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A Call for Meditation in Action on Climate Change


The past three years were a rollercoaster of climate-related hopes and fears. In September 2014, the People’s Climate March drew hundreds of thousands onto the streets, bringing unprecedented attention and hope to the imperative of climate change action, and to the United Nations Climate Change Conference. In December of the following year, the Paris Climate Conference (COP 21) concluded with a global consensus (196 countries) on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Interfaith activists and supporters played a significant and growing role in these events, particularly by illuminating the moral dimensions of this challenge. And while far from a solution, the Paris Agreement offered a platform for the next arc of action.

But whatever hope sprung from those accomplishments was fleeting. The past year saw the political rise and presidency of Donald Trump, whose nationalist, divisive, and compulsive expressions have, among many other wounds, led to America’s withdrawal from the Paris accord. My focus here is to explore the underlying topic of social activism, engagement, and transformation from a Dharmic perspective.

During the past year, I have sat with sanghas from coast to coast and in all three North American countries. In virtually every case, people have expressed deep angst and uncertainty, regularly saying that they’re unable to avert their eyes and emotions from the daily torrent of agitating news. Beyond that, the conversation quickly moves to the question of what can and should we, as Dharma practitioners, do? This has drawn many into civic activism as we join with the vigorous and sometimes militant campaigners pushing back against these threatening forces. Figuring out how to be involved is a formidable task. As someone who has been involved in environmental and social campaigns for many decades, I have long wrestled with this question. In response, I’ve endeavored to probe within my practice, lineage, and experience for messages and practices I might draw from the Dharma as I show up in engagement. I’m not claiming answers.

My work and focus has long been around environmental and sustainability challenges, seeing this as my primary avenue to contribute to holistic societal transformation, which my lineage names “enlightened societies.” But in the context of climate change, something has changed. Environmental degradation in the modern era has caused immense physical and psychological harm between communities of humanity, other species, and ecologies. Although many of these are at a scale never witnessed before (with the horrific exception of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), we are now facing an existential threat to the very viability of life on our planet. In this context, I believe that climate change is a particularly urgent field of learning and powerful right action. Enlightened societies are only possible if there are societies. Given the accelerating rate of deterioration, only intensified by America’s backward step, we have moved beyond the time for incremental learning. We now need to find the psychological and strategic resources to play an influential role toward immediate and deep-seated change, while drawing upon the deep wisdoms held within our own and all faith traditions.

This is unfolding during an era that could be described as “samsara run wild.” Amid this roiling display, our spiritual and temporal values as Buddhists are being sorely challenged as we grapple with being meditators, practitioners, and citizens amid the horrific (sectarian warfare and unconstrained violence) and the astonishing (such as the chauvinistic, egoist Trump phenomenon). Much has been written in Buddhist forums about tensions between equanimity and detachment on one hand and anger and action on the other. This dialogue has intensified as our meditative path of non-attachment and non-grasping coexists amid rampant injustice, intolerance, materialism, violence of every type, and objectification of “others.”

Despite compelling arguments for concerted action, there are many obstacles as dynamic political, social, economic, natural, and emotional forces inevitably converge. In many contested settings, the three poisons of passion/attachment, ignorance, and aggression have been prominent. There have also been eloquent appeals to our higher virtues. For instance, many were buoyed by Pope Francis’ stirring encyclical that implored humanity to embody environmental wisdom within a broader commitment to social and spiritual transformation. The pontiff’s plea was only the most prominent within a chorus of passionate and compassionate discourses on the spiritual and moral dimensions of the climate crisis. Faith communities of every tradition are bringing an ever-more-powerful message articulating a personal and collective sense of love and responsibility for the wellbeing of humanity and for nature. We understand that this is also a humanitarian and social tragedy that is already affecting some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. And we know that, in its essence, this is also a crisis of the spirit stemming from our loss of connection with sacred nature and the basic goodness of both our world and of our own nature. Therefore, we understand that climate change is both a spiritual and moral issue. 

Acharya Marty Janowitz. Image courtesy of the author

I realize that it’s not that we are trying to meditate our way out of the problem—even though many of us have tried and keep trying. It is hard to be a meditator and perhaps even harder to be an activist. Rather, the Dharmic teachings talk about working with the fabric and nature of reality, including a change in basic assumptions and creating a paradigm shift within that by applying inner peace and bravery to develop outer compassionate action. This is particularly important since it’s easy to lose the personal tether to our humanity. Controversial issues tend to breed divisiveness, ideological rigidity, and a tendency to harden our hearts by objectifying those with whom we disagree as enemies. As a more senior student in the Dharma, therefore, one of the reasons I feel motivated to be active is my abiding conviction that violence and aggression, such as has been perpetrated on our environment, cannot successfully be countered with further aggression.

As the voice of faith communities, we can and must represent another way—one that highlights the genuinely human dimension of this predicament. As Buddhists, our engagement not only adds impetus to the climate change movement, but can also add a Dharmic perspective that brings the root of underlying causes into awareness and hopefully affects the course of advocacy. I’d like to explore this dimension further, acknowledging my lens as a practitioner shaped within the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, and particularly within the Shambhala stream first articulated by my root guru Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and now transmitted by his lineage heir Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

The climate change movement has been a multi-decade pendulum of hope and fear. As Buddhists, patterns of inflation and deflation, optimism and pessimism, hope and fear, should not be a surprise to us. The same patterns manifest on the larger scales of community and society in moments of aspiration, optimism, and even conviction regarding the potential of realizing a truly decent future contrasted with periods of deep consternation or despair in the face of sizeable difficulties and negative attitudes dragging us down. Unless we move beyond or, more likely, work with these extremes on both the personal and collective levels, I believe there is little opportunity to open a genuinely transformative path forward.

What can we work with?

Can we forge an authentic path between our aspirations for change and the difficulties of doing so? Between faith in human goodness and distress at the selfishness and parochialism that often dominate social discourse? In my experience, our challenge is not to avoid these disconnects but to connect them, uniting our high aspirations with what we encounter on the ground, energizing the wisdom within both at the very point where they can join—at the heart of awareness. This is to recognize the relationship between our paths as practitioners and as citizens and activists. In this we see that the paths of personal and social transformation are inextricably linked, and we cannot work to alter the societal paradigm if we are not simultaneously working to alter our own.

From the Buddhist teachings and, more vitally, our meditative experience, we have the means to traverse this seeming abyss. We have learned that the underlying problem is rooted in our mistaken perception that we, and within that our thoughts, are solid, enduring, and valid, driving a fundamental confusion. We believe that we might find solid ground by focusing on the bits of thought while ignoring the space in between—first projecting solidity, then believing those projections, and further grasping after those we deem self-enriching, while seeking escape from those we find threatening. This is what Trungpa Rinpoche called the “basic twist.” This incessant pattern of conflict between emotional energies, or klesa activity, is a struggle to hold on to an apparent self, a drama that becomes the root obstacle to re-discovering who we really are. Our emotions take over, generating a pattern of intertwined realms that are at minimum distracting, and possibly a state of vivid and heightened confusion, sometimes described as organized chaos; the mandala as charnel ground. Not the healthiest basis from which to act on behalf of enlightened societies.

Yet our meditative practice relentlessly reminds us that even our most vivid thoughts, emotions, and impulses are ephemeral. “Good or bad, happy or sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.” This teaching, contained within a practice liturgy composed by Trungpa Rinpoche, has both infused and confused me since I encountered it in the very week I stumbled into the Dharma. In theory, I “get it,” but learning how to work with this understanding has been a challenge. Fortunately, the practice ultimately speaks for itself. I’ve learned through decades of intermittent attention to my nature that all thoughts and projections do vanish, and all clinging to false concepts of solidity ultimately leads to nothing essentially productive. Our lineages also instruct us that the path to reconnecting with our essential nature is not through avoiding our charnel ground of confusions but through inhabiting it, albeit in a different way. Our path demands that we find the discipline to go directly to what we usually avoid, facing or. as Pema Choden has taught, “smiling” at fear, the proxy for all emotional embroilments. Smiling does not imply laughing off, ignoring, facing down, or even withstanding difficult emotions. This attitude points to the possibility of touching them gently, recognizing the insightful messages they carry, and allowing a glimpse of space to illuminate our true nature.

Clinging to thoughts and emotions is a case of not trusting our nature or not even knowing what it is. When we don’t trust our nature, the world we face just feeds our insecurities and fears, so that the seeming “other” is a threat to the seeming “us.” This lack of integration is something like a war within us that is ultimately magnified to the scale of warring ideologies. It is this split and hardening that has resulted in so much of humanity’s difficulty—climate change being merely one of the most devastating in its global implications. As we know, such grasping is the root cause of suffering and the origin of attitudes of separation, divisiveness, violence, and isolation. Alternatively, if our “world” is not conventionally solid it suggests both unfettered freedom and uncertain groundlessness. Freedom gives free rein to aspiration or vision—anything is possible in the absence of fixed boundaries or constraints. But groundlessness implies there is nothing certain to rely on.

The Dharma suggests that these attributes of our personal and communal worlds do not inherently lead to disconnection and separation, but fluidity and openness. Viewing the world this way—as less than solid—is something we can touch each time we let a thought go and come back to the heart of awareness. This experience sows seeds and awakens certain aspects of our being, particularly our direct connection to the way things naturally, primordially are. When we open our direct sense of attention, we touch the energy of this basic nature, which is inherently open and curious, and we become available to touch the energy of the environment. We recognize this directly and describe it using terms like bodhicitta and tatagatagharba or, in the language of my Shambhala lineage, basic goodness. From this we access the Fourth Noble Truth, the Path that frees us from suffering. When we can retain this intimate connection to openness in activity, we are working with what Trungpa Rinpoche called “meditation in action.”

What’s next?

We aspire that our commitment to personal openness, gentleness, self-knowing, and societal decency will in some ways contribute to and encourage a wider appreciation of the heart of awakeness—a ripple effect. That can be the case, but strategic activism requires more. Crucial to a strategic vision is knowledge—especially self-knowledge—and a view of the whole that brings conflicting views into a larger perspective within which we can discover and execute activity that generates the next steps—a path from where things are, to where we aspire them to be. Our spiritual credentials or accomplishments do not necessarily translate into accomplishment on the ground. Just because we may have a compelling philosophy and some ability to connect with awareness or avoid being sucked into passing emotional traps does not mean we will be effective organizers, activists, or advocates. How do we empower our view, practice, and action together?

Trungpa Rinpoche described this apparent distance between what we aspire to achieve and the constraints we encounter as the seeming separation between the fruition of “heaven” and the ground of “Earth.” Dynamically advancing an energetic path from Earth to heaven is our challenge. This teaching points to the missing link and energizing force as “humanity.” This, lo and behold, is the same quality of awakeness or goodness that we touch directly through the practices of mindful-awareness, but in this context we are expressing our nature and raising our unconditional confidence explicitly to energize the path. In the Shambhala teachings, we call this path-oriented approach to practice “raising windhorse.” Windhorse is the self-existing energy of basic goodness in action. We can contact this energy within ourselves, and in concert with others, in essence acknowledging the strength within our nature of awakeness on a concrete, even physical level and applying that strength generously.

This is not theoretical. We can do this by focusing our mindful-awareness practice in a more expansive way, simultaneously sensing the solidity of our “Earth” and the spaciousness of our “heaven” and joining them through an intentional flash of connection. But this is merely the beginning: Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has pointed out that it is hard and ongoing work to feel, appreciate, and embody our nature. In most cases that is neither our training nor our habit, as we exist within societies that do not nurture such an attitude. Our modern world promotes a strange combination of speed, sleep, and escape magnetized by technologies and social media. All of this “dulls us to our own brilliance and tenderness”—two essential qualities for workability, let alone leadership, on a path.

I believe it is possible to hold or at least to return to such a centered attitude—engaging and leading from the heart of awakeness, moving forward and learning to work with conflict in a more profound and effective way. The basis of such effectiveness will be renewed appreciation of inter-connectedness—where projected barriers were never true barriers to begin with. This is not philosophy—it is accessible, touchable, recognizable experience. An interconnected world must inevitably point to an interdependent world or, as Thich Nhat Hahn famously describes, a world that highlights “interbeing.” Such a perspective is entirely in accord with the expression of unencumbered relationships that has been described as enlightened mandala.

As modern, spiritually oriented activists, we sometimes suggest that such thinking points to the world as sacred, as Gaia, or as Mother, and that using words such as mandala (or for that matter, ecology, systems thinking, holistic, organismic, energetic, or quantum) are basically big ideas with potentially fancy implications. Yet the essence of sacredness is its fundamental ordinariness. When we participate in practices that allow us to directly experience that sacredness, we touch the foundation of what we might consider sacred activism. A sacred activist is someone who is starting to experience the inner joy and outer effectiveness of this force; who knows that this profound crisis is challenging everyone to act from our deepest compassion and wisdom, and who is committed to “being,” in the face of growing chaos, suffering, and violence. In Shambhala terminology, we call this the way of warriorship.

When there is fear and doubt about human society’s place in nature, social tendencies arise that cut us off from the experience of sacredness. By recognising the interconnectedness of all life in such a personal way, we find the basis to expand our compassion and love in such a way that we act to protect the Earth. But from an activist or warrior’s perspective, we are not focused on philosophy but on actual change and transformation—a movement toward a more enlightened society.

I propose that participation is a choice: first to be open to ourselves and others, then to extend ourselves with unpretentious interest and curiosity, and ultimately to engage, motivated by some combination of shared goodness and responsiveness to needs. Building an environmentally awakened society arises from authentic confidence in unconditioned goodness, in community with all beings. This approach to ecology, or to any socially oriented action, is to actualize the sacred world on the spot.

Acharya Marty Janowitz is a senior teacher within the Shambhala lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Much of his current teaching focuses on the inextricable connection between the paths of personal and societal transformation. Inspired by that vision, Marty has long been dedicated to what he describes as sacred activism with particular interest in environmental and social change.

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