Thursday, February 15, 2007

Questions on Buddhism and Environment

I spent part of this afternoon answering questions students submitted on Buddhism and environmentalism, and thought I would share some with you.

Nirvana is defines as freedom from desire, and therefore freedom from suffering. Since animals have a natural desire that is free from the self-conscious, how can we ever be free from suffering if we are a part of nature and have the same natural desire as animals?

The role of animals & animal desire in Buddhism has an interesting history. Classical Buddhism and contemporary Theravada basically take the same attitude towards animals that you see in Hinduism. Animals are lesser beings, and their distance from enlightenment is clearly seen in the fact that they are slaves to their desires. For later schools of Buddhism, particularly Zen, nirvana became more of a matter of cutting of higher rational thought, and as a result animals started to look more enlightened. The question of whether a dog has Buddha nature became a fit subject for Zen Koans. (Master Chou Chou said “no.”) This movement towards saying the lower beings have higher enlightenment reaches its peak with a painting by Itō Jakuchū called “Vegetable Nirvāņa,” which depicts a carrot in the pose of the Buddha passing into nirvana.

So to answer your question, some schools of Buddhism take our animal nature to be something overcome on the way to enlightenment, and others actually see it as a bonus.

It would see to me that any active environmental pursuit, maybe other than awareness and teaching, would go against Buddhist grain. I think that Buddhism relies on the fact that while every being has the potential to reach nirvana, that everyone will not at the same time, leaving people to operate in action/reaction, leaving the world to exist. What do you think?

I think it would be a shame if simultaneous worldwide enlightenment were some kind of precondition for environmental activism, or any kind of activism. Interestingly, though, there have been and still are Buddhist millenarian cults: groups that believe in an approaching transformation of the whole world, similar to apocalyptic Christianity. White Lotus Buddhism and Aum Shinrikyo are good examples of apocalyptic Buddhism.

I got frustrated while doing this reading, as the only viewpoint I could agree with was the eco-critic. If Buddhism aims for detachment, how can any of their readings be taken as a concern for the environment? Isn’t concern a form of attachment? I agree that the values and readings of Buddhism could be interpreted as such, but I see that as misinterpretation. If you attribute too much value to nature it implies attachment. Example—p. 131 Payutto’s interpretation. I think he implies more value to the word “friend” than he should. The Buddhist doesn’t cut the branch simply because there is no reason to, not because he cares for the tree like we care for our friends. Maybe Buddhism sometimes results in environmental non-action, but that doesn’t mean it is on purpose.

I think we need to look in detail at the idea of mettā (loving-kindness) and the possibility of nonattached action. The Buddha clearly did preach universal love. The word he used is mettā, which denotes both love and kindness and is thus often translated “loving-kindness.” This is the Karaniya Metta Sutta, from the Pali canon.
As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.
Whether standing, walking,
sitting, or lying down,
as long as one is alert,
one should be resolved on this mindfulness.
This is called a sublime abiding
here & now.
The question is how can universal love be compatible with nonattachment? The beginning of an answer can be found when you think of the difference between a jealous and possessing love and a genuine feeling for the well being of another. But wait, even if you simply desire the well being of another, aren’t you desiring and therefore suffering? Properly speaking, desire will not enter into it. What you actually have is only understanding and action. You see the other for what they are, and act for their benefit. There is no desire, no striving, no attachment to an outcome.

1 comment:

Jigzila said...

Great read! I am doing a presentation of "Green Buddhism" later this week and this post is greatly helpful. CHOO CHOO