The Starving Tigress, Buryatia, 1800-1899. Buddhist lineage, ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Buryat Historical Museum.
The Starving Tigress, Buryatia, 1800-1899. Buddhist lineage, ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Buryat Historical Museum.

As a complex religious tradition, or group of traditions, Buddhism has a lot to say about the natural world. Passages in many Buddhist texts reveal sensitivity to the beauties of nature and respect for its various beings. A good example is the Jataka tales (“birth stories”) that describe the previous lives of the Buddha before he became the Buddha. In many of them he is born as an animal, and in some of the best-known tales the Buddha sacrifices himself for “lower animals,” such as offering his rabbit body to a weak tigress so that she can feed her starving cubs. Such fables challenge the duality usually assumed between humans and “nature”— as if we were not part of nature! They suggest that the welfare of every living being, no matter how insignificant it may seem to us, is spiritually important and deserving of our concern. All beings in the Jatakas are able to feel compassion for others and act selflessly to help ease their suffering. In contrast to a Darwinian “survival of the fittest,” which is often used to justify our abuse of other species, its stories offer a vision of life in which we are all interconnected, parts of the same web of life, and therefore also inter-responsible, responsible for each other.

This compassion is not limited to the animal realm. If we can believe the traditional biographies, the Buddha was born under trees, meditated under trees, experienced his great awakening under trees, often taught under trees, and passed away under trees. Unsurprisingly, he often expressed his gratitude to trees and other plants. Some later Buddhist texts explicitly deny that plants have sentience, but the Pali Canon is more ambiguous. In one sutra, a tree spirit appears to the Buddha in a dream, complaining that its tree had been chopped down by a monk. The next morning the Buddha prohibited sangha members from cutting down trees. Monks and nuns are still forbidden to cut off tree limbs, pick flowers, even pluck green leaves off plants.

Yet great sensitivity to nature is hardly unique to Buddhism. So what special perspective, if any, does Buddhism offer to our understanding of the biosphere, and our relationship to it, at this critical time in history when we are doing our utmost to destroy it?

To answer that question, we have to go back to a more basic question: what is really distinctive about Buddhism? The four noble (or “ennobling”) truths are all about dukkha, and the Buddha emphasized that his only concern was ending dukkha. To end our dukkha, however, we need to understand and experience anatta, our lack of self, which seen from the other side is also our interdependence with all other things.

There are different ways to explain anatta, yet fundamentally it denies our separation from other people and from the rest of the natural world. The psychosocial construction of a separate self in here is at the same time the construction of an “other” out there, that which is different from me. What is special about the Buddhist perspective is its emphasis on the dukkha built into this situation. Basically, the self is dukkha.

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