Could the Buddhadharma Offer an Inspiring Environmental Ethic?

Via Linda Lewis
on Dec 9, 2011
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Buddha was born in a forest of trees with large leaves called Sal.

He meditated as a youth under the shade of a Myrtle and later under the Banyan, and he realized the true nature of mind under the Pipal or “Bodhi” tree.

Buddha’s love for trees and nature became part of his Vinaya code of monastic discipline. He forbade his monks to cut down trees. He reminded them that trees provide food, shade and protection for all forest dwelling beings. He also set down rules forbidding the polluting of water resources.

It's Just C

Most Buddhists are familiar with the Jataka Tales celebrating the forests and waters and the wild creatures that inhabit them—the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, tiger, panther, antelope, deer, otter, monkey and hare—all seen as previous lives of the Buddha. These stories are often told to children to help them appreciate the richness and diversity of nature and the value of all forms of life.

Because the buddhadharma reveals the interdependence and impermanence of all life, life is seen as precious and valuable. Furthermore the dharma says that all animate creatures from fruit flies to the blue whale have Buddha-nature.

Because Buddha valued all forms of life, he encouraged a diet of fruit, vegetables and grains, and this was mostly followed everywhere the buddhadharma spread, except for Tibet, where long winters made such a diet impossible. There, only barley could grow above the tundra and in the high altitude, and only cave-dwelling yogis like Milarepa, who sang of the beauty and joy of living in nature, managed to survive on a diet of tsampa (barley flour) and nettles, although some of the alms devotees gave him did include the occasional meat.

Nevertheless, in Tibet the culture lived in harmony with wildlife and the environment until the devastating Chinese takeover in the 1950’s.

Then the destruction of monasteries along with the people and their environment was systematically destroyed. Until then the traditional value of giving automatic sanctuary to animals inhabiting any monastic grounds was as true in Tibet as anywhere else in Asia, where the buddhadharma flourished. The life of all beings was considered sacred.

Yet Western converts to the buddhadharma – including myself – have been slow to apply the Buddha’s teachings to daily life, until relatively recently, as the Dalai Lama has been encouraging the world’s Buddhists to become active conservationists. The17th Karmapa, has also asked all followers of his Kagyu School to become vegetarian.

Ethelred The Unusual

Although my son has been vegetarian for years, and I had flirted with it earlier in different periods of my life, it is only now that I am returning to the wisdom of such old books as Diet for a Small Planet, which suggested decades ago that a diet of grains and vegetables was the only sustainable diet for human beings. Eating meat not only contributes to the death of grain-fed animals raised for slaughter, but to the starvation of other people who could have eaten that grain; and the prospect of feeding humans grain as opposed to grain-fed cattle makes even more sense now than it did 40 years ago, as the 7th billion person on the planet has now been born!

Now that the Buddha’s teachings have spread to the West and practitioners are beginning to appreciate the basic, not just the esoteric, aspects of the buddhadharma, it seems timely that we adhere to those most fundamental principles of valuing all forms of life and the habitats that support them.

When one takes refuge in the Three Jewels—the Buddha as example, the Dharma as his teachings and meditation practice, and the sangha as the community of our fellow meditators – we also take the vow against killing.

Although most of us have not been raised to be hunters, ranchers, farmers or fishermen and do not actively engage in killing, we cannot help see how we are encouraging killing every time we buy any form of meat—no matter how many “hands removed” we are from the actual kill.

If the creatures of the earth are to be regarded as having inherent worth, we need an environmental ethic to inspire us to relate to and treat them accordingly. An enlightened society would exhibit reverence not just for each other as fellow human beings, but also for this truly awesome world of which we are only a part. This flies in the face of the industrial corporate paradigm that presently rules society with its materialistic ethos, which sees non-human nature solely in terms of profit.

Isn’t it time to emphasize the buddhadharma’s reverence for all life? Isn’t it time to see and act ecocentrically rather than egocentrically?

I humbly but strongly urge all Buddhist leaders to uphold and encourage the Buddha’s environmental ethic for the benefit of all beings.



About Linda Lewis

Linda Lewis met the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1972 and, following Rinpoche’s invitation, immediately moved to Boulder, Colorado to be a part of his young and vital sangha. The predominant themes in her life have been teaching in contemplative schools–Vidya, Naropa, and the Shambhala School in Halifax, Nova Scotia–and studying, practicing, or teaching his Shambhala Buddhadharma wherever she finds herself.


9 Responses to “Could the Buddhadharma Offer an Inspiring Environmental Ethic?”

  1. Brianna says:

    Hi Linda,
    I really like what you're saying in this article. I've always found it a little hypocritical that so many Buddhists eat meat here in the U.S. Thanks for bringing this up in such a gentle way and encouraging us all to think about environmental ethics.

  2. Padma Kadag says:

    Linda…your article is an interesting one. The Buddhist vegetarian or any vegetarian is always a good idea. Environmentally it is a good idea …i Think. As far as vegetarianism being "Buddhist"…that is not completely true even without "millions of Tibetans" as a reason to justify meat eating. I am not vegetarian. I eat meat rarely.I offer meat at Tsok as a samaya commitment. The Buddha when given meat ate meat. I think as individuals if we practice Buddhism as Buddhists then it is good that we use what our teachers have given us.

  3. Padma Kadag says:

    I, personally, will not take Buddhism and apply it "publically" to mix with a political stance. If I am practicing completely as an individual there is no need to make pronouncements of "because I am Buddhist I stand for this or that". You know all of this. Some great Tibetan masters and lay people were vegetarian but most were not. If we are to believe in their Parinirvana, even with the occassional consumption of meat, then isn't that enough for us as Buddhists to recognize that what you eat does not determine your ability to benefit beings? Having said that, Chatral Rinpoche is foremost alive today advocating vegeterianism and doing it. In Kunzang Lamai Shalung, Patrul Rinpoche advocates vegeterianism. He also points out the inevitability of countlessbeings dying and suffering due to tilling, plowing and flooding fields for crops. So long as we understand everything which is done in the name of food , as Buddhists, and as individuals do what we have been taught by our teachers. I have no doubt that those Buddhists that do practice are benefiting on all levels of concern.

  4. Padma adag says:

    But…thank you for your concerns and voicing them. I always see vegetarians as doing something positive which is healthy for themselves and others. Unfortunately our comments and articles always come off as a "Stance". Stances come and go.

  5. Hey thanks for commenting! Not sure quite how to respond to all that – but have a wonderful evening!!

  6. […] Could the Buddhadharma Offer an Inspiring Environmental Ethic? […]

  7. Linda V Lewis says:

    You also have an appendicts which is no longer of any use. It's called evolution. We are no longer cave men and women. We can farm, bake, etc. A plants does not have a mind. But if you are really concerned about plants, bravo–just eat their fruit and nuts. They are offered, with no harm to the plants. Cheers.

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