Back in the early years of Thailand's constitutional monarchy, Ajarn Buddhadasa explored the relationship between Democracy and Buddhism. In the 1970s when Communism was a hot issue, he introduced his ideas of Dhammic Socialism. He also tackled Freud, psychoanalysis, and modern psychology, and for decades was Thailand's leading advocate of inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. He has criticized the development ideology since it first hit Thailand after World War II, has discussed the need to conserve the forests, and has inspired many monks and lay Buddhists to do so long before it was a movement in the West.
Through all of these discussions, common elements can be discerned: 1) He tackled the main social and intellectual issues of his day. 2) He argued convincingly that Buddhism has something important to say on these issues and had no reason to feel backwards regarding Western-style progress. 3) He felt that much of the discourse on these issues was tainted by a materialist bias and so tried to correct this error by pointing to a more fundamental reality — Dhamma. 4) By being one of the few Thai monks able and willing to discuss these things, as well as usually the most prominent and incisive, he lent his prestige in support of these causes.
In the following article, Ajarn Buddhadasa applies his Dhammic approach to ecological conservation. It should be noted that the original talks were given within the forest monastery that had been his home for 50 years. While the forests outside were being cleared to plant rubber, he preserved this oasis of forest.1
INEB members and friends who are interested in ecology:
We are most delighted to have this chance to meet you here, for the sake of discussing and working for ecology.2 It is especially appropriate to meet in the pre-dawn morning. There are certain reasons for this that I would like you to understand. The pre-dawn is an especially suitable time for thinking, discussing, and investigating things clearly because the mind is very clear and open at this time. By late morning, however, the teacup begins to fill up. Then, we go and mix some alcohol in with the tea and it really starts to boil. It overflows, making everything chaotic and confused. When our teacups overflow, we argue so loudly that it can be heard from a kilometer away. Now, our teacups have not yet filled to overflowing, the mind is still subtle and clear. When our teacups are not yet brimming, we are able to discuss, examine, and investigate things in a subtle and deep way because our minds are still calm and quiet. A passage in the Suttas states that "the mind which is gentle, flexible, and ready to work is easily led into vippassana." In the pre-dawn morning, the mind naturally has these qualities of gentleness, flexibility, and readiness. So this is a good time to discuss matters which are fundamental and systematic.
In terms of being open to new things, our minds are like fresh sheets of paper on which nothing has been written. The Lord Buddha was fully awakened at about this time of the day, just before dawn, and it would be a fair guess to assume that the great prophets of all the religions also awakened at this time of day, because this is the time when the mind is most easily in a state of calm and quiet. This is an appropriate time not only for receiving but also for giving to others, for sharing. This is the time of day when most flowers will bloom in order to display their beauty. In the same way, our minds can both open and blossom in the early morning. This is a time when the mind is most able to express itself in a proper way, with calmness, clarity, and precision.
So we should give due importance to this time; we should be willing to sacrifice our sleep in order to meet like this. It is unfortunate that nowhere in the world do conferences or meetings start at this time of day. A great opportunity is lost because this is the time of day when the tea has not begun to fill up the cup yet, and there are no alcoholic odors and vapors floating around.
Dhammadhatu: The Natural Essence Of Dhamma
Now we come to the topic on which I have been invited to speak: "Buddhists and Nature Conservation." Only genuine Buddhists can conserve nature on the deepest level, the mental level. When the mental nature has been conserved, the external physical nature can conserve itself. I will elaborate this is the essential point in this paper.
When we talk about this inner mental nature, we ought to use a different word, the word "dhammadhatu," the natural essence of Dhamma. When we talk about this inner nature, we mean a fundamental essence or element of Dhamma. When this can be preserved within, the external nature can certainly preserve itself. When this inner nature or dhammadhatu is conserved, there is nothing that will cause selfishness or egoism. It knows that nothing is worth clinging to as being "self," is free of notions like "me" and "mine," and is therefore unselfish. When there is no selfishness, there is nothing that will go out and destroy the external nature. When nothing is trying to destroy this physical nature, it is quite able to protect itself. To emphasize preserving merely the physical nature isn’t quite up to the honor of being a Buddhist; it’s rather much child’s play. Instead, may all Buddhists be able to conserve this inner nature or dhammadhatu. That is truly appropriate and honorable for followers of the Lord Buddha. And the many problems will end, so that things go smoothly.
The Buddhist strives to penetrate deeply into this inner nature, this mental or spiritual nature that is within each of us, the nature which is the law of nature, the source of everything. Specifically, the Buddhist tries to realize the dhammadhatu that is inherent within all of us, within all of nature. Another name for this is "the law of idappaccayata," the fact that everything depends upon and is inter-connected with other things. If we realize this nature, selfishness is impossible. If the law of idappaccayata is clear in the mind there is no way that it can produce selfishness, there is no chance of feeling "self" and "selfish." When we have preserved this inner nature, we can easily preserve the outer nature.
We need to understand these two kinds of nature: the nature within, which is the mind; and the external nature, the various phenomena arising in the world around us. The law of idappaccayata is inherent within both. Further, observe which aspect of nature has power over and can control the other. If we understand this properly, then we can manage things so that all of nature is taken care of properly.
The Buddha referred to this inner nature as "dhammadhatu," the dhatu (element or essence) of Dhamma (nature). Sometimes he simply called it "dhatu." This dhatu is the source and basis for Dhamma, for all of nature. He proclaimed that "Whether a Tathagata has appeared yet or not, the dhammadhatu exists absolutely and naturally."
The Lord Buddha further specified that this dhammadhatu is idappaccayata. Idappaccayata is the fundamental fact that all things happen because of and through causes and conditions. This universal conditionality is called "idappaccayata."
In other words, nothing occurs, exists, changes, or dies by itself. Nothing happens except through various causes and conditions. All change takes place through causes and conditions. Even death and destruction require causes and conditions, either the presence of ones that kill and destroy, or the absence of those that support. Further, the causes and conditions of one thing are caused and conditioned by others. These interactions of conditionality extend through the universe – mental and physical – connecting everything in a vast web of inter-dependence, inter-relationship, inter-connectedness, inter-wovenness. So supreme is this natural fact that we can call it "the law of nature" or "God." Nothing is more powerful or awesome than this most fundamental and ever-present Truth.
Four Aspects Of Nature
Let us consider more carefully what we mean by the word "nature." Although this English term does not quite fit our Buddhist term (dhammajati), it will serve once we have explained sufficiently. Nature (dhammajati) is all things that are born naturally, ordinarily, out of the natural order of things, that is, from Dhamma. Everything arising out of Dhamma, everything born from Dhamma, is what we mean by "nature." This is what is absolute and has the highest power in itself. Nature has at least four fundamental aspects. If we don’t understand them, it is useless to speak of "preserving nature." So please examine these four fundamental aspects of nature:
the law of nature;
the duty that human beings must carry out towards nature;
and the result that comes with performing this duty according to the law of nature.
Ajarn Buddhadasa was always careful about terminology and felt that sloppy use of words was an important obstacle to the understanding of Dhamma. He put great effort into explaining key Pali terms, none of them more important than "Dhamma." Here he gives his standard explanation of Dhamma's most important dimensions. Although not quite identical with the four noble truths, it is worth comparing.
To start with, let's consider ourselves. Each human being includes the body of nature, as expressed and found in our own bodies. In us there is the basic dhammic law of nature that regulates everything. Everything in these bodies consequently carries on according to the law of nature. When we have our natural duty, we practice that duty in order to maintain the correctness of nature. Depending on how we perform that duty, we experience its results or fruits: happiness, dukkha, satisfaction, dissatisfaction. Within ourselves, within just these physical bodies, we have all four meanings of nature.
In one human being, we can find all four aspects of nature. Throughout the entire world, we can find all four meanings of nature. And in the universe, including all the worlds together, we can see the body of nature, the law of nature, the duty of nature, and the result of nature. Please give great attention to these four dimensions of nature. If we don’t understand nature thoroughly, if we don’t understand all four of its aspects, we will be wasting our time talking about preserving nature. It's impossible; we won’t know what we are talking about
If we understand all aspects of nature and conserve the law of nature within ourselves, it will then be impossible for selfishness and egoism to arise. When there is no ego or selfishness, there is nothing that will destroy nature, nothing that will exploit and abuse nature. Then the external, physical aspect of nature will be able to conserve itself automatically. Therefore, please be very interested in this inner nature. When there is no selfishness, we can preserve the purity and beauty of nature. Without selfishness, this world will be naturally pure and beautiful.
Selfishness Has Been Making a Mess for Many Years
Selfishness has already appeared in the world and it has been wreaking havoc for a long time. Humanity has been exploiting and destroying nature for ages. Even in the ancient Pali texts we can find passages like the one that tells of a man who came across a tree full of ripe fruit but wasn’t able to climb the tree and pick the fruit. So he got an ax to chop down the entire tree. He then carried away as much fruit as he could, but left most of it behind to rot. This kind of selfishness is nothing new. It even happens here.
Over fifty years ago, while I was looking for a place to relocate Suan Mokkh, I came across a sadaw tree not too far behind where we are now.3 This sadaw tree had been cut down. When I inquired, I learned that somebody had killed it just to take away one load of its large, long pods. This is how bad things had become, and it’s far worse nowadays.
In recent decades such selfishness aided by modern technology has destroyed whole forests merely to extract certain marketable kinds of wood, while leaving much of the vegetation to rot or be burned. The folly of this has become only too apparent in the fires devastating huge swathes of Indonesia and polluting the air of much of Southeast Asia even as we meet here. Not only forests are destroyed. The communities and cultures of both indigenous peoples and politically marginalized peasants who once lived in harmony with the forests have also been destroyed. Not least of all, the soul of society has been destroyed making of us superhumanly powerful inhumans.
Please understand that if we protect the inner nature, the outer nature will be taken care of by itself. If there is mental and spiritual correctness, physical things will naturally be correct by themselves. The outer correctness in return has a beneficial effect on the mind. However, if the external nature is incorrect, this will have a negative effect, a very negative influence, on the inner nature. If both are in error, if both are going wrong, it will lead to extremely dangerous consequences. There will be death and destruction all around, a death worse than death.
This is the reason that Buddhists work to conserve the inner nature, this dhammadhatu. When the source is preserved, it automatically takes care of the rest. The Buddhist does not blindly try to change results. The Buddhist knows that we must deal with the causes and sources of things.
This point contains Ajarn Buddhadasa's critique of much activism. When we focus on results (what has already happened) and changing them, we often fail to look more deeply into their causes, especially moral and spiritual causes. Even worse, unmindful activism can become an escape from facing the deeper moral, cultural, and spiritual issues. The opposite failing takes place in narrow academism, when academics divorce their knowledge from moral and spiritual responsibility by hiding in illusions of objectivity, non-partiality, and so on.
The Meaning & Motivation of Conservation
Before going further, we should consider the word anurak (conserve, preserve, protect). There are two kinds of preservation or conservation. One is like sleep-walking, is without mindfulness and intelligence, and consists mainly of getting all excited, or angry, and jumping on band-wagons. This kind of conservation isn’t correct and does not bring lasting and profound benefits.
It is important that our conservation efforts be beneficial, correct, and genuine. This raises the question of what kind of power or authority is to be used for the sake of conservation. The power which directly forces people to do our will is one kind of authority. Yet there is also the power of creating a proper understanding of reality such that we see our duty clearly and carry it out willingly. There are these two kinds of power.
Which sort of power will we use? This question is important for practicing Buddhists, especially engaged buddhists, who seldom have much, if any, worldly power. We cannot depend on coercive state and market forces to bring about conservation. Rather, we must cultivate a moral and spiritual authority from within our own integrity and unselfish example, as Ajarn Buddhadasa further explains.
In one of King Asoka's pillar edicts, we can read a decree that commanded everyone to plant various kinds of trees, specifying which trees were to be planted in which villages and the amount to be planted. Some were to be planted for their fruit and others for their beauty. Mangoes were also mentioned. When I went to India thirty years ago, I was surprised to see mango trees everywhere and I wondered why there were more of them than any other kind of tree. I suppose they were the result of King Asoka's edict that commanded everyone to plant mango trees.
In the Pali scriptures, we also find references to various kinds of forested parks. It seems that nature parks were everywhere in ancient India. Most of the aristocracy and many of the wealthy merchants had their private or family parks and preserves. This is eminently reasonable, for it induced correct thinking. Rather than using coercive power, correct thinking leads people to conserve nature. The result was many parks. The early Sangha made use of these parks. The royals and rich merchants bought them from each other in order to offer them to the Sangha. In fact, the Buddha passed into parinibbana in a park owned by some of the local aristocracy.
What was the motivation behind these parks? If one reflects on this carefully enough, the answer becomes apparent. The correct understanding that comes from preserving the inner nature, from maintaining the right kind of feeling in the heart, prevented selfishness. All these parks were born out of unselfishness. Nobody destroyed them because they conserved the inner nature. These parks sprouted everywhere in ancient India because there was not enough selfishness to prevent or destroy them. Conservation of the dhammadhatu was the motivation for these parks.
When Buddhists remember that the Buddha was born under and among trees, awakened while sitting under a tree, taught in the outdoors sitting among trees and, in the end, passed away into parinibbana beneath some trees, it is impossible not to love trees and not to want to conserve them. This too comes from maintaining a correct inner nature, and so it is natural to preserve the outer nature. In this way it isn’t very difficult to conserve the external physical nature.
In other words, Dhamma is the ecology of the mind. This is how nature has arranged things, and it has always been like this, in a most natural way. The mind with Dhamma has a natural spiritual ecology because it is fresh, beautiful, quiet, and joyful.4 This is most natural. That the mind is fresh means it isn’t dried up or parched. Its beauty is Dhammic, not sensual or from painting colors. It is calm and peaceful because nothing disturbs it. It contains a deep spiritual solitude, so that nothing can disturb or trouble it. Its joy is cool. The only joy that lives up to its name must be cool, not the hot happiness that is so popular in the world, but a cool joyfulness. If none of the defilements like greed, anger, fear, worry, and delusion arise, there is this perfect natural ecology of the Dhammic mind. But as soon as the defilements occur, the mind’s natural ecology is destroyed instantly. These defilements are like evil spirits or demons that destroy the mind’s natural state.
Our physical bodies have a similar condition when nothing disturbs them; they have a natural material ecology. When no "evil spirits" or "demons" disturb the natural state of peace, the result is most satisfying. But now something is bothering it. Who? Human beings, of course! Unaware that we are disturbing nature. As the defilements possess us, we destroy the nature which was doing fine without us. Once I heard the words, "God creates and human beings destroy." This is how it has always been. God said it was good but humanity has continually destroyed that creation. In other words, nature managed fine until we came along to destroy everything with our selfishness. As soon as the defilements appear, they destroy. That is their nature.
In this context, we can specify the defilement called "craving," the craving that destroys the inner ecology of the mind and then expresses itself outward in destroying the physical ecology. This thing called "craving" must be understood well. Craving always means the foolish desire that arises out of ignorance (avijja), out of not understanding things as they actually are. Unfortunately, whenever Buddhists speak of sa§sara, most of them teach that every kind of desire is craving. This is incorrect. Only that which desires stupidly is properly called "craving." If it wants intelligently, it is called "sankappa," (aspiration or aim), which we can call "wise want." There is an important distinction here that should never be confused. Craving is always ignorant, no matter how we translate it into English. If, however, the desire is wise, it should be called "aspiration" or "wise aim."
Craving destroys both the inner-mental and outer-physical ecologies. Here it may be useful to distinguish three kinds of ecology: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. Craving destroys all three. Even the first level, the material ecology is now being decimated by humanity's craving, by this foolish, blind desire. To the degree that there is craving, to that degree the ecology is destroyed. When craving reaches the level of "industry," it destroys the ecology industriously, as we see in the world today. The first level is the physical or material. Our bodies are material and are connected with material things, making up the "physical system." Craving creates many difficulties for it.
The second level is the "mental system," the natural level of mind that doesn’t deal with the higher spiritual realities, with the realm of wisdom. It is the non-physical part of us that remains primarily concerned with physical things like the needs and instincts of our bodies. When no craving disturbs or possesses the mind, it is naturally beautiful and performs its duty of creating new things. The basic meaning of the word "citta" or "mind" is the thinking that creates new things. Another aspect of its meaning is "exquisite." The natural activity of the mind, when craving doesn’t interfere, is exquisite and beautiful. When dirty craving doesn’t come into play, the mind functions correctly and exquisitely.
The third level is the "spiritual system," the mindfulness-wisdom faculty which is the higher aspect of mind. This spiritual level is that of awareness and understanding; it encompasses views, perspectives, beliefs, theories, and ideals. If this system is correct, it is miraculous. On the highest level, it reaches right understanding (samma-ditthi) and is able to eliminate craving in all its forms. Now, however, craving disturbs, distorts, and destroys it. Even this highest spiritual level is disturbed by craving.
Craving has many dimensions. In addition to the three levels on which it operates, we can further distinguish how it disturbs the mind in three basic directions or ways. There is the desire to get, have, possess, and enjoy material things. There is the desire to be this, to be that, to become somebody or something. And there is the desire to not be, to no longer exist, to be annihilated, to become nothing. Thus craving has many ways to disturb the mind and destroy its natural ecology.
Some ecological examples of the three classic kinds of craving are 1) craving for the beauty of rare plants, the tastes of exotic fish, and the sexiness of fur coats; 2) craving to be in positions of power and control over natural resources, to harness the power of rivers with dams; and to be a stockholder in gold minds, paper mills, and bio-tech companies; and 3) craving to get rid of "weeds" from agricultural plots and golf courses, to slap mosquitoes, to redirect the natural courses of streams and rivers, and to avoid all responsibility for ecological disasters.
Craving destroys the first system, the physical, through its foolish and excessive desire. It goes too far, beyond what is appropriate, and becomes dangerous. Now homes are cluttered with things that nobody needs. Behind our homes the junk of unnecessary desires has piled up. This is both a problem and a burden. Further, it leads to competition over material goods and results in conflict and destruction. It destroys material peace and the physical ecology. Why not survey your homes to see how many totally unnecessary things there are? And how many genuinely necessary things are there? Some homes are absolutely cluttered with unnecessary luxuries and junk.
I heard on the radio recently that a foreign couple spent $1000 to buy a pair of dove cages, one for the wife and one for the husband. They bought the best quality cages made in the South. When asked why they spent so much money on dove cages, they replied that they would put light bulbs inside to make some fancy lampshades. Just more unnecessary stuff to clutter their house? This is the way people do things nowadays. How long will we go on destroying what is correct and sufficient on its own?
Every newspaper is full of advertisements for all kinds of consumer goods. I have studied these newspapers very carefully and searched diligently till I got dizzy looking for something worth buying. Still, after all these years, I have never seen anything advertised in the newspaper that I actually need to buy. They advertise until people think they must buy. The industrial mentality produces all these things, and so they must be advertised everywhere. In our industrial world, the newspapers stir up all kinds of desires. Thus, the industrial mentality and system destroy the balance, sufficiency, and correctness of the ecologies of our homes. It has invaded our very homes.
Craving also disturbs the second system, the purely mental aspect of life. It becomes what we call "nivarana," the hindrances that disturb and pester the mind. These hindrances don’t kill us or anything quite so nasty, but they keep us constantly off balance and annoyed. They are like gnats that buzz around in our face and eyes. While they cannot kill us, they can annoy us beyond measure. When we can endure it no more, the mental system is disrupted.
The first kind of hindrance is any craving that has taken a sensual or sexual form. It's a sexy mood that keeps circulating around sensual pleasures. Just the feeling of sensuousness itself, without any action based on it, disturbs the mind beyond its strength. Going in the opposite direction is another kind of craving, the hindrance of aversion, ill will, resentment. It is connected with anger and hatred, although not yet developed on their scale. Next is the hindrance of mental dullness, sluggishness, indolence, sloth. Here the mind is depressed, flat, dull, and sluggish. On the flip-side is mental excitement, agitation, dispersion, when the mind bubbles and bounces with excessive energy that it cannot control. Finally, there is doubt, uncertainty, or hesitation about what is going on in one's life. It can doubt anything. These moods of sensual desire, aversion, dullness, distraction, and uncertainty regularly destroy the mind’s ecology. These hindrances arise all the time, but most people don’t recognize or pay any attention to them. Yet they harm the mental ecology throughout each day.
The positively directed hindrance of sensuous desire and the negatively aimed hindrance of aversion don’t bother the mind nearly as much as the hindrances of delusion and foolishness. The foolishness of positiveness and negativity disturbs the mind much more. Of all of these, the worst is hesitancy and doubt. Because the mind begins to wonder, it doubts and hesitates. It is always hesitating, never sure of itself, bothered by uncertainty about what is safe, about what to do, about what is correct, about the purpose of life and how we should live. This hesitancy and uncertainty is extremely dangerous for the mind’s ecology, but it has been going on for so long and people are so familiar with it, that they don’t even recognize it. They accept it as normal and natural, so most people have no clue how disturbed their minds are by this hesitancy, uncertainty, and doubt. And so the ordinary peace of the mind is hassled away.
You ought to observe how the mind's ecology is rotted away by these mental hindrances. Conscious uncertainty and doubt aren’t so bad because they can be cut off and cleared aside fairly easily. However, there is a subconscious hesitancy and doubt of which most people are not even aware. It’s there almost all of the time and disturbs them unawares. There are times when we feel something is wrong, when we aren’t comfortable and at peace with ourselves, and wonder why we don’t feel so good, why something is not quite right. The semiconscious or subconscious doubt pesters the mind obscenely. It lies in the pits of the mind and rankles. To be totally free of such doubt is to be Arahant, the perfected human life that is beyond all self-centered emotions. You should know of this highest potential in our lives: the Arahant who has ended all doubt and uncertainty.
When an ordinary person deposits money in the bank, they usually cannot help but worry about what will happen to it. What if the bank goes bankrupt? What must we do to be safe? How to protect our investment? What if this? What if that? Can you imagine all the worries, doubts, and uncertainties fermenting subconsciously or semiconsciously? Yet again, the mental ecology is destroyed.
These doubts, uncertainties, and hesitancies bring fear. Whenever fear appears, it wipes out the mind's natural peace and happiness. The more the world progresses materially, the more causes of fear there are. It becomes a world of fear. Nobody can find any peace of mind. This fear destroys the mind’s ecology much more than anything else, more than bodily or physical causes.
Now we come to the third or "spiritual system." This is the domain of mindfulness and wisdom, which requires samma-ditthi, that is, knowledge, understanding, beliefs, and views that are correctly in line with reality. Craving also corrupts this system. Without samma-ditthi or spiritual correctness, other dimensions of correctness are corrupted. Society, however, is not yet able to solve this problem. Let me be specific here: education as it exists in the world today is not enough to create samma-ditthi. So this third level of happiness is lost also, and the spiritual ecology has no chance of being healthy or genuinely spiritual. It’s disturbed and twisted by desire, which in turn makes it impossible for the other levels of ecology to be healthy and natural.
In short, the physical ecology isn’t correct, the mental ecology isn’t correct, and the spiritual ecology isn’t correct. None of the three levels are correct. In that case, what is left? What hope is there for ecology when not one of the three levels is correct?
The western scientific tradition has produced a phrase that is most special, profound, and timeless, namely, "survival of the fittest." This phrase expresses the Dhamma truth that whatever is truly fit and appropriate will survive, while anything that is unfit or unsuitable will not survive. In saying this, we must be very careful to understand what is meant by "fit," "unsuitable," or "appropriate." Here, it means to be correct. Correct in what sense or in terms of what? Correct in terms of the law of idappaccayata, if it is to be truly fitting and appropriate. "Survival of the fittest" means that only those natures which are correct according to the natural law of conditionality, of interdependence and inter-relatedness, will be able to survive. In other words, "the fittest" means the middle way of Buddhism. The middle way or the noble eightfold path makes Buddhism the pinnacle of science, the most fitting way to live in order to survive on all levels.
Beyond Positive & Negative
The fittest, as we understand it here, is neither positive nor negative. Nowadays, the entire world has gone crazy over the positive. Everyone is so entranced and intoxicated with the positive that there is no fitness suitable for survival. Don’t indulge in the positive, don’t indulge in the negative, or you will never discover the middle way. Today we depend on industry to cater to this positive insanity of ours, and this industry is destroying our world. If we insist on indulging in the positive, in this material progress, it will only lead to destruction. Our attachment to the positive just makes things worse. It is neither fit nor correct nor balanced. This needs to be considered quite carefully so that people recover their spiritual fitness and are no more deluded by the positive or the industry that creates so much bait for defilement.
The Dhamma has arranged everything quite well already, in its natural ecology, but we don’t appreciate this wonderful fact at all. Instead, we disparage nature, we look down on it, we have no respect for it. We have tried to re-do everything in our own way, according to our own ignorance, craving, and selfishness, thus ruining the natural ecology. In this we find neither the correctness nor the fitness needed to conserve the natural order of nature.
Allow me to take a little time to tell you a story which illustrates this point. In Chumporn, the neighboring province to the north, one of my cousins used to raise a kind of monkey which is ideal for collecting coconuts from the palm trees. They are black with red faces and rumps, short tails, and a white patch on the throat. My cousin trained them to sleep on little platforms attached to the palm trees. These platforms, however, had no roofs, exposing the monkeys to the elements. So I asked him, "why are you so cruel to the monkeys, just giving them these platforms to sleep on without roofs to protect them from the rain and wind?" My cousin laughing at me for not knowing any better and replied, "I once made roofs for them, but they just climbed up and slept on those roofs whether it was raining or not." This story expresses the fitness of nature. We needn’t interfere by dragging in our positive feelings and attachments, messing up the natural correctness. Learn to observe the natural ways of things.
We find more stories of this kind in our Buddhist Jataka tales. In one story, the Bodhisatva, who represents everyone on the path of Buddhahood, was a tree spirit. A monkey and a bird lived in this particular tree. One day the bird laughed at the monkey for not having a house, saying "why don’t you build a nest like I do? We birds have such nice, comfortable nests to live in." The monkey replied, "you’re crazy, we monkeys don’t need such ridiculous things." The bird laughed at the monkey who got angry and ripped the bird’s nest to bits. So the bird lost its nest because of its foolish tongue. It tried to teach technology to the monkey, but the monkey would have none of it. The Bodhisatva as tree spirit had a good laugh at this episode of the sassy bird teaching technology to a monkey. A wiser being would consider what is correct for the monkey and what is appropriate in this situation. Finally, we may be able to discover what is correct for human beings. For example, is it right that we have filled the world with concrete and steel buildings?
The point is not that we are monkeys and should live like them. Human beings have more developed nervous systems and minds that distinguish us from all other animals. Tragically, we have used these minds to lose track of our origins and what truly sustains us. Does the ideology of material progress sustain us? Do our massive constructions really protect us? Might it be that they alienate us from the spiritual nature that truly sustains and nourishes us?
I have heard that Mahatma Gandhi said we ought to live in villages rather than in cities, let alone modern megacities. If we lived in villages, there wouldn’t be many ecological problems. But we have gone far beyond the village stage. Who is willing to go back to the village way of life? The system of towns, cities, and metropolises has taken over. Can we actually go back to village life these days? Now we face the immense ecological dilemmas created by city life. We abandoned village life long ago and so must be willing to confront the urban ecological disasters of our own making. I believe that no matter what happens we can never abandon nature's own system. It's time to turn around and rediscover the system of nature that in itself is correct, sufficient, and in line with the law of conditionality. We can take the example of the monkey and the bird as a metaphor to help us find the natural ecology within urban systems. There ought to be a way to harmonize our cities with natural law.
Cooperation & External Conservation
Another big question concerns where we will get the power and authority to make people cooperate in arranging ecological systems correctly. In these democratic times, where will we find the power to return the ecology to a proper, correct, and healthy state? Some power is necessary. Ordinary, worldly people are full of desires and selfishness. If they aren’t forced into it they won’t bother. It's silly, but they must be forced even to help themselves! How pitiful that they won’t even help themselves. Thus, the question of authority or power is crucial. When we don’t have the power of weapons, when we don’t have armies to force people to do what is right, we must depend on the power of understanding. We must get together as you are doing here at this conference and discuss matters until there is harmony among us. We must search for the power of mutual understanding, which can then be used to do what is needed. So please accept my blessings and support for your efforts to develop mutual understanding and to carry it out.
In the second talk, Ajarn Buddhadasa gave some examples of benevolent use of authority on behalf of ecology from the reign of King Asoka and from local history. His point was to show that monarchies and authoritarian regimes are not all bad, and can be less violent than the so-called "democracy" of today. If democracy is not able to solve some problems in certain situations, a more authoritarian approach might be considered.
Nonetheless, let's put aside the idea of using political authority and dictatorial powers. Instead we would like to discuss a system of living together as comrades in birth, aging, illness, and death. As human beings, we are all friends in birth, aging, illness, and death; we all share these basic realities and experiences of dukkha. With this attitude, we can develop a world that is beautiful and peaceful. When the employees and management of the Oriental Hotel, B. Grimm & Co., and other companies from Bangkok who have been coming here on retreats ask for Dhamma talks, the basic principle that we try to explain is for them to see everyone as comrades in birth, aging, illness, and death. Even the boss should be considered as just another comrade in birth, aging, illness, and death with whom we work in a cooperative, to build a world that is full of love, compassion, and peace. Our salaries need not be taken as wages or payment for services rendered, but as money the cooperative provides to cover living expenses. We needn’t speak of "boss" and "employee," just a cooperative among comrades in birth, aging, illness, and death. We can create a wonderful ecology if we cooperate as true comrades in birth, aging, illness, and death. If we cling, however, to a system of employers and employees, capitalists and workers, we will go on arguing endlessly. Where will we find the time to deal with ecology? Why not just stop! No employers and no employees, no capitalists and no workers, only comrades sharing the realities of birth, aging, illness, and death. An enormous cooperative in which we all help each other to make a peaceful, just, and beautiful world. They way we ought to think, without worrying about what the employers think, is: "I’m not anybody's employee, but will be everybody’s friend in building a beautiful world."
We must honor and worship the cooperative system. Take a good look. The entire cosmos is a cooperative system. The sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars are a giant cooperative. They are all inter-connected and inter-related in order to exist. In the same world, everything co-exists as a cooperative. Humans and animals and trees and the earth are integrated as a cooperative. The organs of our own bodies – feet, legs, hands, arms, eyes, nose, lungs, kidneys – function as a cooperative in order to survive. Let's bring back the cooperative in the form of comrades sharing birth, aging, illness, and death. The we will have plenty of time to create the best ecology.
These birds and trees all around us form a cooperative. I watch each day as the birds eat the caterpillars that feed off the leaves of the trees: hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of caterpillars. Without the birds these trees wouldn’t last. This is an example of the mutual help in a cooperative system. Please ponder the essence and meaning of "cooperative," for we must live cooperatively. Without cooperatives, we would all die.
When I first came to live here, the forest in this part of the monastery was still wild and we had to endure great difficulties. At night, it wasn’t possible to walk around as you are able to do nowadays, for a very large and ferocious kind of termite came out at night. They are about a centimeter long and when they bite blood flows from each wound. It was impossible to walk around after dark without getting bitten by them; they crawled back into their holes at dawn. There are still some around, but because of the chickens there isn’t a problem anymore. This is our cooperative at Suan Mokkh; we depend on the chickens. Now we can walk around at night without being attacked by termites. If you see a very large termite mound about 3 or 4 meters high and many meters across, that's where they live. But the termites don’t dare come out these days, except when no chickens are around.
The main enemy of cooperatives is selfishness. In Thailand, there have been many attempts to develop cooperatives, and most of them have failed due to the selfishness of the members themselves. They same is true around the world. Selfishness destroys cooperatives because it is the enemy of camaraderie based in birth, aging, illness, and death. Where there is selfishness there is not really any genuine friendship. We must combat selfishness and then we will have an abundance of friends in birth, aging, illness, and death. Only this, and not mutual greed, can be a proper foundation for cooperatives, otherwise selfishness will destroy the cooperative. For this, non-selfishness or unselfishness is good enough. It may be too much to expect selflessness. We would all be Arahant, perfected, awakened beings. Unselfishness is good enough for now. So hurry up with it. Don’t be selfish and you will create associations, communities, neighborhoods, and a society of friends in birth, aging, illness, and death. Then solving ecological problems will be a trivial matter.
Our world is one of selfishness, and selfishness has taken over the world. All its problems are caused by selfishness, not just the ecological problems. So we must build more prisons, hire more police, build more mental hospitals, and open more drug rehabilitation programs, until there is no money left. This is how it is with selfishness, so why not get rid of it?
Forgive us for saying so, we don’t mean to be coarse or crude, but we must mention that the United Nations Organization has not been able to solve any of the world’s problems. This is because the UN, quite unfortunately, is merely a meeting place for arguing among selfish people. This makes it impossible to solve ecological and other problems. Therefore, in place of UNO, we suggest URO or United Religions Organization. Then we can solve all those problems. Here, we don’t mean the false religions of selfishness that compete for converts, or that will argue over whose belief system or mysteries or ceremonies are best. If we are to have both a UNO and a URO, the URO should supervise the UNO. If only one is possible, we will take URO, meaning a genuine organization of people dedicated to unselfishness, mutual understanding, and love in this world.
We must hasten to create correct understanding amongst the religions. All religions were originally founded with the intention of eliminating human selfishness. This is the core of every religion, and the basis on which they can cooperate. If we do this, they will become one world religion of unselfishness. Each religion may retain its own different methods and customs, but all will be united by unselfishness. That's when URO will be possible.
It is rather sad, or pitiful, that some religions, as well as some religious officials and leaders, are themselves selfish. This is the most sorry thing in the world — selfish religion — because it corrupts and betrays the very purpose of religion. We need to re-establish our motivations and develop good understanding among the religions, in order to banish selfishness from the world. Then ecological problems will disappear.
We will reconcile and surrender ourselves to God, to Nature. Reconciliation is to sacrifice all selfishness. To be selfish is to rebel against God and Nature, to be the enemy of Nature and God. So let's end selfishness and reconcile ourselves with God, with the law of nature, with the law of idappaccayata. Then all the problems will disappear.
Finally, I would like to express my joy and blessing that you have come here to meet for such a commendable purpose as lessening the ecological crises of the world. I am delighted that your time and effort is used in such a meritorious way. Please look carefully to see the source, the real origin of these problems, so that we are able to solve them. Realize that they all come from selfishness. We have come here to discuss and share about how to remove selfishness. In doing so, we will end up with mutual good understanding and love for each other. We will be true comrades in birth, aging, illness, and death. We will have a new kind of political and social system called "Dhammic Socialism." This will solve our problems.
One last thing, if you don’t mind. If you have any more of these meetings, please have them in the early morning so that your tea cups do not overflow. Then you can hear what each other is saying.
1 Peter Gyallay-Pap has requested that I contribute an introduction and occasional comments for this paper. These are formatted differently than the main text – italicized and flushed right – to distinguish my comments from those of Ajarn Buddhadasa.
2 This paper combines two talks given by Ajarn Buddhadasa in early March 1990. The first was given on the 4th, sponsored by the Komol Kimthong Foundation and Pacarayasarn Journal. The second was given three days later on behalf of the 2nd annual conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). Certain redundant and unnecessary passages have been left out of this version. (A more complete text will be available later.)
3 Sadaw is a leguminous tree whose pods and large seeds are a popular vegetable in southern Thailand.
4 In Thai these four words begin with an "s"; however, the alliteration is lost in English.
The translator and editor wishes to thank the following friends. Carla O’Grady transcribed the tapes of the two talks. The Komol Kimthong Foundation published the Thai version of the talks which has helped me to check the accuracy of my live translation. Jon Watts skillfully managing the initial editing, respectfully combining the two talks into one manuscript, and shortening it to an appropriate length. Peter Gyallay-Pap of UNDP in Phnom Pehn applied the friendly pressure that got me to finish this job after seven years of delay. Lastly, Janey Bennett and Maris Ratel provided last minute proof reading. I, of course, am fully responsible for the final product and any errors it may contain.
Suan Mokkhabalarama, 3 November 1997