For Buddhist Leader, Religion And the Environment Are One

As a Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Karmapa is promoting green practices in monasteries in the Himalayan region. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about how the world needs both religion and science in tackling the “environmental emergency” of climate change.

Ogyen Trinley Dorje, spiritual head of a 900-year-old lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, says his deep concern for environmental issues comes naturally. As a boy on the Tibetan plateau, he lived close to the land, so, as he notes, “My views on the need for environmental stewardship did not come from artificial or theoretical knowledge but from early experience.”

Now living in northern India (near his mentor, the Dalai Lama), His Holiness the 17th Karmapa is promoting a program that seeks to instill good environmental practices in Buddhist monasteries and in local communities across the Himalayan region.

The Karmapa
Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images
His Holiness the 17th Karmapa

While on his current U.S. tour, the 29-year-old Karmapa sat down with Yale Environment 360 editor Roger Cohn and discussed how environmental awareness fits with the Buddhist concept of interdependence, why the impacts of climate change in the Himalaya are so significant, and what role religion can play in helping meet the world’s environmental challenges.

“The environmental emergency that we face is not just a scientific issue, nor is it just a political issue,” he said. “It is also a moral issue.”

Yale Environment 360: I wanted to start by asking about the programs you’ve launched in monasteries in the Himalaya to foster environmental protection and environmental stewardship. What is the goal of those programs, and how do they work?

The Karmapa: The work is primarily concerned with the protection of the forests, water sources, and wildlife, as well as the reduction and proper disposal of garbage. We’ve tried to introduce these topics and motivate the monasteries by bringing their representatives to conferences and motivating them to actively take up environmental stewardship. Also to introduce them to the necessary technical aspects of these best environmental practices, and to emphasize respect and conservation of the environments of each of these monasteries.

‘I was brought up to experience the natural environment as fundamentally sacred.’

e360: Can you give a specific example or two of work or activities that are being done by the monks in the monasteries?

Karmapa: In each monastery, we’ve introduced tree planting, so thousands of trees have been planted — also the preservation of the natural mandala, or natural environment, that is already there, and the creation of functioning small farm gardens, or vegetable gardens sustained and cultivated without the use of artificial fertilizers. The influence of this goes beyond the monasteries themselves, because the monasteries then spread this work to the adjacent villages and towns.

e360: The Himalayan region has seen some of the most profound effects of climate change in recent years. Was that part of the motivation for this program?

Karmapa: Very much so. Because of what you mentioned — that climate change is directly observable in the Himalayan region: the delays of the monsoon, increased rainfall, flooding, and other changes — many people who live in these areas, when you mention climate change, feel immediately inspired to do something about it because they have felt the effects already. They have observed them directly and therefore it’s very easy to communicate to these people that this is an emergency because they are witnessing it.

e360: You yourself grew up in a relatively pristine area of the Himalaya. How do you think that affected your view of the natural world and the importance you are putting on the environment in your teachings?

Karmapa: As you said, I was born in the Tibetan wilderness, which means that I was fortunate enough to witness the natural or even pristine — to use your words — environment before it was subject to any significant modernization. I was brought up to experience the natural environment as fundamentally sacred and therefore the conservation of it as of tremendous importance. That instilled in me a very good habit, a habit of looking at the environment in a healthy way. And so as a result of that I have a particularly strong — I would say, heartfelt — love for nature, for the natural environment. My views on the need for environmental stewardship do not come from artificial or theoretical knowledge but from early experience.

e360: You’ve talked about the Buddhist idea of interdependence and oneness. How does that fit into your view of humans and their relationship with the natural world?

Karmapa: The implications of interdependence for us are many. As human beings we depend on one another. We also depend on other species and other species depend on one another as well. And all of us, as inhabitants of this world, depend on the environment in which we live. Sometimes when I am speaking about this, I use the image of this planet, this world, as a container, and all of the living beings that inhabit it as contents. In a very real sense this planet holds us and supports us, and it also sustains us. So without this planet, there would be no way for any of us, any of the species that inhabit it, to survive.

What I am addressing here is the selfish thinking that imagines that each of us is an independent entity. None of us are truly independent. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, even the air we breathe, all come from the environment

‘There need be no contradiction between science and religion. They are concerned with different questions.’

and also from the hard work and kindness of other beings. If we can learn to think not so much about I, or me, as an independent entity, but regard ourselves as parts of an interdependent system, our thinking will become more realistic and useful.

e360: What impacts of climate change are you seeing in the Himalayan region?

Karmapa: The Himalayan region, with its glaciers and the Tibetan snow mass, is a storehouse of water. It’s the source of the great rivers of Asia, and therefore all of the lives of all of the species that inhabit that continent really depend upon it. … When people talk about the Tibetan issue, the issue of Tibet, many people think it is a political issue. But I think it is fundamentally an environmental issue — because the Tibetan situation does not only affect people in Tibet or even people throughout China, it affects all of Asia, because Tibet is a storehouse for water. So this is something with which we all, especially everyone in Asia, need to be concerned.

As for what observable results of climate change one can see in the region, primarily the melting of the ice and snow and a marked increase in temperature. For example, I live in Dharamsala, which is [in India] adjacent to the Himalayan region, and the temperature in Dharamsala has increased now, steadily, to the point where for the first time, only in the last less than ten years we’ve started to rely on air conditioning. We’ve never had to before.

e360: Why do you think it has been so difficult to get the world community to take real action on climate change? Is it because there is some difficulty communicating the science, or is it because people don’t face up to a problem that is long-term?

Karmapa: I think there are several reasons for this. One is that in developing nations there is still a great reliance on the increase of factories and other aspects of industry, so there may be the feeling that they have to ignore the impact this may have on the environment. But I think many people regard climate change — to the extent that they think about it at all — as some kind of natural disaster and are unaware or are in denial of the fact that it is a man-made problem. Some people seem to think that the natural environment of this planet is so vast that nothing we do as a single species will really affect it.

While scientists have given us and continue to give us a great deal of information about climate change and about the dangers it poses, people often place themselves at some distance from scientific information. They think about it as some kind of general knowledge, but because they don’t feel the emergency of climate change, they don’t take the additional step of being inspired by this information to change their day-to-day behavior and way of life. Also, some people ignore climate change intentionally for political reasons and are unwilling to admit that it exists.

e360: You speak of the science. How do you view the relationship between science and religion? Do you see it as contradictory, as an antithetical relationship, or do you see it as complementary?

Karmapa: I think there is no fundamental contradiction between science and religion, because the scientific approach and the religious or spiritual approach are fundamentally different in the sense that their goals are different and their methodologies are different. That being the case, there need be no contradiction, because it’s not like they are two contradictory

‘The benefit to the environment through the sustainability of the vegetarian diet is undeniable.’

answers to the same question — they are really concerned with different questions.

However, the environmental emergency that we face is not just a scientific issue, nor is it just a political issue, it is also a moral issue. And therefore all of us approaching this issue have to pick up our share of the responsibility to find and implement solutions. The scientific aspect of it, of course, is the supply of information — the creation of models and predictions and the introduction of techniques that we can use to remedy this. But our share of this responsibility is to take what scientists teach us to heart, so we actually transform our way of life into one that is sustainable. And I think it is in this regard that religious leaders, who have so much influence over their followers, can assist. Bluntly put, the only solution is if we all work together.

e360: You yourself are vegetarian, but only became a vegetarian in your adult life, and I believe you are encouraging Buddhist monks to do the same. What are your reasons for that? Is it primarily religious reasons, or is it a mixture of religious and environmental reasons?

Karmapa: I was a meat eater as a child and then as an adult I gave up meat. I wouldn’t call my reason for doing so religious. My reason for doing so, I would call it compassion for the animals. The horrific situation, the imprisonment, mistreatment, and the death of animals for the purpose of people eating meat is not a religious doctrine, it is an observable reality. So I would say I stopped eating meat out of love for the animals. Of course I can’t stop other people from eating meat, but I can use my influence to inspire others to become vegetarian. There are definite environmental implications to this. But in my own case it was simply that I couldn’t bear to cause that kind of suffering out of my love for animals.

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I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who have become vegetarian as an indirect result of my doing so. It’s far more than I ever hoped or thought would make such a change. People’s motivation for becoming vegetarian may differ. Some people are motivated by simple compassion for the animals. Other people are motivated by concern for the unsustainability, the environmental unsustainability, of meat consumption. In a sense, it doesn’t matter because in either case people becoming vegetarian is going to help the animals and is going to help the environment. The environmental implications, the benefit to the environment through the sustainability of the vegetarian diet, is undeniable.

e360: You’ve been traveling in the United States for the last recent weeks. What differences do you see between the way Americans seem to view the natural world and the environment and the way people in the Himalayan region do?

Karmapa: I can’t really give you too clear an answer to this, as in this country I have been moving from place to place and have not had the opportunity to remain in one place long enough to really get to know how people think about this. But I would say in a general sense that Himalayans have a natural appreciation for, or an innate appreciation for, the natural environment. They don’t need to be told the environment is important. They have, in general, less scientific knowledge about the causes of climate change, but they feel a natural concern for their environment. In America, many people, hopefully most people, know about climate change. But they learn about it through study, through information. Himalayans learn about it through experience.