Prominent Buddhist teacher and Lion’s Roar contributor Judy Lief shares her experiences from this month’s historic Paris Climate talks.
My invitation to COP21: The Paris Climate Conference
Since its founding seven years ago, I have been a member of The Contemplative Alliance, a project of the Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW).
The Contemplative Alliance brings together contemplative/religious leaders, activists, and scholars around issues of pressing global concern. It is under these auspices that I was able to attend the Paris Climate Conference. As a student of Ven. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, I was taught about the path of the bodhisattva, the spiritual warrior committed to engaging with the world and its problems with wisdom and compassion. I was also taught the value of interfaith dialogue. The Alliance is based on these same principles.
Climate change affects us all. It is interconnected with such problems as poverty, injustice, racism, and warfare. Since it affects us and the many other sentient beings, and since we share responsibility for its human causes, it is essential that we join together to change course. It is essential to heal our relationship to earth, our mother. As Trungpa Rinpoche once said, “The test of a bodhisattva’s sanity is how directly he or she relates to earth. Anything else is a sidetrack.”
I hope these informal notes of my experience in Paris will be helpful for people like me, fledgling bodhisattvas who aspire to be of help in the world.
Day one: Action day in the blue pavilion
After arriving on a red eye from Washington D.C. on Saturday the 5th, Cha’n teacher Zarko Andricevic and I headed out by train and bus to the COP21 site. Zarko and I had the good fortune of holding official observer status, so were able to enter the “Blue Pavilion,” where the official negotiations were taking place. There, we met up with Ven. Chang Ji and her assistant Guo Chan from the Dharma Drum Community. We were all delegates of The Contemplative Alliance/Global Peace Initiative of Women to the climate conference.
This day was billed as the “action day,” which hopefully would mark a formal commitment to action on the part of the countries participating. I had time to go to two panel discussions. The first was “The Role of Ethics and Awareness in Climate Change Solutions.” Zarko, Chang Ji, and Sister Jayanti from the Brahma Kumaris were joined with experts from Germany and UNESCO. The second panel was on the role of civil society in climate change action. Chang Ji leads youth empowerment and leadership workshops around the world, Zarko opened the first Cha’n center in Europe, and Jayanti and the Brahma Kumaris have worked to develop environmental awareness and built massive solar power projects in India. They have “boots on the ground,” so to speak.
Two themes so far:
- From Jayanti: In additional to intelligence, and emotional intelligence, how about spiritual intelligence (knowing who you are in relationship to others and to the planet)?
- How to work with two contrasting scenarios: the doomsday one and the hopeful one.
Day two: Prayer in many voices
The second day was a full day of prayer at Lama Gyourme Rinpoche’s Kagyu Dzong Buddhist Center. It began with his opening chant accompanied by Tunisian musician Jassar Haj Youseff playing a viola de gamba. I noticed that Lama Gyourme had a beautiful voice, and it turned out he had made a number of CDs with various world musicians. There was much chanting, including Gregorian chants, Cambodian refuge chants, Lakota prayer song, Sufi, Chinese Buddhist, etc. There were also long periods of silent meditation and readings.
My prayer offering was an invocation of the five elements, asking for their forgiveness, and rousing our aspirations to amend our relationship to the earth and the many beings who have been harmed by our actions (and inactions). Over dinner I sat with natural rights organizer Tiokasan Ghosthorse and a Malaysian Dharma Drum nun and we had a lively discussion of Lakota language and spirituality in relationship to Buddhism and to the more dominant Western paradigm. Our thoughts were very much on the negotiations happening at COP21 and also on the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and in San Bernadino.
- The power of bearing witness.
Day three: Climate change and social justice at the green pavilion
We spent this day at the “Generations Climate,” the space for civil society and NGOs, located in a gigantic former airplane hangar. The theme for the day was climate change and social justice. This venue had more of a peoples’ feel, with more young people, more modest restaurants, and many information booths, with themes like “the oceans” or “forests,” representing environmental NGO’s from around the world. It was a quite large and chaotic scene. A group of demonstrators gathered and marched around chanting, “What do we want? Climate justice. When do we want it? Now!” Lots of chaos and heart. Here there seemed to be greater connecting of the dots between climate change and issues such as the gap between the rich and the poor, species loss, environmental degradation, and social unrest and fear leading to an increase in racism and warfare.
In the evening we went to a reception sponsored by Karenna Gore and Rick Clugston of the Center for Earth Ethics. Members of that southern-U.S. group are working at the grassroots level to build awareness of climate change through faith communities. They noted that people were beginning to encounter parasitic diseases previously unknown in that region due to climate changes. The GPIW folks made up about a third of the crowd, with a smattering of other organizations focusing on spiritual and ethical issues regarding climate change. We were vastly outnumbered at the UN conference by the cap and trade negotiators and such.
After the reception, we went to the memorial for the victims of the Paris shooting at the Plaza de Republique, where we paid our respects. The scene was peaceful and ordinary, with people sitting at the many charming cafes, strolling in the beautiful mild evening, much like it must have been before the attack. It felt a bit surreal in that way.
- The difference between seeing the climate issue as a problem to be solved vs a relationship to be healed.
- The power of connecting across cultures, languages, and spiritual traditions in relation to real world issues and challenges.
Day four: Inner dimensions of climate change
On day four we went back to the Generations Hall. We had time to explore the vast exhibit area. As negotiations went on, the increasing tension and energy was palpable. The feeling was emerging quite strongly that, while the negotiations in the were important and in some ways groundbreaking, the real changes would need to take place from the ground up, at the civil society level, through NGOs and through local government initiatives.
In the afternoon we had our panel, entitled “The Inner Dimensions of Climate Change.” It was amazing that Dena Merriam (the GPIW founder/leader) had been able to secure this slot for us in the schedule, and in a large room, to boot. Our panel was well attended by close to 200 people, representing many different nationalities and spiritual traditions. Our presentation was broken into three successive small panels. The first was on “Violence in the Environment.” Fr. Father Michael Holleran, Zarko Andivecic, Shraddhalu Ranade, Dena Merriam, and I participated. The second panel, “Inner Transformation,” included Swami Atmarupananda, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Angela Fisher, and Richard Cizik. The third panel was called, “A New Paradigm and Model for Society.” Informally we called it the young folks panel. It was very moving to see the passion and clarity of the younger generation of leaders. On this panel, moderated by GPIW’s Brianne Chai-Onn, were Mihir Mathur, an Indian expert on climate economics and such things as peak oil; Ven. Chang Ji, who leads girls’ leadership training around the world; Waheed Ur Rehmman Para, a Kahmiri youth leader; and Adam Bucko, who is the founder of New York’s Reciprocity Project and works with homeless youth.
In my talk I said that in order to heal our relationship with the earth, instead of starting only with all that was wrong, we needed to start from appreciation and gratitude and a recognition of the basic goodness of ourselves and all beings. From that base we can begin to unravel and analyze the causes of our estrangement and what has led us to mistreat the earth. I talked about being overpowered by “the three lords of materialism,” leading us to fight over things, fight over ideas, and fight over religion.
Our panel provided a counterpoint to the many brilliant presentations on new technologies and scientific innovations to address issues, such as energy sources, water supplies, and forests. We questioned the assumption that technological inventiveness was enough to disrupt our destructive trajectory. In fact, in many ways, despite its obvious benefits, technology is what got us into this mess. In the images and language of our various traditions, we encouraged people to question fundamental assumptions. How we view things matters. If we continue to view the earth and other beings as material for our use, to base our economy on the need for perpetual growth, and to take and take without thinking of the consequences, no amount of technology will be enough to halt our march to a very unpleasant future to give our children and grandchildren. So our role was to encourage people to take a deeper look at the patterns of thought and habit. It was to call for a reawakening of our love and appreciation for our Mother Earth; for, we should protect, not mistreat, what we truly love.
- Technological solutions are essential, but they are still Band-Aids.
- Our underlying attitude is the real problem. It is what has brought us to this point.
- Whether you call it a spiritual transformation or a conceptual revisioning, we need to examine our underlying assumptions and relationship with the earth and its resources.
- The climate/environmental crisis is not just a crisis of thought, it is also a crisis of the heart.
Day five: Decompression
It was good to have a day to explore before our departures back to our home countries. A group of us went to the countryside, and I had the chance to see the Chartres Cathedral for the first time. How fortunate to do so with someone as knowledgeable as Father Holleran. The cathedral brought up mixed feelings for me, it being an expression of incredible beauty and devotion and at the same time imperial power and grandeur. In the evening we attended an elegant cocktail party with other COP21 participants. We were all so happy to have been a part of this historic event, and to meet people around the world who cared about climate change in the same we as we did. At the same time, we were well aware that the negotiations of COP21 and the many innovations and grassroots efforts were not bold enough to really address the challenge of climate change. They were only a first step.
- The inspiration of seeing people from around the world working on a common challenge.
- The need to develop the consciousness and a visceral embodied feeling that we are all in the care of one earth, despite our many differences.
It is important to help each other reconnect with a more sane and nurturing way of living than one based on continual consumption and estrangement from our earth and our fellow beings. Like the Buddha, we need to touch—really touch—the earth.