This essay is a brief critique of an article entitled "Conserving the Inner Ecology," drawn from a talk by a "Thai forest monk," named Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. At first read, Buddhadasa's article appears unobjectionable. It seems to offer gentle words of advice to hyped-up modern people, and an explanation of the spiritual meanings behind several words that are of great importance to Western thought -- nature, conservation, and ecology.
The author claims to understand the mystical connection between the outer world and the inner world. As an Eastern interpretation of the old maxim, "as above, so below," it doesn't rate badly. But as advice for what to do in order to deal with the ecological crisis now facing humanity, it is useless, indeed destructive.
The logic driving the argument is simple: "nature is all things that are born naturally, ordinarily, out of the natural order of things...." This tautology drives the entire argument. While none of us can ascertain what is natural, the speaker uses this tautological argument to fuel all of his other arguments. He claims to discover "four fundamental aspects of nature" that he identifies as "nature itself, the law of nature, the duty that human beings must carry out toward nature, and the result that comes with performing this duty according to the law of nature." This is all because of the "basic dhammic law of nature that regulates everything."
The problem with articulating a law this broadly is that we don't know what it commands. Does it command humans to protect their children? Do we violate the law of nature when we put people in the hospital and make them well? Do we violate the law of nature when we develop vaccines that frustrate the spread of disease? Do we violate the law of nature when we put out fires, as modern day foresters tell us? Do we violate the law of nature when we fail to till the fields that could produce food because we don't want to displace native peoples? The law of nature, as explained by this Buddhist, gives no indication.
The essay claims that it will teach us how to "conserve the law of nature," within ourselves, but this is just adopting one more Western word and twisting the meaning. If we read closely, "conserving the law of nature," means nothing other than practicing dharma.
And that's really the answer to all of the problems, anyway, according to this author. "When there is no ego or selfishness, there is nothing that will destroy nature, nothing that will exploit and abuse nature." This is about as practical as visualizing whirled peas. Of course a planet full of egoless beings wouldn't damage anything. They would probably all just sit around and turn into a bowl of jelly. Nobody even knows what it means to be without an ego except this man. How can this be a prescription for saving the ecology of the world? Ah, he explains it here. Once we have no egos then "the external, physical aspect of nature will be able to conserve itself automatically." Right, even with 5 Billion egoless beings eating, driving cars, burning fossil fuels, and polluting the seas.
Now, for the happy close-out. "When Buddhists remember that the Buddha was born under and among trees, awaking while sitting under a tree, taught in the outdoors sitting among trees and, in the end, passed away into parinirvana beneath some trees, it is impossible not to love trees and not to want to conserve them." Very comforting, except that Nepal is a very Buddhist country, and despite all the tree lovers there, there is nary a tree to be found. The Thais started out with more trees, but will end up with just about as many as the Nepalese if they keep it up, notwithstanding their being Buddhist.
All of these problems, of course, are the outward projection of inner "defilements" that disturb the "mind's natural ecology....like evil spirits or demons that destroy the mind's natural state." Yes, but that doesn't mean that corporate executives with planet raping on their mind, and military leaders who bomb first and ask questions later are just figments of our neurotic imagination. They are real people who will not go away simply because we meditate effectively.
The speaker is comforted because he looks out and sees that "the entire cosmos is a cooperative system." He needs a bigger telescope. Looking through the Hubble, scientists have discovered the universe is a demolition derby among celestial bodies of vastly different size and speed. Tiny black holes can rape a red giant down to nothing. Every 10,000 years or so our solar system dips through part of the spiral arm of the milky way galaxy where lots of big, fast-moving stars and space junk proliferate, and we're lucky we don't have an interstellar collision every damn time it does that. The speaker suggests we "bring back the cooperative in the form of comrades sharing birth, aging, illness, and death." That's hard to argue with, but then he concludes by saying "then we will have plenty of time to create the best ecology." This seems to suggest that we can complacently wait until we get our mind and society sorted out before we tackle the problem of the world's degrading physical condition.
I would say quite the contrary. Whenever you get around to realizing the nature of the universe in your own mind, it will still be there. If we wait too many more years before addressing the ecological problems afflicting the earth, it will be too late. So what would you do first?
CONSERVING THE INNER ECOLOGY
by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
Only genuine Buddhists can conserve nature on the deepest level, the mental level. When the mental nature has been conserved, the external physical nature can conserve itself. When we talk about this inner nature, we mean a fundamental essence or element of Dhamma. When this can be preserved within, the external nature can certainly preserve itself. When this inner nature or dhammadhatu is conserved, there is nothing that will cause selfishness or egoism. It knows that nothing is worth clinging to as being "self," is free of notions like "me" and "mine," and is therefore unselfish. When there is no selfishness, there is nothing that will go out and destroy the external nature. When nothing is trying to destroy this physical nature, it is quite able to protect itself.
The Buddha referred to this inner nature as "dhammadhatu," the dhatu (element or essence) of Dhamma (nature). Sometimes he simply called it "dhatu." This dhatu is the source and basis for Dhamma, for all of nature. He proclaimed that "Whether a Tathagata has appeared yet or not, the dhammadhatu exists absolutely and naturally."
In other words, nothing occurs, exists, changes, or dies by itself. Nothing happens except through various causes and conditions. All change takes place through causes and conditions. Even death and destruction require causes and conditions, either the presence of ones that kill and destroy, or the absence of those that support. Further, the causes and conditions of one thing are caused and conditioned by others. These interactions of conditionality extend through the universe – mental and physical – connecting everything in a vast web of inter-dependence, inter-relationship, inter-connectedness, inter-wovenness. So supreme is this natural fact that we can call it "the law of nature" or "God." Nothing is more powerful or awesome than this most fundamental and ever-present Truth.
Let us consider more carefully what we mean by the word "nature." Although this English term does not quite fit our Buddhist term (dhammajati), it will serve once we have explained sufficiently. Nature (dhammajati) is all things that are born naturally, ordinarily, out of the natural order of things, that is, from Dhamma. Everything arising out of Dhamma, everything born from Dhamma, is what we mean by "nature." This is what is absolute and has the highest power in itself. Nature has at least four fundamental aspects. If we don’t understand them, it is useless to speak of "preserving nature." So please examine these four fundamental aspects of nature:
* nature itself;
* the law of nature;
* the duty that human beings must carry out towards nature;
* and the result that comes with performing this duty according to the law of nature.
[Ajarn Buddhadasa was always careful about terminology and felt that sloppy use of words was an important obstacle to the understanding of Dhamma. He put great effort into explaining key Pali terms, none of them more important than "Dhamma." Here he gives his standard explanation of Dhamma's most important dimensions. Although not quite identical with the four noble truths, it is worth comparing. --Suan Mokkh website editor]
Let's consider ourselves. Each human being includes the body of nature, as expressed and found in our own bodies. In us there is the basic dhammic law of nature that regulates everything. Everything in these bodies consequently carries on according to the law of nature. When we have our natural duty, we practice that duty in order to maintain the correctness of nature. Depending on how we perform that duty, we experience its results or fruits: happiness, dukkha, satisfaction, dissatisfaction. Within ourselves, within just these physical bodies, we have all four meanings of nature.
In one human being, we can find all four aspects of nature. Throughout the entire world, we can find all four meanings of nature. And in the universe, including all the worlds together, we can see the body of nature, the law of nature, the duty of nature, and the result of nature.
If we understand all aspects of nature and conserve the law of nature within ourselves, it will then be impossible for selfishness and egoism to arise. When there is no ego or selfishness, there is nothing that will destroy nature, nothing that will exploit and abuse nature. Then the external, physical aspect of nature will be able to conserve itself automatically. Therefore, please be very interested in this inner nature. When there is no selfishness, we can preserve the purity and beauty of nature. Without selfishness, this world will be naturally pure and beautiful.
When Buddhists remember that the Buddha was born under and among trees, awakened while sitting under a tree, taught in the outdoors sitting among trees and, in the end, passed away into parinibbana beneath some trees, it is impossible not to love trees and not to want to conserve them. This too comes from maintaining a correct inner nature, and so it is natural to preserve the outer nature. In this way it isn’t very difficult to conserve the external physical nature.
In other words, Dhamma is the ecology of the mind. This is how nature has arranged things, and it has always been like this, in a most natural way. The mind with Dhamma has a natural spiritual ecology because it is fresh, beautiful, quiet, and joyful. This is most natural. That the mind is fresh means it isn’t dried up or parched. Its beauty is Dhammic, not sensual or from painting colors. It is calm and peaceful because nothing disturbs it. It contains a deep spiritual solitude, so that nothing can disturb or trouble it. Its joy is cool. The only joy that lives up to its name must be cool, not the hot happiness that is so popular in the world, but a cool joyfulness. If none of the defilements like greed, anger, fear, worry, and delusion arise, there is this perfect natural ecology of the Dhammic mind. But as soon as the defilements occur, the mind’s natural ecology is destroyed instantly. These defilements are like evil spirits or demons that destroy the mind’s natural state.
In this context, we can specify the defilement called "craving," the craving that destroys the inner ecology of the mind and then expresses itself outward in destroying the physical ecology. This thing called "craving" must be understood well. Craving always means the foolish desire that arises out of ignorance (avijja), out of not understanding things as they actually are. Unfortunately, whenever Buddhists speak of samsara, most of them teach that every kind of desire is craving. This is incorrect. Only that which desires stupidly is properly called "craving." If it wants intelligently, it is called "sankappa," (aspiration or aim), which we can call "wise want." There is an important distinction here that should never be confused. Craving is always ignorant, no matter how we translate it into English. If, however, the desire is wise, it should be called "aspiration" or "wise aim."
Craving destroys both the inner-mental and outer-physical ecologies.
Take a good look: The entire cosmos is a cooperative system. We must honor and worship the cooperative system. The sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars are a giant cooperative. They are all inter-connected and inter-related in order to exist. In the same world, everything co-exists as a cooperative. Humans and animals and trees and the earth are integrated as a cooperative. The organs of our own bodies – feet, legs, hands, arms, eyes, nose, lungs, kidneys – function as a cooperative in order to survive. Let's bring back the cooperative in the form of comrades sharing birth, aging, illness, and death. Then we will have plenty of time to create the best ecology.
--This is an edited version of a talk by the great Thai forest teacher Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and is almost identical to the version printed in Tricycle Buddhist Review Winter 1998 issue.