Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Buddhist View of Nature (Part 2)

Part 2: (link to part 1)

In his forty years of teaching after his awakening, he continually returned to nature as a primary source of wisdom and practice. Just like Thoreau experienced at Walden pond, a life away from the excessive energy of the city creates a space of simplicity, of calm, that is necessary to penetrate the delusions we hold about the world and ourselves. That’s not to say that one cannot practice Buddhism as a householder. Rather, it simply shows us that simplifying our lives as much as we are capable within the constraints of our responsibilities is a good practice to undertake.

There’s a famous story that forms the source of Zen philosophy in which the Buddha silently held aloft a lotus flower in front of an audience of 1,200 monks who had come to hear his teachings. By this most simple of acts, one monk in the audience, Mahakashyapa, was fully awakened. Some of the other monks present were probably not in a place where they could benefit much from such direct teaching, and others likely gained some measure of wisdom. But the key here is that the calm, silent simplicity of seeing a flower in bloom contains all the wisdom in the universe.

We can also look at nature in terms of Buddhism’s teachings on compassion and peace. In the third chapter the Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva writes:
Thus, for every single thing that lives,
In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
May I be their sustenance and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering.2
It is our vow, our practice, as Buddhists, to attain awakening not for ourselves, but for the benefit of all beings. This practice contains the seeds for the development of skillful qualities such as compassion, love, devotion, energy, and generosity. But more importantly for our purposes here, it exemplifies the inherent equality of all sentient beings: I see a dog, a raven, a cheetah, a jellyfish, as inherently no different from a human.

They are all living, sentient beings, and it is my wish that none should suffer. This is not some naive thought that we can, or should, prevent gazelle from suffering in the jaws of the predatory cheetah (because, truly, to prevent that would cause the cheetah to suffer eventual starvation). Rather, we see nature as it is. Life flourishes on earth due to its diversity and the adaptability of genetics under the pressures of natural selection. The predator-prey model plays a major role in this process. However, still we feel sorrow when seeing a great lion extinguish the life of a zebra to feed his pride, or a leopard kitten perish because his mother was unable to kill enough to feed him. We accept that this is the means by which species survive, and we see all beings as inherently equal, requiring our compassion, love, and respect.

2Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night, Dalai Lama. 1994.


Angela said...

Obviously similar points of view regarding nature are held by other traditions as well. However, it would be wonderful if it was possible to perpetuate these views so that they represented a collective *human* point of view regarding nature instead of being segregated to specific schools of thought!