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

by Kamalashila

... self and other.
And ‘other’ is not limited merely to other human beings, though it doesn't exclude them
either. Deep ecology is an ethical perspective that provides insights in our relations with
all others.

An ecologist called Aldo Leopold remarked [1] 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. And sometimes people do want to. You could sell them for cash.
You could buy a servant. You could hang your slaves, execute your workers. We don’t
do such things any more, thankfully. But we do still treat nature as though it were
property. 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. You can still own land. When you
think about it, owning other beings and their worlds comes to seem rather a peculiar idea.
Leopold said that it will be a significant new evolutionary stage when human beings
extend their notion of ethics to the environment, and we start actually feeling that using
nature, like property, is wrong. The Mahayana Buddhist angle is that it is unethical to
‘use’ nature because nature is nothing else but living beings. Life is living beings. There
is no life outside living beings. So it is wrong to use nature like property, because it
would be an abuse of our own brothers and sisters. The land we have always lived on is
not just soil. It is not just dirt. How can we see it like that. It is just not like that, not at all.
If you look at it closely, you see it is a community of living beings. The reason we don’t
see this is because we are cut off from our place in that community.

To take our place in nature again - to notice our alienation and dissolve it - to cultivate
this greater ethical awareness - we need to do more than just think through these issues.
The main thing is to spend time in nature. Change isn't going to happen through thought
alone. For us westerners, being in nature can be one of the profoundest meditations we
can engage in. For it shows us our natural place amongst living beings.

I wonder if we have any sense of this at all; maybe you’re thinking, why does this matter.
Well, if you’re a typical Buddhist, you probably feel you need to be on your own
sometimes. And that a good way to get some solitude is to go into the country. That’s
why a lot of people move out to the country, or do country retreats. Your experience is
that you go to the country for a week, say, and you are refreshed. But is that refreshment
really a consequence of being alone? It may have a lot to do with not having other
humans around, but in fact, when we go into the country we not alone at all. We are
much more alone in the city, actually. in the city, there is just tarmac, glass, machines and
some other humans. OK, a few flies and cockroaches, maybe a pigeon or two. But in the
country, we are surrounded by vast numbers of non human beings. Surrounded by plants,
trees, grasses, birds, insects, animals –thousands upon thousands of them. Maybe it’s just
a coincidence, but I have wondered if some of the refreshment we feel by going into the
countryside is actually a consequence of that experience of the sheer diversity of living
nature. I’m not sure, but maybe that is a spiritual need – something we recognise only
dimly, because of our habitual mode of life and our way of thinking of nature.

Anyway... we don't feel that very often, if we ever do. On the whole, our family
relationship with nature is rather dysfunctional. We don't have much sensitivity to others
in that community. We tend not to notice or think about them. So perhaps we need to ask
more, ‘what is nature? What is life?’ Make it an insight practice to look, with full
openness, at natural things. It can be a beneficial and refreshing reflection to look deeply
at plants and other beings, to read about and study them, to try to understand their
existence and their point of view.

The Buddha himself lived out of doors. And 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: it’s also a kind of communion with vast, unexpressed nature,
manifest in the four great elements, the great spirits, the Mahabhutas.

Nature is vastly other than ourselves. We can use its powerful otherness to see beyond
conventional ego. And in a more obvious way, involvement in nature offers insight into
ourselves simply because we ourselves are part of nature. “Nature” is never somewhere
else, in a park or a flower pot. Just look at your own body and senses, and you realise
how much you don’t understand even that which is closest to you and which governs by
far the greatest part of your needs and desires. We can 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 tension
and stress. Perhaps it is even there in our disease. We think of nature as being somewhere
else somehow, but our own bodies are incredibly mysterious, wild nature. We can
become so much more intensely conscious of the earth, water, and fire of our body, and
of its movement in space. All these are great mysteries. Perhaps if we became more
physical and sensuous, we’d practice more fully the foundations of mindfulness:
awareness of the body, its sensations, its feelings, its immediate tactile reality. Then its
pleasures and its 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 these things, 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 is the reality of otherness. In the FWBO we talk a great deal about the insight of
transcending self and other. 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 ...

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