Precepts and Environment

Dharma Discourse by Abbot John Daido Loori, M.R.O.


Imagine, if you will, a universe in which all things have a mutual identity. They all have a codependent origination: when one thing arises, all things arise simultaneously. And everything has a mutual causality: what happens to one thing happens to the entire universe. Imagine a universe that is a self-creating, self-maintaining, and self-defining organism - a universe in which all the parts and the totality are a single entity, all of the pieces and the whole thing at once, one thing. This description of reality is not a holistic hypothesis or an all-encompassing idealistic dream. It is your life and my life. The life of the mountain and the life of the river. The life of a blade of grass, a spiderweb, the Brooklyn Bridge. These things are not related to each other. They're not part of the same thing. They're not similar. Rather, they are identical to each other in every respect. But the way we live our lives is as if that were not so. We live our lives in a way that separates the pieces, alienates and hurts.

The Buddhist Precepts are a teaching on how to live our lives in harmony with the facts described above. When we look at the Precepts, we normally think of them in terms of people. Indeed, most of the moral and ethical teachings of the great religions address relationships among people. But these Precepts do not exclusively pertain to the human realm. They are talking about the whole universe and we need to see them from that perspective if we are to benefit from what they have to offer, and begin healing the rift between ourselves and the universe.

First among the sixteen Precepts are the Three Treasures. We take refuge in the Three Treasures - the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Understood from three different perspectives, the Three Treasures present different virtues. The first perspective is called the One-Bodied Three Treasures. The second is called the Realized Three Treasures, and the third is called the Maintained Three Treasures.

From the perspective of the One-Bodied Three Treasures, anuttara-samyaksambodhi, supreme enlightenment, is the Buddha Treasure. Being pure, genuine, apart from the dust is the Dharma Treasure. The reason it is apart from the dust is that it is the dust. That is what the virtue of purity is about. There is nothing outside of it. The merits of harmony are the Sangha Treasure. Together, these are the One-Bodied Three Treasures. To realize and actualize Bodhi or enlightenment is the Buddha Treasure of the Realized Three Treasures. The realization of Buddha is the Dharma Treasure, and to penetrate into the Buddhadharma is the Sangha Treasure. These are the Realized Three Treasures. Among the Maintained Three Treasures, their manifestation in the world, guiding the heavens and guiding people, sometimes appearing in vast emptiness, sometimes appearing in dust, is the Buddha Treasure. Sometimes revolving sutras and sometimes revolving the oceanic storehouse, guiding inanimate things and guiding animate things, is the Dharma Treasure. And freed from all suffering and liberated from the house of the Three Worlds is called the Sangha Treasure. This is what we take refuge in. These Three Treasures are the universe itself. They are the totality of the environment and oneself.

Next are the Three Pure Precepts. The first of the Three Pure Precepts is not creating evil. This is based on the assumption that there is an inherent purity and goodness in the universe. Actually, there is neither goodness nor badness, neither good nor evil. These polarities don't exist until we create them. This precept is saying that not creating evil is the abiding place of all Buddhas, the source of all Buddhas. The second of the Three Pure Precepts is practicing good. Not to create evil means not to get involved in any activity that is going to give rise to evil. Although from the absolute perspective, there is neither good nor evil, every activity is going to create some consequence in the world of phenomena. The minute there is action, either good or evil comes up. So, do not let evil come up, but rather practice good. This is the Dharma of samyaksambodhi, the way of all beings. The third of the Three Pure Precepts is actualizing good for others. This is to transcend the profane and go beyond the holy, to liberate oneself and others. The Three Pure Precepts are a definition of harmony in an inherently perfect universe, a universe that is totally interpenetrated, codependent, and mutually arising. But the question is, how do we accomplish that perfection?

The Ten Grave Precepts point that out. Looking at the Ten Grave Precepts in terms of how we relate to our environment is a step in the direction of appreciating the continuous, subtle and vital role we play in the well-being of this planet - a beginning of taking responsibility for the whole catastrophe.

The First Grave Precept is affirm life - do not kill. What does it mean to kill the environment? It's the worst kind of killing. We are decimating many species. There is no way that these life forms can ever return to the earth. The vacuum their absence creates cannot be filled in any other way, and such a vacuum affects everything else in the ecosystem, no matter how infinitesimally small it is. We are losing species by the thousands every year - the last of their kind on the face of this great Earth. And because someone in South America is doing it, that doesn't mean we're not responsible. We're as responsible as if we are the one who clubs an infant seal or burns a hectare of tropical forest. It is as if we were squeezing the life out of ourselves. Killing the lakes with acid rain. Dumping chemicals into the rivers so that they cannot support any life. Polluting our skies so our children choke on the air they breath. Life is nonkilling. The seed of the Buddha grows continuously. Maintain the wisdom life of Buddha and do not kill life.

The Second Grave Precept is be giving - do not steal. Do not steal means not to rape the Earth. To take away from the insentient is stealing. The mountain suffers when you clear-cut it. Clear cutting is stealing the habitat of the animals that live on the mountain. When we over-cut, streams become congested with the sediments that wash off the mountain slopes. This is stealing the life of the fish that live in the river, of the birds that come to feed on the fish, of the mammals that come to feed on the birds. Be giving, do not steal. The mind and externals are just thus, the gate of liberation is open.

The Third Grave Precept is honor the body - do not misuse sexuality. Honor the body of Nature. When we begin to interfere with the natural order of things, when we begin to engineer the genetics of viruses and bacteria, plants and animals, we throw the whole ecological balance off. Our technological meddling affects the totality of the universe and there are karmic consequences to that. The three wheels: body, mind and mouth; greed, anger and ignorance are pure and clean. Nothing is desired. Go the same way as the Buddha, do not misuse sexuality.

The Fourth Grave Precept is manifest truth - do not lie. One of the very common kinds of lying that is popular these days is called green-washing. Green-washing is like whitewashing - it pretends to be ecologically sound and politically correct. You hear Monsanto Chemical Company tell us how wonderful they are and how sensitive they are to the environment. Exxon tells us the same thing. The plastic manufacturers tell us the same thing. Part of what they are saying is true. You couldn't have a special pump for failing hearts without plastic. You couldn't have an oxygen tent without plastic. Sure, fine, thank you. But stop making plastic cups and plates tha t are not biodegradable and are filling up the dumps. Another kind of lying is the lying that we do to ourselves about our own actions. We go off into the woods, and rather than take the pains to haul out the non-biodegradable stuff that we haul in, we hide it. We sink the beer cans, bury the cellophane wrappings under a root. We know we have done it, but we act as though it didn't happen. Gain the essence and realize the truth. Manifest it and do not lie.

The Fifth Grave Precept is proceed clearly - do not cloud the mind. Do not cloud the mind with greed, do not cloud the mind with denial. It is greed that is one of the major underlying causes of pollution. We can solve all the problems. We have all the resources to do it. We can deal with our garbage, we can deal with world hunger, we can deal with the pollution that comes out of the smokestacks. We have the technology to do it, but it is going to cost a lot of money, which means that there will be less profit. I f there is less profit, people will have to make do with a little bit less, and our greed won't let us do that. Proceed clearly, do not cloud the mind with greed.

The Sixth Grave Precept is see the perfection - do not speak of others errors and faults. For years we have manicured nature because in our opinion nature didn't know how to do things. That manicuring continues right here, on the shores of our river. We have concluded that the river is wrong. It erodes the banks and floods the lowlands. It needs to be controlled. So, we take all the curves out of it, line the banks with stone, and turn it into a pipeline. This effectively removes all the protective space that the waterbirds use to reproduce in, and the places where the fish go to find shelter when the water rises. Then the first time there is a spring storm the ducks' eggs and the fish wash downstream into the Ashokan Reservoir and the river is left barren. Or we think there are too many deer, so we perform controlled genocide. Or the wolves kill all the livestock, so we kill the wolves. Every time we get rid of one of species we create an incomprehensible impact and traumatize the whole environment. The scenario changes and we come up with another solution. We call this process wildlife management. What is this notion of wildlife management? See the perfection, do not speak of nature's errors and faults.

The Seventh Grave Precept is realize self and other as one - do not elevate the self and put down others. Do not elevate the self and put down nature. We hold a human-centered notion of the nature of the universe and the nature of the environment. We believe God put us in charge, and we live out that belief. The Bible confirms that for us. We live as though the universe were spinning around us with man at the center of the whole picture. We are convinced that the multitude of things are there to serve us, and so we take without any sense of giving. That is elevating the self and putting down nature. In this universe, where everything is interpenetrated, codependent and mutually arising, nothing stands out above anything else. We are inextricably linked and nobody is in charge. The universe is self-maintaining. Buddhas and ancestors realize the absolute emptiness and realize the great earth. When the great body is manifested there is neither inside or outside. When the Dharma body is manifested there is not even a single square inch of earth on which to stand. It swallows it. Realize self and other as one. Do not elevate the self and put down nature.

The Eighth Grave Precept is give generously - do not be withholding. We should understand that giving and receiving are one. If we really need something from nature, we should vow to return something to nature. We are dependent on nature, no question about it. But there is a difference between recognizing dependency and entering it consciously and gratefully, and being greedy. Native Americans lived amidst the plenty of nature for thousands of years. They fed on the buffalo when they needed that type of sustenance. We nearly brought that species to extinction in two short decades. It wasn't for food. Tens of thousands of carcasses rotted while we took the skins. It is the same with our relationship to elephants, seals, alligators, and countless others. Our killing has nothing to do with survival. It has nothing to do with need. It has to do with greed. Give generously, do not be withholding.

The Ninth Grave Precept is actualize harmony - do not be angry. Assertive, pointed action can be free of anger. We can fence the deer out of our garden and prevent them from eating our vegetables without hating the deer. Also, by simply being patient and observing the natural cycles we can avoid unnecessary headaches and emotional outbreaks. Usually we will discover that the things we think get in the way are really not in the way. When the gypsy moths descended in swarms one year and ate all the leaves off the trees so that in the middle of June the mountain looked like it was late fall, the local community got hysterical. We made an all-out attack. Planes came daily and sprayed the slopes with chemicals. People put tar on the bases of trees to trap the caterpillars. The gypsy moths simply climbed up, got stuck in the tar and piled up so others could crawl across the backs of the dead ones and went up the trees to do what they needed to do. Amidst all of these disasters, with the leaves gone and the shrubbery out of the shade, the mountain laurel bloomed like it had never bloomed before. I had no idea we had so much mountain laurel on this mountain. However, the gypsy moths definitely damaged the trees. The weak trees died. By the time July came around, there were new leaves on the trees, and the mountain was green again. But the anger and the hate we felt during those spring months was debilitating and amazing. The air was filled with it.

In another incident, the fellow who owned the house that is now the monastery abbacy had beavers on his property. They were eating up his trees so he decided to exterminate them. A neighbor told him that they were protected, so he called the DEC. The rangers trapped and removed the animals. When we moved into the house, however, a pair of beavers showed up and immediately started taking down the trees again. In fact, they chomped down a beautiful weeping willow that my students presented to me as a gift. I was supposed to sit under it in my old age, but now it was stuck in a beaver dam, blocking up the stream. With the stream dammed, the water rose and the pond filled with fish. With the abundance of fish, ducks arrived. That brought in the fox and the osprey. Suddenly the whole environment came alive because of those two beavers. Of course, they didn't stay too long because we didn't have that much wood, so after two seasons they moved on. Nobody was taking care of the dam. The water leaked out and the pond disappeared. It will be like that until the trees grow back and the next pair of beavers arrive. If we can just keep our fingers out of it and let things unfold, nature knows how to maintain itself. It creates itself and defines itself, as does the universe. And, by the way, the weeping willow came back, sprouted again right from the stump. It leans over the pond watching me go through my cycles these days.

The Tenth Grave Precept is experience the intimacy of things - do not defile the Three Treasures. To defile is to separate. The Three Treasures is this body and the body of the universe, and when we separate ourselves from ourselves, and from the universe, we defile the Three Treasures.

To practice the Precepts is to be in harmony with your life and the universe. To practice the Precepts means to be conscious of what they are about - not just on the surface, but on many levels, plummeting the depths of the Precepts. It means being deeply honest with yourself. When you become aware you have drifted away from the Precepts just acknowledge that fact. That acknowledgment means to take responsibility for your life; taking responsibility plays a key role in our practice. If you don't practice taking responsibility you are not practicing. It is as simple as that. There is nobody checking when you are doing zazen whether you're letting go of your thoughts or sticking with them. It has to do with your own honesty and integrity. Only you know what you are doing with your mind. It is the same with the Precepts. Only you know when you have actually violated a precept. And only you can be at one with that violation, can atone. To be at one with it means to take responsibility. To take responsibility means to acknowledge yourself as the master of your life. To take responsibility empowers you to do something about whatever it is that's hindering you. As long as we blame, as long as we avoid or deny, we are removed from the realm of possibility and power to do something about our lives. We become totally dependent upon the ups and downs that we create around us. There is no reason that we should be subjected to anything when we have the power to see that we create and we destroy all things. To acknowledge that simple fact is to take possession of the Precepts. It is to make the Precepts your own. It is to give life to the Buddha, this great earth, and the universe itself.

Return to Index to Dharma Discourses


mountains & rivers order | training in the mro | zen mountain monastery | fire lotus zendo | dharma communications | zen environmental studies institute | society of mountains & rivers | the monastery store | wzen.org | contents | contact us |

2003 Zen Mountain Monastery
All words and images on these pages are protected by copyright