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West Meets East

Seeing True Nature

John Worthington-Hill explores Buddhist environmental thought.

Today you’d be hard pushed to find a corner of the biosphere unaltered by human hands. In some places, nature has been rendered almost incapable of sustaining healthy life. Industrial society has caused a loss of species estimated to be 1,000 times more rapid than the rate of extinction that would have occurred in the absence of human activity. Manmade emissions have increased the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to its highest level in several million years, and the onset of human-induced climate change is set to produce ever more devastating effects. So extensive is the human impact on the planet that a growing number of scientists think we’ve entered a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, which signifies irreversible changes in the Earth’s ecosystems. How did we get here, and how is it that we are able to carry on like this?

All cultures and societies provide criteria for moral behaviour. In the West, the inherited framework for morality is based on individual rights and entitlements that place human interests at the summit of ethical concerns. This orthodoxy can be traced back to the Enlightenment. Philosophers have also linked the emergence of an exploitative attitude towards the environment in the West to the medieval ethos of human supremacy over the world, with human beings as the crown of creation and centre of the universe.

Buddhism sees things differently. Buddhism’s first ethical precept is that of non-harm; and the first ruler in history to advocate conservation measures for wildlife, the Indian emperor Ashoka Maurya (304-232 BCE), was Buddhist. For many environmental philosophers, however, Buddhism doesn’t appear to provide direct guidance on the proper attitude towards the natural world. This is largely because there is some discord between Buddhist understanding and Western environmental ethics.

In explaining this discord, it’s useful to remember the Buddha’s distinction between ‘conventional reality’ and ‘ultimate reality’. Conventional reality is the way things appear to be, giving rise to apparent structure and organisation in the world. Central to conventional reality is the sense of self. We tend to have strong ideas about our own identity, signified by things like family, nationality, religion, occupation, and possessions. Ultimate reality, however, transcends this sort of experience. It describes all things in terms of properties and conditions within an ever-changing universe rather than as independent objects. This perspective means for example that the synthesis of forces and conditions that we perceive as ‘a river’ remains recognisable in itself, and yet intrinsically it exists as an element of a much wider system. It can only be understood in terms of the forces of physics, the geology of the land, the life it supports, and the hydrological cycle. If the self is considered in the same way, how much substance is there in what I think of as ‘me’?

Japanese Bridge with Water Lillies
Japanese Bridge with Water Lillies by Claude Monet 1899

In Buddhism, the self is understood as an ongoing process rather than an underlying thing. This resembles the ‘bundle theory’ of David Hume. In accordance with Buddhist thought, Hume describes the mind as “a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in a variety of postures and situations” (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1738). So, despite what’s inferred from conventional reality, there is no single abiding entity or essence behind our thoughts, words and deeds. Hence in Buddhism, ‘individuality’ is an illusion, particularily in the sense that our assumptions lead us to believe that we’re separate from everyone and everything else in the world. On a personal level, problems arise when we get caught up in the sort of experiences that characterise this sort of sense of self. We become driven by notions of possessing, and so become the cause of our own suffering by craving for, and becoming attached to, things that are impermanent. This inevitably leads to dissatisfaction, unease and anxiety. But the consequences of these existential misunderstandings reach far beyond our own individual lives. In fact, self-centeredness is the great illness from which all imbalance, insensitivity and abuse ultimately stem: an illness directly linked to the Buddha’s ‘three poisons’ of greed, ill-will, and delusion. Yet these poisons have been instilled in the norms and structures of society, helping to direct how politics and economics deal with the environment. Environmental destruction is therefore an outer manifestation of an inner affliction. If our thoughts are polluted, then our actions will be polluted too, and so will their consequences. By contrast, Buddhist principles treat the person and the environment as inseparable.

The way we perceive and understand ourselves is crucial in determining how we act. It shapes the way we perceive and understand each other and the environment. By thinking and acting as separate we create disharmony. Disharmony is both a symptom and cause of alienation from the natural world, as well as blindness to our true nature. Reversing this process means breaking down artificial boundaries between people and nature, to reveal the underlying unity and wholeness.

Both philosophically and ecologically, therefore, our personal interests can be seen as the interests of the whole. This realisation can set the tone for a more balanced relationship between society and nature.

The future of the planet is, for the first time, at least partly under the control of conscious, reasoning human beings. But for any kind of viable shared future, people must nurture an awareness and understanding that enables the regulation of their impulses and behaviour. This is a morality based on self-discipline, or what Buddhism calls the ‘Middle Way’. People must also cultivate a new appreciation and reverence for the inviolable sanctity of all forms of life, rooted in humility, respect and compassion as the basis for every decision and assessing the appropriateness of every action. As an old Asian proverb goes, “The careful foot can tread anywhere.” And just as we may come to a better understanding of nature along the way, so we may also see ourselves as we really are.

© John Worthington-Hill 2019

John Worthington-Hill is a conservation biologist. His interest in our ethical relationship with the natural world has been strongly influenced by the principles and practices of Theravada Buddhism.

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