Faith-based engagement with climate deal for 2015 and beyond

Here is a report from an interfaith perspective from the Bonn Climate Change Conference.

By Nigel Crawhall, Interfaith Liaison Committee

Bonn, 22 October 2014

Faith-based organisations and networks have been steadily increasing their engagement in climate advocacy work. As the UNFCCC Parties negotiate the 2015 agreement, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’I and other faith movements are careful watching the process. An interfaith caucus process has been steadily emerging since COP14, with some groupings such as the World Council of Churches having been involved since before the original treaty was even drafted.

As each element of the climate crisis strikes, it is the churches, mosques and temples at the frontline of relief services, helping to bury the dead and console the grieving. People typically turn to the places of worship for safety, support and emergency services. All of the faith networks report that their budgetary expenditures are soaring and they feel a duty to become more involved in climate crisis prevention, mitigation and adaptation. This however, needs to be understood in a broader agenda of justice, peace and a meaningful quality of life for both rich and poor.

The overall concern of the faith-based organisations is that the UNFCCC process has shifted from the core mission of the United Nations, the upholding of the ethical principle of human rights and ensuring global governance to promote peace, security and now the attention to sustainable development. The once evident value-based work of the United Nations has morphed into a type of competitive self-interest where those who are the perpetrators of harmful climate impacts show no remorse or ownership, and those who have once been on the weak end of the global economy, but are emerging as powerful economies and emitters, cling to the history rather than face up to their current and future duties.

For FBOs, the challenge is how to get the ethical and moral questions back at the heart of the negotiations.

As the Roman Catholic delegate at the caucus meeting at ADP 2-6 noted, it is like the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible. Cain in a fit of rage kills his own brother Abel. God who has seen all and knows what is in heart, asks Cain what has happened.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

It is precisely this question which the Parties to the Convention most wish to avoid, and like Cain, behave that if they deny it, avoid it, table it and create an ad hoc working group, this somehow absolves them from the consequences and the responsibility.

In Buddhism, the term is ‘hiri ottappa’, which means moral dread or moral shame. If the perpetrator of a harmful act, and we can think of rapists, murders, child-abusers, do not confront themselves about the unwholesome origin of their actions, and seek atonement for their negative karmic deads, they can never benefit from release, liberation and ultimate nibbana.

In Lima, the Peruvian Inter-religious Council will be the interfaith host for religious and spiritual constituencies. They will facilitate the interfaith caucus, hold interfaith solidarity events, work with the #fastfortheclimate movement, and assist with a two day conference on religious duty and climate change.

Thursday 23 October will be a key day for discussing the INDCs and with it the future of multilateralism and human compassionate action.

It is also the start of Diwali, when a billion Hindus. Diwali is the festival of light and represents the victory of hope over despair and light over dark. As Lydia Mogano from the We Have Faith – Act Now for Climate Justice network reported in the caucus meeting:

“In New York we looked for one word to motivate the faith movement. We saw all the people protesting and uniting and chose the word ‘hope’. Now in Bonn, watching the negotiations, I think our word will need to be ‘courage’.”

The Peruvian link is here: http://cop20.religionesporlapaz.org/en/

The most recent Holy See contribution is here: http://www.news.va/en/news/vatican-to-un-summit-climate-change-is-man-made-an

International Buddhist statement on climate change: http://www.oneearthsangha.org/articles/dharma-teachers-statement-on-climate-change/


Dr. Nigel Crawhall
Co-Chair of TILCEPA, IUCN
CEESP – WCPA Strategic Direction / Theme on Indigenous Peoples, Local Communities, Equity & Protected Areas

IUCN Focal point on Resolution 009/12 on faith, climate and the environment.

6th World Parks Congress home page: http://www.worldparkscongress.org/

About APRO

I was recently asked to write a little about APRO, and I thought I would share this with you for your interest.

What is APRO?

APRO is the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations. It is the peak of peak bodies for religious organizations in Australia. It was formed in the wake of 9/11, as a positive response to the increasing levels of religious intolerance in the Australian community. Over the past several years, APRO has organized and taken part in a number of events, including interfaith conferences, media training exercises, meetings with government, and so on. The basic purpose it to improve harmony and understanding among the religious traditions in Australia.

APRO is an informal body, which meets irregularly, a couple of times a year. It was originally under the auspices of FECCA. In any case, it is an independent body, with no financial backers to speak of.

The APRO members come from the main peak bodies of Australian religions. You can see the list on their website: http://www.fecca.org.au/aboutus/projects/item/87-australian-partnership-of-religious-organisations-apro

All the people on the APRO panel are wonderful; we get on very nicely, and have never had any conflicts. Everyone is sincerely dedicated to improving religious harmony, and we have never had any problems with people pushing their own agenda

Why is it important for Buddhists to have a representative on it?

As a multi-religious country, it is essential that Australia have a strong and healthy interfaith element. Without it, all the religions operate in their own narrow stream, without learning from each other. King Ashoka said that one never helps one’s own religions by criticizing the religions of others, but one only helps one’s own religion by helping other religions. I believe that the tolerant and diverse religious heritage of India, and East Asia generally, is a tradition of great importance in these times where religion too often becomes the reason for division, not harmony.

The religious culture of Australia is, of course, traditionally dominated by Christianity, but this is changing rapidly. Australia is the only developed country where Buddhism is the second largest religion. It is essential that Buddhists have a seat at the table whenever there are important interfaith forums, such as APRO.

What did you contribute and get out of it?

I have learnt a tremendous amount from my involvement with APRO, too much to summarize here. But if the is one lesson, then it is this: that we always share more in common with other religions than we have differences. We should not be afraid to stand up and make clear what the differences are. For example, several times I have had to remind people that Buddhists don’t believe in God. But don’t let the differences tear us apart.

I think I have been able to contribute something to APRO also. Often Buddhists have quite a different way of seeing things than others do, and I have never been afraid to mention this. At other times, in conferences and the like, I find that what Buddhists can do best is to stay silent. Sometimes we have had a panel of speakers; I opt to sit meditation with everyone for a few minutes; and afterwards people tell me it was the most memorable of all the speeches! Generally it is, I think, true that many of the other religions have better organized and more effective policies of social welfare than we do, and we can learn much from them about this. But the contemplative element is sorely lacking, so this is something we can contribute.

The Problem with Nuns…

is not just a Buddhist thing. The Vatican has been enduring increasing levels of anxiety about the nuns, specifically the nuns of the US.

The leading representative body for nuns in the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, despite it’s canonical status within the Church has come under repeated fire and investigation for various heretical tendencies, which you can read about in the Vatican’s statement here, and the LCWR response here. The Vatican takes this so seriously that have set up a formal investigation, and the LCWR is talking about seceding from the communion.

The parallels with the situation regarding Wat Pa Pong and nuns are quite remarkable, for all the differences in the details. Despite the misleading and sensationalist headline, this article from AlterNet does a good job of explaning the background to the dispute. The author argues that the basic issue is about power, and it’s hard to fault this. Just as WPP criticized Ajahn Brahm and others for questioning the orthodoxy, so ‘obedience’ is foremost in the lessons that the bishops would have the nuns learn.

And the basic conflict is pretty much exactly parallel. The conservative group insists on keeping the medieval power structure in place, insisting that that, and that alone, is the truth; while the progressive party—more alive to the nuances and changes of history—look for inspiration in the heart of the teacher’s message for guidance in changing times.

It’s not just the LCWR that’s proving controversial. A leading academic nun in the US, Sister Margaret Farley, has come under fire for discussing sexual ethics in ways that the Vatican declares to be “not consistent with authentic Catholic theology”. As always, it’s best to read the Vatican’s original response, which is posted here.

Sister Farley is criticized for taking liberal positions on a range of matters relating to sexuality and relationships, namely masturbation, homosexual acts, same sex marriage, and divorce.

What’s interesting (or interestingly boring, depending on your perspective) is the wording of the criticisms. The document speaks of ‘doctrinal errors’, ‘the constant teaching of the Magisterium’, ‘the objective nature of the natural moral law’, ‘errors and ambiguities’ (Oh, those ambiguities! Can’t have them… Or can we?), ‘conform to Catholic teaching’, ‘This opinion is not acceptable’, ‘Sacred Scripture… presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law…’ ‘Legal recognition of homosexual unions… would mean… the approval of deviant behavior…’.

It’s all astonishingly unreconstructed. Despite Vatican 2 and the tremendous efforts by Catholics all over the world to genuinely engage with modernity within the framework of their faith, in this document the patriarchy just slams right down, no concessions granted. Modernity is just shrugged off like an annoying mosquito.

The Vatican document cites the ‘confusion’ among laity, a similar position to that which was expressed at the same sex marriage meeting I attended in April. This was also a key point in the official Amaravati document on the Five Points that subjugate the nuns. These were intended to allay the ‘confusion’ of the lay folk, which is why they were called ‘Points of Clarification’. For these patriarchies, allaying confusion means insisting on the One and Only Truth, which always has been and always will be, and which is fully embodied in the patriarchy itself.

The original document on the five points is here, and it’s worth reading it side by side with the Vatican documents. The Vatican, being older and more confident, expresses itself directly, whereas the Amaravati document ties itself in knots trying to apologize. But the end result is the same: obey or get kicked out.

There is, of course, the difficulty that many of the propositions insisted on by the patriarchy are unethical and harmful. They stem not from any timeless well of truth, but from well-understood social and historical conditions, conditions that no longer exist—except in the minds of the patriarchs. But as long as ‘modern’ notions can be dismissed by the sheer fact of their heterodoxy, they need not be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Buddhists and Catholics go about our lives. We hear these pronouncements: sometimes they make us angry, sometimes they make us sad, sometimes they make us feel pity. But no one will ever be persuaded by them. They are a call to spiritual devolution, to a regression to lesser lives and diminished horizons. The spirit calls us on, and we won’t be shackled.

Religious education – a new interfaith voice

A new group called the Religions, Ethics and Education Network of Australia (REENA) has emerged to promote a review of the way religion is taught in Australia. This relates to a number of previous posts I have made concerning the teaching of ethics and religion in schools. REENA’s Statement of Principles makes some excellent, and much-needed recommendations to address some of the problems with the current system. One of REENA’s guiding lights is Anna Halafoff of the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils.

Monks in Suits

‘When ordinary people praise the Buddha, they do so only on the trivial and petty grounds of mere behavior.’
The Buddha, Brahmajala Sutta, Digha Nikaya 1

In recent days there’s been considerable discussion among Buddhists, especially in Singapore and Malaysia, over the conferring of the respected title ‘Datuk’ to the senior monk Venerable Dhammaratana, abbot of the Brickfields Temple in KL. The controversy is not over the honor, but over the fact that the Venerable received it wearing a suit!

A bit strange, I think. I’ve lived in Malaysia for over a year, and i can’t imagine anyone, including the Malaysian royalty, expecting a monk to wear anything other than his traditional robes. After all, the officials at the ceremony were wearing traditional Malaysian garb, not suits. I’ve met three Prime Ministers and the Queen of England, and it never occurred to me to wear anything other than the same robe I wear every day.

But what’s stranger to me is the emotional reaction of some Malaysian Buddhists. The Young Buddhists Association of Malaysia (YBAM), one of the most important central organizations, said, ‘We were deeply saddened by the failure of Ven. Dhammaratana to set a good example in upholding the dignity of Buddhism.’ The Buddhist Channel published an article where the author Siriminda said: ‘I am disturbed and horrified to know that the venerable donned a complete lay suit to in the investiture ceremony.’

These articles, and others, were careful to acknowledge their pride as Buddhists and respect for the fact that the Venerable had received such an award. But there is no mistaking their very serious concern for the idea of such a senior monk not wearing robes. This is seen as an affront to one of the core symbols of Buddhism.

According to Vinaya, wearing lay clothes is a minor offence, although what this exactly means is not entirely clear. After all, the robes that monastics wore in those days wear, in point of fact, the same as lay clothes, except for the distinctive color and the patchwork pattern.

As with so many other things, the Vinaya issue is a distraction here. Monks break far more rules than this every day and no-one bats an eyelid. The real issue is the robe as a symbols of the Sangha, part of the Triple Gem.

The Venerable is by no means the first bhikkhu to don lay clothes. The respected German monk Ven. Nyanaponika would, so I am told, wear a brown suit when he returned to Germany, as the robs were unknown in his country. It is quite common in the west for Tibetan monastics to wear lay clothes to go to work, then put the robes on when they return to the temple. This is an unfortunate consequence of the lack of support for Tibetan monastics in the west.

In the Brahmajala Sutta I quoted from above, the Buddha makes a strong point about how people will tend to blame or criticize based on trivial details of external behaviour, ignoring that which is of true value. The Buddha was very clear on this, and always kept a sense of ethical perspective. Sadly, we Buddhists have become so attached to the externals of our religion that we tend to judge and condemn someone who has spent a life in service to the Dhamma based on such a trivial thing.

We forget: there is nothing immoral about wearing a suit. It doesn’t harm anyone. There are real, genuine moral issues facing us every day, and we as Buddhists get used to simply living as if they passed us by. But a suit! Now, that’s something to get ‘horrified’ by.

When I see Ven. Dhammaratana wearing a suit I don’t get horrified or saddened. I think, well that’s unusual. I wonder what the circumstances were that caused him to make that choice? And that’s about all it deserves.

The real take-home message of this little kerfluffle is something quite different. What we are seeing is a Muslim raja presenting an award for public service to a Buddhist monk. Just think: in how many countries in the world could something like this happen? The Malaysian people have built a society where interfaith relations are so good that this can happen, and no-one even bothers to notice.

We hear a constant narrative about Muslim ‘extremists’, about Islamic intolerance for other faiths. This honoring of a Buddhist by a Muslim should be an occasion to celebrate. Malaysians should be proudly saying to the world, ‘Look, this can happen!’ Instead, we show the world that all we care about is a suit.

And why has it happened? It is because of decades of work by leaders such as Ven Dhammaratana and his mentor K Sri Dhammananda, who have built a solid foundation for faith relations in Malaysia. I myself witnessed Ven K Sri Dhammananda’s efforts in this regard, and it was one of the things that inspired me to take an interest in interfaith in Australia.

One of the most salient aspects of the late K Sri Dhammananda’s approach to Buddhism was that he kept it real. He told a story once of how a woman in an airport dropped her handbag off a balcony. He was below, he picked it up and brought it to her. She said, ‘I didn’t think monks could touch a woman’s possessions!’ And he said, ‘I didn’t do it as a monk, I did it as a human being.’ When the Chief Rev told that story in KL, there was a spontaneous applause.

Another story. When the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed, he commented on the fact that Buddhists around the world had responded very calmly, without getting upset at the destruction of such a magnificent symbol of Buddhism. And he said, again to applause, ‘And that’s real Buddhism.’

Another time he spoke of when he was a young monk in KL, how he would get just so hungry sometimes in the afternoon – but the Buddhists wouldn’t give him anything to eat, because monks shouldn’t eat in the afternoon. Only the Muslims, responding to him as a human being, not as a symbol, would give him a snack.

It is this attitude, this insistence on humanity as the core of Buddhism, not external behaviors and symbols, that inspired K Sri Dhammananda’s mission, which as all Malaysians know, is the foundation of modern Malaysian Buddhism.

His approach is not the strictest. But it has a flexibility and a sincerity that has allowed Buddhist to flourish in a majority Muslim country, during a time when so many other countries have been overtaken by the spectre of fundamentalism. Perhaps it is this very flexibility, this concern for the other, that lay behind Ven Dhammaratana’s decision.

I can only imagine that wearing lay clothes would feel very strange and uncomfortable. Stepping out, knowing the judgments that others will make. I can’t imagine that he did this for himself. I can only assume he was thinking of what was best for the occasion, to be as gracious and considerate as possible for his host.

As a monk, and even more so, as a human being, Ven. Dhammaratana deserves the benefit of the doubt, not harsh judgments. Let us not forget his role in making Malaysian Buddhism what it is: a diverse, vibrant, relevant community that has helped build and sustain Malaysia as a successful multi-faith nation.