Buddhist Ecology of Compassion - Caring for Creation

by Charles Day*
www.desmoinesmeditation.org or Click Here

What does Buddhism say about nature, the environment, and ecology, about caring for creation? A brief understanding of its history helps answer this question. Siddartha Gautama, the son of a royal family in Northern India, founded Buddhism 2600 years ago. His lifelong contemplative nature led him at the age of 29 to forfeit his inheritance to the throne and leave his family to search for a way to end suffering, not only for himself but also for all beings. He wanted everyone to experience the bliss and compassion of enlightenment, or in Christian terms, the grace of God and the peace that surpasses understanding.

He studied with India’s two most revered Hindu masters, learning their teachings so thoroughly that he was asked by both to become their successors. But he declined because neither was able to explain fully what caused suffering and how to end it. He also practiced with other spiritual aspirants the severe austerities, including virtual starvation, commonly felt to facilitate spiritual growth. But he concluded that these only caused more suffering. So he left his teachers and fellow seekers to meditate alone in the forests of India. And six years after he began his quest, sitting all night beneath the fabled Bodhi tree, after wrestling with the temptations of lust, greed, anger, power, and pride, he attained full enlightenment. And for the next 45 years he taught what he called the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path or the middle way to end suffering.

Buddha, the name given him after his enlightenment, meaning "awake" or "aware," taught that suffering would end only when one realizes that true happiness, contentment, and peace must transcend and can never depend upon external or internal conditions. He taught that the four divine virtues of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity were innate but were obscured by the inevitable suffering caused by three basic conditions:

(1) Our endless pursuit of physical and mental pleasures,
(2) Our tendency to react with anger and aversion to physical pain and frustration of desires, and
(3) Ignorance of our interconnectedness with all physical and mental phenomena, resulting in an illusory sense of having an independent, autonomous, and separate self or ego that can control its own destiny.

Buddha taught meditation, mindfulness, and other practices that would lead to the wisdom, compassion, and insights necessary to end these causes of suffering.

From a Buddhist perspective, then, failure to care for creation, to be compassionate for the animal, plant, and mineral kingdoms, results when we separate ourselves from these domains of life. When we exploit them in the pursuit of satisfying our selfish needs and desires, and when we deny our connectedness to and interdependence upon them.

Genuine caring for creation is an ecology based on compassion and is a natural, spontaneous result of understanding that everybody and everything is connected and interdependent, that Thou art That, in Hindu terms. To hurt, harm, exploit, neglect or cause suffering to any living being, or to our natural resources, environment, or the planet is simply to hurt, harm, exploit, neglect, and cause suffering to ourselves..

This recognition has led to the development of what contemporary Buddhist scholars call engaged Buddhism. They recognize that to ultimately end our individual and collective suffering, we must consciously confront the suffering that exists on all levels: physical, mental, social, as well as ecological. I would like to quote from a couple of books: (1) The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism, edited by Fred Eppsteiner, Parralax Press, 1985, and (2) For a Future to Be Possible, by Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press, 1993.

Zen master Philip Kapleau says, "A major task for Buddhism … is to ally itself with religious and other concerned organizations to forestall the potential catastrophes facing the human race: nuclear holocaust, irreversible pollution of the world's environment, and the continuing large-scale destruction of non-renewable resources. We also need to lend our physical and moral support to those who are fighting hunger, poverty, and oppression everywhere in the world” (1, pg. xii)." He said this in the early 1980's.

Nobel Peace Prize nominee, poet, and Vietnamese Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh is unexcelled in adapting Buddhist teachings to modern society. He advocates practicing compassion and reverence for all life by learning ways to protect the lives of, not just people, but of animals, plants, and minerals. He urges us all to resolve not to harm, let others harm, or support any act of harming in the world, in the way we think, in the way we speak, and in the way we act. (2, pg. 13).

And he advocates practicing lovingkindness and generosity by becoming "aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression" and learning "ways to work for the well-being of all people, animals, plants, and minerals" (2, pg. 20).

The Dalai Lama says "because the individual and society are interdependent, one's behavior as an individual is inseparable from one's behavior as a participant in society" (1, pg. xiv)

Author Kenneth Kraft suggests that a Buddhist "awareness of interdependence fosters a sense of universal responsibility" (1, pg. xiv). Engaged Buddhism, according to Zen Buddhist and Poet Gary Snyder, can lead to specific acts of "civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty, and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of retraining some impetuous crazy" (1, pg. xvii).

Engaged Buddhism is a practical manifestation of caring for creation. It is a Buddhist ecology of compassion. Once we realize the interconnected nature of all people, all beings, and all things, that everything is a manifestation of God, we will recognize our involvement in the conditions we deplore and become empowered to do something about them. Until then, until we realize that everything is God, we will continue to hurt God.

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that: "We need a person to inspire us with calm confidence and to tell us what to do. Who is that person? ....You are that person. If you are yourself, if you are your best, then you are that person. Only with such a person—calm, lucid, and aware—will our situation improve." (1, pg. xiv).


(1) Eppsteiner, Fred (1985). ed. The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism. Parralax Press.
(2) Hanh, Thich Nhat, (1993). For a Future to Be Possible. Parallax Press, 1993.

*Based on a talk given by Charles Day to an Interfaith Forum on Caring for Creation in Des Moines, IA, in 2003. Charlie teaches meditation and Buddhism and can be contacted at (515) 255-8398, www.desmoinesmeditation.org or charlesday1@mchsi.com to discuss meditation, Buddhism, sitting groups, retreats, or meditation experiences. w11-08

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