Post-COVID-19 thoughts: Sustainable development and Buddhism

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One of the important teachings of the Lord Buddha, the notion of cause and consequence (Karma) alone is adequate to emphasise the importance of being concerned about the future – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


The coronavirus outbreak which shattered the lives of many people and sent ripples throughout the world at an unprecedented rate, has made us think about the present lifestyle of us as humans, environmental degradation and overall sustainability of the planet. 

Religion is undoubtedly one of the important sources that has the potential to influence human behaviour. Because the present crisis in the ecology can be attributed to a spiritual issue (human greed) which calls for a spiritual answer. 

The Assisi Declaration

Several multi-religious conferences have been conducted during past few decades focusing on religious values on environmental conservation. However, the Assisi Declaration can be considered as a pioneering effort to explain the importance of environmental protection from a religious perspective. 

In 1986, with the intervention of WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) and leaders of five major religions of the world representing Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, gathered at Assisi, Italy and issued a declaration explaining as to how the teachings of each religion can contribute to the conservation of nature.

Buddhism and sustainable development

The World Commission on Environment and Development also known as Brundtland Commission defines sustainable development as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The present lifestyle is driven by high levels of consumerism, with scant respect towards the environment and future generations. 

However, Buddhism is replete with future perspectives. One of the important teachings of the Lord Buddha, the notion of cause and consequence (Karma) alone is adequate to emphasise the importance of being concerned about the future. The aforesaid cause and consequence (Karma), speaks of people having to face the consequences of their actions in the future. Accordingly, if humans continue the present lifestyle of over-consumerism with little consideration towards the environment, adverse consequences such as the depletion of natural resources, increase of global warming are inevitable.

Recent estimates indicate that deforestation has increased to a level that every second we are losing rainforest equivalent to a football ground. In the present, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, it has been reported that air pollution has decreased nearly 50% and the ozone layer is repairing itself. One of the reasons for present lifestyle of over-consumerism is human greed. Buddhism explains greed is the root cause of human suffering. 

The Four Noble Truths in Buddhism explains that suffering exists, cause of suffering, there can be an end of suffering and there is a way to emancipate from the suffering. The notion of suffering is not intended to portray negative view on the human lives or the world yet it emphasises the importance of acknowledging fleeting nature of all things. Developing an understanding about the fleeting nature of all things which is an essential part of Buddhism, enables the human to control the greed for material wealth. 

There are examples from the life of Lord Buddha that indicate the benefits of leading a life in harmony with the environment and appreciating the contribution of the environment. For example, The Lord Buddha upon achieving enlightenment stood gazing at a Bodhi tree with motionless eyes (Animisalochana) as a mark of gratitude to the tree that sheltered him during his struggle to achieve the enlightenment. 

In Vanaropa Sutta, the Lord Buddha said: “They who plant orchards and gardens, who plant groves, who build bridges, who set up sheds by the roadside with drinking water for the travellers, who sink wells or build reservoirs, who put up various forms of shelter for the public, are those in whom merit grows by day and by night”. The Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta indicate duties of a righteous king include not only protecting humans but also ‘beasts and birds’. The Metta sutta says people should be mindful with love and kindness not only to other humans but also to animals including all living beings. Buddhism is not against having material wealth, yet it emphasises the importance of following the middle path (Majjhima Patipada) without going to the extremes. 

As per the teachings of Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path (Ariya Astaangika Magga) is as follows:

Right Understanding

Right Thought

Right Speech

Right Action

Right Livelihood

Right Effort

Right Mindfulness

Right Concentration

If a person can follow the above mentioned eightfold path it will pave the way for spiritual progress. In context of sustainable development, right understanding would mean one should understand that everybody is dependent on the environment for their survival. Accordingly, any environmental damage would pose a threat for the very survival of the human race. In relation to the sustainable development any livelihood that creates negative impact on the environment cannot be considered as a right livelihood which also excludes some of the immoral income earning activities. 

“As a bee – without harming the blossom its colour, its fragrance takes its nectar and flies away, so should the sage go through a village.” (Dhammapada, Pupphavagga)

Similar to the bee extracting the honey from flowers without damaging the colour or the fragrance of the flower, humans should interact with the environment without causing any damage.

(The writer is a postgraduate qualified economic policy researcher, and can be contacted via [email protected].)

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