The vastness of nature:a key to human insight
The early decades of the twenty-first century have brought a new wave of interest in environmental issues. I remember in the early days of the movement, concern about the worsening state of the earth was very much in the air. I remember I was part of the small team building Vajraloka in 1979, and our boss Atula got me to make a composting toilet. I designed it like a huge throne, with a small ladder to take you up to the seat. A few of my readers may remember sitting upon it because we used it during the years the retreat centre had no mains water. The actual seat was made from the same batch of mahogany we used for the shrines at the London Buddhist Centre and Vajraloka. After six or eight months this wonderful throne brought forth grand barrels of rich, and quite odourless, dry manure: a very satisfying conclusion, I always thought, to that whole process. In the early Vajraloka community we also grew vegetables in the front garden – leeks and flowers. But as the 80s gave way to the nineties, concerns with compost and gardening became quaint, uninteresting, almost an object of disdain. What became popular was money, material comfort and personal security. And over that whole decade, the relevance of nature and the environment seemed to decrease. But now something seems to be shifting. There's a new sense that we need to look for new approaches. There’s an uncomfortable awareness of the damage our way of living has created, a sense that we need to find approaches that harmonise with the living forces of nature; that we need to regain the respect of the earth.
For me that shift happened over the eighteen month solitary retreat I spent in a canvas dome, alone in the midst of wild nature. I went there soon after 9/11. I lived very simply, burning wood, drawing water from the hillside, and not resisting: allowing myself to be affected by the sun, rain, insects, animals, and the wind. That experience taught me how we always learn from nature, in a very simple way, in a way I, at least, seemed largely to have forgotten. Nature very straightforwardly taught me how to be less insistent about my preferences, and my need for convenience. When you live on the side of a hill, you learn from such simple natural facts as the frequent need to go outside. You cannot avoid it; you have to go out into the weather to get more wood, get some water. To go to the toilet or clean your teeth, you have to go out there. Often that is fine. As you can imagine, you generally want to be outside. For me it was beautiful to be living in a grove of trees, with a view of hills and mountains. Sometimes, though, you feel real resistance. Sometimes, if the weather is very cold or very wet - or you are very ill - there is great resistance. Yet there is no choice. Resistance or no resistance, you just have to go out there and do it. After a few months of this apparent harshness, something shifts. You learn that it actually doesn't matter, that it will be OK to go outside — truly, even in the snow or the pouring rain. For it is never as bad as you think. And you start to notice how much your thoughts cause your resistance, actually are your resistance. That one constructs a wall of ideas about how things are that merely obscures how things are. Country people sometimes understand this better, for in the country, you learn you must accept the weather. In the city, we feel that nature hardly touches us. In the magnificence of city life human beings have acquired a conviction that we are more powerful than nature, even that we are beyond it: nature is a lower order of existence.
Yet this seems a very great mistake. To feel superior or even different from nature seems a great hubris or arrogance. This is how many indigenous peoples would see it and for Buddhism, which still retains its roots in natural living, there is no such separation. People, animals, insects and plants all participate, in an amazing diversity of ways, in what is essentially the same nature. What is that nature?
That is what we need to look and reflect deeply about. Some kind of understanding of our nature as living beings is an essential basis for gaining insight into reality. That is how dharma enquiry always proceeds: through listening to, reflecting on, and meditating with our dharma view. In the Buddha's eightfold path this, the primary stage of right view, is not a dogmatic position but our growing understanding of actions having consequences and of things being impermanent, unsatisfactory and empty of self. It is not a view in the abstract or philosophical sense of the word. It is our view as our attitude and perspective, how we perceive the quality of the world in and around us. This preliminary stage of mundane Right View is what stimulates the other seven aspects of the path to unfold; when the path is complete it is the supra mundane Perfect View, the goal of the path. So over time it is a perspective that it is continually clarified through reflection and study; it is a provisional, evolving standpoint from which one may look again and again in meditation at how things really are.
In this Buddhist right view 'nature' is not separated from buddha-nature, or to use Sangharakshita's clarification of the conditioning processes in operation beyond samsara, Dharmaniyama). Nature is the universe of all processes. For example moral processes are a living dynamic not dependent on commandment, and there are other such dynamic conditioning processes ranging from pre-aware chemical and cellular levels of life, through simple sentience to fully awakened, enlightened awareness. Hence rocks and bugs may be far from Buddhas, but all partake of 'mind' in some form, even if that is the simplest sentient, biological or even chemical inclination. The difference is in the realisation of the overall reality. Even most humans are far from that realisation despite their capacity for it.
So we should beware rejecting 'nature' even subtly since it includes the very reality we are seeking to penetrate. On the contrary we should feel its inseparability from us, even revere it as a teacher and seek insights from it. Of course to see how nature is not different from our real nature that is Dharmaniyama, we need to appreciate our connection with it. That can be a problem since most of us have become quite alienated from nature: our lives take place in artificial environments and we have little first hand contact with sources of food and other necessities. Fortunately, dharma is precisely what counters alienation and re-connects us to our real nature. At first, through body awareness practices like anapānasati, mettābhāvana or mindfulness, the dharma connects us to simple nature, our elemental, embodied, earth-and-water nature. Further on and more fundamentally, it connects with our buddha-nature: with the fact that all forms of being 'contain the seed of Buddhahood'; are relatively able to receive the influence of the Dharmaniyama.
This article is an exploration of both nature and buddha-nature using the example of 'deep' ecology. Deep ecology can be seen as a form of dharma inasmuch as it offers a way into reality, the way things really are. Ordinary 'shallow' ecology is the long established science of natural relationships, the study of all beings’ relations to one another and to the physical environment in which they live. By appreciating how all beings relate to one another in their immense array of needs and desires, one gains a vast overview of the interrelations between all life, everywhere. This leads to the scientific kind of insight.
Scientific insights, including ecological ones, are decidedly not (Buddhist) vipashyana. Aside from pure research, and its laudable benefit to the wider environment, the anthropocentric outcome of ecology is the security of safe and convenient lifestyles. Thus despite the world-transcending universality of the ecological vision a self-serving ego remains as its observer. For real insight (vipashyana) to arise for the individual this must be seen as empty of actual self, so ego ceases to be the motivator of activity.
Deep ecology can be viewed as an externalisation of this desirable dissolution of ego, as well as a source of ego challenging reflections that are likely to seed it. For humankind is not the reference for deep ecology's viewpoint. What makes deep ecology 'deep' is its abandonment of anthropocentricity: human needs are seen as playing a non-privileged role in the ocean of influences that is existence. This view is closer to the way things actually are; the whole of life seen as the interplay of naturally interacting, ultimately non-personal forces in a very similar way to pratityasamutpada, the Buddha's idea of dependent origination. Like pratityasamutpada, deep ecology is a model anyone can employ to gain deeper viewpoints and act from them — to see things as they are, with compassion beyond self, letting go self-cherishing for the sake of benefiting the whole.
The purpose of even 'deep' ecology is of course distinct from that of Buddhism; yet its findings evoke transformational perspectives more or less identical with the simultaneity of emptiness and compassion, or the insights of anatta, anicca, and sunyata realised through Buddhist trainings. The ecological perspective is a scientific revelation of all life forms' actual interdependence. In this vision beings end up defining one another, so that in the big picture they more or less are one another. This is an aspect of sunyata sometimes called 'interbeing' or interconnectedness, in which our identity is seen clearly to be inseparable from that of others.
The terrain of emptiness is by its very nature impossible to express effectively, so no one, let alone I, will be able to explain interconnectedness in a way everyone will find satisfying. When you look into any aspect of it, existence is actually inconceivable. The real nature of identity and ownership can be revealed only to the individual, through committed dharma practice. And my point here is that the experimental method of deep ecology gets us doing that. Looking from the point of view of other beings, imagining what it is like to be them, looking out for their needs, and avoiding treating them with violence is a doorway into sunyata - and its correlate, compassion - for the 21st century. Nature becomes the ‘other’ which can enable us to break through self and other. Here ‘other’ is neither limited nor exclusive to other human beings.
Aside from existential insight, deep ecology also offers ethical insights. Aldo Leopold remarked on how we have enlarged our ethical sense over the years, and how this has enhanced human life. Not long ago, people could be disposed of like property. You could give away your son, wife or daughter to someone else, if you wanted to. You could sell them for cash; you could buy a servant, hang your slaves, execute your workers. Although in some quarters the dreadful trade in human beings continues, it is no longer acceptable as part of civilised life. We respect human life. But in still treating nature as though it can be property, we disrespect it. In the 21st century you can still do pretty much what you like to the land you own, and to the animals on it. Indeed you can still own animals who certainly have individual lives. And you can still own land. From a deeply considered perspective, owning other beings and their habitats is a violent and unhelpful way to be in the world. Leopold said that human beings will enter a new evolutionary stage when we extend our notion of ethics to the environment, and we start actually feeling that using nature like property is wrong. Perhaps a Buddhist angle would be that it is unethical to ‘use’ nature because nature is nothing else but living beings, and so to use nature like property would be an abuse of our own brothers and sisters. For the land we have always lived on is not just soil. It is not just dirt to us. If we have come to see the earth beneath us like that, what a loss, what a degeneration it is. If you look closely, a handful of soil is a community of living beings. The reason we don’t see that is because we are cut off from our place in that community. To take our place again will mean more than just thinking through these issues, even though we must start there. It will mean noticing and dissolving the alienation in our bodies and minds. In life it will mean extending our ethical awareness to the whole of nature: to the lives of trees, hillsides and the ocean. For the main thing is familiarisation: it will mean spending a lot more time in nature while at the same time appreciating that we can never leave nature; appreciating nature isn't a matter of going out into the country but of seeing, even in a city street, the elemental reality of our environment.
It is hard to get much sense of what this shift will really entail. If you’re a typical introvert you probably feel you need to be on your own sometimes. The time honoured way of addressing this desire is to go into the country and spend time in nature. That’s why a lot of people move out to the country, or do country retreats. You go to the country for a week, say, and you feel refreshed. But is the refreshment really a consequence of being alone? It may have something to do with not having other humans around, but when we go into the country we not alone: we are more alone in the city, effectively, where there is just tarmac, glass, machines and a lot of other humans. In the city there is very little diversity of life with tiny numbers of insects, trees, grasses, birds and animals whereas in th
e country we are surrounded by mind-numbingly vast numbers of non human life forms. We are surrounded by a huge multiplicity of plants, trees, grasses, birds, insects, animals –thousands upon thousands of individual creatures and entities. I suspect then that the refreshment we feel in the countryside comes not so much from solitude but from connection with that vast diversity of living nature.
The Buddha himself lived out of doors by choice. All spiritual practitioners benefit, like him, from deep contact with nature. We can all use that awareness, in the Mahayana spirit, to gain insight into reality. Meditation, too, in the sense of dhyana, offers us a way to connect deeply with nature, to experience a kind of communion with huge, unexpressed nature, manifest in the four great elements, the great spirits, the Mahabhutas. Nature is vastly other than ourselves, and we can use its otherness to get a glimpse beyond ego clinging. Perhaps in a more obvious way, involvement in nature offers insight into anattā, our non-selves, simply because we ourselves are part of nature; it is never somewhere else, confined to a park or a flower pot. We only have to look directly at our own body and senses to realise how much we don’t understand even that which is closest to us and which governs by far the greatest part of our needs and desires. We discover our alienation from nature, and the reunion we need with nature, right here inside our clothes. Our relationship with nature is there in the way we hold ourselves, it is there in our tensions and stresses, perhaps even sometimes in our disease. Our own bodies are mysterious, wild nature where we can become much more intensely conscious of the earth, water, and fire of our body, and of its movement in space.
The elements are part of the Buddha's teaching of satipatthāna, the insightful awareness of the body, its sensations, its feelings. First its immediate tactile reality; then its pleasures and joys; then our responses, and our understanding of what is really going on.
What are bodies? There is so much here that relates to our social relations, our sexuality, and our sense of community. Through relational sensibilities like these nature provides gentle feedback that is humbling and humiliating. So it’s easy for us subtly, perhaps without really noticing, to withdraw from its light. For nature is so awesome in its diversity and its devastating power. Its otherness transcends the ordinary world even though it is none other than the ordinary world. Nature, you could say, is the fact of otherness. In the Triratana community, as in Buddhism generally, there is a great deal written and said about the insight of transcending the opposition we all feel between a sense of selfness and otherness. And we talk about the Mahayana perspective of connecting with vast numbers of living beings. We talk about creating Pure Lands etc… yet it seems we tend to think of all these living beings as human. Sometimes we perhaps may think of them as angels. But certainly nothing much "below" the human realm gets included. Our imagination of the world tends to consist solely of humans and human artefacts: human buildings, human technology, human relations. Human art, human culture. We know that animals etc., do of course come under the category of ‘other beings’, but when we think of the Bodhisattva going around benefiting others, I reckon we think, mostly, of human others. I wonder why, when there are so many other others just as evident to our senses.
The standard answer there is, of course, that human beings are in the best position to benefit from a Bodhisattva's dharma teachings. Humans are uniquely able to listen, understand and apply the teachings. Animals, insects and plants just don’t have time, leisure and opportunity. Or the intelligence, we like to think. But their receptivity to us is hardly the point. Their apparent lack of what we have is hardly relevant. Because there is such a thing as compassion, empathy, and friendship. The point for a practitioner is, surely, that they exist. Other beings do have a life, and they definitely have needs. And in our society, for most of the time, we don’t even know that they are there. This, for Buddhists, especially Mahayana Buddhists, seems quite odd. No, it seems to me that we have a duty towards our fellow beings, simply because they are there and have definite needs. Their apparent lack of intelligence is not only irrelevant, it demonstrates the vulnerability we need to be aware of. And the fact that our present society is systematically walling them up in a kind of tomb, covering over their existence with concrete, and media culture, - that fact makes our duty as Buddhists even stronger, it seems to me.
Buddhists are going to want to protect the needs of their fellow beings. That’s where our practice leads. I think we want to be aware of others’ existence, and not behave as though our world consists only of humans, or that it is appropriate to mistreat non human beings.
No disrespect is intended here towards humanity. There may seem to be a conflict between the emphasis I’m making here, on our place in the overall community of nature, and the emphasis in traditional Buddhism on the importance of human birth and human enlightenment. But there isn’t really a conflict – it’s just different for our time and culture. Traditional Buddhism arose within natural cultures, societies in which everyone was well connected with nature. Our present society is, I think, extreme. It seems to have become unusually artificial, extraordinarily separated from natural realities. I imagine on the whole, much of society in the Buddha’s day was the other way round. Certainly there were far fewer people, and there was far more wilderness. Then, nature was unavoidable. And it was dangerous. It was overwhelming. Human beings clustered in towns for security. But nowadays it’s the town that is everywhere, and there is virtually no wilderness anywhere. There are only ‘designated wilderness areas’ - which seem rather like contradictions in terms.
Sometimes deep ecology is caricatured as being against the human race, somehow, because humans are the ones causing the ecological problems. I think this is a caricature, or an extremist interpretation. Deep ecologists do make the distinction that I described earlier, between anthropocentrism - an overview of life that is human-centred - and ecocentrism, a more objective overview that includes all points of view. But the analysis is just operational, for understanding the situation better. Deep ecology is not really saying that anthropocentrism’s bad, and ecocentrism’s good. It’s simply pointing out that our human centred-ness poses certain ecological problems. We are far, far more powerful, and are capable of far, far more greed and violence, than any other beings on the planet. That capability has certain implications. For one thing, it implies that we should be responsible in our behaviour towards others. Even for our own good.
The reason that Buddhism puts so much stress on the human state, as we know, is only because it’s us who can talk and think about enlightenment. Buddhism is not saying that other beings are unimportant, just because they can’t do that. This is evident from the Buddha’s own very respectful behaviour towards animals and other non human beings, and his recommendations to his disciples.
Their capacity for enlightenment is not the issue. The issue is that nonhuman beings are aware in more or less the same way as we are. They have bodies that feel. They have eyes. They have ears. They have skin. So they feel pleasure. So they feel pain. They experience positive emotions and negative emotions. They have likes and dislikes. They get hungry, and they get horny. They become sick, and pretty soon they die. Just like we do. The objects and qualities of all these feelings are different, but then their worlds are different. Just like ours, really. So I think we should reflect about the actual reality of their awareness. We should not dismiss other beings simply because they do not, apparently, have the capacity for enlightenment. Remember, we aren't enlightened either. And they are there. So for now, they are part of our family and they deserve our respect, because they depend upon us, and because we can learn from their very existence.
They can give us clues as to what awareness is. They can teach us something about our buddha-nature. They can also be our teachers when they hold a mirror up before us. If we see our own attitudes towards animals, insects and plants, we can learn a lot about ourselves. If we are happy to treat any other being badly - even a plant, or an insect - it is affecting our mind right now. Violence happens in the heart, and it’s a painful obstruction. That's why it helps us, as practitioners, to acknowledge attitudes we have towards the natural world.
 Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press