A Buddhist Environmental Ethic for an Ailing Planet
“A noble person walks through the village in the same manner as a bee gathers nectar and
moves on––without harming the flower, its color, or its fragrance.”
Dhammapada verse 49, translated by Mu Soeng
“Noble persons” from the VIMS community gathered on the morning of January 1, 2020 to be empty, calm, and quiet together; to open freshly, respectfully, to a new calendar year––a new decade; to acknowledge our shared commitment to live our private and our relational lives gently and skillfully, without harming ourselves or others; and, moreover, to act intentionally in ways to reduce the harm already being done to so many and to the planet itself. Setting aside the specific problems of our personal lives, climate change, and the confusing moral deterioration evident in our politics, we sat in a noble silence––one informed by the basic understanding of the Four Noble Truths: knowing that bad things do happen to ourselves and to others––this cannot be avoided; that there is a human tendency to react in ways that make the situation worse; and that there is a way to refrain from doing so. This effort focused us on three things: a clear, honest understanding; behavioral commitments to not engage in worsening situations; and a well-trained mind, for we know that unkind actions have their roots in the distracted mind. Therefore, an ethics of mind is required to alter our behaviors. As a guide to our post-meditation reflections, we used “Flowers,” chapter four (verses 44-59) in the Dhammapada, which offers us the example of a bee gathering nourishment without harming its source, and which begins with a question:
“Who is it that can truly see, as they are, this earth, this body; who can skillfully navigate this world with its hell realms and heavenly realms? Who can discern the well-taught path of wisdom, in the way a skilled florist can select perfect blooms for a beautiful garland?” (verse 44)
The verses offer us clues as to what qualities are required for us (like the bee) to find a happier, kinder path through our own frailties and our less-than-idyllic, ailing village, called planet earth.
“…how the water beads shine
like tiny moons on the smooth honeysuckle leaf
and the bushy black and yellow bee
nudges its way gently among the flowers”
–– Anne Shivas, “Thought Snippet”
WISE UNDERSTANDING: What we do in this world has an effect in this world.
I am mostly using three different translations of the Dhammapada in writing this essay: those by Mu Soeng, Gil Fronsdal, and Bhikkhu Munindo. Throughout the chapter, their translations all use the words body, world, village, and samsara interchangeably to speak of the internal and external spaces in which we live and act. Samsara is an important descriptive Buddhist term, about which Thanissaro Bhikkhu says: “It is not a place; it’s a process: the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them. And note that this creating and moving in doesn’t just happen once, at birth. We’re doing it all the time.” Zen scholar Barbara O’Brien says further of samsara: “It might be understood as the state of being bound by greed, hate, and ignorance, or as a veil of illusion that hides true reality.”
Samsara is the perpetually re-created, highly conditioned world of our human (individual and collective) habits, all of which are based on reactivity prompted by our liking, not liking, and “spacing out.” The resulting “village of samsara” that we inhabit, neuroscience tells us, is perpetuated by “the reward-based network” of our predictive brains.
Dr. Judson Brewer, who is an expert in this field as well as a long-time Buddhist practitioner, will be talking about this subject at a VIMS gathering later this month. (Event Information) Seeing, understanding, and deconstructing these habit-patterns in ourselves and others will help prepare us for our skillful journey into the flowers and afford us the freedom to adjust our behaviors accordingly, based on their effects.
WISE ACTION: We act in this world in three ways: through speech, action, and how we spend our time
The Dhammapada passage reminds us that a bee interacts with the outer world carefully––without harming its food sources––and, in so doing, gains nourishment for itself and for others. Bees are generous. They are part of a larger working community––a hive, a sangha. They are not just feeding themselves with what they gain from the flowers. Bees are wonderful, interesting, and important figures in our world. They instinctively know themselves as part of an even larger community than their individual hive home. They give the planet as much, if not more than, they take. Plants need them to propagate and thrive. So do we. Without them, we would lose all our food sources. Even the animals that some people eat need the bees to be part of the life cycle of the plants they eat. And of course, in turn, the bees need the flowers. Bees have an embodied wisdom. Their behavior is a lived wisdom, one that understands that we are all dependent on one another to survive. If they killed the flowers in interacting with them, they themselves would eventually die.
I found this bee-wisdom voiced recently in these words from an Australian Aboriginal scholar, Gabrielle Fletcher, Director of Koorie Education at Deakin University, as she explained the felt sense of loss in the wildfire devastation in her direct experience. It has helped me feel the profound dependence inherent in our relationship with the planet.
“Please know that Country moves beyond landscape, allotment, vista or wildlife as discrete components. It is also place, Ancestors, shadows, mist, warble, maps, vapour. It is Knowledge, Ways, Forms, Spirit, Healing––a fluid fixity that is a web of inter-connection that assembles, then re-assembles. A complex system of systems, where everything has its place to teach, feel, show, speak.
To lose Country, in this way, is a distinct, messy kind of grief. It is not just a loss of connection to these systems and to place, and so an ever-increasing slippage of understanding of who we are and how we fit. It is not just the loss of sentient, sapient Beings, and the torture of captive incineration when there is nowhere else. It is also a grief of guilt in our irresponsible helplessness––our sense of the abandonment of our cultural obligations to Care for Country. Without Country we are ungrounded and un-belonging. Without Country we are nothing. And without us, Country cannot Be.”
WISE MEDITATION consists of Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration.
This awareness of dependence on the earth, on the body––brought to life through mindfulness––is a basis for early Buddhist environmental ethics. Our very life depends on the well-being of the planet, along with its flora and fauna. The early agrarian and forest-dwelling followers of the Buddha did not have romantic ideas about the nature of animals or an all-nurturing “mother earth.” They knew first hand of the devastations of floods, earthquakes, droughts, famines, and fires; they knew the cruelty and killing done among animals in their efforts to survive; and they definitely knew––directly, and with humility and respect––how dependent we as humans are on this “planet of samsara.”
Through their meditation practices, the earliest followers of the Buddha also knew a lot about their own minds’ reactive tendencies, and through the Dharma teachings they learned how they could train their perceptions and settle the reactivity in their hearts. They were encouraged to ease their most harmful habit-patterns, those based on desiring, hating, and ignoring the truth. They became the “noble persons” who could emulate the harmonious behavior displayed by the bee community. The word used for ethics in the Dharma teachings is sila. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes that the best translation of the word sila is harmony. This year as we interact with our inner and outer worlds, perhaps we can begin to be clearer, more direct, kinder, and proactive in regard to our altruistic intentions in the world. Another way of looking at dependency is as connectedness: “as a bee connects with a flower without harming the flower, its color or its fragrance.”
“There is a kind of connectedness, an intentional connectedness, that comes through our actions. These are karma connections . . . the real basis for a sense of connectedness comes through karma. When you interact with another person [or any aspect of the “village of samsara”], a connection is made. Now, it can be a positive or a negative connection. With generosity you create a positive connection, a helpful connection, a connection where you are glad that the boundary is down, a connection where good things can flow back and forth.”
–– Thanissaro Bhikkhu, MEDITATIONS 1