By Noah Harrell
Around the world, climate change has been one of the most important topics of discussion for decades now.
It ranges from people being worried about the threat of global extinction to those denying any evidence of change. Amidst this chaotic and polarizing time of half truths and misinformation, perhaps reflecting on our spiritual heritage and the rich history of Buddhism may be able to give us some insights into our current situation.
Around the time of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, roughly 2500 years ago, many schools of thought and practice have developed in the name of Buddhism. All of these schools, from Indian Hinayana Buddhism, all the way to Japanese Zen Buddhism, have some basic principals in common. One of those most basic principles is the idea of non-dualism (Advaya): nothing is separate or independent from anything else. One way to consider this idea is that we came from what came before us, our parents, our grandparents and so on.
The idea of non-duality also applies infinitely within the present moment; we can only exist because of, and relative to, all the other things that exist around us.
I breathe the oxygen given off by the trees, drink the water cycled by the clouds, eat vegetables grown under the sun and am made of atoms formed in the hearts of distant stars. We see this same interconnectedness when we look deeply at any aspect of our reality, from business to social media to the performer-audience relationship of entertainment—everything relies on everything else to be what it is.
With this concept in mind, holistic framings of the earth and are relationship to it become easy to imagine. Non-Dualism tells us that we are not separate from the earth and are in fact part of the earth just as much as the earth is a major part of us. Living with this viewpoint in mind, many schools of buddhism encourage practitioners to treat the environment, and in fact all external experiences, as ourselves. This idea can often be troublesome and even offensive to the western and sometimes euro-centric mind. For millennia this thought process has asserted and perpetuated the values of individual strength and dominance, and characterized a culture built upon the war-torn kingdoms of medieval Europe and the ruins of the Roman Empire. With the rise of ecological awareness and environmental conservatism, the idea of being inseparable with nature is becoming more and more commonplace in western culture and global politics.
From an individual standpoint the ideas of climate change can seem particularly daunting and foreboding. Contemplating the situation from a non-dual perspective can allow us to consider what may be the best course of action from our current predicament. While it’s not strictly a buddhist concept, I think this is where empathy and “The Golden Rule” have become extremely helpful. If we see the earth as an extension of ourselves and ourselves as an extension of the earth, it seems only reasonable that we “treat the earth as we would like to be treated.”
While this childhood proverb may seem extremely simple I think that it can be applied to almost all situations to consider whether what we are doing is in alignment with the interconnected world view we would like to perpetuate.
In wanting to treat the environment (“The Other”) as we would like to be treated, many schools of Buddhism encourage and even require practitioners to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. If we see other conscious beings just as intimately a part of the earth as ourselves, then their suffering is just as much the earth’s as it is our own. Thus we may want to shape our lifestyle in a way that reduces the suffering we cause to the other sentient life on our planet. Many people who practice a diet and lifestyle that seeks to reduce the suffering caused in the world find themselves a greater connection to the earth and open themselves to the bounty, variety and diversity that the natural world provides.
When considering climate change from a Buddhist perspective, I think that diet may be one of the most important aspects as it addresses our personal relationship with the earth in the most primal aspects. By being aware of what we consume and the intention behind the way we consume, we can begin to view ourselves as being part of a collective far greater than ourselves. Maintaining awareness of how our moment to moment decisions can have far-reaching and rippling effects throughout all of reality and this one earth that we all share.
The implications of practicing empathy will hopefully extend far beyond just choosing a wholesome diet to include treating fellow humans as equals and learning to live in a place of peace and equanimity, but consciously choosing the way we consume our reality can be a powerful first step in getting there.
Another related idea that I think can give an interesting perspective on global issues and is present in all schools of Buddhism is the doctrine of non-self or “anatta.” One way to understand the doctrine of non-self is by considering our individual bodies which are made of multiple organs, bones, tissues, fluids, electrical signals, systems and processes. When we look at each of these parts separately (kidney, fibia, blood, etc…) it is nearly impossible to see a cohesive living being. Yet, when we view them all together we refer to it as a cohesive living being—a person, and no longer consider the individual existence of each of the divisible parts. The parts become indivisible.
The Buddha argued that “the self” as we perceive it, (the “I” reading these words) is of this same nature: a cohesion of divisible parts that when perceived together seem indivisible and give the sensation of an inherent and independent self.
As we learned from contemplating the concept of non-duality, there is nothing separate in reality—everything is connected. When we consider this in relation to the doctrine of non-self we can begin to imagine a world in which everything exist cohesively within larger and larger manifestations of self. Just as our selves are the culmination of all physical and non-physical processes that are within us and have shaped us, the earth is a culmination of all those parts and processes that are within it. From these contemplations we may find that we are part of a cohesive self far bigger than our individual bodies, and may decide to start acting with a dedication to that higher being (Buddha/Gaia/Life/God/Universe/etc.).
Just like we hope that the organs within our own bodies work with a singular dedication to our collective well-being.
Noah Harrell is a writer for ProteinPromo and a recent graduate from Ohio University With BA in English with a concentration in creative writing and a minor in World Religions. Being raised as a Unitarian Universalist, he has practiced and studied Buddhism for most of his adult life.
Editor: Dana Gornall