Five Environmental Lessons We Can Learn from Buddhist Monks
My friend Julia recently visited Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and India and was deeply touched by the Tibetan Monks there. Living on less than a dollar a day, the monks she met were models of spiritual humility, happiness and simplicity. She came back from Nepal and the monastery full of life, and more dedicated than ever to service, simplicity, and meditation.
In our discussions afterward, we reflected on the following 5 eco-themed lessons we could learn from the Buddhist monks.
We Can Flourish With Fewer Possessions
The classical (Theravada) rules in the Buddhist Scriptures known as the Pali Canon say that a monk is allowed to have only these eight possessions: 1. an inner robe, 2. an outer robe, 3. an additional robe to protect from the elements when necessary, 4. a bowl, 5. a water-strainer, 6. a razor to shave his head, 7. a needle and thread and 8. any necessary approved medicine.
And yet, with just these simple possessions they have lived and thrived as a community of learning, personal growth and service for over 2,500 years. What possessions could we thrive without?
You Have to Act While You Are Still Uncertain
Suppose a man were wounded by an arrow, and when the surgeon arrived, he said to him, ”Don’t pull out this arrow until I know who shot it, what tree it comes from, who made it, and what kind of bow was used.“ Certainly the man would die before he discovered the answers. In the same way, if you say you will not be a monk unless I solve all the questions of the world, you are likely to die unsatisfied. ~ Majjhima Nikaya
The famous parable above was told to encourage people to treat spiritual practice like medicine, and seek to relieve their own suffering before getting answers to philosophical problems (that would likely never come anyway). But it is just as relevant for modern environmental thinking.
With the wisdom above we can see that we don’t need to wait for complete certainty (which we will never have!) to take environmental action. Our ecosystems are suffering, and we can move towards closed resource loops, renewable energy, stable populations, and clean manufacturing before we have all the answers.
You Can Be Happy With Very Little
When scientists at the University of Wisconsin hooked the monk and author Matthieu Ricard up in their lab, they discovered that he was by far the happiest person they had ever tested by their objective standards.
Many of us suspect that material acquisition is not necessary for true happiness, but now we have hard data backing us up!
We Are All Interconnected
In the Buddhist vision of the cosmos, the universe is seen as a vast web in which all objects are intimately interconnected, and the objects are in themselves nothing without these interconnections.
When we see the world in this way, and when we see other beings as extensions of ourselves, an ecological vision flows effortlessly.
Work In Nature Can Be Worship
There is a deep ecological wisdom in the Zen injunction to treat as worship ordinary work like chopping wood and carrying water. When we bring mindfulness and a meditative mind to such work, it imbues it with dignity and wonder. Any worldview that does that is a deep lesson for environmentalists, inviting us to get our hands dirty and do the real work of caring directly for the earth.
What Buddhist lessons inspire you in your quest for more sustainable living? If you’re interested in supporting these monks, consider purchasing prints of these photos of their daily lives. Proceeds go to the monks; purchasers receive a blessed energy prayer from the monks.
Brian Toomey is the owner of JB Web Analytics, and an occasional contributor to sustainablog.