Editor’s note: This article was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 10, December 2008.
‘The earliest doctrinal elements represented in [particularly] the Therav?da sources go back to a period of at least two and a half millennia’, declared my Professor of Buddhist Studies, Prof. P. D. Premasiri on the subject ‘Buddhism and its relevance to current social problems’. ‘Two questions may be raised about the meaningfulness of such ancient doctrinal elements’, he pointed out. ‘The first question arises from a widespread assumption that Buddhist Thought is concerned with the salvation or liberation of the individual and is far removed from social concerns. The second question could also arise as to how ideas that belong to such an ancient period could be relevant to current social problems that have arisen in the context of the advancement of scientific knowledge and technological skills unimaginable during the ancient period in which Buddhism emerged’, he noted. He then dismissed the first question as unwarranted citing ample evidences from the Tipi?aka to prove otherwise and for the second question, he argued that despite the advancement of scientific knowledge and technical skills, the psychological and moral nature of human beings has remained the same and the advancement achieved by contemporary humans in the material sphere has only aggravated their problems.
It is in this context that we shall here look at the current ecological crisis and its resolution from a Buddhist perspective. To begin with, perhaps we all are familiar with a Buddhist belief that the life of every Buddha starts and ends under natural surrounding. The Gotama Buddha is believed to have been born under a s?la tree in a royal park called Lumbin?, his first Jh?nic experience of meditation under a rose-apple tree as a baby prince, his enlightenment under a fig tree, popularly known as the Bodhi-tree, preached his first sermon at a forest grove and passed away in a s?la grove. Buddha can be claimed to be one of the first, if not the first, nature lovers in the history of mankind who loved, admired and cared for all sentient beings and nature in its entirety. His Dhamma in itself gives the true Buddhist notion of Universal Interconnectedness between and among human beings, animals, insects and the natural surrounding that pervades the whole world in which we beings live. However now, it seems that man has come to a stage wherein he has acquired every possible technical means to destroy this planet within minutes, something which was unimaginable in the recent past. The last 20th century alone witnessed some of the worst events in history: the two world wars, the Holocaust, cultural revolutions, independence wars, invasion, famines, floods, outbreak of deadly diseases, and AIDS – to name but a few. These are nothing but the results of something deeper in the domain of man’s psychology, which Buddhism addresses as greed (lobha), craving (ta?h?) and ignorance (avijj?).
The present ecological crisis is not that of ancient, however. In fact, the term ‘ecology’ came to be introduced only in 1866 by Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, a German biologist, who apparently derived it from a Greek word ‘oikos’ which has something to do with economy. Hence by ecology it was meant to be the study of the economy of nature. That the modern man is exploring and exploiting the nature to his maximum benefits only today would be wrong to assume that such a mentality was not present in the minds of the people, say, during Buddha’s time. It’s only that such science and technology as today were not present at that time. We must not forget that the psychological and moral nature of man is all the same at all times. Given this hypothesis, it’s all the more important to see the Buddhist emphasis of the mind of the man that ‘mind is the predecessor and mind made are they’ (mano se??h? mano may?).
In recent years, as the ecological crisis is rapidly coming to an uncontrolled situation, some intellectuals have pointed out the crisis as being an outcome of a western ideology, particularly the Judeo-Christian genesis of the world and nature. Callicot and Ames in their book ‘Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought’ have listed a number of such ideological tendencies of which the following three are noteworthy:
1. God transcends nature
2. Man is given dominion by God over nature and
3. God commands man to subdue nature and multiply himself .
These extreme anthropocentric ideologies as found in the Judeo-Christian genesis of the world and nature are self explanatory. Man, given such divine authority, does not hesitate to take full advantage of nature to his fullest satisfaction without ever worrying about the overall implications and repercussions that may cause to the delicate balance of interconnectedness of everything. Contrary, Buddha categorically maintained that the absolute existence of world and nature is unanswerable and that to consider it as either eternal or non-eternal, finite or infinite would be a metaphysical dogma. Instead, He opted for an explanation based on dependent arisen relationships which involves no concern with absolute origins but only with relativity of such dependent factors. Buddhism does consider man as paramount importance in determining the course of nature, for he alone possesses greater psychological potencies. Yet, he is only one of the numerous species inhabiting this world system and he is no different from others, all dependently arisen (pa?iccasamuppann?) with no immortal soul (anattat?) within or outside. According to Buddhist cosmology, the world undergoes alternating cycles of evolution (sa?va??ati) and dissolution (viva??ati), each of whose natural process is vitally affected by the morals of humanity. In the Buddhist cosmological discourse, the Aggaññasutta of the D?gha Nik?ya, we are told that the first beings on earth were mind-made (manomay?), self-luminous (saya?pabh?), subsisted on joy (p?tibhakkh?) and could fly in the sky (antalikkhacar?) but these natural gifts of nature soon began to disappear once greed and delusion entered their minds; and their moral decline subsequently affected the external environment. TheCakkavattis?han?dasutta of the Anguttara Nik?ya predicts that as a direct result of man’s lust, greed and immorality human life expectancy will decrease until to an average life-span of ten years and marriageable age at five. These suttas suggest that though change is inherent in nature, man’s moral deterioration accelerates and shapes the changes bringing about conditions that have harmful effects upon human wellbeing and happiness. Hence, Prof. Premasiri rightly says, ‘The environmental crisis is yet another unsatisfactory state of affairs or yet another instance of dukkha that mankind is largely responsible for producing due to ignorance and craving. The ecological crisis can be viewed as a symptom of the more deep-rooted disease that mankind is suffering from if it is conceived under the Buddhist concept of the origin of dukkha’ . Earlier on Padmasiri de Silva also drew a similar conclusion, ‘the current crisis is not a crisis of the environment; rather, the crisis of the environment is a symptom of a deeper human crisis that raises fundamental questions about the values we uphold and the kind of lives we lead, raising basic issues of ethics, religion and philosophy’ . Indeed Buddhist theory of mutuality, interdependence and relativity brings us to the recognition of an all encompassing moral attitude of respect, love, care and concern for all. The modern trend of production and consumption at the very cost of the planet we live in compels us to question the validity of such a philosophy of life. Buddhist philosophy of life has always been that of a middle way approach, avoiding miserliness and wastefulness. That the man depends on nature for his food, clothing, shelter and medicine, the essentials for his basic survival, the wasteful and over exploitative attitude toward such resources would only be a self-doom in the long run. Man, thus has a moral role to play in order to get the maximum from nature without harming it ‘just like a bee collects nectar from flowers without harming them’ . Buddhism has always emphasized man to satisfy his needs so that he can rise above nature and realize his innate spiritual potential and not feed his greed and lust which will inevitably bring to his spiritual and material doom. Apparently, ‘the world has enough resources to satisfy every one’s needs, but not enough resources to satisfy everyone’s greed’. This is a Buddhist inspired statement attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. The ideology that man not only should satisfy his needs but should also desire for a luxurious living only tends to enrich his craving, greed and ignorance, hence sufferings. In search of such a luxurious living, man has created huge factories emitting environmental unfriendly toxic gases, invented machines occupying land, space and sea, produced pesticides and insecticides in modern agriculture killing organisms that preserve and protect the natural environment while yet species resistant and unresponsive to such chemical continue to emerge bringing about more damage than good. Turning forestlands into industrialized zones and wetlands into concrete floors are ending up in resulting droughts in one part of the world while floods in another part. The rapid deletion of the ozone layer, melting of icebergs and glaciers, increasing of sea levels are all corollary results of man’s search for such a luxurious living.
Buddhist ecological teaching is such that it even condemns the person who breaks the branch of a tree that has given him shelter . Realizing that many tiny green grasses and plants of fields and forests were being destroyed by the wandering monks of missionary zeal, Buddha made it a disciplinary rule for monks and nuns not to travel during the four months of rainy season but to stay at one place and practice the teachings ardently . Buddhist attitude towards the pollution of nature is highly insightful when it stresses its followers not to even pollute green grass and water with saliva, urine and feces . As for the pollution of sound, which is also a major modern day pollution, the Buddha advocated the principle of perfect speech (samm?-v?c?), free of falsehood, slander, harsh speech and frivolous talk which contribute to four unwholesome vocal activities. The Bhayabherava sutta of Majjhima Nik?ya conveys the message that ‘silence invigorates those who are pure at heart and raises their efficiency for meditation. But even the rustle of a falling twig in the quiet of the forest sends tremors through an impure heart of greed, hatred and delusion’. Thus Buddha talks about a golden formula – ‘Talk something useful, otherwise observe the noble silence’.
Apart from Buddha’s own instinct respect for the natural environment, great saints of Buddhist history also expressed their spontaneous appreciation of nature’s exquisite beauty and its calm natural environment which is considered to be an ideal place for cultivating spiritual insights.
‘Those upland glades delightful to the soul,
Where the Kaveri spreads its wildering wreaths,
Where sound the trumpet-calls of elephants:
Those are the hills where my soul delights ’,
the Elder Mah?kassapa praises the nature.
Again Shantideva, an eight-century Indian Buddhist scholar preferred a life in forest to that of in a monastery:
‘When shall I come to dwell in forests
Amongst the deer, the birds and the trees,
That say nothing unpleasant
And are delightful to associate with? ’
Milarepa, Tibet’s great yogi-saint was also fond of praising the benefits of living alone in nature:
‘This is a delightful place, a place of hills and forests.
In the mountain-meadows flowers bloom;
In the woods dance the swaying tress!
For monkeys it’s a playground.
Birds sing tunefully, bees fly and buzz,
And from day until night the rainbows come and go.
In summer and winter falls the sweat rain,
And mist and fog roll up in fall and spring.
At such a pleasant place, in solitude,
I, Milarepa, happily abide,
Meditating upon the void-illuminating mind ’
HH the Dalai Lama summarizes the ecological crisis facing today in his 1989 Noble Peace Prize speech as:
‘Today more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal Responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life ’
Thus concern for the welfare of all forms of lives and the natural world has been the core essence of the ecological history of Buddhism. The solution to the present ecological crisis lies in the psychology of man, in the values he upholds and in the life he lives. Recognition that human beings are essentially dependent upon and interconnected with their environment has given rise to an instinct respect for nature on one hand and its preservation on the other.
1. Buddhism and Ecology, Edited by Martin Batchelor and Kerry Brown, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1994
2. Shantideva, Bodhi?ryavat?ra VIII, Trans. Stephen Batchelor, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s way of Life, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala, 1979
3. Milarepa, Trans. Garma C.C. Chang, The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, Vol.1, Shambala, Boston, 1989
4. HH the Dalai Lama. Cited in Martin Palmer, Anne Nash and Ivan Hattingh, Faith and Nature, London, 1988
5. Buddharakkhita, Sri Acharya, Venerable, Dhammapada, A Practical Guide to Right Living, Sukhi Hotu Dhamma Publication, Malaysia, 1986
6. Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames, State University of New York Press, 1998
7. Padmasiri de Silva, Buddhist Ethics and Society, Monash University Press, Australia 2002
8. Premasiri, P. D., Ecological Teachings in Early Buddhism, a seminar paper presented on January 2004 at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka
9. All the P?li nik?yas cited are the edition of the Cha??asa?g?yana CD-Rom
1. See Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, 1989, p.2-4
2. See Premasiri, 2004
3. Padmasiri, Buddhist Ethics and Society, Monash University Press, Australia 2002, p.150
4. Dhammapada verse no. 49, Pupphavagga
5. Petavatthu of Khuddaka Nik?ya
6. Vinaya Pitaka
7. Vinaya Pitaka
8. Recorded in the Sa?yutta Nik?ya
9. See Shantideva in Bibliography
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