Some parallels between Buddhist and ecological views of the world
Seen from a Buddhist perspective, the universe is a vast relational field, endlessly in motion – infinite networks of interdependent and interpenetrating processes – denoted in Buddhism by the terms pratityasamutpada and karma. All phenomena are dependent upon each other – bound together in endless cycles of arising and decaying – a dynamic field of interaction and interplay. Nothing exists on its own, separate or unconnected to the whole. All entities are both unique [tathata – suchness] and, an integral part of the whole of existence.
Here are a couple of quotes, that convey something of this ecological, relational view of the universe:
The Thai Buddhist teacher, Buddhadasa (1906-93) writes: ‘The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees and the earth. Our bodily parts function as a cooperative…. [we] …. are all mutual friends in the process of birth, old age, suffering and death.’1
The 13th century Zen teacher, Dogen writes: ‘Delusion is seeing all things from the perspective of the self. Enlightenment is seeing the self from the perspective of the myriad things of the universe.’2
Indigenous peoples around the world tend to speak of their ‘kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky and water.’3 This sense of belonging, and unity with all beings, is common amongst tribal cultures – a ‘brotherly feeling’ that binds all beings together in friendship, respect and care.
From, Interwoven Nature4: We are only now coming to understand that all the diverse forms of life, from the smallest and simplest, to the largest and most complex, interact within networks of mutuality and cooperation. They respond to the environment, and to each other, with sensitivity and reciprocity. They sense their habitats of earth, water and air in ways that are often baffling to us – sensitive to parts of the electro-magnetic spectrum that lie outside the narrow range we experience. Honey bees, salamanders and some species of migrating birds sense changes in the earth’s magnetic field to find their way around; some species of snake sense infra-red light; leeches have a highly developed tactile receptivity to temperature and chemical compounds, enabling them to find a suitable patch of skin to puncture and draw blood; bees, butterflies and reindeer perceive ultra-violet light; sharks and rays are able to emit and perceive electrical pulses through electro-receptors in their muscles; bats and some marine mammals use echo-location to sense their environment – effectively ‘seeing’ with sound; dogs, meerkats and wolverines have a highly developed sense of smell, way beyond the range of humans. Taken together with the various kinds of receptors found in plants, this evidence suggests that the whole biosphere senses, and makes sense of, a significant proportion of the electro-magnetic spectrum, and we can consider the earth as having a sentient dimension.
Many, possibly most, organisms, (including plants, animals and humans) exchange information through a diverse array of codes, signs and languages. Audible, tactile, visual and chemical modes of communication are used to signal to each other in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Sensing and communing seem to be inextricably linked in communication systems that weave together all the beings that inhabit the earth. Trees, bacteria, locusts and humans hum with energy and information. The earth’s surface can be said to be sentient and communicative – buzzing with information and sensory exchange – a dynamic array of receptors and transmitters woven together into a functioning system that is alive and alert, attending to itself, to its parts and to its cosmic context. We could consider this as the original ‘world wide web’, the sentient internet of the biosphere. We are all kindred beings within this great web of sensation, sign and song.
Relational fluid self in a relational fluid universe4
Given that everything is subject to change, all entities can only ever be provisional and contingent, subject to processes of restructuring, decay and dissolution, however fast or slow. Every entity will become something else in the future and has been something else in the past. Mutation and transformation are the norm, not the exception. In this sense we inhabit a changeful universe, ambiguous, paradoxical and uncertain. We can never be sure where one thing ends and another begins, including where we end and someone else begins.
[From a Buddhist perspective] the self is not a hermetically sealed kernel or soul, absolute and unchanging, it is a dynamic interweaving of streams of being – of perceptions, emotions, thoughts, imaginative constructions, memories and aspirations – a network of relationships with no fixed perimeter. Our boundaries are fluid, indeterminate and inextricably interwoven into the shifting boundaries of everything else in the universe. Our corporeal skin is a semi-permeable membrane through which moisture, light, tiny organisms and sub-atomic particles pass. Likewise, our minds are permeable indefinite structures flowing with experiences, of every imaginable kind. Our very being is fluid and many-stranded, and not contained within definite mental, physical, social or cultural boundaries.
Interdependence: All phenomena, including us humans, are temporary forms generated by currents of causality (karma) that extend throughout the universe. One thing leads to another, one action or event gives rise to another, and another – causal effects that ripple out in every direction. If we consider this cup I am holding as an example: it is made out of plastic; plastic is made from oil; oil from fossils; fossils from ancient life forms; these life forms evolved over millennia from other life forms going back to single-cell organisms; and prior to that to chemical interactions, and to the ‘big bang’ origin of the universe; and maybe to other ‘big bangs’ and other universes. This great web of interdependence gives rise to this cup. This humble cup could be said to be one, temporary, manifestation of endless cycles of cause and effect – a brief realisation of all the processes that have gone into its making.
We are all relational beings living in a relational universe – a universe in which things are actually events, with no fixed essences or identities. And the universe, and all its diverse constituent forms and structures, are in flux, merging and mingling in changing patterns of dynamic kinship.
Mindful meditation enables those who practice it regularly to experience the self as a process that extends out into the world, to realise how open and porous we are and how interconnected we are with other beings and with our surroundings. We feel less divided from the world about us and less alienated from ourselves and other creatures. We observe, and contribute to, the interplay of countless causal networks that make up our being – ever-changing streams of causality that, like evolution, are constantly flowing through, and from, us, forming and re-forming who we are and how we are in the world. Mindful meditation is a method of enquiry and realisation – a way of observing impermanence and interconnection in action – as a process. This is a worldview rooted in both, ecological, scientific understanding, and in Buddhist practice and ideas.
- Essay by Donal K. Swearer, The Hermeneutics of Buddhist Ecology in Contemporary Thailand: Buddhadasa & Dhammapitaka – in Buddhism & Ecology, eds. Mary Evelyn Tucker & Duncan Ruyuken Williams, Harvard University Press, 1997
- Essay by Ruben L.F. Habito, Mountains & Rivers & the Great Earth: Zen & Ecology – in Buddhism & Ecology [see above]
- Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Lakota Sioux, quoted in, Touch the Earth, ed. T.C. McLuhan, Abacus, 1973.
- Interwoven Nature: relatedness and identity in a changeful world, John Danvers, Whitewick Press, 2016.