Now the Whole Planet Has its Head on Fire: Collective Karma and Systemic Responses to Climate Disruption

Taigen Dan Leighton
From the book, A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, edited by John Stanley, David Loy, and Gyurme Dorje (Wisdom Publications, 2009)

For Buddhists to respond appropriately to the calamities that have only started to befall us all from global climate disruption caused by human activities, we will need to rethink the common misunderstandings of karma that have prevailed in Buddhist Asia.  The teaching of karma has been frequently misused in Asian history to rationalize injustice and blame the victims of societal oppression.  The popular version of this includes that people born into poverty or disability deserve their situation because of misdeeds in past lives.  Such views have themselves caused great harm.

This ignorance has also arisen in the face of human atrocities, the equivalent of saying that people in the World Trade Towers on 9/11 deserved to die because their previous karma brought them to be there that day, or victims of Hurricane Katrina deserved their fate because their past lives led them to live near failing levees.  If we look fully at causes and conditions, the events of 9/11 cannot be separated from the unfortunate history of the Mideast, and the complexities of the United States' and other nations' roles therein.  The damage done by Hurricane Katrina cannot be separated from such factors as hurricanes intensifying due to climate change, the long history of American slavery and racism, and the complicated conditions through which the federal government in place at the time willfully disregarded warnings about the inadequacy of the levees.

Inflation of the effects of individual karma and lack of acknowledgement of collective karma ignore the basic Buddhist teachings of non-self and interconnectedness.  Anatman "non-self" is axiomatic to Buddhism, that all merely individual selves are empty and lack inherent, substantial existence.  True "Self" is the whole interconnected web of phenomena, depicted in the seventh century Chinese Huayan Buddhist school with the image of Indra's net, an intricate weave of connected interstices, each particular point of which completely reflects the totality of the vast network of being.[i]  The application of Huayan thought to our environmental context has been clear to many modern Buddhists.  Buddhist and environmental scholar Stephanie Kaza, for instance, extends the metaphor of this jeweled net, "If you tug on any one of the lines of the net-for example through loss of species or habitat-it affects all the other lines....  If clouded jewels are cleared up (rivers cleaned, wetlands restored), life across the web is enhanced.  Because the web of interdependence includes not only the actions of all beings but also their thoughts, the intention of the actor becomes a critical factor in determining what happens."[ii]  Thus karma cannot be merely individual when our actions and intentions are so thoroughly connected with the whole environment.  And our efforts toward collective, systemic responses have positive effects we cannot clearly measure or anticipate.

Going back to the thirteenth century, Japanese Zen master Dogen described the mutually beneficial impact of one person engaged in Buddha's meditation interacting with all phenomenal objects: grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles.  Each element offers spiritual guidance for all others.  He went so far as to say that with one person's sitting, "all space in the universe completely becomes enlightenment."[iii]  Clearly the karmic impact of the individual expressed in such teachings is not separate from a whole range of collective events.  The dependent arising of each phenomenal event is due to a complex web of causes and conditions.  Collective entities, such as a nation or a culture or a species, no less than individual human beings, have patterns of conditioned activities based on prior group actions.  Multitudes of layers and levels of such communities are always involved.

The failure of the teaching of individual karma was recognized by the great leader of the Untouchables, Bhimrao Ambedkar, when he led the mass conversion to Buddhism of over three million Indian "Untouchables" starting in 1956.  Ambedkar chose Buddhism for his fellow Untouchables after his careful study of world religions, but he rejected the Four Noble Truths.  He felt that this teaching blamed individuals for suffering, and ignored "the heartless action of others and the systemic injustice of such social arrangements as the caste system.  The idea of karma, he believed, would only accentuate the self-blame of the Untouchables instead of placing the blame on the caste system itself."[iv]  The second Noble Truth says that suffering has a cause, which is grasping based on desire, with resulting harmful karma.  But this pattern of grasping and attachment is not necessarily, or even primarily, a simply individual matter.  Other modern Asian Buddhists have also seen the necessity of responding collectively to sources of suffering.  For example, the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka has benefited villagers and reduced suffering by seeing the need to inquire into collective needs in the villages, and mobilizing a communal response through appropriate work projects and ongoing communication.[v]

Responding coherently to global climate change requires our recognition of the reality of collective karma, and not seeing karma as merely individual.  Individuals who practice recycling and modest use of resources contribute to helping the situation, but no matter how many individuals do so personally, the wider systemic causes also demand collective action to produce any significant effect.  Without major development of sustainable mass energy sources, and governmental regulation of industrial and energy corporations to lessen their negative impact on the environment, the climate disruption will worsen, despite the personal practices of well-meaning individuals.  Just as the causes for the situation are collective, a cooperative, systemic response is required, addressing the societal as well as individual karmic conditions for pollution and excessive carbon emissions.  A Buddhist response now must involve study of systemic conditions for damage.  In the case of climate change, this may include a wide range of practical study, along with traditional Buddhist environmental perspectives.

Many current works may serve as resources for raising awareness and responding to systemic causes.  Examples include Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth," with its vivid depictions of the scientific facts about climate change.  Another perspective is offered by Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, with its analysis of the workings of what she calls "disaster capitalism," in which corporate profiteers enrich themselves in the midst of disasters, which they sometimes encourage as well as exploit.  She discusses how this applies to environmental as well as political crises, including the non-response to those endangered by Hurricane Katrina.[vi]  A rethinking of our current economic systems may be necessary for addressing global climate issues, which are not separate from the current global economic crisis.  From the perspective of Buddhist "right view," no single ideological explanation by itself can encompass the total range of causes from many realms.  Still, Buddhist practice confirms that awareness is transformative, both individually and collectively.  Raising awareness, our own as well as that of all around us, will help make possible the larger changes that are needed.

As Al Gore among others has clarified, the situation of global climate change is urgent.  Rapid systemic changes to use sustainable energy sources and stop emitting carbon are critical.  Writings by the great American Zen patriarch and poet Gary Snyder have illuminated the plight of our environment, and an approach to response.  He clarifies the need for a wide perspective, "The larger view is one that can acknowledge the pain and beauty of this complexly interrelated world."[vii]  Snyder addresses the harm to the planet from "the highly organized societies and corporate economies of the world. Thousands of species of animals, and tens of thousands of species of plants, may become extinct in the next century.  To nourish living beings we must not be content simply to have a virtuous diet."[viii]  Collective, systemic response is vital.

Buddhist teaching, with its cosmological view of many arrays of Buddha fields throughout vast reaches of time, may also provide us a wider, useful temporal horizon now.  Buddhist cosmology suggests beginningless and endless cycles of kalpas or ages, perhaps even translatable as many cycles of Big Bangs, past and future.  Snyder has employed the standard Zen image of our heads on fire, the "great matter of life and death", used commonly as a challenge to individual Zen students.  Now the whole planet has its head on fire.  Going back to the sixties, Snyder has been saying that we need to act in the current situation as if our heads are on fire, but also we must simultaneously proceed as if we have all the time in the world.[ix]  Even amid an urgent crisis, it is most effective to act in a calm, deliberate manner.  The systemic social changes that will help mitigate the worst effects of climate change will require persistent attention and response to be realized. 

Returning to the individual level, Buddhist practice is excellent preparation for the inevitable damage likely to occur around us.  The harm already triggered may at least be lessened by systemic responses, as well as by our own immediate response to the suffering involved.  Meditative practice helps individuals to develop more calm and patience, a wider capacity to be helpful in the face of distress.  In the midst of the immediacy of the next Hurricane Katrina, the specifics of which may likely not be apparent beforehand, the resource of our practice experience will allow each of us to be more skillful and flexible in responding to the suffering around us.  And our individual response will be more helpful as we are willing to face our connection with the collective nature of the problem and its creation.  We can both respond individually to crises, but also work together to create societal responses to all the systemic factors that have brought trouble to this world.


[i]  See Garma C.C. Chang, The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism. University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971, pp. 165-166; and Thomas Cleary, Entry Into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-yen Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983, pp. 37-38.

[ii]  Stephanie Kaza, "To Save All Beings: Buddhist Environmental Activism" in Christopher Queen, ed. Engaged Buddhism in the West. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000, pp. 166-167.

[iii]  Shohaku Okumura and Taigen Dan Leighton, The Wholehearted Way: A Translation of Eihei Dogen's Bendowa with Commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. Boston: Tuttle, 1997, pp. 22-23.

[iv]  Donald Mitchell, Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. Second edition. New York, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 325.

[v]  See Joanna Macy, Dharma and Development. West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian Press, 1983; and Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991, pp. 125-152.

[vi]  Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007, pp. 406-422.

[vii]  Gary Snyder, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds. Washington, D.C.; Counterpoint, 1995, p. 70.

[viii]  Ibid., p. 73.

[ix]  Donald Rothberg, The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, p. 204.