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Buddha loves Gaia: Mahayana Reflections on the global ecological crisis

By Raymond Lam
Buddhistdoor Global | 2011-09-01 |
Buddha loves Gaia: Mahayana Reflections on the global ecological crisisBuddha loves Gaia: Mahayana Reflections on the global ecological crisis
Buddhism is a religion that respects and cares for the Earth. As they walk by the Buddha’s side, disciples do not forget that Mother Nature, or Gaia, is also suffering in samsara. To practice ecological awareness is the first step to cultivating true insight into interconnectedness. Indeed, Thich Nhat Hanh maintains that the Diamond Sutra stresses care for entities that are not seen as sentient, such as trees, rocks, and minerals. His vision entails the hope that human beings can walk mindfully and understand the interdependence of all beings in the Buddhist sense of sunyata.
 
It is important not to overestimate ourselves: six thousand years of mammalian domination is an impressive credential, but it is of little concern to the Earth, which will continue to exist long after humans have disappeared from its continents. Furthermore, our fall towards ecological destruction for the sake of profit and pleasure certainly displeases and wounds Avalokiteshvara deeply. The Lord Who Gazes Down urges us to tend to our sentient brethren like mothers from past lives. In the same way, disciples should see the wounded Earth like a mother from millions of previous lives. It is the Earth that has supported human existence, and humanity’s survival depends on the conservation of biodiversity and resources.

Siddhartha Gautama has always enjoyed ties to the forces of nature since his birth. He was born in a beautiful grove, and felt great compassion during his childhood for suffering insects and enslave oxen. As a grown prince, he was declared by a Brahmin to have rightful ownership of a once-injured swan after nursing it back to health. Later, as the Buddha, He would tame animals not by whip and rod, but through the awesome power of his loving-kindness. It was therefore only before Him that mighty beasts like Nalagiri the wild elephant would kneel. These accounts illustrated a unifying moral: only those who nurture and protect the Earth and its children can be seen as a legitimate steward.

Indeed, 2,550 years ago, the Earth goddess saw a worthy ally in the Buddha. In this period of ancient Indian culture, she was called Prithvi. She was the very first being to testify to Gautama’s enlightenment when he called for a witness to his virtue. As he touched the ground on which he meditated (bhumi-sparsha mudra), Prithvi came and wrung forth a flood of water from her hair. While she answered the imminent Buddha’s plea with an earthquake, the deceiver spirit Mara fled in terror, and the triumph of Gautama over the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion was complete, bringing an end to his cycle of birth, death, and suffering. This is extremely important. Gautama did not bother asking God to be his witness. He did not ask the myriad pantheons that watched over ancient India to help him repulse Mara. All he did was touch the grass and soil. But by touching Gaia, the Buddha made a very clear statement of the nature of His being: “I belong to you. I do not exist independently of you. Affirm me, and you affirm yourself.” The Buddha acknowledged that his Dharma belonged to the entire world, and that was why only He was worthy of the holy title, “World-Honoured One.”

The story of our own relationship to the Earth is much unhappier. We are facing a global, ecological catastrophe of our own making. The most urgent thing for those engaged in discipleship is to ensure that they are well-informed and mindful of the current problems and issues.

The primary concern of our age is a phenomenon called global warming. This is slightly misleading as the planet naturally undergoes phases of cooling and heating naturally, without the interference of an intelligent species like human beings. The global warming that concerns the world community is the dramatic melting of polar ice caps, directly caused by human factors such as mass transportation, heavy industry, the ever-accelerating development of technology, and unchecked economic growth. This claim is being contested, especially after the fiercely controversial Copenhagen Conference of 2009. Whichever side you take, climate change is a primary concern not only because of its man-made origins but also because of all the consequences that will follow if it is true.

An overwhelming majority of responsible scientists believe man-made climate change is a reality. The inverse is true for climate change sceptics. A vast majority of these sceptics are not typically scientists. Most of them have a specific investment of one kind or another in not having man-made climate change. These specific investments are almost always related to business or politics (specifically right-wing politicking and lobbying) two activities that, for various unsavoury reasons, always seem to stand in opposition to scientific progress and conservation. Aside from this remark, which prompts one to be healthily sceptical of climate change sceptics, the philosopher A.C. Grayling once noted in an interview on the Australian Broadcasting Channel:
 
One thing which is left clear out of this discussion is this: even if the climate isnt warming, even if this were just a local, historical phenomenon in the planets history trying to do something about diminishing CO2 emissions, trying to do something about conserving the resources of the Earth can do no harm. Even if there werent climate change, why not be responsible about it anyway and ensure that there is a long term future for the planet and for our grandchildren and their children?
 
This ethic of caution is similar to a common opinion about the six realms: they serve, first and foremost, a pedagogical purpose: they illustrate the various states of the human mind in samsara. Therefore, even if the six realms are knowable only through meditation or insight and not science, it does not follow that they are worthless in helping to train disciples in spiritual and moral virtue. Likewise, the point of awareness about global warming is not to go to an ascetic extreme and sacrifice all our modern comforts. It is to cultivate a sustainable and reasonable attitude in regards to the Earth’s resources. The Earth could be entering a new Ice Age and it still would not lessen the urgency of trying to alleviate global warming. Even if there were no such thing, it would not change the fact that it is necessary to conserve resources, protect biodiversity, and develop energy-saving technology.

By now, the things we can all do have almost become common knowledge: drive less (if at all), use less energy at home, try to be vegetarian, and contribute to raising awareness of the Earth’s damaged state. It had become cliché to state that humanity stands at a precipice. But an even more distressing reality is that some are working to distort and misinterpret the data put forward by scientists to serve their own money-spinning, power-mongering interests. It is at this crossroads of greed and self-sacrifice that Buddhists stand beside those who serve Gaia be they environmentalists, conservationists, or faithful devotees who worship Mother Earth and the nature spirits of old.

Postscript: Listed below are several eloquent articles about the practice of nature-conscious spirituality. To be mindful is a simple task that is still immensely difficult for many of us. It is therefore often harder to stay mindful of Gaia whilst going about the daily grind of our work and leisure. The authors of these Gaia-centric articles, however, help to bring us back to that practice of caring mindfulness, which is so important in the Buddhist tradition.
 
Recommended Resources:
 
Quotes from A.C. Grayling taken from ABC Lateline, January 3rd, 2010.
 

 

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