In June I had a religious experience — and I don’t mean going to my church in Brooklyn. The experience was sitting next to His Holiness the Dalai Lama on a panel discussion about climate change at Glastonbury Festival.
The Dalai Lama had a delightful passion for the topic of climate change. It ranged from a love of science; an insistence of the interconnectedness of all people; and the necessity of contemplation and action.
But most of all, the Dalai Lama’s presence was all encompassing. While he was speaking, it was if the 150,000 revellers at the Glastonbury Festival weren’t outside the tent, and he alone was speaking. His infectious smile and laugh came suddenly, and exuberantly, and rippled through the whole crowd each time. He regularly made jokes, looked around to see if we were all paying attention, and in a completely unexpected gesture, gently but jovially tapped me on the arm a few times.
Our panel, put together by The Guardian, addressed the imperative of keeping fossil fuels in the ground, the successes of the divestment campaign, and the connection between social and individual action. On each point the Dalai Lama had something unexpected to say. He expressed great enthusiasm and support for Laudato Si, the recent Papal Encyclical on climate change. In fact, at the same time as we were speaking, thousands marched in Rome in support of the message. He applauded those who worked to bring together religious leaders in support of more action.
My favorite moment came at the very end, when he was asked for his closing reflections on what people should do in the face of the climate crisis. He paused a moment and said, “I don’t know! Listen to these people!” Gesturing to us on the panel. But then he stopped to add something which I’ll always remember. He said,
“First, we must contemplate, and pray, and try to understand, understand, understand. This builds our conviction. And then we must act.”
The interrelationship between these themes, contemplation and action, is of great importance in the climate movement–and I especially appreciated how he articulated that they operate together, in a cycle, always building towards greater commitment and awareness. There is a lot to learn about climate change and how it connects to so many other important concerns. And in that learning, there is room to become totally overwhelmed, to throw one’s hands up and hope that someone else will step in to fix it, or that technology will solve the problem, or that maybe it isn’t as bad as we think. But the learning can be a powerful tool, just as he said, to grow our conviction, and move us to action. To divest our universities. To put solar panels on our churches. To stop pipelines.
Whether you consider yourself a person of faith, whatever that may be (and mine is not Tibetan Buddhism!) this message can be a liberating one. I was recently asked to speak at my church about faith and climate change. It was a time to clarify a lot of ideas. Faith compels us to believe in things we cannot prove and be sure of, and yet in doing so we are sustained and build resilience. We cannot know what the worst effects of climate change will be—but we do know the problem is already with us. That we can no longer “stop” climate change. But what kind of natural world will be preserved for future generations? And where will people be able to live in a changing climate? These are in so many ways questions with answers unknown to us. But just like we persist in our faith right along with our doubts, we must act to prevent the worst effects of climate change even when we can’t be sure if our efforts will add up to enough. It’s daunting—and in fact, faith can help push us towards action in the face of doubt.
Doubt and fear lies all around us, and within the Dalai Lama’s own experience in exile, there is ample cause for it. So when he extolled us, yesterday, to always return to a place of action, I was deeply inspired. I think we are in the midst of a turning point on climate change. Keep the faith.