A Buddhist’s Response to Pope Francis’ Encyclical: Emotional involvement a necessary first step to finding solutions to climate change

Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change is profound and inspiring to people of all faiths, and while I deeply respect his well informed and comprehensive vision and his inclusion of those who think and believe outside of the Catholic tradition, he nonetheless speaks as a Catholic.  I’d like to present brief thoughts on the importance of caring for the earth from a Buddhist perspectiveNurture a Compassionate Heart

Every single child has within her and him Buddha’s wisdom and compassion.  They are born with it.  It is their birthright.  Even though they are endowed with it, they need to not only realize it, but actualize it.  So the most important question to me is how can we adults support the manifestation of wisdom and compassion in our kids?  Perhaps a better question is, in what ways do children support us in being more wise and compassionate adults?

Children have been, by far, my best teachers in life.  Among the most challenging for me to work with are adolescents.  They are in a transitional period of life where their hormones are doing all kinds of things, they are witnessing changes in their bodies, thoughts, emotions, and, from a spiritual perspective, they are becoming self-aware.  By self-aware I mean that they are aware that they are no longer children, yet they are not quite adults either.  They are in an in-between stage, aware that their life is not permanent, that they too will die.  However, they do not have the speech to articulate this profound awareness, nor the ability to work with the strong emotions that are elicited by such awareness.  Most adults, myself included, are still learning how to deal with self-awareness and mortality, and so children are excellent teachers in that they reflect our own sense of vulnerability.

Remembering in my own heart that adolescents are now aware of death and have no particularly useful words for articulating how they feel nor what they are going through has helped me to develop compassion for them because I see how much I struggle in articulating my own anxiety about the future and grief for the past.  It’s not easy. 

Recently, I taught Japanese calligraphy at a middle school in Des Moines.  I was told before hand that the classes have been really difficult for the previous teachers.  There were problems with misbehaving.

I learned the hard way many years ago while working as an elementary school teacher that kids don’t care what the teacher knows, no matter how interesting the subject might be to the teacher.  They want to know if the teacher truly cares about them.  If they know the teacher cares, then they will listen.  Showing care begins by being generous with material things.  In Buddhism generosity is the first of the six perfections – the others being ethics, patience, enthusiasm, concentration, and wisdom.  The last five depend upon the first one – generosity – being practiced and perfected.  To be generous, then, in the end, is for the benefit of our own spiritual development, and the development of those we take care of.

The Buddha said there are three ways of being generous, or of giving:  there is the gift of material goods, the gift of spiritual goods, and the gift of fearlessness.  Of these gifts, the most precious is the gift of fearlessness.

My question prior to entering the Des Moines middle school classes was, “how do I show my students that I care about them?”  The answer came to me that I needed to be sensitive to the fact that they are grieving and anxious, and that this is caused, in part, by the transitional state that they are in.  The only way I can truly understand their grief and anxiety is to be sensitive to my own, embrace it, and have the courage to share my feelings with them.

I shared with the middle schoolers the history of brush writing, the tools used, the making of brushes and ink, the lines drawn, and some of the more simple characters to write.  The children practiced the various strokes and characters while I wrote the children’s names in Japanese hiragana.  The children learned that calligraphy is not just about writing beautiful characters, but that you can see the content of your heart in each line you write.  The lines reveal how you are feeling in this moment.  You can’t undo them or go back over them.

During this time I also chose to communicate my own anxiousness about and sadness over the recent racially inspired

Buddha

Buddha

attacks, and of our inability to drink or swim in the polluted water that comes from the Des Moines River.  I shared this grief from my heart, not from my head.  I attempted to verbalize what the adolescents had been feeling but could not say.  By sharing my grief I normalized their grief.  This process helped them not only to settle and take me seriously, but to take themselves seriously. 

Furthermore, I tied into the lesson the importance for having a calm mind before practicing calligraphy, and showed them ways to breathe in order to calm themselves.  I underscored the importance of developing calm and patience not only with calligraphy, but with beginning any endeavor, and how much the world really needs for us to develop calm.  How could someone who is truly at peace with himself choose to kill someone else for no other reason than that their skin color is darker?

Just as the content of my class – Japanese calligraphy – was secondary to my bringing an attitude of caring and love, so too the content of my feelings was secondary to the courage it took for me to share what was in my heart. 

As a result of this class I had a few reflective questions:  Are we taking full advantage of children’s potential not only for their own spiritual development but for ours?  Can we adults be courageous enough to unmask and articulate our own anxiety about climate change, and enter into our grief about the violence taking place around the planet?  What role does job security play in preventing teachers from opening up? 

While being willing to feel and express the pain within our hearts is only part of the solution, it is an important part.  Our emotional involvement is necessary to motivate us and our children to jump out of the crowded nest of limited solutions and to fly into the realm of infinite possibilities.

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