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

by Kamalashila

... 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

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.

I would like to talk in this context about community, and now I’m talking about human
community, Buddhist spiritual community. The way we live together. The way we eat,
sleep, work, talk to one another. The way we love one another; the way we reflect on one
another, and even gain insight through our awareness of one another. I have spent most of
my 33 years around the FWBO living in men’s Buddhist communities, and I am very
grateful for that opportunity. It was definitely what I wanted, and I am sure I would not
have continued my Buddhist life more than just a few years without it. It is a very rare
opportunity, indeed, even in the Buddhist world.

Single sex communities have never been socially acceptable in the usual sense. I can’t
see that they can ever be, by their nature. It took Bhante’s particular vision and
encouragement in the first place to enable us to create single sex situations. I think that
was an incredibly effective piece of Bodhisattva work. I’m very pleased to see that single
sex communities seem to be surviving our current phase of re-evaluating what we do. I
am not really surprised, though. If it was what I wanted as a young man, it’s likely to be
what many other young people also want for themselves. And we have developed a
lot of our FWBO culture on that basis. It is something very strong, and probably this is
also a factor in their survival. The human bonds and the social habits we lay down in
these situations impress themselves deeply upon us.

There has been an underside to this as well. It was from the underside of the single sex
ideal that we also evolved our own, probably unique, culture of couples. I find it amazing
that this came about in such an underground way. We have virtually no Dharma
teachings, no Sangha teachings, for couples or for families – apart, perhaps from
Bhante’s 15 points for Buddhist parents. Couples and families have, on the whole,
excluded themselves, or felt excluded, from the FWBO mandala. We have virtually no
mixed communities, so far as I know, though there must be some; certainly there is
no culture of mixed community within the FWBO.

It’s interesting, then, that community is one of the FWBO’s biggest successes.
Community is always very difficult to achieve, so there have necessarily been many
failures and mistakes over the years, but we’ve learned a lot and succeeded much more
than we’ve failed. I wonder if now we have the maturity to extend that success into the
area of couples, mixed community, and family. I feel that this would bring great benefits,
and also if we try at this point, then we are likely to maintain a spiritual connection with
more of us over the years.

Recently I was at Dharmavastu and I came across an old, yellowing FWBO Newsletter
clipping inside one of their library books. It was a book review by Bhante called ‘DH
Lawrence and Spiritual Community’. Reviewing a biography of Lawrence, the substance
of Bhante’s commentary was about Lawrence’s failure to realise his ideal of a
community. Lawrence had written about a new kind of relationship, which involved
‘some sort of tenderness, sensitive, between men and men, and men and women – not the
one up one down, lead on I follow... sort of business’. But he had totally failed to bring it
about, and Bhante analysed this and drew some very useful conclusions from it about
how to make community work. Bhante has actually commented quite a lot on community
living over the years – he made quite a study of it in the eighties, and his concern in this
area is, I think, one of the principal things we can thank him for.

In this review, which I think is reprinted in one of Windhorse’s anthologies of his
writings, Bhante comes up with four principles of spiritual community. They are, and I’m
sure they are familiar to almost all of us:

1. the spiritual community consists of individuals.

2. the ‘couple’ is the enemy of the spiritual community.

3. the spiritual community is not a group.

4. the spiritual community must have a common ideal and a common method of practice.

What stands out from these, apart from the very strong reference to the ‘couple’, is the
clarity of Bhante’s insistence that one must strive to be an individual in co-operation with
others. A spiritual community is only such when its members work on themselves and try
to be, in his words, ‘self-aware, able to think for (themselves), emotionally positive,
creative rather than reactive in ... attitude toward life, spontaneous, sensitive, and
responsible’. And the spiritual community is the sum total of the non-exploitive, non-
addictive relationships between such people. If its members don't work on themselves to
become individuals in the sense defined, what we have is not a spiritual community but
merely a ‘group’. If one can’t relate to others as individuals, one will do so in that ‘one
up, one down, lead on I follow’ sort of way that Lawrence criticised. It may be that one
reason Lawrence’s community failed was because he felt he had to relate as a leader, and
no one wanted to relate to him like that. One of them responded by saying, ‘I think you
are asking what no human being has a right to ask another’.

I think its very good we have been schooled so well in these inspiring principles; I think
they certainly bear looking at again. Especially the fourth principle of spiritual
community, that it ‘must have a common ideal and a common method of practice’. We
have all that. We have the meditation and ethical practices of Buddhism, and the ultimate ...

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