Environmental Protection

This is a transcription of a speech given by Master Shen Yen at the Waldorf Astoria on the topic of environmental protection from a religious perspective, on August 30, 2000. One leader from each major world religion was chosen to speak on this topic as part of the World Peace Summit, hosted by the United Nations.

Buddhism is a religion that places great emphasis on environmental protection. Sakyamuni Buddha was born at Lumbini Garden. He engaged in spiritual practice in the forest, attained Buddhahood under a tree, and first began preaching at Deer Park. The major monasteries where he taught his disciples were all gardens or woods, such as Jeta Grove, Bamboo Grove, Amravana Garden, and he passed into pari-nirvana between two Sal trees near Kusinagara. He exhorted his monastic disciples, when spending the night under a tree, to regard that place as his home and take loving care of it.

The Buddha told us in the sutras and precepts that we should take loving care of animals, and that we should not harm the grass and trees, but regard them as the home where sentient beings lead their lives. In the stories of the Buddha’s past lives, when he was following the Bodhisattva path, he was once reborn as a bird. During a forest fire, he tried fearlessly to put out the fire, disregarding his own safety by bringing water with his feathers. In the Avatamsaka Sutra it is said that mountains, waters, grass, and trees are all the manifestation of the great bodhisattvas. So, Buddhists believe that both sentient beings and non-sentient things are all the Dharma-body of the Buddha’s. Not only do the yellow flowers and the green bamboo preach Buddhist teachings, but rocks can also understand Buddhist doctrines. Therefore, Buddhists regard our living environment as their own bodies. The Buddhists’ life of spiritual practice is by all means very simple, frugal, and pure.

Unfortunately, the immoderate development and the excessive use of chemicals in the world have led to the rapid consumption of natural resources, the speedy deterioration of the natural environment, and the extinction of a variety of species. The collective result speeds the earth towards doomsday. Although no human being hopes for the early arrival of doomsday, few are willing to strive together to take action to salvage the destiny of the earth, despite the fact that most are conscious of the crisis. Day in and day out everyone is still consumes even larger amounts of natural resources, produces more refuse to pollute the earth, the air, and rivers and oceans. The remaining tracts of tropical rain forest become smaller and smaller; the number of species likewise decreases, and desertification of the land expands at a faster rate. If this situation is not placed in check and reversed, then humankind will have become extinct even before the earth is destroyed.

In the modern world, everybody knows that we should protect our living environment, reduce the amount of garbage we produce, classify our refuse, and recycle as much as possible. Nevertheless, we are still consuming substantial amounts of energy resources every day and producing tremendous amounts of refuse and pollution. In the former agricultural and pastoral ages, garbage could become the fertilizer and soil, returning to nature; in contract, the natural resources consumed by the modern industrial and commercial sector are non-renewable. Contemporary civilization produces a huge amount of pollution, and this act as horrible as generating a tremendous quality of cancer cells in the body of Nature.

We do not curse modern industry and commerce; neither do we denounce the rapid development of technological production. Therefore, we are forced to appeal to the religious and spiritual leaders of the world to advise all humankind that it must take responsibility to protect the environment while engaged in industrial, commercial, and technological activities. Human beings should not, just because of their curiosity for technological innovations and the competition of industrial and commercial wealth, keep on destroying the environment on which we rely for our survival. Otherwise, humankind’s history will not endure another thousand years.

The wasteful consumption of natural resources and destruction of ecology are caused by humankind’s psychological craving for convenience and wealth. If we can practice the Buddha’s teaching of “leading a contented life with few desires” and “being satisfied and therefore always happy”, and if we are willing to use our intelligence to deal with problems and engage diligently in productive work, then, without having to contend with one another or fight with nature, we can lead very happy lives. Therefore, the members of our organization use the following four sentences to encourage one another:

Our needs are little;
Our wants are great.
Pursue only what we really need;
What we want is unimportant.

If, for the sake of satisfying our wants, humankind consumes natural resources and devastates the ecological environment, then we repeatedly borrow to repay what we already owe. By borrowing to cover old debts, one’s debts will grow increasingly heavy; by cutting out one’s flesh to appease one’s hunger, one is slowly committing suicide. Unfortunately, humankind loses its head for the sake of temporary convenience and selfish gains. Some say that future technology will be able to solve the problems resulting from contemporary technology. Further, they say if one group of people causes problems, another group of people will manage to deal with them. They imply that the act of destruction should come first before humankind achieves more advanced insight. These are extremely irresponsible concepts. While engaging in various kinds of production and manufacturing, if modern people do not at the same time pay close attention to measures for protecting the environment and cherishing their resources, this amount to burying mines everywhere in the environment to menace future generations of humankind. So, we have to appeal to the religious and spiritual leaders of the whole world not only to pray for the success of environmental work, but also to get involved personally in the all-encompassing movement of environmental protection.

As I said, the environmental protection movement should be all encompassing. In addition to cherishing natural resources, protecting the ecological environment, and lifestyle choices such as reducing the amount of garbage, recycling, living a pure, simple, and, frugal life, and minimizing the pollution we produce, we should further learn to respect lives and others, always reminding ourselves, there are innumerable descendants in future generations.

Therefore, Dharma Drum Mountain, our small Buddhist community of only about one million members, had in the last ten years promoted four major principles, of environmental protection:

  1. The cherishing of natural resources and the protection of the ecological environment;
  2. Maintaining cleanliness in family life and using daily necessities simply and frugally;
  3. Improving interpersonal politeness and social etiquette; and;
  4. Instead of considering everything from the standpoint of one person, one race, one time-period, and one place, we should consider it from the standpoint that all humankind of all time and space should be protected in their existence, possess the right to live, and feel the dignity of life.

In brief, the above-mentioned four kinds of environmentalism can be restated as natural environmentalism, lifestyle environmentalism, social etiquette environmentalism, and spiritual environmentalism. The environmental tasks of general people are mostly restricted to the material aspects, namely, the first and second items. The environmental tasks we carry out have to go deeper from the material level to the spiritual level of society and thinking. Environmental protection must be combined with our respective religious beliefs and philosophical thinking into an earnest mission, so that environmentalism will not become mere slogans. So, strictly speaking, the purification of humankind’s mind is free from evil intentions and is not polluted by us. However, For ordinary people, it is advisable to set out by cultivating the habit of protecting the material environment, and go deeper step by step until at last they can cultivate environmentalism on the spiritual level.

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