Climate Change, Buddhism and Ice Cream: Teachings on Attachments
After attending a workshop about engaged Buddhism and climate change, I reflected on the way our attachments– which the Buddha names as the cause of suffering in the world– are making both us and the planet unhappy.
Recently, I heard a Dharma teacher describe the Buddha as a great physician for humanity’s woes. Just like any physician, he observed the human experience, making a list of symptoms, checking out our aches and pains, evaluating our longings and hurts, and then issuing a diagnosis and treatment plan for what ails humanity.
Of course, instead of a few illegible notes scribbled on a small scrap of paper, the Buddha’s gives his diagnosis and treatment in a much more stately way than typical doctors: Through the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth states that there is suffering in the world and the Second Noble Truth explains that our suffering arises from our cravings or attachments.
As my Facebook feed fills with images of melting polar ice caps and videos about species loss, it seems apparent how apt the Four Noble Truths are when it comes to confronting climate change. This was the topic of a daylong workshop I recently attended at Spirit Rock meditation center in Northern California. The workshop was led by Bob Doppelt, a long-time leader in climate action, who has brought his work into many big arenas, not the least of which is the Obama administration, and James Baraz, a co-founder of Spirit Rock and a long time Dharma teacher.
The workshop led me to examine the way that attachments have permeated our very being, to the extent that we have organized our society around them, and they are now the root cause of climate disruption. Take, for example, ice cream. Few can deny the rich and alluring taste of ice cream on a hot summer’s day; our tongues rejoice as they plunge into the soft, creamy sweetness, slurping and licking it up.
For a disciplined few, when they eat ice cream, they are able to just eat ice cream. They enjoy it, and then they move on. But, for most of us, as we ice cream, we eat it and enjoy it but then want more. We grow attached to having ice cream; we want it whenever we want it, and for not that much money. This attachment to something as simple as ice cream has driven us to design a food system that puts methane into the air, confines animals in inhumane and unsanitary cages, exploits human labor and uses fossil fuels to refrigerate and ship all over the planet. And then, because ice cream (or whatever the object of our lust is) cost money to buy, we want more money. We create institutions—corporations—whose sole purpose is to make money. To prop this system up, our government ratifies the legality of corporations to put profits above all else.
We have organized our lives and our world around our attachments, even though they are the very root of our suffering. And, because of these attachment, we create even more suffering through the unmistakable damage to humans and ecosystems. We are exporting multiplying our suffering as global communities face super storms, record breaking highs and salt water intrusion.
But, lucky for us, the Buddha was a physician and, like any physician, he also prescribed a treatment. The Buddha does just that in the last two Noble Truths, which I will discuss in an upcoming post.
For now, though, I will end by saying something about the Middle Way. When you talk about climate change, people start to panic for all kinds of reasons, and one of those is thinking that all material objects, some of which have legitemitely improved life, are bad. When the Buddha was alive, this ethic was asceticism, giving up all worldly pleasures and necessities as well, and living on the brink of existence. The Buddha actually tried that for a while, but realized that neither of the extremes of asceticism or materialism were a true path to enlightenment. Instead, he taught the Middle Way, which is the moderate path of balance between the two extremes.
This means having enough to be happy and secure. Social scientists have found that, if you are living in poverty, than more money and material objects, which help you reliably meet basic needs, does actually make you happier.
The trouble is that Western culture has gone far past that level of satisfaction; we have created a system that feeds our own unhappiness and is driving environmental destruction.
So, what are we to do? Since ending all attachments is a pretty tall order for the Western world, I will leave you with one last image: I remember once watching a video of Buddhist monks eat ice cream. Their eyes squinted, their mouths open in wide grins, and their bodies radiated with the momentary delight of the rare and fleeting experience of eating ice cream. They enjoyed their ice cream; they laughed and took it in, and then they moved on with being monks.
Lets be like that. Lets be moderate with our consumption, buy or take only what we really need, and then return back to the things that actually create happiness. Let’s really enjoy that strawberry, but only when it is in season where you live. Or appreciate our iPhone but do not get a new one just because Apple is upgrading. Or, drive your car when you have to, but take the time to bike. We can still have the good things in life, but a little bit slower, with more thought, attention and enjoyment.