Sunday, August 1, 2010

Ecological Dharma


By Henryk Skolimowski

Philosophy, as envisioned by Socrates and Plato, was a quest for a meaningful, worth-while life. Although this quest has been gradually eliminated from the concerns of Western philosophy, it has never been abandoned within the Indian tradition, which has often pursued philosophy as a path to moksha (liberation) or as a guide to human destiny. This view of philosophy has been the strength of the Indian tradition and is quite close to the meaning of the term dharma.

Dharma has many shades of meaning, but it is essentially a guide on the path of right duty. Dharma spells out our obligation to become liberated. Response to it, as the voice of our inner conscience, requires deep philosophical sensitivity. We also need new insights to see new realms of our dharma - our responsibilities in the world. Those who are most sensitive and seeing now perceive that the most important aspect of our present dharma is saving the earth.

Ecology of Mind

The idea of ecology has been around for a quarter of a century. We have become used to it. We consider its ramifications good, namely, to have clean air, clean water, clean soil. But ecology is much deeper and more far-reaching than cleaning up polluted physical environments. While cleaning the environment is important, it is only a small part of the task. For what are ultimately responsible for the polluted planet are not dirty technologies, but polluted minds - careless, unseeing, alienated. Contaminated minds produce, almost of necessity, contaminated environments.

The present condition of humanity is forlorn, as we dwell in polluted physical, mental, and spiritual environments. Our minds so often resemble a garbage container rather than a beautiful, shining instrument of God. We need to purify ourselves in many ways. Traditional poojas, or propitiation ceremonies, are insufficient.

The ecology of mind is still in its infancy. Let us be aware that we need to purify our minds, not through some old-fashioned rituals, but through something more drastic but also more lasting. We need to change the whole structure of our consciousness, which is programmed to manipulation, mechanistic thinking, and an instrumental treatment of people and nature. In effect, we need to create the reverential mind, something l have discussed at length in my book Living Phihsophy (Penguin, 1992).

The contaminated, mechanistic mind has weakened and sometimes contaminated the sources of our spiritual life. This mind has separated us from the sacred. It has weakened our spiritual life both on the individual level and on the level of whole cultures. By allowing contamination of our minds, we dim our intelligence and blunt our sensitivities, thus making our lives less radiant and more obtuse. Ultimately we are diminished as persons. This consequence is of great importance but usually unappreciated.

We seldom realize that the contaminated physical environment is a shadow of the contaminated mental and spiritual environments. A true ecology heals all three environments simultaneously - physical, mental, and spiritual. Thus our dharma must be extended and deepened to include new realms.

Our most important task is both to clean the earth and to cleanse ourselves from mental pollution. Our minds are as polluted as our air, our rivers, and our soil. Preserving the wholeness of the earth and the integrity of our souls is a twofold aspect of our present dharma. 

Green Dharma 

Dharma therefore acquires a distinctly green or ecological dimension. Whatever may divide us - our cultures, our tongues, our religions, our economic systems - one thing nevertheless unites us. It is our ecology - our care of the earth, our care of future generations, and our care for the welfare of all sentient beings.
It is not sufficient nowadays to care for yourself and your personal spiritual well-being or even that of your religious community. You must extend this care to the entire earth, for it is your dwelling, your temple, your sangha, your vessel in which spiritual attainments can be perfected on your way to Bodhisattvahood and Buddhahood.

If we lose the environment, if we destroy the earth, we lose God. We destroy the ground for all possibilities of becoming spiritual and, ultimately, enlightened beings. Previous Buddhas, including Gautama, were less aware of the frailty of the planet earth as the ground for cultivating our humanity and our spirituality. But if this ground is denied, our spiritual journey comes to an end.

Hence the importance of ecological dharma, not only for the preservation of the earth, but for the preservation of the conditions that enable us to become fully human, thus enabling us to follow the path of the Buddha or the path of Shiva or the path of Krishna. Seen in this light, ecological dharma has an importance second to none. If you are a spiritual person, you must care about ecology, for the earth is your spiritual cradle. In our times, the ecological and the spiritual become one. To revere the Buddha or Krishna is to work for the salvation and healing of the planet.

True prayer and true meditation in our time become ecological prayer, which helps to heal all other beings, including the forests, soil, and rivers. This new form of redemption - ecological redemption - is truly universal in nature. It is based on compassion for all beings, all of whom are threatened by our excessive technological activity. To see what is most important for the welfare of all sentient beings (and semisentient beings such as the soil and forests), to see what is most important for our inner peace and our ascent toward Buddhahood, we need a new perspective, the ecological perspective, and a new form of dharma, ecological dharma.

The Dharma of Ecological Philosophy

Much of the present teaching of both Hinduism and Buddhism is steeped in the past, and much of it is a repetition of old dogmas. Non-attachment is by and large a noble and liberating principle. But we need to reexamine its meaning in view of the importance of ecological dharma. We must beware of being too detached from the earth. On the contrary, we need to cling to the earth, though that phrase may alarm some orthodox Hindus or Buddhists. To care for the earth by working for its healing and salvation means to be attached to the earth, though we may say that it is not a selfish attachment. Ecological dharma calls for a new reflection on, and indeed a significant revision of, ancient spiritual traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.

Ecological dharma informs us that the road leading to right livelihood is ecological reconstruction: working close to nature, bringing back laborlintensive occupations, and, in general, working for an ecological catharsis. Right livelihood is essential to our spiritual well-being. Unless we find the road leading us to right livelihood - not only for a select few but for countless millions - we cannot claim that our spiritual message is relevant to our times. Wrong livelihood is destroying people's souls and is under-mining the sustainability of the planet.

What is the specific dharma of ecological philosophy? It is to reassure us that philosophy is not dead but that, in fact, it has a most important role to play in our time, when wisdom has been replaced by information. Another aspect of the dharma of eco-philosophy is moral guidance. Modernism and postmodernism have disintegrated in the quicksand of nihilism and moral confusion. Traditional philosophy has not been able to help us in combatting this moral decay. Ecological philosophy proposes new imperatives for right moral action and for the moral regeneration of the individual. Moral regeneration is a most important part of our spiritual regeneration.

Yet another, perhaps the most important, aspect of the dharma of eco-philosophy is understanding that the ecology of mind, the ecology of the spirit, and the ecology of the physical environment are aspects of one another. The pollution of physical environment inevitably leads to the pollution of the mind and the spirit. And at the same time, the degradation of physical environment is a consequence of polluted minds and sullied souls.

Ecological philosophy is itself a form of dharma. Once you understand things with all their interconnections, you must act to bring them back to a right alignment. To understand aright is to act aright. The dharma of ecological philosophy tells us that we must put our own house in order.

The dharma of ecological philosophy also instructs us that all of us must be teachers. We must spread the light, in spite of all obstacles and the crippling influence of darkness. Right education is the foundation of right awareness, which in turn is the foundation of all right thinking and right action. Right education is the implementation of the right values. An ancient Chinese ex-pression says, if you are preparing for one year, plant rice; if you are preparing for twenty-five years, plant trees; if you are preparing for a hundred years, plant right education.

The Dharma of our Time

The dharma of ecological philosophy, in a nut-shell, is singing the right song with the unfolding universe, which is beautiful but fraught with dangers and pitfalls. May we have enough courage to bear the light that is required of us to make the universe luminous and kind.

Our times call for new resources of imagination, for new resources of inner power to meet the unprecedented peril to the life of the planet and to our own spiritual lives. The two are as-pects of each other. A new ecological dharma is called for. This dharma requires that we are passionately attached to the earth, which of course does not mean a childish clinging to material possessions and their consumption. 

The practice of universal compassion in our times requires work of ecological reconstruction and healing unprecedented in history. As the ecological crisis has brought about a sea of suffering, ecological cleansing is the vehicle for the cessation of suffering. Ecology is the noble truth of our time. Eco-philosophy is the dharma of our time.

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