When I was invited to write a short essay on the climate crisis, my first thought was that I didn’t have much to contribute on the subject of global warming. Although I am aware of the magnitude of the problem, perhaps like many others, I have not spent much time reflecting on it or seriously considering what I could do about it. It was this response that then piqued my interest. Why hadn’t I spent time thinking about one of the major problems confronting our planet? Why had it slid to the backburner of my interests?
Two related teachings from quite different traditions began to shed light on these questions, light that illuminates other important issues in our lives as well. The first is a teaching from the great 12th-century Korean Zen master Chinul. His framework of teaching is “sudden awakening/gradual cultivation.”
Although we have awakened to original nature, beginningless habit energies are extremely difficult to remove suddenly. Hindrances are formidable and habits are deeply ingrained. So how could you neglect gradual cultivation simply because of one moment of awakening? After awakening you must be constantly on your guard. If deluded thoughts suddenly appear, do not follow after them.… Then and only then will your practice reach completion.
We have probably all had moments of what we might call a sudden awakening to the truth of global warming: reading different newspaper accounts, watching Al Gore’s impactful film An Inconvenient Truth, times even of deriding those who don’t believe it’s happening—“How could they not believe the obvious scientific truth of it all?” Yet those moments can quickly pass, and the beginningless habit energies of forgetfulness, other desires, and basic ignorance resurface once again.
Here is where Chinul’s emphasis on gradual cultivation can be a template for our own awakening. We need to repeatedly remind ourselves of the situation and not settle for a generalized understanding that climate change is a problem. We need to be willing to make some effort to keep ourselves informed, over and over again, so that we don’t fall back into deluded thinking: “How could you neglect gradual cultivation simply because of one moment of awakening?”
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