Climate and ecology, some Buddhist lines of thought...

Over the last few months, Buddhists have committed themselves to taking an active part in the reflections on climate change. These exchanges of views were held within the Buddhist Union of France (climate change was the main topic of the "Buddhist Assizes" last month in Paris) and also with other political and inter-religious institutions (the French Senate, the Conference of Religious Leaders of France). This was in preparation for the world conference on climate which will take place in Paris next November ( COP 21)...

Mirai Takahashi
Over the last few months, Buddhists have committed themselves to taking an active part in the reflections on climate change. These exchange of views were held within the Buddhist Union of France ( climate change was the main topic of the "Buddhist Assizes" last month in Paris ) and also with other political and inter-religious institutions ( the French senate, the Conference of religious Leaders of France ). This was in preparation for the world conference on climate which will take place in Paris next November (COP 21)...
We would like to share with you the general framework of this reflection, from a Buddhist point of view, through the speech given by Master Wang-Genh at the French Senate last may. These exchanges will soon lead to concrete actions wich we will keep you informed about Your ideas and comments are obviously welcome.

Speech delivered by Olivier Wang-Genh, President of the Buddhist Union of France, during the conference "COP 21 - climate: which challenge for the religions ?"

French Senate, Palace of Luxembourg, Thursday, May 21, 2015.


Climate change is a phenomenon that has been observed since the beginning of the 20th century. At the end of the 80's, the UN put together an intergovernmental Group of experts on the evolution of climate, the IPCC - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Since then, the four evaluation reports written by this panel between 1990 and 2007 have left no room for doubt climate change is primarily due to human activity.

The various theories wich try to claim the opposite sound more like a denial of reality or the desire to defend economic interests or policies. It is thus in order to face the real causes of climate change, human behavior towards nature and its resources, that we will try and bring to bear a Buddhist point of view.

In order to do this we will rely on the most fundamental teachings of the historical Buddha, who live two thousand six hundred years ago in the north of India. In an increasingly complex world, it seems urgent to return to the basic principles of wich the great sages of the past had an intuitive knowledge. These principles have only been confirmed over the centuries.

The first observation the Buddha made is that everything, absolutely everything in the universe and beyond, has an IMPERMANENT nature. That is to say NOTHING is stable, NOTHING is fixed, NOTHING lasts indedinitely. EVERYTHING that appears at a given time subsequently disappears.

This is an universal truth that applies to the flame of a candle, to the weather, to a mountain range that will be eroded down through the millennia and it is just as true of human beings and of each cell they are made of. Thus, the fact that climatic conditions change or have to change is not felt by Buddhists to be a strange phenomenon but truly as the very nature of things. We tend to forget how obvious this observation is. Becoming fully aware of this impermanence is to stop acting as if natural resources were etrenal, as if the conditions of today must last forever.

The Buddha's second observation is that all things in the world are interdependent : NOTHING, absolutely nothing exists in a self-contained or independent way. NOTHING appears without all the prerequisites being met to allow its appearence. Hence, all things, by nature, are conditioned, be they of a material, psychic, emotional or spiritual nature.

What we call the "climate" is this infinite set of causes and conditions which determines for a given moment the "climatic conditions" and more generally the climate of a particular era.

For this reason climate is certainly the ideal example of this interdependence. This reality of interdependence implies that we function in a global way, i.e. in unity with all things. Thus, for Buddhists, the vision wich consists in considering Man AND nature Man AND his environment is just another anthropocentric interpretation of the world. It is naturally the source of countless misunderstandings and distortions.

Man is ONE with nature, with air he breathes, the water and food he consumes, with the totality of minerals, plants and of course animals. The human being is ONE with the universe and thus with life. For Buddhists, to take a human form is without any doubt one of the most beautiful expressions of this life.

But as we know, a simple intellectual understanding of these principles is not sufficient. It is only through a genuine experience of spiritual awakening that we can really integrate them into our lives.


Forgetting or ignoring these principles of reality that are the impermanence and the interdependence of all things is the cause of insatiable desire and greed, of the deep feeling of dissatisfaction or sense of lack, of this impression of a never quenched thirst which characterizes the human being.

Mahatma Gandhi, who was not a Buddhist but a Hindu, said: “There is enough of everything in the universe to satisfy the needs of man, but not enough to appease its greed.” This greed which is at the origin of all anger as one cannot satisfy it.

IGNORANCE, GREED, ANGER, are called the three poisons in Buddhism. These three poisons penetrate the conscience of men and women and push them to act irresponsibly, without taking into account the consequences of their actions. It is the source of so many sufferings in this world.

Today, with 8 billion people on this planet, the accumulation of so many actions dictated by selfishness and individualism has become unbearable and produces visible and measurable consequences. While the damage is already quite manifest, we are still making evaluations, assumptions, and forecasts. So we ponder when it is necessary to act!
According to the old proverb: “there is no one blinder than he who does not wish to see", the short-term financial interests and the logic of economic growth at all costs make us blind while each day we are confronted by our own excesses: unrestrained consumption, waste, overproduction, rubbish… with all the consequences in terms of pollution and damage to biodiversity. The cruelest example is undoubtedly the ill-treatment of animals. The Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who has just published a book on this subject, mentions the frightening figure of “60 billion terrestrial animals and 1,000 billion marine animals” being sacrificed each year on the altar of human appetites. Believing or wanting to convince others that this can go on for a long time is an enormous illusion and a blatant lie.
The Buddha said: “Neither in the air, neither in the middle of the oceans, neither in the depth of the mountains, nor in any part of this vast world, there exists a place where human beings can escape the consequences of their actions.”

What was true more than two thousand years ago in this “vast world” is even truer today in an age when air transport and the Internet have reduced the world to the size of a large village…



To address all these clearly identified processes, the Buddha's teachings provide very precise remedies: MEDITATION, ETHICS, precepts and rules of behaviour, STUDY based on the texts.

But also a very large number of practices and very concrete teachings, rooted in daily life, based on each person's own experience. Thus “Buddhism”, which is a neologism, could very well be called the “religion of everyday life”. A “Buddhist” has of no other place of practice than his or her own life.

It is thus through each action of his or her daily life that the teaching of the Buddha is realised.

Beyond an intellectual understanding which too often limits the vast field of reality, only experience through our actions in daily life can make us become aware of our capacity to change and to act from a broader point of view.

The Dalai Lama said in a mischievous way: “If you feel that you are too small to be able to change anything, then try to sleep with a mosquito and you will see which one of you prevents the other from sleeping.”

Of course, our usual habits and conditioning quickly regain the upper hand; this is why practice is essential; a daily practice based on the body. Here the Buddhist precepts take a central place. They correspond to the precepts of all the great religions: do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, etc.

These precepts must be understood in a collective and public-spirited dimension: any human society must comply with rules that allow us to live together. But they must also be understood, perhaps above all, in a more intimate, more personal dimension. These precepts can be taken as protections, defenses to counter our carelessness and thoughtlessness.

The thoughtlessness of which I speak is made up of all these small actions that we do not attach importance to for lack of attention and awareness. All this idle talk that we carry on without understanding that words can also hurt. But also all these thoughts, these negative emotions which we let thrive day after day without understanding that they have a devastating effect.

This carelessness corresponds to the hundred times a day, in our daily lives, when we say or think “never-mind” or “it’s-not-so-important”:
Forgetting to switch off a light, throwing remnants of food away, throwing away a wrapper in the countryside, buying more than we need… All these small unimportant things which seem to be of no consequence. Except that… 8 billion “it’s-no-big-deal” repeated a hundred times a day over several decades ends up melting glaciers, changing the currents of the oceans, creating deserts and draining seas, causing an animal or vegetable species to disappear every twenty minutes…

Human beings have a decidedly astonishing power: with their brilliant intelligence and unique capacities, how can they be capable of such inconsistency? Above all by their lack of attention and presence. Thus the three pure precepts as stated by the Buddha teach the obvious: “Do not do harmful things, do beneficial things, always act for the good of all beings.”

Hearing that, a great sage said: “Ridiculous! Even a five-year-old child understands that! ” An old Master then answered him: “That’s right, even a child understands it, but even for an old man it remains difficult to practise.”


So what can we do ? 

A clear understanding of the reality of interdependence and of our individual responsibility naturally leads us towards altruism, benevolence towards others, non-violence, the abandonment of the illusion of the ego and all its mechanisms, but also towards an awakening to our commitment and our responsibility as an individual.

Selfishness, individualism and self-centredness do not find a “favourable ground” anymore; awakening to the reality of the moment distracts us from misleading ideologies and extreme ideas. This “Middle Way” taught by the Buddha naturally induces a nonviolent or rather an “un-harming” behaviour which brings mankind back into a context of harmony and unity, peace and respect, of shared conscience and thus of responsibility.

At a time when it is common to accuse someone or something else of all our misfortunes – foreigners, the crisis, the government, Europe, climate change… – this awakening to our own individual responsibility has become essential!

The message of the Buddha is a message of hope and optimism: whatever their living conditions, human beings can change things; at least as long as favourable conditions they are set up. Among the most important conditions, we obviously find:

the education given to new generations


the example that we ourselves set for our children and close relations.

Intellectual knowledge and current education based on rationalism and a blind confidence in science are starting to show their limits: without ethics, no knowledge is complete; without wisdom and spirituality, science can become dangerous; without altruism and generosity, the most beautiful ideals shrivel up.

Far from falling into a naïve and moralizing optimism, we are fully aware that all this will not be enough. Because beyond the great principles and beautiful speeches, it is usually painful experiences and catastrophes that end up pushing human beings towards change and awakening. The great venerable Thich Nat Hanh said: “Each one of us can act to protect our planet and take care of it. Our manner of living must guarantee the future of our children and grandchildren. Our manner of living will be our message.” Therefore let us understand a simple thing then: WE ARE THE CLIMATE! And if we want the current processes to change, we must start by changing ourselves. Changing ourselves means first and foremost changing our behaviors and practices. In the country of “Human rights” where this decisive conference will be held in a few months, we should envisage how it can become the country of the “DUTIES of mankind” and of the responsibility of human beings and their place in the universe.

Olivier Reigen Wang-Genh


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