The foundations of ecology in Zen Buddhism
by Ven. Sunyana Graef
Vol. 85 Issue 1 Winter.1990
Copyright by Religious Education
Vermont Zen Center Shelburne, VT 05482
If you yourself, who are the valley streams and mountains, cannot develop
the power which illuminates the true reality of the mountains and valley
streams, who else is going to be able to convince you that you and the
streams and mountains are one and the same?
--Zen Master Dogeni(n1)
Perhaps it is part of being human to question who and what we are.
Unfortunately, because we rely almost exclusively on our senses, the harder
we look, the more we misinterpret what we see. We believe on the one hand
that we are an insignificant dot in the universe, separate from all other
humans, much less the natural world. But we also believe that we are the
most highly evolved organism in creation, entitled to use whatever we can
grasp for our own ends.
Buddhists have a different view of humanity. In terms of their
psycho-spiritual development people stand about midway between Buddhas and
amoebas. However, on an absolute level, people, Buddhas, amoebas, dogs,
streams, and mountains are one and the same. Buddhism addresses the
apparent disparity between what we see and what we actually are. And it
does so by delving into the roots of what it means to be human.
What does this have to do with Buddhist ecology? It is inseparable from it.
For Buddhist ecology can no more be sundered from knowing the nature of our
true self than mountains and streams can be sundered from our true self.
The premise of Zen Buddhist ecology is this: When we understand what we
really are, we will be at peace with ourselves and our environment. We will
cease trying to enlarge ourselves through possessions and power, take
responsibility for our universal self -- the world -- and start living to
give, rather than get.
A life of wisdom is a life in harmony with the natural world. In an age
where filthy refuse washes up on shorelines, where we raze vast forests by
the minute, where we pollute the air and water with chemicals, the thought
of living in harmony with the natural world seems a long-forgotten dream.
Like a sand castle swept away by waves we are eroding the very foundation
of our existence. Still, we can return to a simpler, more careful, watchful
way of life -- if we know the path.
There is a story that senior Zen practitioners often tell novices. It is
about a monk in search of a teacher, but of course, it is about much more
than that. Like many such tales it seems inscrutable at first, then
unattainable, and finally inspiring. It has relevance here because it
betokens a manner of living which embodies the essence of Zen ecology.
It was the custom in ancient China for Zen monks to refine and deepen their
spiritual understanding by travelling throughout the country to study with
respected teachers. One such monk had heard that a renowned Zen master
lived in seclusion near a river, and he was determined to find him and
train with him. After many weeks of travel he found the master's dwelling.
Gazing at the river before the master's hut, the monk was filled with joy
at the thought of soon meeting his teacher. Just then he saw a cabbage leaf
slip into the water and float downstream. Disillusioned and greatly
disappointed, the monk immediately turned to leave. As he did, out of the
corner of his eye he saw the venerable teacher running to the river, his
robe flapping wildly in the wind. The old man chased the cabbage leaf,
fished it from the water, and brought it back to his hut. The monk smiled
and turned back. He had found his master.
To understand why the monk would abandon his teacher before even meeting
him is to know the foundations of Zen Buddhist ecology. Why would a single
discarded cabbage leaf provoke such intense disillusionment? Was the monk a
fanatical environmentalist who found even this minor bit of pollution from
his master-to-be untenable? Or was there something else he perceived? After
all, most people would think nothing of scrapping one leaf of cabbage.
Surely few would consider it wasteful. And if it happened to fall into a
stream . . . well. With the land and sea so clogged with the detritus of
civilization, a cabbage leaf drifting downstream would seem an
insignificant, perhaps even pleasant. sight. To the monk, however, the
errant leaf signified much more. Litter, waste, yes, but also a window to
his would-be teacher's spiritual attainment. For the perceptive monk, it
was, for a moment, persuasive proof that the master had not yet penetrated
the last barrier of Zen.
The way we relate to and interact with the environment says more about us
than our awards, Ph.D.s, and business successes. It says more about us than
our Chagalls, diamond rings, and three-bedroom homes. For it is not what we
have, but the way we live that reveals the inner person. To be indifferent
to even a leaf of cabbage exposes a dualistic view of the world: I exist
here, and the world and all it contains is out there --for me to do with as
I please. Such carelessness betrays an unawareness of the singular value of
each aspect of creation. This awareness, the soul of Zen Buddhist ecology,
is not something most people are born with; it grows through years of
religious education, training, and practice.
The goal of Buddhist ecology is much more than an unpolluted environment.
It is a life of simplicity, conservation, and self-restraint. Ultimately
this ecology is a manifestation of the spiritual realization of the
individual. It is born in the individual, and comes to fruition through the
individual's religious understanding and practice. Rooted in action, not
intellectual understanding, in the end it is actualized and expressed
through the deeds of one's daily life. Such mundane chores as taking out
the garbage, cooking a meal, cleaning the toilet, and working in the garden
are all occasions for the cultivation of spiritual awareness.
For the monk, the discarded leaf testified that the master lacked this
awareness. It indicated that he had not entirely purged himself of an
egocentric view of creation. Misconstruing the actual nature of phenomena,
he still had the outlook of an ordinary person. Certainly this was not what
one would expect from a deeply enlightend Zen Master.
Buddhist ecology, then, must emanate from spiritual education and
discipline. For a Zen practitioner this discipline begins with a type of
meditation called zazen. The practice of Zen meditation allows one to
center, focus, and quiet the mind. The word "zazen" means sitting with the
mind focused or totally absorbed in one thing. Ordinarily the mind is so
clouded with irrelevant thoughts, fantasies, worries, judgments, and
desires that we are unable to see things as they truly are. We live in a
dream, spending our days in vain regrets and denials of the past, while
anticipating the future with worries and hopes. And so, the present escapes
us before we have even taken note of it.
The object of Zen training is to learn how to live in the here and now --
to take this instant just as it is. The practice of Zen demands consummate
attention to the task at hand: full awareness and total involvement at
every moment. For example, the position of head cook in the Zen monastery
is traditionally held by the most spiritually advanced monk or nun, for
only such a person can accord food the respect and care it demands. Zen
Master Dogen said that a cook must treat rice and vegetables as if they
were his own eyes. He admonished the monastery cook about the proper
attitude toward the preparation of food in these words:
Keep your eyes open. Do not allow even one grain of rice to be lost. Wash
the rice thoroughly, put it in the pot, light the fire, and cook it. There
is an old saying that goes, "See the pot as your own head, see the water as
The practice of unremitting attentiveness and awareness enables --actually
forces -- one to face every moment without the cloak of judgments. Having
mastered this discipline, one is able to confront the most fundamental
pollution of all, the pollution of the Mind -- our pure or Buddha nature --
with the mind -- our discursive intellect grounded in ego.
From a Zen Buddhist standpoint the intellect and its henchman, the ego, are
the primary causes of all pollution. Nevertheless it is not by the
elimination of intellect, but by understanding its proper function, that we
eradicate the source of pollution. The intellect's primary role is to
assess the phenomenal world through categorization, analysis, and judgment.
Because we ordinarily view everything through this faculty, we divide our
environment into that which we perceive as being either internal or
external. In so doing, we invent a "me" bounded by "my" sensations, "my"
thoughts, "my"needs, "my" desires. This "me," called in Buddhism the ego-I,
so dominates the personality that it eventually becomes an omnipresent
dictator, affecting not only oneself but one's associates are well. Despite
our blind belief in the verity of this small self or ego, in truth it does
not exist. The practice of Zen points out a way to free oneself from the
clench of ego by delineating clearly the nature of the essential self. Once
we discover the unreality of the ego-I, we no longer relate to the world
from an individual, self-centered perspective, but rather from a universal
perspective. This is the weltanschauung of a true ecologist.
Virtually no one is born with this unitive world-view. How does one acquire
it? Actually, many people experience glimmerings of the interconnectedness
of life at one time or another. Such insights often change the way they see
the world, making them feel more a part of it and therefore more
responsible for its welfare. A student told me he first became convinced of
the unity of all existence while swimming:
For a moment, everything dropped away. There was no beach, no ocean, no
sound, no movement, no me. Everything was joined in perfect harmony, a
nothingness bursting with all things. I was filled with indescribable joy
and wonder. The feeling lasted just a fraction of a second, but I have
never forgotten it. Years later, it was the memory of this experience that
led me to Zen practice.
Others tell of similar experiences while walking in the woods, listening to
music, skiing, sitting quietly, baking, and doing just about anything else
imaginable. For most, the insight soon fades, leaving a evanescent sense of
the oneness of all life. The desire to relive and harness this experience
often galvanizes people to undertake a spiritual journey.
Self-realization or awakening brings the unshakable conviction that
everything is intrinsically one, whole, and complete. In time, feelings
that had arisen from an intellectual acceptance or a nebulous impression of
oneness become a sure knowledge of the unity of all life. With spiritual
awakening comes the realization that we are not just a tiny speck in the
universe, two hands, two legs, a face, and a mind, but that we embrace all
existence. In other words, awakening brings the realization that we are no
less than the universe itself. This the Buddha affirmed in these words:
Verily, I declare unto you that within this very body, mortal though it be
and only a fathom high, but conscious and endowed with mind, is the world
and the waxing thereof and the waning thereof, and the way that leads to
the passing away thereof.(n3)
The Buddhist does not believe that the trees, the water, the stars, and the
great wide earth possess a divinity obtained through God's process of
creation. Rather, he or she is convinced that the essence of the universe
is none other than divine perfection itself, in a word, Buddha. This
understanding, grounded in an awareness of the interdependent relationship
of all existence, spontaneously gives rise to feelings of profound
intimacy, universal compassion, and responsibility for the natural world.
Zen Master Eisai expressed it this way:
Because I am, heaven overhangs and earth is upheld. Because I am, the sun
and the moon go round. The four seasons come in succession, all things are
born, because I am, that is, because of Mind.(n4)
If at a deep level we accept that all phenomena are in essence one with our
own body, we will treat everything, animate and inanimate, with reverence.
Since we are not separate entitites, what happens to the universe happens
to us as well. Buddhist ecology, therefore, encompasses not just this
planet, but the whole cosmos.
A person of the deepest spirituality will also have a tender concern for
every aspect of creation. Such an individual could no more harm a living
creature than he or she could harm himself or herself. Buddhist scriptures
contend that a bodhisattva(n5) will not even walk on grass lest it be
harmed. Indeed, the first Buddhist precept is the admonition not to kill,
but to cherish all life. This attitude is especially important with respect
to food, since anything we eat must die to sustain us. Still, it is less
destructive, on a relative level, to take the life of a carrot or an apple
than to take that of a more highly evolved form of life, such as a cow, a
chicken, or a lobster. Too, from a purely ecological point of view, it is
less detrimental to the environment to eat as low as possible on the food
chain. All this explains why many Buddhists are vegetarians.
There is another important aspect of Buddhism that bears upon ecology.
Buddhism teaches the doctrine of karma, which is the law of cause and
effect relating to our actions. Karma means that whatever one sows, one
reaps, be it good or evil. The consequences of meritorious acts are always
good. Evil acts, on the other hand, ensure painful retribution. Buddhists
are aware that we are constantly creating new karma by our actions. One who
believes in the law of causation, therefore, will be careful not to cause
pain to people, animals, plants, or the earth itself, for harming them is
simultaneously harming oneself.
This takes place on two levels. From the view of spiritual realization, we
harm ourselves each time we harm the environment because we are the
environment. From the view of the law of causation, we harm ourselves
because we create negative karma from which we will suffer sooner or later.
A devout Buddhist could never, for example, dump toxic chemicals into a
river, for he or she would unequivocally know that he or she is poisoning
himself or herself in both an immediate and future sense. That is, he or
she is poisoning his or her absolute body -- the world -- and poisoning his
or her future, through acquiring bad karma.
Of course, it takes many years before some Zen practitioners are able to
accept the notion of karmic retribution. Besides, karma serves more as a
deterrent to wrong action than an encouragement for ecologically
responsible behavior. How, then, does the novice Zen practitioner who lacks
the motivating experience of enlightenment cultivate a reverential attitude
toward the earth and all its inhabitants?
At first, the primary means of acquiring ecological awareness is education
and example. Novices are taught, for instance, that water must not be
wasted, but conserved. At retreats and other times teachers remind them not
to let the water run when brushing teeth. Likewise, during a shower they
must turn off the water when soaping the body and washing hair. Similarly,
the kitchen supervisor cautions them not to leave the water running when
washing vegetables or dishes.
Avoiding waste is not limited to water. The novice learns to use and reuse
every scrap of paper, then recycle it. Much of the paper used for
letterhead and other purposes, in fact, may already be from recycled stock.
Garbage that can be recycled is separated and taken to a recycling center.
Bits of vegetables that the cook cannot use become soup stock or compost.
Food is never wasted. At meals the novice learns to wipe every morsel of
food from the plate with bread, pickles, or carrot sticks. Prayers before
meals remind the Zen practitioner that food should be eaten in the spirit
of an offering from those who produced it.
Zen Buddhist trainees are taught to protect the environment. Cleaning
supplies are ecologically safe. (They might not work as fast, but that
doesn't matter. You use more elbow grease.) Aerosol sprays are unheard of
at many Zen centers. Lights are turned off when no longer needed.
Trainees are taught to treat all creatures of the earth with compassion.
Plants, also having life, are not to be willfully destroyed. At many Zen
centers flowers are rarely picked for decorative purposes, although they
may be used for offerings -- for example, in the altar. More often, greens
for the altars are artificial or dried so that they last indefinitely. The
altar flowers, too, may be dried, articifial, or perhaps a living,
As a way of giving to the world and not just taking from it, some Zen
centers plant trees and flowers each year. Many Buddhist groups maintain
organic gardens. The members of at least one Zen center regularly clean the
streets and sidewalks in their neighborhood. Other centers have regular
fast days during which money that would have been spent on food is sent to
famine relief organizations.
In the beginning, the novice does these things out of a sense of
obligation; it is the "right" thing to do, and besides, it is part of Zen
training. But as the individual develops spiritually, these practices
become habitual. More than that, they become part of the way one lives. It
is never a matter of its being too much trouble, or too inconvenient, or
unnecessary, for example, to recycle the garbage. One does it with the same
lack of selfconciousness with which one brushes one's teeth. In the end, it
is a way of life that is an expression of one's spiritual awareness, an
understanding that has penetrated every aspect of one's life.
Living in harmony with the earth does not happen over night. It takes many
years of training and deep spiritual understanding for a person's actions
to be instinctively universal, rather than self-centered. Recall the story
of the monk and Zen master recounted earlier. The monk decided to stay with
the master because he spontaneously chased after the leaf; the master could
not have done otherwise. His action was as unselfconscious as reaching for
a lost pillow while sound asleep. The teacher's life was permeated with
compassion and attentive care for all things, even a leaf of cabbage. He
knew well that nothing is separate from the universe -- which means, from
If you are convinced that, as Zen Master Dogen said, "you and the streams
and the mountains are one and the same," how could you live the selfish
existence of one who despoils the environment? When a massive oil spill
threatens the ocean, could a single wave stand aloof, acting as if it alone
were unpolluted, or work only to cleanse itself? No, the wave and the ocean
work as one, for in reality, they are one. What affects the ocean, affects
the wave. Just so, what affects the universe, affects each of us, since we
and the universe are not two. Therefore, in a person of wisdom,
compassionate concern for the world will instinctively arise. The
expression of this universal compassion is ecology.
(n1) Zen Master Dogen, "Keisei Sanshoku" (The Sounds of Valley Streams, the
Forms of the Mountains), translated by Francis Dolun Cook in How to Raise
an Ox (Los Angeles: Center Publications, 1978), p. 114.
(n2) Zen Master Dogen, "Tenzo Kyokun" (Instructions for the Zen Cook),
translated by Thomas Wright in Refining Your Life (New York: John
Weatherhill, 1983), p. 6.
(n3) From the Anguttara-Nikaya II, Samyutta-Nikaya I, quoted by Lama
Govinda in Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism (New York Samuel Wiser, 1974),
(n4) From the Kozen-Gokoku-Ron, quoted in The Three Pillars of Zen, by
Philip Kapleau (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980), p. 126.
(n5) A being of deep wisdom and compassion who devotes his or her life to
the liberation of all sentient beings.