Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Reflections on a Buddhist Environmentalism

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 1960’s, 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. When the tree is ordained,

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's 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's 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.


Adam said...

What a wonderful post. Yes, a narrative about our most positive connections to trees needs to be firmly re-established and given new life. As you may know, I'm from Michigan originally, and the towns I lived in were built on the lumber industry. The entire state was nearly clear-cut before anyone interviened. Sad really.

I really like the idea of ordaining trees, and I don't want to take anything away from that practice, but I think it would be nice if the monks that were ordaining trees would extend the same courtesy to women. ;)

Nathan said...

"I really like the idea of ordaining trees, and I don't want to take anything away from that practice, but I think it would be nice if the monks that were ordaining trees would extend the same courtesy to women. ;)"

I hear you on that one!

Mystic Meandering said...

Hi Nathan...Very nice post! "Remind people of a sacredness beyond ourselves - the living, breathing reality that our ancestors lived on." I love this phrase...

I love the idea of "ordaining trees" as well - but also to see *everything* - all of nature, the entire universe as sacred; of getting up each morning and bowing to the Sacred in everything. Something I'm attempting to do - to see that everything is "enlightened" - which your lovely post points to so nicely.

You may like the new documentary film just out by Prince Charles on the environment. You can find it at Worth watching!

Panchenlama said...

Open Letter to the XIVth Dalai Lama

You know that, according to the ancient Tibetan prophecy, you are the last Dalai Lama. You know that, according to the ancient Tibetan prophecy, in a Brazilian body would appear an incarnation of the Tathagata family.

However, you obliterated the truth.

What are the Fruits of the Life of a Buddhist Monk, a Bhikshu? To begin with they are the realization of Gautama Buddha, Four Aryas truths of suffering: There is suffering. There is the cause of suffering. There is the end of suffering. There is Gautama Buddha Aryas eight-folded path to the end of suffering: Right belief; Right aim; Right speech; Right action; Right living [right sustenance]; Right effort; Right mindfulness [right concentration]; Right contemplation [right meditation].

Now, what is this: 'realization of the Four Aryas truths'? The Buddha said: ‘Through not understanding, through not penetrating the Four Ariyan truths, Bhikshus, we have run on and wandered round this long, long journey (of rebirth), both you and I. ... But, Bhikshus, when these Four Ariyan Truths are understood and penetrated, then is uprooted the craving for existence, cut off is the thread that leadeth to rebirth, then is there no more coming to be.' Thus spake Gautama Buddha, the Exalted One. When the Happy One had thus spoken, He added this further: 'Blind to the Fourfold Ariyan Truths of things, and blind to see things as they really are, long was our journeying through divers births. Gone is the cord of life when these are seen. No more becoming when suffering’s root is cut.’

Now, once again, what is this 'realization' of the Four Aryas truths of suffering? Among others, this is one 'realization':


“Now, at that time there were sixty-one Arhats in the world. Then, the Exalted One, Gautama Buddha said to His Arhats: ‘I am released, Arhats, from all bonds, those that are divine and those that are human. You also, Arhats, are released from all bonds, those that are divine and those that are human. Go you forth, Arhats, on your journey, for the profit of the many, for the bliss of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, for the profit, for the bliss of Devas and Mankind!

Go not any two together. Proclaim, Arhats, the Buddha Dharma, goodly in its beginning, goodly in its middle, goodly in its ending. Both in the spirit and in the letter do you make known the all-perfected, utterly pure righteous life. There are beings with but little dust of passion on their eyes. They are perishing through not hearing the Buddha Dharma. There will be some who will understand. I myself, Arhats, will go to Uruvela, to the suburb of the Captain of the Host, to proclaim this Dharma.’ [Vinaya, i.21; cf. S.N. i.111]

Dalai Lama! China fears Buddha! China fears Buddha Dharma-Vinaya! China fears Buddha Sangha! Devadatta also tried to force the Buddha to retire, due to his old age! Buddha refused! Go on Dalai Lama! Go on! Keep your head high, go on! Dalai Lama! Go On!

Nathan said...


Thanks for the comments. It's all sacred. No doubt.


Next time, comments about the post only - or be deleted. Thanks.


Andreas said...

Nathan, I come from Sweden, a country of many trees. Forests are truly magical places in our old stories. Still I can identify with what you have to say about the lack of meaningful narratives telling of our connectedness to nature. That is to say, there are narratives, people just don't find them meaningful.
Growing up there was an old maple tree outside my house. It had been there all my life. I had seen it change, many times, it's appearance. In fact, something of the very idea of change in me, comes from this tree.
One day, in my early twenties, they cut that old maple down, it's roots somehow undermining the foundation of the house. All I can remember was feeling grief, genuine and true, as if a friend or loved one had died. And also feeling embarrassed about these feelings.
It seems proper and right to me, ordaining trees. I think my old maple would have liked that.

Nathan said...


Thanks for sharing about your tree. I have had a few of those trees in my life. As a child, a large cottonwood behind my grandparent's house, which I wrote a little about recently. And there's a weedy tree - species I'm not sure- behind my mother's house that started growing maybe a decade ago in the middle of my garden area. I thought about taking it out, and had a neighbor tell me "it's just a weed," but instead I let it go, and now it's probably 15-20 feet tall. Amazing how quick it grew.

I actually feel the same about sunflowers, growing from tiny seeds to huge, bright flowers taller than people in a matter of months.

"All I can remember was feeling grief, genuine and true, as if a friend or loved one had died. And also feeling embarrassed about these feelings." You know, this is something I find troubling because it's so common. It's barely ok to feel grief for the loss of other people in your life; somehow, plants and animals, even the disappearance of a lake or mountaintop - all of that is dismissed, when it shouldn't be at all.

Several years ago, I stood next to a pile of coal soot - the remainder of a mountaintop in the state of Pennsylvania that had been mined, feeling similar to what you did with the loss of the maple tree. All I could think of was that it took millions of years to build this place, and now in a matter of a few years, it's been completely altered in a very damaging way.