How Buddhism Can Help Protect Nature
By Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh

Wat Phai Lom is a Buddhist temple not far from Bangkok, which welcomes thousands of visitors from afar every year. The visitors are birds, open-billed storks. When residing at Wat Phai Lom during autumn and winter months, their droppings white-wash trees and temple buildings.
The monks do not mind, and bird-lovers celebrate the sight. Open-billed storks would be extinct in Thailand but for the fact their last remaining breeding ground is within the sanctuary of this temple.
Ecologists point out it is scientifically important to save this species of bird, whose sole diet is a local, rice-devouring species of snail. Without the storks, the snails would proliferate, then pesticides would be brought in, and an unnecessary, poisonous cycle would go into effect.
Buddhist precepts of personal and social conduct can take much of the credit for saving the open-billed stork in Thailand, a country which has suffered tremendous destruction of the natural environment in recent decades.
Forest, for example, covered 80 percent of the land 50 years ago; today forestland has been reduced to just over 20 percent. Many bird, animal, and plant species are in danger of extinction, and some have already disappeared.
The most tragic consequences of degraded and disappearing nature and natural resources are seen in various human rural communities where survival is a struggle.
Changing ecological conditions have resulted in frequent flooding in Bangkok; it's an inconvenience. But in parts of the country's northeast, a degraded natural environment means that annual rains do not arrive on schedule, crops fail, and many people experience a borderline existence.
While so much has been destroyed, it is worth observing that even more could have been lost, and more quickly, given the modern world's eagerness for exploitation and little regard for the consequences.
It is likely that, like the open-billed stork, much of what still survives of the natural world here is linked, in varying degrees, to the influence of Buddhism, the philosophy's focus on awareness, attitudes, and actions which should never harm, and ideally should actively help all life on earth.
This is not to say that careless, even greedy individuals involved in destruction do not consider themselves Buddhists. Just as codes of conduct regarding protection of nature vary from religion to religion, interpretations of those codes vary from person to person.
In all belief systems, human nature is diverse. In Buddhism, among the world's estimated 1/2 billion faithful, individuals range from the highly enlightened and pious to those who don't know what else to call themselves -- a group which can be described as "Buddhists by birth certificate".
Buddhism also encourages individual perceptions, even questions and challenges on the part of each practitioner, because enlightenment is a personal path. Comparative religious studies find this an unusual feature in a major religion which also has established institutional structures.
Embodied in Buddhism, however, is much ecologists and other conservation experts explain is urgently needed if destruction of the natural environment is to be halted, and life on earth as we know it is to continue.
Teachings emphasize the importance of coexisting with nature, rather than conquering it. Devout Buddhists admire a conserving lifestyle, rather than one which is profligate.
The very core of Buddhism evolves around compassion, encouraging a better respect for and tolerance of every human being and living thing sharing the planet.
Wherever Buddhism is influential, studies will usually show some direct benefit for the natural world. In Sri Lanka, predominantly Buddhist, crowded by western standards, wildlife has not been virtually eliminated, as it has been in many parts of the world. The reason, according to researchers, is the country's largely religious and devout population.
Formal protection generally results from government action, but such actions, it is felt, would never have made much effect if they were not readily accepted by the people. Successful conservation there is based on deep philosophical convictions.
Many of our Buddhist Perception of Nature project's Tibetan research colleagues can point to the time, in living memory, when herds of wild blue sheep, yak, deer and flocks of migrating birds would travel with Tibetan nomads, or land in the midst of human settlements -- apparently sensing they were safe. For the most part they were safe from harm, because the country was Buddhist.
The situation since the Chinese takeover has tragically changed, and Tibet is now described as "ecologically devastated" in many respects. In a special report for the UN Commission on Human Rights, it is noted that large areas are now deforested, and "a once flourishing wildlife seems to have been virtually wiped out..."
Buddhism's benefits to nature protection throughout the faith's history might be described as effective, in a largely passive role. Recently and increasingly, however, influential Buddhists are speaking out on the subject and helping bring about recognition of the active, even dynamic role the philosophy could play in conservation.
"Today more than ever before", His Holiness The Dalai Lama told a reporter, "life must be characterized by a sense of Universal Responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life."
Social critic and author Sulak Sivaraksa, described as "a Thai Buddhist voice on Asia and a World of Change", believes that however complex the world has become, the message of Buddhism is relevant, indeed even more relevant than earlier, and an important catalyst of social unity and progress.
Concerned about destruction of the natural environment, and convinced Buddhism, in an active role, can bring about improved protection, Khun Sulak has added to his writings on the subject a special slide show and taped message illustrating proper Buddhist awareness, attitudes, and actions concerning Nature.
"Whether they are conscious of it or not," The narrative goes, "there is a kind of Buddhist revolt against the deterioration of Nature. It is a small revolt, because it has not yet affected the overall statistics."
"But still, this peaceful commitment means something, and if it is taken seriously, it can help bring about a strong conservationist movement in our country."
His Excellency Yasuhiro Nakasone, Prime Minister of Japan, included in his address at the Commemorative Anniversary of the United Nations in 1985, an eloquent and moving call for all nations, religions, and peoples to join together to ensure that the beauty and diversity of earth will continue.
Again we find Buddhism brought into the message, one which also urges "a new global ethic" so that the Twentieth Century may be known "as the era when coexistence and mutual respect were achieved among all peoples for the first time, and when men found a proper balance with Nature."
Ancient as Buddhist lessons are, their value in modern life and contemporary needs is increasingly recognized. One reason for this, according to Thai scholar Piyadassi, is that "The Buddha emphasizes the practical aspect of His teaching, the application of knowledge to life, looking into life and not merely at it."
British author H. G. Wells found the subject worthy of study, and summarized, "The fundamental teaching of Gauthama (The Buddha)... is clear and in closest harmony with modern ideas. It is beyond dispute the achievement of one of the most penetrating intelligences the world has ever known."
Buddhism, moreover, brings a special dimension to any studies or projects such as the Buddhist Perception of Nature, involving education. It is the duty of every practicing Buddhist to seek to replace ignorance with knowledge and wisdom. Teachers are respected; in the case of the faith's greatest teachers, revered.
To provide teachers with the tools they need to lead their students to conservation practices, project scholars have the task of thoroughly researching the vast and rich Buddhist literature, involving several languages, and early texts reaching back in some cases more than 2,500 years.
Research is the first stage, followed by assembly of the materials. For the first time, Buddhist teachings about humankind's need and responsibilities concerning animals and plants, forests and water resources, indeed the whole natural environment, are being compiled by the Buddhist Perception of Nature project to produce comprehensive, educational instruments.
The wealth of material scholars are discovering is not surprising when one considers Buddhism's focus on compassion, the forest- dwelling and meditation in natural surroundings important to many in the Sangha -- the order of monks -- and the rich symbolism associated with many species of animals and plants.
Monks, for example, are forbidden to cut down trees, and know well the story of a monk long ago, who cut a tree's main branch. The spirit of the tree complained to Buddha, that by doing so, the monk had cut off his child's arm.
Another teaching relates that travelers, after having rested in the shade of a large banyan, on leaving began to cut down the tree. Their actions were condemned. The tree had given them shade, much like a friend, and to harm a friend is indeed an act of evil.
Anguttara Nikáya provides a similar episode:
"Long ago, Brahman Dhamika, Rajah Koranya, had a king banyan called Steadfast, and the shade of its widespread branches was cool and lovely.
Its shelter broadened to twelve leagues. None guarded its fruit, and none hurt another for its fruit.
Now then came a man who ate his fill of fruit, broke down a branch, and went his way.
Thought the spirit dwelling in that tree: how amazing, how astonishing it is, that a man should be so evil as to break off a branch of the tree, after eating his fill. Suppose the tree were to bear no more fruit. And the tree bore no more fruit."
Such teachings remind Buddhists -- monks and lay people alike -- of the importance of showing respect for threes which provide food, shade and protection not only for people, but for all forest-dwellers.
The results of lack of respect for trees are clearly evident today. When large areas of forest are destroyed, erosion often follows, degrading watersheds, and ultimately making farming fruitless. Animal and plant species, losing their habitats, often disappear.
Although Buddhism took root in the soil of humanity more than 2,500 years ago, at a time when people generally lived closer to nature than many do today, the consequences of improper attitudes and actions regarding the earth were known, and described in the story of a Brahmin who asked The Buddha about the cause of human decrease. This is how The Buddha answered:
"Since folk are ablaze with unlawful lusts, overwhelmed by depraved longings, depressed by wrong doctrines, on such as these the sky rains down not steadily. It is hard to get a meal. The crops are bad, afflicted with mildew and grown to mere stubs. Accordingly, many come to their end."
Ideally, because of the important precept that it is wrong to take life, or even cause to take life, devout Buddhists try to live on a diet of fruit, vegetables and grains. Even in this strict observance, however, awareness, mindfulness, comes in.
In consuming fruits and grains, strict practitioners should be careful not to destroy the growth of such foods. Fruit from which seed has been removed, for example, is allowable.
The Buddhist rules regarding consumption of foods are lengthy and complicated, and are being examined in project activities. The most important point to remember in an introduction, such as this text, is that all human activity should be with a sense of respect and reverence for all life, with a feeling of conservation and not exploitation.
For Buddhism, all animals are within the field of human perception, with an opportunity someday to gain enlightenment. Higher beings though humans may be, Buddhism teaches that man is a part of entire nature, disregarding or abusing natural laws or trying to conquer nature is at his own peril.
Buddhist Perception of Nature's chief Tibetan scholar, Ven. Karma Gelek Yuthok, provides to the subject some lovely, even tender, stanzas from the Mahayana traditions about compassion for living things:
"Since the doctrine of Buddha specifies compassion, those who take refuge in it should forsake harming the sentient beings with a compassionate heart."
Further explaining the importance of abandoning harm to living things, Tsongkhapa taught:
"The abandonment of harm to sentient beings is to forsake all thoughts and deeds as -- beating men or beasts, binding with ropes, trapping and imprisonment, piercing the noses, overburdening with loads beyond their strength, and similar activities."
Similarly, Dzogchen Patul Jigme Wangpo, in his text called The Oral Transmission of Samandrabhadra, relates:
"As it has been said that having taken refuge in The Doctrine, one should abandon harm to the living beings, the acts that are harmful to the other beings should not be done even in one's dreams...persevere with strong efforts to protect oneself from such acts."
Not doing harm is a stage reaching to higher Buddhist attitudes towards all living things -- loving kindness, compassion and altruism. On the attitude of loving kindness, The Buddha has said:
"Making, all the time, a rich and extensive offering with all that can be found in the billions of worlds to the supreme noble beings, this merit cannot match one moment of loving kindness."
Another well known and much loved teaching which exemplifies the central core of compassion in Buddhism is: "Thus, as a mother with her own life guards the life of her own child, let all embracing thoughts for all that lives be thine."
Two and a half millennia ago The Buddha taught disciples that the material world -- earth and universe -- included the worlds of "formations", "beings", and "space". That much in such ancient teachings is apparently found by many modern physicists to be compatible with the newest advances in their field of study, is less important to Buddhists than the continuing, even growing, need for human attitudes of loving kindness in our modern world.
Centuries before contamination of the earth's water would be the widespread threat to health and life that it is today, The Buddha set down rules forbidding pollution of water resources. Even detailed descriptions of how a toilet should be built were provided, specifically to protect a healthy environment.
Buddhism flourished early in settings of abundant Nature, and many teachings use examples and similes from Nature to convey important messages:
"Suppose a pool of water, turbid, stirred up and muddied, exists. Just so a turbid mind is. Suppose a pool of water, pure, tranquil and unstirred, where a man sees oysters and shells, pebbles and gravels, and schools of fish. Just so is an untroubled mind."
As for human souls in stages of growth and enlightenment, the lotus, sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, is the symbol:
"... in a pond of blue lotus, or in a pond of red and white lotus, a few blue, red, or white lotus are born in water, grown in water, altogether immersed. A few blue, red and white lotus are born in water, grow there, and reach the surface -- standing up, rising, undefiled."
Many of the earth's most famous animals appear in The Buddha's teachings -- tiger, elephant, and lion for example. Compassion and loving kindness are expressed for all, and in a certain place The Buddha was said to have compared his own behavior with that of a lion's-- He roars with the idea, let me not cause the destruction of tiny creatures wandering astray"--and even claimed the word "lion" was a term for The Buddha.
Among the beautiful expressions in Buddhist literature showing mutual relation and interdependence of humankind and wildlife, there was early on a realization that survival of certain species was in danger, and that losing such creatures diminishes the earth.
Scholars with the Pali Text Society, London, provide this particularly lovely translation of a stanza from the Khuddakapatha:
"Come back, O Tigers!, to the woods again, and let it not be leveled with the plain. For without you, the axe will lay it low. You, without it, forever homeless go."
Buddhism has always celebrated the richness and diversity of the earth, and the lotus is only one among the many plant species of great symbolic importance.
All Buddhist literature records that The Buddha was born in the forest, in a grove of Sal, lovely straight backed trees with large leaves. According to legend, as soon as he was born he could walk, and in the wake of his first seven steps lotuses sprang up. Meditation as a youth was in the shade of the "Jambo", one of the myrtle of which there are around 650 species.
The Buddha's further study was in the company of the Banyan, and enlightenment and Buddhahood were achieved under the spreading branches of a tree recognized for its special, symbolic place in human faith even in its scientific name, (Ficus religiousa). Also known as the Bo, Boddhi or Peepul, this tree is sacred in both Buddhism and Hinduism.
With all of these species we find an example of the faith's role in protection. Because of the important symbolic value they have in the life of Buddha, they are respected, and no devout follower would deliberately harm them.
It has been interesting to learn in our researches that there seems to be a twofold way of expressing and describing nature and the natural environment in the texts -- a straightforward description, and then in many cases, an analogy.
Both are drawn from what was known of life and natural surroundings of the time, and largely in the northern areas of Jambudipa, or India, and yet demonstrate an extraordinary intellectual grasp of the interdependence of life altogether, at all times.
Early Buddhists were also, clearly, deeply appreciative of Nature's beauty and diversity. In the Sutta-Nipata, one of the earliest texts known, The Buddha says:
"Know ye the grasses and the trees... Then know ye the worms, and the moths, and the different sort of ants... Know ye also the four-footed animals small and great...the serpents...the fish which range in the water...the birds that are borne along on wings and move through the air..."
We have abbreviated above a long passage in which, for each kind of creature, The Buddha taught, "(Know ye) the marks that constitute species are theirs, and their species are manifold..."
The Jataka, the richly narrated Birth Stories of Buddhism, have inspired some of the world's most beautiful art, and are abundant with poetic appreciations of the beauty of Nature. In the edition edited by Professor E. B. Cowell for the Pali Text Society in 1957, passage after passage of volumes IV and V celebrate forests and waters, and the earth's wild creatures.
Here we find an area of the earth called "Garden of Delight", where grass is ever green, in forests grow all trees whose fruit is good to eat, the streams are sweet and clean -- "blue as beryl" -- with shoals of disporting fish. Nearby is:
"...a region overrun and beautified with all manner of trees and flowering shrubs and creepers, resounding with the cries of swans, ducks and geese..."
Next is reported the fame of an area, "yielding from its soil all manner of herbs, overspread with many a tangle of flowers," and listing a rich variety of wild animals -- antelope and elephant, gaur, buffalo, deer, yak, lion, and rhinoceros, then tiger, panther, bear, hyena, otter, hare and more.
If such scenes seem "other worldly" it is because, through ignorance, greed, and lack of respect for the earth, the world's growing human population has already transformed many of the earth's gardens of delight into poisoned fields, sterile, incapable of sustaining Nature's rich diversity.
That so much of the earth has already been destroyed, and destruction is actually increasing, is insupportable for Buddhists or people of any persuasion or belief who seek knowledge and wisdom, and who feel a sense of responsibility for the condition of life on this planet now and for future generations.
In Buddhist Perception of Nature research we are discovering and compiling teachings which in many ways also provide shocking reminders of how much we have lost of the natural world, and in such a brief space of time. This is one of the many lessons being learned, and it adds to a feeling of urgency to complete our research, and place good educational materials into the hands of teachers who will use them well.
By doing our part to bring to light the ancient Buddhist teachings which are as valid today as they have always been, in widening circles Buddhism can be an active element in proper conservation of the natural environment.
By sharing the fruits of our work with others, we look forward to a world acceptance of an environmental ethic that will replace ignorance with knowledge, greed with generosity, and lack of respect for the earth with attitudes of compassion and loving kindness -- for all life.
(Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, chief Thai scholar for the Buddhist Perception of Nature Project, teaches Religion and Philosophy as a member of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, at Thammasat University, Bangkok. She is also the author of a number of popular and scholarly articles on Buddhism, the translator of the Lotus Sutra, and the Tao Te-Ching into Thai, and the author of the book, Study of Buddhist Nuns: Monastic Rules.)