Ecological Significance and Contemporary Relevance of the Teachings of ??kyamuni, the Buddha

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    The present paper deals with the teachings of Śākyamuni, the Buddha, in terms of their contemporary relevance and ecological significance. It delineates on various dimensions and ramifications of the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda, particularly in the context of ecology. It pleads for a cosmos-centric Buddhist eco-ethics and eco-syllabus for education for universal well being.


    Buddha vacanas (Teachings of the Buddha) , Madhyam? pratipad (Middle Path enunciated by the Buddha) , Prat?tyasamutp?da (Doctrine of Universal interdependence) , Trilak?a?as (characteristics of impermanence/ non-ego-ness and suffering) , Dhammacakkappavattanasutta (First teachings of the Buddha).

  • I. ??kyamuni, the Buddha

    The advent of Śākyamuni, the Buddha, initially the Light of Asia and now of the entire world, has been a significant event in the history of our world’s culture and civilization. Born in a royal family with all material prosperity and physical comforts, he was disturbed and stirred by the pain and suffering, finitude and evanescence of mundane life. After intense study, deep reflection and profound meditation he gained insight into the nature of reality and the phenomenal world and attained enlightenment. Having attained enlightenment he did not remain self-centered. He was not content with his own deliverance but sought the emancipation of all the suffering beings and showed them the sure path to nirvāṇa, a way to eradicate suffering and to escape from the labyrinth of bhavacakra (cycles of births and deaths, origination and annihilation). In this context he also taught loving care and respect of nature and natural objects. The path shown by him, known as madhyama pratipad, consisted of a synthesis of wisdom, conduct, ethics and meditative practices.

    Śākyamuni visualized the ‘Four Eternal Truthś and practiced them in the form of ‘Eightfold Eternal Path’ in his own life and being assured of their veracity traveled and taught widely to enlighten people about it. The nidāna (diagnosis) and the upāya (cure) put forth by him were so efficaciously redeeming that people revered him as Bhaiṣajya Guru (the teacher of healers) During his life time itself he was regarded as Tāyin (Great Saviour), Buddha (an Enlightened Seer), Sarvajña (Omniscient Person) and Sugata (i.e., one who has visualized and realized the summum bonum of life).

    The Buddha has stood out as one of the finest products of Indian culture. He was an inheritor of an old tradition as well as a creator of a new outlook. He inherited a rich and varied cultural tradition of a very high order and formulated and established a new culture out of it which was theoretically enlightening and practically redeeming from the labyrinth of suffering, imperfection, impermanence and vicissitudes of life. He showed an old path, a middle path, which avoided all extremes and which attracted the elites and the masses alike. In his own words, “Even so have I O’ Monk! seen an ancient way, an ancient road, traversed by the supremely enlightened ones of the older times” (SN. 1:106).

    The Buddha was a very well read and well-versed person with a critical bent of mind, subtle logical acumen and deep understanding of human nature and psychology. He was well steeped in the traditional Indian wisdom and drew his ideas and inspirations from it, being fully exposed to the rich and varied cultural milieu of his times. He was not born in an intellectual void and his ideas did not grow in a cultural vacuum or in isolation from his social surrounding. In fact his view sprang up as resurgent thoughts protesting against the distortions in and deviations from the Vedic lore that crept in later on in the vast temporal canvass of Indian history.

    Having an open and assimilative mind, the Buddha accommodated all those noble and sublime ideas available in the intellectual and meditative environment of his time that were congruent with his experiences. But the way he reformulated them was innovative and appealing. This is why he could impress upon, command respect, and why his teachings would eventually be followed by of millions of people. The Buddha was also a wise and practical person fully knowledgeable of human psychology, who not only discerned the inner cravings of the human heart and intellect, but also knew the logic and language with which to communicate with fellow human beings.

    II. Dhammacakka Pavattanasutta and Its Contents

    The seminal and foundational text of Dhammacakka Pavattanasutta is not only the basis and the starting point of all Buddhavacanas but also has various dimensions, both theoretical and practical, which have great academic importance and contemporary relevance. All significant and basic Buddhist doctrines and practices stem from it and therefore its value is both historical and doctrinal. It is no doubt the first discourse of the Buddha after having attained enlightenment; it is also the essence of Buddha’s teachings and a point of reference for all subsequent expositions of Buddhist thought and culture. It is rightly regarded as the foundation on which the entire edifice of Buddhism is erected. All the three Piṭakas and the subsequent literature are nothing but elaborations and expositions of the fundamental ideas enunciated in this text. Since all basic doctrines of Buddhism spring and emanate from this first and foremost Sutta, it occupies a unique place among the Buddhavacanas.

    The contents of this Sutta are multifaceted and varied touching different facets of empirical life and reality, but they are all interwoven in a holistic and integral understanding and realization, a symbiosis of prajñā and karuṇā, śīla and samādhi. Therefore its multidimensional nature consists of diversified treatment from different perspectives in accordance with the temperaments, needs, aspirations and value-pursuits of different ages and different societies. The contents of this text are addressed not to a particular section of humanity at a particular time but have universal appeal, importance and value. The adjective cakka symbolizes its perennial significance and relevance. It also suggests its all round permeation and pervasion in all spheres of life and reality. The word pavattana implies that dharma and its śāsana need to be propagated again and again incessantly. Every word of this caption has to be understood in its proper and exact connotation. Then only its real meaning and significance can be understood and practiced. A fresh look at and analysis of this significant Sutta is needed in these contemporary times as Buddhist ecumenism has the capacity to provide newer insights and pathways to the present day suffering humanity provided it is approached in an unbiased manner with samyagdṛṣṭi (right perspective) free from all narrow considerations.

    The Dhammacakka Pavattanasutta is a concise encyclopedia of Buddhist thought and culture. It contains the essential and fundamental teachings of the Buddhist way of thinking and living. The Four Eternal Truths and the Middle Path, the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda, the trilakṣaṇas of anityatā, duḥkkha and anattā of the empirical world along with nirvāṇa known as ‘catvāri dharmapādāni,’ the doctrines of karma and samsāra, of dhyāna and śīla, of prajñā and karuṇā, of pañcaskandha and their samghāta are all contained in this tract in some form or the other.

    III. Analysis of Doctrine of Prat?tyasamutp?da

    Buddha’s teachings of eradication of egocentricity and cultivation of existential openness and universal sameness based on the principles of dependent origination, interdependence, interconnectedness and essence-less-ness of all phenomena enunciated in the famous doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda are remarkable and the most distinguishing features of Buddhism that have great relevance and significance in contemporary times and in the new millennium to bring about universal peace, harmony, prosperity and well being. It is rightly characterized as yuktirāja, guhyakośa, gambhīra, prajñābhūmi etc. to highlight this fact. The doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda has three facets of idampratyayatā or hetupratyayatā (causally dependent origin of all phenomena), nissvabhāvatā or śunyatā or prapañcarūpatā (essenselessness of all phenomena) and parasparāśrayatā (interdependent and interrelated existence of all phenomena). It is not any one of these alone as has been sometimes misunderstood by some scholars. Any controversy in this regard is misplaced and unwarranted. The significance of this doctrine lies in that it presents both the nidāna (diagnosis) and the upāya (cure) of the miseries and evanescence of the empirical world. It makes us realize the truth that all existences and experiences are relative and conditional. Nothing has absolute and independent or exclusive existence. The mistake lies in regarding them as otherwise. In the world phenomena are mutually exclusive as well as interdependent. The reality, thought and language abide by the regulation of apoha according to which every one is svatovyāvartaka, i.e., complement of its compliment and negative of its negative.

    There are different formulations of the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda in terms of nine, ten, eleven or twelve aṇgas but the last one is most popular. The difference is only from the point of view of upāyakauśala (expediency). It is also classified in terms of trikāṇdas or trayadhvikas, the first two pertaining to the past, the last two to the future and the remaining eight to the present time. It is also classified as avidyā, tṛṣṇā and upādāna giving rise to kleśa, samskāra and bhava to karma, and nāmarūpa, vijñāna, āyatana, sparśa, vedanā jāti and jarāmarana to duḥkha. Another classification is in terms of kṣaṇika, prakarśika, sambandhika and āvasthika. All these details are useful in proper understanding of the nature of the empirical world and the phenomenal existence. One who understands this gets rid of all suffering and afflictions. This is nirvāṇa. This is paramam sukham (Supreme bliss), which is the sumum bonum of life. This is the wish expressed in the saying, “Sabbe satta sukhi hontu” (Let all creatures be happy).

    The doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda is exceptionally gambhīra (deep and subtle) and not very easy to understand. It is not just to be studied or analyzed or appreciated as the most fundamental or central etc. It’s real meaning and connotation is to be understood, which would automatically fructify into practice. Prajñā has to be accompanied by upāya. Then it can provide a ground for individual, social and cosmic change for betterment and for universal well-being. By pointing out the causal origin of kuśala (virtous) and akuśala (non-virtuous) dharmas it points out the necessity of removal of pathological causes and cultivation of those that are conducive to good. The same is the case with other Buddhist doctrines propounded in this Sutta.

    There is another dimension of the doctrine of pratītyasamuptpāda which Chandrakīrti, the commentator of Nāgārjuna, has pointed out. The entire cosmos is a network of mutuality between events characterized by universal interdependence, interpenetration, interconnectedness and interrelationships. (parasparāpekṣā). In this undivided world everything miraculously supports everything else. This insight is beautifully expressed by the Avatamsaka sūtra in the metaphor of ‘the jeweled net of Indra’ which exhibits ‘mutual interpenetration and interfusion of all phenomena’. In the words of Uisang, a Korean monk, it means,

    This text of Avatamsaka Sūtra has been explained as follows: “If you sit in one jewel then you are sitting in all jewels in every direction, multiplied over and over again. Why? Because in one jewel there are all jewels. If there is one jewel in all jewels then you are sitting in all jewels too. And the reverse applies to the totality if you follow the same reasoning. Since in one jewel you go into all jewels without leaving this one jewel, so in all jewels you enter one jewel without leaving this one jewel” (Cleary 1993).

    The Zen master Dogen puts it as follows: “There are myriads of forms and hundreds of grasses through out the entire earth, and yet each grass and each form itself is the entire earth” (Tanahasi 1995, 15).

    The contemporary Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh also writes in the same vein as follows:

    A corollary of this view is that all existences share the same essence, the same Buddha-nature. All exist in the same Buddhakṣetra. All partake in the same Dharmakāya. As the Avatamsaka sūtra puts it,

    The point is that there is wholeness of life, self-sameness of all existences and therefore we must cultivate universal love, universal compassion, universal kindness and respect for all lives and all existences. One of the early Buddhist texts exhorts us to cultivate loving kindness in the following words,

    This feeling of oneness is not physical or geographical but mental and psychological.

    The root cause of suffering is delusion (avidyā). The consequence of it is a feeling of separateness, fragmentation; a sense of separate and independent existence. We are a conglomeration of five elements which are in constant flux. But, we feel as if we are a lasting self. We feel separated from each other, separate from the environment that sustains us and separate from the things we are inextricably related with. The ecological crises we witness today is the result of this delusion which gives rise to greed, hatred and stupidity. The physical and external pollution is due to mental and internal pollution. As stated earlier, it is due to akuśala citta. This moral degradation affects the individual as well as his or her surroundings. The remedy lies in recovering the lost vision of wholeness and practicing śīla (morality) in the form of ‘Brahma viharas.’ This is enlightenment. This is Buddhatva.

    Thus the “Four Eternal Truths” and the doctrine of ‘pratītyasamutpāda’ as a corollary there from, have deep ecological significance. From the Second Eternal Truth it follows that all empirical phenomena have a causal origin. Nothing is self-existing. Every thing is caused by a set of causal conditions. Given the causal interdependence of how phenomena occur and how in the absence of them they cannot take place (Asmin sati idaṃ bhavati). The Third Eternal Truth entails the idea that by the removal of the causal collocation the effect also gets removed. The Majjhima Nikāya says, “When that exists this comes to be; on the arising of that this arises. When that does not exist, this does not come to be. On the cessation of that, this ceases” (MN. 1:134). This implies that both ecological equilibrium and disequilibrium are causal happenings. They are caused by human conduct. Human beings are the most evolved species in the cosmic evolution and we have acquired the capacity to preserve nature or harm nature. Further, all the events and phenomena of the world are our own making. The Samyutta Nikāya says “Cittena niyati loko” (SN. 1:39), the Dhammapada (1 and 2) puts this very aptly as follows:

    If we have kuśala citta (righteous mind) we perform good deeds and virtues spread. But if we have akuśala citta (vicious mind) we indulge in bad deeds and vices spread. Delusion (avidyā) produces greed, hatred and all other vices. Moral degeneration results in pollution within and without. The point to be noted is that no event and no phenomenon, good or bad, is self-existent or eternal. As Nāgārjuna puts it, nothing has svabhāva and every thing is svabhāva śunya. (Yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaḥ śunyatām tām pracakṣmahe). The implication to be derived is that all ecological pollutions have a causal origin and annihilation and all these are caused by human mind and resulting actions. The Buddha said, “Cetanā bhikkave kammo vadāmi.” Since we have caused the evils and consequent undesirable suffering, it is our responsibility to eliminate them. This is what is referred to by His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, as ‘Universal Responsibility.’ So, all ecological disturbances and environmental pollutions are of our own making. We are responsible for this. Since we are the most evolved we are the most responsible being. We therefore carry a universal responsibility not to create ecological imbalance and to rectify whatever imbalance we have made because of our folly. Our entire actions stem from our consciousness, says the Buddha. If we have pure consciousness (kuśala citta) our actions will be good and conducive to well-being. If we have impure consciousness our actions will certainly be bad and they will lead to all miseries and sufferings. Through our actions we help or harm others and ourselves. All our thoughts, words and deeds are results of our past actions and shape our experiences of the present and the future. What we shall be depends on what we are at present and how we behave in the present. We have therefore to cultivate samyak dṛṣṭi (right attitude) towards life and reality. We have to follow the Middle Path. We have only to cater to our needs and not to feed our greed. We have to avoid extremes of indulgence and abstinence. We have become much too selfish consumerists and exploitative. We have ceased to respect our authentic existence and also the authentic existence of others. Nature has its intrinsic value as well as instrumental worth. We have forgotten the intrinsic value of nature and have taken it as merely instrumental. We forget that we are products of nature and we are sustained by nature. Instead we try to conquer nature and have mastery over it. This is our ignorance, our mithyā dṛṣṭi. Lord Buddha always respected and loved nature and wanted to be in the lap of nature. If we care for nature, nature will care for us. If we destroy nature, nature will destroy us. This is the simple principle of interdependence. So it is saner to preserve and protect nature, rather worship nature as a spiritual entity. Nature is beautiful and bountiful. It is full of joy and it gives joy to us. Let us appreciate and preserve this quality of nature. Nature is to be approached with respect and gratitude. This is Buddhist ecology. Western ecology is utilitarian, materialistic and mechanical but Buddhist ecology is spiritual and teleological. In the teachings of the Buddha we have both surface and deep ecologica thinking, but their meanings are different than the ones understood by the western thinkers. By deep ecology the Buddha would mean that we have to attend to the functioning of our mind. The Buddha has said, “Cetanā bhikkave kammo vadāmi.” We should have kuśala citta. The very opening lines of the Dhammapada emphasize the role of mind in the cosmic process. All good and evil proceed from the mind. Mind occasions our conduct and makes it good or bad. So we should educate our mind first. This is the foundation of all ecology. This is the real deep ecology that pertains to inner environment. The surface ecology pertains to our actions that constitute outer environment. We feel affected by our actions. They alone are visible and tangible. But they are not basic. They only result from our thinking. Their roots are in our thinking. So prajñā is the basis of śīla. Knowledge and conduct are two sides of the same coin, but knowledge is more basic. In the Eternal Eight-fold Path the Buddha began with knowledge as a starting point. The point is that ecological consciousness is fundamental to ecological conduct. Consciousness operates at the deeper level and actions are its outward expression at the surface level.

    There is another dimension of Buddhist deep ecology. Because of its spiritual orientation it talks of essential unity of all existences. All entities exist in the same Buddhakṣetra and share the same Buddhabhāva. All existences have mutuality and participatory being. As Uisang in the ‘Ocean seal of Hwaeom Buddhism’ writes, “Since dharma-nature is round and interpenetrating, it is without any sign of duality. All dharmas are unmoving and originally calm. No name, no form; all distinctions are abolished. It is known through the wisdom of enlightenment, not by any other level. The true-nature is extremely profound, exceedingly subtle and sublime. It does not attach to self-nature, but takes form following (causal conditions). In one is all, in many is one. One is identical to all, many is identical to one. In one particle of dust are contained the ten directions and so it is with all particles of dust (Batchelor and Brown 1994, 16).

    IV. Cosmo-centric Buddhist Eco-ethics

    From the doctrine of interdependent origination of all phenomena it follows that Buddha’s approach to reality and hence to ecology is holistic and integral. He does not entertain the dichotomies of: human-nature or nature-culture, body-mind or heredity-environment, theory-praxis or thought-action. Further, his approach being spiritualistic and teleological from his teachings we get a vision and an approach to cosmo-centric eco-ethics, a widening of moral sensitivity as we view human actions in a cosmic context. In modern times we need such eco-conduct to solve eco-crises. From Buddha’s teachings we learn another lesson that ecology is not a mere matter of theorizing or sermonizing but something to be practiced. So all of us have to be ‘Engaged Buddhists’ irrespective of our religious affiliation, whether we are Buddhists or not. The Buddha did not propound any religion of his own but only pointed out a way to eradicate all miseries and sufferings. This is important and relevant for us. In this sense Buddha’s message is perennial and eternal. It is the message of enlightenment.

    The doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda (Interdependent Origination), which is the central doctrine of Buddhism, provides a foundation to an environmental perspective to be offered to humanity to meet the present day crises that are endangering and threatening all existences human, as well as non-human. It also deals with the cardinal Buddhist teachings that can help in bringing about an ecological lifestyle. Ecological thinking and ecological living go hand in hand and a synthesis of the two has been the keynote of the Buddhist view and way of life. Concern for the well-being of the mental and the physical world has been an important element through out the history of Buddhism. Human existence and destiny are inextricably linked with environments. Recognition that human beings are essentially dependent upon and interconnected with their environments has given rise to instinctive respect and care for both mind and nature.

    The Buddha exhorted, “A wise person does not intend harm to self, harm to others or harm to both self and others. Thinking in this way, such a person intends benefit for self, for others, for both and for the whole world. Thus is one wise and great wisdom” (AN. 2:179). Apart from loving all living beings the Buddha has always advocated love and respect of nature. All living beings are creatures of nature. Nature provides them physical form and sustains them. Nature environs them and provides them nourishments. It is joyful and joy-yielding. Śāntideva in Bodhicaryāvatāra (AN. 8:25) voices this idea as follows:

    A life in the lap of nature is a mark of spiritual freedom. It is freedom from all restraints, physical and mental. It is widening, deepening and heightening of spirit. It is a life of purity, internal and external. Life in nature is natural life. We should ideally lead a life of the middle path as a ‘green monk’ caring for nature and sharing the bounties of nature. If we care for nature, nature will care for us. If we pollute nature it adversely affects our existence. Nature is an ‘Embodied Love’ and ‘Embodied Benevolence.’ For example, trees do not exist for themselves, they stand in the sun and provide shadow not to themselves, and they yield fruits and other benefits not for themselves. They do so for the sake of others. The same is the case with rivers, mountains and other objects of nature. In this respect nature is a great master and a teacher practicing and teaching maitri (loving kindness), karuṇā (compassion), muditā (sympathetic joy) and upekṣā (equanimity).

    All natural objects have a spirit residing in them. They are our co-inhabitants. As we have a right to live, they also have a right to live. It is therefore a sin to harm or pollute or destroy them. Zen Master Dogen writes:

    This sort of panpsychism is an outcome of a spiritual approach to reality and life. It also reveals the interconnectedness and interpenetration of all phenomena.

    In loving all beings and nature there has to be a life of collectivity, a samgha jīvana. The real meaning of life is to be found in the midst of this network of collectivity, a network of interrelationship we call ‘life.’ Life is to be lived meaningfully in the spirit of cooperation, of mutual give and take, with love, compassion and respect for all. Buddhist ecology is based on conservation ethics of mutual care and share. Love, compassion and concern for others should be as natural and instinctive as it is for our own selves. The cardinal principle of Buddhist eco-ethics is, “In joy and safety let every creature’s heart rejoice.” Śāntideva uses two very inspiring and apt words for this idea. He talks of ‘parātma samatā’ and ‘parātma parivartana,’ feeling of sameness with others and identification of one self with other selves. He writes,

    There is another reason for respecting the life of all living beings. The Buddha has advocated the doctrine of the cycle of birth and rebirth. This implies kinship with all creatures. We may take rebirth as any of such creatures depending upon our karmas. These creatures could have been our parents or sons or daughters in their previous births.

    V. Conclusion

    A time has come for the beginning of a cultural renaissance for which the teachings of the Buddha can play a vital and pivotal role. Buddhism has come into existence as a problem solving exercise both in terms of prevention and of cure. The Buddhist truths are of great relevance and significance in contemporary times and in the new millennium to bring about universal peace, prosperity and well-being. These should be the guiding lights for our ecological thinking and doings. If we have to draw eco-syllabus for eco-education it can certainly be built on a Buddhist foundation to be meaningful, efficacious and practical.

      >  Abbreviations

    AN Aṇguttara Nikaya

    MN Majjhima Nikaya

    SN Samyutta Nikaya

  • 1. Martine Batchelor, Brown Kerry 1994 Buddhism and Ecology. google
  • 2. Thomas Cleary 1993 The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra. google
  • 3. Kazuaki Tanahashi 1995 Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. google
  • 4. Nhat Hanh Ven. Thich 1988 The Sun My Heart. google