This is part of an ongoing series of posts (Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism) outlining how the world’s major religions have traditionally viewed the environment and are putting those beliefs into practice today.
Buddhism is probably the primary introduction to Dharma-based spirituality and there are certainly a great number of green groups claiming some sort of inspiration from Buddhist teachings on compassion, mindfulness, and non-violence.
As for Buddhist teachers themselves, increasingly many of the highest profile ones, from Thich Naht Hahn in the Zen tradition to HH The Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, are making explicit connections between Buddhist beliefs and the imperative of environmental protection. The Dalai Lama has said,
Taking care of our planet, environment, is something like taking care of our own home. This blue planet is our only home.
He’s even expressed the view that the environmental problems of Tibet are so severe that they are more pressing than a political solution to the Chinese occupation of his native land.
Thich Nhat Hahn expands on the imperative for environmental protection and how best to bring that about, in the Buddhist ecological faith statement for the Alliance of Religions and Conservation:
Buddhists believe that the reality of the interconnectedness of human beings, society and nature will reveal itself more and more to as we gradually recover–as we gradually cease to be possessed by anxiety, fear, and the dispersion of the mind. Among the three–human beings, society, and Nature–it is us who begin to effect change. But in order to effect change we must recover ourselves, one must be whole. Since this requires the kind of environment favorable to one’s healing, one must seeks the kind of lifestyle that is free from the destruction of one’s humanness. Efforts to change the oneself are both necessary. But we know how difficult it is to change the environment if individuals themselves are not in a state of equilibrium.
To change the external environment we have to change ourselves first, and without an external environment that is healthful it becomes more difficult to change ourselves.
Though that sounds a bit like the simple green steps sort of thinking so prevalent in the new wave of the green movement of a few years past, the changing of the self talked about here goes deeper than that, is of a fundamentally different nature–even if some of the things in the change your lightbulbs, air dry your laundry, make sure your tires are properly inflated vein are surely useful in their own way.
Backing up a bit to get the wider perspective, the same faith statement that the Thich Nhat Hanh quote comes from neatly sums up the distinctness of the Buddhist position as to the relationship of humans (both individually and collectively) to non-human animals to nature and indeed to all of existence.
“We do not exist independently, separate from everything else,” the faith statement says. “Buddha taught us to live simply, to cherish tranquility, to appreciate the natural cycle of life. In this universe of energies, everything affects everything else…Once we treat nature as our friend, to cherish it, then we can see the need to change from the attitude of dominating nature to an attitude of working with nature. We are an intrinsic part of all existence rather than seeing ourselves in control of it.”
Buddhist monk, and media-proclaimed happiest man in the world, Matthieu Ricard recently described this sort of view on society as an “altruistic society” — “one in which we do not care only for ourselves and our close relatives, but for the quality of life of all present members of society, while being mindfully concerned as well by the fate of coming generations.”