Friday, April 22, 2011

The Buddhist Attitude Towards Nature

Prof. Lily de Silva (abbreviated and edited by Wisdom Quarterly)

...Buddhism strictly limits itself to the delineation of a way of life designed to eradicate human suffering (dukkha or disappointment, dissatisfaction). The Buddha refused to answer questions that did not directly or indirectly bear on the central problem of human suffering and its ending.

Furthermore, environmental pollution is a problem of the modern age, unheard of and unsuspected during the time of the Buddha. It is therefore difficult to find any specific discourse that deals with the topic. Nevertheless, because Buddhism is a full-fledged philosophy of life reflecting all aspects of experience, it is possible.

The word "nature" means everything in the world that is not organized and constructed by humans. The Pali (an exclusively Buddhist language) equivalents that come closest to "nature" are loka ("world") and yathabhuta ("things as they really are") and dhammata ("natural law") and niyama ("natural way") -- or the "order of things."

Nature as Dynamic
According to Buddhism, [cyclical] changeability (anicca, impermanence) is a principle of nature. Everything formed or composed is in a constant process of alteration, vibrating. The world is defined as that which disintegrates (lujjati ti loko); it is dynamic and kinetic; it is constantly in a process undergoing change. In nature there are no static and stable "things"; there are only ever-changing, ever-moving processes.

Rain is a good example illustrating this: Although we use the noun "rain," which appears to denote a "thing," rain is only a process of water drops falling. Apart from the process -- the activity of raining -- there is no rain.

The building material of nature -- the elements of solidity (pathavi), liquidity (apo), heat (tejo), and mobility (vayo) -- are ever-changing phenomena. Solid looking mountains wear away, Earth shifts. One sutra explains how the massive king of mountains -- Mount Sineru, rooted into the sea and sky -- also gets destroyed by heat, without leaving even ashes, with the eventual appearance of multiple suns in the distant future (A. IV, 100).

Nature and Morality?
The world passes through alternating cycles of evolution and dissolution. [Things are created in between, hastening the evolution.] Buddhism believes that "natural" (impersonal and orderly) processes are affected by the morals and ethics of humans.

According to the Aggañña Sutra (DN 27, "Buddhist Genesis" on the beginnings of life on Earth), the appearance of greed in the primordial beings -- who at that time [devolved from higher order beings from space who] were self-luminous, subsisting on joy, and traversing in the skies -- caused the gradual loss of their radiance and their ability to subsist on joy and to move about in the sky.

The moral and ethical degradation had effects on the external environment too. At that time the entire Earth was covered over by a very flavorful and fragrant substance similar to butter [or mushrooms]. When beings started partaking of this substance with more and more greed, on the one hand, their subtle bodies became coarser and, on the other hand, the flavorful substance started diminishing.

With the solidification of gross form, bodily differences appeared; some were beautiful, while others were unattractive. So conceit arose in those beings, with the beautiful ones looking down on the others. As a result of these moral blemishes, the delicious edible Earth-substance completely disappeared.

Sexual Differences
In its place appeared less easily obtainable edible mushrooms and later another kind of edible creeper. The beings who subsisted on them underwent sexual differentiation, and spontaneous birth was replaced by pregnancy and childbirth or common sexual reproduction.

Self-growing rice appeared. But through laziness to collect each meal, humans grew accustomed to hoarding food. As a result of this hoarding habit, the growth rate of food could not keep pace with the rate of demand. The land had to be divided among families (clans, extended family groups). When private ownership became the order of the day, those who were of a more greedy disposition started robbing from others' land. When they were detected, they denied it.

Through greed, vices like stealing and lying to cover it up arose. To curb wrongdoers and punish them, a ruler was elected by the people. Thus the original simple society became complex and with many complications.

The Buddha explained that these adverse natural effects resulted from unnatural (man made) moral degeneration. The richness of the Earth diminished and self-growing rice disappeared. Humans had to till the land and cultivate rice for food, which became coarser and more difficult, enveloped in chaff, and needing to be cleaned.

This evolutionary legend while impersonal was affected by humans and other living beings in the environment, seen and unseen. The dominant beings, which first came from space then became terrestrial, deteriorated morally. This affects our well being and happiness.

The Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutra (DN 26, "The Wheel-Turning Emperor") predicts the future course of events when humans become more degenerate: Gradually human health will deteriorate so much that life expectancy will diminish until the average human lifespan is reduced to 10 years and the marriageable age is 5 years. [While this may sound incredible, more incredible is the fact that at times the average lifespan is 90,000 years or more].

At that time all delicacies such as honey will have disappeared from the Earth. And what is considered the coarsest food today will be considered a delicacy. The Buddha was pointing out the close link between our moral and ethical choices and the natural resources available to us.

When wanton lust, greed, and debased values grip the human heart and become widespread in society, timely rain does not fall. When timely rain does not fall, crops get various pests and plant diseases. The lack of nourishing food increases human mortality rates.

The forest in India after respect was lost for maintaining nature (Goutamendu/Flickr)

Early Buddhism recognized the close relationship between human behavior and the natural environment. This idea was systematized in the theory of the Five Natural Orders (pañca niyama dhamma) in later commentaries (Atthasalini, 854). According to the theory, there are five natural forces at work in the cosmos:

  1. order of seasons (utu-niyama)
  2. order of seeds (bija-niyama)
  3. order of mind (citta-niyama)
  4. order of deeds (karma-niyama)
  5. order of things (dhamma-niyama).

These may be translated as physical laws, biological laws, psychological laws, moral laws, and causal laws, respectively. While the first four orderly processes operate within their respective spheres, the law of causality operates within each of them as well as among them.

This means that the physical environment of any given area conditions the growth and development of its biological component, its flora and fauna. These in turn influence the thought pattern of the people interacting with them. Modes of thinking determine moral and ethical standards.

The opposite process of interaction is also possible. Our morals influence not only the psychological makeup of people in an area but the biological and physical environment of the area as well.

The commentary on the The Wheel-Turning Emperor discourse goes on to explain the pattern of mutual interaction further (Dh.A III, 854):

  • When humankind is demoralized through greed, famine is the natural outcome;
  • when moral degeneration is due to ignorance, epidemic is the inevitable result;
  • when hatred is the demoralizing force, widespread violence is the ultimate outcome.

If and when we realize that large scale devastation has taken place as a result of our moral degeneration, a change of heart takes place among the few surviving human beings. With gradual moral and ethical regeneration, conditions improve through a long period of cause and effect. And humans again start to enjoy gradually increasing prosperity and longer life.

The world, including nature and humans within it, stands or falls with the type of moral/ethical force at work. If irresponsibility grips society, humans and nature deteriorate. If responsibility reigns, the quality of human life and nature improves.

So greed, hatred (including fear), and delusion produce pollution within and without. Generosity, compassion (including fearlessness), and wisdom produce purity within and without.

This is one reason the Buddha said the world is led by mind (intention precedes action, determining the moral quality of it, which in turn builds our outer world or circumstances): Cittena niyati loko (S. I, 39). Life is interdependent.

Human Use of Natural Resources
For survival, humankind has to depend on nature for food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and other requisites.

For optimum benefits humans have to understand nature so that we can utilize natural resources and live harmoniously with nature. By understanding the workings of nature -- seasonal rainfall patterns, methods of conservation, soil types, physical conditions required for growth of food crops, etc. -- humans can learn to get better returns.

But this learning has to be accompanied by ethical restraint if we are to enjoy the benefits of natural resources for a long time. We must learn to satisfy our need and not feed our greed.

The resources of the world are not unlimited, whereas our greed knows neither limit nor satisfaction.

Conspicuous consumerism is acceptable today. One writer says that within 40 years Americans alone have consumed natural resources to the quantity of what all humankind has consumed for the last 4000 years [quoted in Vance Packard, The Waste Makers (London 1961), p. 195]. We waste non-recyclable fuels.

Buddhism advocates such virtues of non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion in all human pursuits. Greed breeds sorrow and unhealthy consequences, whereas "contentment" (santutthi) with what is sufficient is praised (Dhp. 204). The person leading a simple life with few wants that are easily satisfied is upheld and appreciated as an exemplary character (A. IV, 2, 220, 229).

Miserliness (Dh.A. I, 20 ff.) and wastefulness (Dh.A. III, 129 ff.) are criticized as two degenerate extremes. Wealth has instrumental value when utilized for satisfying needs. Hoarding is a senseless anti-social habit. The vast hoarding of wealth and the methodical destruction of large quantities of agricultural produce to drive market prices higher while the world is malnourished is a sad paradox of our affluent age.

Frugality is a virtue in its own right according to Buddhism. Once Ananda explained to King Udena the economic use of robes by monastics: When new robes are received, the old robes are used as coverlets, the old coverlets as mattress covers, the old mattress covers as rugs, the old rugs as dusters, and the old tattered dusters are kneaded with clay and used to repair cracked floors and walls (Vinaya II, 291). Nothing is wasted.

Those who waste are derided as "wood-apple eaters" (A. IV, 283). If one shakes the branch of a woodapple tree, all the fruit falls, ripe as well as unripe. One collects only the ripe leaving the rest to rot. Such a wasteful attitude is anti-social and criminal.

But agribusiness and energy industries do the same thing in the name of "business" and are praised and rewarded, excessively exploiting natural resources that belong to us all.

Buddhism is about a gentle, non-aggressive attitude towards nature. According to the famous Advice to Householders sutra, someone living a good lay life should accumulate wealth the way a bee collects nectar from a flower:

The bee neither harms the fragrance nor the beauty of the flower, but gathers nectar to turn it into sweet honey. Similarly, humans (whether as moral individual farmers or ethical corporate boards) are expected to make legitimate use of nature.

Attitude Towards Animal and Plant Life
The well-known Five Buddhist Precepts form the minimum code of ethics that every lay Buddhist strives to adhere to. The first precept is abstaining from injuring life. It is explained as the casting aside of all forms of weapons and being conscientious about not depriving any living being of life. In its positive sense it means the cultivation of compassion and sympathy for all living things (DN 4, "The Qualities of a True Brahmin" discourse). This means abstaining from trading in meat too (A. III, 208).

The Buddhist monastic has to abide by an even stricter code of ethics than the Buddhist layperson: abstaining even from practices that could involve unintentional injury of living beings.

Buddhism prescribes the practice of "loving-kindness" (metta) towards all creatures. The Karaniya Metta Sutra cultivates loving-kindness towards all in every direction. They are suffused with a loving attitude. Just as one's own life is precious to one, so the life of others is precious to them.

Humans and beasts can live and let live without fear of one another if only we cultivate sympathy that regards all life with compassion.

The understanding of karma and rebirth, too, helps us adopt a sympathetic attitude towards animals. Human beings can be reborn in subhuman states among animals, ghosts, in tormented states just as they can be reborn in the skies, with great power, glory, beauty, and long life.

It is said that if one throws dish water into a pool where there are living creatures with the intention that they feed on the tiny particles of food washed away, one accumulates merit even by this seemingly trivial act of generosity (A. I, 161).

According to the Macchuddana Rebirth Story (Jataka), the future Buddha threw his leftover food into a river in order to feed the fish. By the power of that merit, he was saved from an impending disaster (Jat. II, 423). Kindness to big and small animals [and the unseen beings associated with plants and trees] is a source of merit -- merit needed for human beings to improve their circumstances in the cycle of rebirths and to approach the ultimate goal of nirvana.

But Buddhism expresses a gentle and nonviolent attitude towards the vegetable kingdom as well. It is said that one should not even break the branch of a tree that has given one shelter ("Ghost Stories," Petavatthu II, 9, 3). Plants are so helpful in providing us with all the necessities of life that we are expected to adopt a sensitive attitude towards them rather than being callous. The rules prevent Buddhist monastics from injuring plant life (Vinaya IV, 34).

Before Buddhism, people regarded natural phenomena such as mountains, forests, groves, and trees with a sense of awe and reverence (Dh. v. 188). They considered them the abodes of powerful non-human beings (such as Earthbound-devas) who can assist human beings in times of need.

Although Buddhism gave us a far superior Triple Guidance (tisarana) in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, these places continued to enjoy public patronage at a popular level. The acceptance of terrestrial non-human beings such as devas (S. I, 1-45) and yakkhas (yetis or guardians of the forest, S. I, 206-215) does not violate the belief system of Buddhism. Therefore, even today among many Buddhists there is a reverential attitude towards nature, particularly long-standing gigantic trees. They are vanaspati, "lords of the forests" (S. IV, 302; Dh.A. I, 3).

Huge trees, such as the ironwood (Sal) and fig (Bodhi), are also recognized as the enlightenment trees of former buddhas. So a particularly deferential attitude towards trees is further strengthened.(D. II, 4). It is well known that the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) is still held as an object of great veneration reminding us of our potential for enlightenment.

Not only is the forest preserved and protected, the construction of parks and "pleasure groves" for public use is considered a great meritorious act (S. I, 33).

Sakka, ruler of many devas, is said to have reached his status partly as a result of social services such as the construction of parks, pleasure groves, ponds, reservoirs, and roads (Jat. I, 199 f).

The open air, natural habitats, and forest trees have a special fascination for the Eastern mind as symbols of spiritual freedom. The homebound life is regarded as a fetter that keeps one in bondage and subject to all kinds of misery.

Renunciation or letting go (not necessarily of things and obligations but at least of the strong attachment and identification with them) is like the open air, nature unhampered by human activity (D. I, 63).

The Life of the Buddha and Nature
The important events in the life of the Buddha took place in nature: He was born in a garden park at the foot of a Sal tree in Lumbini, [possibly modern Afghanistan or ancient Gandhara, northwest India, though some still argue for southern Nepal]. He attained enlightenment at the foot of the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, India. He began his missionary activity in the open air in a Sal tree grove belonging to the Malas in Pava. As a wandering ascetic with a large company of monastics, he frequently chose to stay in mango groves on the outskirts of villages and large cities. He lived on the peak of a hill in the Royal City (Rajagaha) and often spent the day in the Bamboo Grove in the Squirrel's Feeding Ground. He alternated residences, always wandering as he taught throughout northern India, often also residing in a great park called Jeta's Grove in Savatthi, a city on the banks of a river. And finally he chose to pass away between two magnificent Sal trees in Kushinagar, India.

The Buddha's constant advice to his disciples was to resort to natural habitats such as forest groves and glades where they would find quiet and peace of mind undisturbed by human activity (M. I, 118; S. IV, 373). It was such a good place for zealous meditation that he also periodically went alone into retreat.

Attitude towards Pollution
Environmental pollution has assumed such vast proportions today that humans are forced to recognize the ecological crisis. We can no longer ignore the situation because we are already threatened with new pollution-related diseases. Pollution to this extent was unheard of during the time of the Buddha.

But there is sufficient evidence in the canon to give us insight into the Buddhist attitude towards our pollution problem. Several Vinaya rules prohibit monastics from polluting green grass and water with saliva, urine, and feces (Vin. IV, 205-206). These were the common agents of disease known in the Buddha's day, and rules were set up against such polluting.

Cleanliness was highly commended by the Buddha both in terms of one's person and one's environment. Buddhists were very concerned about keeping river, pond, and well water clean. These sources were for public use and were to be used with proper public-spirited caution for everyone's good.

Green grass rules were prompted by ethical and aesthetic considerations. But grass is also food for animals, and it is one's duty to refrain from polluting it even unintentionally.

But "environment" is bigger than that. We must be mindful of the noise we inject into the environment. [There is a famous Zen saying that runs, "It is best to remain quiet unless one can improve on silence."]

Indeed, today noise is recognized as a serious personal and environmental contaminant. It causes stress, irritation, deafness, breeds resentment, saps energy, and inevitably lowers efficiency {Robert Arvill, Man and Environment (Penguin Books, 1978), p. 118]. The Buddha's attitude towards noise is very clear from the canon. More