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Buddhistdoor View: Navigating the Modern Polycrisis Through Interfaith Unity


In a world beset by multifaceted crises, the words of Thich Nhat Hanh resonate with profound wisdom:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.

(Nhat Hanh, 3)

We humans have a limited vision of the world around us. Even with computers and social media and instant access to breaking news around the clock, there is only so much information any of us can meaningfully comprehend. Indeed, as economist Herbert Simon keenly observed, the inundation of information has left many of us with a poverty of attention.

Without attention, we cannot see that we “inter-are” with others around us. The people dying in wars, losing homes to floods and fires, or starving due to famine become just more figures on our screen—passing by. This ability to pay attention is what Thich Nhat Hanh means by “If you are a poet . . .” If you are a person who pays attention, you will see the causes and conditions that lead to the world we experience.

This simple yet profound observation underscores the interconnectedness of all existence, highlighting the intricate web of relationships that sustains life on this planet. As humanity grapples with challenges ranging from climate change and environmental degradation to social injustice and political unrest—together constituting what French theorist Edgar Morin termed the “polycrisis”—the imperative for collective action has never been clearer. In the midst of a polycrisis, interfaith cooperation emerges as a potent and necessary tool as we work to ensure that future generations of all species can thrive on our planet.

At its core, interfaith cooperation embodies the recognition that diverse religious and spiritual traditions share a common humanity and a shared destiny. By fostering dialogue, understanding, and collaboration among people of different faiths, interfaith initiatives have the potential to transcend religious divides and forge pathways toward peace, justice, and sustainability.

Last November, Buddhist and Christian leaders met in Thailand for their Seventh Buddhist-Christian Colloquium. There, they acknowledged the great suffering that persists in our time:

Yet, in these troubled times, we refuse to give in to despair, for we strongly believe that in the midst of dark clouds, those who are deeply rooted in their respective religious traditions and willing to work together with everyone can bring a ray of hope to a desperate humanity. As Buddhists and Christians, we see the Buddha and Jesus as Great Healers. The Buddha pointed to greed and Jesus to sin as the cause of suffering. On many levels, Jesus and the Buddha proposed love and compassion as medicine to drive out the darkness in the human heart and the world. Nourished by their respective spiritual teachings, Buddhists and Christians, for thousands of years, have adopted compassionate ways of living to address the suffering of life.

(The Vatican)

Together, leaders from Buddhist and Christian traditions pledged to continue their dialogue, to deepen their acknowledgment of suffering, to work for inclusion and justice, cooperate with educators and the media to connect with more people, and to reawaken the energy of their followers.

One way in which religious leaders can contribute to addressing the polycrisis is by promoting environmental stewardship and sustainability. As we think about sustainability today, a key word that might enter our lexicon soon is “degrowth.” Degrowth is a new term for a movement aimed at promoting the benefits of shrinking Gross Domestic Product. Today, economic growth is seen as an inherent good, and no politician can promote the ideal of degrowth. But religions, with their deep histories of monastic simplicity—Buddhists in particular elevate the virtue of renunciation—can tout the value of steadily owning less, having less, and in the process becoming more free and holy.

Across various religious traditions, there exists a deep reverence for the natural world and a recognition of humanity’s responsibility to protect and preserve it. By bringing together individuals and communities from different faith backgrounds, interfaith efforts can amplify voices advocating for environmental conservation, sustainable development, and climate action. From grassroots initiatives to international forums, interfaith partnerships have the power to mobilize collective action and drive positive change on a global scale.

This begins on the locally, where religious leaders can connect directly with followers each week and more strongly over holiday periods. Muslims now are recognizing the holy month of Ramadan, in which they are encouraged to fast during the day, even giving up water, in order to grow spiritually. They do this through reflecting on the things we take for granted, such as immediately available food and water, and recognizing that many people in the world are going hungry or thirsty. Through this practice, Muslims deepen their understanding of the connection of mind and body, experiencing directly the demand for food and water and the difficult choice to forgo them. They also deepen their connection with the many people in our world today who are suffering.

Interfaith cooperation can serve as a catalyst for social justice and human rights. Many religious traditions share common values of compassion, empathy, and solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed. By uniting people of faith in pursuit of justice and equality, interfaith movements can challenge systems of oppression, combat discrimination, and promote inclusivity and diversity. Whether advocating for refugee rights, combating poverty, or advancing gender equality, interfaith collaboration amplifies the voices of those advocating for a more just and equitable world.

In addition to addressing external challenges, interfaith cooperation also offers profound opportunities for personal and spiritual transformation. By engaging with individuals from different religious backgrounds, people have the chance to deepen their understanding of their own faith tradition while gaining new perspectives and insights from others. This process of dialogue and mutual learning fosters empathy, humility, and a sense of interconnectedness, transcending cultural and religious barriers and nurturing a more inclusive and compassionate worldview.

As Thich Nhat Hanh eloquently continues in his commentary on the Heart Sutra:

And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

(Nhat Hanh, 3–4)

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too.

(Nhat Hanh, 4)

For some of us, the logger is easily demonized as an enemy or “other,” a person with whom we fight as we strive to protect forests. And yet, Thich Nhat Hanh directed us to see our connection to that logger, as well as his or her mother and father. When we think about this, we might also soften our anger toward other perceived enemies in this world, seeing that they too are people trying their best to get by and to make their own mothers and fathers proud.

Similarly, it can at times be easy to hate people of other religious groups due to the words and actions of a small minority in their religion. But we can also see that each of them are fellow humans, trying their best in a world that can create so much confusion and division.

In this way, interfaith cooperation offers a transformative pathway forward in navigating the complex challenges of the polycrisis. By fostering dialogue, solidarity, and mutual respect among people of different faiths, we can harness the collective wisdom and moral resources of diverse religious traditions to address the urgent issues facing our planet and humanity. As we journey together towards a more sustainable, just, and peaceful world, let us heed the call to interbeing and embrace our shared humanity with compassion and courage.


Nhat Hanh, Thich. 1988. The Heart of Understanding. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

See more

Final Statement of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue at the end of the Seventh Buddhist-Christian Colloquium (The Vatican)
Seventh Buddhist-Christian Colloquium kicks off in Bangkok (Vatican News)

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Buddhistdoor View: The Dharma’s Place in the Global Climate Change Crisis
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