Reflections on the Paris Climate Conference

Thay Phap Dung, January 2016

Once again a generation is called to stop, reflect and take action for the collective, for our common home.

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference was an opportunity for our human family to pause and look at the reality of the situation, and to discover whether or not we can unite around a common cause. The conference aimed to achieve, for the first time in 20 years, a legally binding, universal agreement of 195 countries to keep global warming below 2°C and protect the Earth from dangerous climate change.

To help realize this aspiration, faith communities and indigenous communities were encouraged to contribute their voice, and Plum Village was one of the groups invited to participate. Some questioned why we should get involved in this kind of conference that may contain more politics and rhetoric than action. Others questioned whether our participation was just a symbolic, superficial gesture with little real impact. And still others wondered what spirituality, and specifically Buddhist practice, has to offer to a problem that appears by nature economic, political and diplomatic.

For our delegation of monastics, and for our wider community, this has been a chance to find ways to engage with this issue and to look deeply at where we are, both personally and collectively, and to see clearly our direction going forward.

The spiritual dimension

On our first day in Paris we were on familiar spiritual ground. We gathered together with faith leaders from around the world in the huge Cathedral of Saint Denis to offer our spiritual practice, prayers and insights on the theme of protecting the Earth. The kinship of our hearts was palpable. There were Hindu prayers and a muslim chant, and a group of passionate young pilgrims from the Philippines offered a song.

Sister Giac Nghiem from our delegation led a moving guided meditation, from time to time inviting a small bell that she brought with her to the podium. Sister Dao Nghiem read quotes from Thay’s books selected by the organizers. A young Christian woman from a tribe in the Sahara desert shared her personal story and the urgency of the problem in her homeland.

Faith leaders made heartfelt appeals for “climate justice”. Through their compassionate testimony, we learned about the people most vulnerable to ecological destruction and climate change; people with no other power than their voice and spirit.

We were not surprised when we learned that Christiana Figueres of the United Nations, the convenor and chairman of the Paris Conference, is a student of Thay’s and finds solace in his insights and teachings. In fact, it was she who invited faith leaders and communities to contribute their voice, both in Paris and around the world. It is from her own personal experience with the practice, that she has faith that the spiritual dimension can contribute to efforts on climate change.

“I don’t think that I would have had the inner stamina, the depth of optimism, the depth of commitment, the depth of the inspiration if I had not been accompanied by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh,” she said in an interview after the conference. She has shared that to keep her grounded and inspired in her work she takes Love Letters to the Earth with her wherever she goes.

We wish that everyone actively working in the struggle to address climate change can have a spiritual practice, a favourite tree or path to return to, so they can revitalise their spirits and continue their work.

At the interfaith event Christiana gave a speech centered on the theme of walking the path of climate action with love and awareness. Speaking to the the crowd of faith leaders, politicians, journalists she shared how the acronym WALK has guided her in her work.

For Christiana, “W” is for Wakening, “A” is for Affirmation (of our capacity to make a difference) “ L” is for Love, and “K” is for Knowledge. She spoke with love, insight and faith and her powerful speech felt like a dharma talk, with the energy of Manjushri, right in the heart of the conference.

As the crowd dispersed, one of us found our way to the stage to offer her a hugging meditation. She is our spiritual sister and we wanted her to know we are there for her. “Dear Christiana,” we said, “we are here to offer you a hug from Thay, and from us all.” It was a long hug, and she cried tears of relief to feel the spiritual support.

Where do we stand? Where do we walk?

The next day, our delegation took our mindful steps into a deserted La Place de la Republique in central Paris to bear witness to what should have been a day of climate action by the people. Over 70,000 people were expected to gather in the square for a “People’s Climate March” calling on governments to take ambitious action to safeguard our future. But, after the Paris terrorist attacks three weeks earlier, the government banned the march rather than guarding it: a great disappointment to hundreds of thousands around the world.

Fifty vans with militarised police officers were lined up alongside the square: a show of power, to keep innocent citizens “in line”. The thousands of people who would have marched were represented by thousands of pairs of empty shoes – including a pair of plain black shoes sent by Pope Francis. A few people gathered to contemplate the shoes in silence, and to show their defiance. Our delegation came to offer our presence, our love, and our peace.

We walked in silence around the carpet of shoes at the center of the plaza and around the colossal monument now covered with candles, pictures, and messages in memory of the 130 young victims who were killed in the attacks. It was no coincidence that the demonstration for climate action and the memorial for the victims of terrorism shared the same space. If one were to look deeply one could see the conditions that could relate the climate crisis and terrorism together, namely: human avarice, hatred, and wrong views.

Journalists stopped us to ask: Why are you here? What does spirituality have to do with any of this? How can prayer or spiritual energy ever make a difference? We could not but remember our Teacher’s reminder that there is no way to peace, peace is the way.

Every breath and step we make in Paris and on our planet needs to contain healing and peace. Our actions and efforts for a more peaceful and harmonious future need to be sustained by a deep spiritual practice that can help us overcome what Martin Luther King calls “our finite disappointments” and never lose our “infinite hope.”

We were challenged to reflect: Where do we stand as a community? Do we need to protest? That morning in La Place de la Republique we smiled at passers by, joined in some chalk art on the pavement, and shared tea, chocolate and tangerines with strangers on a bench.

Does the peace we generate have any relevance to the violence? Can small acts of peace and compassion in our daily life ever challenge the powerful structures of governments, the military-industrial complex and mass media? Or, to look at it another way, how can current events inform each step of our walking meditation in the monastery?

An opportunity to contemplate & reflect

We had many opportunities to contemplate as we walked around the grounds of the conference that once served as aircraft hangars. We were present not just as participants or as observers, but as practitioners. We remembered Thay’s teaching that our presence is our message: the way we look and walk can show the depth of our participation.

With our long robes, shaved heads and gentle pace we stood out among the sharp suits and high heels: occupied people, striding in haste, hands on cellphones. This contrast challenged us, and reminded us of our purpose: not to get some kind of outcome, not to lose our self or our contact with the Earth, but to love the Earth in each step. We tried our best to be aware and hear the cry of Mother Earth when we walked, and to be grateful to Mother Earth when we sat down to eat our lunch.

Our delegation was a catalyst for connection. People smiled, approached us, sat down with us, and many, including journalists, wanted to ask us questions. Who are you? What are you asking for? Everyone’s here to thrash out a political deal, what do you have to contribute? We also asked ourselves, whether we can we really help? Do they need more views and ideas from us? Or something else?

Thay has taught us that this is not just a technological, economic or political crisis, but a spiritual crisis. If so, what spiritual medicine can we offer, and how? How can we be the voice of Mother Earth in each interview? How can we bear witness to her not just as inanimate planet, but as living spirit? We remembered the image of a monk sitting in the temple while bombs are falling outside. What does being a monastic today have to do with the climate crisis?

The way forward is not an individual matter

The Paris conference was a microcosm of the whole planet: each country had its own pavilion displayed with beautiful photographs and presentations. Each country was making its request for help, partnership and collaboration: for their community, their trees and animals, their mountains and rivers; their land. We could see the diversity of our human family and our deep interconnection. So many nations gathered around one concern.

Knowing the challenges of living in a diverse international community such as Plum Village, it was humbling to see the Herculean efforts of the United Nations to gather 195 cultures together under one roof in order to come to a harmonious resolution. The conference had the flavor of a Biblical Noah’s Ark. We couldn’t help but think of the image of the Earth as a kind of boat, our only spaceship, sailing through the cosmos. And on this boat, the only kinds of solutions now are ones that must include all of humanity, as well as the entire atmosphere and biosphere of plants, animals and minerals.

Thay has said that we need more than just new technology to protect the planet: we need real community and cooperation. In this new millennia, we now have the ability to gather as a global family, to communicate, and to hear each other’s concerns and values. We have enough scientific knowledge to know the state of our planet and what is in store for us if we do not change course. And we know that this is not something any nation can solve alone.

We already have the technology. What we need now is co-operation, collaboration, mutual understanding and generosity, at an international level. The way forward is as a global community. It is the greatest challenge for our generation, no matter what part of this Earth-boat we’re dwelling on.

In Fall 2015, we had a chance to work with a diverse group of Buddhist traditions from all over the world to issue an International Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change. It was challenging to cultivate mutual cooperation, compassion, trust and collective insight across our different cultures and Buddhist traditions.

We learned to open up and allow ourselves to be affected by the values of others. We learned that none of us can define what is most important for others; that nobody has the “right” answer; that no community has the perfect way of living and, most crucially, that everyone is trying their best.

Returning home from our activities late each evening to the Maison de l’Inspir, our center in the Paris suburbs, we felt most grateful to find hot soup waiting for us on the stove. We could feel the support and love of our sisters who stayed home to host a day of mindfulness practice for our visitors, as well as prepare dinner for us. Our hearts went out to many of the international delegates and activists in Paris who were probably returning to single hotel rooms every night.

However, we felt a strong collective energy when our delegation visited the Place-to-B, a downtown hotel taken over by a lively community of hundreds of young journalists and activists reporting on and participating in the conference. They wanted a base where they could live, work and relax together in order to sustain and inspire their common efforts.

It was at the Place-to-B that we met a young American activist who shared with us how he burnt out after years of passionate activist work and fell into depression because of the failures of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009. He turned to meditation and collective action as a way to sustain himself and take care of his heart, so he can continue his important work.

Collective Empowerment

What was unusual about the Paris Conference was the role of collective grassroots movement from the people, rising up around the world. Previous conferences did not have this element. We became more aware of the groundbreaking work of Bill McKibben and the movement, which mobilizes collective, grassroots climate action. Their nonviolent approach emphasizes the role of local groups taking responsibility and initiative for targetted local action to address the root causes of climate change.

In the years leading up to this conference they have been focussing not only on politicians and governments, but on specific corporations and the industrial locations where they extract and burn fossil fuels. In this way, the frontier of action shifts to any place in the world where profit-making companies are actively polluting our Earth, water and air. (They had great success in blocking the “Keystone Pipeline” that would have carried billions of gallons of highly-polluting, highly-destructive “tar sands” oil from Canada to the US.)

We could feel our affinity with and other groups, perhaps because, like them, we also have a community-oriented approach to realize our aspiration. We also resonated with their call for people to empower themselves and to become the leader, and not wait for any one person to lead them. As Bill McKibben says, such a people’s movement calls for not one leader with a capital L, but for all of us to empower ourselves and become leaders in our local community.

This rings true with the way our Teacher has encouraged our sanghas to be organized. We come together with a common aspiration and we are each responsible for building our community and for taking action in the climate crisis. Our international network of grassroots Plum Village sanghas has great potential to contribute not only to sharing the dharma, but also to global efforts to protect the Earth.

Growth With Restraint

What did the final Paris Agreement mean for the world and for us? It raises our awareness that in the centuries to come, there is a strong need for collective cooperation. It is the only option. Much like when the world witnessed and felt the collective horror of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, whatever one country does (or does not do) now will impact us all.

Just as global warfare was changed forever by the invention of the atomic bomb, the climate crisis has changed international development. We can no longer have infinite growth on a finite planet. We cannot progress as a nation at the expense of other nations, or at the detriment of our planet. The Paris Agreement is a text that affirms that restraint and moderation is now needed, and that each nation can no longer pursue economic growth and advancement without consideration of the rest of the world. It is a kind of vinaya (a code of development) for the planet.

Compromise and restraint will be the ultimate challenge for our generation. As leading climate scientists have written in a public letter: “People wanted to hear that an agreement had been reached on climate change that would save the world while leaving lifestyles and aspirations unchanged.”But the reality is that lifestyles and aspirations will have to change.

The perennial challenge for our species has always been to balance our individual pursuits with the interests of the collective and more pertinent now, with the survival of our planet as we know it.

Collective & Individual Responsibility

Fortunately, in our community we have methods and practices that bring these two fronts together: addressing both collective global issues, and our individual choices and lifestyles. Before participating in the Paris conference, we called on members of our Plum Village community to practice five specific actions in support of the conference and the delegates.

The first practice was to fast from meat and dairy products for the duration of the conference from November 30 to December 11 as a prayer for the environment.

Second, we asked everyone to make at least one commitment of action in their daily life from our list of actions to protect the environment.

Third, we encouraged people to come together in their families, communities or Sanghas to support each other and to share about ways to help the climate crisis.

The fourth practice was to join the “People’s March” in their local city as part of the global people’s movement for climate change.

Lastly, we asked people to wear a green ribbon as a reminder for themselves and to raise awareness with those around them.

There were those who discounted these actions as merely symbolic expressions of personal concern; as tokenistic gestures that distract us from engaging in campaigns and actions in the public arena that challenge and disrupt the systems responsible for the crisis.

These five actions invited people to look deeply at the way they were living and affecting the climate. Like with the robes or shaved head of a monastic, they are both a symbol and an action of resistance to the system: an alternative choice of lifestyle that is more harmonious to the state of the world and less impactful to the environment.

Our action is not to retreat from society and the world. When we practice walking meditation, it is not symbolic. We practice walking meditation not only for our personal enjoyment and spiritual growth, but as an action of resistance against the speed of our consumption society. And when we choose to move towards a vegan diet, it is the most practical action we can take at least three times a day to nourish our personal commitment, and to reduce damage to the planet. Not only are we choosing to not support the system of mass industrial agriculture or the meat industry; we’re choosing to support our reverence for life.

A Statue of Responsibility

In one corner of the Paris conference, there was a giant art sculpture of the Eiffel Tower made of red patio chairs screwed together – red, as a symbol of the terrorist attacks on their city; and patio chairs as symbol of the common life found in the Parisian streets and the cafe’s that were attacked.

We could not help but remember the gift of the Statue of Liberty that France made to America in 1886 as a symbol of their alliance and their common ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We recall how Thay also once suggested that what America and the world needs now is a Statue of Responsibility, and he even proposed for it to be erected in the Bay of San Francisco, on the other coast of America.

When we returned to the monastery, our delegation gave a presentation about what we learned from the conference and how we see our community’s contribution and engagement. We learned that the nuns from our hamlets got together to look deeply at what further changes they could make in their hamlet to save water, electricity and be more efficient and less wasteful.

People have expressed their wonder why, in recent years, Thay has not been as politically active as he was during the Vietnam War. Why hasn’t he spoken out more publicly on current social conflicts and issues? Why he is just teaching how to breathe and smile, leading mindfulness retreats for the general public?

Thay has taught us that when a person is able to stop, silence their mind, and see clearly the root of their suffering and take care of it, they have a chance to touch true happiness. It is from this personal realization (insight), that they will heal and transform, and thus have the energy to aspire to help and be of benefit to others. Only once we have developed such a practice that helps us to slow down and to touch peace and happiness right in the present moment, will we have the time and space in our mind to look deeply at the state of the world and our responsibility in it.

This is what we have witnessed over and over again at all our retreats and at our practice centers. After just five days or a week of mindfulness practice and community living, people aspire to commit to the Five Mindfulness Trainings. They are motivated and determined to return home to reconcile with their loved ones and find a lifestyle that is more happy, healthy, and responsible.

Thay has always emphasized the importance of practicing the Trainings and cultivating mindfulness in our everyday actions. When we are mindful, we can see that by refraining from doing one thing, we can prevent another thing from happening. We arrive at our own unique insight. It is not something imposed on us by an outside authority. We renew our hope for the future and realize our common aspiration.

The Twentieth Century saw the liberation of many peoples and countries from oppression and exploitation. In India, Gandhi led his people in a nonviolent revolution to free his country from British Rule. In America, Dr. Martin Luther King led African-Americans in a nonviolent movement for civil and racial justice and Susan B. Anthony led the battle for women’s suffrage. In Vietnam and other developing countries, the common people rose up to free themselves from colonial rule and exploitation. And in other affluent countries, the poor and discriminated also rose in protest for rights and equality.

As this century unfolds, there is a need for awareness that freedom must go hand in hand with responsibility. The pursuit of liberty and happiness should not infringe on the right to life of other species, and of our planet. The Paris Climate Conference has made our inseparable connection to one another clear to the world, whether we choose to accept it or not. It is not a matter of belief or philosophy. It is an evident scientific truth. It is now our practice to be more aware and mindful of this interconnection and the responsibility that this entails for our own generation and many generations to come.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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