The Bay of Fires in northeastern Tasmania, Australia. Photo by the author.
It has become a cliche, albeit a true one, to say that Buddhism is not a monolithic entity. Its sangha, the oldest continuously transmitted religious institution in the world, was intentionally left without a central authority by the Buddha when he died. His religion was to spread organically across Asia and later the world, with individual traditions shaped by socio-political and economic needs, geographic opportunity, and blind luck.
Buddhism should therefore be forgiven for its somewhat confused, disunited response to humanity’s gravest environmental threat of the 21st century, climate change. Some sanghas (communities) have risen to the challenge superbly, Plum Village being perhaps the most famous. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has even inserted “reversing climate change” into the Five Mindfulness Trainings that his followers (such as yours truly) must recite regularly. Yet there are many organisations, particularly in the Theravada and East Asian spheres, that do not know what to make of climate change or are ignorant of the science. Others, even if aware of climate change, struggle to link the moral imperative of doing something about it with the spiritual path, or see it as a “political” issue that should not be touched.
Unlike the Catholic encyclicals, Buddhists have no uniting force to speak on everyone’s behalf: a simultaneous weakness and strength. Climate change is therefore the perfect test of Buddhism’s decentralised heritage as both strength and weakness, with all the potential opportunity and potential problems it presents.
Decentralised religious authority means that each Buddhist institution is free to create its own methods to facilitate the spiritual and moral imperative of climate change action without seeking anyone else’s approval. The scope for diversity and creativity is almost endless. The flip side of this is that it is effectively impossible to form a united Buddhist front on climate change action except during an ecumenical occasion, such as a conference or joint pilgrimage between the three Vehicles of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana). Another quirk of decentralised authority is the potential of locally-driven initiatives, which can operate efficiently and speedily through a coordinated, closely-knit community of supportive friends. However, it is possible to argue that in a globalised world with 24/7 connectivity, local initiatives must somehow be part of something bigger, be it a global activist movement or a larger, more influential Buddhist institution.
The challenge climate change poses to Buddhism is unique (as is the challenge posed to Christianity, Islam, and all other faiths). At the basic philosophical level, climate change affects the entire planet, all species of life. It is a global problem, and Buddhism has no choice but to deploy local, diffuse resources to tackle it. I would pose the question to my fellow Buddhists thus: How should our ancient, 2500-year-old dispensation confront a global threat if we have no global unity?
This blog post was written by Raymond Lam, a HKICN founding member. Raymond is Senior Correspondent and Editorial Writer of Buddhistdoor International (www.buddhistdoor.com/eng), a website covering Buddhist spirituality, arts, culture, and journalism.