In this episode Rohan Gunatillake speaks with Buddhist teacher Rob Burbea on the topic of Climate Change. Rob wonders why the Western Buddhist community is largely silent on the topic, and over the course of the discussion Rohan and Rob explore several questions, including:
How does dharma practice relate to the topic of Climate Change?
What is the consequence of Buddhists not addressing this issue?
What example should Buddhist teachers and leaders show in relation to climate change?
Rohan: Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Rohan Gunatillake and I am delighted to be joined today by Rob Burbea who is skyping in from Devon in the Southwest of England. It’s a pleasure to have you today here, Rob.
Rob: Thanks, Rohan. It’s a pleasure to be here with you as well.
Rohan: Great. Now I’m especially pleased to be having this conversation. I think it’s a really fresh topic for Buddhist Geeks cause we discussed activism and social engagement before, but what we’re going to do today is talk about your passionate interest in the relationship between contemporary Buddhist teaching and practice and climate change, which I think is such obviously a critical issue at the moment.
But before we get into that I know you personally relatively well having attending a few of your retreats under your guidance. But our wider community may not be so familiar with your name and your voice. And so for a number of years you’ve been the resident teacher at Gaia House which is the main insight meditation center here in the UK. But perhaps you might want to share a little bit about how you ended up there and what you do at Gaia House.
Rob: Right. I was living in the States for about 15 years before I came back to England in 2002. I actually began my practice in England and then moved to the States and was practicing on the east coast with different teachers at CIMC IMS. Then I moved back and I spent about three years mostly on retreat, mostly at Gaia House but also other places.
And after that in 2005 became the resident teacher of Gaia House so most of my work is now at Gaia House. I travel less and less and it’s partly connected with the topic that we’re talking about. I work mostly with personal retreat people who come for periods shorter or longer to work on their own practice in different directions in practice and also work retreat. I also teach retreats at Gaia House and around England.
Rohan: Brilliant. And in recent years you’ve been writing and thinking and talking quite a lot about the relationship between dharma teaching and dharma values in respect to climate change. And having read quite a few of those pieces and so on, I found a lot of the arguments really striking. In one of your essays you talk about how you feel that we’re falling short of what is possible for us as a community to manifest. I was wondering whether you might be able to sort of tease open the topic a bit of what you mean by that.
Rob: Yeah. Okay. I think the first thing to say is it’s a really huge topic. I think once you start to pull at it a little bit, you realize that the whole topic of climate change and not just dharma response to climate change but humanity’s response to climate change they’re so much connected to it. It’s very tempting for us to have a conversation perhaps about counting the carbon for instance. And we could do that. It probably wouldn’t be that interesting.
But once you started going into it and say why can’t we do this. Why don’t we change this? Why are we doing things the way we’re doing? You actually realize that it’s connected to all kinds of other fundamental assumptions or values or blindness that might be there. This goes I think probably for us collectively as a human species but also for the dharma community. I was wondering you know on the way over what would be a good way to go into this. And I thought just to throw out a couple of ways in terms of direction.
Rob: What if we fast-forward 100 years, 200 years from now and we look back from that vintage point to current society? What was the current dharma, and the place for the dharma within the way of the society? Now if, as many people believe and I think I do too, climate change is actually, although it’s not pressing everyday for us it’s actually the kind of the most crucial issue of our time, the most pivotal issue of our time. We don’t see that as I said everyday but from hindsight cumulatively it will.
I mean what scientists are saying about potential rises in temperature over more than a 100 years. This will have enormous, enormous consequences of every aspect of society, of civilization, of human well being. The sufferings that come out of that will be enormous and collectively we don’t seem like we’re addressing it. And also in the dharma, it doesn’t feel like relative to other topics that we all including myself address and engage in and bring up and talk about, it doesn’t seem like it’s that alive.
So I just wonder from the perspective of 200 years, 100 years looking back that you got here you have Buddhism and the dharma. We talk about suffering, the end of suffering, awareness, wisdom, etc. and from that perspective of what’s going to happen with climate change, I just wonder what people will think looking back about what we were thinking about what those words meant.
Rohan: Sure. So you feel if we don’t include climate change within those definitions and within that framework it will be, there will be something missing.
Rob: Absolutely. I think it’s a little; it just strikes me at times as a little odd. And I think from the perspective of the future will strike people as very odd that we’re talking about suffering, we’re talking about ending suffering, we’re talking about the causes of suffering. We’re talking about seeing through delusion and yet there is a pervasive delusion that’s part of our society at the moment and a great deal of suffering that is being cause and it will be caused, that it doesn’t seem collectively as a dharma community that we’re any further along than anyone else addressing. So we have words. We have dharma words like suffering, end of suffering, awareness and all that and yet somehow they might ring a little hollow in sometime.
Rohan: So in a way I guess there’s a lot then in the case that, in a sense that dharma work can be seen as a bit impotent if it doesn’t actively engage in this space.
Rob: I would say. Yeah. I mean that’s a strong word but it’s a good word.
Rob: And I would say that impotent, unaware, deluded, unintelligent, you know someone might say you guys were asleep at the wheel. What’s happening? This was going on. It was the most fundamental issue at the time. It was the issue that was responsible for the most suffering. Humanity knew it was happening. We knew what the possibilities were. It seems very much connected with greed, aversion, and delusion, certainly greed and delusion. And here was this whole system that’s supposed to address greed and delusion and yet somehow it didn’t step up to the plate there.
Rohan: So I would say that generally in the culture climate change isn’t felt as urgently as it clearly is generally. Why do you think that is and what might be the dharma be able to help in that regards?
Rob: In the wider culture?
Rohan: Yeah. I’m just wondering because it is a wider issue as well not just within dharma communities.
Rob: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. Well this is a question because, in a way that relates to what we were saying, theoretically as it’s a form of delusion or a form of kind of inertia that pervades society in relation to climate change, you would think that the dharma would have a lot to offer there. But I’m wondering a little bit if as dharma practitioners most of us are not just actually caught up in the same delusion. And that our dharma practice and our dharma vocabulary and our dharma concepts somehow are not reaching far enough into this, into this area of climate change.
They’re not penetrating it. So we can talk very much about this delusion or that delusion about letting go of self, about letting go of grief. But somehow it reaches a certain point and then it kind of peters out. It doesn’t go into this area of climate change. That to me is absolutely fascinating, completely and utterly fascinating. What is going on? So for me most of this is more of a question than I have a particular answer. And I think in terms of the wider society, the psychology behind the inertia in relationship to climate change in terms of denial, disengagement, all this, the psychology [is] enormously complex.
And so I don’t think there’s going to be one thing that’s going to flip the situation for everyone. What I’m wondering then is we have these concepts in the dharma and I’m wondering whether they need to be rethought a little bit, redefined. If we think instead of 200 years in the future, 100 years in the future, if we think about now, this time now the dharma is kind of taking birth in the west. It’s rebirthing if you like. It’s exciting times. And it’s in very very early stages. When the dharma moved to any other culture it’s kind of core principle, it’s core vocabulary, actually also kind of underwent transformation of meanings. I feel that that also needs to happen now for us in the west.
In other words when we use words like suffering, what do we mean. What are we talking about? When we use words like ending suffering, what are we talking about? What are we talking about when we say delusion? So this very basic concept it’s so easy to kind of just absorb them as a vocabulary and they have a limited range of meaning or we just assume we know what we mean and somehow we lose a lot of the potential of what they could mean and their ability to have more meaning for us today.
Rohan: So in a sense are you suggesting that we need a new set of practices that include this reflection and this topic.
Rob: Yeah. Practices and as a, I’m not sure what the word is, reformulation, reconsideration of what basic dharma ideas mean nowadays. For instance when the dharma moved from India to China and Japan the concepts of nirvana, a lot of the concepts actually were reshaped by that new culture, or in the meeting with the new culture. And I think something similar needs to go on. And that’s going to happen through practices as you suggest, through reflection, through people speaking.
At the moment it doesn’t seem like it’s a hot enough topic for us in the dharma world. It’s not people come on retreat, etc. they want to read a book about a certain kind of suffering. It’s as if another kind of suffering is not involved or awakening is presented as this but doesn’t seem to include something else. So my questions are like what do you think awakening is going to look like. What’s your kind of fantasy of that?
So all dharma practice is fed by a kind of almost semi conscious sense of where we’re headed towards and are we including in that more fundamental social issues climate change, etc. Is that included in my concept of my vision, my feeling, my fantasy of what is going to look like when I’m more waken up?
Rohan: So I guess the risk of not doing it is that Buddhism plays up to its stereotype of being navel gazing and introspective and not participative in the world around it.
Rob: Absolutely. And that will be more charged as an accusation and more kind of tragic as an accusation as the level of difficulty and enormous suffering that will probably be involved with climate change, as that rises I think as I’m saying people will look back and think what was going on, what was happening, and who was addressing it. And the idea that the dharma is supposed to be addressing suffering won’t seem, it somehow won’t seem like a very believable statement in many levels.
Rohan: I’m just thinking this might be a good segue way to the thing around teaching model, the leadership piece and so leaders leading in this space. Are you less, are you a bit leary of going there or…?
Rob: No, that’s fine. I mean one of the pieces I wrote that you read was specifically kind of taking the theme within climate change of flying and how much flying the dharma seems to involve nowadays. Flying to teach, flying to go on retreats etc. etc. And just kind of wanting to question what is going with that, whether it’s really necessary and whether it’s actually on the whole, the dharma is contributing to less suffering given what we know about climate change.
So in terms of the leadership it’s like if I fly a lot to teach, I’m kind of wondering in the bigger context of what we’re talking about, what statement is it making, what statement is my action or non action making as a dharmic statement. What am I saying about values about what’s important, about what’s not so important? About what awakening looks like? And if I’m a teacher in a way I’m supposed to be modeling that. So I’m doing a lot. I’m expressing a lot not just in the words that I’m saying.
But then again how many talks, how many teachings are there that really bring in this subject in the fundamental way that brings it to the heart of people’s practice. But I’m also giving out messages in terms of what I do, what I choose, my lifestyle all that. Fundamentally I think all this conversation is about values. And rather than about I said counting the carbon, it’s about the value and the values that get communicated. The values that are either supporting an inertia or inaction or a kind of delusion, propagating more of the delusion about climate change or the values that can actually come in and that can be a transformation of values, a questioning of our values which to me is fundamentally what the dharma is about.
So the question I really have is somehow has the dharma world gotten caught up in, high jacked, a little bit blind sided by just the flow of the mainstream values and not quite realizing how we’ve been caught up in that and how we’re actually propagating a problem rather than questioning?
If dharma is about fundamentally about values, then we need to really think comprehensively about what we’re saying about values and how that translates in what we say, what we write, what we do, how we act.
Rohan: I’ve heard you speak before about practice being be very much a radical and a revolutionary act. I remember you talking once around how with revolution we often do the first part of going turning inwards from sort of a life looking sort of outsides ourselves for happiness and well being. But then you go further on to say that we need to, as well as going looking inwards, we then need to go outwards again into this type of area.
Rob: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. It’s interesting if we go back to just this, for me what’s a very exciting investigation into revisiting fundamental Buddhist concepts, and take something like ethics for example. So the Buddha lived at a certain time, in a certain society which wasn’t a globalized society, and with a certain world view and pre-industrial, very limited sort of ramifications on the globe certainly of whatever actions people did.
So that the whole question of ethics has become different now. We no longer are innocent of ramifications of our actions. Ethics has to be expanded. I don’t think it makes that much sense to continue with an ethics that’s purely personal in that way given that we live in a highly connected globalized society now. You know what I do, what I choose to do is going to feed into effects far away from me.
Rohan: Sure. So alongside the investigation to our values and the expansion of our ethics to include that, do you think that will require a structural change in the way that the dharma is taught? You talk a lot about flying. And sort of outside of the work that I do in Buddhism I work with art organizations and I know that you have a very rich history in music yourself. And there’s a very live conversation now in the arts about internationalism and the whole model of sort of touring orchestras and international festivals and the sustainability of that. But that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda in dharma circles. What do you think needs to as different industries, if you like different types of organization start looking at sustainability in more detail and do start feeling it, what do you think might be the practical ramifications of that?
Rob: First of all, I’m delighted to hear that. I wasn’t quite aware that that conversation is happening in the arts and that’s absolutely fantastic. I think in a very small way I’m hoping that we can begin really having seriously the same conversation in the wider sangha, in the dharma. How it actually transforms I think the details are secondary. I think we have to first of all really agree that it needs to transform.
And then the question is if we can’t agree on that, what’s happening? What’s going on with us in terms of assumptions, in terms of views, in terms of fears, in terms of delusion, what’s happening that we can’t agree that it’s enough of a priority to change something? I’m not sure if this is what you’re asking in terms of how it actually plays out practically, how it might play out practically..is that what you’re asking?
Rohan: Yeah. I just sort of imagine what does a future Buddhism structure which is aligned with a less impactful on the environment?
Rob: Yeah. Well to me what seems kind of fairly an obvious solution, although not necessarily simple to transition it towards that, would be just simply more local sanghas and teachers living more locally with more sanghas that they can plug into and offer to and really develop a rapport with, really know the students. The students know the teacher. Really kind of serve people’s individual paths. In a way, that’s already happening.
There are places, I mean even my staying at Gaia House [inaudible] for instance in Cambridge, Massachusetts is part of that. There’s all kind of sanghas everywhere. And now that we have the opportunity for kind what’s possible via the web and electronic media. The actual need for someone to go somewhere is less pressing I think. And I think it could probably be less and less justified really.
Rohan: But like you say, I totally agree the practical ramifications are secondary to the intention I guess, it has to be really felt. And so what can we, as a community, do to really start feeling that need for change. Is it just more conversation like this, a more open discussion around the issues and our blind spots?
Rob: I think so. Yeah. I think you know sometimes people say the teachers have to take the lead, but at the moment we teachers are not taking the lead. It’s just not happening. I’m curious why that isn’t happening. That to me is what’s very very interesting. I think perhaps if it came from the sangha, the sangha almost bringing up to the teachers, asking for more teachings on the subject, bringing up and saying this is affecting my heart. This is causing me confusion ethically. What should I do?
Bringing up, you know, sangha to sangha, sangha to teacher, teacher to student, all these multiple conversation. But the conversations involved are actually really rich and complex. They’re conversations about feelings and its like even interesting in terms of climate change like how rare people actually share their feelings about what’s happening. And yet sometimes I know when people do, it touches something very very, there’s a lot of feeling there that isn’t getting expressed or isn’t getting felt.
So there’s an emotional conversation to have to be supporting each other in that, enabling that, making that normal. Normalizing it cause at the moment it’s totally abnormal even within the dharma culture to really bring this up as saying this is a kind of dukkah, this is a kind of suffering and it needs to be addressed. But there’s certainly practical conversations. And then there’s this more, I hesitate to use the word conceptual. That’s not really the right word. But kind of really questioning how are we going to give birth together to the dharma, what is it going to look like not just on a practical level but on the meaning level of what the dharma means today in our society.
So for example with ethics, there’s this sense we live in a globalized society as I’m saying before, I can’t apply the same kind of ethic. What does that mean about sexuality? We are lay people. I can’t simply take Pali Canon Buddhism and try to fit it onto a lay life and the kind of assumptions and the ideas and the kind of direction that that’s implicitly moving in. Its simply won’t work. If we take this a little deeper in terms of the feeling and the kind of assumptions and ideals involved in this, it’s quite interesting. If we think about ethics, which is also something that isn’t that much talked about in the dharma, if you think about it a bit more I wonder if Pali Canon, certainly basic Buddhist ethics, is actually in the service of a kind of simplicity. And so in a way we keep ethics so that our minds will be less agitated by remorse and by guilt and sort of wondering what people think of us and what the ramifications of what we’ve done. So it’s kind of the whole thing is moving towards simplicity. That movement toward simplicity obviously is a beautiful movement and like everything else it has a shadow side so that when I come to open the dharma towards something like climate change, if I’m addicted and attached to simplicity and I view the dharma as needing to be simple because that is what feels dharmic, that’s what feels spiritual is simplicity, I’m going to run into a brick wall with climate change, because A its not a simple topic at all, it’s immensely complex, as I’m saying earlier how it feeds into economic question, socio-political questions, human rights questions all this, consumers and everything. So that’s one thing.
A second thing about the simplistic, the sort of ideal of simplicity that’s implicit in particularly modern dharma, is that a lot of people come, understandably, to the dharma because they want to simplify what feels like an over complicated life. Because there’s an agitation, because there’s a kind of [disturbance], and what’s wanted is calmness and a simplicity.
And if I’m going to open my mind and open my heart certainly to the question of climate change and where we are as a species, and where we are as a dharma community, that’s going to be agitating. It’s going to be troubling to my heart. It’s going to stir things up. If I’m attached to simplicity, I won’t be able to go there. I won’t let myself go there. So this is what I mean.
It’s like once you start probing a little bit deeper you see on all kinds of levels that this calls into question fundamental sort of directions, assumptions, ideals, visions, fantasies of what the dharma is and where it’s going. And this to me is very exciting to question those and really reconsider what they might mean for us today.
Rohan: It’s interesting, the more you talk the more it sort of felt like this topic or this investigation could form the basis of a really full practice.
Rob: I think so. Very much. Because as I said once you start pulling on a thread here you realize oh goodness me, it’s connected to this and it’s connected to this and not just things out there in the culture like economics and politics and human rights and all that. But it’s actually connected to my own sense of inner direction, my own sense of values, my own sense of what I’m holding up as an ideal.
And what I hold up as an ideal has massive, massive ramifications for where my practice goes. It’s interesting I was at an engaged Buddhist conference a little while ago and heard a couple of imminent speakers, David Loy was one of them for instance, and really enjoyed hearing what they said. But what I noticed was that they all shared an assumption, they all come from Mahayana background and it was very lovely, but they all shared an assumption which I began as the day went on to actually really question.
And the assumption was that if you practice and you begin to see the emptiness of self, and see through the self, that that will translate as a kind of political engagement. And if that’s not happening it’s just that you haven’t seen through the self. And I’m just not sure if that’s true anymore. I just am not sure if that’s true. So for instance I think it was David Loy, I could be mistaken, but someone was saying the time of the Buddha in India, there was because of kind of sponsorship by royalty and the nature of the society there, their room for maneuver in terms of freedom of speech and addressing social and political issues was severely constrained.
Because they wouldn’t have got the support if they started questioning the social structure, etc. Now that may be true, it may not be true. But nowadays we don’t have that so much. There’s no one stopping me or another teacher getting up and really starting to question the way society is. The assumptions of society, the assumptions underpinning consumerism that basically are supporting climate change etc. And a lot of teachers talk about seeing through the self etc. and yet it’s not really translating as that.
So I don’t know if you can actually equate, you know, assume that seeing through self leads to caring about this. There’s something else going on. That’s what makes it so interesting. What is it that makes a person engaged or not engaged, makes them are or not care? And I think that has to do with kind of what our image is or what our, if you like, what we are fed about what the dharma is, if that make sense.
Rohan: Sure. Yeah. The archetype that we’re…
Rob: Exactly. Exactly.
Rohan: ..explicitly or subconsciously…
Rob: Exactly. So you look at some traditions and there’s a lot of talk from freedom from self, seeing through the self, and yet in those traditions there’s no archetype about engagement. So there’s actually very little engagement. It doesn’t seen to be in a lot of cases that seeing through self is enough to cause care about some issues. And then the question is why not, what’s going on, what’s happening there? Which to me is fascinating.
Again, it goes into the question of we are in the process of shaping the dharma. It would be, well I think everyone would agree that we are doing that. You know there’s the meeting of dharma and psychology in different ways. It’s fascinating. There’s all kinds of meeting of western culture and dharma. But this is one of them and we kind of have to think about it a little more carefully in the places where we’re blind and that’s not so easy because obviously it’s hard to know where we’re blind.
Rohan: Sure. Because it’s happening on our watch.
Rob: Exactly. Exactly. And as I said, are people going to look back and say you guys were asleep at the wheel? It was the biggest, the most fundamental thing going on and what were you doing? You were looking at this and trying to bring the dharma to this and this. And there were something in a way more fundamental than all of that. That had to do with the illusion, that had to do with suffering, that had to do with ending suffering, and where was the response, where was the consciousness of it?