We women monastics don’t have the privilege of shutting ourselves off from the need for change. Because we are not part of the establishment, we live our lives on the front lines. As bhikkhunis, what pulls us to the front lines of climate change is the pioneering spirit of the bhikkhuni movement itself. We are already going against the grain to reestablish the order of fully ordained Theravada nuns; we’re willing to step out of a patriarchal system and create something new. And because we lack the “golden handcuffs” of abundant financial support, we don’t have to worry about keeping everybody happy. We have the freedom to respond to the urgent needs of the day, applying the Buddha’s teachings to the crises humanity faces now.
We are working to pass on to the next generation a presentation of the Dhamma that is applicable to this day and age. A contemporary Dhamma has to be embodied by both female and male monastics, otherwise many people will turn away, thinking this religion doesn’t recognize the clear truth that women and men alike are both sorely needed as leaders. The Dhamma must not be confined to the old order of things, which is very much about dominating nature, taking what you can get and throwing back what you don’t want. This is the way women—and the environment—have been treated for centuries. As bhikkhunis, we are stepping out of that.
We are working to pass on a livable biosphere and an understanding of ourselves as guardians of the Earth. But generally, things are not going in that direction; humans have already done a lot of damage to the planet. Those of us alive today are the first generations to feel the effects of climate change and may be the last that can do anything about it. If we’re going to pass anything on, we had better put everything we can into making a difference now.
So how can we help the next generation deal with this crisis and develop resilience in the face of great challenges? What calls us to this work are the basic teachings of the Dhamma. Raising climate awareness is no different than teaching Dhamma, because Dhamma is all about learning to align ourselves with the laws of nature. Practicing Dhamma means not only understanding the laws of nature in the mind but also understanding the laws of nature as we meet them “out there.” To focus only on our own liberation isn’t enough—it’s not in sync with the needs of this millennium. We cannot simply think we’re going to get enlightened in this lifetime and at the same time leave a mess behind. It all belongs together. How can we teach Dhamma without speaking about climate change, which is such a powerful mirror, reflecting the results of our thoughts and actions back to us so starkly?
While advising our Dharma Teachers International Collaborative on Climate Change, Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, told us that, in his experience, whenever people of faith come on board to address a cause, it greatly empowers the cause by giving it a seal of authenticity, depth, inspiration and power. If you’re wearing the robes, then you have a responsibility to tell the truth every time. And you have a responsibility to lead. You give yourself to that. So we have to wear our robes in the most authentic way possible, as connected to the Dhamma as we can manage.
We saw this very clearly riding the Climate Train from California to the People’s Climate March in New York City last September. There were lots of young people with great energy. Their relationship to the planet is different from ours because they are from a younger generation. We could hold a space for them because of the robes we wear. We could clear the way, encourage them and ask, “What do you think? What do you want to do?” With support to connect and ground in the wisdom of Dhamma, their own wisdom emerges with greater depth and power.
Speaking the truth includes supporting our political leaders in rediscovering their moral compass. One of the banners we’ve carried at demonstrations says, “Climate change is a global issue and a moral issue.” This means that no one is outside of it. It’s not about men or women; black, yellow, brown or white; rich or poor. We are all affected. In a way, climate change is political because we have to pressure our leaders to respond, but at the end of the day, it’s not about one political party or another. It’s about whether we’ll take the next evolutionary step.
Some people may say, “We don’t want our monastics to be political.” But if we monastics are not addressing this very concrete, desperate, ethical issue, then we’re not doing our job. In fact, we find that most people feel a sense of relief when they hear monastics break the silence and speak clearly about the environment and how this topic fits into the framework of the Dhamma. Our aim is to bring a bit more sanity to an urgent situation so that people are able to act effectively. This is what the Buddha did when people were in crisis; he placed it in the bigger context of the reality of aging, sickness, death and rebirth. The crisis of climate change can be framed in these same terms. It’s the death of a worldview and a way of life based on fossil fuels. The kind of rebirth the human family will experience depends on our actions now.
Addressing the environmental crisis in the context of the Dhamma does not mean we will never feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. But when we do, we work with those mind-states using the Buddha’s tools for understanding the mind. When the mind becomes depressed, we need to bring balance to what we’re doing. Here, we can apply the same energy, attention, skillfulness, agility and malleability needed to scramble up the mountain of enlightenment. We move the mind in a direction that’s wholesome so we can continue to act and to awaken. If we do this in accordance with truth, our actions to address the climate crisis are no different than practicing for awakening.
The external part of the practice includes linking up with other people, building community and working together. This can be very uplifting and joyful. Every time we act with others, we know we’re not alone. It’s beautiful how all the different people within the climate awareness movement are saying the same things. Regardless of religion—or nonreligion—people are talking about wanting social justice, economic justice and climate justice for a world we can pass on to future generations with integrity, with hope and with love. These are people from every walk of life. It’s inspiring to see this common desire speaking louder than the desire to accumulate as much as possible for “me.”
Acting within the framework of Buddhist teachings also helps us remember that we don’t know how things will turn out. There is no guarantee. We do the best we can, and then we let go—not of our beautiful planet but of our egos. There can be a lot of ego involved in turning away from the world when it is complex and difficult. Simply wanting to have one’s peace and samadhi is not the full embodiment of the teachings. Maybe human life will not survive much longer on this planet, or maybe we’ll make a shift and save ourselves by the skin of our teeth. We don’t know. But we can develop ourselves. We can live with integrity. We can raise our children with love.
Coming back to the basic principles that the Buddha taught is a powerful way to live, regardless of how things turn out. We can be at peace not because we are insulated from catastrophe but because we are connected, because we recognize the fragility of life and this web of karmic action. Compassion naturally arises as the heart aligns with reality. That is well worth passing on.
This essay was drawn from interviews conducted by Dennis Crean, former managing editor of Inquiring Mind (1998–2011), and Martha Kay Nelson, also an editor of the Mind (2011–2015).