I’ve been following the news from the COP26 climate summit over the past few days, starting with U.N. General Secretary António Guterres’ warning that “we are digging our own graves,” and that in the best case scenario, temperatures will rise well above 2 degrees celsius by the end of the century. This past summer we’ve seen unprecedented heat waves, fires, and floods cause tragic loss around the globe. It is likely that no matter what we do at this point, temperatures will keep getting warmer; we are now just working to minimize that increase as much as possible. The Glasgow conference is the 26th time that world leaders have convened in an attempt to avert climate disaster. It’s discouraging to hear about the lack of follow-through and broken promises from previous summits. It’s frustrating that, after so many years of attention on this problem, we are still so far away from solving it. The sense that our global leaders can’t seem to agree on solutions and take action has, at times, left me feeling both helpless and hopeless.
Let me pause here.
My intent is not to bring you a sense of despair. It’s just that we need to truly see the problem that’s in front of us before we can find a way out.
Many people in the west come to Buddhism by way of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness practices can be incredibly helpful when we are surrounded by so many easy distractions, so many temporary escape hatches from the suffering around us or the stress inside us. Mindfulness meditation can bring us stability and help us to witness the reality of the moment without drowning or turning away. But, while seeing the current reality is important, Buddhist teachings also offer us the promise that reality can be different.
Buddhist practice centers in compassion, and compassion is an action. It’s helpful to stop and look before we act, but eventually we need to get up off the cushion. Yet, action can be difficult if we are immobilized by fear, grief, or hopelessness. Sometimes we need a practice that will directly cut through that emotion. We need a model of fierce compassion to snap us out of despair and fill us with the will to fight.
Earlier this week I was searching for a sutra to break through my own fear about our current climate reality, and I suddenly remembered Gary Snyder’s “Smokey the Bear Sutra” (linked here). Although this sutra was written almost 2500 year after the lifetime of the historical Buddha, I believe we can still accept it as a manifestation of dharma. It provides a truth about the fierce compassion we need to manifest in order to continue fighting for the well-being of all life on our planet. The sutra forecasts an America faced with an ecological pain similar to what we are feeling on a global scale right now. The hero of the story, Smokey the Bear, manifests a wrathful love of the planet, using his vajra shovel to “cut the roots of useless attachment” and fling “damp sand on the fires of greed and war.”
I incorporated this sutra into my daily practice this week, curious to see what would happen.
Each recitation slowly transformed my perspective. Embracing the mythic and the mystical can free us from our current perspectives and open us to change. My sense of helplessness began to dissolve as I felt the power of Smokey the Bear. A cosmic Buddha showing up as a butt-crushing bear in overalls could hold accountable the global power-brokers who are trying to navigate us out of this mess. As a representation of the idea of the compassionate warrior, Smokey reminds us of the collective force we can generate toward positive change when we work with single-minded focus. The sutra is a reminder that we aren’t alone in this battle for our planet, and that we can look around and see this same fierce compassion showing up in people like Greta Thunberg and other young activists who have not given up in this fight.
After reciting the “Smokey the Bear Sutra,” I remembered that, before the 1972 Clean Water Act, the CT River (which flows right through Springfield) was known by some as “America’s best landscaped sewer.” Today, although it still faces some challenges, the river provides drinking water for millions of people and is popular for recreation and fishing. I remembered that Costa Rica had one of the highest rates of deforestation in Latin America until the government passed a law in 1996 making it illegal to chop down trees without approval. Since then the country has managed to stop and reverse its deforestation trend, increasing its forest cover by at least 10% and supporting endangered species that thrive in the ecosystem. And, although the progress has been tiny, scientists at the Climate Action Tracker research group report that we have slightly lowered the global rate of temperature increase since 2014. These all point to the reality of hope and the possibility of success.
I don’t claim that reciting a sutra can save the world. But, I do think that hearing, speaking, and contemplating the right words at the right time can change our outlook on the world. The way we see the world impacts how we show up to the world, how we take action. When we recognize that each one of us has the power to transform habits and reshape our collective experience, we can move together toward a collective awakening and make progress toward climate healing.