Uncontrolled economic development, which wreaks havoc on the natural environment, is a serious global problem threatening human survival. A cause of special concern everywhere is the rapid destruction of tropical rain forests through slash-and-burn agriculture and logging for export. It is said that the destruction is progressing so fast that an area of rain forest roughly one-sixth the size of Japan is lost each year. The consequences of this loss include the extinction of animal and plant species, floods, pollution of streams and rivers, and damage to the fishing industry.
Japan is the world's largest importer and consumer of timber from tropical rain forests. The bulk of the wood for disposable chopsticks, widely used in Japan, and for pulp to make tissue paper comes from the forests of Southeast Asia. This means that the Japanese cannot afford to look on the seemingly distant crisis of the world's rain forests as someone else's business. To fully restore the earth's rich green cover, we must do all we can to save the environment, the foundation of all life.
Of course, we need to fell a certain amount of timber, but the amount must be kept to a minimum. We can try to save the environment by protecting it, or ruin it by allowing greed to continue destroying forests unchecked.
In general, Eastern philosophy has tended to regard the universe as one in essence and to regard all things - including the natural environment and human beings - as essentially united and interdependent. In contrast to this approach, the West separates nature and humankind, and Western civilization has been influenced by the idea that humankind rules nature. Recently, however, many learned people in the West have come to see that the traditional Western view has reached an impasse, and they now strongly urge others to learn from Eastern wisdom in order to save humankind from ruin.
Although Western influence has predominated in Japan since the country was opened in the mid-nineteenth century, the Japanese have since ancient times traditionally revered nature, as is reflected in the Shinto religion, which, together with Buddhism and Confucianism, is part of the foundation of Japanese culture. Now that Japan is being blamed by many people in Southeast Asia for abetting the destruction of the rain forests, all Japanese ought to cultivate respect for nature by returning to their traditional Eastern, truly Japanese, way of thinking.
Effort even in small things can be important. For instance, for the past few years when I have eaten lunch in my office, I have avoided using disposable wooden chopsticks and instead have used a pair of bamboo chopsticks given to me by the leader of another religious organization. These are washed after each meal and can be used over and over. And they are convenient to carry. I realize that refraining from using disposable chopsticks is not enough to solve the problem, but I believe that concern in even small matters can grow into something big enough to save the natural environment.
Humankind can learn much from the workings of the great world of nature. Not even the fiercest animals kill indiscriminately. Yet humans, despite their intellectual powers, do precisely that in warfare and in environmental pollution, which now threatens the planet with destruction. To prevent the worst, we must learn from nature and cease upsetting the natural harmony. Furthermore, we must learn restraint from the great wisdom of the East.
Earth is said to have come into existence about 4.7 billion years ago. Life emerged, and after many ages the human race appeared. Historical records have existed for only some five thousand years. Now that we understand something of how our planet came into being, we at last begin to see how wonderful and blessed it is. People today must realize that their greatest mission is to protect their precious planet and its green cover, which took such an inconceivable length of time to evolve.
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Recently many of the world's nations have been trying to limit the amounts of chlorofluorocarbons released into the atmosphere. Used as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners and as propellants in aerosol spray cans, chlorofluorocarbons are destroying the stratospheric ozone layer, which absorbs ultraviolet rays from the sun. When the ozone layer weakens, more ultraviolet rays reach the earth, harming human beings, warming the atmosphere, and causing environmental changes that will be fatal to much plant and animal life.
Chlorofluorocarbons are but one example of the many ordinary domestic substances that become pollutants when used in large quantities. All such pollution offers clear evidence that the conveniences made possible by technology have side effects that wreak great damage on the environment, threatening all life. Each of us must reexamine our willingness to use these conveniences unthinkingly, despite the harm they cause. We must try to act effectively to protect the environment.
The Amish, a conservative Christian group in the United States, continue to maintain a seventeenth-century lifestyle. Supporting themselves by farming, they shun electricity, travel in horse drawn buggies, and use horses to cultivate their fields. They adopt this simple way of life out of religious conviction. For those of us of other faiths, their way of living provides food for deep thought. First, the Amish represent humility guided by religion. Second, they show us the strength of conviction needed to preserve a style of life based on what is truly important to humankind.
Many European and North American families spend holidays in cottages in remote areas without modern conveniences. In such places, where even electric light is unavailable, these families not only rediscover themselves but also come to see the wastefulness of their ordinary lifestyle.
Determining whether modern conveniences are ultimately useful to humankind will take time. Nonetheless, it seems very likely that leaping to accept every new convenience and grasping at everything that saves labor will sooner or later invite serious trouble, and this is most disturbing.
Pollution starts with greedy individual behavior that, if persisted in, has a baleful influence on society at large. Ending pollution demands that individuals reexamine their lives. Unless they do so, we can hope for no solution at all.
Some scholars claim that the abundance of conveniences today makes people too inactive, so that their oxygen intake is less than it should be, which often depresses bodily functions and causes illness. This theory clearly points out the danger of relying too much on labor-saving devices.
Shunning modern conveniences like electricity and automobiles may seem a negative approach but may actually be a very positive one in terms of health and environmental protection. People and their environment are one. From time to time it is a good idea to put up with some inconvenience in order to think about what is best for both.
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Many of today's young Japanese reportedly suffer from such physical problems as stiff shoulders and nausea, although physicians find nothing wrong with them. Investigation from a different angle, however, has shown that most of these young people tend to disturb their biorhythm by staying up very late at night. In general, modern humans are becoming nocturnal in their habits, and that tendency is spreading from adults to an increasing number of children.
Earth, the home of so many different life forms, has always been subject to the rhythm of day and night. Like other animals living with this rhythm for millions of years, humans have developed an inner biological clock and are fundamentally diurnal in behavior.
Consequently, after sunset it is important to allow one's body to rest and recharge itself. And in the early morning it is good to provide the lungs with plenty of fresh, clean air. With this in mind, we can see that morning Buddhist devotions - sutra chanting or recitation, for example - benefit the body as well as the mind.
Since our biorhythm is that of a diurnal animal, it is only to be expected that staying up late at night will adversely affect our bodies. Some students preparing for examinations claim to study better at night, when it is quiet. But studying during the day when the body is more alert seems to produce better examination scores.
On a recent trip to Europe I happened to see a University of the Saarland research report on the extinction of a certain small insect. The report said that this seemingly irrelevant development actually relates to the continued survival of the human race. The disappearance of the small insect will reduce the numbers of larger insects that feed on it and of animals that feed on the larger insects. Eventually this development could seriously affect the supply of food available to humans.
Although we often think that we live independent of other forces, it is the great workings of nature that sustain us. For this very reason, we should respect nature and live in harmony with it so as to make the most of the life bestowed on us.
Recently more and more executives have been complaining of health problems. One reason for their problems is no doubt their tight schedules, which keep them busy day and night and place great demands on them physically and mentally. But even in the course of busy lives, we must pause and think whenever we feel that our rapid pace is upsetting our biorhythm.
Leading a healthy life is in keeping with Buddhist teachings on nature and humankind. A healthy life includes going to bed early, rising early, and closing the day with the whole family taking part in evening devotions in a spirit of gratitude. By doing these things regularly and at the natural time, Buddhists can lay the foundation of a wholesome life of faith.
Excerpted from Modern Meditations, published by Kosei Publishing Co.