes we cannot know of this side of Enlightenment.  Karmic effects are not immediate so for a long time it seems those making the bad karma are not suffering the effects, other people are – so from the Buddhist point of view its important to take a long term view spanning many lives.

It makes a difference if we take on board the whole Buddhist cosmology of the six realms of samsara.  Hell in hell will always be many times worse than hell in the human realm because hell in the human realm ends with the death of the body. Hell in hell carries on indefinitely – hell bodies don’t die that easily.

In other words there is far more to be distressed and afraid of than what is happening in this world right now.

Samsara is a very dangerous, frightening and distressing situation to be in even though there are periods of relatively happy respite.

So the way to deal with your distress and fear about climate change is to take Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and use your every opportunity, every day and every moment of every day to move towards awakening yourself and all beings from the nightmare of samsara.  It is relentless and terrible, climate change or not.

The second question is about the practicalities of how best to act and help the situation.  We have to choose a course of action and then pursue it as best as we can remembering we cannot do everything and we are not going to be able to fix samsara.

Some people might feel called upon and inspired to spend many hours, months or years of their time campaigning and being active in various ways trying to change the situation for the better.  It is great that people decide to do that and it’s great to cheer them on and encourage and help them all we can.  Others will find just dealing with their responsibilities or their life situation as it is so demanding they just haven’t got the resources to do more than a few gestures towards helping the environmental situation.

We all have to choose our battles carefully – we cannot fight on all fronts at once. From the Buddhist point of view the important thing is our motivation and actions of body, speech and mind.  We will reap the karmic result of our positive actions whatever they are and whichever world we find ourselves in next time.

From the Buddhist point of view this is not the only human world in which we can practice Dharma.  Worlds will appear that match the karma we have created.  This begs many questions of course such as: are we saying we don’t have to care about this world or how we leave it for the next generation? From the karmic point of view if we are careless about how we leave a place for the next generation we are stealing and we will reap the results of that wherever we are born.

You may think it’s not possible to live one’s life without making negative karma in some way or other just in order to live. That is true and is why samsara is so terrible and cannot be fixed. Nonetheless we can use this life to make good karma and avoid making bad karma as much as possible.

Caring about the environment and the sufferings of others is making good karma – so as Buddhists we need to make our choices carefully. We cannot avoid doing some harm but we can always be doing something good even if it’s simply to keep repenting negative actions and states of mind and making aspirations (pranidhanas) for ourselves and all beings, opening to the compassionate power of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to help us.


Are there ways that we as a Sangha can offer an example of how to behave (for example reducing our carbon footprint)?

Lama Shenpen:

Scientists tell us ways we could help and it is up to us how we decide to respond.  Each person in the sangha makes their own decisions and when discussing decisions at the Hermitage we consider environmental issues.  I am sure there are ways we could do this more – non-harming is clearly central to our ethos as a Sangha. How extreme we want to be is something we could discuss from time to time, although there is a danger that we could let such discussions take us over to no great advantage for ourselves and others.

Maybe this is the crux of the question and why you are asking me about it.  Do I think for example that we should have policies in place that committed members of the Sangha  should adhere to? I am inclined to leave it to each individual in the sangha to make their own decisions in line with their own conscience.

Lama Shenpen Hookham


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