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I recently contributed to a Buddhist dialogue at one of the fringe activities in COP26 in Glasgow, I want to explain why I did so, based on my personal experiences, in particular working with young people in Myanmar and why I am doing a PhD with The Open University. In doing so, I would like to highlight why personal transformation is an important step towards societal change or global transformation from my personal life and experience. Indeed, I believe that societal change is made more possible through numerous, sustained small changes.
My own transformation started with awareness.
I became interested in environmental science when I had to study Biology at School. The first book that made me aware of Climate Change was ‘Global warming’ written by Chit San Win (in Myanmar). Reading an article about the deterioration of Inle Lake in my country, with its unique ecological features, and learning about the environmental movement in the US inspired by Rachel Carlson’s work on ‘Silent Spring’ further raised my awareness of the ecological crisis and climate issues in our world. But as a teenager, I had no idea how to respond or what to do at first but then became more engaged at University.
During my undergraduate study in agricultural science, I began to look at the development process and its role in food security, food safety and sustainability because there was aggressive marketing of pesticides and herbicides in Myanmar at this time. Again, I did not have any solution to respond to this situation. I later studied ‘Natural Resources Management’ for my master’s degree (at the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok) in 2005–2006 to further develop my knowledge and skills to engage in sustainability. But I also got an opportunity to learn about alternative education and sustainable development at the Grassroot Leadership Training (GLT) from the Spirit in Education Movement (SEM), a Thai based NGO, where I could deeply connect with nature and realised how I could work with my people on promoting environmental awareness and behaviour change through Deep Ecology and Socially Engaged Buddhism.
I believe that societal change is made more possible through numerous, sustained small changes.
I studied about the awareness and behaviour of farmers in Inle lake area for my master’s research, which was also supportive for my future work. This is the way I transformed through academic research, spiritual practice, knowledge and awareness of environmental issues, the quest for sustainable future and my trust in people’s participation. One of the core values in socially engaged Buddhist concept is ‘Kalyana mitta’ (Good friends who can provoke your thoughts).
We first need to see the reality of injustice or structural violence in our socio-economic or political systems (‘suffering’ in Buddhism) and then we will seek our desirable future (Nirvana), by using Kalyana Mitta to help sort out the root causes (Samudaya) of the climate crisis by looking at the whole complex system. Finally, we apply eight-fold paths (right thinking, mindfulness, etc.,) as our guiding principles (Meggin), steering us to maintain a middle way.
Compassion and wisdom
However, Buddha does not exactly mention the benchmark or scale to use to identify the middle way. It depends on the context and it is crucial to look at the holistic picture. In a nutshell, compassion and wisdom are the core practices that I have used for deepening life-long learning and fostering collaboration (as Kalayna Mitta) in my work. After completing my master’s degree, I went back to Myanmar and initiated a small youth leadership project in 2008. That project gradually developed and transformed into a local NGO – the Kalyana Mitta Development Foundation for which I invested over 12 years working as a founder and director. This Foundation has facilitated awareness raising and capacity development programmes for over 5,000 youth, many of whom became very active community leaders.
They established their own local community-based organisations for the environmental and sustainable development movement through environmental exhibitions, music, theatre performance, Eco-youth camps, seminars, eco-farming, anti-plastic and fish seeding campaign in religious festivals, green and clean campus movement, story-telling approach for environmental education at primary and secondary schools, and special talks at universities. They did it even though it was not safe to do such simple environmental conservation activities under the military regime. Sadly, much of this work has stopped, following the military coup in February 2021.
Eighteen months before the coup I had taken another step in my own transformation by starting my doctoral studies on how education for sustainable development can be embedded in Myanmar’s Universities, based on the Myanmar context and citizens’ expectations. Despite the current challenges in my country, I am still confident that personal transformations can potentially lead to the societal changes which can surely contribute to climate justice. Which is why I was in Glasgow to share my experiences with others.