Speaking to a sold-out Woolsey Hall on Tuesday, Buddhist leader His Holiness the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje decried the degradation of the environment and encouraged environmental activism rooted in a spiritual connection to nature.
Addressing Yale students, faculty and the local community through a Tibetan translator, the Karmapa recounted his personal journey with environmentalism, citing early experiences with “living systems” in the mountains of Tibet. The Karmapa, who heads the oldest of four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, is believed by Buddhists in the Karma Kagyu school to be the 17th re-embodiment of the original Buddhist teacher, Chubb Fellowship Director and Timothy Dwight College Master Jeffrey Brenzel ’75 said during the talk.
“In order to understand the necessity of environmental protection, we need to understand how connected we are to one another and to our environment,” the Karmapa said during the talk. “If you look at the situation, there is absolutely no reason not to support environmental activism.”
The Karmapa, who gave speeches at both Princeton and Harvard this spring prior to visiting Yale, emphasized the importance of living in communities supportive of environmental conservation. Students and Fossil Free Yale members thought the talk challenged Yale’s current sustainability initiatives.
During his talk, the Karmapa pinpointed a specific environmental issue that he thought the world needed to address: the intrusion of non-biodegradable and artificial substances into nature. He added that his decision eight years ago to be vegetarian was a small way he chose to combat the effects of climate change. The Karmapa encouraged individuals to change their daily habits, and to think differently about what he called an “artificial boundary” between humans and the environment.
“We’re all human beings living in the same world and relying on the same environment,” he said. “Some people have the idea that the environment is so vast and so primordial that nothing we do to it will have any effect. Unfortunately that is not the case.”
After the talk, FFY activists said the Karmapa’s comments were in line with the broader mission of their organization to dissolve the distinctions between natural and social environments.
Project Manager Mitch Barrows ’16 said in an email that FFY’s core values are grounded in the sentiments the Karmapa expressed, but added that FFY places an emphasis on Yale’s institutional responsibility.
“Power-laden institutions, like Yale, share blame for socio-environmental harm, but also share responsibility in changing the systems responsible,” Barrows said.
Auguste Fortin, board member at the New Haven Zen Center and associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine, said he was pleasantly surprised by the Karmapa’s emphasis on spirituality as a vehicle to change the environment. While Fortin said he thought Buddhism was especially environmentalist, other students found a source of inspiration in their own spiritual and cultural traditions.
Sebastian Medina-Tayac ’16, president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, said that as a Native American, his spirituality leads him to think that all natural life is sacred and needs to be cared for.
“I think that there’s a very innate connection between environmentalism and Buddhism,” said Lillian Childress ’17, leader of Yale’s official Buddhist organization, Yale Sangha, and a former reporter for the News.
The Karmapa concluded the discussion by pointing out that human desire is limitless while natural resources are limited.
“I don’t have all the solutions,” he said.