Seeing true nature: Buddhism and the environment

In an age of increasing environmental destruction, Buddhism can inspire the ecological awareness that’s necessary for a more balanced existence. 

John Worthington-Hill
14 July 2014

Another Place/Anthony Gormley. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Today you’d be hard pushed to find a corner of the biosphere that is unaltered by human hands. In some places, nature has been rendered almost incapable of sustaining healthy life.

The growth of industrial society has caused a rapid loss of species that is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the rate of extinctions that would have occurred in the absence of human activity. Manmade emissions have increased the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to its highest level in several million years, and the onset of human-induced climate change is set to produce ever more devastating effects.

So extensive is the human impact on the planet that a growing number of scientists think we’ve entered a new geological epoch called the ‘Anthropocene:’ a new reality that signifies irreversible changes in the Earth's ecosystems.

In this new reality, it’s our unremitting mood of indifference and lack of moral restraint that I find most disturbing. How did we get here, and how is it that we are able to carry on like this?

All cultures and societies provide pre-determined criteria for moral behaviour. In the West, the inherited framework for morality is based on individual rights and entitlements that place human interests at the summit of ethical concerns - an orthodoxy that can be traced back to the ‘Age of Enlightenment,’ and specifically to Rene Descartes.

Dubbed the father of modern philosophy, Descartes’ bifurcation of all things in existence as either of ‘mind’ or ‘matter’ led him to conclude that nature, lacking mind, had no value except in human use. Philosophers have also linked the emergence of an exploitative attitude towards the environment in the West to the medieval ethos of human supremacy over the world, with human beings as the crown of creation and the centre of the universe.

Buddhism sees things differently. It is perhaps the Eastern religion that is most associated with ideas of holism and a romantic, pre-modern understanding of nature as a source of spiritual fulfilment. But the Buddha’s teachings, referred to as ‘Dhamma’, are less mystic and more pragmatic than many people believe.

Buddhism’s first precept is that of non-harm, and the first ruler in history to advocate conservation measures for wildlife – Indian emperor, Ashoka Maurya (304-232 BCE) – was a Buddhist. For many environmental philosophers, however, Buddhism’s position on the environment remains somewhat ambiguous. It doesn’t appear to provide direct guidance on the proper attitude towards the natural world. This is largely because there is some discord between Buddhist understanding and environmental ethics – a recent branch of philosophy which presupposes that the environment is something external to ourselves.

In explaining this discord, it is useful to remember the Buddha’s distinction between ‘conventional reality’ and ‘ultimate reality.’ Conventional reality is the way things appear to be, giving rise to structure and organisation in the world. Central to conventional reality is the sense of self: a realm of thoughts and feelings, aspirations and fears, opinions and memories that inhabit a human body and look outwards at the world. People tend to have strong ideas about their own personal identity, constituted by things like family, nationality, religion, occupation and possessions.  

Ultimate reality, on the other hand, transcends this first-person experience. It resembles the ‘Bundle Theory’ of philosopher David Hume, which describes all things in terms of properties and conditions within an ever-changing universe rather than as independent objects.

This perspective, for example, means that a river can only be fully understood in terms of the properties of water and the forces of physics, the geology of the land, the life it supports and the hydrological cycle. The synthesis of forces and conditions that we perceive as a ‘river’ remains recognisable in itself, and yet intrinsically it exists as an element of a much wider system. The emphasis is placed on an underlying fabric of interdependence.

If the self is considered in the same way, how much substance is there in what you or I think of as ‘me’? A person is also a constantly changing ‘bundle’ of mental and physical states, each one giving rise to another. In accordance with Buddhist thought, Hume describes the mind as “a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in a variety of postures and situations.”

In Buddhism, the self is understood as an ongoing process rather than an underlying thing. Despite what’s inferred from conventional reality, there is no one, single, abiding entity or essence behind or within our thoughts, words and deeds. Hence in Buddhism, ‘individuality’ – a notion particularly well embedded in Western culture – is an oversimplification: an illusion in the sense that our preconditions and assumptions lead us to believe that we are completely separate from everyone and everything else in the universe.

On a personal level, problems arise when we get caught up in the physical, mental and emotional experiences that characterise this individual sense of self. We become driven by notions of being and having, and in the process we become the cause of our own suffering by craving for, and becoming attached to, things that are impermanent. This inevitably leads to dissatisfaction, unease and anxiety.  

But the consequences of these existential misunderstandings reach far beyond our own individual lives. In fact, self-centeredness is the great illness from which all imbalance, insensitivity and abuse ultimately stem – an illness directly linked to the Buddha’s ‘three poisons of greed, ill-will and delusion’. These poisonous mentalities seep into the collective consciousness and are instilled in the norms and structures of culture and society, helping to direct how politics and economics deal with the environment.

By contrast, Buddhist principals treat the mind and body, the self and environment, as inseparable. Environmental destruction is therefore an outer manifestation of an inner affliction. If our thoughts are polluted, then our actions will be polluted too, and so will their consequences.

Therefore, the way we perceive and understand ourselves is crucial in determining the way we act. It shapes the way we perceive and understand each other and the environment. By thinking and acting as separate we create disharmony. Disharmony is both a symptom and cause of alienation from the natural world, as well as blindness to our own true nature.

Reversing this process means breaking down artificial boundaries between people and nature to reveal the underlying reality of unity and wholeness. The perceiver is an inextricable part of whatever is being perceived, bound together in a state of interdependence. This viewpoint coheres with the latest scientific understanding of ecological functioning, perhaps most demonstrably in the phenomenon of trophic cascades - powerful indirect interactions that can control entire ecosystems.

Both philosophically and ecologically therefore, our own interests can be seen as the same as the interests of the whole – a realisation that sets the tone for a more balanced relationship between society and nature. As the Anthropocene plays out, the future of the planet is, for the first time, at least partly under the control of conscious, reasoning human beings. But for any kind of viable shared future, people must nurture the awareness and understanding that enables the regulation of their impulses and behaviour – a morality based on self-discipline, or something Buddhism calls the ‘middle way.’

People must also cultivate a new appreciation and reverence for the inviolable sanctity of all forms of life, rooted in humility, respect and compassion as the basis for making every decision and assessing the appropriateness of every action.

As an old Asian proverb goes, “The careful foot can tread anywhere.” Just as we may come to a better understanding of nature along the way, so may we also see ourselves as we really are. 

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