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The Relevance of Vipassana for the Environmental Crisis
Prof. Lily de Silva

Environmental pollution is a great threat to the survival of humankind on this planet. If effective measures are not taken immediately, a catastrophe which is similar in destructive capacity to that caused by nuclear war is imminent as a result of environmental pollution and increased exposure to U.V. radiation through ozone depletion. The rate of pollution caused by human beings far exceeds nature's ability to purify and rejuvenate its life-sustaining air and water. We understand the problem that we now face, hence the search for development with sustainability. But it is our contention that a radical solution has not yet been looked for, let alone found, and that man is only trying to grapple with this enormous global problem with patchwork technological remedies.

From the point of view of the Buddha's teaching, environmental pollution is but the external manifestation of man's internal moral pollution, which has assumed alarming proportions and reached a crisis. A number of suttas in the Pali Canon such as the Agga~n~na (Digha. III. 80), Cakkavattisiihanaada (Digha III 58) and some in the A"nguttaranikaaya (I. 160; II. 75) express that when moral degeneration becomes rampant in society, it causes adverse changes in the human body and in our environment. The legend in the Agga~n~na Sutta states that moral degeneration causes the loss of beauty in the human personality and depletion of natural food resources in the external world. These adverse repercussions are proportionate to the extent of moral degradation.

Crime also increases in society and, grappling with these problems, people try to organize appropriate social institutions to make life more tolerable, peaceful and comfortable for one and all, to the best of their ability.

Thus Buddhism believes that moral consciousness/the human mind, the human body, the external world consisting of fauna and flora, and society are intricately interconnected through an all-embracing network of cause and effect, to make one whole psychologically sensitive and responsive ecosystem. It is this fact that the Buddha succinctly summarizes in the stanza:

Cittena niyyati loko cittena parikissatiCittassa ekadhammassa sabbeva vasa"m anvaguu ti.

The world is led by the mind, it is dragged hither and thither by the mind.

The mind is one reality under the power of which everything goes.(Sa"myutta-nikaaya, I. 39)

If we loosely translate the phrase cittena niyyati loko as "the world operates through human ideas," we can see at a practical level how the face of the earth has been changed with advancing human ideas/knowledge during the course of history. At the dawn of civilization when man was hunting and gathering food, nature remained almost undisturbed. During the age of settled agricultural life, irrigation schemes were developed and the face of nature was modified to a certain extent. The industrial revolution brought about further changes with excessive exploitation of natural resources and mass production. The twentieth century, which boasts of 90% of the scientists the world has ever produced, has ushered in the Nuclear Age and the Space Age.

Thus we see how human ideas have brought about vast changes in nature, to such an extent that Nature's purifying, rejuvenating and replenishing capacities have been outstripped by man's activity of exploitation, causing unprecedented pollution and impoverishment. According to Buddhist interpretation, the root cause that is responsible for this crisis is man's greed for luxury, wealth and power. The human brain has developed without keeping pace with the human heart and moral responsibility. Intellectually, modem man may be a giant, but emotionally he is a dwarf suffering with spiritual bankruptcy. One sociologist observes that modem man has one leg strapped to a jet plane and the other leg tied to a bullock cart.

Thus man is tom apart with conflicting desires and practical realities. Further, man's intellect is limited; he lacks the vision to see how far-reaching his behaviour and activities are, and how they affect negatively or positively his own well-being, and unsuspected aspects of the physical activities of Nature.

The Buddha's theory of pa.ticcasamuppaada too maintains the same principle, that mind and matter, man and nature are interconnected and interdependent. Man depends on nature for sustenance, for, it is said: Sabbe sataa aahaara.t.tthitikaa. In search of food and also clothing, shelter and medicine, humans change their environments according to their technological skills. For example, modem men use chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides in agriculture for better harvests. These destroy the natural bacterial balance, which gives rise to adverse chain reactions, which in turn affect human health and well-being.

Further, the same truth of dependence of man and Nature is reiterated in the commentaries through the theory of the five cosmic laws, pa"nca niyaama dhamma. The five are as follows: physical laws (utuniyaama, lit. season law), biological laws (biijaniyaama, lit. seed law), psychological laws (cittaniyaama, lit. mind law), moral laws (kammaniyaama, lit. action law) and causal laws (dhammaniyaama, lit. reality law). (Sa"mlyuttanikaaya 1125 states as synonyms dhamma.t.thitataa dhammaniyaamataa idappaccayataa). Causal laws operate within the first four spheres as well as among them.

Thus all cosmic laws, physical, biological, psychological and moral, interact with one another, and man experiences weal or woe, happiness or unhappiness according to the nature of moral energy he generates. If wholesome moral energy is widespread, there is peace in society and life is comparatively happy and comfortable. If unwholesome moral energy is widespread, strife in society is similarly rampant and life becomes more and more troublesome.

The sixth and fifth Centuries B.C. can be cited as an exceptionally fortunate era when morally wholesome energy was poured out through the teachings of spiritual giants such as the Buddha, Jina Mahavira, Zoroastra, Confucius and Socrates, from different quarters of the world. The twentieth century seems to be the direct opposite of that era. Crime, terrorism and war reign supreme in the world today. Famine, starvation and malnutrition have engulfed many of the third world countries. AIDS and other luxuryrelated deadly diseases are rampant in affluent countries. This state of affairs reminds us of a commentarial statement regarding the fate of mankind in a morally bankrupt world. According to that, when mankind comes under the grip of greed, hatred and delusion, its downfall is brought about by famine, fire/weapons, and disease respectively (Diighanikaaya A.t.thakathaa III. 854). The situation in the modern world is such that all three morally unwholesome motivational roots seem to be active and man is receiving three-pronged retribution for his own immoral actions.

Another important point raised in the Agga~n~na Sutta is that man is a creature with a strong tendency for imitation (di.t.thaanugati"m aapajjamaanaa). Therefore new ideas, actions and behaviour on the part of a few, quickly become new trends in society, especially when they are pleasure-oriented and economically attractive. Aided by modem mass media and commercial propaganda, sensualism, aggressiveness, hunger for wealth, status and power have become social trends in the modern world. According to our thinking, this imitative tendency is not the only cause responsible for these current trends, as they seem to be aided by the collective consciousness of mankind (called dhammadhaatu in Pali) which envelops the whole world. We therefore tend to argue that terra firma is covered over by a biosphere and an atmosphere into which is absorbed what we prefer to be called the psychosphere. Our argument for putting forward this idea is as follows:

The Saama~n~naphalasutta (Diigha,nikaaya I.76) states that the mind is interwoven with the body, and that it can be seen to be so by one who has developed the fourth jhaana, like a coloured thread that passes through a transparent gem. It can be surmised that the mind is associated with the air element in the body because the breathing pattern changes with emotional changes, e.g., we sigh when we are sad, we yawn when we are lazy, we snort when angry and gasp in pain. These changes can be accepted as conclusive proof that the mind and breath are fused together. It is scientifically known that the carbon dioxide level of the exhaled breath increases under negative emotional stress. This may be because the breath has absorbed from the bloodstream toxic chemical properties added to the blood from the endocrine glandular secretions when the mind is charged with negative emotions such as anger and fear. When large masses of people pour out such psychogenic venom with each exhalation, the atmosphere gets polluted in a subtle way, and it is very probable that sentient beings and even vegetation are sensitive to this type of pollution. It is experimentally known that plants thrive much better in an environment of peace and love, but they tend to get stunted or they wither away when harshly treated with violent abusive words even though both groups are equally well provided with water, manure, sunlight and horticultural care.

According to scientific thinking air pollution with increased carbon dioxide is due to fossil fuel burning which in the long run would contribute to global warming with catastrophic effects on human well-being. It is now conjectured that the disappearance of the dinosaurs from the face of the earth is due to reduction of oxygen level and increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The present situation of environmental pollution is far more grave than that which caused the extinction of those enormous beasts, as carbon dioxide is produced by machines unknown during the dinosaur age. While metal machines physically pollute the atmosphere, billions of human machines also add psychogenic toxins to the carbon dioxide they breathe out. Therefore we venture to argue that pollution in the psychosphere is a crucial factor in the environmental crisis man is faced with today. Even the physical pollution caused by emissions from machinery and over-cxploitation of natural resources is the result of man's greed for luxury, wealth and power. It is therefore possible to conclude that the environmental pollution is really the external manifestation of the internal moral pollution of modern man.

As man's moral disposition has a direct deep-rooted relationship with the cnvironmental crisis Vipassana meditation offers a relevant practical method to effect a wholesome attitudinal change in man to give him a sense of direction and goal in life, and also help him restore the sustainability of nature.

Taking a phrase from Erich Fromm we can say that man has to change his attitude from the 'having mode' to the 'being mode' of life. Man motivated by the 'having mode' tries to satisfy his greed extracting as much as possible from nature, thus leading to cxcessive exploitation bringing in its wake all the ills of pollution and depletion. Man inspired by the being mode on the other hand utilizes nature's resources to satisfy his needs and this attitude leads to conservation and sustainability of nature. It is interesting to note that ancient Indian Languages such as Sanskrit and Pali do not even have a verbal root 'to have'. The idea of having has to be expressed periphrastically. If one wishes to say 'I have sons and wealth' in Pali one must say Puttaa me atthi dhana"m atthi, which literally means 'to me there are sons, there is wealth'. Thus the being mode had been so ingrained in the human heart of ancient Indian culture even language lacked a verbal root 'to have'.

Vipassana meditation teaches man to lead a simple life satisfying his needs. Appicchataa, the ability to be satisfied with little is methodically cultivated as a virtue of great value. If it is cultivated collectively by mankind, giving up the present trend of consumerism, much of the sting of the eco-crisis can be mitigated. All the ills of large-scale deforestation such as soil erosion, landslides, changes in weather-pattern, drought, etc. are fundamentally related to consumerism. Without changing to a simple life style an effective solution to these life threatening problems cannot be worked out.


Mettaa forms a part and parcel of the meditative life. If one practises mattaa one would refrain from over-exploitation and over consumption out of sympathy for future generations too as non-renewable natural resources are fast diminishing due to demands made by the present consumerist life style. Practising mettaa man would also have sympathy for other species and forms of life which are threatened by extinction today. It is strategically important to remember that natural bio-diversity is extremely valuable for a healthy balanced eco-system.

Vipassana meditation cleanses man of his psychological impurities. Nature can cope with the biological impurities produced by man, but nature cannot help nor cope with the psychological pollution produced by man. Hence the spread of crime, terrorism and war like an epidemic in society, pollution related diseases threatening human life, and the imminence of large scale destruction through ecological imbalance and pollution.

Let us come back to the Buddha's statement: cittena niyyati loko, that the world operates through the human mind. So long as the human mind is motivated by morally wholesome intentions, man can lead a comparatively happy life and nature would be manageably hospitable. When the motivational roots are evil, man experiences misery as is maintained by the first two verses in the Dhammapada. Now it appears that evil is so widespread that even nature has been adversely affected, rendering it more inhospitable. The environmental crisis has to be treated as the result of a moral crisis. Man has to cultivate a morally wholesome attitude and lifestyle for a change for the better and this has to be accepted as a survival imperative.

Sincere thanks to Phramaha Witoon Thacha for transcription of this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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