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Buddhism and the Natural World - Deep Ecology Community and the Dharma

by Kamalashila

Buddhism and the Natural World

Deep Ecology, Community, and the Dharma

by Kamalashila

Audio available at: http://freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM727

Talk for Western Buddhist Order Combined Convention, Norfolk, 8th August 2005

I am not sure why it is, but we seem to be witnessing 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. For example, I remember I was
part of the small team building Vajraloka in 1979. Atula was our boss. And Atula got me
to make a composting toilet. As I remember I designed it like a huge throne, with a small
ladder to take you up to the seat. Some of you may even have sat upon it. The actual seat
was made from the same kind of mahogany as was used at the LBC shrine
room. And after six to eight months, this wonderful throne brought forth huge 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, compost –etc.–
became less and less interesting – even, increasingly, almost an object of disdain. It
seemed that the more agitated the green activists got, the more disdainful the popular
response was. What became popular was money, material comfort and personal security.
And for that whole decade, the ethics of nature and the environment seemed somehow
irrelevant.

But now, something seems to be shifting. Maybe the shift started with the attack on the
Twin Towers. That, and what followed, has been a deep shock. There now seems some
sense that we need to look for new approaches. More inclusive approaches to life,
approaches that don't depend on isolating ourselves from underprivileged nations and
underprivileged people. Also 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, instead of just isolating ourselves from them.

No doubt the shift, if there is one, is different for different people. It was a bit different
for me; it happened over the eighteen month solitary retreat that 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 very immediately 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, seem largely to have forgotten.
Nature very straightforwardly taught me how, for example, to let go my preferences, and
my need for convenience.

I found that when you live on the side of a hill, you learn from simple natural facts. For
example you often have to go outside into the weather. You cannot avoid it; you have to
go out to get some more wood, get some water. To go to the toilet or clean your teeth,
you have to go out there. Often that is quite OK as you can imagine. You want to be
outside. It is beautiful to be living in a grove of trees, with a view of hills and mountains.
Sometimes, though, you feel resistance, and 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, something shifts. You learn that it doesn't matter, that it will
be OK to go outside even in the snow or the pouring rain. It is never as bad as you think.
Indeed, you start to notice how much your thoughts actually 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 I think. In the country, you have to
accept the weather. In the city, we can feel that nature hardly touches us. Perhaps that is
how human beings have acquired that sense that somehow, we are more powerful than
nature, or even we are something beyond it.

But this seems a very great mistake. To feel superior or even different from nature seems
a great hubris or arrogance. For Buddhism 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’s something we need to reflect deeply about, if
we want to try to approach it. But some kind of understanding of our place in nature
seems an essential basis for gaining insight into reality.

Nature, as I understand it, is not separate from Buddha Nature. Bugs may be a long way
from being Buddhas, but all beings partake of mind in some form. The only difference is
in realisation of the nature of mind. So we should not reject nature, even subtly, but
revere it as a teacher and expect insights from it. Of course, to see how nature is not
different from Buddha Nature, we need to appreciate the connection with nature in the
first place. That is a problem, because most of us, in our present society, are already quite
alienated from it. So it’s lucky that the dharma is precisely what counters alienation. The
dharma is precisely what re-connects us to our real nature. That is, first of all, with simple
nature – our elemental, embodied, earth-and-water nature. Secondly, and more
fundamentally, with our Buddha Nature, with the fact that all forms of being somehow
contain the seed of Buddhahood.

My talk today is an exploration of nature in both these senses. After my long retreat, I
discovered deep ecology, and though I am totally unqualified, I want to share it with you.
Because Deep ecology seems, potentially at least, to be a form of dharma. Certainly in
the sense that it is a way into ultimate reality. And in our time, it seems important that we
find forms of the dharma that address our place in the natural world.

So what’s deep ecology? Well, ordinary ecology is the science of natural relationships.
It’s the study of all beings’ relations to one another and to the physical environment in
which they live. By studying how all beings relate to one another, studying them in all
their variety of needs and desires, I think one gains a kind of overview of all life,
everywhere. This could lead to a kind of insight.

However, we tend to use our scientific knowledge to promote what we human beings
want. On the whole, that comes to mean whatever ensures a comfortable and convenient
lifestyle. So in that way, the potential for insight through an ecological world view is
rather spoiled. Yes, you do get an overview of universal life, but there’s a very strong
self-serving ego observing it.

As we know, for insight to arise, the ego has to dissolve. And that’s where ‘deep’ ecology
comes in. Because it looks for a viewpoint on life within which mankind’s needs form
just part of the picture. The whole of life is seen as an interplay of forces, so one finds a
truer, fuller, overview. Deep ecology is simply an exploration. It is not someone’s fixed
philosophy. It is a way that anyone can attempt to gain a deeper viewpoint, and act from
it. Obviously the exploration is still a human construction, but nonetheless one tries to see
things as they are, and with compassion. It is a vehicle in which one tries to let go human
self-cherishing, to seek deeper truths, undiscovered truths, for the sake of benefiting the
whole of life.

Perhaps in itself, this is still not quite Buddhism; but for existing Buddhist practitioners, I
think this begins to evoke the perspective of the Mahayana. Ultimately, it looks like it can
evoke even the perspective of simultaneous emptiness and compassion. For example,
some Buddhist teachers take this perspective very deep indeed, right into anatta, anicca,
and sunyata. For all life forms really do depend on each other, ultimately, for their
existence. We actually define one another; and so, in a certain sense, we are one another.
Here we start exploring interbeing or interconnectedness. My identity can’t be described
as separate from any being anywhere. In a sense I am my enemy, because she or he is not
separate from me, and has a strong influence on me. We are all inseparable.

I know such reflections seem obscure when you’re not in the mood, but that’s inevitable;
no one can explain interconnectedness in a way that everyone will find intellectually
satisfying. Like everything, when you look into it, it is inconceivable and cannot be
expressed in words. The real nature of identity and ownership can be revealed only to the
individual, through deep reflection and meditation. And 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. Nature becomes the ‘other’ which can enable us to break through ...

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