The Future Doesn’t Hurt. Yet

When, in the early
morning, I sit in the little meadow in front of my hermitage on a
quiet hilltop, two hours’ drive from Katmandu in Nepal, my eyes
take in hundreds of miles of lofty Himalayan peaks glowing in the
rising sun. The serenity of the scenery blends naturally and
seamlessly with the peace within. It is a long way indeed from the
frantic city life I once

2012: Shifting Power


An article from the summer 2011 issue of the
International Herald Tribune Magazine.

But the peace I know
is no escape from the world below — or the science I once studied.
I work with the toughest problems of the real world in the 30
clinics and schools that Karuna-Shechen, the foundation I created
with a few dedicated friends and benefactors, runs in Tibet, Nepal
and India. And now, after 40 years among these majestic mountains,
I have become acutely aware of the ravages of climate change in the
Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau. From where I sit in my little
meadow, it is especially sad to witness the Himalayan peaks
becoming grayer and grayer as glaciers melt and snows

The debate about climate change is mostly
conducted by people who live in cities, where everything is
artificial. They don’t actually experience the changes that are
taking place in the real world. The vast majority of Tibetans,
Nepalese and Bhutanese who live on both sides of the Himalayas have
never heard of global warming, as they have little or no access to
the news media. Yet they all say that the ice is not forming as
thickly as before on lakes and rivers, that winter temperatures are
getting warmer and the spring blossoms are coming earlier. What
they may not know is that these are symptoms of far greater

In the beautiful kingdom of Bhutan, where I spent nine years,
recent investigations by the only glaciologist in the country,
Kharma Thoeb, have shown that a natural moraine dam that separates
two glacial lakes in the Lunana area is today only 31 meters deep,
in comparison to 74 meters in 2003. If this wall gives way, some 53
million cubic meters of water will rush down the valley of Punakha
and Wangdi, causing immense damage and loss of life. Altogether
there are 400 glacial lakes in Nepal and Bhutan that may break
their natural dams and flood populated areas lower in the valleys.
If these floods occur, the glaciers will increasingly shrink. This
will cause drought, since the streams and rivers will not be fed by
melting snow.

Chinese climatologists have called the Himalayan
glaciers and other major mountains located in the Tibetan plateau
the “third pole” of our ailing planet. There are 40,000 large and
small glaciers on the Tibetan plateau and this area is melting at a
rate three to four times faster than the North and South Poles. The
melting is particularly accelerated in the Himalayas by the
pollution that settles on the snow and darkens the glaciers, making
them more absorbent to light.

According to international development agencies,
about half of the populations of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos,
Cambodia, Vietnam, India and Pakistan depend on the watershed from
the rivers of the Tibetan plateau for their agriculture, general
water supply, and, therefore, survival. The consequences of the
drying up of these great rivers will be

When I was 20, I was hired as a researcher in the
cellular genetics lab of François Jacob, who had just been awarded
the Nobel Prize for
medicine. There, I worked for six years toward my doctorate. Life
was far from dull, but something essential was

Everything changed in Darjeeling in northern
India in 1967, when I met several remarkable human beings who, for
me, exemplified what a fulfilled human life can be. These Tibetan
masters, all of whom had just fled the Communist invasion of Tibet,
radiated inner goodness, serenity and compassion. Returning from
this first journey, I became aware that I’d found a reality that
could inspire my whole life and give it direction and meaning. In
1972, I decided to move to Darjeeling, in the shadow of the
Himalayas, to study with the great Tibetan masters Kangyur Rinpoche
and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

In India and then in Bhutan, I lived a beautiful
and simple life. I came to understand that while some people may be
naturally happier than others, their happiness is still vulnerable
and incomplete; that achieving durable happiness as a way of being
requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing
qualities like inner peace, mindfulness and altruistic

Then one day in 1979, shortly after our monastery
in Nepal had been equipped with a phone line, someone called me
from France to ask if I would like to engage in a dialogue with my
father, the philosopher Jean-François Revel. I said “of course,”
but thought that I would never hear from the person again, as I did
not believe that my father, a renowned agnostic, would ever want to
dialogue with a Buddhist monk, even one who was his son. But to my
surprise, he readily accepted and we spent a wonderful 10 days in
Nepal, discussing many issues about the meaning of life. That was
the end of my quiet, anonymous life and the beginning of a
different way of interacting with the world. The book that
followed, The Monk and the Philosopher, became a bestseller in
France and was translated into 21

It dawned on me that much more money than I had ever
envisioned having would be coming my way. Since I could not see
myself acquiring an estate in France or somewhere else, it seemed
to me that the most natural thing to do would be to donate all the
proceedings and rights of that and subsequent books to helping
others. The foundation I created for that purpose is now called
Karuna-Shechen, and it implements and maintains humanitarian and
educational projects throughout

2012: Shifting Power


An article
from the summer 2011 issue of the International Herald Tribune

Humanitarian projects have since become a central focus of
my life and, with a few dedicated volunteer friends and generous
benefactors, and under the inspiration of the abbot of my
monastery, Rabjam Rinpoche, we have built and run clinics and
schools in Tibet, Nepal and India where we treat about 100,000
patients a year and provide education to nearly 10,000 children. We
have managed to do this spending barely 4 percent of our budget on
overhead expenses.

My life has
definitely become more hectic, but I have also discovered over the
years that trying to transform oneself to better transform the
world brings lasting fulfillment and, above all, the irreplaceable
boon of altruism and compassion.

Imagine a ship
that is sinking and needs all the available power to run the pumps
to drain out the rising waters. The first class passengers refuse
to cooperate because they feel hot and want to use the
air-conditioner and other electrical appliances. The second-class
passengers spend all their time trying to be upgraded to
first-class status. The boat sinks and the passengers all drown.
That is where the present approach to climate change is

Whether people realize it or not, their
actions can have disastrous effects — as the environmental changes
in the Himalayas, the Arctic circle and many other places are
showing us. The unbridled consumerism of our planet’s richest 5
percent is the greatest contributor to the climate change that will
bring the greatest suffering to the most destitute 25 percent, who
will face the worst consequences. According to the U.S. Department
of Energy, on average an Afghan produces 0.02 tons of CO2 per year,
a Nepalese and a Tanzanian 0.1, a Briton 10 tons, an American 19
and a Qatari 51 tons, which is 2,500 times more than an

Unchecked consumerism operates on the
premise that others are only instruments to be used and that the
environment is a commodity. This attitude fosters unhappiness,
selfishness and contempt upon other living beings and upon our
environment. People are rarely motivated to change on behalf of
something for their future and that of the next generation. They
imagine, “Well, we’ll deal with that when it comes.” They resist
the idea of giving up what they enjoy just for the sake of avoiding
disastrous long-term effects. The future doesn’t hurt —

An altruistic society is one in which
we do not care only for ourselves and our close relatives, but for
the quality of life of all present members of society, while being
mindfully concerned as well by the fate of coming

In particular, we need to make
significant progress concerning the way we treat animals, as
objects of consumption and industrial products, not as living
beings who strive for well-being and want to avoid suffering. Every
year, more than 150 billion land animals are killed in the world
for human consumption, as well as some 1.5 trillion sea animals. In
rich countries, 99 percent of these land animals are raised and
killed in industrial farms and live only a fraction of their life
expectancy. In addition, according to United Nations and FAO
reports on climate change, livestock production is responsible for
a greater proportion of emissions (18 percent) of greenhouse gases
than the entire global transportation sector. One solution may be
to eat less meat!

the Dalai
 has often pointed out, interdependence is a
central Buddhist idea that leads to a profound understanding of the
nature of reality and to an awareness of global responsibility.
Since all beings are interrelated and all, without exception, want
to avoid suffering and achieve happiness, this understanding
becomes the basis for altruism and compassion. This in turn
naturally leads to the attitude and practice of nonviolence toward
human beings and animals — and toward the

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