Buddhism and Green Issues

Prof. J.B. Dissanayaka, Sri Lanka


This article is based on a talk given by Prof. J B Dissanayaka, at the Joint Vesak Celebration at Hammersmith Town Hall in 1993. He is Professor of Sinhalese at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. A qualified linguist, Professor Dissanayaka has written extensively on a variety of subjects, ranging from modern linguistics, grammar, Buddhism and aspects of Sri Lankan and Maldivian culture.

Today, at the turn of another century, we are told that we are passing through perhaps the gravest crisis in human history: the ecological crisis. It is considered ‘grave’ because it seems to threaten the very survival of the earth, and invariably, its inhabitants - both man and beast.

Ecology deals with relations of living organisms to their environment, and the present crisis stems from the fact that the natural eco-systems have been disturbed by man. Of course, a certain degree of disturbance cannot be helped because man is not simply a part of nature but also the one who can control it. For what is human civilization but the control of nature?.

However, in the course of our civilization, we seem to have mismanaged our affairs. We seem to have exploited nature in such a way as to create an imbalance in the natural eco-systems. As Krishna Chaitanya says, in his ‘Profile of Indian Culture’: "With the growth of the megalopolis and with town-planners thinking in terms of continuous conurbation extending right across continents, man is tending to forget how profoundly his life is linked with that of nature. He has stripped the hills and valleys of their mantle of green and the rivers, thus abetted in their assault on the weakened earth, are washing away the future into the sea. It is the forest cover that conserves the soil from erosion, regulates the flow of streams and purifies the air we breathe".

In view of this destruction, international organizations are today addressing themselves to this problem of environmental crisis. They are seeking answers to this problem from every possible source: science, religion, folk wisdom and so on. In this context, what wisdom can Buddhism offer?.

The Buddha’s view of the relation between man and his environment finds expression in his view of ‘Ideal living’ prescribed for the householder. In the Mangala Suttanta, where he enumerates a list of ideal factors conducive to the well-being of an individual, he mentions one as ‘patirupa desa vaso’ which means ‘to reside in a suitable locality’. The Buddha enumerated these factors at the request of a deity who asked him to name the "highest blessings" (‘mangalani’). Of course, the Buddha does not discuss, in this discourse, what is meant by ‘suitable’ but we are able to interpret it in the light of his own sensibility enshrined in the events of his life-story, and rules of conduct he recommended for his monks.

The word ‘suitable’, obviously, is a relative term and its meaning depends on questions such as ‘suitable for whom?’ or ‘suitable for what?’ What is suitable for the monks may not be suitable for the householder and vice versa. But, in general, a ‘suitable locality’ in the Buddha’s view, was one in which green vegetation played an integral part.

The narrative of the Buddha’s life is symbolic of his love of nature, particularly of forests, parks and gardens. His birth itself is symbolic of this love. "In Queen Maya’s dream of the annunciation," observes Chaitanya, "the Buddha comes to her in the form of a white elephant holding a white lotus in his trunk. She was delivered of the flower of the human race while reaching for the flowering spray of a tree in the Lumbini grove which at that time was one mass of flowers from the roots to the tips of the branches." Of course, the Buddha had no choice in the selection of his place of birth, but in the later events of his life, he certainly had his choice.

The site the Buddha chose for his Enlightenment was the bank of river in the kingdom of Magadha. The river was Neranjara in the village of Uruvela. The bank of a river is always rich in vegetation, in addition to its tranquillity that comes from the waters that flow. Even there, he chose the foot of a spreading tree to sit and contemplate. The tree was one that was considered a vanaspati in Indian culture. The term vanaspati means ‘the lord of the jungle’ and there were a number of trees that qualified to be lords of the jungle: they rose up to great heights and were considered abodes of deities (devata). The assattha or ashvastha tree the Buddha chose was one that was considered the abode of Vishnu and his wife, Lakshmi. It was also a tree that had associations with ancestor worship. Since the Buddha attained Enlightenment (bodhi) under this tree, botanists have named it ‘ficus religiosa’. The Buddhists call it the bodhi rukkha and because of its associations with the Buddha, no one cuts it, even a branch of this, unless accompanied by ritual. The fact that Sujata, the daughter of a rich merchant, came to offer milk-rice to the deity of the tree under which the Buddha sat is evidence of the belief that it was the abode of a deity. In fact, it is said that she mistook the Buddha for the rukkha devata (tree deity).

The site that the Buddha chose for his first sermon, the Dhamma cakka pavattana sutta, was again an environment marked by peace and tranquillity of the park. If its tranquillity was disturbed at all, it was by the movement of the deer (miga) who roamed about leisurely in the park, which was hence forth called Migadaya (Deer Park). It was in Isipatana, which was also frequented by seers (isi).

Finally, the Buddha chose another garden to pass into parinibbana. This was the park of Sala trees near the township of Kusinara, which was the capital of the Malla clan. "I am weary, Ananda," said the Buddha, on the last lap of his journey towards Kusinara, with Ananda, his personal attendant, "and would lie down. Spread over for me the couch with its head to the north between the twin sala trees". So says the Maha Parinibbana Sutta. "And when he lay down at last to rest, two small trees were in bloom though it was not the flowering season, and they shed their blossoms on him, washing away life gently in a soft, fragrant rain of petals."

Monasteries (arama) for the monks were also built in environments closer to woods, parks and gardens. For such places are conducive to meditation. The Buddha himself encouraged his benefactors to build monasteries in such places. In fact, the Pali word vihara, which signifies a Buddhist monastery, means ‘an open place in the forest’.

One of the earliest monasteries offered to the Buddha was the Veluvanarama in Rajagaha, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha. It was named Veluvanarama because it was located in a grove of bamboo (velu) trees. The monastery where the Buddha spent most of his rains-retreats (vassa) was in the Park known as Jetavana near the city of Savatthi in the kingdom of Kosala. The monastery built there by Anathapinika was called the arama of Anathapinika (Anathapinikassa arame). The Buddha spent 18 vassa seasons at this monastery and anyone who visits this site today, at Sahet Mahet, would realize what a tranquil garden it would have been in the days of the Buddha.

It is also interesting to note that the Buddha retired to a forest, the Parileyyaka vana, near Kosambhi, when two parties of monks entered into a dispute. "As they could not be reconciled and as they did not pay heed to his exhortation, the Buddha retired to the forest". Thus, even the Buddha found solace in the tranquillity of the forest, when he was unable to resolve human problems.

If these narratives of the Buddha’s life tell us about the Buddha’s sensibility towards nature, his code of conduct for the monks spells it out in sharper terms. In the Book of the Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka), which is a collection of rules and regulations for the guidance of monks, there is a specific rule relating to the cutting down of trees. Once, some monks of Alavi were blamed and criticised by people for cutting down trees for making repairs.

"How can these recluses, sons of the Sakyans, cut down trees and have them cut down? These recluses, sons of the Sakyans, are harming life that is one-facultied," said the people. The Buddha called the monks and asked them, "Is it true, as is said, that you, monks, cut down trees and had them cut down?".

"It is true, lord," they said.

The Enlightened one, the lord, rebuked them, saying: "How can you, monks, cut down trees and have them cut down? It is not, monks, for pleasing those who are not yet pleased. And thus, monks, this rule of training should be set forth: For destruction of vegetable growth there is an offence of expiation".

In Buddhist terminology, expiation refers to a type of offence known as pacittiya, and the term for ‘vegetable growth’ here is bhutagama, which is explained as five-fold: (a) what is propagated from roots, (b) what is propagated from stems (c) what is propagated from joints, (d) what is propagated from cuttings, and (e) what is propagated from seeds.

For monks to be charged with this offence, several conditions have to be fulfilled, says the Vinaya Pitaka:

"If he thinks that it is a seed, when it is a seed, (and) cuts it or has it cut or breaks it or has it broken or cooks it or has it cooked, there is an offence of expiation. If he thinks that it is not a seed when it is a seed (and) cuts it (and so on) ... there is no offence. If he thinks that it is a seed when it is not a seed, there is an offence of wrong-doing. If he thinks that it is not a seed when it is not a seed, there is no offence."

It is clear from the above, that what ultimately matters is one’s intention (cetana) and in the Buddha’s view cetana is kamma.

How the Buddha’s respect for plant-life has been translated into action in different Buddhist cultures in Asia is another fascinating study but that should be the subject of another inquiry. Let me conclude this talk by recalling one of the observations made by another great son of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru, in 1959, when India was celebrating her ninth Vana Mahotsava: "There should be a strict rule that no one should cut down a tree without planting two in its place."

And let us hope that, with our new understanding of nature, and the new strategies of conservation, "May all beings be happy!"

Sabbe satta bhavantu sukhitatta.





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