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Living Lightly on Earth

By Upasaka Nyanaloka, The Buddhist Channel, April 22, 2008

A Buddhist approach to ecology

Although the interdependence of all things lies at the heart of Buddhist teaching, ecology as such is a modern formulation. We might certainly plead that it is a much needed restatement of the Buddhist vision in modern times, we might side with the poets (among them, the Buddha himself) and agree that truth gets lost in the words and therefore needs restating anew from age to age. It is still up to us, however, to prove our claim from traditional sources in order to carry everyone with us.

For such a position to be convincing we need to look at three areas.

First we must prove from the Buddha's own words that an ecological vision is included in his teaching. Secondly, we must be able to point to areas of the training recommended by the Buddha where our ecological concern can be put into practice. Many would argue that, on the contrary, the Buddha's is a system of spiritual growth that trains us away from identification with the phenomenal world. In addition, then, we must look for similar interpretations of the Dhamma by earlier Buddhists. If we find that we are in fact following in the footsteps of others, then our case will be proved.

To begin, then, with the Buddha's own words, we find this in the Gradual Sayings:

"He who has understanding and great wisdom does not think of harming himself or another, nor of harming both alike. He rather thinks of his own welfare, of that of others, of that of both, and of the welfare of the whole world. In that way one shows understanding and great wisdom.”
Anguttara Nikaya, Fours, No. 18

In that the Buddha starts from the position of regarding all animate life as sacred, the phrase 'the whole world' must therefore be understood in its widest sense. He is pointing, as usual, to the ideal towards which the training leads.

Something of this can be read into the Buddha's consciously dedicating several days of gratitude to the Bodhi Tree under which his enlightenment experience took place.

In Zen tradition much is made of the fact that most of the Sakyamuni's cardinal experiences took place under trees – his birth under a sal tree, his first jhanic experience of meditation under a roseapple, his enlightenment under a baobab, his passing away in a sal grove.

A Buddhist's care, therefore, must extend beyond the animate. For this reason, their Zen version of the Boddhisatva Vow states that one will continue striving for the welfare of all beings until even the blades of grass are enlightened. This may not be understood literally, but it does indicate that a follower of the Way sees his training as encompassing care for the whole world.

This widening of the Buddhist reverence for life, expressed in the first rule of training to abstain from harm to any being, also manifests in the monastic rule that prohibits destroying trees or seeds or causing them to be destroyed.


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It arose from the Jain understanding of the chain of life, extending from the mineral through the vegetable to the animate. In the case of this prohibition, it is generally understood that the Buddha did not wish his followers to cause offence to those with differing beliefs. Its result, however, has been a more thoughtful approach to the environment generally.

In Thailand, it is true, the dye for monastic robes (in the forest tradition at least) was obtained by boiling the roots of the jack tree. Now that the existence of tropical forests there is threatened, however, this practice has been forbidden by the monastic authorities. Even long-standing tradition, so dear to Theravadin monasticism, can be overturned when a threat to the environment is perceived.

One of the keys to ecological action is found in the second factor of the Eightfold Path, namely Right Motivation (Intention or Thought). These are factors of wisdom, to be cultivated for their own sake but also strengthened by the practice of bodily and mental discipline – the threefold grouping of Sila, Samadhi and Pañña.

Right Motivation comprises harmlessness (ahimsa), compassion (karuna) and renunciation (nekhamma). The renunciation demanded need not be that of going into homelessness. But even if we retain our homes, the training asks us to make do with the minimum. Craving for more is the cause of suffering, and if that craving results in a major threat to the planet, then we should remember that it is our duty to cause no harm and to be compassionate. All these things hang together.

We see from the above that care for the animate sphere, simply because all things are interdependent, entails care in our handling of the inanimate. This is reinforced by the third precept by which we engage not to misuse the senses.
Traditionally this has been limited to the sexual sphere; the precept's rewording in retreat situations is abrahmacariya, the keeping of absolute chastity. Normally one vows 'not to misuse the senses' (kamesu miccacara), bearing in mind the Buddha's saying that nothing stimulates each of a man's senses so much as the sight, sound, touch, etc of a woman, nor a woman's than that of a man. Undoubtedly this is so but it is capable of a wider interpretation.

Each of these rules is there to train us towards an ideal of conduct. Mere chastity is only the beginning; total control of our appetites, of our craving, is the end in view. The third precept is therefore our ecological charter. It asks us to take only so much as we really need. To waste the planet's finite resources and thereby imperil all of life for the sake of selfish greed is an act of criminal thoughtlessness.

Finally we should bear in mind that the Emperor Asoka certainly interpreted the Buddha's Dhamma as having care for the environment. The first Rock Edict not only prohibits animal sacrifices but also the killing of animals for festival meals; in addition the king takes the lead in limiting his own use of meat with the aim of giving it up altogether.

In the second edict he explains that he has encouraged the cultivation of medicinal plants for the use of humans and animals. In addition he had wells dug and trees planted along the roads for the welfare of both. This stops short of an ecological vision, of course, but the need for such care was not so pressing in Asoka's day.

In any case, his concern was the application of Dhamma to governance; his focus would naturally be different from that of a religious teacher. The presentation above was given as part of a recent seminar on developing green awareness in faith traditions. The others participating included a Quaker, a Jew, a Sikh and a Muslim. All took the approach of finding sanction from their scriptures and from traditional practice. It was heartening to find such unanimity.

Naturally new developments call forth new responses, but in this case the testimony of all seemed to be that they were returning to teachings which had ceased to be emphasised under the onslaught of modern materialism.

In earlier days, when the limitation of resources was assumed as a matter of course, more care was taken to conserve them. For our own sake, and for the sake of all life, we need to bring that state of mind to the forefront of our practice once again.


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