Do Buddhist practitioners need to make New Year’s resolutions?

 Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The word “resolution” is one of those versatile words used to refer to many things and employed in many contexts. It is used, for example, as the word that refers to the degree of sharpness and detail of an image produced and displayed, and employed in such scientific disciplines as optics and electronic engineering. Though its meaning varies depending on a specific context in which it is employed, the word “resolution” is also used in other scientific disciplines such as chemistry and medicine.

In addition to its usage in sciences and engineering, the word “resolution” is also used in arts and humanities. Its usage in philosophy goes as far back as Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher, who defined a philosopher as someone with careful resolutions and unerring decisions. In works of literature, it is employed as the word that refers to the solution of a tangled relationship, or a complicated plot, involving many characters of a story with many twists and turns.

The versatility of the word “resolution” is not limited to sciences and humanities as we have become increasingly aware of its usage to refer to an official decision made by a group or an organization. In fact, the word “resolution” played an important part in the founding of the United States as an independent nation as John Adams uses it in his letter to Abigail Adams to refer to the decision made by the Founding Fathers on July 2, 1776 “that these United States are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” Another example illustrating the use of the word “resolution” to refer to an official decision made by an organization is Resolution 217 by the United Nations, which is known as the Universal Declaration for Human Rights adopted at the General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

For most of us, the word “resolution” is used in the sense of a firm decision to do or not to do something, and is heard most often on and around New Year’s Day as New Year’s resolutions. Historians tell us that it was the ancient Babylonians that started the custom of celebrating the New Year and making resolutions on that occasion, which in their case was in the form of promises to the gods to pay their debts and return objects they had borrowed. Be that as it may, people all over the world have now adopted the custom of making New Year’s resolutions, along with celebrations with fireworks and visits to churches, shrines, and temples.

If there is anything to be said about New Year’s resolutions, it is that most people fail to follow up on them. One reason for the failure to follow up on New Year’s resolutions is that people make their resolutions to themselves, not to the gods as the Babylonians did. Moreover, most people, unlike Epictetus’ philosophers who make careful resolutions and unerring decisions, tend to make resolutions that are difficult to accomplish in the first place. Resolutions such as lose weight, exercise regularly, and eat green, which are among the most popular resolutions, are also known to be the ones people fail to live up to because they require strong commitment and will to follow up on them. Having like-minded people around them should help people to keep their resolutions. This is where a support group comes in, which is known to play an effective role for those people who are trying to abstain from drinking or quit smoking.

Do Buddhist practitioners need to make New Year’s resolutions? The answer to the question is “Yes,” to the extent that New Year’s Day is the day to look back on what transpired in the previous year and look forward to what is expected to happen in the coming year. Buddhist practitioners, as long as we make our living in the conventional world, need to reexamine what is happening in our lives from time to time, and New Year’s Day gives us an opportunity to do so with the rest of the world. On the other hand, the answer to the question is “No,” to the extent that Buddhist practitioners are committed ourselves to constant practice, observing the Dhamma at every moment, every day all the year round. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, we are expected to begin anew each day with our commitment to constant practice, whether it is Year’s Day or Christmas. In other words, each and every day is another day of mindfulness for us Buddhist practitioners.

The Coming Age of Climate Refugees

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The term “refugees” used to refer to those people who flee their countries for fear of persecution for one reason or another. The United Nations’ Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees signed in 1951 defined “refugees” as “those people who are unwilling or unable to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” It has been the job of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to grant refugee status to those people who are unwilling or unable to return to their country of origin and help them to relocate themselves in countries where they can live without the fear of being persecuted.

The definition of “refugees” by the UNHCR is quite specific as to the people who are designated as “refugees.” However, many researchers and scholars studying the international movement of people soon came to realize that it was not just the people with the fear of being persecuted who seek refugee status. Hence, it became necessary to introduce the new category of “economic refugees” to distinguish it from the category of “political refugees,” which is covered by the UNHCR definition. “Economic refugees,” or “economic asylum seekers,” are those people who are “pushed out” of their home countries for lack of economic opportunities and hence seek better living conditions in other countries. The reason these people are called “economic refugees” is because that most of them are from the so-called developing countries. For example, of the total of about 15 million refugees that the UNHCR estimated to be a reliable figure as of January 1991, over 80 percent were from Africa, Asia and South America. While there is no doubt that these regions have poor records in upholding human rights, it is also the case that these asylum seekers were trying to escape destitution and poverty in their home countries.

In contrast to “political refugees” and “economic refugees,” the rise of “environmental refugees” is a relatively new phenomenon that started to be noticed by researchers and scholars in the 1970s. As the number of those people who were displaced from their homes and seek resettlement elsewhere reached as high as 10 million around 1985, it was clear that the new category of “environmental refugees” needs to be introduced in order to distinguish them from “political refugees” and “economic refugees.” The number of “environmental refugees” saw a dramatic rise in the twenty-first century with increasing instances of violent storms and natural disasters. In 2017 alone, it is estimated that 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced due to changes in their living environments, including flooding, forest fires, and violent storms.

While researchers and scholars have been advocating the adoption of the term “environmental refugees” to refer to those people who are driven out of their homes, communities, and countries due to dramatic changes in the world’s climate, there is yet no official recognition of that category of people by national governments and international organizations. As a matter of fact, the UNHCR has not granted refugee status to those people who flee their homes, communities, and countries due to weather-related disasters by calling them instead “environmental migrants.” This is so because climate change that drives people out of their homes, communities, and countries is not recognized as a clear case of humanitarian crisis unlike the case of asylum seekers fleeing their countries for fear of being persecuted. One case that illustrates the reluctance to officially recognize the category of “environmental refugees” on the part of national governments and international organizations was the case of the Teitota family from the island nation of Kiribati, whose application for refugee status in New Zealand in 2015 was dismissed by the High Court of New Zealand. The reason for the High Court’s dismissal was that climate change was not a legitimate reason for fleeing a country, although it was clear that Kiribati is one of those nations in the Pacific Islands that are slowly yet surely disappearing by the rising sea level due to global warming. This is in sharp contrast to the people from Tuvalu, whom New Zealand admitted as migrant workers.

As the number of people who are forced out of their living environments due to climate change steadily increases, it is becoming clear that national governments and international organizations need to develop a clear-cut definition of “environmental refugees,” or “climate refugees.” The UNHCR should take the initiative for the official recognition of “environmental refugees” in view of the critical role it has played in providing assistance to those people who seek refugee status for the fear of being persecuted.

The freedom of movement, in the sense of visiting places and seeking suitable employment, should be one of the basic human rights as it is indeed recognized as such in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. More recently, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration adopted by 164 countries in 2018 called on countries to make plans to support those people who are forced to relocate themselves due to climate-caused disasters. The challenge facing the world today is how to create a workable and legally binding mechanism to allow people to migrate and relocate whether the reason for doing so is political, economic, or environmental. Indeed, in most cases it is difficult to distinguish among political, economic and environmental refugees because the stresses that prompt migration are intertwined.

For references, see, for example, Barnet, Jon, and Michael Webber, “Accommodating Migration to Promote Adaptation to Climate Change”, Commission on Climate Change and Development, March 2009; Brown, Lester, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, New York: Norton, 2011; and Jacobson, Jodi L., Environmental Refugees: A Yardstick of Habitability, Word Watch Institute, 1988.