The rain falls everywhere,
coming down on all four sides.
Its flow and saturation are measureless,
reaching to every area of the earth,
to the ravines and valleys of the mountains and streams,
to the remote and secluded places where grow
plants, bushes, medicinal herbs,
trees large and small,
a hundred grains, rice seedlings,
sugar cane, grape vines.
The rain moistens them all,
none fails to receive its full share.
From dark streaming clouds across storm-blown ridges, down into hidden valleys, the dharma rain of Buddhist teachings brings fresh life and promise to all beings. Abundant and available to all, the dharma rain offers liberation from suffering and freedom in awakening. Falling on dry deserts, gathering in small springs, or trickling forth from rock faces, the nourishing rain changes the face of all it touches. In a time when the very health of the planet seems threatened beyond hope, such cool and refreshing waters are an elixir of possibility.
The scope of the current environmental crisis goes beyond any single person’s capacity to imagine it. Local losses are common: a beloved tree, a favorite swimming hole, neighborhood woodlands. The heart winces as the concrete encroaches. Bigger losses deepen the grief: checkerboard patterns cut out of mountaintop forests, dead fish floating in dead lakes. More companions lost, more suffering. Threading through this are fears that even the global systems of air and ocean circulation are gyrating precariously out of balance. No religious tradition is prepared for this scale of crisis. Nor does any provide the only or necessarily the best path to solve it. Yet some are boldly trying to reinterpret and apply their teachings to respond to the great need. Buddhists are very much a part of this greening effort.
Buddhists today draw from a wide range of source springs, their many traditions from diverse physical and cultural geographies. From the tropics of South and Southeast Asia that shaped the Theravada traditions, to the temperate zones of China and Japan and the Mahayana schools, to the snowy mountain passes of Tibet and the fierce Vajrayana lineages, Buddhist teachings have been received, modified and elaborated in many ecological contexts. Each school of thought has emphasized different teachings and texts reflecting local time and place. Over the course of this history there has been a wide range of understandings about nature and human-nature relations.
The current wave of interest in Buddhism and nature is part of an international movement engaging the spiritual and moral dimensions of the ecocrisis. Ecospiritual activists, academics and public policy analysts with Buddhist perspectives are adding their voices to the chorus of the concerned. Since the 1950s, Gary Snyder, Joanna Macy, Sulak Sivaraksa, John Seed and others have been making links between Buddhist practice and ecological activism. Parallel sparks of interest in the academic community have led to such recent events as a series of ten Harvard conferences on the emerging field of Religion and Ecology, the first of these focusing on Buddhism.
What exactly does Buddhism have to offer to the environmental movement? How might it be useful in a pragmatic as well as spiritual way? Philosophically, the Buddhist teachings on interdependence fit very well with ecological understandings of natural systems. Throughout all cultural forms of Buddhism, nature is perceived as relational, each phenomenon dependent on a multitude of causes and conditions. Because this web of interdependence includes not only the actions of all beings but also their thoughts, the intention of the actor becomes a critical factor in determining what happens. This, then, provides both an explanation for the way things are and a path for hopeful positive action.
Likewise, the principle of nonharming (ahimsa) generates a compassionate attitude toward all living beings. The Theravada lovingkindness prayer includes kindness to plants and animals as well as people. The Mahayana bodhisattva vow calls for lifelong commitment to relieving the suffering of all beings. Tibetan traditions emphasizing reincarnation point out that an animal may be the reincarnation of your mother or other relative. Admonitions to treat plants, animals, water and earth with respect have been part of the Buddha’s teachings from earliest times.
The Buddhist path of liberation is a path of practice. Raising the bodhi mind of aspiration is a first step, but accomplishing the Buddha Way takes moment-by-moment practice, day after day. As such, it is appropriate for considering lifestyle changes that reflect environmental issues: recycling, reducing petroleum dependence, eating low on the food chain, simplifying consumer needs. Deepening spiritual practice can also make it possible to support more challenging political actions that call for structural and institutional change. From the earliest stories of the Buddha’s previous lives to the refined koans of the Zen tradition, many passages of the dharma offer ethical guidance for living in right relation with nature.
Certainly, Buddhism is not the only or necessarily the best path to solve the environmental crisis. Even within the worldwide Buddhist community, historical differences and conflicting philosophies lead to different views of nature. It is not clear whether Buddhism can deal with structural, systemic violence to the Earth. Reversing pollution, restoring waterways, protecting endangered cultures and species, confronting consumerism—the challenges are multidimensional, multicultural, multiregional and multireligious. Politics, community organizing and spiritual and moral leadership on many fronts will all be required to turn the current trend toward planet-wide ecological destruction. Yet as Buddhist ideas gain favor in popular Western culture, they can influence decision-makers and environmentalists of diverse moral persuasions. It has been said that every generation has its great work; for many of today’s generations, this work is caring for the environment. As the fires of greed and ignorance rage across the landscape, it is crucial that religious traditions participate vigorously in collaborative efforts to quell the flames of devastation.