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SGI and Environmental Care: Nurturing Bodhisattvas Who Will Help Save the Planet

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A panel from the “of Hope” exhibition, jointly created by SGI and the Earth Charter International. Image copyright SGI
A panel from the “of Hope” exhibition, jointly created by SGI and the Earth Charter International. Image copyright SGI

In the tradition of the Lotus Sutra, the foundational teaching for Nichiren Buddhism and the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), we find a perspective on environmental issues that focuses on interconnectedness, or dependent origination, and the oneness of life and its environment.

SGI members strive to bring such Buddhist perspectives and values directly into their approach to their work. This article quotes from articles written for SGI Quarterly magazine, in which individuals describe how their Buddhist practice and learning informs their contributions in the field of environmental protection.

Aurélie Neame Koueli, an SGI member in Côte d’Ivoire describes her work at the Ivorian Antipollution Center (CIAPOL): “Buddhism teaches the oneness of self and environment, the process whereby the mutually interrelated human life and its environment operate together in a creative way. This made me realize that the health of the environment depends upon a change in the awareness of each individual.”

The 13th century Japanese monk Nichiren (1222–82) wrote: “If the minds of living beings are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure and impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds.”

Changing one’s “mind”—from one mired in the three poisons to one awakened to the real interdependent nature of life—then becomes the key challenge for Buddhist practitioners. And for members of the SGI, responding to Nichiren’s call means standing up to take action to alleviate suffering and create real value in this troubled world.

SGI members describe this process of inner change as “human revolution.” In the words of SGI president Daisaku Ikeda, “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”

Viewing the “Seeds of Hope” exhibition, jointly created by SGI and the Earth Charter International, at the Soka Gakkai Malaysia Perak Culture Centre. Image copyright Soka Gakkai Malaysia
Viewing the “Seeds of Hope” exhibition, jointly created by SGI and the Earth Charter International, at the Soka Gakkai Malaysia Perak Culture Centre. Image copyright Soka Gakkai Malaysia

The transformation SGI members are aiming for is the development of what we call the “greater self,” emulating the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva, continually strengthening their compassion and taking action to alleviate the sufferings of others. In today’s world, the bodhisattva’s embrace needs to widen to be big enough to include not just other human beings but the entire planet, as we find ways to tackle global problems caused by human influence such as climate change and deforestation.

Hung Fung Ling, an SGI member in Hong Kong, describes her work as a city planner: “Buddhist philosophy, based on respect and concern for all life, accords closely with the concept of sustainable development. . . . It means creating social harmony and equality, protecting the environment and ensuring economic prosperity. Buddhism itself is essentially about bringing all these elements of life into balance, whether on a personal level or a community or global level. . . . What this means fundamentally is that we cannot build happiness or prosperity upon the destruction or disregard of other life, including the natural environment, for ultimately we ourselves will suffer the consequences.”

SGI president Ikeda consistently stresses the importance of education. In a proposal authored in 2002,* he called for the establishment of a UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, commenting: “In the case of environmental issues, which can be so vast and complex . . . information and knowledge alone can leave people wondering what this all means to them, and without a clear sense of what concrete steps they can take. To counter such feelings of powerlessness and disconnection, education should encourage understanding of the ways that environmental problems intimately connect to our daily lives. Education must also inspire the faith that each of us has both the power and the responsibility to effect positive change on a global scale.”

While in some more extreme approaches to ecological awareness, human beings are perceived as unwelcome parasites causing nothing but damage to the Earth and other forms of life, SGI’s outlook is that responsible and awakened human beings committed to creating positive value can be the most promising protagonists of change.

Barbara Paterson, a German SGI member who worked in Namibia in fisheries management, echoes this perspective: “Western thought tends to regard human beings and nature as separate—to the extent that some believe that human beings are bad for nature. In contrast, Buddhism regards life and its environment as deeply interconnected . . . this provides the philosophical basis for my research toward a holistic approach to fisheries management that can help bring human society back into harmony with nature.”

As well as its activities based on promoting the practical application of Buddhist philosophy, the SGI has consistently carried out public education and awareness-raising activities that are often centered around exhibitions. In the field of sustainability, the stress is always on the positive impact that one individual’s actions can have. This is the main message of the Seeds of Hope exhibition created in 2010.**

Image courtesy of SGI
Image courtesy of SGI

The SGI is active at several different levels in contributing to sustainability. Its representatives contribute to global discussions and debates on issues such as ways of making the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) accessible and inspiring to young people. There are also national-level initiatives in many countries from tree planting to cleaning up parks, and so on.

In Brazil, the SGI has extensive activities related to sustainability. Most visible among these is the Soka Institute Amazon Environmental Research Center near Manaus, which was opened in 1993. The center has restored degraded areas of forest, with an emphasis on planting methods that enable the human population and the forest to coexist, and runs extensive environmental education programs.

The SGI works with various partners at the local, national, and international levels. One partnership that has been ongoing for more than 15 years is with the Earth Charter movement. The Earth Charter provides a universal expression of ethical principles to foster sustainable development, and its values are entirely consonant with those of the SGI.

Overall, however, where the SGI is perhaps contributing most to sustainability is through its individual members and their contributions in their communities and workplaces. These individual efforts directly exemplify “human revolution” in action—the never-ending process of growth and development of the greater self on which SGI members ideally embark through their practice.

These are all individual journeys from lack of hope and disempowerment to empowerment and action. They illustrate determination to take responsibility for initiating change and a refusal to give up hope in spite of all setbacks.

I believe it is in this personally felt spirit of contribution that the real legacy of Nichiren and the spirit of the SGI are to be found.

This article is based on a presentation given at a symposium on Buddhist Environmentalism organized by the Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California and the Tokyo-based Institute of Oriental Philosophy in September 2013.

The Challenge of Global Empowerment: Education for a Sustainable Future
** Seeds of Hope: Visions of sustainability, steps toward change

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