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Buddhistdoor View: Can Buddhists Take the Lead on Climate Change?

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping. From

China’s pollution continues to affect countries across the world, despite the accelerated growth of its renewable energy industry and President Xi Jinping’s estimable pledge with the United States to curb carbon emissions last November. As of 2014, China leads the world in wind power, solar power, hydropower, and smart grid technology, generating as much wind, solar, and water energy as Germany and France combined. Yet problems are intensifying. Just last month, a slightly hyperbolic report nevertheless managed to demonstrate how sulfur, carbon grit, and metals in the choked air of Beijing lead to thicker, more turbulent clouds and heavier precipitation and cyclones in the Northwest Pacific. These storms are 10 per cent stronger than three decades ago. The US now finds itself the victim of extreme weather patterns resulting from pollution not only within its own borders, but also from cities in Asia. As the worst emitters of carbon, the world’s two largest economies are finding climate change an ever more pressing issue in their entangled national interests.

The consequences of climate change pose an urgent threat to the survival of countless species on Earth, including our own. The things we can do—giving up private transport when able, recycling, buying fair trade, switching off electricity when out of the home, and more—are thoroughly documented. Most require only a mild adjustment in lifestyle and convenience. Yet climate change rarely features as top news in a global (and also badly polluted) corporate hub like Hong Kong. It was only very recently that its foremost religious leaders co-signed a statement on alleviating climate change. The Most Venerable Chi Wai, the incumbent president of The Hong Kong Buddhist Association—the city’s largest and most important Buddhist organization—represented the city’s Buddhists.

Internationally familiar faces like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama have spoken out prominently on the subject of climate change. By contrast, Chinese Buddhism (which refers to the Mahayana Buddhism that diffused throughout the Sinophone world, including Taiwan), has been all but silent. To date, very few leaders in this diverse tradition have voiced concerns over the issue or committed themselves to any statement on the matter. (One Chinese Buddhist leader who has spoken about the environment and climate change for many years is Master Xing Yun of Fo Guang Shan.) The statement was therefore significant in being perhaps the

strongest endorsement of the international scientific consensus by a Chinese Buddhist leader. Moreover, it is perhaps the only time an influential Chinese Buddhist institution has joined an entente of interreligious bodies to publicly acknowledge the threat posed by climate change.

To his credit and that of the association he leads, Ven. Chi Wai has accomplished the kind of spiritual and moral leadership from which Buddhists around the world can draw inspiration. His co-signing of the statement has indicated that Chinese Buddhism can be open about and involved in big issues. Thanks to Ven. Chi Wai’s intervention, the debate on how to address climate change has the potential to be enriched by more Chinese Buddhist voices. Also, Chinese Buddhists of all schools should feel further liberated by Ven. Chi Wai’s action to engage with other faiths in a spirit of hospitality and social harmony. Openness to dialogue is a sign of a tradition’s self-confidence, and a willingness to learn from other spiritual paths and to use that knowledge to enrich one’s own. An insular tradition that completely rejects the company of other religions betrays not self-assurance, but profound uncertainty and insecurity about its own doctrines and persuasiveness.

Ven. Chi Wai made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1996. From
Ven. Chi Wai awarded the Bronze Bauhinia Star (BBS) in 2005. From

At the heart of this renewed sense of urgency about the environment is the wisdom that humanity and the natural world are interconnected—in fact, humanity is obviously a part of the natural world and the larger cosmos, and has too often fashioned artificial boundaries through ignorance or ego. The Buddhist philosophy of emptiness (Skt. shunyata) was recast in the Avatamsaka Sutra as “all is interdependent and vital” and that totality is interpenetrated (Cook 1977, 48–49; Gregory 1991, 6–7). This life-affirming exegesis of emptiness has influenced the surviving schools of Chinese Buddhism to the present day, and there is no reason why this interpretation cannot inform Chinese Buddhist engagement on such global issues as climate change.

There is a slew of socio-environmental issues on which Chinese Buddhism could offer comment. Deforestation (which happens to be linked to climate change) is one of them. As Buddhist organizations expand and grow in China, building more traditional-style wooden temples to attract pilgrims and tourists along the way, there is a need to find sustainable ways of harvesting the wood used in their construction. The Taiwan-based Buddhist charity, Tzu Chi, is already known for using biodegradable, recycled cloth for their monastics’ garments and shoes.

This is a period of world history in which the two dominant powers on Earth have found a common environmental cause to rally around. Despite their efforts, climate change appears likely to accelerate and do even more damage in the short to medium term. The question is whether Buddhist leaders around the world can, like Ven. Chi Wai, take a civic-minded stance on long-term threats to the global ecology.


Cook, Frances. 1977. Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Gregory, Peter N. 1991. Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

For more information, see:

President of the Hong Kong Buddhist Association Signs Interfaith Climate Change Statement 

Obama: U.S.-China climate change accord “historic” (CBS News) 

How China’s Filthy Air Is Screwing With Our Weather (Mother Jones)

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