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Rinpoche: The World is Unsavable

August 30, 2013
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche states: “The World is Unsavable.”

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche states: “The World is Unsavable.”

(Berlin) In May this year I had the unexpected opportunity to hear Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, speak about the important and timely topic of Green Tomato and Red Chilli, a whimsical title belying serious intent, honoring the intractable with joy and mirth.

“Of course, I did not come here to speak with you about green tomatoes, and red chillis,” he said slowly, eyes beseeching our understanding, with the profound deadpan only a Buddhist monk can summon, a rising welter of laughter trailing along before his German translator took a turn.

The talk was irreverent, compassionate, challenging and thought provoking.

At one point Rinpoche stated in an off-hand manner, with palpable resign:

“The World is Unsavable.”

This came as a shock and posed a real paradox for your Agent Meggsy; Buddhism seems focused on saving the world if anything.

Given the general agreement that exponentially increasing anthropogenic activity poses an ever-increasing challenge to our collective survival, and that many experts now consider it too late for sustainability and too late for sustainable development, does Buddhism remain detached, and turn away as if to give up? Sleeping giants may lurk in the arctic and the EPA has just released a report stating that climate change is already having large impacts on California, but would spiritual guidance suggest abandoning hope? Do we not rely on spiritual guidance to continue in the face of great odds?

While the situation may seem bleak, with carbon emissions steadily rising — despite runaway climate change holding the theoretical potential to wipe life completely from planet earth — is it consistent with Buddhism to say that earth is unsavable? Is this a turning away from engagement?

When question time came Your Agent Meggsy was one who took the microphone, voicing just this concern. “If Buddhism is devoted to liberating all sentient beings, and if our current course is one that threatens to literally end all beings, would we not try? Is there truly no hope?”

A large crowd congregates to hear Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche in Berlin, May 19, 2013

A large crowd congregates to hear Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche in Berlin.

Rinpoche’s answer focused primarily on the greed in human nature, and the potential for India and China to consume ever more, particularly to consume transportation fuels at the level of the Western World. The first thing a person does when the money is enough in India, Rinpoche said, is to purchase a motorcycle. When there is more, then a car. For status alone, this is done, whether or not the vehicle creates more convenience.

This same, surprisingly helpless attitude has been heard from top transportation professors at UC Berkeley as well:

“Who are we, having enjoyed this lifestyle, to tell others not to copy us?”

In these cases, a response was not always possible, but the response can be made now: Why would anyone having made such a terrible mistake not warn others to avoid making the same mistake? Organizing life around the automobile was not necessary, and is not sustainable. Petroleum is precious to life, yet its use threatens all life; to waste it on vanity transportation is reckless at best, murderous at worst.

Yet individual motorized transport continues to be the primary growth sector for carbon emissions, overrunning gains in all other sectors. Is a spiritual awakening the key missing element to adopting another way of life? To simply “wait until it breaks” and correct for crisis appears to be a market/social failure of a catastrophically colossal scale.

In the skies above Berlin, a helicopter and the moon vie with spires for the heavens.

In the skies above Berlin, a helicopter and the moon vie with spires for the heavens.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2014 2:01 pm

    I agree with your idea that, having made the mistake, how would we not attempt to warn others. On the other hand, we’ve not actually corrected our mistake, but prefer, instead and collectively, to maintain the status quo of “Global North” and “Global South” so that we can continue to enjoy our means at the requisite Others’ expense. This undoubtedly makes it a harder sell.

    But from a more personal perspective of agency, I have observed that, sadly, most people do not learn from others’ mistakes. Instead, most of us suffer from some degree of terminal uniqueness and immediacy that disconnects us from patterns and foreseeable consequences. Unfortunately, it is too easy to dismiss the validity of “lessons learned” with the apparent antithesis of not succumbing to innovation-destroying tribal consciousness. I don’t actually think those two things are related in a thesis/antithesis relationship, but I can see why others do.

  2. Your Friend permalink
    May 20, 2015 5:21 pm

    Nicely written and still poignant, but one technical correction, the fastest growing GHG emissions sector is reportedly fluorinated gases (f-gases) such as synthetic refrigerants and the pesticide sulfuryl fluoride. California is calling the world to action with a focus on these and other “short-lived climate pollutants”, saying that no other action has the potential to meet targets.


    From the intro:
    “California must achieve deep reductions in short-lived climate pollutant (SLCP)
    emissions by 2030 to meet future greenhouse gas emission targets and air quality
    goals. In addition, intensified, global action to reduce these emissions is the only way to
    immediately slow global warming and is necessary to keep warming below 2o C through
    at least 2050, which is a critical threshold to manage the damaging effects of climate
    change. Short-lived climate pollutants, which include methane, fluorinated gases
    (F-gases), black carbon, and tropospheric ozone, are among the most harmful to both
    human health and global climate. “

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