The Dalai Lama’s Ethical and Ecological Philosophy for the Next Generation, Illustrated
By Maria Popova
“Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity,” Rachel Carson told a class of young people in what became her bittersweet farewell to life, after catalyzing the modern environmental movement; she urged them: “You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”
More than half a century later, another visionary of uncommon tenderness for the living world addresses another generation of young people with a kindred message of actionable reverence for the ecosystem of interdependence we call life.
In Heart to Heart: A Conversation on Love and Hope for Our Precious Planet (public library), the fourteenth Dalai Lama and artist Patrick McDonnell — who illustrated Jane Goodall’s inspiring life-story — invite an ethical approach to climate change, calling on young people to face a world of wildfires and deforestation with passionate compassion for other living beings, and to act along the vector of that compassion with the Dalai Lama’s fundamental philosophy:
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
Told with the simplicity and sincerity of language native to Buddhist teaching, the story begins with an improbable visitor showing up at the Dalai Lama’s doorstep: a giant panda — the vulnerable bear species Ailuropoda melanoleuca, endemic to China and beloved the world over, both ancient symbol and Instagram star.
His Holiness greets the furry visitor with the same attitude he greets everyone:
I welcome everyone as a friend. In truth, we all share the same basic goals: we seek happiness and do not want suffering.
Together, they venture out into the wilderness to savor the natural gift of the forest and contemplate the delicate interleaving of life within it. Along the way, the Dalai Lama tells his life-story, laced with his relationship to the natural world — the wild yaks, gazelles, antelopes, and white-lipped deer he encountered on his first journey across Tibet when he was recognized as the next Dalai Lama as a young boy, the comfort he took in the smell of wildflowers after leaving his home, the long-eared owl he watched soar over his first monastery, the mountain foxes, wolves, and lynx roaming the surrounding forest.
With a wistful eye to the decimation of wildlife populations in his lifetime, he tells his new friend and his young reader:
We must never forget the suffering humans inflict on other sentient beings. Perhaps one day we will kneel and ask the animals for forgiveness.
But forgiveness, he intimates, is not enough — we must urgently amend our actions and recover our respect for other living beings, which demands nothing less than a transformation of the human heart and a radical unselfing. Leaning on the Buddhist precepts, His Holiness writes:
Compassion, loving-kindness, and altruism are the keys not only to human development but also to planetary survival.
Real change in the world will only come from a change of heart.
What I propose is a compassionate revolution, a call for radical reorientation away from our habitual preoccupation with the self.
It is a call to turn toward the wider community of beings with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others’ interests alongside our own.
There is, of course, nothing radical in the notion itself — it is a simple recognition of reality, consonant with the great evolutionary biologist and Gaia Hypothesis originator Lynn Margulis’s insistence that “we abide in a symbiotic world.” The radical portion is the commitment to actionable course-correction and recalibration of habitual action — something young people are uniquely poised to do as they take our planetary future into their growing hands and growing hearts.
A century and a half after the great naturalist John Muir observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” His Holiness writes:
Everything is interdependent, everything is inseparable.
Our individual well-being is intimately connected both with that of all others and with the environment within which we live.
Our every action, our every deed, word, and thought, no matter how slight or inconsequential it may seem, has an implication not only for ourselves but for all others, too.
In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher and activist Simone Weil’s poignant meditation on the relationship between our rights and our responsibilities, he adds:
We are all interconnected in the universe, and from this, universal responsibility arises… Everyone has the responsibility to develop a happier world.
He goes on to explore how this change begins within, with cultivating “a peaceful mind and a peaceful heart” for oneself — the fulcrum of all kindness and compassionate action. Again and again, he returns to Hannah Arendt’s insight that “the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of… boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation,” inviting his young readers to remember that the smallest actions in the present accrete into sizable change for the future:
There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done.
One is called Yesterday, and the other is called Tomorrow.
Today is the right day to love, believe, do, and mostly to live positively to help others.
He ends with a prayerful meditation on the inner transformation necessary for a civilizational evolution of consciousness:
May I become at all times, both now and forever,
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need.
For as long as space endures,
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I, too, abide
To dispel the misery of the world.
Published March 6, 2023