By: Westin Harris, guest contributor
Lama (left) and Author (right)
Introduction: Self and/as Sustenance
Hitching a ride from the southern gate of the iconic Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, I set off for a place called Namobuddha. With only a few rupees tucked into my robes and a backpack full of ritual implements, I headed southeast from Kathmandu along the Araniko Highway, zigzagging my way deeper into the Himalayan foothills. Perched atop a mountain and surrounded by panoramic vistas of the Annapurna range, Namobuddha is a renowned pilgrimage destination for Buddhists across Asia. My Guru had instructed me to do a short practice retreat at this sacred place because its provenance is closely related with my meditative practice as a chöpa (Tib. gcod pa: “one who cuts”)—a term for a tantric Buddhist practitioner who practices the ritual of “cutting,” in which one visualizes cutting up and boiling their own body into an elixir that is offered to, and for the benefit of, all sentient beings. The practice of chö, like the story of Namobuddha itself, offer the Buddhist a mode of being in and relating to the world that is packed with ecological significance.
View of Namobuddha, from the main monastery (Photo: Author)
The legend of Namobuddha is connected to a jataka tale (stories of the Buddha’s previous incarnations) that goes something like this:
In a previous life, the Buddha was born as Prince Sattva but renounced his heredity to wander and meditate. At one point in his travels, Prince Sattva and a few disciples came upon a female tiger with her cubs. Emaciated and starving, the mother was not able to provide milk for her offspring, so she considered eating one or two of her own cubs in order to produce milk for the others. Recognizing the tigress’s plight, and wishing to save her from the dreadful karma that would be accrued by eating her own children, Prince Sattva sent his disciples to go in search of food. While they were away, Prince Sattva began to slowly cut off chunks of his own flesh, bit-by-bit, and fed them to the mother tiger. By the time Prince Sattva’s disciples returned, he had offered his entire body to the tigress and nothing remained but a pile of clothes. Rejoicing in the virtuous actions of their master, the disciples erected a stupa at that very location. For his deeds, Prince Sattva became known as Mahasattva, and the location of his stupa become known as Namobuddha (“Homage to the Buddha”).
The Buddha and the story of Mahasattva on the wall of the temple at Namobuddha. (Photo: Abigail Bush)
The story of Mahasattva and the practice of chö not only present Buddhists with a relational mode as stated above; they also lend contemporary readers insight into Buddhist ontologies that differ radically from contemporary Cartesio-Protestant concepts of exploitation, consumption, progress, and dominion. Such ontologies valorize subjugation of the “self” in favor of benefiting the “other,” precisely because, as we will see, the self is regarded as empty and the other is regarded as none other than the self. In the face of widespread ecological suffering, it is worth asking the question: What else does Buddhism have to say about our relationship with the environment?
This question has no single answer or set of answers, especially because Buddhism itself is not a monolithic entity. However, in the scope of this short essay I hope that readers will find a helpful, preliminary overview of general Buddhist philosophy, as it specifically relates to ecological ethics. Following the chronology of Buddhist development, we will begin by examining early Buddhist philosophy, including the doctrines of dependent origination, emptiness, and non-violence. We will then explore the later advent of Mahayana, its concepts of the bodhisattva and bodhicitta, and their ecological implications.
Early Buddhism and Ecological Ethics
At the very heart of Buddhist philosophy is the concept of compassion. When the Buddha gave his first sermon on the famous “Four Noble Truths”—in which he acknowledged the reality of suffering, described its cause, prescribed its cessation, and outlined the path to accomplish its cessation—he was motivated by the compassionate aim of alleviating sentient beings from their suffering. We will return to this notion of compassion more explicitly at the end of this section; but in the meantime, it is imperative that the reader keeps this notion of compassion in mind as we discuss two of the more abstract philosophical concepts of Early Buddhism.
In his “Four Noble Truths,” the Buddha first establishes that an unexamined life is plagued by inevitable bouts of suffering. He determines that the cause of this suffering is attachment, predicated on desire and aversion: we are attached to attaining that which we desire and we are attached to avoiding that which causes pain. In a very linear fashion, the Buddha concludes that if one removes the causes and conditions for suffering, then suffering itself will cease. In this way, suffering is dependent on causes and conditions and originates from them. This is the concept of dependent origination (Sanskrit: pratityasamutpada).
But the doctrine of dependent origination does not only apply to suffering. The Buddha taught that all phenomena—life, death, and everything between, including the animate and inanimate entities that populate the interim—arise from dependent origination. All things and occurrences depend upon previous occurrences, and arise from them. In this cosmology, all phenomena are wholly interconnected within a matrix of causes, conditions, and influences. And because this matrix is subject to the incessant passage of time, its only predictable quality is that “things” will inevitably be influenced by other “things” in such a way that they will cease to be what they were previously, becoming something else entirely. Therefore, everything—that is every object, every phenomena, every mental state, etc.—is interdependent and impermanent.
A later sutra (“The Rice Sprout Sutra”) illustrates this concept by describing a rice seed. The seed itself is not the rice plant, nor is it the fruit of the rice husk, nor is it the person eating the rice. However, within the conditions of soil, water, and time, the seed, its sprout, its fruit, and farmer who consumes the lattermost are all interconnected, dependent, and impermanent. This presents an ontological framework in which the human being is not separate from nature, but is completely and unavoidably integrated within it.
Because everything comes from something else, and through the passing of time turns into something else, the Buddha described all things as being “empty” of an independent self or essence. This is the Buddhist concept of emptiness (Sanskrit: sunyata). That is, when viewing an object—for instance a human—in the temporal cross-section of a single moment, she may appear to be just so: a human. However, when viewed from the continuum of time, that human began as food that was consumed by her parents; her birth was dependent upon the sexual union of those parents; her body grew from minerals and substances that began as something else; and upon death, her body will decay, fertilizing the vegetables that later parents consume to subsequently give birth to a new generation—and so the chain of dependence continues.
Dependent origination and emptiness are among the most fundamental concepts developed in early Buddhism, and are indeed two of the most complex and profound—and as such, deserve much more elaboration then I can commit here. But within the scope of our ecological discussion, they become particularly meaningful when viewed in relationship to the third major doctrine of early Buddhism: that is, non-violence (Sanskrit: ahimsa).
Non-violence is generally considered a moral injunction based on philosophical tenets, rather than a philosophical concept in its own right (however, this is still a point of debate within Buddhism). At this point, the importance of compassion, as discussed above, becomes more explicit. By seeing all phenomena, and therefore, all life, as being interconnected, dependent, and “empty” of its own essence, no one being can be said to be essentially superior or dominant over the other. This, coupled with the recognition that the self, itself, is empty of a single essence (another foundational Buddhist concept called no-self [Sanskrit: anatman]), leads the Buddha to conclude that the only ethical basis for interaction with other beings is one of compassion—that is, seeing the other as being as important as oneself, because they are so interconnected as to be one and the same.
In some of the earliest sutras of the Sutra Pitaka, the Buddha teaches that if he wants to live and does not want to die, and if he wants happiness and does not to suffer, then it is clearly unethical for him to take the life of another being who wants the same things. He concludes that abstaining from taking the life of other sentient beings is the ethical decision. In other works from the same Pitaka, the Buddha goes further, stating that not only is it unethical to kill, but it is equally as unethical to cause someone else to kill on your behalf, as is causing someone else to incite a third person to kill.
These types of moral injunctions are rooted deeply in the doctrines of emptiness and dependent origination. In a similar way, these notions offer the 21st century reader a cosmological model of interconnectedness and mutual-importance that challenges the anthropocentric chauvinism of Post-European Enlightenment concepts like development and progress. The trinity of emptiness, dependent origination, and non-violence present a complete foundation upon which one might live an ecologically conscious life. However, in the idea of the bodhisattva, developed later with the advent of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, we find an even more explicit description of the ideal person—with powerful ecological implications.
Mahayana Buddhism and the Ideal Person
Based largely on the various Perfection of Wisdom scriptures (Sanskrit: prajnaparamita sutra), we find the concept of the bodhisattva enter Buddhist discourse around the first century before the Common Era. These sutras propound the cultivation of the so-called Perfections (Sanskrit: paramita), which are frequently enumerated as being six in total (although sometimes ten). The six are: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom. The highest embodiment of these six virtues is the bodhisattva, who vows to forgo her own liberation from the chain of cyclic phenomena in order to help all other sentient beings attain the same liberation—subjecting herself again and again to the sufferings of conditioned existence for the betterment of all others. The path of the bodhisattva became known as the Great Vehicle (Sanskrit: mahayana) because it is based on the altruistic aim of helping the great masses of beings achieve ultimate liberation.
Central to the notion of the bodhisattva is the doctrine of rebirth. While there is discussion of rebirth in early Buddhism, the concept is fully developed within the Mahayana schools. As beings take countless rebirths, they experience the sufferings of birth, sickness, old age, and death over and over again. In the face of such immense and eternal suffering, the bodhisattva is driven to dedicate herself to benefiting others due to her compassionate mind (Sanskrit: bodhicitta, lit. “mind of enlightenment,” showing the implicit connection between compassion and enlightenment in Mahayana philosophy).
The scriptures are careful to use terms such as “sentient beings” instead of “humans” because within the cycles of rebirth, a human in this life may have been a whale in the previous, and might be born as a flea in the next. Many Mahayana texts even use the term “mother beings,” implying that over countless eons of rebirth, all beings have been one’s mother or will be one’s mother during at least one lifetime. Therefore, to the bodhisattva, taking the life of any living being is tantamount to matricide.
From the Mahayana point of view, not only is all life interconnected and interdependent, it is ultimately one family. In this worldview, achievement is not measured by how high one can vault oneself, but rather upon how many “family members” one can uplift into bliss before allowing oneself to indulge in the same. In this way, the bodhisattva is much more than a vegetarian or vegan (although that is certainly a prerequisite). The bodhisattva is an ideal, eco-conscious person: the daughter of every single living being, motivated by limitless compassion which is cultivated through virtuous effort, and sworn to value her cosmic family more than herself.
In the spirit of cyclicism, let us conclude where we began by returning to the jataka tale of Mahasattva. Regardless of the historicity of such stories, their pedagogical value as demonstrative morality tales is undeniable. The story of Mahasattva is populated by three major categories of characters: Mahasattva himself, his human disciples, and suffering animals who inhabit the natural world. The disciples might represent humanity as a whole; Mahasattva could be seen as the ideal human—the bodhisattva; and the tigress and her cubs could symbolize the rest of sentient life, or nature.
That the ideal human sacrifices himself for the betterment of non-human life is an ecological statement that is hard to miss. Furthermore, the fact that non-human life is central to such stories further promotes an eco-conscious agenda. In fact, among the more than five-hundred known jataka tales, a great many of them place animals at the center of the narrative, including: the Four Friends, the Brahmin and the Mongoose, the Moon Rabbit, the Ox and the Pig, the Brahmin and the Tiger (in which multiple non-human beings testify to their harsh treatment by humans), and many others. Accompanying this frequent employment of animal characters is the recurring trope of self-sacrifice.
As these jatakas illustrate, the bodhisattva occupies an environment in which self, other, and mother are the same, in which compassion is the aim and altruism is the means, in which the alleviation of suffering is not a personal affair but an inter-personal responsibility. To many, especially in the West, this is a world seemingly irreconcilable with the one in which we find ourselves. Yet, the various Buddhist paths offer roadmaps that chauffeur the wanderer to this sacred space—not by orienting them in a particular geographical direction, but by orienting their mind towards unity and their actions towards love.
Before closing, it is worth mentioning that the term bodhisattva is not only reserved for those who have achieved its highest ideal. Rather, anyone who charters the Great Vehicle is regarded as a bodhisattva. This is a subtle but encouraging point, for it idealizes perfection while patiently valuing intention and progression. The path of the bodhisattva is described as having ten stages, and regardless of which stage one has achieved, all are equally deserving of the name. Such being the case, accessing the equipoised world of the bodhisattva is as accessible as simply aspiring for it.
(Written by the fraudulent yogi Jigme Senge Drayang at the request of his smarter and better-looking colleague, the Christ-Bearing Mill Keeper. By this merit, may all mother beings, without prejudice, be liberated from the sufferings of conditioned existence and may the supreme bodhicitta increase like the surging tide.)
Westin Harris is a PhD student in the Graduate Group for the Study of Religion at the University of California. He is a translator of Classical Tibetan liturgical texts from the tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, and his doctoral research focuses on the representation of “holy madness” in the hagiographical corpus of Tibetan tantric saints. Westin is also a tantric yogi in the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Vajrayana, and often signs his work with his Guru-given name: Jigme Senge Drayang (“Fearless Lion’s Melodious Roar”).
*If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between Yoga and Ecology, we will be hosting a workshop in Zurich, Switzerland on August 6, 2016, from 2 to 6PM: