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A Buddhist Perspective on Care of the Earth

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I entrust myself to Buddha

Buddha entrusts himself to me

I entrust myself to earth

Earth entrusts herself to me

 

Thich Nhat Hanh (monk and engaged Buddhist)

 

The historical Buddha of 2500 years ago called Gotama had his realization of the truth, or a deep knowing of the way things are, under a tree, sitting on some freshly cut grass. Buddhist Theravada monastics are not allowed to dig the earth as it is considered a form of life. The Buddhist monastic form I am in is a forest tradition: we live in or near a forest. One of our monasteries in Sussex has a 100 acre forest, with several meditation huts, where monastics live for extended periods, coming to the main monastery for food and bathing only. Buddhism also recognises the deeper connections in the world, and in all of nature.

 

 

The interconnections of life

 

The word Buddha means to wake up, and part of this waking-up is to realise the way things are connected to one another, to realise that nature is not out there, but is intimately connected to who we are. A way of exploring this is to just take a simple piece of paper and explore what it needs to come into existence. So, for example, it needs trees, trees need the earth and rain, and rain gets attracted to the earth because of trees. To get paper, you need somebody to cut the trees down, you need a factory to make the paper. Factories need people, people need food from plants and trees and so on. So the more you investigate this cycle, the more you can see the interconnectedness of life.

 

We tend to divide the world up into subject and object, me and the earth, which allows us to think that the earth is somebody else's problem. Buddhist teachings are about seeing how limited the subject/object way of thinking is and how much suffering and chaos it causes. So the teaching of the Buddha is about reconnecting, remembering, realising our real home: in essence it is oneness. On the conventional level there are many important questions about how to care for the earth and each other. Without understanding how we are connected, answers to these questions can become dogma and the institutions that support dogmas can become rigged. So then the statements become laden with ‘we should’ or ‘we must’. Buddhism in the end asks you to go beyond self and earth and rest in oneness, or as it is sometimes called: emptiness.

 

The oneness of life

There are numerous ways to help understand oneness but a very practical starting point is to adopt the five precepts. These precepts are in Theravadin Buddhism expressed as negatives, to refrain from, say, killing. In some forms of Mahayana Buddhism they are expressed positively, so killing is expressed as looking after the welfare of living beings. In my opinion, Theravadin Buddhism is about simplifying life and Mahayana is about supporting life, although they are not mutually exclusive. Some monks in Thailand use the precepts to support life by ordaining trees as monks. They do this by wrapping a monk’s robe around the tree and including it in the community of monks. This way the local Buddhist villagers will not kill the trees because killing a monk is even more bad luck than just plain killing somebody, although I have heard of one western monk in Thailand being poisoned for expressing his views about the forest usage.

 

In the precepts for Theravadin Buddhists monks they are not allowed to dig the earth. Some Buddhist laypeople are involved in more direct action and they call themselves engaged Buddhists.1

 

The five precepts are a very natural way of being and as the mind calms down, you tend to follow them anyway. So as you start to free yourself from greed, hatred and delusion, this all starts to become obvious. The natural response is one of care and understanding for all things – an unconditional acceptance, even if you may disagree with it. Allowing yourself to accept what you may not like frees up energy. You need a large amount of energy to hold onto negative mind states, whereas letting things be allows the energy freed to be used in more skilful and constructive ways. As the mind calms down you can direct it towards an object, which helps concentration and attention. Following on from this you can explore or investigate who or what you think you are directly from the inside, and this can lead to wisdom, or knowing. All of this investigation allows you to experience for yourself the interconnectedness or the conditioned nature of all things: because of this, that happens – cause and effect.

 

The more this investigation takes place the greater the sense of awe of just how amazing the natural world is and our relationship to it. As you develop this way of being, some questions come to mind about what you are willing to moderate in order to care for the earth, and what you would be willing to give up to realise oneness and so be free from suffering.

 

 

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