Module
1

Buddhist Views of Nature

Buddhism’s history is one of movement, adaptation and evolution. This unfolding has taken place for over two millenia throughout Asia, as Buddhism adapted to diverse cultures and their varied environments. Buddhism has become an integral part of cultures in  the tropical climates of South and Southeast Asia, the high plateaus and mountains of Tibet, and the varied environments of China, Korea and Japan. How have these enviromental contexts affected the teachings? Is there a common thread in the way Buddhists understand and relate to the natrual environment?

But although a man may wear fine clothing, if he lives peacefully; and is good, self-possessed, has faith and is pure; and if he does not hurt any living being, he is a holy Brahmin, a hermit of seclusion, a monk called a Bhikkhu.

Dhammapada

How important was ecological awareness to early Buddhists? With few textual sources that clearly explicate a stance toward “nature” along with a wide range of interpretations of the concept of nature, we are, to some extent, grasping in the dark for clues. And we must ask how much our modern attitudes toward nature affect our view of that which we do know of the India of the time following the Buddha’s life.

Buddhism arose in north India in the fifth century BCE at a time when the region was undergoing a process of urbanization and political centralization accompanied by commerical development and the formation of artisan and merchant classes. The creation of towns and the expansion of an agrarian economy led to the clearing of forests and other tracts of uninhabited land. These changes influenced early Buddhism in several ways. Indic Buddhism was certainly not biocentric and the strong naturalistic sentiments that infused Buddhism in China, Korea, and Japan appear to have been absent from early monastic Buddhism, although naturalism played a role in popular piety. Nonetheless, the natural world figures prominently in the Buddhist conception of human flourishing perhaps, in part, because of the very transformation of the natural environment in which it was born. As we shall see, while nature as a value in and of itself may not have played a major role in the development of early Buddhist thought and practice, it was a necessary component of the tradition’s articulation of an ecology of human flourishing.

Let creatures all, all things that live,
All beings if whatever kind,
See nothing that will bode them ill!
May no evil come to them!

Cullavaga

In this module we explore Buddhist views of nature from the earliest teachings through contemporary practice, and we look at core Buddhist philosophies and how they relate to ecology. Beginning with references in early Buddhist teachings to nature, both in birth stories of the Buddha and in the codes of behavior for forest monks, we explore the varied ways that the environment was viewed and integrated into Buddhist teachings as it spread throughout China, Korea and Japan.

We then look at ways contemporary Buddhist teachers, scholars and practitioners have been looking to the earlier teachings and philosophies of Buddhist thought for inspiration and direction in addressing the global ecological crisis with wisdom and compassion.