This week’s column comes from Spokane Faith and Values’ Ask a Buddhist series.
“Does Buddhism contain any practices or chants to help the environment? Are there any texts that tell us how to interact with the environment? Are there any Buddhas that have a strong connection to the Earth?”
We can see from Buddhist scriptures that the Buddha, the Enlightened One, and his disciples lived in close harmony with the environment. The Buddha was born at the foot of a tree. He also attained realizations sitting under the Bodhi Tree, and he passed away under a tree. The Buddha taught that planting and nurturing trees are virtuous acts.
In the Vinaya – the code of behavior for monks and nuns – the Buddha advises that monastics should not cut trees, leaves and flowers, nor disturb the forest. He set guidelines for not fouling grasses or rivers. Modern-day environmentalists try to observe similar guidelines.
The Buddha’s heart instruction is to work for the benefit of all living beings and to cease harming them. To do this, he advises his disciples to live simply, with compassion, kindness and – as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama expresses it – “Universal Responsibility,” an attitude based on love, compassion and clear awareness that cares for all living beings. In order to live with universal responsibility for the welfare of all beings, we must care for the environment in which they live.
There is not a specific Buddha of ecology besides Buddha Shakyamuni. Some teachers turn to the Medicine Buddha or Avalokiteshvara – Buddha of Compassion, who appears in several different forms – for support on environmental concerns.
In addition, there are numerous meditation and mind-training practices we can do to support a healthy environment.
One technique to increase love and compassion and develop our capacity for universal responsibility is the taking and giving meditation – tonglen in Tibetan. In this practice, we imagine willingly taking on the suffering of others to counter our own self-absorption and imagine giving all our happiness and well-being to others to expand our love and generosity. This helps us to live more harmoniously with others and with our environment.
Another important practice is to develop an understanding of the interdependence between nature and living beings. We depend totally on the kindness of others; we wouldn’t survive without other sentient beings. By getting familiar with the reasoning of dependent arising, we develop a more realistic view about our existence and develop strong compassion and loving-kindness.
We can also see an interdependent relationship between our negative emotions and how we relate to our environment. For example, in order to gain material wealth and satisfy our sensual desires, we pollute the environment – the earth, water, and air. Therefore, Buddha teaches us to reduce our afflictive emotions and to be satisfied with what we have.
We also dedicate the positive energy – merit – from our meditation practice for the happiness of living beings, and that clearly involves having a clean and healthy environment. For this to come about, we also dedicate that people’s minds turn to have greater care and awareness for the environment, and for their – and our own – love, compassion, and skill to grow limitlessly.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists) and His Holiness the 17th Karmapa himself (the spiritual guide of the Tibetan Kagyu tradition) are strong advocates for environmental protection. So too is Vietnamese Master Thich Nhat Hanh. The Karmapa regularly incorporates environmental topics into his teachings and life’s work. He established the Khoryug movement and organizes annual conferences to encourage Buddhist communities and monasteries in the Himalayan region to act in sustainable and environmentally friendly ways.