In the Buddha’s time, explicit care for the environment was not really an issue. Fragile pockets of human civilisation existed dotted in the midst of vast tracts of wilderness. Today the situation is reversed as fragile remnants of wilderness struggle to exist under the growing demands of a vast human population. Although there may not be explicit guidance in Buddhist scriptures relating to care for the environment, the Buddhist Path or way of life lends itself especially well to living in balance with Nature and to focussing on our needs rather than on greed.
The Buddhist Path is about growing mindfulness through meditation and awareness based on experience, of acknowledging and understanding the interconnectivity of all life and the implications of cause and effect (Karma), of striving for a state of compassion and awakening to enlightenment. The word Buddha comes from ‘budhi’ which means to ‘to awaken’. Imagine the potential for positive change if most of the 375 million people ascribing to be Buddhists around the world, awakened to an Eco-Buddhism or way of life that was in balance with Nature!
Buddhism originated about 2,500 years ago when Siddhartha Gotama, known as the Buddha, was himself awakened (enlightened) at the age of 35. Siddhartha Gotama was born into a royal family in Lumbini, now located in Nepal, in 563 BC. At 29, he realised that luxury did not guarantee happiness, so he immersed himself in the different teachings, religions and philosophies of his day to find the key to happiness. After six years of study and meditation he finally found ‘the middle path’ and was enlightened. After enlightenment, the Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the principles of Buddhism, called the Dhamma, or Truth, until his death at the age of 80.
Buddha was probably one of the original environmentalists as he practiced and taught that all living things are interconnected and should not be mindlessly killed. His rejection of wealth as a guarantee or condition for happiness and his materially simple lifestyle are the antithesis of what many people of all creeds are striving for today. Buddhists believe in the interconnectivity of the living and non-living elements in the universe and a corresponding cause and effect relationship between all things. The material strivings of people create an imbalance between mankind and the natural world. These material strivings also create mental imbalances and unhappiness as people escalate into negative emotions such as egotism, jealousy, comparison and aggressive competitiveness.
The Buddhist view that our lives and those of all beings are part of a giant web spread across the planet and indeed beyond sends a strong message for respecting and caring for the natural world. If we are all made of similar stuff, all subject to the same natural processes, all in the same ‘existential boat’, it makes it impossible to harbour a notion of us as being ultimately ‘different’ or separate. Once we truly realise this we will realise that one cannot live for oneself alone and we will be open to feeling compassion towards all forms of life. This process culminates in the vow of the Bodhisattva to pursue the spiritual path and attain enlightenment “for the sake of all beings”.
“Just as earth and the other elements
Are profitable in many ways
To the immeasurable beings throughout space,
So may I
Be sustenance of many kinds
For the realm of beings throughout space,
Until all have attained release.”
Buddha’s song in the Karaniya Metta Sutta:
“May everything that lives be well!
weak or strong, large or small,
seen or unseen, here or elsewhere,
present or to come, in heights or depths,
may all be well!
Have that mind for all the world,
get rid of lies and pride,
a mother’s mind for her baby,
her love, but now unbounded. “
Individual responsibility is one of the strongest ethics promoted by Buddhism in support of positive action to address the current environmental crisis. Buddhists believe that there is a moral law operating in an essentially ethical (karmic) universe but no law giver, i.e. there is no supreme being. “Pratitya Samutpada is the most penetrating description of how the universe and everything in it actually works: everything arises in dependence upon conditions, and ceases when the conditions that support it cease to be. All phenomena are perpetually in a process of becoming. As there is no law maker or supreme being, we are fully responsible for our destiny. There is no-one up there to save us or to damn us. We save or damn ourselves.” (From Pratitya Samutpada: the foundation for a Buddhist Environmentalism http://www.thegreenfuse.org/ps.htm)
If by our individual and collective actions we upset the balance of Nature, there will be consequences according to the laws of Nature.
On a positive note, skilful actions have skilful consequences and there is no room in Buddhism for inaction as non-action is itself an action which will have consequences. Buddhism therefore invites us to be aware and to reflect upon the urgency of our situation and to act. At the same time and in recognition of the complexity of the world, Buddhism recognises that we cannot predict the precise outcomes of our actions, nor can we foresee the future. The Buddha therefore recommended a set of basic ethical precepts for his followers, the foremost of these being the principle of non-violence (ahimsa). Violence is the ultimate denial of our interconnectedness, the furthest remove from acting in harmony with reality. Another ethical precept is cultivating genuine awareness and spiritual insight using Buddhist methods which include meditation so that our actions will be `skilful’. This awareness must however be motivated by a concern for the well-being of others in accordance with a striving toward a state of compassion.
The organisation Earth Sangha in the USA encourages `Buddhist Values in Action’ under the following headings:
- “Spiritual. Through meditation and environmental work, we aspire to see things as they really are. We recognize that all things, including ourselves, arise and pass away, that nothing is permanent, and that all life is profoundly interdependent. We strive to express this understanding through compassion for all living things.”
- “Ecological. We accept the science of ecology as a guide to the impermanence and interdependence of living things. We strive to apply both ecological principles and political skill to the task of building healthier relationships between people and the lands they inhabit. We organize volunteer-based ecological restoration projects for degraded natural areas, and agroforestry projects for impoverished farm communities.”
- “Social. We realize that conservation requires strong public support if it is to endure, so we work to improve public understanding of nature.”
- “Ethical. We strive to live in ways that are environmentally aware and environmentally benign, and we aspire to help other people do the same. We believe that other species have a right to their own existence, and that we have a moral obligation to preserve them. “
- For more information go to: http://www.earthsangha.org/
(Note: The introduction to Buddhism and the Environment above borrowed from the writing of Lokabandhu in the article: Pratitya Samutpada – the foundation for a Buddhist Environmentalism, December 2001, Bor Dharan retreat centre, Nagpur, India Read the full article at http://www.thegreenfuse.org/ps.htm#top
*From Conversations On World Religions and Ecology (The Forum of Religion and Ecology at Yale)
“The first of the five precepts is not to take life, and the first of the six paramitas is that of almsgiving. The ten good precepts, the two hundred and fifty precepts, the ten major precepts, and all the other rules of conduct begin with the prohibition against the taking of life. Every being, from the highest sage on down to the smallest mosquito or gnat, holds life to be its most precious possession. To deprive a being of life is to commit the gravest kind of sin. When the Thus Come One appeared in this world, he made compassion for living things his basis. And as an expression of compassion for life, to refrain from taking life and to provide sustenance for living beings are the most important precepts.” – The Blessings of the Lotus Sutra, Writings of Nichiren Daishonin Vol. 1, p. 667.
“Buddhahood exists in all things in the universe, both sentient and insentient. This includes the land or the environment, which consists of insentient beings like trees and rocks. Therefore, anything which leads to the destruction of the environment is seen as a grave offense in the light of Buddhism.” – Daisaku Ikeda, Buddhist activist, teacher and leader of the international lay Nichiren Buddhist society SGI.
This point makes it clear that there is no basis in Buddhism for considering human life to be more valuable than other forms of life.
“Every single thing in existence is worthy of supreme reverence. Nature is not something for human beings to exploit as they see fit, solely for their own interests. Both nature and humanity are part—and at the same time complete expressions—of the life of the universe. To destroy the natural world is to destroy human life.” – Ikeda
Dr Nigel Crawhall ‘Even the air you breathe when you meditate is only borrowed.’
‘Be aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth. Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet. We have caused a lot of damage to the Earth. Now it is time for us to take good care of her. We bring our peace and calm to the surface of the Earth and share the lesson of love. We walk in that spirit.’ (Thich Nhat Hanh)
‘All lands are produced by the karmic power. The karma, delusion and afflictions of the defiled sentient beings are really horrific. Their minds make all lands and oceans become polluted.’ (The Avatamsaka Sutra) If the roots are not removed weeds grow again and again; suffering returns to us so long as craving remains. (Dh 338)
‘When we accept that we are part of a great human family – that every being has the nature of Buddha – then we will sit, talk, make peace. I pray that this realization will spread throughout our troubled world and bring humankind and the earth to its fullest flowering. I pray that all of us will realize peace in this lifetime and save all beings from suffering.’ (Maha Ghosananda)
`As a beautiful flower without fragrance is disappointing, So are wise words without right action’. (Dh 51)
`There are those who awaken from heedlessness. They bring light into the world, like the moon emerging from clouds’. (Dh 172)
`As a bee gathering nectar does not harm or disturb the colour and fragrance of the flower; so do the wise move through the world.’ (Dh 49)
`Gradually, gradually, a moment at a time the wise remove their own impurities as a goldsmith removes the dross.’ (Dh 239)