Buddhism: The Child of Nature
Nature, beautiful and sometimes stunning, has a great capacity to impress our hearts. These impressions often become a source of spiritual uplift and at times take a few of us to the heights of spiritual enlightenment. All religions insist on the sanctity of life, but in Buddhism this principal extends to connect an individual not only with all life but also with all Nature. Since its inception, Buddhism has remained close to Nature. In Buddhism, Nature is not merely a supply source for our material needs. The Earth is seen as a living entity, and therefore Nature has a dynamic role in our lives. This respect for nature is inherent in Buddhism not only because it is the basis for much of its teachings, but because Buddhism itself is a product of Nature.
To discuss the hypothesis that Buddhism emerged from nature, we need to look at the environment in which Buddhism evolved. Prince Siddhartha, who later became Buddha, left his kingdom (human society) and went into the wilderness. He interacted with Nature to discover human salvation and the secrets of enlightenment. This direct interaction with Nature helped form the basic teachings of Buddhism and, due to this fact, we can say that Nature was a vehicle that formed the basic premises of Buddhism. These teachings have kept their essence to the present day. This is one of the reasons that gives Buddhism a very direct relationship to Nature and it appears to be a religion based on the laws of Nature.
The American monk, Thomas Merton, writes about his personal transformation while he was at a forest monastery: “If we reside in nature and near trees and rocks we’ll discover feelings and thoughts arising that are truly out of the ordinary . . . the lessons nature teaches us lead to a new birth” (Swearer: 25). Buddha was transformed the same way through his dialogue with the forces of Nature. He converted this transformation into his teachings, which are the true reflection of Nature itself.
When we are close to Mother Nature, we all have moments of reflection about the nature of things and sometimes we reflect upon our own nature. At such moments we are at peace with ourselves and the rest of the world. Buddha struggled with these reflections at a much higher level and went into the world to teach his realization. His teachings have had a profound impact on the world. Phra Prayudh, who has studied the life of Buddha and the early Sangha* (council of monks), writes, “the Buddha should not be revered because he lived near trees . . . rather he should be respected as one who realized dhamma* and then taught it” (Dehejia: 29).
Buddha went into the wilderness and started his fast to know the cause of suffering. He fasted for a long period but when he failed in his meditation to find the cause of suffering, he started giving nutrition to his body. When he was strong he meditated again. This time he persisted and struggled not only with mara*, the entity of negative forces in Buddhism, but also with the natural phenomena of heat, cold and rain. If we look closely at this struggle we may see it was actually the struggle between the positive and negative forces of Nature. His struggle was like the struggle of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Buddha struggled with mara just as Adam and Eve struggled with the serpent. Through this struggle he came out as an enlightened one thathad the capability to control the forces of Nature. Due to the fact that Buddha’s struggle was with the forces of Nature and not with the ills of society, his teachings consisted of the principals that were very close to Nature. Buddha in this way is very different from the founders of other religions, who primarily struggled with the ills of human societies and based most of their teachings on the reforms of those societies. Emanating from the wilderness, Buddhism from the very beginning stressed not only the sanctity of life of all living beings but also the preservation of Nature for the benefit of all living beings.
The prophets of all the monotheistic religions went into the wilderness for their realization: Moses went away from his people and came back with Ten Commandments, Christ went into the desert and fought with Satan (in the Buddhist perspective maya) and Muhammad went into the cave for meditation. But these prophets came back to address the issues of their societies. Their approach to spirituality was in the context of human relationships and morality, whereas Buddha dealt with the issues of human nature and its relationship with the Universe and a Supreme Being (Buddha never referred to God as a static entity). His concerns were about the human suffering that appears when individuals refuse to follow the ethics ingrained in them by nature. His teachings were an effort to define the relationship of humanity with Nature for the sake of human spirituality.
When Buddha defeated the distractions of the evil maya, he made earth his witness by the mudra* (hand gesture) “Calling the Earth to Witness"; the witness who could give evidence that Buddha was successful to find the enlightened path and that hefulfilled his duty of teaching it. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Buddha called on goddess Earth to testify to his worthiness to achieve enlightenment, and to thus escape the mortal realm of Mara into Nirvana” (218) This act of making Earth as a witness was the sign that showed that the new way of life of Buddhism was the real path of the children of earth, the children of Mother Nature.
Buddhist monks have always gone back to the core of their religion, the time when Buddha made Earth his witness and started his teachings. Going back to the origin of Buddhism is also going back to its foundation on Nature. A Thai monk, Achan Pongsak Techathamamoo, who is an environmental activist, says, “Dharma, the Buddhistword for truth and the teachings, is also the word for Nature. That is because they are the same. Nature is the manifestation of truth and of teachings” (Sponsel: 47). In other words, the teaching of Buddhism and Nature are two sides of the same coin.
In Buddhism there are a number of words that are used for the term ‘Nature.’ Some of them are samsara, prakrti, svabhava, pratitya-samutpada, dharmadhatu,dharmata, and dhammajati. All these words refer to some aspect of nature. For example, Samsara in its usual sense denotes the totality of sentient beings (sattvaloka) caught in the cycle of life (Harris: 381). These encompassing definitions of Nature show the important role of Nature in forming the teachings of Buddhism.
All religions adopt the symbols of the societies in which they evolve. They address the issues of their societies through their spiritual teachings which is their primary motive. Buddha left society for Nature, and as a result all Buddhist symbols and most of the issues that Buddhism has addressed are connected with Nature. Symbols like the Lotus (for enlightenment), the Bodhgaya tree (under which Buddha started his teaching), Earth (as a witness of Buddha), the elephant or the wheel (representations of Buddha’s presence) are all derived from Nature. Critics can argue that this symbolism of Buddhism is due to the fact that in the 3rd century B.C.E, when Gutama Buddha started his teaching, society was simple and close to Nature, and therefore its symbols are simple and derived from Nature. But the fact that Buddha left society and went into the wilderness to meditate and that his teachings started from wilderness shows that the main premises of Buddhism evolved directly from the impressions of Nature. Hinduism commenced much before Buddhism (in between 4000 to 2200 B.C.E) in the same part of the world, India. The society around it was not only simpler than the time Buddhism commenced but also the human settlements were scattered and existed like islands in the wilderness but we find very few references about nature in mainstream Hinduism. Despite being close to Nature, it evolved among different communities and derived symbols of those communities to address the concerns of that particular society. Most of these concerns were about fertility – fertility in humans to increase population because of the high rate of infant mortality, and fertility in agriculture because they were solely dependent on rain water for their cultivation. This fact refutes the notion that the symbols of Buddha were derived from Nature simply because the society was close to Nature. Rather, it was the entire religion that emerged from Nature with its philosophy and symbols.
All the religions of the world teach preservation of human life and strict laws have been devised against those who kill. Some religions expand this preservation to all living beings, but it’s only Buddhism that clearly connects the degradation or elevation of the natural environment with human morality. According to the ancient text Agganna Sutta, moral degradation effects the external environment. It tells about a time in antiquity when self-growing rice appeared on earth, and out of laziness to collect each meal people started hoarding food. As a result of this hoarding, the crop of rice could not keep pace with the rate of demand; therefore land had to be divided among families. Those who were greedy started robbing from others’ land. When they were suspected they denied that they had stolen. Through greed, vices such as stealing and lying manifested in society. To curb and punish the wrongdoers, a king was elected by the people. The original simple society became much more complex and the daily life of people became more complicated. This moral degradation of people had adverse effects on nature. The richness of the earth diminished and self-growing rice disappeared. Man had to till the land and cultivate rice for food. This cultivated rice appeared with chaff; it needed cleaning before consumption. Since then this chaff reminded people of the negative change they had brought in their society by their moral degradation (Hanh: 93). If we look closely to all the teachings of Buddhism we may find that not only human morality but all the issues of human life have roots in Nature. This deep-rooted connection of Buddhism with Nature and the environment demonstrate how Buddhism itself is the product of Nature.
The concept of interdependence (that is called interbeing in Buddhism) appeared as part of a religious teaching for the very first time in Buddhism. The notion that the universe is a whole in which all the parts depend on each other for mutual survival is one of the basic concepts in Buddhism. If we look at this concept closely, we may find that it can be observed more comprehensively in wilderness. In wilderness, herbivorous animals depend on plants and trees, carnivorous animals depend on other animals, trees and plants depend on the waste matter of animals, animals depend upon the oxygen made by plants and plants depend upon carbon monoxide breathed out by animals, trees depend upon sunlight and rain to create photosynthesis which is food for animals, the whole of wilderness itself depends upon the changes in its environment, and so on and so forth. An enlightened being, like Buddha, after observing all this, made it part of his teachings. Once again, Nature gave birth to the teaching of the religion.
This observation of Interdependence of beings also brought forth the teaching of ahimsa*, or ‘nonharming’ (Kaza and Kraft: 2). Animals only hunt to the quantity they can eat at a time. They don’t horde, as they seem to know that hunting more than they need would destroy the natural balance that has been created by Nature. Ahimsa seems to be the direct derivation of this attitude of hunting animals. Only the people who are close to Nature and only the religion that has taken birth from Nature can devise this teaching that supports the basic law of Nature.
Another concept in Buddhism that is closely connected with interdependence is interconnectedness. This interconnectedness has been described in detail in Flower Garland Sutra* where every being is part of a ‘jeweled net’* of the Goddess Indra* (Habito: 171). If all the sentient beings – mountains, rivers, trees – areconnected with us then we are all part of Nature and nature exists within us. Any philosophy or religion that connects us with Nature in such a profound way must havedeep connections with nature. Zen Buddhists have taken this concept a little further. When an individual continues Buddhist practices, a time comes when he overcomes the dichotomy of ‘inward’ versus ‘outward’ (Habito: 170). A passage from Zen Buddhism texts called Dogen mentions “Delusion is seeing all things from the perspective of the self. Enlightenment is seeing the self from the perspective of the myriad things of the universe” (Habito: 170). In other words there is an outflow and inflow of ‘beingness’ (or identities) when a bodhisattva (one who is on the path of enlightenment) becomes Buddha (the enlightened one). This concept of interconnectedness implies that every one of us is as much a manifestation of Nature as mountains and trees and there is no dichotomy between us and the other sentient beings. This wholeness of existence is a teaching of a religion that evolved in the lap of Mother Nature.
Joan Halifax writes in her essay ‘The Third Body: Buddhism, Shamanism, and Deep Ecology’, published in Dharma Gia (29), “Eastern and tribal peoples have long understood that life is about mutuality and change.” This concept of impermanence (anicca) can be observed more accurately in wilderness than among people in cities. In wilderness the change and its effects are very evident; life and death, winter and summer, day and night, silence and sound, love and hate, all are simple and obvious. Those who live in this environment can very closely observe this phenomenon. Buddha saw it too and therefore it’s safe to conclude that this concept of Buddhism is also a fruit given by Nature.
Buddhism talked about the environment when there was no obvious threat to it. It is probably the first religion, if not the only one that made the preservation and protection of the environment as part of its teachings. There is a set of guidelines in the Pali language called Vinaya (Odin: 99). Among these guidelines, several prohibit monks from polluting green grass and water with saliva, urine and feces. These were the common agents of pollution during Buddha’s day and rules were made to address such pollution. Cleanliness was essential for the monks, both in personal hygiene and in the environment. Early Buddhists were very much concerned about keeping the water resources clean. The sources of water belonged to public, so whoever used them must leave the place with the same degree of cleanliness so that others after him can use them. Rules regarding cleanliness of grass were set by ethical and aesthetic considerations. Moreover, grass is food for most animals, and it is man’s duty not to pollute it. Today noise pollution is a troublesome part of environmental pollution. According to the Buddhist text of Pali Cannon*, Buddha was critical of noise and did not hesitate to show his disapproval. Once he ordered a group of monks to leave the monastery for noisy behavior (Odin: 99). Buddhist texts provided this ethics about pollution much before any imminent threat to the environment of the earth. The religion itself was part of Nature and therefore its teachings reflected its source at all levels.
In this era when we are so cruel to Nature that within the last fifty years we havedestroyed forty percent of the ozone layer of the earth’s atmosphere, when the peaks of Kilimanjaro that were covered with snows for thousands of years have only dust on them,when hundreds of species are extinct because of our polluted lands and seas, when we have made huge karmic implications during our effort to get rid of nuclear waste which had the capacity to create adverse effects for a several thousands of years for the coming generations, when we are poisoning ourselves and our children with foods that are full of pesticides, when we are so greedy that we have used most of the oil in a hundred years that earth made in millions of years, when we have cut down most of the jewels of earth that are called the rain forests and turned them into ashes, when our jungles are decreasing as fast as our health and when we refuse to pay any heed to the call of Mother Nature, the importance of this child of Nature called Buddhism has increased immensely. We have to go back to its teachings; we need to feel once again its love for Nature and for Humanity. It is time we revive the core of our conscience that is above religion and close to Nature and spirituality. It is time we do something for Nature and stop insulting it by grabbing its resources without any consideration. If we don’t stop now, then soon it will be too late for all of us, no matter what part of the Earth we belong to. We are all in the same boat and it will drown both you and I if it sinks and we both will have to be a witness of our destruction to Earth, before God.
Sangha: (congregation) is the name for the Community of Buddhist monks.
Dhamma: (bearer) constitution or nature of a thing
Mara:(the killer)personification of evil that appears as a real person
Mudra: hand gestures that have specific meaning
Ahimsa: nonviolence, absence of cruelty. One of the basic teachings of Buddhism
Sutra: sutras are aphorism of Buddhism that represents the teachings in brief
Indra: A Hindu deity
Jeweled Net: A mythological allegory connected with Indra. There is a wonderful net which stretches out indefinitely in all directions. There is a single glittering jewel at the net’s every node and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels to look closely we will discover that in its surface there are reflected all the other jewels (Swearer: 69)
Pali Cannon: Commentaries on Buddha’s discourses in the Pali language
Badiner, Allan, ed. Dharma Gaia, Berkeley: Parallax press, 1990
Dehejia Vidya. Indian Art, London: Phaidon Press, 2002
Kaza and Kraft, eds. Dharma Rain, Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000
Swearer, Donald. Becoming The Buddha, Princeton: Princeton U Press, 2004
Tucker and Williams, eds. Buddhism and Ecology, Massachusetts: Harvard U Publications,1995