A Portrait of Paco, Buddhism and the Climate Crisis

I’ve decided that my duty as an Order member is to organise with others to do whatever we can about the current climate crisis. I’m calling on all other folk who identify as Buddhists to do the same.

Now, I know that this is a big thing to say, and some may think I’ve got my priorities wrong. So let me start by referring to what our own teacher, Sangharakshita, has had to say.

“..a shift in the governing values of the world is probably all that can save us from extinction as a species in the not very distant future. There are certainly signs of hope, but there is also perhaps little time left. In this situation it becomes the duty of every thinking human being to take stock of his or her position, and the responsibilities that it throws up. We have to appreciate that it is, without exception, the most important issue we shall ever face, either individually or collectively. It is certainly more important than any merely religious question, anything that concerns Buddhism in the sense of a formal or established religion. It concerns both the purpose and the very survival of human life.   (What is the Sangha? by Sangharakshita, Windhorse Publications, 2000).

In this specific instance he is speaking about the threat of nuclear war in the 1970’s Britain. He writes that what nuclear war would mean is “the destruction of the ecosphere. It means the death of the earth. It means the suicide of humanity”. Climate change has very similar implications: The authors of a UN global assessment says that we are rapidly destroying the “foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. Sangharakshita states that the “survival of human life” is “the most important issue we shall ever face”. Therefore it requires a concomitant transformation in our way of acting and being.

Let me tell you a personal story that brought this home to me recently.

I must admit that when I look at the news in the Guardian newspaper and see a particularly scary news headline my desire is to look away. I can find them overwhelming, feel a sense of helplessness.

So standing there in my room looking at the headline “Plummeting insect numbers ’threaten collapse of nature’”, I paused. I try not to get sucked into sensationalist articles. Padmavajra has called the news coverage that we are subjected to as a kind of ’pornography’, a revelry in bad news for the purpose of personal gratification.

However, this felt important: ’okay I’ll read this one, I need to know’, I thought. I read: ’40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered’, and that: ’The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles’. Three factors responsible for the decline were: Climate change, farming practices such as insecticides, and encroachment of insects habitat. The author baldly stated that insects form the basis of the trophic pyramid of life, and were the main pollinators of plants: vital to food security for ourselves and for other mammals.

Wow… I wasn’t sure how to take this news. I swiftly realised that I am very, very fortunate indeed to have all the tools I need to work with overwhelm: especially my Sadhana. A sadhana is a visualization practice given in our movement at ordination- and my practice is Green Tara. Green Tara is a fully enlightened Buddha appearing in this instance in green female form, and her wisdom and kindness helps and protects me.

How does it do that? What does this mean for the climate crisis? At the heart of the Sadhana practice is the seed syllable manifesting in light, which is ultimately indefinable. To make a clumsy statement it could be thought of as the essence of my potential, married to the potential of an enlightened being. There is a mantrathat encircles it and from those syllables, rainbow light floods out to aid and purify all living beings. I see the syllables of the mantra as my aspirations and my desire for all beings to be well: and here’s the key thing: the mantra protects the seed syllable.

If you don’t have a Sadhana, you can engage with a Buddha, Bodhisattva, or even meditation practice that you identify with in the same way. The figure or practice is always there for you.

Therefore, Tara steadies and keeps me present: there is always something that I can do to help. I recall the enjoyable pali canon simile that a Bodhisattva moves from one task to another like an elephant plunging from one refreshing pool of water to another.

My small way of helping is that I called up Francisco Sanchez Bayo, the lead author of the scientific paper on insects that the article was based on, and asked if I could paint his portrait for the Archibald. “Yes” he said, he would be delighted, and we arranged to meet at the university of Sydney the following weekend. He seemed like a friendly, jovial fellow, and cheerful for a harbinger of doom: He said that he was hopeful about the future. He thanked me for trying to bring some attention to his cause.

Alongside the portrait, I researched insects more deeply. They are fascinating beings: they have been around for millenia more than mammals, and as a result, overall they have more estimated biomass than all mammals, birds and creatures put together. There is so much diversity in insects, including beings such as butterflies and caterpillars- that spend half their life cycle as one thing- say a caterpillar, change into another thing halfway through in a process we still don’t understand!

The painting, that is reproduced here, has in the background beautiful ’ghosts’ of the insects he researched: beetles, mayflies, dragonflies, moths, butterflies and bees. They are painted using erasure, which has a resonance with their disappearance.

So I hope that I’ve been able to describe in a more personal way how the climate crisis can ‘hit home’.

The facts are that I burn fossil fuels which upsets the environment for insects, mammals and sea-dwelling creatures through climate change, I eat food which is factory-farmed using quantities of insecticides and pesticides, I paint using acrylics which pollute with micro-plastics, I wear clothes that pollute with micro- fibres and chemicals- these are the ways I disrupt the environment. The Buddhism that I have been following (and it is most definitely a partial understanding of Buddhism) has been focussed on self-development perfuming my mind and therefore my resultant mental states and actions. I’m grateful to that because I’ve become more confident, more generous and less selfish, but I also note that I am embedded in a society that exploits the ecosphere and my excuse is: it’s my conditioning. It’s not a good excuse.

What I am talking about is an awakening to my anthroprocentric way of life. Buddhism recognises that life is not separated into human and nature, life is one. Pratitya Samutpada or conditioned co-production, operates throughout, connecting our actions on a very profound extent, globally.

I found Bhante’s talks on ’Evolution or Extinction- A Buddhist View of World Problems’, and on ’Buddhism, World Peace and Nuclear War’ very helpful. He talks about mobilizing and getting the word out there about the dangers of life-destroying practices through articles, talks, films and even non-violent direct action. I feel that we have amazing tools and skills of resilience that can help people in a time of emergency. In the same way as human awakening, it is very urgent that we act, but we can still practise stillness, simplicity and contentment.

“..persistent lobbying of members of parliament, by the presentation of petitions, by public meetings, marches, and demonstrations, by fasts and solemn vigils – even by `love-ins’ and `be-ins’. By these and similar means the government should be left in no doubt as to what the wishes of the electorate really are. If it remains unresponsive to those wishes, or not sufficiently responsive – and the situation is one of extreme urgency, where every day is precious – then more serious measures should be taken and pressure brought to bear on the government by means of mass civil disobedience along Gandhian lines.”

So what can we do? We can do things which range in scope:

  1. Organise a small group of people into an ‘Anthropocene’ focus group: to get together and share your hopes and fears for the future, envisaging what you might be able to contribute. It is amazing how helpful hearing yourself and others speak on these issues can be, and what an incredible spur to practice this is. It is an amazing opportunity, as I’ve been saying, to awaken to our concerns.
  2. Arrange to have a meditation presence on an Extinction Rebellion or School Strike march. The school strikers do want people to turn up in solidarity, although they don’t want organising. Do it weekly, just turn up and be a meditative presence, with kesas or banners. Be prepared to walk. This is also really helpful to the feelings of futility, to get together and see that action is occurring. You don’t have to chant slogans, maybe chant mantras or stay silent. Make sure you can make the Global Strike for climate action on the
  3. Contact either myself, Aryadharma or Tejopala to find out when the next ARRCC (Australian Religious Response to Climate Change) event is, and get involved. Again, so helpful to the spirit, and we can have a great impact as a representative of our spiritual community. We can even take on the role of a ‘Religious Leader’ (ARRCC seem to me to look for natural leaders, representatives) and help hold our government to account.

Or do all 3.

I was very heartened the other week when Cittaprabha and Viraja instigated a Buddhist ‘advance’ at the Order convention in the shrine room and into town, to support the school strikers in Marrickville. It was a chaotic experience on a rainy day, members of ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and ‘Stop Adani’ said that our presence was supportive. Some reflection was prompted about what might be useful for the protest and for ourselves in that situation- it was thought that maybe meditating on these marches, or chanting mantras, would be useful. Indeed, order members all over the world are increasingly concerned about climate change and more and more willing to take action.


Portrait of Francisco Sanchez Bayo, 2019

Portrait of Francisco Sanchez Bayo, 2019

Portrait of Francisco Sanchez Bayo, 2019

A Portrait of Paco, Buddhism and the Climate Crisis | 2019 | Uncategorized