Wait A Minute! ~ GREEN DHARMA

A FRIEND OF MINE recently visited Tibet, and among the human rights abuses and other shocking things she saw there was the great number of trucks loaded with huge logs being driven towards China; she counted over 400 in just one day; the narrow roads were clogged with them! The occupation forces of China are raping and pillaging Tibet of its natural resources, and cutting down the forests in the east of that tragic land at an alarming rate, with the result that the states of western China to the east of Tibet, where the mighty Yangtse River has its source, are undergoing disastrous floods, as are Nepal, Bangladesh and the eastern states of India. For the sake of immediate profit, Tibet’s ancient forests are being systematically destroyed, with no consideration of the long term effects. When forests are destroyed, the soil no longer holds water and is easily eroded; landslides and floods then follow.

Tibetans always respected nature, and were mindful of the importance of conservation, felling trees only with the greatest reluctance. But with their land now occupied and controlled by a brutal and repressive force, they are unable to do anything to prevent the destruction. As settlers from China stream in, the Tibetans are rapidly becoming a minority in their own land, and for the sake of harmonious relations with China, the governments of the world keep quiet.

My travels have taken me through several deserts, where the land is dry and barren, and almost nothing grows. I was struck with the desolation of such deserts, as some of them were once fertile lands. Now, the few people who inhabit them manage to eke out a precarious living. I am not eager to join them there; I prefer green to brown.

At the time of the Buddha, the Indian subcontinent was not densely populated and much of it was forested. But now, because of the immense population, most of the forests are gone, leaving large areas of scrubland and increasing desert. Attempts at reforestation have had little success, as trees are cut down for fuel and building purposes before they can grow to maturity—cut down without being replaced. It is hard to educate poor people about the necessity to think of the future when survival in the present occupies their minds.

How many Buddhists have noticed how trees played a part in the Buddha’s life, I wonder? Prince Siddhartha was born under a sala tree; later, when he was a boy, and was taken to the Spring Ploughing Festival, he sat meditating beneath a jambu (rose-apple) tree; at the age of 35, he became Enlightened under the bodhi—a kind of fig—tree; He gave His first sermon beneath a tree in the Deer Park; and He passed away under some sala trees. Did trees contribute anything to the special events in His life, apart from providing shade, or was it a concession—on the part of those who later narrated the Buddha’s life-story—to the widespread Animism or nature-worship of that time, a way of winning people over to Buddhism? Until today, shrines at the base of trees are a common sight in India.

The books say that, after His Enlightenment, the Buddha stood for a week in the same spot, gazing at the tree under which He attained Enlightenment, as a way of showing respect for the shelter it had provided Him. It is a little hard to imagine someone standing in one spot for a week, without moving, and we might be forgiven for doubting it, but we should consider the implication of the story: what is it trying to convey?

Almost all the events of the Buddha’s life-story—even the most trivial—may be seen as having some relevance to us. We can see the role of trees in the story as encouraging us to understand their vital importance to us; we have been far too profligate with trees, cutting them down willy nilly, without bothering to replace them. The underlying ideas of Animism are worthy of consideration rather than being regarded as superstitions of primitive hill-tribes and jungle-folk: the belief that rocks, trees, mountains, rivers and so on are the homes of spirits, and should therefore be treated with respect; it’s not a bad idea at all, and far superior to the long held notion that nature is there to be exploited for whatever we can get from it, without thinking of the future or of what we can—and should—put back. The biblical notion that God gave man the right to use nature as he likes is totally unacceptable today; we are being forced to realize that the Earth doesn’t belong to us, but that, as the most intelligent species on the planet (though one sometimes wonders about that), we are only the custodians of it and should take care of it and pass it on in good condition to those who come after us. Unfortunately, now that we are starting to understand this, we find it is rather late; we have inherited a global garbage dump from those who went before us, and have contributed to it ourselves.

The 21st century is almost here, but although tremendously advanced technologically, in some ways we are quite backwards. I have just read a newspaper article entitled Belief in Devil High. Since it is very short, I will quote it in full here:

“NEW YORK, Nov. 5, 1995: Two out of three Americans believe in the existence of Satan, with 85% of the evangelical Protestants taking that position, a Newsweek magazine poll showed on Saturday.

“More than one out of three people polled—37%—said they had been tempted by the Devil while 61% of the evangelical Protestants said they had, according to the magazine. Among the general population, 27% said they did not believe in Satan, while only 13% of the evangelical Protestants did not.

“The poll, conducted July 27-28 by Princeton Research Associates, reached 752 people including 209 evangelical Protestants. The margin of error was 4 percentage points for the entire group and eight points for the evangelicals.

“The poll asked whether certain things were caused by the Devil. The answers—with the general public figures first and evangelical Protestants second—ranged from crime (36%/59%) and pornography (34%/62%), to feminism (12%/20%), famine in Africa (16%/26%) and the homosexual rights movement (21%/43%)”.

The USA is considered the foremost example of a developed country and taken as a role model by millions of people world wide, though it is hard to understand why; it is a greatly imbalanced society, and one to be learned from rather than emulated. Such a belief as outlined above indicates a desire to shirk responsibility for one’s own life and to blame others—be it only an imaginary Devil—and is reminiscent of the Middle Ages, when it was widely believed that disease was caused by demons, or the evil-eye cast by witches; combined with poor hygiene and non-existent sanitation, such ignorance allowed plague and other epidemics to rage unchecked. That myth was dispelled by the advent of modern medicine and the discovery of viruses, microbes and bacteria, etc.; these days, no reasonably intelligent person believes that disease is caused by demons or witches.

So as not to appear one-sided, I will reproduce something from Singapore’s Straits Times of 3rd of November 1997:

“HONG KONG: An elderly Hong Kong woman was left in a ditch for two days because superstitious passers-by refused to call emergency services on the unlucky number 999, reports said yesterday.

“The 73-year-old woman slipped into the drain late on Thursday in Kowloon, one of the busiest and most densely populated areas in the world, and was only rescued on Saturday when another elderly woman called the police after hearing about her plight from some of those who had seen her.

“Most people do not like to call 999 except for extreme emergencies because Chinese people do not like to mention this number,” a police spokesman told the Sunday Morning Post.

“It is because of superstition. It is an unlucky number.”

“The woman, whose husband had reported her missing, suffered bruising to her forehead and right knee but was otherwise unscathed, the reports said.

“She is thought to have fallen into the large dry drain while she was walking home.

“Social commentators expressed shock at the callous attitudes of those who ignored her plight.

“My God, I cannot accept that. Every time I hear about these sad stories of our senior citizens I feel extremely sad and ashamed of Hong Kong people”, said the director of the Society for Community Organization at Ho Hei Wah”.

Einstein, through his research and ponderings, came very near to the Buddha’s Way, and wrote: “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God, and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity”.

Buddhism has always emphasized that we are part of the world around us, rather than separate from it; it teaches us to consider the rights and feelings of all living things, and not just humans (and certainly not just the feelings of people of our own religion or sect!) As a world view, it is complete, leaving out or disregarding nothing. Nor is it only living things we should consider, but everything, for, in reality, nothing is dead or not living! The Way of the Buddha may be compared to the footprint of an elephant: the footprints of all other animals—including man—can fit into it and there will still be space to spare; really, it is a green philosophy, symbolized in the Mahayana vow of the Bodhisattva not to enter Final Nirvana until the last blade of grass has become Enlightened.

We should not take this literally, of course, but figuratively; grass cannot be enlightened! But a thing doesn’t have to be true to be effective and good; whoever believes that the animals of Aesop’s Fables or the Jataka Tales could talk? We all know that such tales are not literally true, but are means of conveying a message or lesson. What is important about the Bodhisattva vow is the aspiration: to see so far beyond oneself that even a lowly blade of grass is not outside one’s concern.

We should always beware of literal interpretations; a prime example is how countless Christians (though not all) have misunderstood Jesus’s words at the Last Supper about the bread and wine: he was only speaking symbolically, and meant that his disciples should remember him whenever they ate and drank—that is: often. Instead of this, a fantastic notion arose (called The Doctrine of Trans-substantiation) whereby the consecrated bread and wine of the mass was actually believed to become the flesh and blood of Jesus, making it nothing more or less than ritualistic cannibalism! Jesus would be quite amazed at how much he was misunderstood! On several occasions, he threw up his hands in despair of his disciples ever understanding him—and not without good reason, too! If only he could see what became of his teachings!

But, back to the position of trees in Buddhism: many people have misunderstood and become tree-worshippers. The meaning, surely, is that we should show respect to all trees, and not just the kind of tree under which the Buddha was sitting when He became Enlightened. We can sit under only one tree at a time, not two or more; if He had been sitting under a gum-tree or an oak tree when He became Enlightened, we would now be paying respect to that instead of a type of fig tree! His Enlightenment had nothing to do with the tree He was sitting under! Any tree might be a bodhi tree.




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