Those Confucian ideas that I have just mentioned bring to mind an ancient Buddhist teaching that the earth is a great enlightened being, a great Bodhisattva, who gives us a place to live on her body, to grow and to walk the path to enlightenment. This being, the earth, is our mother. She gives birth to us, nourishes us, and it is to her that we return at death. We owe her the same kind of love and respect that we should have for our human mothers. The earth is the mother of all the beings that live upon her. Since all of those beings have the same mother as we do, they are all our own brothers and sisters. We should cherish and respect them as we should the brothers and sisters of our own human nuclear family.
In March 1989, the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, Chan Patriarch and founder of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, visited Pendle Hill, a Quaker center in Pennsylvania. When he was there, he was asked the question: "How do we protect our ecology and the global environment?" He replied,
People should model themselves after the earth. The earth produces the myriad things: animals, plants, and the teeming creatures. The earth [sometimes interpreted as the principle of vital energy], on the other hand, models itself after heaven [sometimes interpreted as the principle of spiritual energy]. It is said, 'Heaven covers me from above, while the earth sustains me from below.' A section of the ozone layer has been destroyed in Antarctica and there has been incredible radiation all around that area. That is a case of humans destroying the ecological equilibrium and the protective function of heaven and earth.
The Master went on to say:
Heaven goes on to model itself after nature. Here the meaning of 'nature' is the intrinsic truth that underlies all phenomena. As the eternal life-force, it neither increases nor decreases. You could call it the Buddha-nature, which is found equally and pervasively among all living beings. It is not the case that Buddhas are intrinsically higher than living beings. Rather, it is a question of whether one has wisdom or not.
The Buddha has returned to the source and recovered his original nature; living beings are covered over by desire and so have lost touch with their original wisdom. The ultimate way to rescue the environment is to return to a state of innocence and truth, and not to engage in fighting, selfishness, avarice, and deceit.
What does this mean? "The ultimate way to rescue the environment is to return to a state of innocence and truth, and not to engage in fighting, selfishness, avarice and deceit." At the time of his enlightenment the Buddha said:
How amazing! How amazing! How amazing! All living beings have the potential to become fully awakened. Only their polluted minds and their attachments keep them from doing so.
The Buddha was saying that the only reasons that we are alienated from the true source of our being, our enlightened nature, is that our minds are polluted and those pollutants–selfishness, desire, greed, anger, and so forth–cause us to cling to the very things that alienate us from our natural enlightened state of being. In our state of alienation, we then influence the world around us in unnatural ways, which sooner or later result in distortion of the natural patterns of the environment. That distortion then can cause pollution and other environmental problems. What this is telling us is, that if we trace the causes of environmental problems back far enough, we find at their source polluted minds, minds that are smogged over so that their original clear, pure, bright nature and their universal interconnectedness are no longer visible.
Some of you may be thinking: If this was the case at the time of the Buddha, over 2,500 years ago, when problems of pollution were relatively small, why are the problems now so immense? Some of the reasons are obvious, and some are more difficult to get at.
One of the obvious reasons is the population explosion. Think–the population explosion itself is a sign of severe disturbance and alienation from the natural patterns of our own minds and the world. Remember the ancient Taoist teaching that the natural state is one of few desires. Of course the problem of population is extremely complicated, but when we find complication and confusion, we need to return to basic principles.
Another important reason, which is perhaps not as obvious, has to do with causation and responsibility. Jesus' saying, "As ye sow, so shall ye reap," is also a succinct statement about the workings of cause and effect, or karma, as it is known in the Buddhist tradition. Buddhism emphasizes that our verbal and physical behavior is the outcome of our intentions–subtle or not-so-subtle mental habits, desires, and ideas. If my intentions are good and pure, my behavior will be good and pure. If I am motivated by a turbid mind, filled with selfish desires, greed, hatred, and violence, then my speech and actions will accord with what is in my mind. We do tend to see the world and its living beings through the tinted and distorted lenses of our own minds. Turbid and defiled minds lead to turbid and defiled actions, that destroy and pollute the planet that is mother and home to us all.
WHAT SOLUTIONS ARE THERE?
How then can we all work together to clean up our own nest and to insure the continued health and vitality of our mother the earth? If I am motivated by a mind that is clear and pure, a mind filled with selfless loving-compassion, a mind at peace with itself and the world, then my speech and actions will naturally, and without special effort or intention on my part, promote the vitality of the earth and its ecosystems.
However, one heritage of our modern scientific and technological world has been a widespread breakdown of awareness of the consequences of our actions. If the causal pathways of our actions are very long, complicated and obscure, then it is very difficult for us to take proper responsibility for the consequences of our actions. This, I think, is another major cause of our environmental problems.
In the ancient world, for the most part, people could see clearly the consequences of their own environmental actions. In the modern world, the astute use of our own senses is often not enough. For example, we cannot see ozone. Or when we use paper, do we see or even think about the trees or the dioxin and other chemicals that are used in the paper-making process and then are dumped into our waterways? Or when someone buys a Big Mac, they do not see what is happening when the cow is grazing, what it is eating, where the manure ends up, and of course they do not directly participate in, or even see, the killing of the cow. Many little children do not even know that beef and milk come from cows. Their knowledge of the causal chain stops with what they personally see and experience: the plastic packages in the supermarket. For them, beef and milk come from MacDonalds and the supermarket. Therefore, in the modern world we have to realize that paying attention to the consequences of our actions is going to take a new kind of special effort.
In conclusion I would like to suggest that in tackling pollution and other environmental problems, both locally and globally, we can benefit from some of the ancient ideas I have presented. In particular there are three notions that deserve our special attention:
1) We should pay special attention to the state of our own minds and our own intentions. Even if we feel that our cause is noble, if we act out of anger and without fundamental respect for everyone involved, we are only making matters worse. And, of course, violent action only begets more violence.
2) We should act out of knowledge of the causal consequences of our actions, no matter how obscure and complicated the causal interrelationships might be, and no matter how long term the effects might be. In our daily activities and in our jobs, we have to make a concerted effort to educate ourselves, our children and our communities about the environmental consequences of our actions and to take responsibility for them. We cannot in good faith shift responsibility to future generations. One result of this kind of analysis may be the simplifying of our lifestyles.
3) We should increase our awareness of our fundamental and causal interrelationship with all life on the planet. We should have profound respect for our mother earth and have profound respect also for our elders, all older children of mother earth, and for all our brothers and sisters, both human and non-human.
I firmly believe that, if we can emphasize these three approaches, both through own example and in the education of our children, then we can really begin to make some headway, not only in overcoming pollution and environmental degradation, but in revitalizing and stopping the fragmentation of our communities, and in finding real satisfaction and meaning in our own lives.