i was recently asked to contribute a small something to a document on religion and the environment for the Green Pages. the brief was quite specific: it had to be based on the four Nikayas/Vinaya (somebody had done their homework), and, along with contributions from other religions, it had to address the following questions:
(i) is it fair to say that, read in a modern context, the key texts of all of the world’s major religions have something to contribute to the environmental debate?
(ii) what are the core values inherent in each religion that demand we act to protect the planet, i.e. identify key passages/extracts that state/imply that we have a duty of care for the earth, plus any specific examples of how this should be done.
(iii) Is there a variation/commonality between faiths on this issue?
All this in 200 words! Well, I failed, ‘cos it’s about 350, but there you go. (BTW, this has nothing to do with the Climate Change Action kit that I blogged about a while ago – that’s still ongoing, I need to get back to it soon.)
The first precept of Buddhist ethics is to not kill any living creature. The detailed explanation of this rule goes beyond merely not harming, asking us to be full of compassion for all living beings. (e.g. Brahmajala Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 1.1.8). The Buddhist ethical code for monastics goes further, as it includes precepts restricting damaging plants (pācittiya 11, Pali Vinaya 4.34-5) and the soil (pācittiya 10, Pali Vinaya 4.32-3). These precepts all illustrate how Buddhist ethics are not just concerned with how we treat other humans. Humanity is never considered as isolated from the rest of existence. Our lives are embodied in our envionmental context.
The Aggañña Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 27) and the Cakkavatti Sīhanāda Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 26) illustrate this through a cosmological myth of origin and evolution. These long and influential discourses tell how human society evolves together with the natural environment. The narrative is infused with mythic and satirical elements, but with a very serious purpose. At each stage, it is human greed that causes the environment to decline, forcing our own evolution in response. Social contract, the emergence of an organized democracy, and the defining of land ownership all emerge from our abuse of scarce resources. These social structures are necessary to manage the increasingly difficult environmental situation. As social structures become increasingly unable to cope with the stress, punishment, violence, and war emerge. The Sutta envisages an apocalyptic future where these forces lead to the total breakdown of the social fabric. Eventually, the chaos is redeemed, but only when human beings realize their essential ethical duty, starting with the first precept: not to kill any living being. From there, society is rebuilt and the world progresses towards a glorious future.
Like any cosmology, the historical details of this story should not be taken too literally. But these discourses present a remarkable understanding of humanity’s role in creating environmental problems, and our corresponding duty to help redress these problems. In the end, our chief distinguishing feature as human beings is our capacity to make responsible and informed ethical choices.