Mindfulness of Nature

In a few hours’, I would be taking a group for a walk around a part of the former Bidadari Cemetery.

Here are the contents of what I’m going to share.

1. The Environmental Crisis

Around the world, forests are disappearing at an insane pace. First, the loggers go in to extract the trees that are valuable for timber. Some of this is illegal, others are just badly planned without considering how slowly the remaining young trees will grow to replace the large, old trees that are cut down. Next, when the forest is depleted of timber, the land is given to agriculture. Now the forest is razed, to make way for plantations. Demand for wood, vegetable oil and paper is driving the deforestation and subsequent spread of oil palm and paper pulp plantations in neighbouring Borneo and Sumatra. Driving through Malaysia just next door, what you see are acres of boring palm oil stretching as far as the eye can see.

In places where small pieces of forest are set aside as nature reserves, illegal hunting of wildlife removes the animals that the plants depend on to disperse their seeds. Alien pests following in the wake of human activity invade these remnant habitats. Removal of tree cover nearby results in soil erosion. Plantations use too much fertilizer. The silt and excess nutrients kill off life in the already-besieged streams. 2,500 years ago, the Buddha and the first disciples lived and walked in lush subtropical monsoon forests. In a pilgrimage to these historic sites in India in 2007, I saw no such forests, only exhausted soil and polluted waters.

The climate is also changing. Hotter temperatures and unpredictable weather add to the uncertainty of the future of many species and the ecosystems that they constitute.

2. Mindfulness of our nature and of Nature

The reason why individuals continue to act in ways that damage the environment is because we have become disconnected from Nature.

The Buddhist model of how the mind works is a model of behaviour. It can provide insights into why we behave in unwholesome ways that are not beneficial to ourselves and others. Unwholesome behaviours, according to this model, are rooted in ignorance.

Why do we get angry? We get angry when we are unaware of the way that anger arises in our minds, and when we are unaware the consequences of acting on the anger. If we are aware, if we are mindful, we can catch the angry feelings and thoughts as they arise. Mindfulness of anger dissipates its energy.

Similarly, we live environmentally damaging lifestyles because we are unaware of our relationship with the environment, and we are unaware of the consequences of our actions. By reconnecting with Nature, we become mindful of Nature, and we are able to change our behavior with less effort.

Mindfulness practice is a tool with which we connect with our Inner Stillness. We term it “stillness”, but actually our mind and body are constantly changing. Our practice is not to force the mind and body to come to a stop, because that is impossible. Our practice is to watch and observe the true nature of the impermanence of our mental and bodily processes.

Similarly, Nature is dynamic. Energy and nutrients pass from plants to herbivores to carnivores through photosynthesis and consumption. Living things are born and die all the time. The forest gives the impression of stability, perhaps with the trees only swaying gently in strong winds. But stay inside the forest for a day, and one would see how things come crashing down ever so often, even as all kinds of animals pass through it. And there is a sublime beauty, a sense of peace and stillness, that one can find by watching Nature in action.

People are becoming increasingly unaware of our relationship with the environment because of urbanization. City life is one that is surrounded mostly by concrete, glass, and steel, less of birds, butterflies, and trees. Food does not come from toiling in the fields; instead, it comes in neat packaging in air-conditioned supermarkets. There is hope yet for reversing this disconnection: materialism will bring a yearning for spiritual practice; urbanization will bring a yearning for more green spaces.

3. Want not, waste not

Some people say, “Waste not, want not.” Let’s reverse that and say, “Want not, waste not.”

A central teaching by the Buddha is the set of Four “Noble” Truths. The second of these Truths state that attachment, i.e., wanting, leads to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Therefore students of the Buddha strive to live simply, and have fewer possessions.

I have a Buddhist friend that once remarked that a guideline for the amount of possessions we should have is whatever we can (perhaps with a nice big rucksack!) carry with us at any time. Having less possessions is actually very liberating.

Such a way of life has obvious environmental benefits. Wanting less leads to “wasting” less: consuming less resources and producing less pollutants. This reduces our individual impact on the environment. Developing such a mindset, we will naturally become uncomfortable with buying unnecessary things, and with throwing things away without thinking of how to reuse them. This is especially so for inorganic materials such as plastics and metals. It would weigh in our minds: where would all these generated “waste” go?

4. The Web of Life

Nature is as complex as it is dynamic. There are some animals that are so specialized that they are completely dependent on another species, without which they will go extinct. Yet there are some animals who are “engineers” of ecosystems, changing the landscape where they are present. There are parasites that parasitize on parasites of other parasites!

The web of life sometimes bring surprises. Bringing back wolves to Yellowstone Park in the US appeared to have resulted in the regeneration of the forests, because elk have become more wary and have stopped grazing on seedlings in certain parts of the Park. In return, the grizzly bears have more food because there are more berries and nuts in the shade of these forests!

The Buddha taught about interdependency between the arising of phenomena and the surrounding conditions. Like ecological webs, cause and effect is not linear; it is a web of multiple causes and moderating conditions leading to multiple effects. The effects will be in turn causes for other phenomena.

That our fates are entangled with that of the Earth’s ecosystems means that our actions that damage the quality of the environment will return to haunt us through multiple feedback loops that run everywhere.

When it happens, will it be the “collective karma” of human civilisations? Collective karma is a topic of debate. Regardless, we are risking our quality of life if we were to go about mindless of our environmental impacts.

5. Gratitude to the Earth

Depending on where you’re looking, there are several lists of “Four Gratitudes”, the debts of which we should seek to repay. There is the gratitude to one’s father and mother, one’s teachers, some say society and government, and finally, all sentient beings. These are essentially all related; the Buddha said that it is difficult to find a being, animals included, who has not, in some past life, been our father or mother. Gratitude to all sentient beings is sometimes phrased as “Gratitude to the Earth”. The Earth nourishes us and teaches us; surely hence the term “Mother Nature”. Therefore, we should view the Earth as we view our own mother, father, and teachers, and be constantly mindful of our debt towards Her.

6. Save all beings

There is a Mahayana vow that says:

众生无边
誓愿度

Even though there are so many creatures being threatened, we vow to do what we can to save as many as possible. In learning to love all life, we will in turn learn to love the things in Nature.

I have heard some foolish musings before: “Wouldn’t the human population explosion and the extinction of species be considered something good from a Buddhist perspective? After all, the human state is considered the best state for spiritual practice, while the animal state is considered a state of suffering.” This is based on a partial picture of Buddhist cosmology: there are six categories of “Realms” of which humans and animals are just two, and there are many more world systems than just the one that we know. This is one account that is not ours to balance.

7. “Will a Buddhist freeze a cane toad?”

The above question comes from the title of an article that discusses the conflicts between Buddhist teachings and environmental conservation. Such conflicts do exist:

In Australia, cane toads (a species with few predators) were introduced from America to control sugar cane beetles. Not only was it unsuccessful at this task, but the toad now threatens the survival of a variety of native reptiles, amphibians and mammals… Byron Bay, home to Australia’s famously ‘environmentally active’ local government, has more Buddhist iconography than anywhere else in Australia. Byron Council recently ran a cane toad muster, rounding up nearly 6000 cane toads. These were put in fridges, then freezers, for ‘humane killing’ and used in landfill. A relativist, individualist position allows for the existence of such irony. ‘Environmental Buddhism’ is a modern phenomenon that is yet to address its inconsistencies. However, to extend the ‘cane-toad-is-a-nasty-species’ logic is to arrive at a murderous position indeed. After all, humans are the most environmentally reprehensible species on the planet. Should ugly ones be removed? As the modern Western religion of ‘Individualism’ struggles to find its ethical rudder by adapting Buddhist or other moral frameworks, the precept of non-harming sits uneasily in a programme of engaged environmental action.

I can think of two other cases that I have been personally involved in where conservation conflicts with Buddhist religious practices.

One is the case of “mercy release“. Typically live birds or aquatic animals are purchased from the markets where they are intended for slaughter and consumption, and then released into the wild. There are two objectives to this practice, one noble and the other rather worldly: out of compassion for the animals, and in order to accumulate good merits.

Unfortunately, wisdom seems to be missing from guiding the act of compassion here. In Singapore, every year around Vesak, there would be people who are creeping into the nature reserves to release all manner of weird creatures. A few years back, my colleagues and I came across many American bullfrogs released into a forest stream. They were mostly half-dead because they could not adapt, so the “merciful” action may have gone quite to waste. If they survive, they are known to eat almost anything that moves. They may also carry diseases that may infect other native species of frogs in the forests.

This is quite an emotive issue in the Buddhist community. Many respected teachers and Buddhist organizations still subscribe to this practice, and try new ways to circumvent obvious pitfalls, such as releasing marine animals to the sea, and avoiding buying in bulk and on predictable timings such as Buddhist festivals. However, are there unseen effects such as population pulses? Is it not still economic participation in the markets that deal with these lives? I prefer to be cautious here, to see the weight of the evidence first.

Another is the slaughter of of elephants to provide ivory for Buddhist-related items. Such items are growing in demand in Buddhist countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka. Buddhists associate the elephant with many spiritual qualities such as patience. The Maha-bodhisattva Samantabhadra is often portrayed as riding an elephant, which symbolizes His key quality of steadfastness in practice. Thus in many Asian countries, it is against the law and cultural norms to harm the Asian elephant. However, African elephants have been killed to satisfy the transcontinental demand for the ivory.

For issues on invasive pests and animal welfare, the conflict might be justified. For overconsumption, however, the hypocrisy is clear. The demand for ivory must be curbed. After all, “all things are devoid of self-nature“. It is silly and unskillful to be attached to the material that these trinkets are made of.

8. Oneness

I don’t like being torn into two or three parts. For that I am quite glad that my profession as a botanist and ecologist seems to be simply an extension of my spiritual practice as a Buddhist.

Even for Buddhists who are not especially active environmentalists, this also applies. We don’t live simply so that we have less impact on the environment. We live simply because it leads to happiness; it leads to less impact on our own mind. At the same time, the quality of the environment is preserved, and in return we find even more joy in this.

A whole bunch of Buddhist teachers have signed off on a declaration on climate change. In an invited piece to the scientific journal Conservation Biology, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa wrote:

…I am confident that such Buddha activity can be directly translated into environmental protection. With this vision, we now have over 40 Kagyu monasteries and nunneries across the Himalayas implementing environmental projects to address issues such as forest degradation, water shortages, wildlife trade, climate change, and pollution… We know that this is but a small drop in the ocean and the challenges we face are more complex and extensive than we can tackle alone. However, if each one of us were to contribute a single drop of clean water toward protecting the environment, imagine how pure this vast ocean could eventually be.

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