Buddhism & the Environment

Image Credit: Eva Schuster

Original post by Nick Wallis from the Triratna Buddhist Community Web site.

When it comes to spiritual practices, care for the environment is simply a given. After all, we can’t separate ourselves from our environment. We can’t live outside of it. We can’t, in fact, live without it. And what we do, learn, and experience manifests in everything we do–most profoundly in how we take care of the environment and one another. In “Buddhism & the Environment,” Nick Wallis points to many of the reasons Buddhist ethics naturally reflect a deep care for the environment.

When we look at the traditional Buddhist texts there seems to be very little direct reference to what would these days be called environmental or ecological ideas. As we imaginatively enter the world in which the Buddha lived and taught, the reason for this becomes clear. The picture that emerges is one of a culture that lived in far greater harmony with its environment, if sometimes at its mercy, and an ‘Environmental Movement’ simply wasn’t needed. The strong connection that people felt with nature is illustrated particularly in the story of the Buddha’s life, in which all the most significant events occur in the countryside and are associated with trees: his birth at Lumbini as his mother grasped the branch of a sal tree, his early experience of states of meditative absorption beneath the rose apple tree, his Enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree, and his Parinirvana (death) between twin sal trees. So in seeking to apply the Dharma to the area of the environment, we have to look for underlying principles that are appropriate to the very different world that we ourselves inhabit.

We don’t have to look very far. In the vision of universal interpenetration, one of the Mahayana flowers of the Buddha’s teaching of Conditioned Co-production (pratitya samutpada), we have a basic insight into our relationship with nature. This vision is exemplified in the simile of Indra’s Net: High above in heaven, on the roof of the palace of the god Indra, there hang innumerable jewels interlaced in a great network. As the light reflects off these multifaceted gems not only does each jewel reflect the whole cosmos, but also every other jewel in the net, including all the reflections from all the jewels, the reflections of the reflections, and their reflections.

In this beautiful vision we can begin to connect imaginatively with the mutual interdependence of all processes. Bringing this insight down to earth it becomes clear that by harming nature we are in fact harming ourselves. There are plenty of examples to demonstrate this in the current media: acid rain, the greenhouse effect, the ozone hole, radioactive contamination, to name but a few. These reactions of nature to our carelessness harm us not only physically but also psychologically, as we face the threat of our environment becoming increasingly inimical to healthy human life.

Restating this vision of interpenetration in a positive sense, to improve the quality of our lives we need to live in greater harmony with nature. This may sound like a simple truism, but in fact it is certainly not the way in which our culture approaches nature. In the modern materialist culture, no doubt strongly influenced by the traditional Christian view that God put nature there for people to use for their own purposes, we approach the environment from the viewpoint of resource management. In many cases with large industrial companies this is better termed resource mis-management, as the narrow-minded drive for profit means that huge amounts of toxic substances are pumped into our skies, rivers, and oceans, and scattered across the land where they become someone else’s problem.

The ‘resource management’ approach leads us into difficulties on a more personal level though. In seeing ourselves as the ‘managers’, and therefore above nature, we can easily lose those very qualities which give us our humanity. This is particularly noticeable source. Whether it is the immeasurable brutality involved in the slaughter of animals to keep the kitchens of the world constantly supplied with meat, or the killing of the peaceful giants of the sea by wealthy countries such as Japan, these acts degrade the human race as a whole. The Buddhist position, on the other hand, emphasizes a harmonious interaction between ourselves and nature, neither passive nor attempting to dominate, and quite naturally leads us to consider the possibility of vegetarianism.

So this is the vision, but how do we put it into practice? Here we find Buddhist ethics come to our aid, with the basic principle of non-violence (ahimsa) or harmlessness. In the statement of the first precept, abstention from harming living beings, we can see how much of the industrial use of resources contravenes the principle; in chopping down a rain forest we destroy a habitat for other creatures and set up the conditions for top soil erosion, which in turn leads to floods and famine thereby incurring untold suffering on others. So to put this principle into practice we also need a high degree of awareness of the consequences of our actions-this is a prerequisite for any truly skilful action.

Often, the actions that we commit in relation to the environment also contravene the second precept, abstention from taking what is not given. This can happen in quite a crude sense or in a very subtle one. How many of us have, while wandering through a field of flowers, plucked some up-more than we needed-as if they belonged to us and without a thought that others will be deprived of the pleasure of appreciating them? The principle of non-violence should not be taken to mean that people should absolutely abandon their use of the earth’s resources for fear of harming any living beings whatsoever. After all, we are also part of nature, and need to maintain a healthy concern for our own welfare and that of fellow human beings. We need to use the resources available to free ourselves from the clutches of nature’s destructiveness: storms, floods, and famines. However, with the awareness of the consequences of our actions, we have a great responsibility to use the resources in as harm-free and useful a way as possible. As Sangharakshita has said, ‘Right use of nature is part of the spiritual life.’ This again leads us to consider the possibility of vegetarianism. At a rough estimate it takes ten times as much vegetable matter as it does to feed that person on a vegetarian diet. In a world with an ever increasing strain on the food supply the luxury of eating meat seems more and more unethical, quite apart from the slaughter of the animals involved.

If we can begin to deepen our relationship with nature through an understanding of interpenetration, and live more in harmony with our environment using the principle of non- violence, then a growing awareness of nature will begin to feed into our spiritual practice. Our ability to develop as individuals is closely bound up with the environment in which we live; harmonizing that environment will have a positive effect on our spiritual practice. After all, in the natural world we find many of the most inspiring symbols of our potential for development; the blue sky, the great ocean, the lofty mountain peaks. There are many examples of the fruits of inspiration that come from humankind’s experience of the beauty and splendour of nature, especially the wildest places. From the scientist to the mystic, individuals have found the mysteries and complexities of nature to be a source of insight and uplift. For this reason alone it is vital that at least some of our wild places remain.

We must beware of over-sentimentalizing nature though; the cycle of life in the natural world can be at times a very harsh one. Our technological development has to some extent freed us from this and a ‘back to nature’ movement will certainly not solve humanity’s problems. With so much at stake every little action counts. Hopefully enough people will wake up to the fact that we urgently need to change our attitudes to nature so that we and future generations may continue to be inspired by the process that is life on earth.

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