buddhism and environmental protection

buddhism and environmental protection
Venerable Bodagama Chandima thero

Gautama Buddha who lived in India approximately 2,500 years ago can be identified as the first environmentalist who introduced the concept of Sustainable development. World leaders, in an unprecedented move, meet frequently shedding their political differences to discuss environmental issues such as global warming.  They further discuss simple way of life, sustainable utilization of natural resources and conservation of bio diversity.  In this backdrop, it is pertinent to revisit Buddhist principles in the light of modern theories in environment protection.
Most of the religions are based on the principle that humans are supreme and world is human centered.  Basic teaching of these religions is that the Creator has created everything for human use.  Hence, people not only used but also abused and wasted resources being thankful to the Creator.  The end result of this thinking coupled with a destructive process is environment pollution and scarcity in natural resources.
The objective of western development was to meet unlimited human desires with limited resources.  The Mother Earth has no capacity to provide natural resources as demanded by unlimited desires of human community.   Human energy consumption of the last century is higher that of the last millennium.  For instance, Average daily energy consumption of a person was just 26,000 Kilo calories until industrial revolution.  It has now increased to 270,000 Kilo calories.
The original thinking of the western philosophers influenced by their religions was, limited resources can be expanded to satisfy unlimited needs of people.  They were in an attempt to expand the resource base by discovery of new resources and improvement of utility value of existing resources through technological innovations.  However, western philosophers and policy makers have now realized that there are limitations in western development.  Their developmental growth is now in a crisis because of environmental pollution and scarcity of natural resources.  Their high spending lifestyle is not sustainable specially due to escalating petroleum prices.  Hence, they are now forced to adjust for a simple lifestyle.
Buddhist approach towards development is significantly different from the aforesaid western approach.  Buddhism recognizes the limitations associated with natural resources.  Therefore, Gautama Buddha has preached unlimited desires result unhappiness or Tanhaya jayati soko in Pali in Bhaya Vaggiya of Dhamma Padaya.  Buddhism introduces an alternative approach to eradicate the gap between limited resources and unlimited needs.  That is shrinking unlimited needs to the level of limited resources.  Buddhism teaches to control human desires through Dana (charity), Seela (morality or self discipline) and Bhavana (meditations).  Hence, Buddhists are taught to satisfy themselves with limited resources in a simple life.  Buddha has taught that satisfaction is the greatest treasure that a person can earn (Santuttin Paraman Dhanan).  Therefore, Buddhists attempt to achieve satisfaction in a simple life instead of struggling to collect material treasures as much as possible.
Simple lifestyle promoted by Gautama Buddha is decorated with environmental sensitiveness.  Right Livelihood is one of the eight noble practices found in Eight Noble Path preached by him.  Prevention from engaged in livelihoods associated with meat, weapons and toxic substances is also a part of Right Livelihood.  Meat trade is directly linked with hunting animals freely live in jungles.  Weapons and toxic substances are dangerous to both flora and fauna.  Hence, Right Livelihood practices promote environmental protection.
Unlike many human centric western religions, Buddhism is eco-centric.  Hence, Buddhism always recognizes and respect diversity.  Gautama Buddha taught his followers to respect other religious leaders and their teachings.  Mahaweera, the founder of Jainism is such a person who earned high respect from and enjoyed very close relationship with Gautama Buddha.  Buddhism does not recognize human supremacy.  According to Buddhist teachings, human beings are just another component of interdependent, interwoven and interconnected different components of the environment.
Every component of the environment is equally important to maintain the eco balance.  Hence, Buddhism promotes co-existence of all living being without any discrimination.  Because of this principle, Buddhist monks are prohibited from weeding and cutting trees in their disciplinary code known as Vinaya Pitakaya. Westerns waited till downing of this century to recognize the importance of bio diversity.  They were in fact too late to recognize this principle because a lot of species have already disappeared from the world due to western developmental approaches.
Gautama Buddha recognized the important role played by forest in the environment.  He once admired trees stating that trees provide shade and shelter to the person who is planning to destroy trees.  He preached in Vanaropa Sutra in Sanyukta Nikaya that gardening and forestation are acts which increase doers’ merit everyday.
Environment and natural resources are considered as things not inherited from the past generations but things borrowed from future generations.  If we destroy natural resource base or pollute environment, future generations will find difficult to survive.   Environmental pollution has reached such an alarming rate that world is rapidly becoming unsuitable for human beings.  Buddhism is the only religion which has taught its followers to think of future generations.  In Karaniya metta sutra, Buddha has preached to extend our compassion to all living beings both born and unborn.  It is as follows.
“Whatever breathing creatures here may be
No matter whether they are frail or firm,
Or middle-sized, or be they short or small
Or whether they are dwelling far or near
Existing or yet seeking exist
May beings all be of a blissful heart. ”
The best way to extend our compassion for unborn generations is utilization of natural resource in a sustainable manner.  Unless we adhere to sustainable practices, there will be no conducive environment for future generations to sustain.
Usually, environmental destruction is caused by people with authoritative powers.  They abuse powers vested with them to destroy natural resources.  Gautama Buddha realized this situation and preached that rulers are not owners of natural resources under their control.  They are mere custodians or trustees who look after natural resources on behalf of general public.  Therefore, rulers are duty bound to protect the natural resources and to hand those over to next generations.  This is considered as the origin of principle of custodianship.   Gautama Buddha always advised Kings such as Pasenadi of Kosala and Bimbisara of Magadha who turned to him for advice on governmental matters to preserve natural resources for future generations as their custodians.   If powerful rulers in the present world follow this Buddhist principle, there will be no excessive carbon emissions to the environment.
Buddhism specify certain basic virtues of rulers in the Dasa Raja Dharmaya. These included Generosity, Morality, Nonviolence and Friendliness.  According to Cakkavattisihanada Sutta the ideal king is expected to protect not only people but forestry, animal and birds.   Ancient Indian Buddhist King Asoka’s 5th Pillar Edict stating that he in fact placed various species of wild animals under protection is one of the earliest recorded instances of a specific governmental policy of conservation.
Buddhism is very clear in its teaching that often the cause of wrongdoing is ignorance rather than wickedness or sin. The natural corollary of this, in the context of the environment, is the need for environmental education.  it consequently becomes the duty of those interested in the environment to spread knowledge regarding the damaging consequences of the environmental destruction we take for granted.
It is crystal clear that western philosophies have failed to address burning problems of the present world such as environmental pollution and scarcity of natural resources.  The solution lies with Buddhism.  Hence, Buddhism emerges as the Religion of future.  Buddhist leaders are duty bound to save the burning world by spreading the message of Gautama Buddha.
May triple gem bless you!