A Religious Approach to Environmental Ethics

By: Kosho Niwano

July 12, 2016

Religion and Development: Building Partnerships to Fight Poverty

The earth’s climate has undergone major changes, but the current situation of global warming is quite different from that of the past, in that human activity is causing it. Technological advances offer solutions to this problem. For example, the technology exists to control environmental conditions.

We religious leaders, however, must make an appeal to society about environmental ethics that involve such things as the attitude and lifestyle of each person. All of us, whose lives are supported by this miraculous planet earth, need to think about what we can and should do to protect the earth’s environment, so that all of us can continue to live here.

“Thou shalt not kill” is one of the Ten Commandments on the tablets given to Moses, and freeing oneself from desire is a core teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha. Religious leaders continue to teach these values today, from which we should know that human beings are a weak form of existence that, if left to our own devices, will increase violence and greed. Therefore, in every generation, tempering human desire has been one of the key issues addressed by religious leaders. In other words, the question before us is, “how can we control the flames of human desire?”  

Ryoanji is a Zen temple located in Kyoto, Japan. This Rinzai sect temple is famous for its stone garden. In one corner of the garden sits a hand-washing basin that was donated by the influential Edo-era feudal lord Mitsukuni Tokugawa (1628-1701). Carved around the rim of the basin is the phrase, “I only know satisfaction.”

This phrase tells us that the source of human happiness is a mind that knows what it means to be satisfied. Nothing can make us happy if our minds cannot grasp the deeper meaning of satisfaction. In that case, no amount of financial, material, or social reward can ever make us truly happy. 

According to Shakyamuni Buddha, a person who truly knows satisfaction is calm in heart and mind, and a person who does not know satisfaction is confused in heart and mind. To wit, a “poor person” is not someone lacking in possessions, but someone who cannot find satisfaction in any number of possessions. 

“I only know satisfaction” does not merely mean that we should be satisfied with what we now have. It means that we should know that God and the Buddha have already given us everything we need. This phrase expresses the sense of riches and plenty that come from knowing the satisfaction that everything we might ever require has already been given to us. 

All of our lives, we have been sustained by the natural resources of the earth—gifts received from God and the Buddha, gifts that come from the universe. And now, we are faced with the problem of global warming due to greenhouse gasses. However, we religious leaders should not think about this problem in simple terms and suppose that we should change what is unsuitable to human life to what is suitable. Instead, we should think about it from the perspective of “I only know satisfaction.” 

The problem of climate change is extremely inconvenient for we human beings. However, is this not also a message from the earth giving human beings the chance to return to an authentic way of life that accords with the wish of God and the Buddha? We should accept climate change as something that has given us the chance to reclaim this way of life intrinsic to human beings, as a chance to rethink all of our human endeavors, and to understand the importance of living each day with humility. 

Some are of the extreme opinion that “were it not for humanity, there would be no damage to the environment,” and in one sense, this is true. Human economic activity, in and of itself, continues to impact the earth’s environment. And in looking back at my own lifestyle, I cannot say that I have done nothing to adversely effect the environment. On the one hand, there are my brothers and sisters who have been left behind by development, or who suffer in poverty because of the effects of development. Now more than ever, we should be truly, humbly grateful and revere all life forms, and we absolutely must think about how to bring our lifestyles into harmony with the wishes of God and the Buddha, and make such lifestyles our daily practice. 

Moving forward, we will be confronted with numerous environmental issues, and we must address them. Instead of thinking about how to produce short-term solutions to them, we must have action programs with results measured in decades or even centuries. I believe that religious networks will hereafter play increasingly important roles in implementing, in every corner of the world, ongoing, global-scale environmental programs.

One of the basic teachings of Buddhism is that “all things are impermanent.” Through this teaching, we can understand how much our lives are sustained by a great many things and can experience our own selves being made up of everything outside of ourselves. It means that we are all mutually interdependent, that we are coexisting. If we continue to let our desire and greed grow larger, however, we will no longer have the choice of being either victimizers or victims. As long as we are living here on this earth, everyone is a victimizer and everyone is a victim. Therefore, it is important that everyone personally feels that climate change and environmental issues are his or her own problem.

My grandfather, Nikkyo Niwano, the founder of Rissho Kosei-kai, said that, “Everything we receive is a gift from nature. We can never give rise to right faith without asking ourselves, ‘What is the purpose of our lives being supported by a great many things?’” 

I will continue to make every effort, while continuing to ask myself the question posed by Founder Niwano, to lead a lifestyle that acknowledges that I am one living being whose life is sustained by planet earth.

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