Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
EB: Scientists agree that if global warming continues unabated, within this century half of all living species will become extinct. The global ecosystem will be unable to support the human population we know today. How would this effect the field of reincarnation? What are the implications for Buddhism and for sentient beings?
TR: I will say as much as I know. The first of your questions concerns the danger to the earth as a place where beings can be reincarnated. I do think this is a great danger. If the external world we live in does not thrive, how can that be good for the ‘internal’ beings who live in that world, its inhabitants? In the external world there are clearly problems. For instance, this year when I was in America, I went to Colorado and I was really surprised to see that all the trees were turning brown and withering. In the valleys and on the hillsides we saw that the trees had dried out and were dying. We need to do something to help that situation. Whose responsibility is it? It is the responsibility of all the ‘wandering beings’, the humans, to do that. It cannot be the responsibility of animals. Animals do not have the power to do anything about the situation. Those of us who are humankind have the responsibility to take care of this world we are in. We might say that it is the responsibility of governments. But whether governments will do anything or not is another question. It is something we all individually need to do something about.
The Buddha taught the Dharma 2550 years ago. At that time, there was no such danger. Actually, at that time India was a wealthy place. It was a vast, pristine area. Many merchants would go off in ships, across the sea, find jewels and precious materials, and bring them back to sell in India where they were valuable. It was such a prosperous place that 1000 monks could all go into the city asking for alms, and a single household would feed them all. They did not have these sorts of difficulties. For that reason, in dharma we do not find classical teachings that directly address global warming.
EB: Great Buddhist masters such as Patrul Rinpoche referred to this historical period as the degenerate Kaliyuga or ‘age of dregs’. What meaning do these terms have in relation to the destruction of our climate by global warming?
TR: They are closely connected. When we call this the degenerate age or the age of dregs, we mean this is a time when sentient beings are not easily satiated. They are not modest in their wishes. So they do a lot of business in order to benefit themselves. They make a lot of pollution to do business and gather wealth. They do not gather that wealth for the benefit of the whole of society, but for their own individual benefit. In doing so, they pollute the ground, the water and the air. It creates a problem for the whole world. It is all really due to our greed. ‘Degenerate age’ arises from the strong negative emotions we have. This is something you should think about carefully.
EB: There are references in the Diamond Sutra to “the end of the last 500 year period following the passing of the Tathagata”. Is this the period we are presently in and does this refer to the end of Buddha Sakyamuni’s age?
TR: These periods of 500 years refer to the length of time the Buddhist teachings will be present on the earth. It is said that the teachings will be present on Earth for 10 periods of 500 years. If we think about it as generally accepted, it has been 2,550 years since the Buddha Sakyamuni passed into Parinirvana. Of ten 500-year periods, five have passed. So it seems these junctures are not the same.
EB: The Abhidharmakosa makes reference to a future time where there will be ‘seven suns’. Do you think this might mean seven times the strength of our present sun, and therefore refer to global warming?
TR: In the Treasury of Abhidharma, when it talks about the seven suns, this refers to the end of the eon. I do not really have confidence to say what is going to happen at the end of the eon. With respect to the period referred to in the Abhidharmakosa, it is probably not the same as now.
EB: The great Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava [Guru Rinpoche] made reference to a dangerous future ‘when the snow mountains wear black hats’. Do you think this may be about the disappearance of the snow mountain glaciers due to global warming?
TR: Yes, this probably is related to global warming. Guru Rinpoche was making his own predictions about the future, and describing what is going to happen.
EB: In Buddhism we have the practice of saving the life of animals. How does this inform what we, the Buddhist community should do to help avert the evolutionary catastrophe that may result from (unabated) global warming, one that could destroy half of all living species by 2050?
TR: We protect the lives of sentient beings through life-releases or saving the lives of animals directly. So if we can protect sentient beings by reversing global warming, this is really a fortunate thing to do. Therefore, we should definitely try to stop or reverse global warming. We need to know what is happening to our world, what scientists have elucidated. When we know this, we can infer what we need to do, and what we actually can do. Understanding how things are and working to change it is one aspect. Another is to pray to the Three Precious Jewels—make supplications and aspiration prayers.
Let’s consider this further. Will making prayers and reciting aspirations directly stop global warming? It is not going to directly stop global warming. However, it will gradually transform our mind, transform every mind—and we will make progressive efforts to transform the situation. Such activities do actually help the situation. Making prayers and aspirations is by no means pointless. We need to do both. We need to learn about ecology, train ourselves, come to understand how to stop global warming. On the other hand, recite aspiration prayers. This is how we can progressively help and be of benefit.
EB: What is the role of Buddhist prayer and puja to reverse, in the invisible realm, the potential disasters of global warming?
TR: In general, when we talk about making aspirations and prayers in Buddhism, it looks superficially like blind faith. You might think there is no way it could help at all. Yet if we look at it closely, it really does help. This is my own experience.
Just by way of example, I have a student in Malaysia who built a big hotel. No matter what he did, nothing worked out. He worked hard but he simply lost money. One of the partners was crooked. He asked me what to do. I suggested he recite the Verses of the Eight Noble Auspicious Ones daily. He learned it by heart and recited it daily. When he returned, he said the prayer had been very helpful. The hotel had been a complete failure—there was nothing to do about it. But another property increased so much in value that he recouped all the hotel project losses. He told me, “Reciting that prayer was amazing!”
Now, I have another student with a similar project, this time near the Gang Rinpoche mountain in Tibet. He tried for years to make it succeed, but could not find the right people to work for him. The situation became intractable. I suggested reciting the Verses of the 8 Noble Auspicious Ones. Three months later he told me, “Wow! That prayer is wonderful.” I had advised him to recite it in the morning when he gets up. He carries around a copy in his pocket so he can recite it, which he does daily. Now he has a good partner, and his project is progressing. These simple examples indicate that reciting such prayers is not blind faith at all. The benefit is unmistakable.
EB: Tulku Urgyen observed in his memoirs that Tibetans simply did not want to hear about the impending Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet in 1950, even though there were obvious and abundant signs. Is there a parallel with the global human situation now? What can Buddhist practitioners do to help the developing situation?
TR: This is pretty much the same phenomenon Tulku Urgyen was describing. It is very parallel. Because it is a parallel situation, we need to wake people up about global warming. We should make aspirations and recite prayers. And we need to have a lot of publicity. These two together will make powerful, effective action.
EB: Can Buddhists contribute by ‘greening the mind’; reducing consumption as an example to others?
TR: Buddhist teachings speak a lot about being satisfied and content. This is something universally applicable and helpful. Even those who have wealth need to learn to be content with what they have. If we can share with others the Buddhist teachings on being satisfied and content, we are giving them something truly valuable.
EB: The Russian Orthodox Patriarch and Archbishop of Canterbury state that global warming is the greatest moral and ethical issue of our time. They have said that all religions should come together at this time, over this issue. Do you agree?
TR: If we can all work together, that will be excellent. As for dharma or religion, the point is to bring happiness to the world, to free the world of suffering. That is what is really important in the Buddhist religion, as also in other religions. All religions try to bring happiness to this world. We should train in ways to overcome the difficulty and suffering of sentient beings. It is important to make prayers and aspirations, training in this way. It is important to cooperate with other religions, rather than contradicting each other or disputing in any way. We should act together. We should cultivate a gentle way of giving advice.
EB: Could you give a commentary on your own Aspiration Prayer to Avert Global Warming?
TR: I am myself someone born in this world. With respect to global warming, I do not have the power to do something about it all by myself, but it is my responsibility to help people. So I have written a short poem of aspiration on the subject. I will share the meaning with you.
It begins with a supplication to the exalted sources of Refuge, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the three Jewels, and also to the Lama, Yidam and Protectors, the Three Roots. For Buddhism in general, the source of our refuge or protection is the Three Jewels. With respect to secret mantra Vajrayana, the Three Roots are the source of refuge. So here is a prayer that in this world we may pacify the terrors of illness in the first instance, famine in the second, and war in the third. May the blessings of the Three Jewels pacify all these.
What is happening today is that there is chaos in the elements. There are the four different elements of earth, water, fire and air, and these have now become unbalanced. Due to this imbalance, sometimes there is destruction because of floods and water, sometimes due to wind. Sometimes there is destruction through earthquakes and now there is also destruction happening through global warming. The temperatures are unbalanced—sometimes too hot, sometimes too cold. Because of this, what is happening now is that grand, resplendent snow mountains are melting. Hard, firm, beautiful glaciers are melting. When they melt and disappear, the rivers and lakes will become scarce, parched and dried out. We can actually see this happening. Disturbance in the four elements, snow mountains and glaciers all melting, the water all drying up – what harm do these lead to? Then all the forests of the ancients and trees of beauty will near their deaths. Forests are drying out, trees are dying. Beautiful, wonderful forests that you could explore are drying out, and coming to their deaths. There is now the danger that the whole world’s reaches will become a great wasteland without water supplies. In the entire world, we will not have anything beautiful or good, nor any way of supporting ourselves. There is a frightful, terrifying danger that this will happen. It is a basic truth that if something bad happens to the environment we live in, the inhabitants that live within it will also suffer great harm.
Following that, there is an auspicious prayer that these changes might all turn out well; that these difficulties or problems be resolved. The prayer is that they may be pacified. When they are pacified, may our good fortune and happiness spread all around. Our outer good fortune—happiness, wealth, resources—may they develop. Our internal qualities—may they all develop. And may all beings nurture one another lovingly and kindly, so their joy may fully blossom. May all sentient beings show loving kindness to each other. May they also take care of and nurture one another. In this way, may all their aims be fulfilled in accord with the dharma. I wrote this prayer with hopes that it would help people. My aspiration is that it may help many sentient beings.
May the blessings of the exalted sources of refuge,
The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the Three Jewels,
And the Lama, Yidam and Protectors, the Three Roots,
Pacify the terrors of illness, famine, war
And chaos in the elements: The temperatures
Unbalanced, grand snow mountains—hard, firm glaciers—
Will melt and disappear. Rivers and lakes
Will become parched, so the primeval forests
And trees of beauty, too, will near their deaths.
There is the terrifying danger the world’s reaches
Will become a great wasteland. May these imminent
Dangers be fully extinguished, and sublime
Good fortune and happiness spread all around.
May all beings nurture one another lovingly
And kindly, so their joy may fully blossom.
May all their aims be fulfilled, in accord with the dharma.
Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche (b.1933) re-established many important texts and transmissions lost in the Chinese Communist invasion. He was Abbot of Karmapa’s monastery and Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies at Rumtek, Sikkim. He is a celebrated exponent of Mahamudra, addressing profound subjects in lucid, experiential style. The Dalai Lama appointed him as personal tutor to Karmapa XVII.