Buddhism and Nature seminar, Birmingham
Western Buddhists are currently elucidating the concept of ecoDharma which, briefly defined, is the ecological expression of the Buddha’s teaching. They obviously feel that the viewpoint of Buddhism is an especially valuable voice in the gathering response to the ecological crisis. But what is it that makes a difference? Is there a possibility that some of us in our eagerness to interact with similarly minded people may lose sight of essential aspects of traditional teaching and end up distorting its liberating message? At this stage of such a promising enterprise it is important to consider how exactly the Buddhist doctrines we are invoking support our ecological perspective.
It is sometimes assumed that Buddhism has historically been exceptionally ecologically motivated. Its monastic precepts, for example, forbid disturbing the earth; and the ten essential precepts are clearly intended to foster a nonviolent respect for all forms of life. However in practice, as Malcolm David Eckel has shown, Buddhist society down the ages has not been notably free from anthropocentrism, and environmentally considerate values have not been held in a unified way across the various traditions.
Yet the inconsistency results from influences in world culture rather than anything inherent in Buddhism itself. For it may be argued that aspects of EcoDharma have been intrinsic to Buddhism from the very beginning. To give one key example, according to Reginald Ray its traditional practices have actively and consciously counteracted alienation from nature, a universal phenomenon singled out by the ecological movement as a cause for humanity’s most damaging problems.
Alienation from nature is attributed to a diversity of causes including human greed, dualistic religion and scientific ignorance. However it may also be identified with the primary obscuration to awakening pinpointed by Buddhism: avidya or moha. To understand this, we need to see our disconnection from the point of view of the Buddhist way of seeing nature. To do this it seems there is enough overlap between Buddhist and western notions of ‘nature’ to allow us, for now, to set aside detailed examination of the equivalent concepts in ancient Indian and Buddhist discourse such as dhatu, kaya, or prakriti as contrasted with samskrita.
The primary meaning of the English noun ‘nature’ is the collectivity of inhabitants and products of the earth (sometimes as distinct from humanity and its creations), along with the forces causing and regulating them. Thus the word can be used as roughly equivalent to more precise contemporary words like ecosphere or biosphere.
A secondary meaning of ‘nature’ is the inherent quality of a thing or person, as when we say ‘I wouldn’t read a book of that nature’ or ‘she’s generous by nature.’ Drawing on this secondary meaning we commonly use the adjectives ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ when we subjectively feel that something is harmonious or disharmonious, normal or abnormal. Some people may consider it unnatural for horses to wear blinkers, men to wear trousers, or people to behave badly; others that it is natural to be somewhat greedy or ignorant.
Both primary and secondary strands of meaning are found in Buddhism. The first, i.e. the phenomena of our world along with all their relations and causal conditions, is equivalent to Dharmadhatu or the entire sphere of phenomena. Buddhism does not make a division, in this context, between human and nonhuman realms or between matter and mind. Mental processes like perception and volition are as much part of nature as trees and physical movement; certain realms of existence (the arupadhatu) are held to be entirely nonmaterial.
In other words whatever happens is natural; nothing can happen against nature. All phenomena in the three dhatus are part of nature by virtue simply of their manifestation according to universal laws such as pratityasamutpada: ‘this being, that becomes.’ So when the Buddha said in the Dhammapada, “hatred never cures hatred, only love can cure it; this is an eternal law,” he was pointing not only to a psychological method but also, more universally, to the way things happen in nature.
Then with reference to the secondary meaning, everything including the diverse processes of spiritual development has its own nature, its particular qualities and limitations, and unfolds only in certain ways. Under certain conditions only does seed give rise to sprout, then to plant, and only then to flower and fruit. Often the nature of these propensities is only partially comprehended; they may not even be known about. The British biologist J.B.S. Haldane is famously credited with the statement that the natural environment is not only more complex than we imagine, but also more complex than we can imagine. Similarly in the Buddhist sunyata view of things, natural processes are ultimately indescribable and cannot, by definition, even be understood. Their apparent identities are actually empty, unfixed and ultimately inconceivable. This difficult truth, too, is natural, is in their nature, is the nature of all reality.
There is no sense that the Buddhist path is ‘against nature’ except in the secondary sense that its practices transform naturally formed ignorant views and behaviours. The progressive unfolding of factors in the Buddha’s teaching of pratityasamutpada shows how personal progress toward awakening is a natural process taking place only under particular conditions. This potential, latent in all beings, is the Buddha Nature. The Buddhas, who alone realize this nature in the fullness of its wisdom and compassion, are themselves part of its process. They do not stand outside or above nature, for nothing can. Teachers and writers have sometimes called this path of progress ‘transcendental,’ terminology that may sometimes cause confusion with teachings aiming to separate its practitioners from ‘matter’ or ‘the world.’ It is thus important to clarify that what is transcended through wisdom and compassion is not nature itself, but samsara, i.e. that aspect of nature characterized by ignorance of the spiritual path. The Buddha showed that the principle of pratityasamutpada or conditioned co-arising applies also to the generation of the qualities of awakening. Wisdom and compassion too are natural processes taking place only under certain conditions. Their manifestation is expressed in extremely simple, linear formulae e.g. ‘in dependence upon unsatisfactoriness arises faith,’ but just as with samsaric processes the simplicity is only apparent. When the real nature of the various conditions and their interactions is penetrated through sustained reflection on each particularity and generality, they are seen to be ultimately beyond human understanding. This is especially the case when considering the universe as the totality of simultaneously interacting conditions. The implications of Haldane’s statement about nature being more complex than we can even imagine is not far from those of the Buddha’s famous admonishment of his close disciple Ananda, who rashly claimed that pratityasamutpada was easy to understand.
For the extremely deep viewpoint Buddhism has on nature is not far from the present worldview of ecology, the scientific study of the interaction based on need between organisms and their natural environment. Though usually considered as a branch of biology, ecology is also seen as an overarching or ‘holistic’ science since it unites so many other sources of knowledge. Buddhism itself is definable in this context as the science of awakening, its tradition drawing on millennia of observation and encounter, its practices continually measured against experience.
An ecological model works well for describing Buddhist practice: human beings are composed of live and highly malleable conditionings located within a complex environment of influences including that of the Buddhas. One tradition symbolically represents this interacting mandala of influences as a five-pointed vajra or thunderbolt. This dynamic image comprises at one end the five skandhas – principal aspects of the mind-body experience – and at the other the primary principles of awakening, the five Buddhas. It shows our situation in life as one of inescapable openness to changing conditions combined with a latent ability to modify these, though only in certain ways and under certain circumstances. Our being thus unites samsara and the potential for awakening.
The vajra is also an image of our Buddha Nature. The concept of Buddha Nature takes various forms in tradition, some authorities seeing it as an innate reality that can be revealed through awareness, others as a latent potential that can be actualized through effort. Seen in the latter terms Buddha Nature is uncontroversial as a dharma model. As an ever-present awakened reality, however, the teaching of Buddha Nature is easily misunderstood, and so a lively tradition of criticism continues to the present. Nonetheless despite this problematic aspect various aspects of Buddha Nature thought offer a helpful perspective on nature understood as reality or Ultimate Reality.
Some Buddhist teachers believe the idea of Buddha Nature to be implicit in the earliest Buddhist scriptures. Explicitly, it appears in India around CE 200 with the Tathagatagarbha and Srimaladevisimhanada, Mahayana Sutras that are themselves among the earliest. The Tathagatagarbha, which is probably the oldest, communicates the Buddha Nature entirely in images. It is compared, for example, to a seed covered up by a rough husk. Sentient beings see themselves and others as rough and coarse, when actually they contain seeds of awakening. This is why most people go through life not even noticing that awakening is a possibility for them.
The Srimaladevisimhanadasutra explores all this conceptually and addresses in particular the problem of nihilistic misunderstandings of the doctrine of sunyata, openness or ‘emptiness’. In contrast to the sutras promoting sunyata, which analyse to destruction all conceptual constructions of existence, the Srimala makes daringly positive statements about the nature of things. It points to what reality is not empty of, saying in particular that reality is totally identifiable with the liberated qualities of Buddhahood. This is certainly affirmative, but in what possible sense could it be true? To answer, one needs some practical sense of what it means to negate sunyata, in other words we need to look at what happens in us when we do it. What is nihilism? It is whatever fosters some sense that life is pointless and that there is no objective basis for truth. It may be an extremely subtle attitude and manifest in a diversity of ways. For instance in the current context it might show itself in an unconscious belief that nature (and even reality itself) is evil, dirty, inconvenient, and frightening.
Buddha Nature teaching addresses the heart of such nihilistic attitudes by opening us to the positive nature of reality, that is sunyata. To misunderstand sunyata, in whatever manner, is to lose touch with the spirit of awakening, and that is to lose touch with the fountain of all life. Our present disconnection from nature springs from and is itself a kind of nihilism. It is moha, primordial ignorance of the possibility of awakening. So to the extent that living beings realize the true, positive meaning of sunyata – however they happen to do that, and it is recognized that it need not be through Buddhist means – their lives will become meaningful and freed from nihilism.
The most important point of the Buddha Nature critique of sunyata teaching is that despite the great purity of its deconstruction of our attachment to an illusory conceptual world, we may still end up with a subtly conceptual view. This happens because the Prajnaparamita message is necessarily communicated in language, which, being further commented on, seeds a tradition of debate and commentary. Even though this dialogue is essentially about the fact that concepts only point to reality, and though there are yogic applications of Prajnaparamita that bypass words, the mainstream nonetheless engenders a primacy to words and subtly privileges them. More importantly the style of the language itself, being necessarily negative, easily gives a subtle impression that the reality being referred to, i.e. the poetically termed ‘empty’ nature of all phenomena, has some kind of negative value. The style of the Prajnaparamita texts is constantly to caution the reader from construing anything concrete from any given data. This is of course a practice to be applied in experience rather than understood in any theoretical way. However the human tendency always to abstract from experience leads people to read into this negative instruction a subtly negative concept of what sunyata is – rather than opening, in experience, to the living positive reality that sunyata is. This inevitably stops them short on the path of realization of that living reality. Ironically this difference is precisely what the Prajnaparamita is indicating; yet still the true message is missed.
The response to this of the Buddha Nature style of discourse, in saying that the Buddha qualities are ever present, points directly to the living reality of nature which is already there and always has been, yet which we do not notice. From a nature perspective, this immediacy is true wildness, the natural, unfixed and inconceivable state of things. The seeming provocative assertion that our ‘ordinary’ experience already is an experience of awakening (if experienced it as it really is) accords perfectly well, when seen aright, with familiar Buddhist teachings. Yet one needs to understand those more basic teachings already, and from experience, for this positive approach to make real sense. From a point of view of one who knows they want awakening, it is true to say there are no real obstacles, or that the obstacles are no other than Buddhas – just so long as one addresses them in experience, and has the understanding of emptiness and impermanence, wisdom and compassion. If one aims to experience each apparent obstacle as it really is, dependently arisen and empty, it is seen to be no obstacle at all but a gateway into awakening. This approach is deeply encouraging for the experienced practitioner. The relative newcomer, who as yet does not know themselves and so needs to focus more on what holds them back, will tend to see obstacles not as mutable opportunities but as somewhat fixed entities.
This is the entrance way to so called ‘nondual’ experience, one of unfolding-towards-compassion, or what we could call it true wildness, the ‘natural state’. It is simply the practice of mindfulness, but fully applied. As certainty in wildness becomes deeply established and one begins to open out to and incorporate it, meditation – and eventually all experience – becomes ‘elemental,’ i.e. consisting of a pure spectrum of sensation beyond the usual ego based reactions to sensations to be clung to if liked, or repelled if disliked.
The process of awakening is one of acknowledging the truth of the nature of things beyond hopes and fears that ones experience will be like this or that, and growing confidence in the consummate value of this. One is learning to trust the truth of nature, of wildness in the sense of unobstructed novelty and creativity. In this sense nature is the ultimate dharma teacher. This teacher is not nature in any romantic sense, or in the cyclic eternally recurrent sense, but nature in relation to Buddha Nature – as shown in the model of the vajra, the ecological web of dynamic influence led by that of the Buddhas. In many Buddhist scriptures, nature is portrayed as protecting, maintaining or offering the dharma and is personified by the earth goddess, naga king, naga princess and many other nonhuman and animistic figures. Nature is a medium for Dharma teaching and realization, since one cannot practice using concepts alone: they must become embodied, natural, living realities. So to realise wisdom and compassion one needs to reflect on nature and apply it in nature, in actual lived experience. To reflect in a transformative way on impermanence, insubstantiality, pleasure and pain (sukkha-dukkha) is not merely to think, but to go more deeply into, accept and embody, the reality of wildness, the truly natural state.
Merely being around more trees will not necessarily conduce to awakening. Most of us need for our development periods of intensive contact with other practitioners, and for real world applications of the dharma it is hard to beat our reactions to others around us. Nonetheless, going into wildness does offer unique benefits for dharma practice. At least for a while, most people relax and look more deeply at their existence in a greener environment where non-human life predominates. Wildness shows the larger context; one senses ones place in the web of relatedness. There are also deeper, more challenging benefits. Modern towns are designed to segregate us from the elements, to protect us from danger, provide maximum convenience, to be economical and provide for our many desires. So it is not easy to leave behind the physical convenience of our artificial world of straight lines, flat planes and standard shapes. The bewildering diversity of unique forms and influences that is nature challenges the fixity of our ego’s dependence on convenience. Yet there is nothing more rewarding than opening to these teachings, and the relaxing influence of naturalness can make it relatively easy to let go the more usual resistance and see: there is life beyond clean and dirty, wet and dry, convenient and inconvenient; beyond all the ego issues we are normally stuck in. Learning from nature like this leads us naturally into simpler ways of living. The very simple lives lived by many awakened people illustrates the value, in the special context of practice, of renunciation and abandonment of unnecessary possessions. A simple life naturally brings emotional clarity, freedom of heart and undistracted attention. This is difficult to maintain in artificial surroundings.
The material and technological progress we have inherited is led largely by the selfish demands of ego, a build-up that imposes difficult spiritual tasks on our generation. The surge of modern life has washed us up on a very dry and featureless shore, alienated from the richness of life and the spirit of spiritual fulfillment. Yet just as over time a polluted sea mends and purifies itself once pollutants cease being added, the human mind always possesses the potential to purify itself completely.