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Climate Change, Wisdom and Experience

Irvine, CA, USA, 6 July 2015 - At the start of the second of three days celebrating his 80th birthday, His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave an interview to Elizabeth Dias of Time magazine. She asked what he thought of the multiverse, the hypothetical collection of possible universes. He told her that Buddhist literature speaks of different universes and beings’ connections with them as a result of their actions. He also mentioned such universes disintegrating as solidity dissolves into liquidity, heat, energy and space, but that they also arise again. This is something that takes place not over decades or centuries, but over aeons, in the context of which human life is very short.

His Holiness referred to the correspondence between the Middle Way thought of Nagarjuna and contemporary quantum physics. He wondered whether the understanding of a lack of objective existence described in quantum physics has the effect of reducing the power of disturbing emotions in the scientists who properly understand it.

Observing the widening gap between His Holiness’s optimistic message and what is happening on the ground in Tibet, Dias wondered if the administration in exile is doing enough. His Holiness told her that the main responsibility of Tibetan organizations in exile is to look after the exile community and help preserve Tibetan culture. He also noted that despite the prevailing censorship, information seems to reach Tibet and spread. He cited an occasion a few years ago when, at a large religious gathering in India, he had criticised the custom of decorating clothes with animal fur. He had said that study and its fruits were a much better ornament. Shortly afterwards reports came of families Tibet burning whatever furs they had.

The second day of the Global Compassion Summit opened at the University of California Irvine’s Bren Events Center. Chancellor Howard Gillman gave the introduction. There followed remarks from UCI Regent Richard Blum, who is old friends with His Holiness. Ann Curry, as moderator, introduced the members of the morning panel. Acknowledging his seniority at 97 years old, His Holiness insisted that oceanographer Walter Munk sit next to him. Munk then set the tone for the morning, telling the assembly how impressed he’d been at the previous day’s discussions that when it comes to climate change, “compassion is the answer to whether anything can be done.”

His Holiness took up the theme:

“We have to make an effort, so that even if we fail we have no regret. Ultimately this is a matter of our survival. I remember friends telling me about the river that runs through Stockholm and that at one point there were no fish in it. However, after steps were taken to reduce the pollution of the river, fish reappeared. Taking care of the planet is taking care of our home. Meanwhile, with regard to the huge gap between rich and poor, the proper way to reduce it is to raise poor people’s standard of living.”

Dr Veerabhadran Ramanathan told the panel before an audience of 5500 that effects of climate change over the next 30 years would be so far-reaching that everyone would feel them. He pointed out that at present 1 billion people use 50% of the world’s energy. He said there is technology to address the problems we face, but that there needs to be a change in attitudes to the environment and to each other if it is to be employed. He suggested that implementing necessary changes would cost those 1 billion people $450 each. He added that there is also a need to provide everyone with clean energy and suggested the cost of that would be another $250 per person. A problem is that people in less developed parts of the world do not have $250 to spend.

Speaking about the melting of glaciers, Prof Isabella Velicogna said that we should worry about the huge changes in climate that are likely to take place. She appealed to the students in the audience saying that each of them can really help to find a solution. Miya Yoshitani a community organizer fighting for climate justice said that employing compassion is to fight for dignity. She said people need to put their lives on the line and find a new relationship with energy, keeping in mind that living in dignity is what actually matters.

Dr Ramanathan reminded the panel that there are many things each one of us can do, bearing in mind that anticipated climate change in 30 years is the result of pollution taking place now. A major source of pollution is transportation, so it makes a difference to buy local produce. Rooftop solar installations pay for themselves in a relatively short time. He repeated that solutions are available.

Congresswomen Loretta Sanchez observed that while 97% of concerned scientists are clear about climate change findings, the majority of members of Congress do not believe the science. She said it is always difficult to change the status quo, but that doing so relates to education and that in families, educating the mother is particularly effective. She expressed support for His Holiness’s appeal to reduce nuclear weapons. Turning to the young people in the audience she stated clearly, “If you can vote, register and vote. Otherwise you are giving away your power.”

When Ann Curry asked His Holiness what needs to be done to influence political leaders over this, he replied:

“We are stuck with old ways of thinking while the reality has changed. Look at what happened at the Copenhagen summit. Too many important nations put their national interests before global interest. In this regard we are going to have to put the global interest first. Some of it is a result of our materialistic way of life and to change that we need a more holistic education, an education that incorporates inner values, such as a compassionate concern for others’ well-being.”

As the morning session was coming to an end, Richard Blum reminded the panel that one thing that had not been mentioned is that 100 steps can be taken in the USA, but they will have little effect unless China also takes part.

Finally, Dr Ramanathan and Dr Munk offered a gift to His Holiness on his 80th birthday. They presented him with a framed picture of newly discovered species of marine life that they have named Sirsoe dalailamai in tribute to him. The key point is that it is one of those unusual species that gives back more to the environment than it takes.

After a wholesome lunch, His Holiness was interviewed by well-known broadcaster, Larry King. They have met several times before and King is one year older than His Holiness. He asked if His Holiness eats three meals a day. He replied that as a Buddhist monk he eats no dinner. Asked about meditation he said he does so for about 5 hours every day and when King asked what happens when he does, he replied that most effective for him is analytical meditation. He explained that what he thinks about relative to reality is comparable to the theories of quantum physics.

Noting that His Holiness has lived in exile since 1959, he asked him what the original problem had been and His Holiness told him that once Chinese forces became entrenched in Tibet, they tried to take control of every aspect of Tibetan life. Asked whether he worries more about China or ISIS, His Holiness told him that ISIS seem to have little understanding how much their actions are damaging the Islam they claim to uphold. About the next Dalai Lama, His Holiness said:

“That’s not my business. It’s up to the Tibetan people.”

As to whether he has ever been in love, His Holiness remarked that he is a monk and that even in his dreams, although he never reflects that he is the Dalai Lama, he always remembers that he is a celibate monk.

Finally, King asked what he thinks of as his greatest accomplishment. His Holiness told him that he feels the dialogue he’s held for 30 years with scientists is one achievement. Another is that previously in Tibet there was no serious study going on in nunneries and in exile he urged that nuns too should be able to undertake rigorous studies. The result now is that there are several nuns who have become top scholars; that’s another achievement.

Back in the UCI Bren Events Center for the afternoon, the session began with several tributes to His Holiness. Carol Nappi expressed gratitude. Rajiv Mehrotra too expressed gratitude that in His Holiness the chela or disciple has become the guru and on behalf of one billion Indians offered birthday greetings and the wish that he live long. Juan Ruiz Naupari added a tribute from Latin America. Ann Curry resuming her role as moderator mentioned that of the three days’ events, this was the one most people wanted to attend.

Invited to reflect on wisdom and experience, His Holiness remarked:

“We need a sense of how 7 billion human beings belong to one human family. We need to talk to each other just as fellow human beings. All of us want to have a happy life and that is our right. Sometimes difficult circumstances help us gain more experience in fulfilling that goal.”

Paul Ekman spoke appreciatively of the ethical framework His Holiness has proposed for us to live by. Dolores Huerta, who at 85 was the senior member of the panel His Holiness had invited to sit next to him, spoke of seeing farm workers who were not adequately paid. She told them, “We have to act for ourselves.” She roused the audience to join her in crying out,

“We’ve got the power,” what kind of power? “People power,” “Yes, we can.”   

Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi told the panel that loss can be a part of victory, just as you step back to jump a hurdle. She spoke of her regret at losing her job as a judge because she was a woman, but explained all that she has since achieved that she would otherwise not have done. Singer Gloria Estafan, who at one point suffered a severe back injury in an accident, spoke of the effect of receiving a huge outpouring of support and positive energy from people around the world that helped her recover.

Jody Williams, anti-war activist from her youth, challenged everyone to reflect that to remain silent is to be complicit in wrongdoing. She affirmed her urge to take action to fight militarism. Actor Julia Ormond spoke movingly of her work to free people from enslavement asking in relation to the garment industry, for example, “When does it end? When we choose to end it.’ She concluded:

“Being equal is not an aspiration, it’s what we are.”

Anthony Melikhov talked of rebuilding his life after leaving Byelarus and the turning point being when he realised the importance of doing something for someone else.

“I have nothing to say,” His Holiness replied to Ann Curry’s invitation to respond. “I’m very impressed. I think that if we’d held this meeting 20 or 30 years ago, fewer people would have come. That you are all here is sign of our development and progress. Although I have no intention to propagate Buddhism, I think the Buddha’s unique advice that his followers should not accept his words blindly because he said them, but should examine and investigate them as a goldsmith tests gold, is really relevant to our situation now. This approach corresponds to the scepticism and open mindedness we find in science.“

Before His Holiness stood to offer white silk scarves to the panellists, Bob Thurman appealed to everyone present, as a gift to His Holiness on his 80th birthday, to pledge to do something to benefit Tibetans, His Holiness’s people, even if it’s just a matter of creating greater awareness. The audience responded with warm applause.