Discuss the contribution of ethical teachings in environmental ethics to an understanding of buddhism as a living tradition

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Buddhism can be seen as a living religion as it is able to apply its foundation, beliefs and ethical teachings to the modern world and contemporary issues. Environmental ethics is a discipline that surfaced in response to scientific and ecological concerns around issues including climate change and global warming, where the planet is being detrimentally affected and abused by selfish actions. Buddhist environmental organisations such as Dharma Gaia Trust and Earth Sangha have responded to these concerns and encourage both Buddhists adherents and non-Buddhists to live by the teachings of the Buddha to aspire to be more Buddha in nature. By reflecting on the foundations of Buddhism, the Three Jewels; the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha in terms of contemporary environmental issues, as well as teachings including The Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts, the world can be improved for the better. Through living out Buddhist teachings and ethical guidelines, environmental advocacy is a major role in the lives of adherents and thus contributes to the understanding of Buddhism as a living tradition.

The Buddhist approach to environmental issues can be directly linked to the teachings of Buddha himself, in particular, the Eightfold Path. The first two principles promote wisdom in the Buddhist sense, which is having the ability to see directly into the nature of things. The following three are the basis of correct ethical thought “right action”. The ‘middle way’ encourages a life of moderation and conservation which directly influences Buddhist attitudes towards the environment. An example of this is using resources from farming or mining in a manner that is beneficial for future generations. Other teachings, including the Five Precepts are extremely relevant in the issue of environmental ethics. The first precept instructs one ‘to abstain from causing harm to a sentient being’. Buddhists interpret this principle literally, meaning that no harm or violence should be inflicted on any living species, such as animals living in a forest. Additionally, the Four Noble Truths provide a framework for diagnosing our current situation and formulating appropriate guidelines as adherents are encouraged to establish a harmonious relationship with the environment surrounding them, both human and non-human.

The origins of Buddhist ethics regarding the environment can be drawn from the life and experiences of the Buddha. A number of significant events that defined the life of Buddha, and consequently the principles of Buddhism, occurred in the county side with nature. His birth, enlightenment, and passing all occurred beneath native trees such as the Bodhi tree. Over 2500 years ago, Buddha was born in a forest; he meditated amongst nature’s elements and reached enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. This has had a profound impact on the belief of living in harmony with nature. By preserving the environment, you are becoming more Buddha in nature. “We need to live as the Buddha taught us to live, in peace and harmony with nature” – The Buddhist Statement on Ecology 1996. By observing these practices that were historically performed, it is seen that Buddhism is a living religious tradition as it applies to the contemporary issue of environmental ethics.

Ajahn Pongsak, a Thai Monk’s, definition of the relationship between Buddhism and a respect for nature: “Nature is the manifestation of truth and of the teachings. When we destroy nature, we destroy truth and the teachings”. Buddhist teachings on the environment reflect the understanding of the principle of ‘conditioned arising’. It is the Buddhist understanding of cause and effect as it sees all states of existence coming out of another state. The human state is characterised by prajna (wisdom), samadhi (reflection) and sila (ethical action), so human beings are obligated to treat nature in a way that demonstrates their wisdom and compassionate application of that understanding. This is reflected in the Buddhist term ahimsa, meaning kindness and nonviolence towards all living things as all living things are connected of primary importance in understanding human obligations towards nature. The teaching of ahimsa forms the basis for how human beings treat animals. The eating of meat, animal experimentation and animal exploitation must be decided on this principle. Though vegetarianism is not compulsory, the eating of meat known to have been killed for the sole purpose of feeding humans would be seen as willingly accepting a breach of the teaching of ahimsa. Likewise, animal experimentation and exploitation would also be seen as violating this teaching. Within Buddhism is a clear understanding that non-sentient nature also contributes to the path towards enlightenment. An enlightened human is one who, “whether feeble or strong, does not kill nor slaughter”. Harmony with non-living nature creates a means of deeper reflection about a person’s own nature and that of nirvana. In groups or alone, the monks use the natural environment to find seclusion from the distractions of everyday life and a basis for deeper meditation.

Since the human is caught up in the cycle of rebirths because karma, the human realises that all other sentient beings are equally caught up in this cycle. It is on account of karma that there are so many different sentient beings. The human person, to have arrived at human existence, must have previously lived as other forms of nonhuman sentient life. Since a life lived badly may well bring about a rebirth in non-human sentient life, it is necessary for the Buddhist to treat other life forms as possible rebirths of close relatives or acquaintances.

“Technology, coupled with greed and ignorance, is destroying and not improving our home planet.” – XIV Dalai Lama. The environmental problems today including climate change and global warming are believed to be due to the negative Karma produced by the inability of people in the past to follow the Five Precepts called “Sanchita karma”. Humans have “taken what they were not given”, violating the second precept, in that they have produced waste gases, liquids and materials to destroy the environment of the future taking the time and space which is not theirs and they have indulged in “sensual misconduct” by being greedy and trying to fulfil ever increasing aspects of pride and arrogance in their extensive use of resources. This is violating the first precept to “not harm any being”. Buddhists have responded to this through the Buddhist declaration on climate change “the time to act is now” in which the Dalai Lama has signed to say individuals must adopt behaviour that increase ecological awareness and carbon footprint through renewable energy resources. Through adherent’s flexibility in applying the ethical teachings to contemporary environmental issues, the nature of Buddhism as a living religious tradition is successfully conveyed and emphasised.

There is a strong focus on preservation and protection for future generations but Buddhists are generally vocal supporters of any policy which promotes ecological sustainability expressed in the 4th point in the Dalai Lama’s Five Point Peace Plan, “Restoration and protection of Tibet's natural environment and the abandonment of China's use of Tibet for the production of nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear waste”. An example of the enduring commitment of Buddhist adherents to being at one with nature is the development of 700 monasteries in forests and remote mountain ranges. The tranquillity of these locations is belied to allow adherents to improve the state of their inner minds, yet also actively assists in the protection of the local vegetation and animals which is seen as the model for all Buddhists. These pollution-free places are modern examples of the Buddhist commitment to maintaining a harmonious relationship with the environment, where the ethical teachings are followed, thereby conveying the nature of Buddhism as a living religious tradition.

Furthermore, the organisation, Dharma Gaia trust, has a mission to create awareness of close relationship between Buddhism and ecology and motivates Buddhist communities to actively engage in the ecology challenges of our time by providing education and inspiration, they support temple forest project in Shri lanka. In addition, Earth Shanghai is a non-profit Buddhist environmental organisation with the mission to encourage the practice of Buddhism as an answer to the global environmental crisis and to practice conservation that expresses compassion for all beings. This is achieved by operating volunteer based ecological restoration program to help stabilise streams, restore forests and other native plant community. These initiatives alone express the strong influence of Buddhism’s ethical teachings in terms of advocacy and action to better the environment, and highlight adherents in today’s society that follow these teachings, contributing to the understanding of Buddhism as a living tradition.

In conclusion, it is seen that the ethical teachings of Buddhism, including the Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts, are continually lived out in terms of contemporary environmental concerns, including climate change and global warming. By living out the foundations of Buddhism and by applying the teachings, beliefs, rituals and practices to today’s society, through the formation of organisations such as Earth Shanghai, it can be seen that the ethical teachings of Buddhism play a major role in the contribution to the understanding of Buddhism as a living tradition.

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