The Dharma and the Environment

March 2005

It sometimes astounds me that we can still relate to the teaching of the Buddha at all. The difference between the way we live and the way the Buddha taught us to live is so great. And still, there is hope, because notwithstanding the light years that separate our view of the world from the way the Buddha saw it, I can still write these words and someone can still read them and perhaps find some use for them.

Just look at us and the way we live! We sit here in our newly redecorated colour co-ordinated air conditioned apartments, enthralled by our newest home entertainment system, the last in a long line of electronic wonders that now lie disintegrating dangerously in garbage dumps around the world. Sinking back into our overstuffed sofas, we consume vast amounts of junk food. Our mobile phone - the latest third generation variety - its predecessors keeping our old computers toxic company in those same garbage dumps, rings. It’s a friend inviting us to join him for dinner.

We get up - a little reluctantly - it must be admitted, go into the bathroom, shower, apply ozone destroying aerosol deodorant and maybe hair-spray too. We put on the latest designer label clothes and shoes and go out. We get in to our gas-guzzling cars, turn up the air conditioning and drive the few hundred meters to the appointed place. There, we gobble a huge meal of animal protein and starchy carbohydrate loaded with salt and sugar, the profligate products of factory farming and industrial agriculture.

On our way home, we drop by the pharmacy to pick up our prescription drugs for our hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and stress. We also absolutely must stop at the super market, where we buy all the processed foods, fizzy drinks and fatty snacks that we can pile into our carts, because after all, we have to eat again tomorrow! We throw out all the plastic bags, Styrofoam packaging, tin cans and other garbage we have produced throughout the day - enough to clog up half the rivers and oceans of the world - and we make a note to be sure to go to the fitness centre tomorrow, because we really must lose some weight.

How different was the life the Buddha had in mind! Then, really, less was more and small was beautiful. The Buddha very deliberately laid down the rules for the community of monks in such a way as to place the least possible burden on the society and the environment. The Buddha taught that they ought to live like bees, living off the flowers, but damaging neither their beauty nor their fragrance.

Then, all sorts of vegetation: trees, plants, and grasses were regarded as living organisms, not to be damaged or destroyed. Even the earth itself was a living organism, not to be broken or dug. Animals, be they crows, ants or even bed bugs, ought not to be killed. The last point ought to be proof enough of the greatness of the Buddha’s compassion!

The monks were supposed to be satisfied with the four requisites for life: food, clothing, shelter and medicine. But the food, clothing, shelter and medicine meant for the monks were very different from the food, clothing, shelter and medicine we seem to require today.

The monks ate only once a day and they ate whatever they were given. They received their food in their one bowl, ate it from the same bowl, and when they were done, they washed the bowl and used it again the next day and the next. They produced no garbage.

The monks’ robes were originally made from discarded rags sewn together. Later the Buddha allowed the monks to accept cloth for robes, but still they wasted nothing! Once a king asked Ananda (the Buddha’s faithful attendant) what the monks did with the robes when they became old and torn. Ananda replied that the old robes were made into sitting cloths. “And then when the sitting cloths get old, what do you do with them?” asked the king. “We make them into handkerchiefs, and then into bandages, and finally, we tear them into strips and mix them with mud for making bricks,” said Ananda. “Why - these followers of the Buddha waste nothing” exclaimed the king.

Obviously, the monastic community at the time of the Buddha and even now is a special case. Nobody is suggesting that we all become monks and nuns, nor that, we all live by the rules laid down for monks and nuns. Indeed, if such a thing were ever to happen, there would be nobody to support the monks and nuns and they would disappear. But surely, even we, modern lay men and women, can do something to reduce the burden of our existence on this earth. Surely we can do something to avoid poisoning the environment and suffocating the planet with our presence. Or maybe we can’t; maybe it’s already too late, or we’re to busy to bother. What do you think?