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A Collective Awakening?

David R. Loy: “A collective awakening?” (Buddhist
reflections on Copenhagen)
Author, Zen Buddhist practitioner/teacher, and professor David R. Loy on
how a “new understanding of the self” is what will be required of us in order
to turn our planet’s climate crisis around.
“We need a kind of collective awakening. There are among us men and
women who have awakened, but it’s not enough; most people are still
sleeping… If we awaken to our true situation, there will be a change in our
collective consciousness. We have to do something to wake people up. We
have to help the Buddha to wake up the people who are living in a dream.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, in A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency
As I sit down to write these words, the most important meeting in the
history of humanity is going on. Yes, I know that sounds hyperbolic – if you
don’t know what’s at stake. Delegates and concerned citizens from every
nation on earth have gathered in Copenhagen to determine our collective
response to climate change, the greatest threat ever to our species.
Unfortunately, it looks unlikely that they will agree to do what needs to be
done to address that challenge.
What does the Copenhagen conference have to do with Buddhism? In May
this year Wisdom Publications released a book that I helped to co-edit, A
Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency. It includes original
contributions from many important Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai
Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. As the cover blurb put it, “Never before have so
many teachers from all Buddhist traditions – Zen, Vajrayana, Theravada,
Vipassana; from the West and the East – come together to offer a unified
response to a matter of utmost urgency.” Because of this urgency the book
was put together quickly, and the immediate response to our request by so
many busy contributors was heartening.
I don’t want to say anything more about that book, which is readily available,
but here I’d like reflect on a remark in the book by Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted
above, that we need a “collective awakening.” If he is right – and I think he is
– our collective situation is more dangerous than we have realized, and
perhaps the only solution that will actually work requires something much
more profound than political horse-trading or limits to carbon emissions.
Let me explain.
Right now most (though not all) of the official delegates in Copenhagen are
involved in the usual political stand-off: trying to reduce one’s own CO2
emissions as little as possible, while trying to get other nations to cut their
emissions as much as possible. An important part of this game is the “cap
and trade” system: if you reduce your emissions more than legally agreed,
you can sell the difference to others as “pollution rights” – thus giving them
the right to emit the CO2 that you didn’t.
This way of “commodifying” carbon emissions fits nicely into our economic
system, which tends to commodify everything into something that can be
bought and sold. But what if commodification itself is the problem, rather
than the solution? Most climate scientists emphasize that, to avoid “tipping
points” that would lead to runaway global warming, we need very drastic
cuts in our collective carbon emissions. According to James Hansen, perhaps
the world’s most respected climate scientist, we need to stabilize the
amount of atmospheric carbon at approximately 350 parts per million – yet
emissions have been increasing over the last decade and we are already up
to about 390 ppm, which means we even need to find ways to sequester
some of the carbon that is already in the atmosphere. Given the severity of
our situation, we should focus on helping each other reduce emissions in
every possible way, not salivate over the profits to be made from selling CO2
pollution rights.
This seems obvious to me; why, then, is it so difficult to see, and to respond
accordingly? Because it requires a new worldview – perhaps nothing less
than the “collective awakening” that Thich Nhat Hanh refers to.
The basic difficulty about responding to the “climate emergency” – and a
host of related eco-crises such as desertification, and what is happening to
the world’s oceans, and mass extinction (half of the earth’s plant and animal
species may disappear by the end of this century) – is that climate change
requires us to notice something we normally prefer to ignore or resist: that
we are not separate from each other, but interdependent,and that we must
therefore also assume responsibility for the well-being of each other. This
involves a very different way of thinking and acting, and probably requires a
new international political and economic order. Radical stuff, to be sure, yet
global warming may be making such a transformation inescapable.
We know that atmospheric carbon respects no borders. If developed
countries drastically cut their emissions, while China and developing nations
do not, then the problem will not be solved, and we will all fry together. The
argument of the poorer nations is that they didn’t create the problem; it is
the wealthy nations who emitted that fossil-fuel carbon as they
industrialized, and why shouldn’t developing nations be able to escape their
desperate poverty by modernizing in the same way? The fact that 6.8 billion
people cannot possibly enjoy the same affluence as most people in the
United States may be scientifically conclusive – the earth does not have
enough resources — yet it is not morally persuasive in the face of an
inequitable global economy that continues to benefit a few at the cost of the
In the past Western nations could use their technologies (including weapons,
of course!) to dominate the rest of the world and exploit its resources, but
suddenly we find ourselves in a new situation, where each nation is now
directly dependent upon the good intentions of other nations, whether
developed or undeveloped. We have to pull together if human civilization as
we know it is going to survive the next few centuries. But why should the
poor people in poor countries pull together with me in the U.S.? What’s in it
for them? Bare survival, perhaps, but not much more, unless those of us
enjoying a comfortable life in wealthy nations start thinking in a less selfcentered way. It’s no longer enough to act in ways that (seem to) benefit us
personally, or benefit our own group or nation. We are called upon to “wake
up” and realize that what is good for me can no longer be pursued at the
expense of what is good for everyone else.
“Everyone else” includes the whole biosphere, not just other human beings.
This realization must involve a deep appreciation of the fact that humans are
part of the biosphere, and the responsibility that implies. Our unique selfawareness does not “liberate” us from the earth, any more than having a
brain frees the head from the rest of the body. It simply means that with
human beings the biosphere has become conscious of itself. This implies
that the human species also has a unique responsibility: like it or not, we are
stewards of the earth, and the first and foremost responsibility of humanity
is to cherish and take care of the earth, because that is how we take care of
The earth is much more than a home to us: it is our mother, in fact more
than a mother, because our umbilical cord is never severed. The air and
water and food that circulate through me are part of the great circulation
that encompasses the whole biosphere. This means that all its selfreplicating life-forms, including us of course, are really part of each other –
something that the climate crisis forces us to realize, and adapt to.
This implies, among other things, a new international order emphasizing
cooperation and mutual assistance rather than a competitive “zero sum
game.” Up to now, human history has largely been a story of ruthless
competition, aggression and exploitation. Unless those of us in powerful
countries prefer to accept a world dictatorship prepared to ruthlessly
trample on democratic principles and human rights everywhere, that game is
just about finished. We need a new story.
What I’m really talking about, of course, is a new understanding of the self.
This is where Buddhism comes in, because Buddhist teachings critique the
usual understanding of ourselves as separate from others, and emphasize
instead the interdependence of everything. What the “climate emergency”
does is up the ante, considerably. Suddenly a lot more is at stake – maybe
everything. Up until now, Buddhism has been largely an individual path of
spiritual development. A few people here and there have awakened, and
some societies have become more compassionate than they would have
been without the dharma and the sangha. But now we must reconsider
whether that’s enough.
If Thich Nhat Hanh is correct that we need a collective awakening, we’re in a
new ballgame. Because of what we’ve done to ourselves, by doing it to the
earth, humanity is now called upon to take another step, perhaps a step as
significant as what happened about ten thousand years ago, when
agriculture was developed. If so, Buddhism and other religions are also
called upon to take another step, from traditional focus on individual
salvation to a more collective transformation.
That leads me to some final speculations.
What is most distinctive about Buddhadharma, it seems to me, is the
connection emphasized between dukkha (suffering or “unsatisfactoriness”)
and the delusion of self. Fundamentally the (sense of) self is dukkha, and to
awaken is to realize the nonduality between oneself and the rest of the
world. As Dogen put it, “I came to realize clearly that mind is nothing other
than rivers and mountains and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon
and the stars.”
In other words, our normal sense of self-consciousness is the delusion at
the root of our chronic unhappiness, because it involves a misunderstanding
of what the self really is. But this type of dualistic self-awareness is what has
distinguished homo sapiens sapiensfrom the other primates, and has been
responsible for our extraordinary evolutionary success. Today, however, we
can also see more clearly than ever before the limitations of such deluded
self-awareness, and the collective need to go beyond it.
Nietzsche said that “man is a rope across an abyss.” For him this rope
stretched between the animal and the “superman.” If we replace “superman”
with “being awakened,” perhaps Nietzsche was on to something. Is Thich
Nhat Hanh pointing at the same thing, by calling for a collective awakening?
I am struck by the image of an abyss that yawns beneath us, threatening to
swallow us up. Is there something inherently unviable about the dualistic
type of self-consciousness that we human beings normally have? Is the
dukkha that accompanies that limited kind of awareness too much for us to
cope with? Is that the source of our self-destructiveness? Is that why we’re
smart enough to create immensely powerful technologies, yet not smart
enough to use them wisely?
Then are enlightened beings harbingers of a more nondual way of
understanding and living, one that urgently calls to all of us today? Not
necessarily a new species: genetically-coded biological evolution is not the
only kind of evolution. There is also cultural transformation. Has some such
collective development become necessary, if human civilization is to survive
and the biosphere to thrive?
These final thoughts may be a “speculation too far,” but critical times require
something beyond our usual ways of thinking. In any case, it’s becoming
clear that the worldview responsible for this crisis will not survive it. That
brings us back to Buddhism, which has a lot to contribute to the new
worldview that humanity is groping toward.
David R. Loy, Ph.D., is Besl Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier
University in Cincinnati, Ohio. His work is primarily in comparative
philosophy and religion, particularly addressing Buddhism in the modern
world. His books include Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy;
Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy;
Existentialism and Buddhism; A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in
Lack; The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory; Money, Sex, War,
Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution; and Awareness Bound and
Unbound: Buddhist Essays. A Zen practitioner for many years, he is qualified
as a teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition of Japanese Buddhism.