Pura Vida

Life in full circle

Buddhist Ecology, Or Ecological Buddhism 101

Buddhists and ecologists have much in common

When monk asks master "How may I enter in the Way," the master points to a stream and responds, "Do you hear that torrent? There you may enter." Walking in the mountains, a master asked, "Do you smell the flowering laurel?" The monk did. "Then," declared the master, "I have hidden nothing from you." Enlightened Buddhists see no divide between the human and the natural. By contrast, dichotomous thinking is basic to non-ecological Western thought, deriving, perhaps, from the Greek Platonic constructs of ideal vs real and intellect vs emotion, not to mention the Judeo-Christian: God vs creation, spirit vs flesh, sin vs redemption and—most important for our purposes—organism vs environment and humanity vs nature. Such thinking has long been anathema to Buddhism, as it now is to ecology.

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Traditionally, ecology was defined as the study of the interrelations between organisms and their environments, which approaches the Buddhist recognition of interrelation, but is still dualistic; significantly, ecologists now modify this definition to emphasize the fundamental identity of subject and surroundings. We cannot separate the bison from the prairie, or the spotted owl from its coniferous forest. Since any such distinction is arbitrary, the ecologist studies the bison-prairie, owl-forest, egret-marsh unit. Food webs, such as those connecting mouse, acorn and gypsy moth, are not mere descriptions of who-eats-whom, but outlines of their very being. The Buddhist suggestion that an organism's skin does not separate it from its environment but, rather, joins it, could just as well have come from a "master" of physiological ecology.

A seemingly simple message, this, but in such simplicity can be great power, and truth. In a famous essay, titled "The Hedgehog and the Fox," the late British philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, used these animals and an observation by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus as a metaphor for various human styles of knowing: "The fox knows many things," Archilochus wrote more than 2000 years ago, "but the hedgehog knows one big thing." In the present formulation, the wisdom of ecology and Buddhism are both derived from just one thing, but it, too, is very big.

Here is Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, reflecting upon this very big lesson, and how he learned it from an autumn leaf:

"One autumn day, I was in a park, absorbed in the contemplation of a very small, beautiful leaf, shaped like a heart. Its color was almost red, and it was barely hanging on the branch, nearly ready to fall down. I spent a long time with it, and I asked the leaf a number of questions. I found out that the leaf had been a mother to the tree. … This communication between leaf and tree is easy to see because the leaf is connected to the tree by a stem. We do not have a stem linking us to our mother anymore, but when we were in her womb we had a long stem, an umbilical cord. The oxygen and the nourishment we needed came to us through that stem. But on the day we were born, it was cut off, and we had the illusion that we became independent. That was not true. We continue to rely on our mother for a very long time, and we have many other mothers as well. The earth is our mother. We have a great many stems linking us to our Mother Earth. There are stems linking us to the clouds: if there are no clouds, there will be no water for us to drink. We are made of over seventy percent water, and the stem between the cloud and us is really there. … There are hundreds and thousands of stems linking us to everything in the universe, supporting us and making it possible for us to be. Do you see the link between you and me?… I bowed my head knowing I have a lot to learn from that leaf."

With dualism overcome and the world seen in its organic wholeness, it is absurd to consider natural processes as "harmful" to themselves, just as the “death” of a leaf doesn’t hurt the tree; quite the opposite. There is, instead, a kind of integrity about the natural world: "A duck's legs, though short, cannot be lengthened without dismay to the duck, and a crane's legs, though long, cannot be shortened without misery to the crane." Western thinking has generally been more Procrustean, seeking to amputate, stretch, or otherwise deform the natural world to suit our desires. And yet, ecologists have come to a more Buddhistic realization, with their (admittedly, belated) acceptance of decomposition, predation, even forest fire, as having a place in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

Perhaps one day, we will all celebrate Interdependence Day. Or better yet, recognize that it occurs all day, every day.

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time aspiring Buddhist, and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, whose most recent book is Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science, just published by Oxford University Press.

David P. Barash, Ph.D., is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

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