December 10, 2011

Could the Buddhadharma Offer an Inspiring Environmental Ethic?

Buddha was born in a forest of trees with large leaves called Sal.

He meditated as a youth under the shade of a Myrtle and later under the Banyan, and he realized the true nature of mind under the Pipal or “Bodhi” tree.

Buddha’s love for trees and nature became part of his Vinaya code of monastic discipline. He forbade his monks to cut down trees. He reminded them that trees provide food, shade and protection for all forest dwelling beings. He also set down rules forbidding the polluting of water resources.

It's Just C

Most Buddhists are familiar with the Jataka Tales celebrating the forests and waters and the wild creatures that inhabit them—the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, tiger, panther, antelope, deer, otter, monkey and hare—all seen as previous lives of the Buddha. These stories are often told to children to help them appreciate the richness and diversity of nature and the value of all forms of life.

Because the buddhadharma reveals the interdependence and impermanence of all life, life is seen as precious and valuable. Furthermore the dharma says that all animate creatures from fruit flies to the blue whale have Buddha-nature.

Because Buddha valued all forms of life, he encouraged a diet of fruit, vegetables and grains, and this was mostly followed everywhere the buddhadharma spread, except for Tibet, where long winters made such a diet impossible. There, only barley could grow above the tundra and in the high altitude, and only cave-dwelling yogis like Milarepa, who sang of the beauty and joy of living in nature, managed to survive on a diet of tsampa (barley flour) and nettles, although some of the alms devotees gave him did include the occasional meat.

Nevertheless, in Tibet the culture lived in harmony with wildlife and the environment until the devastating Chinese takeover in the 1950’s.

Then the destruction of monasteries along with the people and their environment was systematically destroyed. Until then the traditional value of giving automatic sanctuary to animals inhabiting any monastic grounds was as true in Tibet as anywhere else in Asia, where the buddhadharma flourished. The life of all beings was considered sacred.

Yet Western converts to the buddhadharma – including myself – have been slow to apply the Buddha’s teachings to daily life, until relatively recently, as the Dalai Lama has been encouraging the world’s Buddhists to become active conservationists. The17th Karmapa, has also asked all followers of his Kagyu School to become vegetarian.

Ethelred The Unusual

Although my son has been vegetarian for years, and I had flirted with it earlier in different periods of my life, it is only now that I am returning to the wisdom of such old books as Diet for a Small Planet, which suggested decades ago that a diet of grains and vegetables was the only sustainable diet for human beings. Eating meat not only contributes to the death of grain-fed animals raised for slaughter, but to the starvation of other people who could have eaten that grain; and the prospect of feeding humans grain as opposed to grain-fed cattle makes even more sense now than it did 40 years ago, as the 7th billion person on the planet has now been born!

Now that the Buddha’s teachings have spread to the West and practitioners are beginning to appreciate the basic, not just the esoteric, aspects of the buddhadharma, it seems timely that we adhere to those most fundamental principles of valuing all forms of life and the habitats that support them.

When one takes refuge in the Three Jewels—the Buddha as example, the Dharma as his teachings and meditation practice, and the sangha as the community of our fellow meditators – we also take the vow against killing.

Although most of us have not been raised to be hunters, ranchers, farmers or fishermen and do not actively engage in killing, we cannot help see how we are encouraging killing every time we buy any form of meat—no matter how many “hands removed” we are from the actual kill.

If the creatures of the earth are to be regarded as having inherent worth, we need an environmental ethic to inspire us to relate to and treat them accordingly. An enlightened society would exhibit reverence not just for each other as fellow human beings, but also for this truly awesome world of which we are only a part. This flies in the face of the industrial corporate paradigm that presently rules society with its materialistic ethos, which sees non-human nature solely in terms of profit.

Isn’t it time to emphasize the buddhadharma’s reverence for all life? Isn’t it time to see and act ecocentrically rather than egocentrically?

I humbly but strongly urge all Buddhist leaders to uphold and encourage the Buddha’s environmental ethic for the benefit of all beings.


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