In seeking both our own well being and that of the world we live in it is not just what we do that is important but how we do it, both in terms of our outer behaviour and how we work with the mind. If our personal relationship to the world is based on desire there will always be potential conflict. If this relationship is based on a higher mindfulness, conflicts can be avoided. We can have the same benevolent intention either way but one way will be fraught with suffering and the other free of suffering.
In Buddhism virtue is based on letting go of desire. We follow the conscious, peaceful mind in the present, not the automatic pilot of desire. We discover the joy of letting go of our desires and following our mindfulness, our spiritual awareness. This is based on the fact that if we honestly observe our own minds we discover that our desires are essentially insatiable. The impermanence of the pleasures of the senses always ultimately frustrates our desire. We also realise that our desires, in the spur of the moment, cannot see that impermanence. This makes desire itself unpleasant and we naturally opt for calm, for peace and for freedom from desire. This, we further discover, can be very liberating. We realise how our desires have been enslaving us all along.
If we can thus let go of our desires and enjoy the peace and freedom that ensues it becomes a joyous thing to live humbly and frugally in harmony with nature and have no conflict with other people.
There seems to be a growing acceptance of the fact that the earth is beginning to struggle to accommodate the needs – or, lets be honest – the outright greed of modern man. We can then, perhaps, ask such questions as:
1. What can be done to cure the greed that could lead to humanity's destruction? The overcoming of greed is a central theme in the teaching and practice of Buddhism which is thankfully beginning to find a stronger voice. We are trying to promote a more interdependent view of the world that generates empathy. What we can add to this is firstly that spiritual pleasures, meditation for example, are very eco-friendly; secondly we can give more emphasis to the value of disciplined conduct on the part of the individual. The practical value of this is, of course, recognised, but the power of such discipline to deeply change our relationship to nature is often underestimated. I lived in the tropical forest for years, not permitted by my monk's discipline to kill insects. Over time this transformed my relationship to the ants and mosquitoes that were a constant pest – and consequently to the whole environment into one of harmless communion.
2. What about the helpless anger or despair of the sufferers of this greed? Are there, for example, hidden causes here for the apparent increase in delinquency amongst young people? Or are my eyes on the world just getting too old and sensible? I believe that Buddhism as a source of faith and as a deep psychology can help us understand and manage the emotions related to death or impermanence. It is surely these emotions that turn us away from facing the issues. In Buddhism we teach people both the wisdom to let go of attachment to things and the compassion to stay with those things, hence winning a lighter and more caring touch on life: Recently we had someone come to the monastery to commemorate the recent death of their favourite Aunt. When the ceremony was all over they were trying to talk to the monks but their little girl would not settle. An elderly lady friend of ours in the room was pointed out and recommended as her new Aunt, saying, “there are lots of them in the world.”
3. What if the planet cannot be saved? Then where are we to find hope? We can perhaps see for the first time in the current context how humanity up until now found this in ‘the new generation’. Then what if there were to be no more mankind? Perhaps we find hope in the preservation of human knowledge – the computer chip blasted into space? Yet so much of this knowledge surely concerns and is hence based upon, the earth that may be lost. The earth that one day, however long in the future, must be lost.
To me our greatest if not our only eternal hope is the Dhamma. Dhamma is a source of universal truth. If we can see the full potential Dhamma as it really is, as a part of nature that can never be destroyed, we can have hope. We have a new purpose in life promoting this understanding, this faith in ourselves and in others. If we get this right this is in no way a negation of the transitory aspects of nature. It is rather seeing the Dhamma as the highest expression of nature, its highest evolution – the way that an aspect of nature, one that I believe can be formative, can truly find a permanent basis. I would argue that the enlightened mind, free of limitation in time and place, is capable of reaching back out to the universe, so to speak, from its refuge in the beyond. I think it is possible to argue, based both on philosophy and the experience of deep meditation, that this can be true. This is not a such a simple matter, however. We need to find a number of ways, philosophical and meditative, through which we free up the mind from its material constraints. I have tried to tackle this in the recent book 'Virtue and Reality'. Just to try to give you a taste, to quote from Gregory Bateson:
“...a miracle is a materialists idea of how to escape from materialism... the reply to crude materialism is not miracles but beauty.” - Mind and Nature
To learn how to understand like in this quote can also be to see like this and to find a new depth of appreciation for nature. This is to see with the quality of 'muditā' (sympathetic joy) at nature's achievement.
If we can find faith in all this as a possibility, we have a hope in those enlightened already and those to come as being able to take human consciousness forward beyond its material constraints. We see the Earth is the perfect training ground for the mind striving for enlightenment and therefore we do whatever we can to preserve it. Having a few more enlightened beings in the world already will also certainly help to preserve the Earth. Interestingly, many Thai Buddhists believe that while there are enlightened beings on the Earth, the Devas (heavenly beings) will protect it from destruction. This is inspiring but I hope such beliefs don't take the place of ecological responsibility on the human level!
To sum up, in addressing these three questions I hope we have done something to tackle the human greed, hatred and delusion respectively that are both at the source of the ecological crisis and are the results of it; they are indeed the forces behind this destructive cycle as a whole, as they are behind all other suffering.
How do we fit together the different strands of the Buddhist attitude toward nature? On one hand there is the truth of interconnectedness, an attitude of respect and harmlessness; and on the other hand a goal of transcendence, to escape from the suffering of samsara. Surely, we might think, one is positive and the other negative? Are they reconcilable?
Let us take the tragic yet also ultimately liberating truth of the impermanence of all things as the central view of Buddhism and look from there. First of all we can understand that it is a positive, loving view of the world that sees impermanence as a tragedy. A negative view of the world would see impermanence as a good thing, good riddance. Have we been too quick to assume that a negative view of samsara is a negative view of the world?
Secondly, have we too quickly made the mistaken assumption that liberation comes about through having a negative view and trying to get away? Liberation does not come about like this at all. There is no place for negativity in the search for transcendence. The Buddha describes trying to get away like this (through 'vibhava-tanha') as like a dog tied to a pole trying to get away by running round and round it. This is not the way. We cannot escape through desire. Liberation comes not through trying to withdraw from this world but through examining it clearly and completely with a peaceful, open mind and penetrating it to its very core. The natural result of this will be to let go and find freedom from attachment and suffering, not somewhere else or at some time in the future but right here and now. To be capable of this the heart must not only have the wisdom to see suffering clearly but also the compassion to see suffering and stay put.
The real purpose of Buddhists withdrawing into nature is not to try to get away from it all but precisely this kind of examination. The deepest truth is to be found in our relationship to nature and to our bodies that are part of nature. The only true way out is to truly enter in, with open and compassionate eyes.
If this is our understanding and our practice there is no contradiction between our love of nature and our search for freedom. Freedom will be the essence of all things.
Buddhism offers us the hope of finding a safe refuge beyond the body in the blissful emptiness of the mind through letting go. Thus to a Buddhist who has faith the response to the possible end of the world or to the end of our lives is the same. Meditate and practice Dhamma before its too late! For those with less faith in a possibility of life after death but faith enough to meditate, the same practice can still win the refuge of a source of peace and stability of mind through difficult times.
Our first refuge will be the natural mindfulness that comes from virtue, from a lack of remorse that takes the mind into the past and a letting go of the desire that pulls the mind into the future. This path of faith culminates in samādhi that seems a bit like finding a way within our minds to blast off into space! Yet where will we end up? Do we know?
And what about the world?
If we add wisdom to such faith we realise that we can find a safe space, a deeper refuge within the world. If the world survives or ends we can we stay right where we are, within the empty mind. Then we know where we will end up. We will end up right here. We can get to know this emptiness here and now and find that it is naturally full of spiritual qualities. We find out how this emptiness relates to any phenomenon that comes within it in a way that it remains empty and free. We learn how to relate to all the movement of the world and remain still, at peace, secure. Then, here in this down to earth spirituality, compassion also flowers and the practice becomes wider, not just about meditation.
Then wisdom takes us to the highest refuge. This is the wisdom that sees the impermanence of all things and lets go. The mind that lets go like this is then not withdrawn but detached, the mind is in the world but not of the world. And yet to see and let go completely the mind must be able to look on from a secure refuge. Building such a refuge is therefore our task.
"This is the story of a full immersion experience. I recommend you
retreat to your own cabin in the woods, or a deserted beach. If that's
not possible hide out in the bathroom or broom cupboard. Give it
quality time and attention. Life changing potential is much closer
than you imagine."
- Tim Price.
During this last spell of unusually hot weather has been the first time people have expressed to me their personal fears of global warming. In my forty years as a Buddhist I had been involved in many political or ideological discussions before with the strong connections between Buddhism and green politics in the Western world but I have never seen such simple, raw fear. I can hope that this is a sign that people are beginning to wake up and that there may be a renewed vigour in the green movement, personal and political. As a Buddhist I find new resolve to set a good example in terms of frugal living and clear lobbying, to do my best and then have to accept whatever happens, happens.
Also I can hope to be able to offer some guidance to others on how to work with the mind through this crisis.
As in all other areas of life we are making our own personal karma one way or the other through our own behaviour. Thus if we can remain present and centred then this will be the main source of karmic results within the mind. If we behave well we can live with a clear conscience. Physically, however, we may still have to bear with the crisis, with the collective karma of mankind. We will need to work with ourselves in order to accept this. We will need to continue to see ourselves as part of the mankind that has caused the crisis and not separate ourselves from it.
The ideal in terms of our relationship to the world as I see it is to find the compassion not to withdraw, to keep a humble, frugal voice alive in the world, and to have the wisdom not to attach to the world. With wisdom we can understand that we can survive when the truth that is the real essence of our minds can survive. This can be our Refuge in Dhamma. With wisdom we can then reflect that the survival of the group, the culture, is more important than that of the individual, this is the first letting go. This is our Refuge in Sangha. To let go of attachment to the body we can ultimately also discover a higher happiness and freedom than any worldly happiness. This can be our Refuge in the Buddha. As a monk these Refuges are what I am striving for, within the world and beyond it, for myself and for others.
More articles on this theme will follow. In the meantime let’s pray for rain.