BBC Radio 4:Vishvapani - 11/05/2018


The 2015 Paris Climate Change agreement was an inspiring example of the world coming together to tackle a shared problem. But talks in Bonn on implementing the deal stalled this week with poorer nations saying that the richer ones prioritise their own economic growth above reducing emissions or helping developing countries.

The image that evokes our situation most vividly for me is the Parable of the Burning House that's found in the Buddhist text The Lotus Sutra and is as well known in the Far East as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son in the West.

A group of children live in a crumbling mansion, oblivious to its decay because they're caught up in playing with their toys. Then a fire breaks out and their father, who's outside the house, sees what's happening. There's no way for him to carry the children out, so he calls to them that they must escape; but the children just keep running around.

Scientists who sound ever louder alarms about the consequences of global warming must feel like that father. Economic growth pays for our services and lifestyles and isn't a game; and many of us do our bit to live sustainably. But in thinking of our culture and economy as a whole there's something compelling in the image of those children, entranced by what's in front of them and ignoring the wider dangers.

In the parable, the father's solution is to tell the children that outside the house are new toys, much better than their old ones, and they come running to him. In the original setting the father represents the Buddha and the toys he offers are the riches of spiritual practice; but perhaps there's a further resonance with the climate CRIsis.

Fear alone can't sustain the slow and difficult changes that will reduce global emissions. We also need compelling images of a sustainable society that's more attractive than the current one, and countless initiatives around the world focus on doing that.

And I think that individually we also need a vision of a meaningful life in which we find satisfaction in zero-emission pursuits like friendship and appreciating beauty, and love nature for what it is, not what it can give us. Art has a place in that and so do ancient sources of wisdom, perhaps including the Buddhist tradition, that speak to our hearts like the CRIes of the father in the parable. First he made a cry of anguish; then he made a cry of inspiration.

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