Buddhists at the White House: What it Means for Climate Change

Photo by Philip Rosenberg. From lionsroar.com

Photo by Philip Rosenberg. From lionsroar.com

The meeting between one hundred and thirty American Buddhist leaders and White House officials on 14 May (you can read more on the event here) was significant for many reasons. The event was the first “White House–US Buddhist Leadership Conference,” and the theme for this maiden symposium was “Voices in the Square—Action in the World.” Religion watchers, journalists, commentators, and opinion makers agree that this is the first formal opportunity that a broad coalition of Buddhists of various traditions (including Our Voices’s own Theravada spiritual ambassador Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi) have been able to begin discussing a “Buddhist” policy agenda with the same national visibility in American civic debate as Christians or Muslims. It is telling that of the many specific discussion points that Buddhists are concerned with, climate change and the environment got first priority in front of education and peace and disarmament.

I believe it’s beyond doubt that if Buddhists are to speak about a civic or policy agenda at all, they will frame it as a narrative shaped by issues that threaten the wellbeing or future of sentient beings rather than by topics that concern Buddhists alone. We can expect climate change, therefore, to be a recurring, perhaps the recurring, topic of American Buddhist poets, monastics, academics, activists, and journalists. This trend already has antecedents in The Time to Act is Now: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change, which was submitted to the White House during the one-day conference.

Buddhist activist Thanissara (who will publish a book titled Time to Stand Up, A Buddhist Manifesto for the Earth in August 2015) has written an excellent and succinct blog post about the centrality of climate change in the Buddhist conversation. She notes: “As millions of tons of carbon, nitrous oxide and methane gases continue to heat our biosphere, it is not a moment too soon to step up. Not only by focusing on the consequences, but also on the causes, right down to the most profound cause of separative consciousness. What is very affirming to understand, is how much we have to offer into the social and political discourse of America, and further afield, as a Buddhist collective.”

She also gives us a glimpse into the looming arguments that will shape the debate about climate change between Buddhists and the American government:

In response to some very good questions in the group Q&A session with State Representatives, while seated in an auditorium in the South Wing, I found myself becoming somewhat agitated as the Associate Director for the White House Council for Environmental Quality, Angela Barranco, encouraged us as Buddhists to be engaged in increasing pressure around policy. While an important point, and while her overall address was excellent, I commented to her that, while we can all do something, considering the urgency of our situation, and considering that real power lies in government, what seems more important is that the government shift billions of dollars in subsidies from the fossil fuel industry to renewables. Of course, as she pointed out, and as we are all aware, even with the best will in the world, political machinations distort an expedient and clear response.”

It seems that future Buddhist efforts will be most productively aimed at putting pressure on the US government to implement more policies that alleviate climate change and offer incentives to encourage private business and corporations to follow suit.

Members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (which does not represent the opinion of all Buddhists at the White House conference) posed outside the White House with a banner reading “The Whole Earth is My True Body. I vow to work for climate justice.” This is a reformulation of the ancient Mahayana bodhisattva vows, which serve as reminders of the immensity of the practitioner’s spiritual task: “Sentient beings are innumerable. I vow to save them all. Afflictive delusions are are inexhaustible. I vow to to break them all. The Dharma gates are beyond comprehension. I vow to understand them all. The way of the Buddha is unsurpassed. I vow to realize it.” In other words, the task of saving the world of climate change is, in some ways, as difficult as the trials outlined in the bodhisattva vows. So perhaps we need to adopt the attitude of seeing ourselves as bodhisattvas if we are going to muster the energy required to accomplish true climate justice.

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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.  
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