How living as a true Buddhist could avoid an environmental catastrophe
Posted on January 10th, 2023

By Raj Gonsalkorale

“In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed,” -Venerable Thích Nhất Hạnh

Zen Master late Thich Nhat Hanh was a global spiritual leader, poet, and peace activist, renowned for his powerful teachings and bestselling writings on mindfulness and peace. A gentle, humble monk, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called him an Apostle of peace and nonviolence” when nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Exiled from his native Vietnam for almost four decades, Thich Nhat Hanh has been a pioneer bringing Buddhism and mindfulness to the West, and establishing an engaged Buddhist community for the 21st Century – https://plumvillage.org/thich-nhat-hanh/biography/

Jo Confino writing in the Guardian many years ago  (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2010/ sep/02/buddhism-environment) said quote Venerable Thích Nht Hnh teaches that the world cannot be changed outside of ourselves. The answer is for each one of us to transform the fear, anger, and despair which we cover-up with over-consumption. If we are filling our bodies and minds with toxins, it is no surprise that the world around us also becomes poisoned. He also argues that those who put their faith in technology alone to save the planet are bowing to a false god”

Confino goes on to say Like many other spiritual leaders, he sees the genesis of our pain as coming from our dualistic mindset that sees our connection to God, or Buddha, or spirit as outside ourselves and accessible only after our death. As a result, we have developed a strong ego that sees itself as separate and threatened and needs to amass things like wealth to feel strong and protected. But none of these can fill the chasm created by our deep sense of separation”

Venerable Thích Nhất Hạnh believed that within every person are the seeds of love, compassion and understanding as well as the seeds of anger, hatred, and discrimination. Using a gardening metaphor, he said our experience of life depends on which seeds we choose to water. His words are very profound and yet, they are simple and very logical. They remind one of the words of a Buddhist Monk of repute in Sri Lanka, Venerable Galkande Dhammananda, the only Monk pupil of late Ven Walpola Rahula, who constantly refers to the mental wounds that all human beings carry and the chain of events that follow whenever such a wounded person thinks, talks and acts in a particular way. Practicing the tenants of Metta, Karuna, Muditha, and Upekka (loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy or empathy and equanimity) at all times, towards all living beings, is what Ven Dhammananda espouses at all times. This would be the seed of love, compassion and understanding that Ven Thich Nhat Hanh referred to above.

Venerable Thích Nhất Hạnh’s words “The energy we need is not fear or anger, but the energy of understanding and compassion. There is no need to blame or condemn. Those who are destroying themselves, societies and the planet aren’t doing it intentionally. Their pain and loneliness are overwhelming and they want to escape. They need to be helped, not punished. Only understanding and compassion on a collective level can liberate us.” are identical to what Ven Dhammananda has been saying about the need to understand and do one’s utmost to heal the mental wounds of oneself and in others by extending Metta, Karuna, Mudith and Upekka to all others.

Buddhist Monks like Ven Thích Nhất Hạnh and Ven Dhammananda have expounded what Buddha taught about the oneness and interdependence of all living beings.  The National Library of Medicine in an article titled Cosmic design from a Buddhist perspective (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11797750/) says one of the basic tenets of Buddhism is the concept of interdependence which says that all things exist only in relationship to others, and that nothing can have an independent and autonomous existence. The world is a vast flow of events that are linked together and participate in one another. Thus, there can be no First Cause, and no creation ex nihilo of the universe, as in the Big Bang theory. Since the universe has neither beginning nor end, the only universe compatible with Buddhism is a cyclic one. According to Buddhism, the exquisitely precise fine-tuning of the universe for the emergence of life and consciousness as expressed in the “anthropic principle” is not due to a Creative Principle, but to the interdependence of matter with flows of consciousness, the two having co-existed for all times

Margaret Blaine, author, Buddhist teacher and a former mental health counselor, who lives in Eugene, Oregon, United States in a concise but an in-depth observation says Buddhism teaches the principle of the oneness of life and its environment. That means as though our subjective self and our objective surroundings might appear to be two independent realities, they are in fact two dimensions of a single reality, each arising in relationship with the other. As Nichiren Daishonin, the founder of this form of Buddhism says, Environment is like the shadow, and life, the body. Without the body, no shadow can exist, and without life, no environment. In the same way life is shaped by its environment.” 

The Buddhist concept of interdependence which says that all things exist only in relationship to others, and that nothing can have an independent and autonomous existence is the key to the survival of everything one sees before their eyes and feels in their inner selves. This and Buddha’s words that We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” is the context in which the those who are causing untold harm to the environment should consider why the broader view of what comprises the environment is important and why it should be saved and preserved.

Efficient and effective land and water resource management, the criticality of forest cover, development of renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuel generated energy to lower carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions, realization and acceptance of the universality of the value of all living beings, not just human beings, to sustain and maintain a safe and healthy environment are all vital elements that should be integral to thinking of people of Sri Lanka and of course the entire world.

The destruction of forests, the indifference to any value to life, both fauna and flora, the wanton destruction of wild life habitats are clear examples of people not realizing and recognizing what Margaret Blaine said about our subjective self and our objective surroundings in fact being two dimensions of a single reality, each arising in relationship with the other.

It is sad and unfortunate to note the reported decline in Sri Lanka’s forest cover down to 16% now, whereas Bhutan’s forest cover is in excess of 70%, (As reported in News 1st, Rain Forest Protectors of Sri Lanka movement has said that Sri Lanka’s forest cover that stood at 82 percent in 1881 has dropped drastically to 16 percent https://www.newsfirst.lk/2021/02/02/sri-lankas-forest-cover-at-17-percent-environmentalist/. The Conservator General of Sri Lanka has denied this reported decline in forest cover). However, whether it is 29% as reported in 2015, or 16%, it is best for the country if an assessment could be carried out by an independent body as the general belief amongst many is that there is degradation and exploitation of forest cover and opening up of land for cultivation” and development” purposes at the behest of politicians. What matters for the future generations is the truth. Hiding the truth is a sure way to bring forth the destruction of all living beings.

The Buddhist concepts outlined here are logical, common-sense concepts. They need not be Buddhist concepts, but simply common sense concepts. The Buddhist doctrine relating to greed and anger as clearly explained by Dalai Lama, True happiness comes from having a sense of inner peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved by cultivating altruism, love and compassion, and by eliminating anger, selfishness and greed” are clear pointers that accumulation of wealth, engaging in armed conflict and war, and lack of empathy and sympathy with and towards the less fortunate are, among other things, the drivers of ignorance, the root cause of unhappiness and suffering. Buddha’s fundamental message that he teaches only two things, suffering and end of suffering clearly applies to life in general but to the environment as well as it is the ignorance about the reality of interdependence of all living beings and that all things exist only because of others that causes human beings to destroy what in fact sustains them.

Whether Buddhism provides a way to save the environment or whether common sense provides the way, what influences negatively on it is political shortsightedness and ignorance.

In saying this, politicians are not solely identified as the cause as they are a product of a political system which only people create and which they only can continue with or change. Such a change can only come from the younger generation through a more informed, questioning, and challenging education system. If this generation is not exposed to rational thinking and objectivity, they will behave in the same manner as their forebearers and before they realize it, the environment would have become irreparable. What has been borrowed from them would be of no use to them when it is passed onto them. They will have nothing to pass onto their succeeding generations.

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