Q. How does Buddhism relate to nature? My church does not often teach about mother nature, or even the human body and its place in the universe.
A The Buddha himself, 2,500 years ago, exhorted each of his monks to plant a tree every year as a way of preserving the environment and repaying Mother Nature for whatever resources they had consumed. In 1990, when the Dalai Lama visited our meditation center in the Dordogne Valley of southern France to teach 5,000 students on awakening bodhicitta the altruistic heart of enlightenment, he planted a tree at the opening ceremonies. It was a blessing of the natural environment and all sentient beings present, seen, and unseen.
Buddhism has a deep ecology at its root. The Buddha understood that everything is interconnected; that to affect one strand of the universal web of interbeing affects them all, and that according to the law of karma, there are no accidents–everything has an intentional cause and effect. We all want and need the higher values of life in this world–the right to happiness, freedom, safety, security, and love. That is why Buddhism teaches us to extend our care and spiritual concern to animals, birds, fish, and the entire environment.
Unlike Western religions, which do not view animals as having a soul or the environment as sacred, Buddhism has always held that all sentient beings are endowed with Buddha-nature and can become awakened and enlightened themselves. For that very reason, killing or harming any being, in any way, is proscribed. This includes our own bodies, which are like vessels, sacred repositories of Buddha-nature.
Recognizing that everything and everyone is sacred and radiant, as if illumined from within, is our practice; all can be seen as equal, as holy, as part and parcel of our very selves and of the spiritual source of all, the groundless ground of being. Harm one, and you harm all; save one, and you save all.
Such spiritual insight or sacramental vision–called “pure perception” in Vajrayana (non-dual or tantric practice; the dominant form of Tibetan Buddhism)–helps enchant and transform our everyday lives. Thus we can find nirvanic peace and heaven right here on earth, in this very moment, not just in some afterlife or future existence.
A notion of pure perception pervades all schools of Buddhism. The 18th-century Japanese Zen master Hakuin Zenji wrote in his “Song of Zen Meditation”: “This very land is the Pure Land, Nirvana/This very body is the body of Buddha.” Tibetan lamas teach that each of the five basic elements–earth, water, fire, air, and space–are goddesses. Each of our limbs, moreover, is home to one of those delightful energies, and, according to this principle, our bones, blood, heat, wind, and internal cavities embody those divine principles as well.
Tibetan Buddhism also instructs us to become aware of what is known as “the drala principle,” the intrinsic magic, immediacy, and suchness of reality in the present moment. Regular practice of this mystical yet grounded awareness can transport us beyond form and limitation, beyond ourselves.
Tibetan Buddhists aren’t the only ones with a profound understanding of the nature of drala. William Blake wrote
“To see a heaven in a grain of sand
and heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour.”
Walt Whitman sang that a leaf of grass was no less than the journeywork of the stars.
Indeed, can there be a more splendid, lofty, uplifting cathedral than a redwood forest, or mountains like Fuji, Kailash or Shasta which have been deemed holy ground for millennia? Or is there any vespers better than sunset over a vast, luminous ocean or desert horizon? I take a walk outside every morning, with my dog if possible. My intention is as important as being in nature. I take each step with awareness and devotion to walking the spiritual path. This is how I open myself to a higher reality, and how I open the book of nature every day. My need to commune with the natural world is not unique. A gardener friend who is Catholic says she is never so much in paradise as when kneeling in her garden.
Growing a garden is one of the best ways to cultivate our inner selves, for the process puts us face to face with universal laws and principles, with the mystery of the creative process.
The Buddha said that the best place to meditate is the wilderness. He himself became enlightened while sitting beneath a tree, near a river, as the morning star rose just before dawn.
Whenever I peer deeply into the heart of a flower, or into the eyes of a child, my beloved, or my sheepdog, Chandi–all those wise and beautiful wisdom quotes naturally fall away. Everything I need is right there. The earth is like an altar, and we are the gods and goddesses, angels and divinities upon it. The natural world outside us, and our own changing bodies, are like a magnificent, radiant jewel, a book, a great poem. Try to read a chapter daily: Self-knowledge, joy, truth, and wisdom are there