Not Just the Lotus Blossom – Buddhism and Ecology

November 4, 2019

‘If you are a poet, you will see that there is a cloud in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper.’ 

Buddhism and ecology both refuse to separate the human and natural worlds – and demand that we act accordingly

Once, while waiting for a wilderness permit at a ranger station in North Cascades National Park, Washington state, I overheard the following message, radioed into headquarters by a backcountry ranger: ‘Dead elk in upper Agnes Creek decomposing nicely. Over.’ This ranger was not only a practical and profound ecologist, she also possessed the wisdom of a Buddhist master. The ‘over’ in her communication seemed especially apt. For Buddhists, as for ecologists, all individual lives are eventually ‘over’, but their constituent parts continue ‘living’ pretty much for ever, in a kind of ongoing process of bio-geo-chemical reincarnation.

People who follow ecological thinking (including some of our hardest-headed scientists) might not realise that they are also embracing an ancient spiritual tradition. Many who espouse Buddhism — succumbing, perhaps, to its chic, Hollywood appeal — might not realise that they are also endorsing a world view with political implications that go beyond bumper stickers demanding a free Tibet.

Plenty of us recognise that Buddhist writings and teachings — especially in their Zen manifestation — celebrate the beauty and wisdom in the natural world. A monk asks a master: ‘How may I enter in the Way?’ The master points to a stream and responds: ‘Do you hear that torrent? There you may enter.’ Walking in the mountains, the master asks: ‘Do you smell the flowering laurel?’ The monk says he does. ‘Then,’ declares the master, ‘I have hidden nothing from you.’

Part of this sensitivity to nature is a Buddhist grasp of suffering, whose existence constitutes the first of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. It is no coincidence that Henry David Thoreau, America’s first great environmentalist, was also a student of Indian religion and the first translator of the ‘Lotus Sutra’ into English. In this classic teaching, Shakyamuni Buddha compares the ‘Dharma’ — the true nature of reality — to a soothing rain that nourishes all beings.

The pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote that to have an ecological conscience is to ‘live alone in a world of wounds’. The Buddha urged his followers to be sensitive to the suffering of all sentient beings. His First Precept is to commit oneself to ahimsa, or nonharming. The Mahayana Buddhist ideal is to go further, and to become a bodhisattva, an enlightened individual who vows to relieve the suffering of all beings. In the ‘Metta Sutta’, Theravada monks and lay adherents vow to practise loving kindness: ‘Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.’ And here is the first verse of ‘The Bodhisattva Path’, by Shantideva, a revered eighth-century poet: ‘May I be the doctor and the medicine/And may I be the nurse/For all sick beings in the world/Until everyone is healed.’

For Buddhists and ecologists alike, we are all created from spare parts scavenged from the same cosmic junk-heap

However, for me, as a scientist, there is something much more in the Buddhist tradition than an injunction to care for other living things. This meeting of the minds, Buddhist and ecological, results from similar insights into the nature of reality itself — which is indistinguishable from the reality of nature — and of our place in the whole business.

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