Environmental or spiritual pollution – which is easiest to fix?

If the massed ranks of the world’s religions practised more of what their prophets preached, our environment would probably be in much better shape.

“One Buddha is not enough, we need to have many Buddhas.”

So said  Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn in a rare interview that The Guardian newspaper published extracts from (here and here) on 26 August 2010.

He argues that the root cause of our environmental problems — from overfishing to climate change, from deforestation to the loss of biodiversity — is that societies worldwide have become spiritually polluted.

In his recent book ‘The World We Have – A Buddhist approach to peace and ecology‘, he explains:

“The situation the Earth is in today has been created by unmindful production and unmindful consumption. We consume to forget our worries and our anxieties. Tranquilising ourselves with over-consumption is not the way.”

Thich Nhat Hahn has spent 68 years as a Buddhist monk —  you can read more about his extraordinary life and illuminating philosophy in the longer Guardian article here.

He concludes that the solution to climate change is for people worldwide to wake up to the idea that it is possible to “live simply and happily, having the time to love and help other people.” So that’s what he means when he says we need not one but many Buddhas.

Buddha urged his followers to value the environment, to protect forests and wildlife — as in this sutra, one of my favourites of many quotations attributed to him:

“The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life and activity; it affords protection to all beings.”

But Buddha is not alone. Read the stories of Jesus and Mohammed, Guru Nanak and Krishna and you can see that in, one way or another, they all advocated a love of nature and a rejection of the greed and materialism that can lead to its destruction.

I’m not religious so let me know if I am wrong, but it seems to me that most faiths share at their roots these very clear principles.

Why then — if 85 percent of the world’s population claim to follow one of the 11 major religions (as claimed at this recent event I attended at the London Zoological Society) —  are these key instructions being ignored?

In the face of monumental environmental challenges, I think that our planet would be in much better shape if these messages were more central to all people’s thoughts and deeds — whether they are religious or atheists, whether they believe in evolution or divine creation.

If would be great for scientific and religious worldviews to have something to agree about for a change, and for the religions themselves to focus on what unites humanity instead of what divides us.

The environment we all share and depend upon is a good place to start.

5 thoughts on “Environmental or spiritual pollution – which is easiest to fix?

  1. I definitely agree with this approach. All what I can say is that… as human beings, we act following a double moral… we say something but we do the opposite.

    Love to our environment must be the way to follow… it doesn’t matter if we believe in one or other religion. We must change our pattern of life.

  2. Contemporary spiritual beliefs are healthy and more accommodative to change; the principles for which our christian brethren closely share cannot be broken but practices and expressions vary from persons to person and geographical dispensetions.
    The African continent is rich in spiritual beliefs relating to the intertwined natural and man-made maze of reality. The tropical forest areas and bushes have been known to be home to the world beyond the living phase. In the past before the advent of burrying loved ones 6 feet below and covering them with earth,bodies were transported away from homesteads and placed at strategic locations to await their travel beyond.Such burrial grounds were protected by impenetrable silence.No cutting the bushes,no burning of such sites to avoid the wrath of the spirit world.We cannot underate the conservatory practices this brought to the environment. And because different communities occupied different territorial domains so were these reserved sites as well.
    Where christianity has differed strongly agianst these practices was over burrial grounds for alleged outcasts in society such as twins, lame people and those that took their lives. Witchcraft is still rampat and some coastal areas in East Africa and West Africa are feared to be reserves operated by evil spirits. The point is they are feared and set aside as protectd features.Can we view the practices as evil while the principle behind preservation of environment as noble? Look at those communities that honour by virtue of their totems certain animals,birds etc among the lacustrine kingdoms of east africa. Baboons,monkeys and the impala are revered. Killing them will be considered outtrigeous and un acceptable by the community! Where has wanton killing to endanger these creatures come from?Is it not greed,selfishness or recklessness?

  3. For further reading, I recommend Bruce Rich’s To Uphold the World (Beacon Press, 2010, and Penguin India, 2008), the story of the great King Ashoka, unifier of India who converted to Buddhism after a battlefield conversion experience, and his efforts, abetted by his councillor Kautilya, to remake his empire as a realm of peace. Ashoka’s edicts include some of the earliest environmental regulations. Rich, well known as an effective advocate for World Bank reform in social and environmental practices, applies the lessons of Ashoka to the modern world.

  4. I wonder if part of the problem lies with the Christian emphasis on the afterlife, which perhaps leads to a rather blase attitude to life on earth. However, I do seem to remember that the bible encourages humanity to be good stewards of the earth. I am heartened to see what you write about aspects of the Buddhist approach and I agree that it would be useful for people of all faiths to give more attention to what their religion says about looking after the planet.

    I also wonder how best to increase the sense of connection for people of no particular religion. Conventional environmentalism seems adept at stirring up passion in some people, fear in most people, but has yet to make any real impact on the juggernaut of consumerism. It is my hunch that this is because western culture does not tend to create a connection with the natural world beyond a desire to exploit it.

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