Our Environment and Teachings of Buddhism

Nature, beautiful and sometimes stunning, has a great capacity to impress our hearts. These impressions often become a source of spiritual uplift and at times take a few of us to the heights of spiritual enlightenment. All religions insist on the sanctity of life, but in Buddhism this principal extends to connect an individual not only with all life but also with all Nature. In Buddhism, Nature is not merely a supply source for our material needs. The Earth is seen as a living entity, and therefore Nature has a dynamic role in our lives. This respect for nature is inherent in Buddhism not only because it is the basis for much of its teachings, but because Buddhism itself is a product of Nature.

The American monk, Thomas Merton, writes about his personal transformation while he was at a forest monastery: “If we reside in nature and near trees and rocks we’ll discover feelings and thoughts arising that are truly out of the ordinary . . . the lessons nature teaches us lead to a new birth.” In general, Buddha’s struggle was with the forces of Nature and not with the ills of society; therefore, his teachings consisted of the principals that were very close to Nature. Buddha in this way is very different from the founders of other religions, who primarily struggled with the ills of human societies and based most of their teachings on the reforms of those societies.  Coming out of the wilderness, Buddhism from the very beginning stressed not only the sanctity of life of all living beings but also the preservation of Nature for the benefit of all living beings. 

All the religions of the world teach preservation of human life, but only Buddhism clearly connects the degradation or elevation of the natural environment with human morality. According to the ancient text Agganna Sutta, there was a time when the richness of the earth diminished due to Man’s vices, and self-growing rice disappeared.  Man had to till the land and cultivate rice for food.

The concept of interdependence (that is called interbeing in Buddhism) appeared as part of a religious teaching for the very first time in Buddhism. The notion that the universe is a whole in which all the parts depend on each other for mutual survival is one of the basic concepts in Buddhism. This Interdependence of beings brought forth the teaching of ahimsa, or ‘nonharming.’ Animals only hunt to the quantity they can eat at a time. They do not horde, as they seem to know that hunting more than they need would destroy the natural balance that has been created by Nature. Ahimsa seems to be the direct derivation of this attitude of hunting animals. 

Another concept in Buddhism that is closely related with interdependence is interconnectedness. This interconnectedness has been described in detail in Flower Garland Sutra where every being is part of a ‘jeweled net’ of the Goddess Indra. If all the sentient beings – mountains, rivers, trees – are connected with us then we are all part of Nature and nature exists within us. Zen Buddhists have taken this concept a little further. When an individual continues Buddhist practices, a time comes when he overcomes the dichotomy of ‘inward’ versus ‘outward.’

Buddhism talked about the environment when there was no obvious threat to it. It is probably the first religion, if not the only one, that made the preservation and protection of the environment as part of its teachings. There is a set of guidelines in the Pali language called Vinaya. Among these guidelines, several prohibit monks from polluting green grass and water with saliva, urine and feces. These were the common agents of pollution during Buddha’s day and rules were made to address such pollution. Cleanliness was essential for the monks, both in personal hygiene and in the environment. Early Buddhists were very much concerned about keeping the water resources clean. The sources of water belonged to public, so whoever used them must leave the place with the same degree of cleanliness so that others after him/her can use them. Rules regarding cleanliness of grass were set by ethical and aesthetic considerations. Grass is food for most animals, and it is Man’s duty not to pollute it. According to the Buddhist text of  Pali Cannon, Buddha was critical of noise and did not hesitate to show his disapproval. Once he ordered a group of monks to leave the monastery for noisy behavior. Buddhist texts provided this ethics about pollution much before any imminent threat to the environment of the earth.  

When we look at the environment in the 21st century, it is impossible for us to ignore the following facts:

  • Within the last fifty years we have destroyed forty percent of the ozone layer of the earth’s atmosphere, 
  • The peaks of Kilimanjaro that were covered with snows for thousands of years have only dust on them
  • Hundreds of species are extinct because of our polluted lands and seas, and our hunting obsession.
  • We have made huge karmic implications during  our effort to get rid of nuclear waste which had the capacity to create adverse effects for  several thousands of years for  the coming generations 
  • We are poisoning ourselves and our children with foods that are full of pesticides
  • Our consumption is at such a height that we have used most of the oil in a hundred years that earth made in millions of years
  • We have cut down  most of the jewels of earth that are called the rain forests and turned them into ashes
  • Our jungles are decreasing as fast as our health 

In this scenario, we need to find our connection with nature. It is time we revive the core of our conscience that is above religion and close to Nature and spirituality. It is time we do something for Nature and stop insulting it by grabbing its resources without any consideration. If we refuse to stop our abuse to Earth, it will be too late for all of us, no matter what part of the planet we belong to.

Author: Imran Omer

I am an author and educator, who loves fiction and art. My blog will be on topics related to Literature, Art and Education.

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