CAN BUDDHISM HELP FIGHT CLIMATE CHANGE?
Amid the golden hills near Point Reyes, California, in the sunlit main hall of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Christiana Figueres, the architect of the Paris climate agreement, is explaining how Buddhism saved her life.
Her talk is part of a daylong gathering of activists, yoga instructors, Buddhist practitioners, and meditation enthusiasts all intent on bringing more mindfulness and loving kindness to their approach to climate activism. Timed to coincide with the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco hosted by Governor Jerry Brown, Saturday’s retreat is about an hour’s drive from the city—and a world away.
While the dress code at the summit in the city was “business,” there are no shoes allowed here. And when I ask if I can take my purse inside instead of leaving it in an open cubby by the entrance, a custodian smiles sympathetically and says, “You can,” before launching into a “funny story” about that time his expensive sunglasses went unmolested in a cubby here for four whole days.
I smile back at him. I take my purse.
The day’s featured speakers at this famed meditation retreat include climate diplomats like Figueres, the former head of United Nations climate negotiations in Paris, but also Tibetan-Buddhist scholars and activists like Julia Butterfly Hill, the woman who lived in a redwood tree for 738 days to keep it from being cut down.
Figueres is in the middle of explaining how, a few years ago, when she was working on the pathway to Paris, she experienced the most difficult personal trauma of her life. “I thought, ‘I wonder what would happen if I just disappeared at this point,'” she tells the seated crowd of shoe-less climate activists.
Instead of giving up, she reached out to a friend.
“I said: ‘I’m suicidal. I have this responsibility. I can’t do this. I have to do something,'” Figueres recalls. “He says, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I say, ‘Buddhism.’ And he goes: ‘Buddhism? What do you know about Buddhism?’ And I say: ‘Nothing. In fact, I’m not sure I even know how to spell it correctly.'”
Her friend then turned Figueres onto the teachings of Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk whose books have become popular in the West. “The teachings of Thích Nhất Hạnh saved my life,” Figueres says, but, more importantly, “they were the guiding light” for her work on the Paris Agreement, helping her muster the strength, compassion, and focus she needed to do the job.
It wasn’t just a personal salve, Figueres insists. Thinking like a Buddha, she says, could help ordinary citizens put their climate ideals into action too. “Finding strength in our pain at the individual level is what we need to do at the global level,” she says.
Americans are in what one speaker calls “a moment of awakening consciousness.” Specifically, with respect to climate, it’s a moment of recognizing that the task of protecting the planet can’t be left up to politicians. (After Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, it became clear that the current administration can’t be counted on for much.)
Jack Kornfield, co-founder of Spirit Rock, sees this moment of awakening as in line with what Thích Nhất Hạnh has said about how “the next Buddha” might not take the form of an individual, but rather of “a community practicing understanding and loving kindness.”
“What’s beautiful is the empowerment of people,” Kornfield says. “It’s also problematic,” he adds wryly, “because it means you. That’s the downside. Otherwise you can offload the responsibility to the spiritual leaders or the climate leaders.”
UN climate chief Christiana Figueres steps down – Lamented U.S. democracy as ‘very detrimental’ – Sought ‘centralized transformation’ – Lauded one-party ruled China for ‘doing it right’ on climate – Climate Depot Statement: ‘Figueres legacy will be one of central planning, limiting development for the world’s poor, creation of climate slush funds, appeals to climate claims and ‘solutions’ that would make medieval witch accusers blush. The world can smile today that Figueres will soon be out of power.’