Thought for the Day - Vishvapani - 24/11/2012

For some people our current bad weather has been disastrous: rivers are overflowing their banks, houses have flooded and the power has gone down. One man has died. But for most of us it’s a nuisance that we accept, bar a little grumbling when trains are delayed or roads are closed.

It’s a tribute to the power of our culture that we are largely impervious to the elements, but the storms also remind us that our security has limits. That’s timely when the debate on energy policy has turned to long-term decisions. The energy sources we commission now will last for decades and the atmospheric CO2 they produce will last much longer. We can only guess at their effect on the climate itself.

It’s a modern issue, yet the confrontation with nature is as old as civilisation. The Buddha lived in a vast river valley and his culture was built on reclaimed marshes. Each year the Ganges and its tributaries flooded much of the land after the monsoon, and the Buddha saw in this a metaphor for the human condition. We are constantly vulnerable to the uncontrollable forces that flood over us from without and within, he said. External forces include threats posed by nature and other people, while internal ones grow largely from the impulses and instincts that help us cope with insecurity. These forces shape how we live, what we desire and even help form our personalities. But defenses such as craving, fear and hatred also limit us and therefore they cause us to suffer.

A wise approach, from the Buddhist perspective, starts by acknowledging our vulnerability. Individually, although we may control much in our lives, we meet the limits of our power when we confront the inevitability of old age, sickness and death both for ourselves and for everyone we know. Pride shrivels when we acknowledge that, and then compassion is possible.

In the public sphere, I think a wise approach is one that acknowledges the short-term considerations that often dominate debate, but is not determined by them. It means looking ahead as far as possible and considering the interests of future generations beside the needs of the present. Buddhist teachings suggest that we should be very cautious about the impact of our actions on the planet and its environment. We cannot control the weather, and the storm is a small glimpse of the planet’s vast destructive potential.

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