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Buddhism and the Environment

Buddhism and the Environment
The purpose of Buddhist practice is not only to benefit individuals who are looking for temporary relief from the suffering of samsara, which consists in cycles of rebirth, sickness, old age, and death, but also to eventually bring about liberation by means of the attaining a realization of emptiness, the ultimate truth, which is the wisdom that penetrates dualism, one of the main causes of confusion. This ultimate achievement entails total freedom from defilements, such as hatred, attachment, and delusion. Wisdom alone, however, cannot bring about full enlightenment. Often described metaphorically like the two wings of a bird, both essential for flight, both wisdom and method are indispensable on the Mahāyāna path to enlightenment. The method component of the path includes following the fundamental ethical principle of non-harming, cultivating the attitude of universal responsibility for the welfare of all sentient beings, and also bodhicitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the purpose of helping to free all beings from suffering. An essential part of this method for the Buddhist practitioner includes acting to protect the environment in which all sentient beings live, thrive, and survive. In this essay I will argue that these three Buddhist principles of non-harming, universal responsibility, and bodhicitta compel Buddhists to actively care for the environment.
Firstly, non-harming, or non-violence, is at the core of Buddhist ethics, and if one does not apply this attitude in everyday life, one does not qualify as a Buddhist. Living in accordance with the guiding principle of non-violence means that one should not act motivated by malice, anger, or jealousy. In Christopher S. Queen’s “Introduction: A New Buddhism,” he indicates the meaning of non-violence in a Buddhist context, as it is explained in a verse cited in a number of early Buddhist texts including the Dhammapada, the Mahapadanasutta, and the Patimokkha:
Refraining from all that is evil,
Attaining what is wholesome,
Purifying the mind:
This is the instruction [sasana] of the Buddhas. (12)
Non-harming is the key to enacting Buddhist values and if one goes against this core principle of Buddhist ethics, then one is not following the right path. Some of the most harmful actions impacting oneself and others are those that are destructive to the environment, which is crucial for the lives of all beings. These actions occur when one allows his or her mind to become polluted by poisons like greed, delusion, or anger, and when this occurs, it is an indication that this fundamental Buddhist principle of non-harming has been violated.
This principle of non-harming is respected across all traditions of Buddhism. It is not the case that only Mahāyāna Buddhists are compelled to care for the environment. Based upon the principles of socially engaged Buddhism according to the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Buddhism is already engaged Buddhism. If it is not, it is not Buddhism” (Hunt-Perry 36). Non-harming as the very essence of Buddhism obliges practitioners of this path to respect and work for the preservation of our vibrant and productive environment for the sake of all beings. For instance, as a Buddhist practitioner, one should not throw even a small piece of paper on the ground. Even though one may not immediately see how this action will have adverse effects on the environment, if one considers this action carefully, then one will come to understand that by littering, one pollutes the soil and water, which are essential to the prospering of all beings. This can have a direct impact on people, animals, and insects living nearby because the soil may become less productive and polluted water is no longer potable. Due to pollution problems, many countries are getting into disputes over essential resources such as water, and here we see even small destructive acts to the environment when compounded may eventually lead to serious and large-scale conflict and harm. It is clear that even the slightest act of disrespect to the environment violates the Buddhist principle of non-harming.
The Buddhist principle that recognizes interdependence sheds light on why harming the environment is harmful to both oneself and others. This concern is also recognized in the socially engaged Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition which understands insight into interdependence as “fundamental to engaged Buddhist practice and peacemaking” (Hunt-Perry 36). People and the environment are inextricably connected, and when the environment is damaged by human activities such as pollution, there is nowhere for people or animals to find refuge. The concept of interdependence in Buddhism should inform the way one engages in everyday life, on physical, verbal, and mental levels. For instance, if one undertakes a virtuous act such as protecting the lives of others through protecting the environment, one’s own life may also be protected since we all share the earth as our habitat. In “To Save All Beings: Buddhist Environmental Activism,” Stephanie Kaza highlights the importance of understanding interdependence in motivating Buddhists to engage in environmental activism. She states, “Each piece of the Buddha’s experience added to a progressive unfolding of a single truth about existence—the law mutual causality or dependent origination… According to this law, all phenomena, that is, all of nature, arise from complex sets of causes and conditions, each set unique to the specific situations. Thus, the simple but penetrating Pali verse:
This being, that becomes;
from the arising of this, that arises;
this not being, that becomes not;
from the ceasing of this, that ceases.
Ecological understanding of natural systems fits very well within the Buddhist description of interdependence” (166). In Buddhist doctrine, our actions and their results form the basis for the interdependence of people and the environment. Importantly, in Buddhism, the principle of non-harming applies to all sentient beings, including animals, which provides another reason why it is important for Buddhists to care for the environment. This includes actively working to address problems such as protecting endangered species, animal habitats, and preventing deforestation.
Mindfulness is a Buddhist tool used to support the principle of non-harming with respect to the environment. This is recognized by Thich Nhat Hanh as the third principle of his presentation of socially engaged Buddhism (Hunt-Perry 36). Through the practice of mindfulness, one remains watchful of one’s actions of body, speech, and mind, whereby one is able to protect oneself from engaging in harmful actions, including those that may cause even the slightest damage to living beings and their habitats.
Mahāyāna Buddhism in particular provides further motivation which compels Buddhists not only to refrain from harming the environment, but also to actively work to protect it. The attitude of “universal responsibility,” which means to care for and respect others and their environments, is highly praised and encouraged by teachers like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In his “Introduction: A New Buddhism,” Queen writes that, “There is great unity among the engaged Buddhists profiled in this book on one point: that the existence of suffering in the world evokes in them a feeling of ‘universal responsibility,’ as the Dalai Lama has called it, and the traditional vow to ‘save all beings’” (5). Universal responsibility is an important mental aspiration that is cultivated by Mahāyāna Buddhists in the course of developing bodhicitta. It involves the motivation of taking personal responsibility for the welfare of all sentient beings. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, one is not only responsible for one’s own needs, but also has the duty to serve and protect others and their environment, and this all-inclusive responsibility lies at the foundation of other practices of the Bodhisattva such as of generosity, patience, and loving-kindness.
Mahāyāna practitioners are encouraged to have greater concern for the well-being of others and their environments rather than for their own. This universal responsibility should be understood within the seven-point cause and effect method for developing bodhicitta, wherein it plays a crucial role as the penultimate mental attitude to be achieved prior to realizing bodhicitta. The Seven-Part Cause and Effect (Tib. rgyu ‘bras man ngag bdun) method is as follows: as a prerequisite, equanimity (btang snyom) is developed, 1. recognizing that all beings have been our mother (mar shes), 2. remembering their kindness (drin dran), 3. aspiring to repay their kindness (drin gso), 4. developing great love (yid ‘ong byams pa), 5. showing great compassion (snying rje chen po), 6. practicing universal responsibility (lhag bsam), and finally, 7. developing bodhicitta (byang sems). Through following the steps of this practice, one cultivates a profound respect, love, and care for all beings, and also develops the understanding that if one harms the environment then one is hurting everyone.
The practice of equanimity teaches individuals to respect and love others as yourself. As a Buddhist, one of the most important tenets is the belief in rebirth. Given the premise that one has taken rebirth countless times, it is entirely possible then that every individual may have once been a parent, a brother, or a sister. It is very important to contemplate that each and every being may have been one’s mother, and to recall a mother’s great kindness. One should then contemplate how one would like to repay their kindness as an expression of gratitude. Next, one cultivates love, wishing for the happiness of all these mother beings. Great compassion goes beyond selfishness, and wishes that all these beings be free of suffering. At this point, one cultivates the attitude of universal responsibility for all beings who have been one’s mother. Kaza cites Sponberg in “To Save All Beings: Buddhist Environmental Activism” as suggesting that “a Buddhist environmental ethic is a sense of responsibility to act compassionately for the benefit of all forms of life” (168). With an understanding of interdependence as central to Buddhism as discussed above, it is evident that this universal responsibility includes within its scope the obligation to protect the environment of all beings. Such an attitude enables practitioners to enhance their ethic of non-violence by not only restraining from harm, but by actively working to protect the environment and its inhabitants.
One of the most pressing issues today is global warming, and many scientists and environmental activists including Buddhist figures like His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, have voiced their concern about climate change. The impacts of climate change highlight the interdependence of people and the environment, like the increasing number of extreme storms as in Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which had disastrous and painful effects on the lives of the populace. As a response to the environmental problems like climate change, His Holiness Dalai Lama proposed that the entire province of Tibet be declared an ecological reserve, and His Holiness the 17th Karmapa also requested that all the Karma Kagyu monasteries in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and India plant thousands of trees, and work to protect the water and forests. Similarly, quite recently, His Holiness Drukpa and his disciples planted one million trees in the Ladak region in India in a single day. All of these examples demonstrate prominent Buddhist leaders taking steps to preserve the environment in according with the Buddhist principle of both non-harming as well as a sense of universal responsibility, both of which are based on an understanding of interdependence.
Caring for oneself is very important to every human being, however, for Bodhisattvas, caring for others is more essential to their vows than working for their own self-interest. There are three types of bodhicitta: king-like, ferryman-like, and shepherd-like. King-like bodhicitta aspires to attain enlightenment for oneself first, so that one may then help bring others to liberation. Ferryman-like bodhicitta seeks to carry all beings to enlightenment along with oneself. Shepherd-like bodhicitta aspires to guide all beings to attain enlightenment first before attaining it for oneself. While in practice, one must attain enlightenment before being able to help others in the best possible way, which accords with king-like bodhicitta, the most noble and selfless motivation is shepherd-like bodhicitta, which places all beings before oneself. This motivation urges the bodhisattva to engage actively in the world for the benefit of others, which includes protecting the environment.
Many so-called ecosattvas work tirelessly to save the environment by chanting the Metta Sutta to cultivate loving-kindness. Kaza describes one such scene in “To Save All Beings: Buddhist Environmental Activism,” wherein, “Meditators form a circle at the base of the Headwaters Forest… the small group of ecosattvas—Buddhist environment activists—focus on their breathing and intention amidst the towering trees. They chant the Metta Sutta to generate field of loving-kindness. Here in volatile timber country they renew their pledges to the most challenging task of Buddhist practice—to save all beings” (159). These ecosattovas practice loving-kindness to safeguard the environment. They do not stop with the recitation of texts and cultivation of loving-kindness. Rather this aspiration to be of ultimate benefit to others, and placing others’ interests before one’s own, serves as the foundation for their work of actively waging campaigns aimed at protecting the environment. For instance, Kaza cites another occasion in which, “in 1985 logging accelerated dramatically following a hostile corporate buyout. Alarmed by the loss of irreplaceable giants, forest defenders have fought tirelessly to halt clear-cutting and preserve these ancient stands of redwood” (159). Bodhisattvas, or environmentalist “ecosattvas” devote their lives to others through working to protect the earth from pollution, the over-use of fossil fuels, as well as nuclear and industrial waste that damage the environment beyond repair.
Through its core principles of non-harming, universal responsibility, and bodhicitta, Mahāyāna Buddhism promotes not only the protection of the environment through restraining from environmental destruction, but also the engagement in activities for the welfare of the environment and all the people and animals whose lives depend on it. These principles may be seen as enacted by prominent Buddhist leaders like His Holiness the Dalai Lama who encourages the attitude of universal responsibility, and Thich Nhat Hanh who continually promotes Interbeing, concern for the interest of all beings. The application of these principles to the protection of the environment comes from an understanding of the Buddhist tenet of interdependence, which may be understood as a kind of wisdom that sees how beings and the environment are closely interwoven. In this way both the method and wisdom components of the Buddhist path work together to compel the practitioner to make an active concern for the environment a crucial part of one’s Buddhist practice.

Works Cited
Hunt-Perry, Patricia and Lyn Fine. “All Buddhism is Engaged: Thich Nhat Hanh and the Order of Interbeing.” Engaged Buddhism in the West. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000. 35-66.
Kaza, Stephanie. “To Save All Beings: Buddhist Environmental Activism.” Engaged Buddhism in the West. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000. 159-183.
Queen, Christopher S. “Introduction: A New Buddhism.” Engaged Buddhism in the West. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000. 1-34.