A Buddhist Response to Global Warming ~ Ringu Tulku Rinpoche

‘Greed is also ignorance…We lose the overall view.
We almost stop thinking we are part of anything at all’

JS: Rinpoche, you have studied the world ecological crisis and seen Al Gore’s film. How does it make you feel as a Buddhist and a human being? How do you react to it?

RT: From the Buddhist point of view—and not just Buddhist point of view—nature does not pollute itself. If it is polluted, it is because people are polluting it. Obviously, we have polluted the air and the global environment which is why we have created the problem. I feel if we human beings have done something wrong to make it so bad, it is up to human beings to correct it, since it affects all sentient beings. This is the karma of the situation from the Buddhist point of view. Whatever kind of action we take, we will have to experience a corresponding kind of result. The climate issue is a very clear case of this. We can create a very bad, negative situation for ourselves or we can create a very pleasant situation for ourselves. Whether it is the planet, society, the local environment or relationships between people – this is how actions and reactions affect each other. The phenomenon comes precisely from our incorrect way of doing things, which is to say, without considering the effect of our actions. If we want to enjoy the world around us, for our lifetime and for future generations, we must do something to improve it.

There are predictions that the outcome will be or could be like this or like that, but there is nothing definite. There is just the indication, ‘if you act like this, then it could be like that. However, if you act like this, it can be better’. If people want to change their behaviour, the world can become better. Even in very negative dark ages, there could be periods of time that are positive and good. That has been predicted. Therefore, from the Buddhist point of view, how the world becomes depends on the people living there and how they act. If human society degenerates and the world becomes worse and worse, what is happening is that peoples’ negative emotions become very raw. They act, aggressively, greedily, negatively, violently. That is how the world becomes worse. War, famine, diseases, environmental catastrophe and diminishing lifespan develop from that. If our actions or reactions improve – we cease killing, lying, deceiving, and stealing from each other – from the Buddhist point of view, both the human and ecological situation will increasingly improve. The way we live our lives and the way we react to each other affects not just human beings, but our natural environment, the world we live in.

JS: So you are saying there is a psychic interdependence, on a collective level?

RT: Not only psychic, but behavioural. How we react psychologically is reflected in our behaviour. So what we do to each other affects the environment. For instance, if we are overly greedy, we take everything out of the earth, without any respect. We do not care for the land or the air. We ignore our pollution. If we react with hatred and just try to harm or destroy somebody or something, we devote great resources to manufacturing weaponry, and in the process we also destroy our own environment. Harming others is harming ourselves too.

JS: Or harming the future in this case.

RT: Yes, the future.

JS: The future others, and our future selves as well.

RT: That’s right. That is the Buddhist way of seeing.

JS: So you are saying it could go either way. It could reach some pitch, or some collective recognition, or not. And if not, it could come to a crisis point. Of course, we are already at a crisis point.

RT: That’s right. It can get worse if we do not put a stop to this way of acting and reacting. If we do change sufficiently, it could also reverse itself.

JS: It seems that greed is a key ‘poison’ being projected at this time. Powerful elites in society are not necessarily going to abandon greed. Change may now have to come ‘from the grassroots’.

RT: That is right. Greed is also based on ignorance. The assumption ‘if I have more, if I consume more, then it is better for me. It will bring happiness for me. Whoever has the most things is the better, happier person’ is based on fundamental misunderstanding.

JS: A misunderstanding assiduously cultivated by mass advertising.

RT: That is right.

JS: A system dedicated to generating greed contains the seeds of its own destruction, unless something really changes. On the scientific side, the de-glaciation of Greenland seems to be faster than they previously thought. It is potentially catastrophic for the world’s coastlines.

RT: I saw a BBC report that ships could now make the Northwest Passage, a short cut from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, north and west through the Canadian Arctic. The ice has melted so much that there is a waterway right through on the top of the world. Countries have already started to fight about who owns that ocean.

JS: Buddhism talks about ‘beginningless time’. If we look at the scientific history of the earth, it is 4½ billion years old. The biosphere, the living world is 3½ billion years old. The human species is less than a quarter of a million years old. So are we just referring to something ‘beginningless’ in terms of human consciousness?

RT: ‘Beginningless’ time is not based on one world system. It is based on countless universes throughout endless space. Space is limitless, so if there is this world system, there are also others. How many are there that our instruments can observe now? There could be different kinds of beings, worlds, limitless possibilities. It is not talking about this world. This world has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Indian Buddhist cosmology, one great kalpa is divided into 80 small kalpas. It takes 20 kalpas for one world system to form, from nothingness into existence. From the time of its existence until any kind of living being is able to survive takes another 20 kalpas. From the time living beings arrive, grow, flourish, and expand, until they become extinct takes another 20 kalpas. From the point that system starts to dissolve until it is completely destroyed and remains in dissolution is another 20 kalpas. That is a single cycle of one big kalpa. Furthermore, while one world is being created, another is living, another is dying, another is already extinct. There are countless worlds and universes like that.

JS: The Pope is issuing a ‘social encyclical’ on the issue of global warming and will make an appeal to the U.N. in person. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian Church has convened an interfaith conference on a boat near the North Pole—all faiths praying together. Do you think it is a good idea for Buddhist leaders to join forces in front of their students and raise this issue, at prayer festivals, conferences and teachings?

RT: I think it is very appropriate. More people are becoming aware of global warming, but only recently. Not long ago, people had little or no clarity on this subject.

JS: It has changed over the last year since the Fourth IPCC Report came out. Science progresses methodically and slowly. To reach consensus between 2500 world experts is not trivial. Finally they came up with 90% certainty that humans are causing it. After that there could not be any respectable opposition. The media woke up somewhat. However, even that has not stopped those opposing the truth.

RT: No, not at all.

JS: Even though the scientific conclusions are specific and water-tight, still the political arena does not change, because enormous profits being made through greed and waste. What about our own view and conduct in relation to the ecological crisis? Great spiritual masters like Guru Padmasambhava saw the world as dreamlike and illusionary, yet they went to enormous effort to benefit future generations. I wonder what this tells us about the view we should be cultivating.

Emptiness, interdependence, impermanence, the nature of beings and things being dreamlike…these do not prevent us from doing things for other people. They do not prevent us doing positive things and reducing negativity. It may be like a dream, but it still affects people. The same question is raised in the Bodhicaryavatara. If everything is emptiness, why is there a need for compassion? There is a need because people suffer. They do not understand emptiness. Therefore it is important to work for their benefit, to reduce suffering. Its being like a dream does not change anything in that regard.

JS: I presume it would change the way in which we worked, and avoid anxiety, if we recognize the situation has twin aspects of being both dream-like and a crisis?

RT: Because things are impermanent, interdependent, emptiness, we should try to see them clearly, so that whatever the situation may be, we do not panic. We change our way of experiencing. That does not mean that we should not try to change the situation. Even if we have to live in that situation, we should do so in a peaceful and joyful manner. Within the situation, we should do whatever we can to make it better – without becoming negative, without becoming completely hopeless, or overwhelmed by tragedy. We should live in a way to make things better, both outside and inside.

You must be familiar with this kind of situation. You were a refugee when Tibet was destroyed by external enemies. Do you see any relationship between these two crises?

RT: The situation for the Tibetans is very relevant. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said we should not become pessimistic; we should stay optimistic. That does not imply we should ignore the situation, be unaware of the problems and injustices, or blame ourselves. Rather we should clearly see the situation we are in. Recognizing it, understanding it, accepting it, then we do not need to become utterly disillusioned. We need to see clearly what we can do to make it better. If we can find even a little thing to make it better, we should concentrate on that, rather than just mourning the negative things that have happened for us. If we do that, we become more positive, more enthusiastic, more optimistic. That was the message we Tibetan refugees received. Instead of becoming angry and hateful, feeling sorry for ourselves and completely losing hope – look at the situation and ask ‘what can we do now?’ That is why the Tibetan refugees tried their best to preserve their culture and improve their situation a little bit. This, of course, is not an easy thing, either inside or outside Tibet. There are so many negative forces. Nonetheless, it is working.

JS: Often at great cost.

RT: Yes, the cost is there. All the negative things happened anyway, so within that context, whatever positive could be done, was done.

JS: In the present climate crisis, there is the possibility that the human race is going to fail to recognize its karmic responsibilities. The IPCC have said that unless human society stops pumping 70 million tons of carbon gas into the atmosphere annually, within 10 years we could irretrievably damage our climate and the whole biosphere.

RT: According to Buddhism and according to our experience as Tibetan refugees, we never know if we will succeed in changing or reversing the situation, or not. We can never say how much can be done, or how much cannot be done. Nobody can say that precisely, but that should not prevent us trying.

There is a great urgency that the world should arrive at a genuine treaty and put it into practice. What advice would you give as a Buddhist monk and teacher?

RT: I think the understanding of this information is very important. People have a vague idea that global warming is dangerous, but I think most have not yet experienced the urgency at a personal level. Governments talk a lot, but I do not know how serious they really are. Their actions do not match their talk. Maybe some more or less understand it, but their actions are inadequate.

There is a Sanskrit verse:

For the sake of the world you should sacrifice your country.
For the sake of the country you should sacrifice your village.
For the sake of your village you should sacrifice your family.
For the sake of your family you should sacrifice yourself.

Well, it appears the opposite attitude is prevalent nowadays:

For the sake of your country you sacrifice the world.
For the sake of your village you sacrifice your country.
For the sake of your family you sacrifice your village.
For the sake of yourself you sacrifice your family.

When that kind of situation has come about, we think “If I feel it is somehow beneficial for me, or if I get more money for a certain time, I do not care if the planet is going to the dogs or not.” That is a root problem; basically it is ignorance. We think our own welfare is assured because we get money or power or whatever. Yet we live in this world and actually if the world is gone, where will we use our ‘profit’?

JS: In the context of Global Warming, we could even say, collectively, this is pathological ignorance, possibly even a kind of ‘death wish’.

RT: It is as if we do not actually know, we are a bit confused. The kind of education we receive over-emphasizes personal achievement and personal goals. ‘I have to be the top person. I have to win the most. My success is the only thing. What happens around me is not the most important thing.’ It is an attitude, a way of looking that is too ego-centred. We lose the overall view. We almost stop thinking that we are part of anything at all. That is why some people become depressed, lonely and so forth. It also comes from this.

Interview by John & Diane Stanley, Sikkim, October 2007

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche (b.1952) was recognised by Karmapa XVI as a reincarnate lama of Rigul monastery. He holds the Kagyu title of Khenpo and Nyingma title of Lopon Chenpo. A professor of Tibetology in Sikkim for 17 years, Rinpoche authored a noted work on the non-sectarian Rime movement. His fluent English and congenial teaching style is appreciated worldwide. He founded Bodhicharya, an international organization that coordinates the preservation & transmission of Buddhist teachings with intercultural dialogue, education & social projects.

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