Buddha taught us to be happy with less. How does this apply to the climate crisis?

Buddha idolWe must ask ourselves what it is that we really need. Only then can we stop our endless consumption and save the planet. Making sense of it is a column about spirituality and how it can be used to navigate everyday life.

From a Buddhist perspective, everyone can learn to live simply and be happy. There’s no great secret to it. Simplicity is not an aesthetic or a lifestyle choice. It’s how your life expresses itself when you are content.

How can this thinking help us navigate the climate crisis?

The Buddha spoke of change and impermanence. He spoke of climate change and anthropogenic climate change. His analysis can help us today.

‘Want’ less

The Buddha taught that the cause of the problem is greed and its solution is contentment. We like to think that we can save the Earth, but the Earth doesn’t need saving, it can take care of itself. We need to realise that the Earth is more than a resource for satisfying our desires.

So how do we want less?

According to Buddhism, there is no limit to human craving. But the Buddha sets out a clear path to understanding why we want so much and how we can learn to be happy with less. That path begins when we ask ourselves what is it that we really need?

It’s not enough to just simplify your own life. The ethos of “enough” must go beyond our personal attitudes and choices and extend to the political and social domain. This may include thinking about who we elect and rejecting the myth that individuals alone can save the Earth.

Prioritise action over hope

That’s why the Buddha didn’t speak of hope – at least in the way many of us understand it. Instead, he taught that we create our futures through our actions in the present.

The scientists, engineers and technologists have done their job and we know what we need to do. We’re just not doing it.

With all our incredible knowledge and capability, we can create a future to be proud of. We can leave behind a world that is richer, more alive, more wonderful than we found it.In this way, we can embrace the hope that emerges from the way we live and the values we bring to our choices.

Turn meditation into action

These truths are realised through the practise of Buddhist meditation. When you breathe mindfully, you are present. When your heart is content, it becomes still. When you are freed from craving, you sleep at peace.

But don’t keep the compassion you find in meditation only in your heart. Use it to galvanise your political and social decisions: the causes you commit to, the government you elect and the public discourse you shape.

Buddhist meditation moves from separation towards wholeness, from agitation towards stillness. What we call “our” breath flows into us from the outside, then flows back from us to the outside once more. We experience ourselves as simply a node in the life cycle of the breath. When the breath is there, soothing and calming, reminding us that we are present, bringing us pleasure, it is as if the Earth is filling us with love. The Earth doesn’t hate us, even after all we’ve done to it.

This much we can do. We can act from a place of love for the Earth and all it offers us. With the right view and right action, we make wise and informed decisions while also avoiding blind hope.

Maybe it will work. Who knows? But if we make a difference for ourselves, it’s a start.

Bhikkhu Sujato is a Buddhist monk in Australia who has translated the early Buddhist discourses from Pali to English for SuttaCentra. He has been an environmental activist since 1984 and has written and spoken extensively on climate change from a Buddhist perspective

Dr Nadine Levy is a senior lecturer at the Nan Tien Institute where she coordinates its health and social wellbeing program, as well as the graduate certificate in applied mindfulness


Buddha under the Bodhi Tree
The Buddha achieved enlightenment under a tree – alone – and in nature. Care for all living and sentient beings – including Nature and the Earth – is an integral component of Buddhism


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