Years back, when I used to go to a certain Buddhist temple here in the Pacific Northwest, we had a lay minister named Reverend Don Castro, who was passionate about Ecology and Buddhism. He would encourage the congregation to recycle, talk about Buddhism as a religion of ecology and so on. He was a beloved minister,1 and I fondly remember many times practicing liturgy with him, but I admit that at the time I didn’t think about his ecology message too much. It was an abstract thing for another day.
But now, fast forward ten years, I believe that the message of Buddhism and Ecology is more important than ever.
Reverend Castro famously said in various sermons and publications:
To be a Buddhist is to be both an ecologist and a conservationist.
What does this mean?
Buddhism as a religion is somewhat complicated, but its teachings, the Dharma, include some important teachings that are worth nothing here:
- Goodwill towards all beings (e.g. metta)
- The interdependence of all beings (e.g. shunyata)
Goodwill towards all beings doesn’t necessarily mean that you be their best friend, or that it is a bleeding-heart compassion for all beings. Instead, it’s about appreciating the value of all living beings, wishing them at the very least that they be free from harm and well. This includes tiny little bees in your garden to angry, obnoxious people. This is harder than it sounds, especially when faced with a drunk, swearing idiot blocking your way. But then in the Dhammapada, the Buddha encourages the following viewpoint:
129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.
130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.
131. One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.
132. One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.The Dhammapada, section 10, translation by Acharya Buddharakkhita
The Buddha asks us to put ourselves in the shoes of others, to see what they see, to feel what they feel. It might not change your mind, but at least it gives a newfound respect and appreciation for others.
The interdependence of all beings means that our life and our existence is contingent on so many other beings, external causes and such. We are nurtured by our parents, taught by our teachers, and fed and clothed by hard-working people in factories, whom we will probably never meet. In the same way, may others around us are contingent on what we say, think and do too.
Thus, your actions and attitudes towards others do help shape the world around us. It’s not that we can make a difference, it’s that we do make a difference each day. Thus, if we make a conscious effort to make the world a better place for others (even the angry, obnoxious ones), bit by bit it does happen.
Looking back, we can see how the Dharma teachings of goodwill and interdependence relate to Ecology too. By our actions, however small, we’re making the world a better place for others, even the ones we don’t necessarily like (but still are an important part of this world). Planting trees, bee-friendly flowers, recycling, cutting car emissions, keeping our rivers and streams clean, and so many other things do make a difference.
Will it be enough? Who knows, but somewhere down the line, someone will benefit from what we’ve done, and we too will benefit as a result.
Namu Amida Butsu
P.S. The symbol of the Eco-Sangha, is the Buddha touching the earth in the famous Earth-Touching Mudra. Historically speaking, this was the Buddha-to-be, Siddhartha’s vow to stay put and meditate until he reached Awakening (with the earth as his witness), but in the ecology sense, it takes on a new meaning. More on the local Eco Sangha community here.
P.P.S. Although I’ve lost contact with Reverend Castro, if he ever reads this, I hope he enjoys. ☺️
1 Reverend Castro had a talent for singing Buddhist liturgy nicely, unlike me who was pretty tone-deaf. I remember him being very patient with me. 😅