Environmental problems are serious because there is no external enemy
for us to rally together and fight. We ourselves have been the numberone
offenders in bringing about these awful problems.
How can Buddhism be of use in helping solve our present era's environmental problems? This question has been on my mind for several years.
Whenever religion and society come into contact, the first question is always, "What does the word of God or the teaching of the Buddha have to say about such-and-such issue?" Gautama Buddha in particular was known for giving problem-solving sermons, like a physician prescribing medicine that suits the illness, that were no doubt peppered with such questions by lay believers every day as he made his rounds begging for alms. Now Buddhists also need to gather their courage and use their heads to deal with the problems that beset us in our present era. The weightiest and most serious of these problems are environmental issues. The major environmental changes that have been occurring on a global scale since the middle of the twentieth century are posing a potentially mortal threat to the ability of the earth's environment to support humankind. Issues of energy and resources; food availability; pollution of the air, water, and soil; and population growth have acquired a scale that our ancestors never had to deal with.
Environmental problems are also serious because there is no external enemy for us to rally together and fight. The main cause of environmental change has been changes in human behavior---we ourselves have been the number-one offenders in bringing about these awful problems. Just as it is impossible to see your own face without a mirror, or to hear your own voice as it is heard by others, it is extremely difficult to correctly perceive your own actions. However, if we just ignore these problems because we find it hard to deal with them, they will simply get a lot worse. If we think about it, we can see that because we are the ones who created the problems, we should be able to overcome these difficulties, reflect on our actions, and reform them in such a way as to resolve the problems. There is plenty of room in this process for Buddhism to make a contribution.
Do not what is evil. Do what is good. Keep your mind pure. This is the teaching of Buddha. (The Dhammapada, 183)
The teaching above is the essence of Buddhism. What are we doing now that is "evil" or "good" for the environment, and how can we purify our hearts? The time has come for every person to think about this and take action. Without action based on sincere self-reflection, it will not matter how advanced environmental technologies become, or what environmental policies are adopted, because such things cannot bring about a fundamental solution to environmental problems.
For example, even though we may produce automobiles that conserve energy and place a smaller burden on the environment, if this means that people will feel more comfortable about driving even very short distances and end up traveling by car more often, this will result in a net increase in the amount of energy consumed. Filling a single tank with gasoline cancels out the same amount of oil saved by ten people making the effort to bring their own bags to the supermarket and refusing plastic grocery bags for an entire year. (According to the Japanese Consumers' Co-operative Union, producing one plastic grocery bag uses 20.6 milliliters of crude oil, and Japanese people annually use an average of 250 plastic grocery bags per capita, meaning that they would save five liters a year by refusing every single bag. Automobile gas tanks take about fifty liters.) Unless every person makes an effort to refrain from unnecessary driving, energy consumption will not decrease. We all need to take a good look at how we live and make the necessary changes in how we do things.
Altruism as a Guide to Environmental Action
Now let us take a look at what we need to do to achieve these improvements. Yukihiro Okada has already argued in his essay "The Validity of Buddhist Thought as a Way of Dealing with Environmental Issues" (2000) that "the Buddha's teaching about being satisfied with little" and "the altruistic behavior of a bodhisattva" can serve as effective guides to action that will contribute to solving environmental problems. He considers "being satisfied with little" as the proper basis for individual lifestyles, and altruistic, bodhisattva-like behavior as the basis for action aimed at protecting the environment. In other words, we should of our own accord try to reduce the burden we place on the environment, and share with others the benefits we do receive.
This is doing good for the environment as defined by Buddhism. In the example involving automobiles noted above, to consciously refrain from receiving the benefits of convenience and ease accorded by using an automobile is to act out bodhisattva-like altruism by reducing CO2 emissions and leaving more energy resources for others to use. I have no doubt that this kind of bodhisattva-like altruism, even when individual efforts are in themselves insignificant, will contribute to solving many of our environmental problems. Looking at it from the opposite perspective, the environmental situation will in fact only begin to improve by virtue of this kind of altruistic behavior by individuals.
Before proceeding further, we need to examine the possible range of altruistic behavior; altruism in Japanese is written with two characters that, taken separately, mean "benefit" and "others." In this context, what is meant by "others"? Okada emphasizes that the meaning of "others" must include the natural world and not be confined to other human beings. I think that this is a very important point of instruction for Buddhists trying to deal with environmental issues, because confining altruistic behavior to other people introduces the threat of possibly bringing further pressure to bear on the natural environment. Knowledge of Japan's Buddhist heritage and its historical religious sensibility clearly reveals the potential for putting the natural environment on the same level as other people as an object of altruistic endeavor.
How we think of "others" in the context of altruism leads us in turn to the question of how we view the existence of the natural world. Our original manner of perceiving our environment (our worldview) is of fundamental importance to every other consideration. The nature of our worldview can cause our efforts to change in a certain direction to backfire and have the opposite result. For example, people in Japan are now seriously worried about the country's decreasing birthrate, but viewed from a global perspective, the doubling of the world's population during the second half of the twentieth century was an abnormal phenomenon. Rapidly increasing human population and rising population pressure are straining the environment and threaten to exacerbate problems of climate change and food scarcity.
It will not suffice in this case to simply attempt to increase food production; rather, we will have to accept a decrease in the human population and attempt to lower population pressure. A declining population---particularly in the industrialized countries that consume huge amounts of energy and place an enormous burden on the environment---is something to welcome with open arms as a great boon to humankind. (However, if human population decrease in the industrialized countries is a result of male reproductive dysfunction owing to endocrine disrupters in the environment, this in itself is an environmental problem that requires attention.)
The point is that even a problem such as a decreasing birth-rate appears as a completely different phenomenon depending on whether it is viewed from a political/economic or an environmental/religious perspective.
Thus, I would like to take a look at what Buddhism has taught regarding the natural environment and, while referring also to modern scientific knowledge, try to clarify the worldview of the Buddhism with which we are familiar.
The Irreplaceability of Life
In attempting to address how Japanese Buddhism perceives the environment, what aspects of the natural world can serve as the objects of altruistic behavior, and how this can lead Buddhism to protect the environment, I will start by examining how Buddhism treats the subject of life. The environmental sciences consider the environment to be that which surrounds and supports living things, and so our definition of living things will have a significant effect on our environmental worldview. How we define the life process and what constitutes a living thing will form the foundation of how we think about the environment.
Irreplaceable Life and Mutual Coexistence
When you are hungry but cannot leave what you are doing, nobody else can eat your meal for you. The same is true when you have to go to the toilet. In our daily routine, the most everyday acts are nonetheless essential for maintaining life and cannot be performed by another. All types of behavior that constitute our life processes, including things that we must do for ourselves, have an impact on the natural world, and we bear the responsibility for the results of those impacts brought about by our actions. This can be seen as an explanation derived from the environmental sciences of the Buddhist teaching that one creates one's own karma and one's own benefits. This is a vital concept for exploring the phenomenon of our own lives as they relate to the natural world.
Precisely because one creates one's own karma and one's own benefits, every life is precious and irreplaceable. If the actions that allow us to live could be performed by another, and if we did not have to bear the responsibility of the results of what we do, this would make us replaceable.
Although being alive makes us unique and irreplaceable, when the phenomenon of life is withdrawn, our bodies lose their coherence and return to the soil to be broken down into elements that will go into making up other living things. This is obvious because all living bodies consist of more than 99.9 percent oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen, as does the planet Earth itself. Because our bodies are composed of the same materials as the other beings in the natural world, when living things die, more than 99.9 percent of the material that composed their bodies consists of elements that go into creating the bodies of other living things.
Before modern chemistry and biology existed, these concepts were present in the form of the Buddhist doctrine "the five aggregates have no self." The five aggregates consist of psychophysical elements: form (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (samjna), mental constituents (samskara), and consciousness (vijnana). These terms existed to teach us that we are not composed of special, unique matter and that there is no such thing as a fixed, unchanging me with singular characteristics. Thus, while our existence in the world is a one-time-only phenomenon and our actions during our lives cannot be replaced, the elements that go into our existence are shared in common with the diversity of other living things. All beings in this world are totally interrelated in coexisting relationships.
When we fail to comprehend the cycle of existence described by the concept of "the five aggregates have no self" and instead get stuck in pursuing only our own survival, we damage our relationship of coexistence with the natural environment, which in turn works to threaten our own survival. That is, acts of selfishness and egoism are "doing what is evil" to the environment and serve to destroy our own lives.
On the chemical level described above, all living things are basically the same; recent research in the biological sciences shows that not only the millions of species of living things existing on Earth today but every form of life that has existed throughout the entire history of the planet originated from a single, initial living cell. Space scientists also now believe that the most abundant elements in the universe are the same four---oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen---of which we and all living things are made. The origins not only of our own species and every single other living thing on Earth but also of rocks and stars can all be traced back to the gases and dust that went into forming the universe. This seems to me to be the same as what Seng-chao (384-414) said in Chao-lun (Chao's Analects): "The heavens, earth, and men all spring from the same root; we are one with everything in the world."
Tradition of the View on Life
Though time scales may vary, everything existing in the world follows the same kind of natural life cycle---birth, old age, decay, and death. Chan-jan (711-782), sixth patriarch of the Chinese T'ien-t'ai school, wrote: "Grasses and trees sprout up and die back. When an eon has passed, even dust and stones will disappear" (The Adamantine Lancet, Taisho 46, 784b). This kind of thought was made possible by the philosophical foundations already existing in China that taught "all things are equal" (the idea that, in light of the original source of truth, the Tao, everything that discernibly exists, including human beings, is equal and of uniform status) (Fukunaga 1981). Chuang-tzu, a Chinese sage of the fourth century BCE, is said to have held that the Tao is found in things like worms, millet, grasses and trees, roof tiles, flagstones, stones, and dirt.
The traditional Chinese T'ien-t'ai concept that trees and other plants possess the buddha-nature is thought to have been inherited and expressed by the Japanese Tendai sect, which holds that "grasses and trees, countries and lands, all attain buddhahood" or, more recently, that "mountains and rivers, grasses and trees, all possess the buddha-nature." I have discussed the issue of how these two passages came into being in detail elsewhere (Okada 2002) and do not intend to delve into this issue here.
However, I would like to point out that neither passage appears in Buddhist scriptures; both originated in Japan. It is clear that the former became popularly known in the latter half of the ninth century (Sueki 1995), while it has only been confirmed that the latter appears to have come into use in the second half of the twentieth century. However, I do not intend to enter into a difficult doctrinal discussion of the terms attain buddhahood and possess the buddha-nature. I mention the phrases "grasses and trees, countries and lands" and "mountains and rivers, grasses and trees" to call attention to the fact that not only humans and animals but plants and inorganic things are being discussed as equally existing parts of the natural world. The important point here is that Japanese Buddhism has traditionally taken the view that life in the natural world includes all of these things equally.
The view of Chan-jan regarding the attainment of buddhahood by plant life and the view of Japanese Buddhism regarding the attainment of buddhahood by grasses, trees, countries, and lands are the antithesis of the vegetarianism of Indian Mahayana Buddhism. The Mahayana Buddhism of India banned eating meat, in sympathy with the overall religious practices of the society at that time, which also prohibited eating meat. However, if your reason for not eating meat is compassion for animals, the next question is, What about plants? Are they not living things? Recent Buddhist scholarship (Schmithausen 1991) has suggested that this line of thought may have led to placing plant life in the same category as inorganic matter.
I have searched all extant Mahayana Buddhist scriptures and found only two exceptions to the placement of plant life together with tiles, stones, and so on as unconscious or insentient beings or their classification as not-living things (Okada 1999). The two exceptions are found in the Lotus Sutra and in the Shurangama Sutra. "The Parable of the Herbs" in chapter 5 of the Lotus Sutra compares the way large-, medium-, and small-sized plants are all watered by the same rainfall and as a result grow, flower, and bear fruit to the way the great diversity of all living things derive benefit from the same Buddhist Law.
The Shurangama Sutra teaches, "All manner of plants are the same as sentient beings (creatures with senses) and are no different from human beings. Plants are reborn as humans, and when humans die they also become all manner of plants and trees." With the passage of time, the parable of the herbs in the Lotus Sutra had an important impact on T'ien-t'ai doctrines in China and Tendai doctrines in Japan during the late-tenth to early-seventeenth centuries; this seems natural enough in view of how living things are viewed in China and Japan. After all, plants do sprout, grow, and die.
The Lives of Things: The Custom of Holding a "Send-off to the Other World"
We can naturally assume that native Japanese traditional concepts similar to the Chinese idea that "all things are one" were behind Japan's acceptance and inheritance of T'ien-t'ai doctrines on plant life's attaining buddhahood. These traditional concepts include the idea of yaoyorozu no kami, literally, "eight million deities," the belief that the divine essence dwells in everything. Looking even further back in time we find what was probably the original, underlying concept---a view on life expressed by customs present in Japan since the prehistoric Jomon period of ano yo okuri, literally, "send-off to the other world." In the same locations where people made graves for other people, they also made graves for shells (shell middens), graves for animals (animal bone burials), and graves for earthenware (as seen at the Sakiyama shell midden, the Sannai Maruyama archaeological excavation site, and elsewhere), and it is supposed that they also performed "send-off to the other world" ceremonies.
The custom of holding a send-off to the other world persists to this day in Japan in the form of memorial services for objects and animals. Traditionally, memorial services are held for needles, writing brushes, and other objects, and in more recent times new types of memorial services have emerged one after the other, for example, for scissors (sponsored by beauty salon chains, these take place at Zojoji Temple, Tokyo, on August 3, as the syllables for this date are similar to the Japanese word for scissors), for pachinko machines (at Sensoji Temple, Tokyo, on August 8, another pun-type date choice), for false teeth (at Myokoji Temple, Okayama Prefecture, on October 8), and for personal computers.
All of these memorial services for objects serve to promote recycling of valuable resources. Some people say that these events are held because they are the only way to collect and recycle these end-of-life articles and that they are merely a convenience for the benefit of the people involved. However, is holding a memorial service for used possessions really the same as recovering them for recycling? No, it is not the same thing at all, because these memorial services grew out of feelings of gratitude toward the possessions that have served us; they are a fond farewell to things that have come to the end of their useful lives because we have used them. Also involved is the consciousness that they are being sent off to be reborn anew.
Thus, these memorial services indicate that people feel that such items have "life," and feel respect for them. This respect for the physical existence of things (their corpus) can be understood as an environmental sensibility present in Japan since the Jomon period. It is also the answer to the question posed earlier about whether we can place the natural world on the same level as other humans as appropriate objects of altruistic action. Because this worldview regards as equal the lives of humans, animals, plants, and objects, the natural world (grasses and trees, countries and lands) is, in fact, an appropriate object of altruistic behavior.
Indian Buddhism, at least, lacked this view of life, and we can assume that this is why only the lives of animals were placed on the same level as humans' in Indian Buddhism. In the Jataka tales, a collection of stories of the former lives of Shakyamuni Buddha, we find many examples of bodhisattva practice in which the lives of birds and beasts are saved, such as the story of King Sivi, in which a bodhisattva rescues a dove, and the tale of Prince Mahasattva, who sacrifices his own life to help a starving tigress and her seven cubs. These stories show that in his former lives, the Buddha acted altruistically toward creatures other than humans. However, there are no stories in this collection of compassion being shown to plants or objects. I would like to emphasize that, by contrast, Chinese and Japanese Buddhism extended the range of altruistic action to include plants and inanimate objects, creating for the first time the potential for expanding altruism to embrace the entire natural world.
The Dhammapada. 1973. Juan Mascaro, trans. London: Penguin Books.
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Sueki, Fumihiko. 1995. Heian shoki Bukkyo shiso no kenkyu: Annen no shiso keisei o chushin to shite [Research on Buddhist Concepts in the Early Heian Period: Centering on the Thought Formation of Annen]. Tokyo: Shunjusha Publishing Company.
Mamiko Okada is a professor at the School of Human Science and Environment, the University of Hyogo. She earned a D.Phil. at Bonn University, Germany. She is a trustee of the Japanese Association for Religious Studies and serves as a member of numerous governmental committees. Dr. Okada is actively involved in social activities and is on the Ethics Committee of Western Kobe Medical Center.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2008 issue of Dharma World.