Reflections on a Buddhist Environmentalism

Read this blog post, which touches on the key attitudes of Buddhists towards the environment. How does this differ from other religions you have read about thus far? Can you relate the views to one of the environmental ethics covered earlier in the unit?

Discussions and modern Buddhist teachings often feel a little too human-centric. Plenty of talk about interconnectedness, but not much movement beyond the human sphere of affairs. Obviously, being people, we're going to have a disposition towards people. There's nothing wrong with that. My own blog is pretty human-centric, whether it's reflections on my own life and practice, or on social and sangha issues.

But perhaps the deep, disturbing disconnect that enough folks have these days, and which has led to environmental pillaging and poisoning, has also seeped into the way we view the dharma. 

During a recent interview, Thai Buddhist teacher and activist Sulak Sivaraksa said the following:

in the late 1960s, the World Council of Churches requested that the Buddhists teach them. I shared everything from Buddhism. I taught them that living beings are not only animals, but also plants and trees, and that we must care for all. We are all interconnected; we are taught that without trees we could not live. The Buddha himself told us to look at trees as examples. Of course, the Buddha himself was one with the trees. He was born under a tree, enlightened under a tree. He preached at night under the tree. He died under a tree. The tree is very important to us, and we must care for the forests and for the environment.
In my country, we have a movement for ordaining trees. Once trees are ordained, they cannot be cut. This movement helps to preserve trees. Max Weiner is a monk who has helped to spread a trend which is to ordain trees. He was from Harvard.

Between 1936 and 1973, Thailand lost more than half of its forests. Similar patterns have occurred more recently in many other nations, including notably Brazil, where big agro-business has replaced rain forest with soybeans and other cash crops, and Ethiopia, where diversely forested areas were converted to coffee plantations. And historically, places like the northern United States, where I live, had forests that were almost logged to extinction in the name of profits and human-centric building ventures. All told, human relationships with trees over the past few hundred years have been quite off, to the point where many of us forget the simple fact that trees are major players in converting the air we breathe into breathable form. 

One of the reasons why the environment in general, and trees in particular, have been forsaken - in my view - is the disappearance of, or lack of connection to, narratives speaking to the interconnection of people and the environment. Although scientists have done a fairly good job of detailing the many ways people have damaged and sometimes destroyed parts of the planet, what they have learned hasn't really been translated into the kinds of living, breathing stories our ancestors lived on. 

The Buddha's story is one of those narratives, one that doesn't need to be updated in order to be powerful. His life was amongst the trees, touching the ground with every step. However, perhaps those of us who live in cities, are sheltered in buildings all day, spending hours on computers, sitting zazen inside, struggle to connect with the fullness of Buddha's experience of interconnectedness. Because of our many physical disconnections, our psychological and spiritual awareness is also cut off - not quite awake to the immensity of the world. 

Dean's current post over at The Mindful Moment speaks of his experiences meditating in a cave. From what he writes, it seems he felt this immensity while being there. However, what happens to that awareness a week, a month, a year after returning to the human-focused, human-built "everyday" environment. I have had similar experiences to what Dean describes. I remember the awe I felt sitting on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the Aran Islands. And the sense of how tiny I am while going through the California desert. Wonderful experiences, but ones that tend to get drowned out by life in the city. 

But this is beyond a city/country divide. I can go out less than an hour in any direction from the city I live in and find large scale farms loaded with poisoned plants and abused animals, sitting on land that was, a hundred years ago, entirely forested. 

Tree ordination seems like a damn good idea in my view. Not only to protect the trees from human greed and stupidity, but also to remind people of a sacredness that is beyond ourselves, and whatever we think we need to live. 

It seems to me, as modern practitioners of the Buddha way, it's essential that we learn how to embody interconnectedness fully, and to act accordingly. And I think in order to do that, the ways we talk about the dharma, teach the dharma, must move beyond a human-centric approach. Just look at the words of the old masters. It's there. They got it. And now we have the work of scientists and environmental activists offering the fodder for new stories, and new ways of being and acting. 

Some are out there doing just this. But more of us must take it up, to move beyond pessimism and despair. To make the dharma anew, one more time.

Source: Nathan Thompson,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.


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Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2021, 7:17 PM