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For the Earth: Buddhist Environmental Thought and Activism

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Waswanipi-Broadback Forest in Northern Quebec. From wikimedia.org

Planet Earth is suffering from multiple environmental crises. Comprehensive research over many years by scientists, businesses, and governments has concluded that we face significant global environmental challenges. This should be our default paradigm: without urgent action, these crises will lead to increasingly uninhabitable environments, natural disasters, and humanitarian emergencies.

In almost every country in the world, governments and corporations have compromised environmental balance for the sake of rapid economic development. One example is deforestation, which is especially pernicious in Southeast Asia and South America, home to the “lungs of the world,” the Amazon rainforest. In addition to building polluting factories, many unscrupulous organizations illegally fell huge trees and smuggle them to different countries. As a result, these ecosystems are on the verge of collapse, which will devastate the local economy, food security, and biodiversity.

This essay discusses how Buddhism views the environment and the role that Buddhists can play in protection and conservation in contemporary Buddhist-majority countries. We will also explore how the creative actions of Buddhists to protect the environment could inspire global organizations, including the UN, to take on environmental problems at a local level.

The environment’s core place in Buddhism

The events of the historical Buddha’s life are closely associated with forests, trees, and animals. The Buddha was born in modern-day Lumbini in Nepal, in the garden of the noble Shakya clan in Kapilavastu. He attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya and then Mahaparinirvana under the Sala trees at Kushinagar. The Buddha spent most of his 45 years preaching in various gardens, forests, and tranquil, solitary environments. His disciples also attained liberation by practicing meditation in secluded environments, which is particularly significant in early Tipitaka literature.

While the Buddha was staying in Kosambi, a monastic dispute arose between the monks and they split into two factions. This kind of schism was the gravest of problems in the Buddhist community. As the Buddha himself was unsuccessful in resolving the dispute, he spent the 10th rains retreat in the Parileya forest as an expression of his dissatisfaction with the behavior of the monks. There, it is said, an elephant and a monkey took care of the Buddha by offering hot water, fruit, and honey.

The Karaniya Metta Sutta (Discourse on Loving-kindness) states that at one time, more than 500 monks had taken lodging at the Buddha’s residence, staying on the nearby mountain for three months of rains retreat. When they were accosted by animals, the monks returned to the Buddha for advice. The Buddha told them to return the the mountain and to display kindness. Then the monks went back to their lodgings, where they recited the Karaniya Metta Sutta.

According to the Kutadantta Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the Buddha forbade animal sacrifices and counseled his lay disciples to respect all living beings. In the Vinaya Pitaka, monks and nuns are likewise prohibited from destroying any kind of plant. Even monastics are forbidden from deliberately plucking or cutting seeds or fruits that are about to germinate.

In the early days of the Buddhist order, the wandering monks lived a truly homeless and itinerant lifestyle, and inevitably trampled on insects, grass, and other kinds of flora. Avoiding such harm then became a key motivation behind the three-month vassa or rains retreat, which contributed to the evolution of the Buddhist order toward a more sedentary model.

The Vinaya Pitaka further mentions that during the rains retreat, the monks must choose a secluded place for accommodation that is also not too far away from urban areas. Various examples about loving the environment can also be found in other Tipitaka literature. For example, in the Dhammapada, the Buddha said:

Delightful are the wildernesses
where no people delight.
Those free of greed will delight there,
not those who seek sensual pleasures.

(99, translated by Bhikkhu Sujato)

The Buddha prioritized noise-free gardens and woodlands as suitable venues for meditation practice. Many monks and nuns sought to practice meditation at the foot of a tree or other solitary location related to the natural environment. Such environments were conducive to attaining arahatship or stream-entry. These special practitioners are recorded as commenting on the pleasant air of the forest and the chirping of birds, as recounted in passages such as this in the Cittakattheragatha:

Crested peacocks with beautiful blue necks
cry out in Karaṁvī.
Stirred by a cool breeze,
they wake the sleeper to practice absorption.

(1.22, translated by Bhikkhu Sujato)

Many nuns also enjoyed the beauty of the environment, recording their praises in the Therigatha. For example, the arahat Dantika Theri said:

Coming out from my day’s abiding
on Vulture Peak Mountain,
I saw on the bank of a river
an elephant
emerged from its plunge.

A man holding a hook requested:
“Give me your foot.”
The elephant
extended its foot.
The man
got up on the elephant.

Seeing what was untrained now tamed
brought under human control,
with that I centered my mind —
why I’d gone to the woods
in the first place.

(3.4, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

The above verses demonstrate how monks and nuns practiced meditation by keeping themselves immersed in a forest environment. The motif of a monk in harmony with nature while seeking enlightenment informs Buddhist sensibilities toward the environment.

Photo by George Cassidy Payne

Environmental disaster

Let us now turn our attention to contemporary Southeast Asia. Deforestation is a major problem in Cambodia and Thailand. In Cambodia, thousands of hectares of forests have been cleared over the past few decades. In May 2017, the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency released a report stating that between December 2016 and February 2017, around 300,000 cubic meters of trees were illegally sold from Cambodia to Vietnam. According to NASA Earth Observatory satellite imagery, about 1.44 million hectares of forest were destroyed from 2001–14, with many citing the world’s fastest deforestation. According to the World Bank, Cambodia had a forest area of 59.989 per cent in 2010, but that had dropped to 45.708 per cent by 2020. Meanwhile, Thailand had 39.29 per cent forest cover in 2010, but this had decreased to 38.899 per cent by 2020.

Due to this large-scale deforestation in Cambodia and Thailand, the Buddhist monastic community has come forward to offer solutions. In both countries, Buddhist monks and environmentalists have formed organizations to lobby, organize, and protest for the sake of their countries’ endangered forests. They work together to advise government officials on environmental issues and sustainable projects. They have also attracted the attention of local and global media, by whom they are often referred to as “eco-monks.”

The monks have approached private companies to garner support for their mission and have spearhead initiatives to educate farmers on the use of environmentally friendly fertilizers. One example is Phrakhu Win Mektripop, who is based in Bangkok and helps villagers create cheap huts out of mud and natural materials, and is also implementing solar panels in monasteries. In Cambodia, Bhadanta Bun Saluth, onetime chief monk at Samrong Pagoda in Oddar Meanchey Province, has founded the Monk’s Community Forest, the largest community-managed forest conservation site in Cambodia, which has benefitted nearly 4,000 people in six villages since 2002.

Elsewhere, monks are implementing other strategies. The practice of protecting forests by ordaining trees has become increasingly popular in Sri Lanka. In 2014, a group of monks and lay devotees visited Nilgala Forest Reserve and conferred ordination on more than 1,000 trees. Another important figure in this movement is His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa. He is recognized around the world not only for his prominent feminism, but also for his environmental activism, such as his Pad Yatra initiatives—long treks across the Himalayan mountain ranges to pick up litter. In 2013, His Holiness was named “Guardian of the Himalayas” for services rendered in the area of water conservation and awareness.

Environmentally conscious monks have been inspired by the teachings of the Buddha to think and behave in an ecologically aware manner. When we apply the principle of Buddhist causation to the entire world, the individual is no longer seen as a separate being divorced from environmental concerns. Since human beings are interconnected with all of nature, Buddhist leaders and communities have to play a prominent role to play in this existential fight that will determine our future.

See more

The Perfected Ones (Sutta Central)
Cittaka (Sutta Central)
Dantika and the Elephant (Sutta Central)
Cambodia’s Forests Are Disappearing (NASA Earth Observatory)
Corrupt Vietnam officials & Cambodia timber theft (Environmental Investigation Agency)
Forest area (% of land area) – Cambodia (The World Bank)
Forest area (% of land area) – Thailand (The World Bank)
Ecology Monks in Thailand Seek to End Environmental Suffering (Pulitzer Center)
Pray and protect: faith saves forests of Cambodia (Reuters)
Nilgala losing ordained trees (Ceylon Today)
Gyalwang Drukpa Named ‘Guardian of the Himalayas’ (PR Newswire)

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