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Pollution and the Environment:
Some Radically New Ancient Views

By Ronald Epstein, Ph.D. in Dharma Realm Buddhist University Public Lecture Series Talmage, California, May 19, 1992.
如幻生 中譯 Chinese translation by Ru Huan Sheng



「牛山之木嘗美矣。以其郊於大國也,斧斤伐之,可以為美乎?是其日夜之所息,雨露之所潤,非無萌檗之生焉 ;牛羊又從而牧之,是以若彼濯濯也。人見其濯濯也,以為未嘗有材焉,此豈山之性也哉?」

「雖存乎人者,豈無仁義之心哉?其所以放其良心者,亦猶斧斤之於木也 。旦旦而伐之,可以為美乎?其日夜之所息,平旦之氣,其好惡與人相近也者幾希;則其旦晝之所為,又梏亡之矣。梏之反覆,則其夜氣不足以存;夜氣不足以存,則其違禽獸不遠矣。人見其禽獸也,而以為未嘗有才焉者,是豈人之情也哉?」










The great inheritor of the Confucian tradition in China, Mencius, who lived in the early 3rd century BC, wrote:

The Bull Mountain was once covered with lively trees. But it is near the capital of a great State. People came with their axes and choppers; they cut the woods down, and the mountain has lost its beauty. Yet even so, the day air and the night air came to it, rain and dew moistened it till here and there fresh sprouts began to grow. But soon cattle and sheep came along and browsed on them, and in the end the mountain became gaunt and bare, as it is now. And seeing it thus gaunt and bare, people imagine that it was woodless from the start.

Now just as the natural state of the mountain was quite different from what now appears, so too in every man (little though they may be apparent) there assuredly were once feelings of decency and kindness; and if these good feelings are no longer there, it is that they have been tampered with, hewn down with axe and bill [a curved tool for pruning and cutting]. As each day dawns, they are assailed anew. What chance then has our nature, any more that mountain, of keeping its beauty? To us, too, comes the air of day, the air of night. Just at dawn, indeed, we have for a moment, and in a certain degree, a mood in which our promptings and aversions come near to being such as are proper to men [and women!]. But something is sure to happen before the morning is over, by which these better feelings are ruffled or destroyed. And in the end, when they have been ruffled again and again, the night air is no longer able to preserve them, and soon our feelings are as near as may be to those of beasts and birds; so that anyone might make the same mistake about us as about the mountain, and think that there was never any good in us from the very start. Yet assuredly our present state of feeling is not what we begin with. Truly,

If rightly tended, no creature but thrives;
If left untended, no creature but pines away.

Confucius said:

Hold fast to it and you can keep it,
Let go, and it will stray.
For its comings and goings it has no time nor tide;
No one knows where it will bide.

Surely it was of the [innate and good] feelings that he was speaking. (Waley, tr.)

Even in ancient times people took for granted the degraded state of the environment and did not realize the beauty and richness that had been destroyed. Protecting it takes constant vigilance. Likewise protecting our own nature takes constant vigilance, and that is the job of ethical education. But awareness of what is innate and good can be uncovered in everyone, says Mencius.

A Sung Dynasty Confucian scholar Chang Tsai [early 11th cent. AD] wrote:

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and even such a small being as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore, that which fills the universe [i.e., spiritual energy or qi] I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I regard as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions. (Tu Wei-ming, tr.)

A modern Confucian scholar, Professor Tu Wei-ming, commented on these ideas:

This idea of forming one body with the universe is predicated on the assumption that, since all modalities of being are made of qi [the primal spiritual energy of the universe], all thins cosmologically share the same consanguinity with us are thus our companions. This vision enabled an original thinker of the Ming Dynasty, Wang Ken (1483-1540), to remark that if [in our spiritual birth] we came into being through transformation (hua-sheng), then heaven and earth are our father and mother to us; if [in our physical birth] we came into being through reproduction (xing-sheng), then our father and mother are heaven and earth to us. The image of the human that emerges here, far from being lord of creation, is the filial son and daughter of the universe. Filial piety connotes a profound feeling, an all-pervasive care fro the world around us.

For some of you, this may call to mind some of Saint Francis’ comments about our brotherhood and sisterhood with all creatures and all creation. Yet wheat perhaps needs emphasis, beyond the idea of our profound interrelationship with all beings, is the idea of filial piety or respect. If we truly understand the fundamental nature of our interrelatedness, then  that should lead to profound respect not only for our fellow human beings, including those on the other side of pollution issues and other environmental issues, but also for all creatures great and small. This respect finds its roots ultimately in fundamental respect for life.

To be continued


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