October 20,2011- Dharamsala.
His Holiness Karmapa attended the 23rd Mind and Life conference from October 17-20.
After tea-break on Thursday afternoon, the Gyalwang Karmapa gave a short address to the conference. He began by explaining the motivating factors in the development of his own concern and action for environmental protection. He spoke of two things which had influenced him deeply. First, he attended an environmental conference which transformed his view of everyday things such as water and trees, parts of the natural landscape, which are often naively regarded as separate and outside ourselves. He realised how much they are intimately connected with our survival and well-being on earth.
Secondly, born and raised in a nomad family in an isolated region of Tibet, as a child his day-to-day life was very close to nature. Surrounded by snow mountains, wild open spaces, greenery, and an abundance of wild life, from an early age he gained a feeling of closeness with nature, and an affection and appreciation of the value of the environment. Indeed, he reflected, one of the problems in contemporary society might be that people in cities are so separated from nature and find it difficult to feel close or appreciate its beauty.
He then discussed the connections between environmental protection and Buddhism. The Buddhist philosophy which supports environmental protection needs to be translated into action. The ideal which underpins Mahayana Buddhism is the aspiration to help and benefit as many sentient beings as possible, and for anyone who believes in that ideal, environmental protection is immediately relevant because the environment is the basis for the survival and well-being of all the sentient beings for whose welfare we are working. By protecting the environment we are indirectly serving the needs and welfare of all these other sentient beings who depend upon the health of the environment in which they live. Furthermore, he argued, protecting the environment provides Buddhist practitioners with one of the best opportunities to put that ideal of serving the needs of sentient beings into practice. So Buddhist practitioners should engage in environmental protection with great joy.
He referred to the way in which this view is reflected in Buddhist texts such as Shantideva’s “The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” , which contains the aspiration to serve the needs of sentient beings as everyday resources such as water, trees, and even space. In reality we cannot become these things, he said, but we can protect them. Thus, by taking care of the environment, we are fulfilling the aspiration of bodhisattvas.
However, it is not always easy to convince people. Gyalwang Karmapa mentioned his own experiences at two conferences on environmental protection which he had organised. During the first conference there was much discussion on biodiversity, and some monks protested against protecting tigers because tigers are killers who hunt deer and other animals. Those monks could not see the value of preserving tigers!
At the second conference Gyalwang Karmapa decided to tackle this issue. First, he reminded the monks of the Jataka tale in which during a previous lifetime, the Buddha-to-be, sacrificed his life for the benefit of a tigress. Then he explained the science – the role predators play in the foodchain of maintaining balance in an ecosystem, and finally he suggested that, using the monks’ logic, human beings are much more dangerous than tigers. Tigers only kill what they need in order to eat and stay alive, but humans kill everything! So it’s human beings who should be eliminated not tigers!
His Holiness then moved on to argue the necessity for a fundamental change in the way human beings in the twenty-first century view the world, and suggested that the Buddhist views of non-inherent self, interdependence and emptiness had great relevance here.
From the Buddhist perspective the root cause of the environmental degradation the world faces now is ignorance and self-centredness. Naively, we think of “I”, “me” and “mine” , conceiving it as autonomous and independent, but if we carefully consider all the things we need in order to live, such as clothing and food, even the oxygen we breathe, we realise that our very survival depends on factors outside ourselves. Hence, we can come to appreciate our fundamental interdependence. This understanding is crucial if we want people to change their perspective, he suggested. If, on the other hand, we are trapped in the prison of “I” and “mine” we fail to realise this interconnectedness, and cannot see the connection between the well-being of someone far away and our own well-being. We need to move out of that prison and relate to the world in the way His Holiness the Dalai Lama refers to as seeing “the bigger picture”. This fundamental change in the way we see the world is crucial.
Gyalwang Karmapa compared the twenty-first century viewpoint to someone looking at a beautiful tree. We admire all the parts that we can see – the branches and the foliage – but we don’t notice the roots which are diseased and rotten. In the same way, we admire all the advances in technology, but we don’t see the environmental degradation. From watching televison news, it seemed to him that many of the world leaders are obsessed with only two things – the economy and politics – and beyond that nobody seems to be paying attention to the fundamental questions of human survival and the well-being of the environment, which is the basis of our survival. Yet, if the basic conditions for our survival are lost, there will be no politics or economics!
In the short question and answer session which followed, His Holiness joked how once upon a time, when living in Tibet, he had been a voracious meat-eater. However, in India he became a vegetarian, having watched several documentaries which showed the suffering of animals being hunted or being slaughtered in industrialised meat production. He was very distressed by both their suffering and by the way in which the people involved showed complete disregard for the animals as sentient beings. It was his personal aspiration that throughout his future lives he would be able to maintain the vegetarian view. During the Kagyu Monlam, thinking that he should speak about the importance of vegetarianism, he suggested several options for people to reduce their meat consumption, and was amazed to see how many people opted to give up meat completely. He explained that his approach in talking about vegetarianism has never been to impose it but always to relate it to the cultural context of the people he is speaking to, so that it becomes of direct relevance to the aspirations of the individual or the community. In addition, he encourages people to find their own most compelling reason for the change.
With reference to environmental degradation on the Tibetan plateau, Gyalwang Karmapa suggested that this issue is of such world-wide importance that it should be separated from other political issues concerning Tibet and the Tibetans – issues such as human rights, the preservation of the culture, freedom of religion and the right of a people to survive. Tibet, the “Third Pole”, was not only the source of most of the major rivers in Asia but also affected climate patterns, so whatever happened environmentally in the Himalayan region had consequences for the lives of billions of people. For this reason, His Holiness stated, the importance of protecting the environment in Tibet needed to be emphasised much more, and scientists should be taking a leading role in this by making their research public.