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Buddhism and the Environment: Living in Harmony with the Planet


June 6, 2014, the Estrel Convention Center, Berlin, Germany

Lively conversations in the Estrel Convention Hall subsided as the Karmapa entered and walked onto the stage, his red and golden robes blending perfectly with the rich hues of the immense images of the Buddha and Guru Rinpoche arrayed behind him.

The Karmapa began his talk on the environment, one of his major interests, by saying that it is the “biggest challenge,” the essential question for the 21st century.

In the past, he said, he has talked a lot about the environment, about protecting forests, animals, and plants, and about how our motivation shapes the way we relate to the natural world around us. He has taken a personal interest in the environment, studying it and expressing his ideas about what needs to be done at conferences. He has also engaged in various activities, such as planting trees, protecting wild animals, encouraging people to be vegetarian, and especially, supporting Khoryug (“Environment” in Tibetan). [Please insert here the web address: www.khoryug.info], an umbrella organization of fifty-five monasteries and nunneries, which belong not only to the Karma Kagyu lineage but to others as well. It was founded by the Karmapa and he chairs it as well. Focused on the Himalayan regions, including India, Nepal, and Bhutan, the branches of Khoryug promote protecting the environment and provide education to the nuns and monks so they can become leaders in their own communities, spreading the word about how to protect the planet and all its forms of life.

The Himalayas and Tibet, the Karmapa explained, hold the key to the issue of water supply for the main populations of Asia, because most of Asia’s big rivers—these life-giving forces—find their source in Tibet. With many glaciers and abundant snow cover, the store of water is so great that scientists have called this whole area the Third Pole of the world. In former times, the Himalayan people naturally lived in tune with their environment. They did not have to think about it, so there was no need to protect the environment. Now that modern life has arrived with its plastics and greed, there is an urgent need to educate the people of this region about the importance of protecting their natural world. Since this is something the monks and nuns can do, they are being educated to serve the larger community.

When we talk about Tibet, people immediately think of politics, but not all the Tibetan issues are political. The topic of the environment transcends place: it concerns not only Tibet but all of Asia, and actually, the whole world. The question of the environment in this critical region is not just about Tibet or regional politics, but it goes beyond one people and one country: it has to do with the well-being of us all. Yet we can look to Tibetan culture and spiritual traditions for a time-tested way of living in harmony with our surroundings, a way that naturally protects them.

The Karmapa said that he had a tremendous interest in the environment but no formal education or great knowledge. However, from his childhood in the high meadows of eastern Tibet, he has kept the experience he felt of being in harmony with the natural world; his family lived in a traditional way that had not changed for thousands of years. “So I have developed a natural care and respect for the world around me. When I talk about protecting the environment, it’s not some abstract idea. I can feel it. I have a strong connection with it. “Today, many people live in the city, he said, and it’s difficult for the natural environment to appear in their minds, difficult for them to have a picture of what living in the country or in nature might be. Because of this, they cannot get a feeling for the beauty of this world and the need to protect it.

City dwellers do not see the causes of what sustains us, only the results. When children go to the supermarket, for example, they see many different kinds of meat, all laid out and neatly packaged. They think the meat is produced at the supermarket and do not know that these pieces were once part of a living being, who went through great suffering and was killed. The cause is too far away from the result for them to know it.

Drawing conclusions from all this, the Karmapa stated, “So I see that the issue of protecting the environment is basically an issue of our mind. How human beings act is based on their motivation, so the environmental issue is a mental issue; it is based on how we see things. “And these days, our seeing is permeated by an insatiable desire. It has gotten to the point that whatever we see, we want. We resemble a silk worm spinning its cocoon with material that comes from within itself. Our desire is just like this: It comes out from our mind, and then one desire gives rise to another and another in a continuous stream, so that our whole lives are overrun with desire. We live in a cocoon made of our constant craving.

These days, wherever we go, we see advertisements on TV, in the newspaper, on our mobiles, or walking down the street. All the time, these ads urge us to buy this or that, creating more desire and more greed. This leads to the overuse of our limited resources and puts unsustainable pressure on the environment. This is why it is crucial to work with our minds and take real responsibility for our desire. The actual cause of environmental degradation is human greed.

We live in a time of great materialism that leaves no time for satisfaction. Companies promise that their product will change our lives and make us happy. They almost pray that our desire will be huge while as Buddhists we are praying to reduce ours. When politicians campaign, they also make many promises. All these ads and promises are illusions. They are not based on facts. Believing them is like walking around with our eyes closed so we don’t see the real situation. Our stomach has a natural limit, but our minds’ desire is so big that it could consume universes. Clearly, it is not possible to satisfy our desires by pursuing them. Is there another way to fulfill them? This is a very important question.

The Karmapa then said in English: “I went to an Italian restaurant and they gave me a big pizza, too big for me. Maybe we don’t need that big a pizza, one slice is enough, but for what we want, that pizza is not big enough. Even if we ate a whole planet, we still would not be satisfied. We should differentiate between what we need and what we want.” When someone runs for president, they promise everything, but if nothing is happening, we have to make changes.

We need a balance between our outer material and our inner spiritual worlds. We can look at material things and ask ourselves: “Do I need this or not?” We don’t have to go to extremes, making huge changes and thinking that we have to give up everything like Milarepa. We need a good situation, but a simple one, not a life complicated by always wanting more. Ultimately, the reality is that what makes the mind satisfied is simple. What is ordinary can be very special. For example, breathing is quite ordinary. If our minds rest with awareness on the breath, what happens? The air naturally goes in and out; we don’t have to do anything, since the continuous, simple movement that supports our life happens without effort. This in itself can make our mind joyful and content.

Thus the Karmapa closed his talk on living in harmony, by staying within the boundaries of our needs and within the situation of our environment. By appealing to our experience in simple language and clear logic, he brilliantly traced the line from protecting the outer environment to the need to work with our inner mind.

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