Talk Categories Tibetan Culture | Talk Locations University of Colorado Boulder

Environmental Protection Starts from Within — A Conversation with Professor Yeh

Karma decides the environment, but it’s not the whole story. This conversation gives insights into the importance of maintaining both outer and inner environmental balance by addressing such issues as the relationship of karma and the environment, social justice, equality of all lives, the four elements, economic development, global warming, etc.


“We should be clearly aware of what we should and should not seek. if we blindly follow trends and the preferences of others, we may never reach our true goals and eventually we will leave this world filled with a lot of regret and suffering.”

Main Part of Conversation

Environmental Protection Starts from Within

Environmental Protection Starts from Within

Khenpo Sodargye: I deeply appreciate that Professor Yeh has, in spite of his busy schedule, been willing to make time for this discussion on Tibetan culture and the environment. Professor Yeh’s professional focus is on geographical issues as they relate to human society and his particular area of expertise is on efforts to protect the natural environment of the Tibetan plateau, an area in which he has made many great contributions.

Professor Yeh: I also appreciate this opportunity and thank Khenpo! As you have said, my main area of interest is geography, and specifically, geography as it relates to Tibet and how to go about protecting its environment. Unfortunately, I know very little about Buddhism.

Khenpo Sodargye: That’s fine, as today we will focus mainly on issues surrounding environmental protection. I have many questions regarding these issues and, of course, if you have any questions that you’d like to ask, I am happy to answer them as best I can

Professor Yeh: It seems that these days, there are quite a few organizations addressing issues of environmental protection in Tibet. During a meeting with several representatives of these organizations, they presented me with an overview of the impact of Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism on environmental protection. At the time, I didn’t quite understand the relationship, so I want to bring this up as a question to Rinpoche Sodargye. A Tibetan once told me that from a Buddhist point of view, one’s living environment depends entirely on one’s own karma. He explained to me that while we should work to improve our environment, in a certain sense, it is hard to make real changes because the appearance of our environment is ultimately determined by the condition of our own mind. I have some difficulty understanding this concept. From the Buddhist point of view, should we work to protect the environment by focusing on external issues or on the inner heart of individuals?

Khenpo Sodargye: From the Buddhist point of view, it is true that a person’s circumstance is the result of the karma that they have created in their previous lives. There are different types of karmic effects, such as the effect similar to the cause, the fully ripened effect, and so on. The ripened effect of karma manifests according to the various kinds of actions that people performed in their previous lives. Bad actions in a previous life could result in an individual being reborn in an environment that is filthy, uncomfortable and unpleasant, for instance, one that is full of rocks, thistles and thorns. On the other hand, good actions that have accumulated sufficient merit may lead one to be reborn in an enjoyable and pleasant environment. This is clearly described in Buddhist scriptures.

Nevertheless, this is merely one aspect and not the whole story. It would not be correct to say that because of this, that environmental protection is of no use. The actions that we take (in the present), can certainly make a great contribution towards improving the state of our environment and it is certain that if we do nothing, it will never improve.

It was not until well into the 1970s, that people began to think in terms of environmental protection. Earlier than that, there were very few people who had this idea. Nowadays, most people recognize that if we neglect the current reality and do not take any action to save and protect our environment, the situation will soon be out of control and everyone’s survival will be in danger. I believe that what the Tibetan person said to you, might have been meant in a different context. Generally, the environment in which one finds oneself is related to the karma that they have accumulated in their previous lives. In terms of how we live in the present moment, however, we should first concern ourselves with doing good deeds to increase our merit and, second, we should stop any action that is damaging to the environment in any way. As always, we should seek to avoid all bad actions and perform only good deeds.

The relationship between the natural environment and human beings is related to previous karma to some extent, but our present actions also play a key role in determining the environment’s future. I don’t think Buddhism has ever claimed, either that everything is determined by previous karma, or that nothing can be changed in this life. This is a one-sided understanding of karma, and certainly not the whole story.

The Karmic System Guarantees Justice

Professor Yeh: I also have a question on how to understand social justice in this lifetime from a Buddhist perspective. I had a conversation with one Tibetan Buddhist practitioner who was also an environmentalist and I brought up the fact that some small island states are going to be submerged as a result of global climate change, even though they are amongst those who have contributed the least to the situation. I expressed that this seemed to be a great injustice. He responded that this must be a result of their accumulated karma. His perspective was that even if there were no global climate change, they might instead, drown in a sinking boat. It seems as though, from a very long-term perspective, that karma is a kind of unavoidable justice. How do you reconcile that with the desire to alleviate short-term injustices in this lifetime, whether those injustices are based on an individual’s class or gender or race?

Khenpo Sodargye: (If we look at it) from the perspective of sociology, this becomes an issue related to social justice. As a result of dramatic changes in the global environment, many small island nations are facing the very real risk of being consumed by rising sea levels. Consequently, many experts are now paying close attention to this issue. A few days ago, when I flew from Germany, across the glaciers, I thought that if global warming continues, it is unlikely that we will be able to do anything to save those island nations.

From the perspective of Buddhism, (we can wonder) why these island people, who apparently have contributed very little to this situation, should become victims who will suffer most from it? We could say that, although these island people may not have accumulated much bad karma in this present lifetime, they might have shared karma created many lifetimes ago, the causes and conditions of which may ripen in this life. In Buddhist scriptures, we find many such cases of groups of people whose mutual karma had manifested in a given life. Generally speaking, these are people who have created shared negative karma by committing non-virtuous acts together. As Buddhism acknowledges both past and future lives, such karma may exist for eons before ripening in any particular lifetime. As a result, although people may not have created severe negative karma in this life, they may still have to experience the negative results of their previously created karma.

Another explanation that comes to mind is the negative karma caused by killing. Most island people eat fresh seafood that they procure by killing. This is unlike other places where vegetables and other foods may constitute the main parts of one’s diet. In island countries, people have been catching living fish from the sea since childhood and consequently are likely to have killed numerous beings over the course of their lives. Actions such as these may force them to experience severe disasters in this life.

When the earthquake and the tsunami happened in Japan, many people, including the Japanese themselves, were saying that as a result of having eaten too many sea creatures, the sea god, Dragon King, got angry and decided to swallow them in revenge for this killing. I asked many Japanese people about this and found that a great many of them had similar thoughts. It is possible that this may also apply to the current issue facing these island nations.

Professor Yeh: So if that’s the case, is fighting for social justice in this lifetime of any value or is it useless?

Khenpo Sodargye: Your point is well taken but that is not the correct view of how to look at this. Although previous karma does exist, we can still make a difference in this present life. For this reason, Buddhism is not fatalistic. We have to acknowledge previous karma, or else we won’t see the whole picture, but unlike some other religions, Buddhism does not teach that everything is determined by past karma. Instead, some things are caused by actions in previous lives while some are contributed to by the actions of this life.

The Equality of All Life

Professor Yeh: In the Western concept of environmental protection, endangered animals, such as the Tibetan antelope, need to be protected, but animals such as mice and cats, who are not at risk of extinction are not protected at all. My understanding is that from the Buddhist point of view every sentient being has the desire to live peacefully. So my question is, how do we reconcile this inconsistency?

Khenpo Sodargye: From the Buddhist point of view, every sentient being, including ants and insects, prefers happiness rather than suffering. Tibetan antelope, river deer and bears have their own precious lives. The same goes for mice, jackals, wolves, lions and so on. Although humans may see some of these as harmful or not friendly to the environment, they are still sentient beings. Even among human beings, some have very deep virtuous roots, while others may be unkind or worse. Nevertheless, they are all human beings and enjoy the same right to live regardless of whether they are good or bad.

Similarly, some animals are beneficial to human beings while others are harmful. Regardless, all of them need to be protected—it is not reasonable to kill off those animals that we see as harmful and only offer protection to those that are seen as beneficial. For instance, in China, pandas are well protected and anyone involved in the killing of a panda will face harsh legal sanctions. At the same time, small animals such as mice and rats are very often killed with poison. This is nothing more than a kind of one-sided discrimination, and is not at all in accord with Buddhist teachings. In another example, if thieves and robbers are sentenced to death, in order to protect good people, it offends the concept of human equality given the fact that all sentient beings equally desire happiness and freedom. I believe that in Buddhism, the equality of life and world peace are great concepts, vast, deep and inclusive.

Are Plants Considered to Be Living Beings?

Professor Yeh: In Buddhism, what is the relationship between the universe and sentient beings? I know animals belong to the realm of sentient beings but what about plants?

Khenpo Sodargye: I think we have two interpretations for it. There is no separate categorization, as such, for the universe and for sentient beings, as those words are used in Buddhism. So from a botanical point of view, all plants have lives and as such, are living entities. From this level of understanding, we can say plants are also sentient beings.

From the Buddhist point of view, however, animals and humans have lives that are composed of the five aggregates and as such, are different from the lives of plants. Although plants do have reactions and responses when stimulated by certain chemical or physical processes, they don’t have what we would consider real sentience of suffering and happiness.

From this level of understanding, based on the Buddhist definition, plants belong to the universe rather than to the realm of sentient beings, since Buddhism defines beings to be those who possess sentience. In Tibetan, this definition also refers to those who have consciousness and mind. Regardless of whether we are talking about the celestial realms or other realms, all sentient beings belong to the realm of beings; in human realm, this mainly refers to animals and humans.

The external world, including mountains, rivers, and plants, exists in what could be considered the category of the universe. Although from a botanical perspective, plants have lives, this type of life exists at a very different state from those of animals and humans, even though this perhaps contradicts how, in many schools, most students learn a broad definition of life that doesn’t account for this distinction. I once read a book called The Secret Life of Plants, that agreed with this broader view of life. This book had a very profound influence on the public’s perception of plants. Although it would appear some people feel that cutting trees is the same as killing animals, from a Buddhist perspective, this is not correct. Although plants have lives, according to the law of the universe, cutting a tree down is not the same as the murder of a human being. To follow this reasoning further, killing an animal also creates more negative karma than cutting down a tree. So regarding this issue, although they are both considered as having life, the implications are quite different.

Natural Resources Are Being Exhausted

Professor Yeh: I understand that the external environment is called nature in Chinese and yet I’m not clear about the relationship between nature and the universe and the beings that inhabit it. Nature should include the universe and sentient beings, but the universe and its inhabitants are two separate categories. If we use the modern way to interpret nature, does it fit with the traditional concept of the universe and sentient beings?

Khenpo Sodargye: I have always thought that it is kind of biased that modern scientists and scholars, just as you have mentioned, define nature as everything other than humans. Actually, sentient beings and their surroundings are two important categories to be understood. We can understand surroundings as those places where beings live, so nature can then be said to have two parts: dwellings, meaning such places as mountains, rocks, snow-mountains, etc., which are seen as distinct from those who dwell within them. These beings mainly refer to animals and humans, which can also be categorized as those that live in the sea and on the land. Mountains, water, rocks, and forests are what are collectively known as nature. From a higher level of understanding, nature and surroundings, such as forests, etc. are seen as dwellings, while humans and animals are those who dwell therein.

From this we can see that the survival of human beings absolutely depends on nature. People should protect forests and animals as well as any other kinds of beings. If the unlimited destruction of forests and the killing of animals are allowed to continue, people’s chances of survival and the condition of our environment will only continually worsen. By the time all the forests are gone, we can only imagine how horrible it will be to see how desolate our surroundings will have become.

I notice, in some places, that local people indeed have overused the resources that would otherwise be left for the next generation. This includes the overexploitation of local mines and forests. Also, in some places, the creatures of the water are killed in massive quantities to supply the demands of human consumption, sometimes to the point of near extinction.

The Buddhist view is much broader than the scientific view. Recently, some environmentalists have declared that it is okay to kill some animals as long as it won’t cause them to die out. They state this because they believe that it is impossible to abstain from eating meat and that a supply of meat for human consumption is indispensable. The purpose of their environmental protectionism is to ensure the meat supply, which is to say that, protecting and killing are conducted at the same time, which is an ironic contradiction found in modern society.

The relationship between the natural environment and human beings is related to previous karma to some extent, but our present actions also play a key role in determining the environment’s future. I don’t think Buddhism has ever claimed, either that everything is determined by previous karma, or that nothing can be changed in this life. This is a one-sided understanding of karma, and certainly not the whole story.

Inner Environmentalism: Stay Away from Endless Desires

Nagas and Mountain Gods Are Not Legends

Professor Yeh: In the stories and literature of Tibetan Buddhism, one finds Dragon Kings, mountain gods and land gods. Do they truly exist or are they cultural symbols? From the Western point of view, nature, human culture and sociology are quite separated. What’s the Buddhist perspective regarding this?

Khenpo Sodargye: There are many phenomena in this world—among which are nagas (one of the eight classes of spirits) and dharmapalas, to name two examples—whose existence cannot be proven by science. This is because the scientific approach relies primarily on instruments of measurement to determine whether a hypothesis is correct or not. However, in this world, there are many mysterious phenomena that are beyond human sensory perception. The existence of nagas, dharmapalas, and nonhuman beings confuses scientists because they have no way to explain their existence.

Nevertheless, in Tibet, many stories are told about these beings. As for myself, I grew up in a Buddhist environment and have a strong belief that beings such as this, do indeed exist. If scientists want to learn about this phenomenon, they may need to objectively analyze the texts written by the local wise people and treat the documentary records of events that took place in their society in an appropriate way. For example, there are so many cases in Tibet of a dharmapala having spoken with someone, that it would be hard to convince me that all of these stories are myths. Similarly, there are many descriptions of nagas existing and living in water, such as the case of the bodhisattva Nagarjuna going to the Dragon King’s palace and bringing back the Prajnaparamita texts to our world. Being confronted with this extensive and long-standing history should be sufficient for people to acknowledge that nagas must exist.

It is stated in Buddhism, however, that not everyone has the ability to see these beings. As with electronic fields, only those physicists working with quantum mechanics were able to discover them, and explain their mechanism and effects with well-grounded reason. It often occurs to me that Buddhism is more of a professional subject like quantum mechanics, without deep study and specific professional research, people may not be able to understand its profound meaning.

During this most recent visit to the U.S., I rejoiced at seeing that many universities now attach great importance to Tibetan culture and Buddhism. However, I also noticed, maybe due to different cultural backgrounds, that some professors regard certain historical aspects of Tibetan culture as legends or even as myths. I won’t say there’s no myth at all, but it’s quite unreasonable for them to regard what we regard as the real history of Tibet as the stuff of folklore and the like. Although today’s world is called a global village, eastern and western cultures haven’t yet been truly integrated into each other. If the history of the U.S. was taught to students as a myth, I don’t think that many Americans would be happy with that. So I feel that in this regard, deep study and professional research are quite necessary.

Every Living Being Deserves to Live

Professor Yeh: When we teach environmental ethics in the West, most professors will divide the general field of ethics into three general categories; anthropocentric ethics, or those that ultimately exist for the good of human beings; biocentric ethics, which pertain to the rights of individual living beings; and finally, ecocentric ethics, which are about the system as a whole. I’m thinking about how a Tibetan Buddhist view fits or complicates those categorizations because it seems as though this system of logic actually blurs the question of authority.

You wouldn’t want to harm a mountain god because it could bring harm to you. So that falls into the category of anthropocentric. You have the Buddhist view of every living being as having the right to live, a concern that is biocentric in nature, then you have criticism for the western tendency to set aside certain lands for protection, which is a more ecocentric, holistic view. I don’t know if Khenpo has encountered these categorizations, but I wondered what your opinion of them might be.

Khenpo Sodargye: I feel the academic definition of life, in the context of biocentric ethics, may have a broader connotation, as I just mentioned. If it refers to humans and animals and emphasizes the lives of sentient beings, Buddhism may have more in common with biocentric ethics, because it is said in Buddhism that in this world, life is the most precious thing.

In terms of people’s thoughts, there are certainly different levels. Some people’s thoughts are truly noble; as a matter of fact, cherishing the lives of both humans and animals and being truly concerned with them are the two of the most superior thoughts in the world. If people only care about their own self-interests and strive only to improve their own lives, they may easily come to despise the lives of some animals or may wish to bring harm to other beings. Countries are very likely to destroy the environment for their own benefit, which makes it very difficult to work together to balance the ecology of this planet. So the awareness of cherishing all living beings has to be promoted.

I feel the biggest difference between Buddhism and science, as well as between Buddhism and other religions, is the idea of protecting animals. From the Mahayana Buddhist point of view, we have to protect all beings. Because at this point, most people have not reached this level of awareness, many more choose to protect humans than to protect animals. Actually, this is not a superior way of thinking. If a day comes that people treat animals and humans equally, I believe, at that time, people’s realization will have reached a higher level. With this kind of awareness in mind, all human actions will have become engaged in loving and caring for the environment and protecting it by any and all means.

From the Buddhist perspective, we should not only protect humans, but also animals, plants, and the whole world. The essence of Mahayana Buddhism is the altruistic mind, which is considered to be the ultimate form of thought because it denies selfishness. This type of thinking is certainly acknowledged by humanity, which is the reason that Nobel Peace Prize Laureates are acknowledged and appreciated for their selfless contributions to the welfare of humankind. On the whole, I believe that human awareness needs to be expanded.

Invasive Species Also Have the Right to Live

Professor Yeh: There’s one issue on which ecologists might disagree,  that is the question of invasive species. What I am talking about is the fact that people take many varieties of plants and, intentionally or not, transplant them somewhere else, whereupon it takes over the whole ecosystem. From a scientific point of view, you need to do something to prevent such invasive species, because if you don’t the native species will die out. But if everything deserves to live, how do you go about that?

Khenpo Sodargye: From a Buddhist perspective, as I mentioned just now, we find good and bad persons everywhere. If many bad persons are gathered in one place, then they will negatively affect the good ones. Given this situation, according to Buddhism, the most serious punishment for the criminally minded is to sentence them to life in prison, rather than to sentence them to death.

As for animals, from the perspective of respecting and preserving life, Buddhism does not agree with the killing of predators, simply because they eat other species. In the same way, we can’t kill someone because he or she has a bad personality. Every single living being has the right to live; for predators, it is their own choice to kill or harm other species.

In terms of the freeing of captive animals, poisonous snakes are often the source of much debate. Some insist on releasing them while others do not. Nevertheless, they are sentient beings and should not be killed deliberately. Instead, we should seek to protect them as we would any other animal. If they continue to kill other animals, that’s their own issue, and we can’t stop them.

Mental Afflictions May Cause Natural Disasters

Professor Yeh: People have said that the balance of the four elements is important for environmental protection. An imbalance between the inner container and its contents will lead to sickness. So I wonder how one understands the four elements in relation to environmental protection. You’ve talked about non-killing and so on but how do you understand these two things together?

Khenpo Sodargye: The four elements, earth, water, fire and wind, are generally used to describe the external world. For instance, most of the earth is covered by water, while the major element of the land that is not covered by the sea, is earth. In regards to the components of the human body, biology tells us that water also makes up the largest part of our bodies.

The balance of the four elements, according to Buddhism, is affected by human actions. Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) emphasized this in many tantras, saying that if people frequently engage in non-virtuous deeds, such as killing, it will cause serious natural disasters such as earthquakes, hail, floods, and so on.

In many tantra texts, such as the Kalachakra Tantra, for example, the human body is described as a small universe that has special connections with the external universe. When the human mind and body act virtuously, the external environment will be enjoyable and comfortable, and the inner and outer universes will maintain a harmonious balance. However, if people engage primarily in non-virtuous deeds, the external world will conjure natural disasters, or as the folk saying goes, harmful behavior will offend the gods, (ie: the Dragon God, etc.). So the defilements of the human mind manifest as natural disasters in the outer universe.

Speaking of virtuous and non-virtuous actions, recent scientific research has also arrived at a similar conclusion. It has been shown that a person’s blood becomes poisonous when he or she develops a strong hatred. It has been shown that if one is feeling strong anger and one’s blood at that very moment is immediately injected into a mouse, the mouse will get sick and die. Buddhism calls greed, hatred and ignorance the three poisons. When these are added together with arrogance and jealousy, they are known as the five poisons. So in Buddhism, we describe these negative emotions as poisons, which are indeed physically poisonous. I feel the name or label of “the three poisons” or “the five poisons” is really quite interesting, since it is consistent with scientific findings, which describes that when the blood of a person who is filled with strong anger, is injected into the body of an animal, it will cause harm and even death to that animal.

So anger is one of the afflictive emotions that has the capacity to irrevocably cause negative effects in this world. What’s the reason for this, one might wonder? In effect, everything has positive and negative aspects, which allows for people’s non-virtuous actions to cause an imbalance among the four elements of the external world; this is derived exactly from the law of interdependent origination. It is extremely important to understand the laws of cause and effect, and it is because of this understanding that Buddhism teaches people to cultivate all that is good and to avoid all that is evil. Non-virtuous deeds cause negative karma to both oneself and others, while performing virtuous deeds will bring this world peace and happiness, just as sowing good seeds gives rise to a harvest of good fruits.

Luxurious Life May Also Bring Suffering

Professor Yeh: Now some social scientists in the West are critical of economic growth. They say that, although people had specific needs during different historical periods, the scale of the demands of our time has become disproportionately greater. What is your opinion on how we should properly relate to economic development?

Khenpo Sodargye: I think it is necessary to develop the economy in an appropriate way. In Buddhism, we believe the aim of economic development should be to meet people’s actual needs. It seems the economy in the U.S. is in a healthy state given that the majority are members of the middle-class. From what we have seen in (American) universities, no apparent gap exists between poor and rich students. If the gap between the rich and poor becomes too large, then economic growth may seem to be more a kind of slogan rather than something that can truly be achieved.

Nowadays, I feel that the notion of economic development is a rather vague or abstract idea, and that people don’t have a specific goal for what it should entail. If economic development simply seeks to fulfill the people’s desires without any limits, this can only be seen as dangerous, because people’s desires are endless. If instead, it seeks to meet people’s actual needs, then that would be in alignment with how Buddhism would encourage such development, because humanity needs to learn to survive in a proper and ethical way. For example, as it is described in the Sujata Sutra, in the Buddha’s time, Buddha encouraged lay persons to make money through doing business or farming.

From this we see that Buddhism does not completely deny economic development. Rather, the point is to provide enough basic support that it provides food, clothing and accommodation for everyone. On the other hand, today’s competitive culture and luxury ethos actually bring people much suffering. If people continue to desperately pursue luxuries, I’m afraid that no one will attain happiness.

Gandhi once said there are sufficient resources in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed. If we are driven by our endless desires, there will be no way for this planet to satisfy them all. Our biosphere can only support what we need in our daily lives. So, if each of us can learn to control our desires, I believe we can all enjoy a happy life.

Inner Environmentalism: Stay Away from Endless Desires

Professor Yeh: The other day in my class, Khenpo mentioned the idea of inner environmental protection. As a social scientist, I would like to gain a deeper understanding of this idea. Would you please explain more of what you meant by the Buddhist concept of inner environmental protection?

Khenpo Sodargye: There can be different explanations of this term in Buddhism. Generally speaking, we believe that in this world every person should lead a pure life. However, our efforts toward a pure life can easily become contaminated, if our minds become afflicted by our working and living environment. So speaking of the kind of inner environmental protection advocated by Buddhism, we start with the belief that each of us, originally has a pure mind that is ingenious and immaculate. However, in the course of growing up, this pure mind can become contaminated by the education that one has received. There are reasonable and unreasonable ideas that are presented to us through education. What do I mean by unreasonable? For instance, a person’s initial desire may not be so strong, but exposure to today’s culture of brand and marketing strategies can stimulate this initial desire until they begin to feel dissatisfied. A small house should be enough for one to live in, but due to the expansion of one’s desire, one may find oneself wanting to buy a few more houses, here and there. Thus, the result is the contamination of our inner environment through the expansion of desire. In this way, desire can destroy our inner environment. It may also happen that when we are not getting along well with our friends, we may develop jealousy or anger or other negative emotions towards them, all of which are sources of contamination to our pure minds. Therefore, although our external environment is important to us, I believe that our inner environment is even more essential.

In Tibet, many monastic people live in simple houses and eat only tsampa as their main food. Nevertheless, their inner peace and happiness are far beyond that which most rich people, high officials and superstars can imagine. Many celebrities appear to be extremely successful, with all their money and their numerous adoring fans, but we may not be aware of the kinds of challenges and competitions they have to face daily. They may have struggled and fought their whole lives to achieve the social status that their careers have provided. Our inner environment is initially very clean, but eventually, it gets polluted as a result of various kinds of bad social phenomena.

In Buddhism, we encourage people to strive for those things that benefit us, rather than for unreliable things that are impermanent and as illusory as inflated currency, and other such things from which we should keep our distance. So we should be clearly aware of what we should and should not seek. If we blindly follow trends and the preferences of others, we may never reach our true goals and eventually we will leave this world filled with a lot of regret and suffering.

In many tantra texts, such as the Kalachakra Tantra, for example, the human body is described as a small universe that has special connections with the external universe. When the human mind and body act virtuously, the external environment will be enjoyable and comfortable, and the inner and outer universes will maintain a harmonious balance. However, if people engage primarily in non-virtuous deeds, the external world will conjure natural disasters.

Environmental Protection in Tibetan Areas

How Is the US Fighting for Global Warming?

Khenpo Sodargye: Global warming is becoming really serious now, it is an issue that threatens the survival of all humanity in the next few decades. The former Vice President of the U.S., Al Gore, made great efforts in the past to change the situation, which led him to win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. These days, climate crisis continues to be a serious issue, and the main cause is said to be meat consumption or industrial pollution. Concerning this crisis, which has garnered considerable attention in the U.S., do you have any thoughts about environmental protection or about how to retard the global warming process? What kind of actions do you think people should take?

Professor Yeh: I think the most important thing to be done, is to reduce carbon dioxide in machines, dramatically and very quickly. This means a transition into renewable energies, changing the infrastructure and moving to a low carbon economy.

For a long time now, the U.S. has had the highest per capita number of machines and historically, it also has the highest cumulative number of machines. China has surpassed the U.S. in terms of the annual number of machines manufactured, but if you look at historical responsibility, as I and many other people have, the conclusion is that it is the responsibility of the U.S. to set an example.

Although Europe has done a much better job in recent years, I still think that the U.S. needs to spend more time working on this very important issue. In my view, reducing our dependency on machines is one of the most important things that we can do for our shared global environment.

Government Actions Are Making Slow Progress

Khenpo Sodargye: Nowadays religious and other nongovernmental organizations are actively engaged in environmental protection, but as a result of their own limitations, these organizations may not be able to exert a great deal of influence. Regardless of which country, the government always has greater power than other types of organizations. If rules or actions would be mandated at the governmental level, the effects would follow immediately.

Professor Yeh: One thing that’s important, at least from a western scientific perspective, is for people to think about the environment, in terms of different levels of scale. Certainly, the most important issue right now is global climate change as its impact is felt across all scales of measurement. But there are smaller scale actions that communities are best suited for doing, such as protecting local forests and local watersheds.

In terms of global climate change, if the U.S. wanted to pass a huge carbon tax, it would be a very effective method to put a cap on machinery that emits carbon dioxide. From the perspective of social science, the problem right now is the drive for development and for businesses to make money. Businessmen don’t want to lose their profits, so they lobby the government not to put large-scale regulations in place. Another reason that the global climate negotiations are stalled right now is that the U.S. is afraid of China in terms of market competitiveness.

But there is some progress on the regional and local levels. In the U.S., the state of California has passed AB32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 26, which, given the size of its economy, is very encouraging. So even though there is no regulation on the national level, there has been progress toward cutting carbon emissions. My own view, though, is that the method has to be top-down regulation and that the government has to require industries to cut back machines by setting certain standard limits.

Wasting Should Not Be the Way of Better Life

Khenpo Sodargye: During this visit to the U.S. I noticed that in many places, streetlights are not turned off during the daytime. Also, when people dine out, many people don’t finish what they have ordered and their food is just thrown away. This is in contrast to my previous belief that Americans disliked wasting food. So compared with what I saw, (when I was here) 20 years ago, it seems to me that people nowadays have a much more wasteful lifestyle. I’m not saying that it is the same everywhere, but at least in some places, people tend to prefer a luxurious life and their willingness to be frugal is weakening. Do you agree that this is true?

Professor Yeh: American society, like Chinese society, is complicated and has lots of different parts. I would say there are movements within the U.S. to buy organically grown, locally produced food and be less wasteful, but overall you’re probably right.

In the last 20 years, we’ve seen a neo-liberalist deepening of the market logic. I’m not sure if this word makes sense to everyone. At least in some parts of the American political spectrum, people seem to think that America has limitless resources and that any suggestion otherwise is not in keeping with the image of American greatness or way of life.

So I would say that in the past 20 years, certain segments of American society have become more environmentally aware, at least, in terms of buying organic, locally produced food and attempting to avoid buying goods that have been transported over long distances. Among these people, there is an awareness of trying to avoid unnecessary wastefulness. On the other hand, I would say that the broader trend is probably towards more consumption.

My own analysis is that this has to do with capitalist development. My opinion is that reducing consumption and unnecessary waste is extremely important. There is a strange phenomenon taking place, which is something I call green consumption. This is when people just buy and consume more and more of these organic, sustainable products, thinking that they are doing the right thing for the earth, rather than just reusing what they already have. From my social science perspective, what is most important is to reduce consumption, not buying more and more supposedly “environmentally friendly” things.

Environmental Protection in Tibetan Areas

Khenpo Sodargye: I know that you are extremely concerned about the Tibetan environment. Yesterday during my talk, I also noticed that many students and professors seem to be very interested in this area as well. This touched me deeply. So what is your opinion about the current state of environmental protection in Tibet, and do you have some advice for future actions?

Professor Yeh: It’s always easier to talk about things that don’t work than things that do. I would like to talk about two things that I think really matter.

First of all, there is an extensive degradation of grasslands in some parts of Tibet. Current research has shown that moving people off the land and putting up fencing is not effective in preserving these grasslands. Scientific research has shown that keeping a small number of livestock on the grasslands is actually better from the context of global climate change than removing them entirely. Also, research in other parts of the world has shown that fencing limits the mobility of the herders, which contributes further to detrimental conditions on the grasslands. So, devising a system that allows mobility and flexibility would be one way to improve grassland conditions.

The problem in some ways is related to culture, but on a larger scale, it’s about the ecosystem itself. Research in Africa has pointed to many of the same conclusions in the course of studying their pastoral systems, so it seems that Tibet can learn from the experience of others in dealing with the same problems that other pastoral systems have dealt with effectively.

Another problem that is concerning to many Tibetans is the very real negative consequences of mining, which I think can only be solved by implementing effective regulation.

Of course, as global climate change continues, it will bring other negative effects to the Tibetan plateau, but this is a problem that must be solved on a global scale. Because the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is taking place on a global scale, it can only be solved with a global solution. The average temperature on the Tibetan plateau has been rising three times faster than the global average. Tibetans have contributed very little to that climate change but they can also do very little about it.

Integrate Environmental Education with Local Culture

Khenpo Sodargye: As far as efforts at protecting the environment go, it is difficult to predict how quickly any effect will take place, but I believe that education related to environmental protection should be provided in schools and among different groups of people. Do you know if there is any such systematic education taking place in the U.S.? Also, for Tibetans, how would you suggest that, through education, we could promote environmental protection? Possibly through the monasteries?

Professor Yeh: Environmental education in the U.S. probably has a longer history than it does in China, although, nowadays due to recently instated educational programs, there are a number of people who study environmental education in China. For instance, I know that Sichuan University has a really good program of environmental education, although a lot of people still come to the U.S. to study it.

I think for the Tibetan areas particularly, it’s important for environmental education to be locally appropriate. Some ecological principles are, from a scientific perspective, true anywhere, and you can take a curriculum that teaches those principles and use it anywhere. But for Tibetan areas, it is important to integrate these scientific principles with culturally appropriate and culturally relevant ways of talking about the environment. Thankfully, it does seem there are some areas on the Tibetan plateau, and in China in general, where environmental education is starting to be incorporated into the standard curriculum, starting at the elementary level, and, as we discussed, now being made available at the college level. This type of education still needs to be further expanded by learning from examples that already exist. Gathering more resources to develop these curricula and to spread them would also be extremely valuable.

I have also been reading recently about an NGO in Maqu, Lanzhou, where they developed a significant number of Tibetan environmental education curricula. They followed basic ecological principles, but also went and talked to many elderly people and collected stories that were related to environmental protection. Unfortunately, the problem is that these efforts currently are taking place on a very isolated level and have not yet become widespread. Maybe through the Internet or other resources that are now starting to emerge, there will be more exchange of this kind of information between the different areas of Tibet. It would be great if this could happen.

In Buddhism, we encourage people to strive for those things that benefit us, rather than for unreliable things that are impermanent and as illusory as inflated currency, and other such things from which we should keep our distance. So we should be clearly aware of what we should and should not seek. If we blindly follow trends and the preferences of others, we may never reach our true goals and eventually we will leave this world filled with a lot of regret and suffering.