Climate Karma: Buddhist Responses to Climate Change

By Taigen Dan Leighton

from Currents Fall 2014

Buddhist spiritual teachings offer rich paradigms for seeing our deep interconnectedness and integration with the natural world. These can serve as encouraging bases for responding to climate change and indeed to all environmental concerns.

Numerous Buddhist scriptures express the sacred element found in all reality, understanding nature itself as a vital agent of liberation and healing. In this view, even supposedly nonsentient beings such as trees, flowers, and ponds have the capacity to expound the teaching of reality. The thirteenth century Japanese Zen pioneer Eihei Dogen radically proclaims in one of his earliest writings that when one person engages wholeheartedly in upright sitting meditation, even briefly, space itself becomes enlightened. This relationship between yogic awareness and the physical, phenomenal dimension recalls the traditional teaching that when a Buddha awakens, he constellates a Buddha field or Pure Land. Awakened awareness is not separate from its land and the conditioned ground in which it arises. These and a great many other Buddhist accounts of a luminous, profoundly interconnected, and healing environment are not merely descriptive, but also prescribe protective ethical principles such as non-harming, and benefiting all beings. Formal bodhisattva precepts, taken as life-long commitments by dedicated practitioners, encourage not taking what is not given, acting with generosity, not turning anger into ill-will, and treating all with respect. These precepts serve as helpful guidelines and criteria for constructive responses to such environmental damage as climate change, deforestation, and mass species extinction. 

We humans do not stand outside the environmental landscape as separate, objective observers or even as superior caretaking stewards. Even to speak of “the environment” can encourage a false sense of estrangement. Rather, we are expressions of the mountains and waters with particular human perceptual, intellectual, and spiritual limitations and potentialities. Because we are portions of the whole landscape, we have the responsibility and ability to respond from our own vantage points, while recognizing our impact on the whole. Respecting our own limitations, and the wisdom of grasses, soil, animals, and plants, we can listen more carefully to the needs and perspectives of other beings, and act to enhance the common good.  

This work for the common good includes speaking our truths to human institutional and societal powers, but without being self-righteous about any particular strategies or approaches to response. Practices such as lobbying governmental and economic institutions in various modes may sometimes be appropriate and useful. I have at times found nonviolent civil disobedience to be a worthy meditative practice. However, it is helpful to be creative and flexible when thinking about not only how to respond, but also how to shift and open people’s awareness. It is important to speak with one another, and to listen to others’ perspectives. We need to encourage one another to act together, in many different modes, to respond constructively in whatever ways move us.

Considering the scientific evidence about the dangers of climate change, along with what news forecasters euphemistically call “extreme weather,” it is clear that over the next decades, human and other life on our world will unavoidably undergo chronic and sudden climate distress. The situation is daunting, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless. Yet such a response is neither helpful nor realistic. A critical part in the Buddhist teaching of karma (the workings of cause and effect) is that outcomes are not yet set. Everything we do has an impact. The latest climate science indicates that while we have passed some dangerous tipping points toward a seriously inhospitable habitat, humanity may still act to make a difference. We may still reduce carbon dioxide in the biosphere sufficiently to sustain a viable new situation. Buddhist meditative practice develops qualities of steadiness and sturdiness that include the flexibility to adapt. Such resilience, along with a mindset of cooperation and collaboration rather than competition and aggression, will surely be required in our new difficult situations.

Even as individual and communal Buddhist practice forms remain vitally adaptable to modernity, Buddhist thought is also shifting to meet our current situation. A fine example is one of my mentors, the Buddhist scholar and activist Joanna Macy, who formerly taught at the GTU as part of faculty at Starr King School for the Ministry. Joanna includes climate damage when she identifies what is happening now in the world as the “Great Unraveling.” Our modern world, based on the technological revolution and its assumptions of unending progress, is dissolving. Yet all over the planet, mostly beneath the concrete shell of the corporate mass media purview, is a “Great Turning.” Many, many good people around the world are working to make a positive difference, including GTU students concerned with exploring constructive values and fresh modes of helping.

I have been inspired by Joanna’s model of three aspects of making a positive difference. First is the vast work of holding actions, trying to mitigate the damage. This includes political activism, lobbying for social justice, and working to serve poor and marginalized persons whose suffering is increasing due to climate damage. The second area involves developing alternative, regional agricultural and economic structures. These will be increasingly needed as official, often corrupt, institutions of our society become increasingly ineffective and irrelevant. Such new ventures include organic farms, farmer markets, co-ops, micro-banks, and many other local experiments. The third area includes the work of seminaries, religious communities, and meditation teachers, to change our ways of thinking, the hearts and minds of humanity. We can help people to see that we are deeply interconnected, with one another and with the whole phenomenal world. Our very survival depends on shifting from mindsets of competition, material accumulation, aggressively overcoming so-called “others,” and endless growth, toward a lifestyle of sustainability based on cooperation and caring. 

Buddhism talks about Dharma gates, entryways to the teaching and practice of reality. From this perspective, climate change can become a Dharma gate, an opportunity for our true Awakening, individually and collectively.


Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton, PhD (GTU, 2006) teaches online at the Graduate Theological Union via the Institute of Buddhist Studies, and is Guiding Teacher at the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate temple in Chicago. He has authored numerous books on Buddhist and Zen studies.