Monday, August 14, 2006

Buddhist View of Nature

In Buddhism, nature is both seemingly irrelevant and of the greatest import. This paradox arises because Buddhist scripture rarely mentions nature directly in terms of its role in Buddhist philosophy. However, once one begins Buddhist practice, nature’s importance, its immediate relevancy and vitality and relationship to one’s practice is uncovered.

The Indian religious tradition historically praised the practice of leaving the distractions of city life by going forth into the wilderness to deepen one’s spiritual training. The Buddha himself renounced his guaranteed life of luxury and comfort as a prince—and eventual king—to go forth into the wilderness to find the answer to a single question: “How can we rid ourselves of suffering?”1

The Buddha’s awakening to the true nature of his existence came as he sat resolute through the night, under a starlit sky, meditating beneath the boughs of the Bodhi tree. During each successive watch of the night (which was likely calculated through observation of the heavens, not through the Buddha wearing a Timex :) ), he attained deeper levels of awakening that culminated with the rising of the morning star in full-blown Awakening. His mind was awakened, enlightened, to his true nature and to the true nature of all things. Additionally, near the end of this marathon meditation, the future Buddha conquered Mara, the personification of fear, greed, and hatred, and in doing so, reached down and touched the Earth, declaring that with the Earth as his witness, he had overcome those three poisons.

What does this say about nature? Nothing pedagogically. But if we look closely at these myths, the natural world was key in the Buddha’s awakening. He renounced his worldly life and pursued the life of a wandering monk, at home everywhere because he was not at home anywhere. The watches of the night framed his stages of awakening, culminating in the rising of the morning star. Mother Earth acted as his witness. The Bodhi tree symbolized his axis mundi—the immovable point of his universe, like the cross in Christianity or the altar within the circle, at the intersection of the Four Quarters, where Fire, Air, Water, and Earth meet.

In his forty years of teaching after his awakening, he continually returned to nature as a primary source of wisdom and practice. Just like Thoreau experienced at Walden pond, a life away from the excessive energy of the city creates a space of simplicity, of calm, that is necessary to penetrate the delusions we hold about the world and ourselves. That’s not to say that one cannot practice Buddhism as a householder. Rather, it simply shows us that simplifying our lives as much as we are capable within the constraints of our responsibilities is a good practice to undertake.

There’s a famous story that forms the source of Zen philosophy in which the Buddha silently held aloft a lotus flower in front of an audience of 1,200 monks who had come to hear his teachings. By this most simple of acts, one monk in the audience, Mahakashyapa, was fully awakened. Some of the other monks present were probably not in a place where they could benefit much from such direct teaching, and others likely gained some measure of wisdom. But the key here is that the calm, silent simplicity of seeing a flower in bloom contains all the wisdom in the universe.

We can also look at nature in terms of Buddhism’s teachings on compassion and peace. In the third chapter the Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva writes:

Thus, for every single thing that lives,
In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
May I be their sustenance and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering.2
It is our vow, our practice, as Buddhists, to attain awakening not for ourselves, but for the benefit of all beings. This practice contains the seeds for the development of skillful qualities such as compassion, love, devotion, energy, and generosity. But more importantly for our purposes here, it exemplifies the inherent equality of all sentient beings: I see a dog, a raven, a cheetah, a jellyfish, as inherently no different from a human.

They are all living, sentient beings, and it is my wish that none should suffer. This is not some naive thought that we can, or should, prevent gazelle from suffering in the jaws of the predatory cheetah (because, truly, to prevent that would cause the cheetah to suffer eventual starvation). Rather, we see nature as it is. Life flourishes on earth due to its diversity and the adaptability of genetics under the pressures of natural selection. The predator-prey model plays a major role in this process. However, still we feel sorrow when seeing a great lion extinguish the life of a zebra to feed his pride, or a leopard kitten perish because his mother was unable to kill enough to feed him. We accept that this is the means by which species survive, and we see all beings as inherently equal, requiring our compassion, love, and respect.

1 The Buddhist definition of suffering is something I plan on posting here later this week. Stay tuned!

2Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night, Dalai Lama. 1994.

*This article was posted by Mike of Unknowing Mind while he was a guest blogger here. When I switched over to the new Blogger system on 9/12/06, the byline was changed by Blogger. I want to give credit where credit is due.


Bernulf said...

Cool article! I especially enjoyed the story of the lotus flower, and I think what I appreciate most about Buddhism is its emphasis on reflection.

But there is something I don't understand:

None should suffer. To see other beings suffer, though natural, brings sorrow. Sorrow is a form of suffering. Thus, to prevent suffering, sorrow must be prevented?

Gareth said...

The cessation of suffering, might not be the cessation of the experience of suffering, full stop. But an understanding and acceptance of sorrow, or suffering, and a letting go of this.

Of course sorrow appears, and suffering, death, sickness impermanence - this is the nature of life - all things that appear must pass.


Buddhism and nature is an interesting one, despite the parallels you mention, taking care of nature hasn't traditionally been number one on a Buddhists list - if you look at various monastic communities and so on....but this isn't a lack of compassion, rather a lack of the skills and knowledge required to cultivate a good relationship with the environment.

Buddhists understand the interdependence of the universe - and reverse the universe in all it's manifestations. Of course we appreciate the joy of a flower, and grieve at the destruction of nature, but we understand that the joy and the grief are human emotions, ideas we attach to things.

As our knowledge grows, we are able to make choices about the best way to create a good, intimate, relationship with our enviroment. And from the heart of compassion the right choices can be made.

All the best

Bernulf said...

Gareth, I think I actually understand now, and thank you for your clarification. To check my understanding, would it be safe to say that suffering and sorrow only appear to exist and that this appearance, like all else in nature, must pass?

If that's so, then it would be remarkably similar to a common Heathen outlook - we also see that all things come to an end, excepting only the reputation of one who has done well, or the reputation of the good deed itself. We also see that things begin again, but that outlook I will discuss later this week in another post.

Thank you again for your clarification!

Mike said...

Thanks for clarifying suffering for me, Gareth. I plan on making a short post on that topic either tomorrow or wednesday, because that's always a topic that needs clarification.

Bjorngrimnir: "would it be safe to say that suffering and sorrow only appear to exist and that this appearance, like all else in nature, must pass?" There might be some Buddhist philosophical schools that take such a view (perhaps the Mind-Only Tibetan school). However, in my view, I think I would view it such that sorrow is something that we, having been born, will experience. It is in the nature of life to experience such emotions. And yes, it is impermanent, so it must pass. But I don't think we'd deny its existence. Suffering, on the other hand, is in a sense, how we react to sorrow. That is under our control. Again, though, I don't think I'd deny its existence.

Bernulf said...

Very interesting, and thank you for giving me more to think about, Mike :) What I mean by 'appearance' is not lack of existence, my mind, if it appears, it exists (although the type of existence can be arguably different).

I say this because after reading your response and re-reading my own comment, I can see where it comes across that I say sorrow and suffering don't exist in Heathenry, either - which is not the case.

I'm looking very forward to your post about suffering!

Nixie B said...

I'm eager to read your post on suffering, Mike. I always understood this to mean that eliminating suffering is achieved by eliminating desires. Once we no longer have attachments to things or our physical world, then we are no longer are a slave to our desires and thereby our suffering is eliminated. I'm sure you will flesh this idea out for us and enlighten me!

While I appreciate Buddhist thought, it always seemed that the goals Buddhism sets as requirements for enlightenment are almost impossible to achieve - at least for normal human beings. I guess if it were easy, everyone would be doing it!

A friend of mine (who is a witch but is very devoted to Eastern philosophy and ideas) likes to tell a story about his response to certain Christian fundamentalists who believe that the world is about to come to and end. He says that in order for that to happen, everyone on the planet would have to reach enlightenment at the same time (thereby ceasing to be reincarnated and returning to earth) and the chances of that happening any time soon are pretty slim. The Bush administration alone is enough to keep a great number of souls on this planet for some time to come!

Gareth said...

Bjorngrimir as Mike said, and as I think you probably meant in your response to my comment...we don't deny the existence of suffering. Indeed the fist noble truth is usually stated as Suffering exists.

Although a more accurate translation might call it dissatisfaction, or unease which seems to cover a wider base. Have a look at the Wikipedia article for a discussion of the types of suffering:

I'm not going to ramble on, as Mike said he's posting on the topic later in the week. I'll just look forward to reading that.

nixie, perhaps not eliminating desire - just our grasping of desire...naturally the desire arises, but we let it pass...

Is enlightenment easy? In all the Sutras it is said that it is an attainable goal for everyone. But perhaps it's not exactly what they describe - will there really be rainbows and flying monks?

Who knows? For now there is just this.

All the best