The foundations of ecology in Zen Buddhism

by Ven. Sunyana Graef

Religious Education

Vol. 85 Issue 1 Winter.1990


Copyright by Religious Education

Vermont Zen Center Shelburne, VT 05482 If you yourself, who are the valley streams and mountains, cannot develop the power which illuminates the true reality of the mountains and valley streams, who else is going to be able to convince you that you and the streams and mountains are one and the same? --Zen Master Dogeni(n1) Perhaps it is part of being human to question who and what we are. Unfortunately, because we rely almost exclusively on our senses, the harder we look, the more we misinterpret what we see. We believe on the one hand that we are an insignificant dot in the universe, separate from all other humans, much less the natural world. But we also believe that we are the most highly evolved organism in creation, entitled to use whatever we can grasp for our own ends. Buddhists have a different view of humanity. In terms of their psycho-spiritual development people stand about midway between Buddhas and amoebas. However, on an absolute level, people, Buddhas, amoebas, dogs, streams, and mountains are one and the same. Buddhism addresses the apparent disparity between what we see and what we actually are. And it does so by delving into the roots of what it means to be human. What does this have to do with Buddhist ecology? It is inseparable from it. For Buddhist ecology can no more be sundered from knowing the nature of our true self than mountains and streams can be sundered from our true self. The premise of Zen Buddhist ecology is this: When we understand what we really are, we will be at peace with ourselves and our environment. We will cease trying to enlarge ourselves through possessions and power, take responsibility for our universal self -- the world -- and start living to give, rather than get. A life of wisdom is a life in harmony with the natural world. In an age where filthy refuse washes up on shorelines, where we raze vast forests by the minute, where we pollute the air and water with chemicals, the thought of living in harmony with the natural world seems a long-forgotten dream. Like a sand castle swept away by waves we are eroding the very foundation of our existence. Still, we can return to a simpler, more careful, watchful way of life -- if we know the path. There is a story that senior Zen practitioners often tell novices. It is about a monk in search of a teacher, but of course, it is about much more than that. Like many such tales it seems inscrutable at first, then unattainable, and finally inspiring. It has relevance here because it betokens a manner of living which embodies the essence of Zen ecology. It was the custom in ancient China for Zen monks to refine and deepen their spiritual understanding by travelling throughout the country to study with respected teachers. One such monk had heard that a renowned Zen master lived in seclusion near a river, and he was determined to find him and train with him. After many weeks of travel he found the master's dwelling. Gazing at the river before the master's hut, the monk was filled with joy at the thought of soon meeting his teacher. Just then he saw a cabbage leaf slip into the water and float downstream. Disillusioned and greatly disappointed, the monk immediately turned to leave. As he did, out of the corner of his eye he saw the venerable teacher running to the river, his robe flapping wildly in the wind. The old man chased the cabbage leaf, fished it from the water, and brought it back to his hut. The monk smiled and turned back. He had found his master. To understand why the monk would abandon his teacher before even meeting him is to know the foundations of Zen Buddhist ecology. Why would a single discarded cabbage leaf provoke such intense disillusionment? Was the monk a fanatical environmentalist who found even this minor bit of pollution from his master-to-be untenable? Or was there something else he perceived? After all, most people would think nothing of scrapping one leaf of cabbage. Surely few would consider it wasteful. And if it happened to fall into a stream . . . well. With the land and sea so clogged with the detritus of civilization, a cabbage leaf drifting downstream would seem an insignificant, perhaps even pleasant. sight. To the monk, however, the errant leaf signified much more. Litter, waste, yes, but also a window to his would-be teacher's spiritual attainment. For the perceptive monk, it was, for a moment, persuasive proof that the master had not yet penetrated the last barrier of Zen. The way we relate to and interact with the environment says more about us than our awards, Ph.D.s, and business successes. It says more about us than our Chagalls, diamond rings, and three-bedroom homes. For it is not what we have, but the way we live that reveals the inner person. To be indifferent to even a leaf of cabbage exposes a dualistic view of the world: I exist here, and the world and all it contains is out there --for me to do with as I please. Such carelessness betrays an unawareness of the singular value of each aspect of creation. This awareness, the soul of Zen Buddhist ecology, is not something most people are born with; it grows through years of religious education, training, and practice. The goal of Buddhist ecology is much more than an unpolluted environment. It is a life of simplicity, conservation, and self-restraint. Ultimately this ecology is a manifestation of the spiritual realization of the individual. It is born in the individual, and comes to fruition through the individual's religious understanding and practice. Rooted in action, not intellectual understanding, in the end it is actualized and expressed through the deeds of one's daily life. Such mundane chores as taking out the garbage, cooking a meal, cleaning the toilet, and working in the garden are all occasions for the cultivation of spiritual awareness. For the monk, the discarded leaf testified that the master lacked this awareness. It indicated that he had not entirely purged himself of an egocentric view of creation. Misconstruing the actual nature of phenomena, he still had the outlook of an ordinary person. Certainly this was not what one would expect from a deeply enlightend Zen Master. Buddhist ecology, then, must emanate from spiritual education and discipline. For a Zen practitioner this discipline begins with a type of meditation called zazen. The practice of Zen meditation allows one to center, focus, and quiet the mind. The word "zazen" means sitting with the mind focused or totally absorbed in one thing. Ordinarily the mind is so clouded with irrelevant thoughts, fantasies, worries, judgments, and desires that we are unable to see things as they truly are. We live in a dream, spending our days in vain regrets and denials of the past, while anticipating the future with worries and hopes. And so, the present escapes us before we have even taken note of it. The object of Zen training is to learn how to live in the here and now -- to take this instant just as it is. The practice of Zen demands consummate attention to the task at hand: full awareness and total involvement at every moment. For example, the position of head cook in the Zen monastery is traditionally held by the most spiritually advanced monk or nun, for only such a person can accord food the respect and care it demands. Zen Master Dogen said that a cook must treat rice and vegetables as if they were his own eyes. He admonished the monastery cook about the proper attitude toward the preparation of food in these words: Keep your eyes open. Do not allow even one grain of rice to be lost. Wash the rice thoroughly, put it in the pot, light the fire, and cook it. There is an old saying that goes, "See the pot as your own head, see the water as your lifeblood."(n2) The practice of unremitting attentiveness and awareness enables --actually forces -- one to face every moment without the cloak of judgments. Having mastered this discipline, one is able to confront the most fundamental pollution of all, the pollution of the Mind -- our pure or Buddha nature -- with the mind -- our discursive intellect grounded in ego. From a Zen Buddhist standpoint the intellect and its henchman, the ego, are the primary causes of all pollution. Nevertheless it is not by the elimination of intellect, but by understanding its proper function, that we eradicate the source of pollution. The intellect's primary role is to assess the phenomenal world through categorization, analysis, and judgment. Because we ordinarily view everything through this faculty, we divide our environment into that which we perceive as being either internal or external. In so doing, we invent a "me" bounded by "my" sensations, "my" thoughts, "my"needs, "my" desires. This "me," called in Buddhism the ego-I, so dominates the personality that it eventually becomes an omnipresent dictator, affecting not only oneself but one's associates are well. Despite our blind belief in the verity of this small self or ego, in truth it does not exist. The practice of Zen points out a way to free oneself from the clench of ego by delineating clearly the nature of the essential self. Once we discover the unreality of the ego-I, we no longer relate to the world from an individual, self-centered perspective, but rather from a universal perspective. This is the weltanschauung of a true ecologist. Virtually no one is born with this unitive world-view. How does one acquire it? Actually, many people experience glimmerings of the interconnectedness of life at one time or another. Such insights often change the way they see the world, making them feel more a part of it and therefore more responsible for its welfare. A student told me he first became convinced of the unity of all existence while swimming: For a moment, everything dropped away. There was no beach, no ocean, no sound, no movement, no me. Everything was joined in perfect harmony, a nothingness bursting with all things. I was filled with indescribable joy and wonder. The feeling lasted just a fraction of a second, but I have never forgotten it. Years later, it was the memory of this experience that led me to Zen practice. Others tell of similar experiences while walking in the woods, listening to music, skiing, sitting quietly, baking, and doing just about anything else imaginable. For most, the insight soon fades, leaving a evanescent sense of the oneness of all life. The desire to relive and harness this experience often galvanizes people to undertake a spiritual journey. Self-realization or awakening brings the unshakable conviction that everything is intrinsically one, whole, and complete. In time, feelings that had arisen from an intellectual acceptance or a nebulous impression of oneness become a sure knowledge of the unity of all life. With spiritual awakening comes the realization that we are not just a tiny speck in the universe, two hands, two legs, a face, and a mind, but that we embrace all existence. In other words, awakening brings the realization that we are no less than the universe itself. This the Buddha affirmed in these words: Verily, I declare unto you that within this very body, mortal though it be and only a fathom high, but conscious and endowed with mind, is the world and the waxing thereof and the waning thereof, and the way that leads to the passing away thereof.(n3) The Buddhist does not believe that the trees, the water, the stars, and the great wide earth possess a divinity obtained through God's process of creation. Rather, he or she is convinced that the essence of the universe is none other than divine perfection itself, in a word, Buddha. This understanding, grounded in an awareness of the interdependent relationship of all existence, spontaneously gives rise to feelings of profound intimacy, universal compassion, and responsibility for the natural world. Zen Master Eisai expressed it this way: Because I am, heaven overhangs and earth is upheld. Because I am, the sun and the moon go round. The four seasons come in succession, all things are born, because I am, that is, because of Mind.(n4) If at a deep level we accept that all phenomena are in essence one with our own body, we will treat everything, animate and inanimate, with reverence. Since we are not separate entitites, what happens to the universe happens to us as well. Buddhist ecology, therefore, encompasses not just this planet, but the whole cosmos. A person of the deepest spirituality will also have a tender concern for every aspect of creation. Such an individual could no more harm a living creature than he or she could harm himself or herself. Buddhist scriptures contend that a bodhisattva(n5) will not even walk on grass lest it be harmed. Indeed, the first Buddhist precept is the admonition not to kill, but to cherish all life. This attitude is especially important with respect to food, since anything we eat must die to sustain us. Still, it is less destructive, on a relative level, to take the life of a carrot or an apple than to take that of a more highly evolved form of life, such as a cow, a chicken, or a lobster. Too, from a purely ecological point of view, it is less detrimental to the environment to eat as low as possible on the food chain. All this explains why many Buddhists are vegetarians. There is another important aspect of Buddhism that bears upon ecology. Buddhism teaches the doctrine of karma, which is the law of cause and effect relating to our actions. Karma means that whatever one sows, one reaps, be it good or evil. The consequences of meritorious acts are always good. Evil acts, on the other hand, ensure painful retribution. Buddhists are aware that we are constantly creating new karma by our actions. One who believes in the law of causation, therefore, will be careful not to cause pain to people, animals, plants, or the earth itself, for harming them is simultaneously harming oneself. This takes place on two levels. From the view of spiritual realization, we harm ourselves each time we harm the environment because we are the environment. From the view of the law of causation, we harm ourselves because we create negative karma from which we will suffer sooner or later. A devout Buddhist could never, for example, dump toxic chemicals into a river, for he or she would unequivocally know that he or she is poisoning himself or herself in both an immediate and future sense. That is, he or she is poisoning his or her absolute body -- the world -- and poisoning his or her future, through acquiring bad karma. Of course, it takes many years before some Zen practitioners are able to accept the notion of karmic retribution. Besides, karma serves more as a deterrent to wrong action than an encouragement for ecologically responsible behavior. How, then, does the novice Zen practitioner who lacks the motivating experience of enlightenment cultivate a reverential attitude toward the earth and all its inhabitants? At first, the primary means of acquiring ecological awareness is education and example. Novices are taught, for instance, that water must not be wasted, but conserved. At retreats and other times teachers remind them not to let the water run when brushing teeth. Likewise, during a shower they must turn off the water when soaping the body and washing hair. Similarly, the kitchen supervisor cautions them not to leave the water running when washing vegetables or dishes. Avoiding waste is not limited to water. The novice learns to use and reuse every scrap of paper, then recycle it. Much of the paper used for letterhead and other purposes, in fact, may already be from recycled stock. Garbage that can be recycled is separated and taken to a recycling center. Bits of vegetables that the cook cannot use become soup stock or compost. Food is never wasted. At meals the novice learns to wipe every morsel of food from the plate with bread, pickles, or carrot sticks. Prayers before meals remind the Zen practitioner that food should be eaten in the spirit of an offering from those who produced it. Zen Buddhist trainees are taught to protect the environment. Cleaning supplies are ecologically safe. (They might not work as fast, but that doesn't matter. You use more elbow grease.) Aerosol sprays are unheard of at many Zen centers. Lights are turned off when no longer needed. Trainees are taught to treat all creatures of the earth with compassion. Plants, also having life, are not to be willfully destroyed. At many Zen centers flowers are rarely picked for decorative purposes, although they may be used for offerings -- for example, in the altar. More often, greens for the altars are artificial or dried so that they last indefinitely. The altar flowers, too, may be dried, articifial, or perhaps a living, flowering plant. As a way of giving to the world and not just taking from it, some Zen centers plant trees and flowers each year. Many Buddhist groups maintain organic gardens. The members of at least one Zen center regularly clean the streets and sidewalks in their neighborhood. Other centers have regular fast days during which money that would have been spent on food is sent to famine relief organizations. In the beginning, the novice does these things out of a sense of obligation; it is the "right" thing to do, and besides, it is part of Zen training. But as the individual develops spiritually, these practices become habitual. More than that, they become part of the way one lives. It is never a matter of its being too much trouble, or too inconvenient, or unnecessary, for example, to recycle the garbage. One does it with the same lack of selfconciousness with which one brushes one's teeth. In the end, it is a way of life that is an expression of one's spiritual awareness, an understanding that has penetrated every aspect of one's life. Living in harmony with the earth does not happen over night. It takes many years of training and deep spiritual understanding for a person's actions to be instinctively universal, rather than self-centered. Recall the story of the monk and Zen master recounted earlier. The monk decided to stay with the master because he spontaneously chased after the leaf; the master could not have done otherwise. His action was as unselfconscious as reaching for a lost pillow while sound asleep. The teacher's life was permeated with compassion and attentive care for all things, even a leaf of cabbage. He knew well that nothing is separate from the universe -- which means, from ourselves. If you are convinced that, as Zen Master Dogen said, "you and the streams and the mountains are one and the same," how could you live the selfish existence of one who despoils the environment? When a massive oil spill threatens the ocean, could a single wave stand aloof, acting as if it alone were unpolluted, or work only to cleanse itself? No, the wave and the ocean work as one, for in reality, they are one. What affects the ocean, affects the wave. Just so, what affects the universe, affects each of us, since we and the universe are not two. Therefore, in a person of wisdom, compassionate concern for the world will instinctively arise. The expression of this universal compassion is ecology. (n1) Zen Master Dogen, "Keisei Sanshoku" (The Sounds of Valley Streams, the Forms of the Mountains), translated by Francis Dolun Cook in How to Raise an Ox (Los Angeles: Center Publications, 1978), p. 114. (n2) Zen Master Dogen, "Tenzo Kyokun" (Instructions for the Zen Cook), translated by Thomas Wright in Refining Your Life (New York: John Weatherhill, 1983), p. 6. (n3) From the Anguttara-Nikaya II, Samyutta-Nikaya I, quoted by Lama Govinda in Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism (New York Samuel Wiser, 1974), p. 66. (n4) From the Kozen-Gokoku-Ron, quoted in The Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980), p. 126. (n5) A being of deep wisdom and compassion who devotes his or her life to the liberation of all sentient beings.