A secular Buddhist perspective on the threat of climate extinction

In this excerpt from his article in the Fall 2020 issue of Tricycle magazine, ‘Embracing Extinction: Will Buddhism change to face humanity’s impending peril?’ Stephen Batchelor argues that a wise and compassionate response to the threat of climate extinction requires us to recognize that life is good in and of itself and to engage in the interconnected set of four tasks which are the core of a secular approach to the dharma.

Published with the kind permission of Tricycle magazine and Stephen Batchelor.


‘Whoever would tend to me,’ said Gotama to a group of followers who had neglected one among them suffering from dysentery, ‘he should tend to the sick.’ On arriving at the community, Gotama and his attendant Ananda had entered a lodging to find a mendicant lying alone on the floor in a pool of his own excrement. They bathed and cleaned him, lifted him up and laid him on a couch. Gotama then reproached the other mendicants for failing in their ethical obligations to one of their own.

In identifying himself with the sick mendicant, Gotama implies that the awakening he embodies and advocates is rooted in our capacity to care for the specific suffering of others. The episode shows this care to be a spontaneous, empathetic, and heartfelt act. It demonstrates how a healer would respond to the urgency of another person’s suffering rather than provide an abstract diagnosis of why that person is in pain. In his discourses, too, we often find Gotama evoking the hands-on skill of a physician to illustrate how to practice the dharma.

Gotama invited his followers to engage in an interconnected set of four tasks. These tasks challenge us to embrace suffering, let our reactive emotions be, see the stopping of reactivity, and respond with care. When facing a climate emergency that threatens the viability of intelligent life on Earth, this would entail embracing the possibility of extinction, not being paralyzed by the fear of extinction, dwelling in a space of fearless awareness, and, from there, responding appropriately to the threats that face us and future generations. The four tasks flesh out what it means to care. For Gotama, care is the cardinal virtue that encompasses all others. His final recorded words were: ‘Things fall apart; tread the path with care.’

To practice such care does not require believing in rebirth and the law of karma, or insisting that craving is the cause of suffering and nirvana its cessation. Such beliefs can stand in the way of a wholehearted engagement with the threat of ecological catastrophe. During an interview in 1989, when asked whether a Buddhist would be concerned about environmental destruction, the Dalai Lama replied: ‘A Buddhist would say it doesn’t matter.’ For even if the world were to become uninhabitable and mass extinction ensued, the sentient beings who perished would be reborn according to their karma in another realm in this or some other universe. Buddhists may well feel deep compassion for those who suffer the consequences of climate change and may do their best to alleviate that suffering, but in the end some form of consciousness will survive death and be reborn. What really matters is to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth and attain the eternal peace of nirvana.

For orthodox Buddhists (like Hindus and Jains), not to be born and not to die are preferable to birth and death. As the end of suffering, nirvana, therefore, is also the end of life. While Mahayana Buddhists renounce nirvana and vow to be reborn out of compassion for others, they do so only as long as there are sentient beings still trapped in the cycle of birth and death. Once the bodhisattva has liberated all these beings, she too enters nirvana and is born no more. Although this may take an immeasurably long time, the same underlying principle holds true: not-life is preferable to life.

The four tasks, by contrast, demand direct engagement with life itself irrespective of any a priori beliefs about the origins and end of suffering or the nature of the self. By entering into a contemplative, empathetic, and existential relationship with the pain of the world, one seeks to respond with situation-specific compassion. The challenge is to tackle the crisis at hand, which may be unprecedented, and find imaginative responses that may not have occurred to anyone before. Taking into account the causal role played by psychological factors such as greed, dislike, and stupidity, one’s primary concern is to arrive at a response based on an understanding of the full range of particular conditions—biological, social, economic, religious, and political—that underlie and contribute to the crisis.

A traditional Buddhist meditation on death requires that you contemplate the certainty of your own death and the uncertainty of its time, and then dwell on the question of how, given this mortal condition, you should live now. Expanding this personal reflection to include Homo sapiens as a species, the meditation would look like this:

Extinction is certain;
The time of extinction is uncertain;
How should we live now?

Extinction is certain. Either the human species will evolve into a form of life that we cannot now even imagine, or, if we manage to survive in a more or less humanoid form, we will be wiped out when the sun becomes too hot to sustain life on Earth in around a billion years’ time. Yet neither of these scenarios is certain. A massive meteor impact, a highly virulent disease, volcanic eruptions, nuclear devastation, or the repercussions of climate change could terminate human existence much sooner, possibly within this century.

Just as death focuses attention on what matters most for you as an individual, extinction focuses attention on what matters most for us as a species. In embracing extinction, we become intensely conscious that we are complex thinking, feeling, sensing, caring creatures who emerged from millions of years of evolution by natural selection. For self-aware animals like you and me, to contemplate extinction can open up an astonished, quasi-religious wonder at the grandeur of being alive at all.

Yet for Buddhists, is life worth living for its own sake? Is the emergence and evolution of life, from a tadpole to a silverback gorilla, to be cherished as a good in and of itself? Or is this ‘precious human rebirth’ to be cherished solely because it enables one to break free from the meaningless repetitions of samsara (from hell to heaven and back ad infinitum) and attain nirvana, at which point birth and death are no more?


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