At the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, 2,500 years ago, the early Buddhist community that gathered around him was highly sustainable, ecologically aware, and self-consciously so. In many ways it can be seen as a perfect model of how to live contentedly with very little and in harmony with nature.
The monks and nuns recycled cast-aside rags to make robes. They ate with moderation, vowing to avoid food after midday. They made their retreat huts out of wooden poles and covered with natural materials such as leaves and grasses. Many of their Vinaya (moral discipline) rules were designed to help them avoid accidentally killing living beings or polluting their surroundings. The Dalai Lama himself says that “in the Vinaya, the Buddha taught monks to care for tender trees. From this, we learn the virtue of planting and nurturing trees.”
The humility of the original Buddhists and their obvious contentment despite having little material wealth, was part of what made them accepted and eventually venerated by the ordinary people they wandered amongst, giving spiritual teachings to them whenever requested to do so.
This joy in living simply, within nature, has been a theme running throughout Buddhist history. For example, the 8th century Indian Buddhist master, Shantideva, extols, in his epic poem Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, the virtue of retreating to the forest and its wildlife in order to perfect one’s meditation practice:
When shall I withdraw into the forest
And live among the trees
With birds and deer who say nothing unpleasant
But are a joy to live with?
And Milarepa, the most famous of Tibet’s yogis, spent many years in solitary retreat in the mountains, clad only in cotton robes and eating the wild plants around him, such as nettles. In The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, the Tibetan sage said:
I am never lonely
I have the deer, the monkeys, the birds
I am so rich.
Today, the forest monks of Thailand continue in that tradition, recognizing the value of forests for developing the spiritual life. Some Thai monks are involved as environmental activists in helping to conserve and protect the forests of Thailand, thereby helping to mitigate climate change.
Straying from the path
But, there has also sometimes been the trend in Buddhist history of vast wealth accumulated by monasteries and over-engagement with the affairs of the world such as politics, even to the extent of creating the Buddhist equivalent of a theocratic state, as happened in medieval Japan and in early modern Tibet.
Reform movements within Buddhism have often tried to go back to the early Buddhist example of the simple life, or at least used it as an inspirational model upon which to base their reforming principles.
Of course, in the modern world, few of us can be Buddhist monks or nuns living as simply as the early Buddhist community did. For one thing, that community was so valued by lay people that it was supported by regular free gifts of food, shelter and other resources.
But we can live more simply if we want to. We can learn to live happily with less if we want to. We can do all this if we know how to.
Twenty-five hundred years of Buddhist practice has demonstrated that it is possible. The same example has been set by the collective experience of countless generations of spiritual practitioners from other traditions around the world as well.
The current ecological crisis now demands that the Buddhist community, both lay and ordained, look once again at itself and consider its own ecological footprint. Do we need large Buddhist centers that are expensive to maintain, expensive for residents to live in, and are wholly plugged into the conventional support-systems of an unsustainable energy economy?
If Buddhists want to help effectively with raising awareness of the global climate crisis, they need to show a good example themselves of living sustainably and consuming less, and visibly showing contentment with that lifestyle, not only as individuals but as Buddhist communities too. This is simply a practical example of the same effort to demonstrate the truth of the Buddha’s spiritual teachings through living peacefully, free from hatred and craving.
Doing even more
But, at the same time, Buddhist communities arguably need to look at what we can do to integrate Buddhist practice fully with the central challenge of our times—the threat of climate change, made more pressing by the onset of peak oil.
If Buddhists want to help all living beings to be happy, and free from suffering, and if climate change affects all living beings, then mitigating climate change is also helping all living beings right now, as well as all those yet to be born. Becoming engaged with climate change could be seen as the perfect opportunity for those Buddhists who emphasize the bodhisattva ideal: selfless service.
Global climate change could be seen as an optimum field for putting the bodhisattva ideal into practice here and now. As Ringu Tulku Rinpoche says, in A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, “clearly it is a vitally important bodhisattva activity to prevent a universal disaster like the collapse of our living world.”
One obvious way of engaging as a Bodhisattva with climate change issues is as a grass-roots activist, getting involved with practical, immediately beneficial initiatives such as the Transition Towns movement and towards supporting any initiatives aimed at increasing public awareness of the climate change issue, such as 350.org. And if your lifestyle allows it, to devote yourself to selfless service wherever climate change disasters occur either through awareness raising, or actual on-the-ground work at those sites.
But the climate chaos we’re seeing did not originate from causes entirely separate from us. It originates primarily through human activities, in particular those activities motivated by the mentality of greed and ignorance. The greed for ever more consumer goods, and ever higher material standards of living beyond what is necessary begins to blind us to our true purpose.
This feeds into an ever greater demand for continuous economic growth, ignorant of the fact that our true wealth—the biodiversity and ecological resilience of Earth which both nurtures, and is dependent upon, a human spirituality that enjoys and values it—is being destroyed by that temporal greed and its place in our collective human consciousness.
I would argue, as a Buddhist, that a mind free from greed and ignorance automatically wants to consume less, to impose upon others less, respects the earth more and learns to live in a sustainable harmony with earth.
The problem of uncontrolled global warming ultimately stems from uncontrolled human minds. Bring the “crazy elephant mind” under control, and we bring our world under control. The mutual dependence of mind and world upon each other is at the core of the Buddhist idea of interdependence, or dependent origination, that is itself at the heart of the Buddhist attempt to describe the ultimate coherence and non-duality of all phenomena.
Given the pace of climate change, we can’t wait for everyone’s mind to come under control. Those who are gaining some ability to maintain controlled minds have an even greater responsibility to act as pioneers, to engage with humility and self-responsibility in actions that influence decision-makers, helping to sow the seeds for a new zero-carbon civilization to be born.