Nature is a part of human existence that one can never neglect. However, one’s view of nature may differ from another’s view due to belief systems. For a Buddhist, the significance of nature abounds in the four major events that constitute the foundation of Buddhism. These events include “birth”, “Enlightenment”, “sharing of knowledge”, and “death”.
The concept of a natural environment to a Buddhist comes from the life and teachings of the Buddha himself. Also, known Buddhist philosophers and teachers contributed a lot in explaining nature to lay Buddhists. As a result, a Buddhist sees his natural environment as paramount to existence. Therefore, Buddhists recognize and treat nature with care. More so, a natural environment can lead to improved concentration and subsequently enlightenment.
Under this topic, we will see:
- the life of the Buddha in relation to his natural environment,
- Significance of nature in Buddhism,
- the teachings of the 14th Dalai Lama on nature, and
- what nature generally means to Buddhists.
The Life of the Buddha in Relation to His Natural Environment
Throughout the life of the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama), he appreciated nature and encouraged others to do so. As such, the birth of the Buddha was in nature, he attained enlightenment in the bank of Nerañjara river under a Bo tree. After his enlightenment, he shared his findings with others, his first teaching was in a deer park, a natural environment.
During his departure from this mortal realm, the Buddha traveled through nature to Pava where a blacksmith (name: Chunda) treated him to a Bhiksha. A bhiksha is a portion of food offered to the monastics. This food offered to the Buddha by the blacksmith is a meal of sukara maddava. Where sukara in Sanskrit means pig. This does not suggest that the meal was made of pork because most people believe it to be a mushroom meal. Instead, it could be that it was made with the help of pig in gathering the mushrooms. These are speculations and still insert debate.
The Buddha became ill after eating the meal. So, he asked his cousin (Ananda) to bury the remnant on the earth. Afterward, he managed to travel to a place called Kushinara in the company of bhikkhus. He gave his final instructions and encouraged them to always seek the truth.
The Buddha then proceeded into the great final release – Mahaparinirvana. While leaving behind his coat of mortality, he entered the realm of infinite consciousness.
Deductively, from birth to the “death” of the historical Buddha, nature always plays out. He always associated with nature even his last meal (though under speculation of what exactly it is) still has something to do with the natural environment.
The Significance of Nature in Buddhism
How important is nature to a Buddhist? One can actually guess that nature to a very large extent matters to a Buddhist. Of course, one can see it through the way they go about nature in their daily living. As such, we will breakdown the significance of nature to a Buddhist as thus:
The Buddha’s Attitude Towards His Natural Environment
The days following the Buddha’s enlightenment marks a crucial time to check for his disposition to nature. Actually, the Buddha stood staring at the Bo tree and appreciating the tree for giving him shade during his struggles through awakening.
This attitude towards the Bo tree shows the Buddha’s gratitude towards nature. And, this is just one example out of many found in the Buddhist texts.
In verse 99 of the Dhammapada, there is a record of the buddha appreciating the peacefulness found in a natural forest. Thus,
“Pleasant is the forest where the ordinary person does not delight”.
With this, Buddhists consider a natural environment as most suitable for meditation practices. This is because one can easily appreciate and connect with nature energy in the course of meditation. That is to say, the quietness of the environment helps the person practicing the meditation through spiritual development.
Generally, this is the reason why the Buddha and the monks go deep into the forest for meditation purposes. They stay away from the noise and the exciting nature of the busy town. Most of the monastics have said encouraging things about meditating in the natural environment. For example, how the sound of birds chirping has helped in facilitating the spiritual process.
These positive declarations show that the community of the Buddha holds the natural environment to high esteem.
In addition, there are instances of the Buddha’s encounter with animals that we can see in the Pali Canon. Such instances include an elephant and a monkey taking care of the Buddha after his retreat in a forest known as the Parileya. In the account, the elephant tearfully followed the Buddha as he was leaving the forest after his retreat. Surely, this event is a strange one.
These events of the Buddha interacting with nature shows that nature itself regards the relationship. In other words, it also cares especially when cared for.
A Buddhist Monk and Nature
In Buddhism, there are rules guiding the monastic. Therefore, the way a Buddhist monk treats the nature surrounding him is different from that of an ordinary person.
Ideally, a monk extends loving-kindness and compassion toward other living things, animals and trees alike. As such, while an ordinary person may use a weapon to tame animals, a Buddhist monk avoids weapons. Instead, he approaches with love and care.
In the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic must try to avoid harm to nature as much as he could. For example, while a monk may urinate in remote places, he should find a place without fresh leaves or grasses. This is to avoid causing any toxic effects on the plants.
Another instance is the Buddhist rainy season retreat. Certainly, one major explanation behind this retreat is that fresh grass and plants grow during this season, and less wandering will prevent more destruction to nature. Religiously, the ascetics wander from place to place seeking refuge during this season. However, for the sake of nature, the Buddha advises the monks in the Vinaya to remain in the monastery during the season.
In the Karanayamettasutta, we all are encouraged to show loving-kindness that has no bound toward all beings in all directions. As such, there is a need we avoid the use of weapons on other beings. This is because it causes fear and harm. Instead, we should be protecting them as a way of showing that we care.
Buddhism encourages avoiding harm to the natural environment. However, this may seem inconsiderate to farmers who till the soil for livelihood. That is why Buddhism recognizes that totally refraining from engaging with nature is not possible. So, the lay community is never prohibited from engaging with nature when necessary. Especially, for agriculture purposes. But, then trading on animals is not part of the right livelihood as the Noble Eightfold path dictates.
Buddhism and Animal Rights
From the onset of Buddhism, the Buddha started by challenging the Brahmin authority and custom of animal sacrifice. Thus, Buddhism declared the prohibition of animal sacrifice.
Also, the first of the Buddhist five precept states that we should avoid taking any life. Of course, this includes both the life of animals not just humans. With this, the Buddha tried to spread the message of non-violence toward animals as wide as possible.
As we can see, the Buddha from history is a great Animal Rights activist. His explanation is that all living beings fear death and desire to be happy. Therefore, instead of harming any of them, we should show them love and compassion.
The Modern Day Buddhism and Nature
In recent times, active Buddhists observe various religious practices to show the significance of nature to man. For example, as widely seen in Thailand, Buddhists buy caged animals and birds and set them free.
On another event, the Cambodian monks encourage the continued practice of tree ordination. Certainly, they channel this practice toward saving the forest. But then, there is a belief in tree spirits. Thus, there are many deities that live in the trees. These lead to trees possessing impersonal powers. Hence, in one instance, the monks that went to practice in the forest met with trees teasing them. And, this made the Buddha advise them on sharing loving-kindness by chanting the Karanayamettasutta.
Generally, till today Buddhism still encourages a harmonious relationship between man and the surrounding nature. As such, a man should not be the cause of the degradation of the natural environment.
Other Aspects of Buddhism Showing the Significance of Natural Environment
Mahayana Buddhists encourage vegetarianism. This is so because they believe that animals too possess the Buddha-nature. As such, they ought to earn some respect and care.
In the Cakkavattiasahanadasutta, we also see that it is part of the duty of the universal monarch to care for every living being in his kingdom and not just human beings only.
The Teachings of the 14th Dalai Lama on Nature
His holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet published an article on “A Buddhist Concept of Nature”. Here, we will go through the key points of his teachings on nature and Buddhism. Thus,
Nature is Emptiness
The Dalai Lama quoted one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers Nagarjuna,
“…for a system where emptiness is possible, it is also possible to have functionality, and since functionality is possible, emptiness is also possible…”
With this, he stated that for the ultimate view of nature, emptiness abounds. This emptiness or shunyata only means that for something to exist, it depends upon another. As such, it is not the emptiness that nothing exists.
Nature Comprises Five Basic Elements
These elements are:
Thus, whether the environment has inhabitants or not, these elements abound.
The essence of these five basic elements is that it forms the basis of the relationship between the natural environment and its inhabitants. Therefore, a close study of these elements reveals that there is a close interrelationship between the natural environment and the sentient beings that live within it.
The Basic Human Nature is Non-violent
The Dalai Lama here cleared that the makeup of human beings puts them under the gentle category of beings. He further gave an illustration with animals such as lions or tigers that depend on other’s life for survival. Surely, their body composition such as sharp teeth and claws (nails) already distinguished them. But, human beings and other gentle mammals are not structured so. Hence, human nature is non-violent.
Human Beings Need Companions to Survive
Here, his holiness declared human beings a social animal. Hence, human nature does not allow survival without others. That is, a human depends on another to survive.
The Human Attitude Toward Nature Should Be Gentle
For the fact that human nature made man gentle, his attitude toward his natural environment should also be gentle. That is to say, while humans show love and kindness to each other, they need to extend such to their natural environment.
This the Dalai Lama made clear that it is not only a question of moral but that of human survival and more. Thus, humans should show care to nature in order to secure their future. Over exploiting the environment might lead to a dramatic change from the balance of the natural environment. Consequently, it will lead to the suffering of future human generations.
The First Step to Caring for the Environment is Self-awareness.
Human beings need to create an internal balance in order to better manage, conserve, and protect the surrounding natural environment. As such, they need to acknowledge the very importance of nature. By so doing, the negligence of nature which has brought enough harm to humans would reduce. When we know this we will better understand our environment and act accordingly to protect it.
The Importance of Compassionate Thought Toward the Natural Environment
Just like when we think kindly about others and show them compassion, we are likely to get back the same energy. On the same note, if one acts in a selfish manner, he will lose out eventually. More like a law of nature.
With this in mind, while exploiting the natural environment, we must put the coming generations into due consideration. More so, it just like we get back what we give to nature. If we care for it, we benefit, if we do not, we also lose out. Therefore, compassion to the natural environment is important for optimum interrelationship.
The Relationship of Mind and Consciousness With the External World
The Dalai Lama also pointed out that the human mind appears to involve so much with the external world without caring about the internal world. Thus, emphasizing the need for mental peace which one cannot get commonly.
While we humans need scientific inventions to survive, we should never forget how we can acquire peace of mind. His Holiness suggested the need to study our mind the more in order to gain mental peace. Of course, the mind is superior, dominant, and more effective.
The EndNote of the Dalai on A Buddhist Concept Of Nature
He concluded by stating that it takes a genuine sense of universal responsibility which bases on love, clear awareness, and compassion to preserve our natural environment. Furthermore, the decision needs to come from within.
What Nature Generally Means to Buddhists
It is very common to see individuals studying Buddhism without a sense of the natural environment. Of course, many texts go into the philosophical, psychological, and therapeutic aspects of Buddhism. So many forget the essence of the natural environment to a Buddhist.
As a result, they drop off the original settings the teachings of the Buddha represents. From the onset, Buddhism regards the natural environment so much. Nature gives peace from the noise and complex nature of city life.
Relaxing in nature gives one the opportunity to experience true peace, helps one breathe easily, calm, and loosen up.
To a Buddhist, living in harmony with the natural environment is very important. This is because Buddhists believe that in one way or another, the welfare of the natural environment influences both the physical and spiritual welfare of the people.
The natural environment helps one to understand that life is all about changes. Thus, helps us prepare for our natural changes. Also, it helps instill self-confidence, improved attention, so we can stand up to our fears.
Generally, to a Buddhist connecting with the natural environment will help improve our inner peace. As such, we can focus on the ultimate goal of Buddhism, Enlightenment. More so, appreciating nature involves deciding to take care of the environment. In the end, we sustain our environment and benefit from it.
A Buddhist and his natural environment is a statement that complements each other. Certainly, this page shows us how much the natural environment means to a Buddhist. As such, we have seen that the practice of Buddhism was born in nature. Hence, Buddhists treat the natural environment with care and compassion.
Lastly, the natural environment is for all of us, both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Therefore, we need to come together and care for our environment so to benefit from it.