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Buddhism and the Natural World

A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, February 1999

BUDDHISM AND THE NATURAL WORLD: Towards a Meaningful Myth, by P D Ryan, Windhorse, 1998, ISBN 1 899579 00 1, pp. 124, £6.99 (paperback).

What did the Buddha have to say about manís relationship to his natural environment? One immediately thinks of Zen, which is full of images taken from the natural world and which puts a strong emphasis on awareness of, and harmony with, the environment. But is this fundamental to Buddhism, or is it a Mahayana or Chinese accretion? To answer this question one must scour the Pali canon, and that is exactly what this book does - concentrating mainly on the longer narrative suttas of the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas.

The author clearly put a lot of feeling and effort into this book, and the result is highly entertaining if occasionally idiosyncratic. Mr Ryan has quite a talent for dramatising the Pali texts and bringing them to life, in a style which might irritate scholars but should appeal to those readers who find the Pali originals dry and impersonal. A good example is the Abhidhamma-like Mulapariyaya sutta, which is transformed into something almost operatic in his retelling of it. This is covered in the first chapter, on the Buddhist "method", which is followed by Chapter 2 on the five moral precepts. Thus prepared, the book starts to get to grips with its subject in Chapter 3, which looks at what the canon has to say about the relationship between man and animals. Chapter 4 enumerates some of the natural imagery, both real and symbolic, found in the suttas - lions, elephants, lotus flowers, trees, streams and so forth. Chapter 5 points out that the Buddhaís enlightenment took place not in a town but in the wilderness, in an environment repeatedly described as "delightful". Finally Chapters 6 and 7 turn to the "meaningful myth" of the bookís subtitle - the creation of the world as told in the Aggañña sutta. From a conservationistís point of view, this is indeed a wonderful little story, showing as it does how manís developing greed, ill-will and folly steadily degrade the natural environment. However, it is misleading to describe it as a myth - it is a parable, i.e. a story consciously devised by an individual to make a moral point. Myths develop spontaneously in a society to express what people at a particular time and place want to believe, and are almost invariably "wrong views" (ditthi) in Buddhist ethical terms.

The author is at his best when he recounts a sutta in a particular context and allows it to speak for itself. As soon as he starts to bring in his own interpretations, one suspects one is getting Buddhism from a conservationistís perspective rather than vice versa. It is always a warning sign when an author feels the need to translate Pali words differently from everyone else - for example he uses "knowledge" (and even "intelligence") for sañña instead of the more usual "perception", and "evil" rather than "unwholesome" for akusala. He is thus able to interpret the Mulapariyaya sutta perversely as an attack on the scientific method, and as an evangelical assertion that only followers of the Buddha are capable of doing good in the world. The authorís poor opinion of science is matched by his knowledge of the subject, which appears to have been gained from tabloid newspapers (the phrase "the horrors of our laboratories" appears on page 24!). Yet both Buddhism and the scientific method start from the same premise - that knowledge is to be developed through experience rather than faith or hearsay. The difference is in the subject matter: science deals with the physical world and Buddhism with morality and behaviour. It is true that scientific knowledge requires sense perception (sañña) alone, while Buddhist practice demands a higher insight, but this does not mean that science is inherently bad or that it cannot be tempered by an ethical sense. A note at the front of the book states that the author wrote it following a severe illness - thankfully he recovered, but if he did so without the aid of modern scientific medicine or surgery then he is a lucky man indeed.

In the end the book barely makes its point. The Pali canon, preoccupied as it is with philosophical discourse and the human condition, does contain some striking references to the natural world, but they are nothing like as central as in later Zen writings. Undoubtedly Buddhism, with its compassion for all living things, is thoroughly consistent with the conservationist ethic. Early Buddhists would have been well aware of cause and effect operating on a personal or local scale, for example the mismanagement of crops resulting in a poor harvest. But, despite the wonderful parable of the Aggañña sutta, it is difficult to believe that they (or any pre-scientific culture) could have foreseen manís actions having global consequences such as the extinction of species or climatic changes. Nevertheless the author makes a heroic attempt to prove his case, and despite an occasional crankiness the book is entertaining and thought-provoking.

Copyright © 1999, 2001 Andrew May

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