Rev. Seigen H. Yamaoka


“As Buddhists, what can we do for the environment?”

We in the West attempt to analyze, clarify, question, and place the word “environment” into a category of definitions so that we can intellectually understand its significance.  That is, “environment” becomes the focus and an entity that we dissect, within the boundaries of a definition that we determine, so that we can discuss the possible direction for our actions.

A Jodo Shinshu View

I would like to present my views as a Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land) Buddhist minister.  In terms of my religious studies, which were done in the Eastern part of the world, I take a different view of the topic and the word “environment.”  From this Eastern/Buddhist viewpoint, I see that I (and many of us who have been born and educated in the West) have been missing a few subtle but powerful points which can ring out a different perspective.  They are:

First: The delegation of “environment” is something we have created.

Second: “Environment” is our designation for a natural process that has moved and developed through innumerable time spans that can be considered to be “inconceivable.”  The concept “environment” is a convenient “conceivable” term for inconceivable causes, conditions and effects moving in infinite inter-relationships.  Likewise, when we speak of ecology, the natural world, and all life forms, we do so in terms of these same interrelationships.

Third: What is the Buddhist view of “environment” in relation to the individual?  Or simply stated: “How is the individual viewed in relation to the “environment?”

Individual Transformation

From this perspective, it becomes clear that the greatest challenge we face is one of individual transformation.  First, we must change within ourselves.  We must transform (and have our views transformed) so that words such as “Natural world,” “environment,” and “all life forms” are not used for the purpose of separating, isolating, exploiting and manipulating something in order to edify our own needs and shortcomings.  We need to see how things live and are in inter-relatedness.


It is in the context of inter-relatedness that Buddhism expounds on the wholeness of all things.  In the doctrine of Dependent Origination (Pratityasamutpada) nothing is created or can exist apart from this network of inter-relatedness; things do not exist independently of each other.  This network is not a static process, but one of dynamic motion with an infinite potential.

It is critical for us to reflect on how and why we became the central focus point which determines the meaning of environment, and what environment is all about.  It is essential that we realize that this same central focus of “we,” “me,” or “I” is not separated form the inter-relatedness of all things that Buddhism speaks about.  Here is our challenge, not so much as a religious community, but as an individual, to understand our part in the network of relationships and inter-relatedness.

My religious tradition leads me to place my focus on the question of environment on how we, as individuals in our everyday settings, view ourselves and the world around us.

This is a world where “even for one moment nothing can stay unchanged,” whether persons recognize it or not.  It is in this everyday world of human particulars that the truth of suffering finds its origin. In the human world of particulars the “self” is the focal point of every consideration.  The Buddha’s compassionate task has been and still is, to reveal the true reality of an inter-related world/universe.  It is in this realization that peace, balance, and harmony may be realized.  He felt that the cause of pain and suffering experienced by people came into being because they lacked this fundamental awareness.  People were caught in the particulars of their own self-assertions.  They kept the wholeness of the flow of reality from informing (and transforming) the segmented cries of their lives, and thus created for themselves the suffering that they experienced in this constantly changing world of impermanence.

“What is the cause of suffering?”

The Buddhist question at this point then becomes, “What is the cause of suffering?”  It is the ego caught in the process of its own definitions and compounded with the great issue of survival.  This is termed “ignorance.”  The instinctive urge to survive can be found in all living things.  But, for many living things, although there is life, death, and change, it is still felt intuitively within the frame-work of inter-relatedness.

Even within primitive cultures there existed a knowledge of connection and responsibility to the world at large.  Yet, somewhere along the human journey, the sense of connectedness with the natural world and how it provides life and assures survival changed to one of using the environment for personal survival.  All human energy is exerted towards preserving one’s personal existence and individual possessions.

From this shift, survival became defined in terms of personal boundaries, personal space, and objects of individual selection and attachment which must be protected.  From this basic beginning, a system of separation such as good and evil, need and discard, friendly and hostile, useful an not useful, all elements of the discriminatory process, escalated.  Paramount is the use of the surrounding elements for one’s own personal benefit in order to survive.

Thus, today we have boundaries that lead to identification and protectionist crises.  This leads to domination, elimination, preservation, creation, confrontation, limitation and pollution.  Thus we come to the crisis of environmental imbalance.  Now we are in a high-tech age that searches to enrich the survival of life on one hand, and yet, on the other hand, is killing off the very resources which are the basis of that same life.  This view of ourselves and the world about us is the grand illusion termed “ignorance.”

“Emptiness” and “Void”

The Buddha spoke of “Emptiness” and “Void.”  These words were used to show the indefinable magnitude of a whole balanced through inter-relatedness, and in order to free people form ignorance and attachment so they could realize the flow process of infinite potential within inter-relatedness.  But, if one is caught in the particulars of ego-survival, these words seem to threaten self-annihilation, which the human being seeks to avoid at all cost.

The ego struggling for survival is powerful and yet subtle force.  This force can be found in the known and unknown reservoirs of ourselves; that is, if we feel the urgency to survive and live [at the expense of others], we have within us the tragic potential to enact causes which can lead to the destruction of our own environment and, unknowingly, of ourselves.

The truth of the matter is this: We have not extricated ourselves from the major snare of self-assertion, of “ego-survival.”  Our task must be to look at ourselves within the context of our own survival. And we can never assume that we have dealt finally or ultimately with this issue.  Self-examination and reflection are the spring boards from which we must constantly return to in order that we may begin to deal with the larger related issues.

From recorded time to this day, we retain a fundamental flaw in our human character.  We have a tendency to think, and to deeply believe, that all which surrounds us is there for us to discover, use and discard.  If the ego is given continued full play in such a belief system, the result will be the end of the beauty and balance of natural inter-dependence.  Such a shift will also pull the flawed human, who is ignorant to the reality of life, into a state of paint and ultimate extinction.

How to Live at Peace with the Universe

Yet, even with this fundamental flaw, we find ourselves seeking the essence of how to live at peace in the universe.  As Buddhists, how to live at peace, the art of living within inter-relatedness, is to emerge from the “ego-survival person” that separates us from the universal.  This is possible, according to Buddha, through the wisdom and compassion of enlightenment working in our lives.  Living within inter-relatedness is to know that the inter-dependent world, the universe, and all that is within it, is not for our selfish purposes and uses.  Rather, we must live with the view that the world, the universe and all that is within it is compassionately giving to us so that we can live and grow.  With this view, respect and gratitude arise, and we realizing the meaning of our personal lives in an inter-related and universal sense.

Great Compassion

Gratitude and respectful introspection bring forth the deeper realization of responsibility to the universe and all that is within it.  We realize the equality of all sentient beings in the Great Compassion. This is the inter-related frame-work of the Buddhist view of life, and its significance.

Do We Have the Courage to Meet the Challenge of Transformation?  Do We Really Have a Choice?

We must be transformed by seeing the world and the universe so deeply inter-related to our lives so that we see our lives connected to all life.  It is form this position only that we can truly discuss the question of “What can we do for the environment?”

What are the Challenges We Face?

As a Buddhist, may I offer two points for consideration:

1. With this understanding of inter-relatedness, we must view any and all religious traditions with respectful gratitude.  Religions, regardless of how they are interpreted and taught, deal with the issues of the world, humanity and environment.  We cannot insist that our own perspective is the one and only correct view infinitely tied to the truth.  To do so, we would be the first to begin the process of alienation and separation in this world of inter-related wholeness.  The world has seen much of the kind of human folly.

2. We must move away from the concept of “for the betterment of humanity.”  This view, stated from an individual or group perspective, is the stratification of “ego-survival” cloaked in the spirit of religious morality.  We need to understand that humanity cannot exist by itself.  Humanity exists because of the Compassion of all the known and unknown inter-relationships that are connected to it. Our challenge is to work for all life, the world and the universe, with reflective gratitude and respect.

Truly, the real challenge is personal transformation, to become free of all that we may hold dear to ourselves, and to discover what is dear to all life forms: the world, the universe and the environment.