Perhaps the greatest issue facing us in the world today is how to stop destroying the planet and how to begin to reverse some of the damage we have already done. One of the reasons we have done this to ourselves and to our home, the planet Earth, is because we, the human race, have been and continue to be ignorant of the connections between things, ignorant of how all life is interconnected and interdependent. We have been ignorant of the very existence of an ecosystem. And it would be a great mistake for us to continue this ignorance into our search for solutions. It would be a mistake for us to think of environmentalism as concerned with a particular aspect of life. It would be a mistake to think that environmental issues were separate from issues of war or poverty or economics or politics or leisure or work or spiritual life. To think of environmental issues as separate in that way would be to continue the ignorance that has brought us into this plight in the first place. The social, the spiritual and the ecological are not separate spheres of knowledge and activity, they are intimately and irrevocably interconnected and it is ignorance of this that leads us to behave in ways that are destructive to the planet and therefore destructive to ourselves. This ignorance comes about because human beings have developed self-reflexive consciousness. We are aware and we are aware that we are aware.
This consciousness, which is what distinguishes us from the animals, is our greatest asset, and our greatest gift and perhaps our greatest curse. Because of this consciousness of self there is a consciousness of other and a consciousness of insecurity in relation to other. The consciousness of self is crude, rudimentary even, and is closely identified with the body, with things, with people as things and with a rigid world view. This self is constantly buffeted by the winds of change externally and internally by the primitive forces of survival and reproduction. So a sense of insecurity is an inevitable accompaniment of emerging self-consciousness. As Subhuti says in The Buddhist Vision "the rudimentary self or immature ego tries to find security by using the same instincts as those by which the animal preserves itself. Just as the animal hunts for the food which will nourish its organism, so the ego tries to possess those things it considers as securing its identity. And as the animal will attack and destroy whatever threatens its survival, so the ego seeks to destroy whatever undermines its integrity. Aided and amplified by the human power of imagination, these reactions can reach the monstrous proportions of ruthless empire-building and of mass destruction through war." So the immature ego is ignorant of interconnection and experiences itself as separate, and as fixed and unchanging. This according to Buddhism is the basic spiritual ignorance, experiencing ourselves as separate and as fixed and unchanging. It is this basic spiritual ignorance that gives rise to the greed for possessions and people to give us a sense of security and it is this basic spiritual ignorance which gives rise to hatred and a violent rejection of anything that appears to threaten this separate fixed and unchanging self. Here we can see the source of all human conflict, the source of consumerism, the source of overpopulation, the source of our blind destruction of our own environment.
This is what is depicted at the centre of the Tibetan Wheel of Life. There are three animals, a cock, a snake and a pig biting each other's tails and going round and round in circles. The cock symbolises greed, the snake hatred and the pig ignorance. They symbolise the animal within us which is covered over with a thin veneer of civilisation. Animals of course are not destructive; it is only the animal in conjunction with self-consciousness that is destructive. So this picture is not saying anything about animals, it is a mirror for us to look into and if we are honest we will recognise, perhaps with the shock, that what we see is our own inner self, motivated by greed for possessions, for sex, for status, motivated by aversion to discomfort or criticism and motivated by the yearning for security. This is what the first circle on the Wheel of Life shows. It is directly confronting us with our spiritual ignorance and spiritual immaturity. Because we are dealing with symbolism here it is perhaps better not to or over conceptualise. Concepts can become a barrier between us and the truth. It is better just to look in the mirror and see what we see; a cock, a snake and a pig; pecking, strutting, crawling, hissing, rooting, snuffling animals. However we are self conscious, we are human beings and that spark of consciousness is what can save us from the excesses of ignorance. We have the choice to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, to borrow an image from elsewhere. We have the choice to do something with our awareness. What we can do with our awareness is develop it. We can evolve further. We can make the choice to evolve our awareness and dissolve the fetters of ignorance, neurotic greed and hatred. We can embark on what has been called the path of the higher evolution, that is the evolution of consciousness or awareness. This is what the spiritual life is about, you could say this is what the truly human life is about and this is the long term and fundamental solution to the problem of human destructiveness. This is the radical solution in that it goes to the roots of the problem.
The second circle on the Wheel of Life is about this choice we have. A choice we make whether we want to or not because even doing nothing is a choice. This circle of the Wheel is divided into two segments, one white and one black. In the black segment, naked and anguished men and women tumble downwards tormented by demons, in the white segment men and women wearing bright garments and performing various benign activities are ascending. The message of this section of the Wheel of Life is that we experience the consequences of our actions. This is what is known in Buddhism as the law of Karma, a much used and often misunderstood term. To understand what Karma is we need to understand a very fundamental Buddhist teaching, the teaching of conditionality. After the Buddha's Enlightenment experience he tried to communicate what he had seen and understood in many different ways. One of the ways he used to explain his insight is formulated as the law of conditionality, which very simply states that everything arises in dependence upon conditions. In the texts it says "this being that becomes, from the arising of this that arises. This not being that does not become, from the ceasing of this that ceases." so everything comes into being in dependence upon preceding conditions. This applies to everything: a thought, a giraffe, a mountain, a war, a planet, a universe. So this would appear to be a very obvious and simple assertion, that everything arises in dependence upon conditions. However, simple and obvious as it may seem, it is the most fundamental teaching of Buddhism and it has vast implications. Karma is just one kind of conditionality. There are five kinds; there is conditionality on the inorganic level, the level covered more or less by the laws of physics. There is conditionality on the organic level, the level of biology. There is conditionality on the lower mental level involving such things as perceptions and instincts. Then there is conditionality on the level of intentional action which is the Karmic level and above that is the transcendental, Dharmic level of conditionality. The reason I have enumerated this rather technical list is simply to make the point that Karma does not explain everything that happens to us. There are a multitude of conditions at work all the time and it is impossible to separate out what results from our own intentional actions and what results from other kinds of conditionality. So we need to beware of simplistic understandings of Karma. It is not a model of linear cause and effect and it is not an exhaustive explanation of everything that happens to everyone. Everything arises in dependence upon conditions but not all conditions are Karmic.
Put simply Karma is intentional action. Buddhism teaches an ethics of intention. Traditional ethical systems in the West speak in terms of 'good' and 'bad'. Buddhism doesn't think in terms of good and bad actions. It focuses instead on the intention behind the action. Indeed the terms good and bad are alien to Buddhist ethical teaching, instead we use the terms skilful and unskilful. A skilful or ethical action is one that arises out of a mind that is loving, generous and wise and an unskilful or unethical action is one that arises out of a mind that is selfish, hateful and ignorant. Actions are understood to be of thought, speech and body. So the law of Karma states that unskilful actions have negative consequences and skilful actions have benign and positive consequences. Difficulties, suffering and unhappiness which we experience may be due to our unskilfulness in the past i.e. may be due to our past Karma, or may be due to other conditions. Happiness and good fortune may be due to our skillfulness in the past, i.e. may be due to our past Karma, or to other conditions. But the importance of the law of Karma is not that it may explain our present circumstances or help us to analyse the past. The importance of the law of Karma is that it allows us to shape the future and, because all things are interconnected, how we shape our own future inevitably affects others and even the whole planet.
Skilful or ethical action of thought, word and deed is the best way to create a happy and satisfying life. Skilful action is based in mental states of kindness, generosity and wisdom which are by nature expansive, outgoing and compassionate. This has a beneficial effect on everybody we encounter and on all the creatures and plant life. When we are experiencing kindness, love, generosity and wisdom we do not harm the world around us, we enjoy and protect it.
So the choice we have to make is whether to embark on the difficult task of overcoming our natural instinct to seek security for our fragile ego sense or go beyond that natural instinct by deliberately evolving consciousness that is expansive and self-less. It would seem that the obvious answer would be to say yes, lets go for it. However that is not a choice that the majority of people make. Most people decide to stay within the confines of their narrow self interest and seek as much security as they can from the world around them. This is because the spiritual path, the path of the higher evolution of consciousness, is truly difficult. It is not the work of a day or a week or year but of twenty, thirty, or more years and even then the fruits are gathered slowly. The truly spiritual life goes against the whole trend and logic of ordinary life. I have to make the effort, I have to change, I have to be transformed even, but ultimately it is not about any acquisition for me, not even the acquisition of wisdom. Certainly we must use our natural self interest to get started. We can be legitimately motivated by a desire for happiness and well-being. But ultimately all self-centredness is transcended, and our sense of self and other is radically transformed, so that to act in the interests of others is no different from acting in the interests of self. This is something that can be understood intellectually, but intellectual understanding is not sufficient to sustain consistent effort over many years. We need to have a heart response to the possibilities open to us, the possibilities of great wisdom and compassion that transcend all hankering after security all desire for personal gain, status, happiness even. We need to have a heart response to the ideal of becoming more truly human so that we come to value co-operation above competition, to value simplicity above wealth, value harmony above gain, value peace above revenge, and the welfare of all beings above our own life. We need to have a heart response because the heart or the emotions are where our energy is where our motivation is and we will need energy and motivation to make progress on the spiritual path. Because if we are not motivated strongly enough we will not be able to overcome the many obstacles and struggles that we will inevitably meet along the way.
For instance we will want to meditate but may get discouraged when we experience nothing but distraction for weeks or months on end. We will want to be loving and kind but may get discouraged when we meet people, especially Buddhists, were not nice kind people and who perhaps don't even like us. We will want to be wise but may get discouraged when nobody wants to listen to our wisdom and they even laugh of us. We will want to be ethical but may get discouraged when others take advantage of us. We will want to be more aware but may get discouraged when we become more aware and realise that we are not as good and truthful and kind as we liked to believe. We will want to transcend selfishness but may get discouraged by the tenacity of our egotism.
Spiritual life is not easy, it is not for the faint-hearted. It is a tough choice but it is worthwhile and it works. The alternative is to continue to seek security and happiness in ways that cannot ever deliver happiness and security. It may be difficult to make progress on a spiritual path but wisdom, happiness and compassion do arise in dependence upon the effort made. The mundane path of material success and status may appear easier but it is an illusion from top to bottom and it only brings sorrow and pain. This doesn't need any great elucidation, it is plain to see all around us and it is evident in the history of the human race down through all the generations. The great difference that has occurred over the last couple of centuries is that the world has become smaller due to the advances in technology and the human race is capable of massive destructiveness also due to the advances in technology. So our choice to pursue the life of material gain, power and status has greater implications now than ever before. And those implications are becoming more visible in such things as climate change, radioactive waste, weapons of mass destruction, large scale poverty and starvation and overpopulation. The implications of choosing a life of awareness, simplicity, ethical behaviour and compassion for all sentient life are also greater than ever before because of the possibilities of global communication and because of the spiritual vacuum at the heart of the world.
When we choose a life of spiritual quest within a Buddhist context, we undertake to live by five specific principles. These are the principle of non-violence, principal of generosity, the principle of contentment, the principle of truthfulness and the principle of awareness. The practice of meditation helps us to live by these principles.
The first principle underlies all the other principles and is the cornerstone of the whole edifice of Buddhist philosophy and practice. This is the principle of non-violence or to put it more positively, the principle of love. This love is what we call Metta, a love that is sustained, consistent, spontaneous and seeks no reward. This principle has implications for every aspect of our lives; most obviously it implies cooperative, forgiving and kindly relations with other people, even those we disagree with or dislike. So it rules out revenge, it rules out prejudice, it rules out persecution, it rules out discrimination, it rules out character assassination, it rules out slander, it rules out doing anything to others that they don't wish us to do. It rules out all kinds of manipulation and exploitation. All of these things appear in gross forms in the world around us, but as we become more ethically sensitive we will discover their more subtle forms in our own hearts and minds. We will begin to notice the edge of competitiveness or malice in our humour, we will begin to notice the subtle emotional blackmail between lovers, we will notice all the little ways we have of undermining the achievement of others and so on. Here we find our working ground and it is here in our everyday relations with others that we can begin the process of cultivating a compassionate mind.
The principle of non-violence has implications beyond our relations with other people. It applies to our relations with all living things: animals, birds, insects, trees, flowers etc. Before the Chinese invasion in 1950, Tibet was a safe haven for wildlife, and vast herds of antelope and musk deer roamed the plains together with bears, wolves, foxes and wild sheep. But all that has changed now. The American photographer and author Galen Rowell in his essay" The Agony of Tibet", writes, "the invaders made a sport of shooting indiscriminately at wildlife. In 1973, Dhondub Choedon, a Tibetan now in exile in India, reported that "Chinese soldiers go on organised hunts using machine guns. They carry away the meat in lorries and export the musk and furs to China". Important habitat for vast herds of animals was soon over grazed as the Chinese forced nomadic families into communes to raise livestock for export instead of their own subsistence. Tibetans, including the children, were forced to kill 'unnecessary animals' such as moles and marmots that vied with humans for grain and dug up valuable grazing land. Children were given a qouta for small animals to kill that, if not met, resulted in beatings and other forms of punishment." It is so sad to think of the children being conditioned to kill animals. A stark illustration of how totally different a materialistic outlook is from a spiritual and non-violent outlook.
The principle of non-violence or love extends also to our attitude to the natural world. The Thai monk Prayudh Payutto has said that it is best to avoid using the word 'environment' in our concerns for ecology. He feels the word 'environment' betrays its origins in Western attitudes that separate human beings from the rest of nature. Nature includes us. Ecology includes us. When we really begin to understand and see this then we see that the effort we make to transform ourselves is ecological work and that all our activities have ecological implications. If a river dries up it is relatively easy to see the ecological implications. If human hearts dry up the ecological implications are far greater. We must keep our hearts moist with the life-giving waters of love.
Prayudh Payutto has written an essay entitled "Buddhist solutions for the 21st century". In it he states that modern human civilisation is in the grip of three harmful and tenaciously held views, these are:
"1. The perception that mankind is separate from nature, that mankind must control, conquer, or manipulate nature according to his desires.
2. The perception that fellow human beings are not fellow human beings. Rather than perceiving the common situations or experiences shared among all people, human beings have tended to focus on the differences between themselves.
3. The perception that happiness is dependent on an abundance of material possessions.
The first perception is an attitude toward nature; the second perception is an attitude toward fellow human beings; the third perception is an understanding of the objective of life."
He goes on to say that for a human beings to live happily there must be freedom on three levels: physical freedom, social freedom, and inner freedom. Inner freedom is the ability to live happily and contentedly within ourselves without needing to manipulate and exploit the world around us. Without inner freedom human happiness is totally dependent on manipulation of the external environment and social exploitation. So this inner freedom, which is freedom from neurotic craving, freedom from hatred and freedom from spiritual ignorance is essential to the ecology of our planet. Without this inner freedom we are at the mercy of forces which push us into over-consumption and violent competition and a search for happiness and security where happiness and security cannot be found.
These are some of the implications of this first principle of Buddhism, the principle of non-violence. The other four principles are, as I said, based on this one. The principle of generosity extends the principle of love into our relationship to property and possessions. Generosity is basically an attitude to possessions, property and money which sees sharing and giving as more important than acquiring and owning. It is an attitude that holds things lightly, regarding ourselves as only temporary owners of whatever we have. In fact it is even better if we can see ourselves not as owners but as stewards, we are simply looking after something until it passes on to someone else. The Buddha said that a strong possessiveness about things or people lead to suffering; all things are impermanent and the stronger we hold on to them the more painful is the inevitable letting go. This applies to everything including our own body and sense of identity.
The principle of generosity runs completely counter to what has been called the 'religion of consumerism', with its scriptures and liturgies dedicated to exciting greed and its places of worship designed to entice us to acquire things we neither need nor want. Consumerism could be said to be the dominant ethic in the developed world today and this makes the principle of generosity all the more radical. Generosity as a practice in a society and world which is dedicated to its opposite is not an easy practice. To develop a truly generous attitude, an attitude of non-ownership, non-possession, non-acquiring, an attitude of sharing, stewardship and giving requires a big effort to overcome the constant conditioning and brainwashing that we are subjected to and have been subjected to since childhood.
Another Thai monk, Sulak Sivaraksa, writes "consumerism supports those who have economic and political power by rewarding their hatred, aggression, and anger. And consumerism works hand-in-hand with the modern educational system to encourage cleverness without wisdom. We create delusion in ourselves and call it knowledge. Until the schools reinvest their energy into teaching wholesome, spiritual values instead of reinforcing the delusion that satisfaction and meaning in life can be found by finding a higher-paying job, the schools are just cheerleaders for the advertising agencies, and we believe that consuming more, going faster, and living in greater convenience will bring us happiness. We don't look at the tremendous cost to ourselves, to our environment, and to our souls. Until more people are willing to look at the negative aspects of consumerism, we will not be able to change the situation for the better. Until we understand the roots of greed, hatred, and delusion within ourselves, we will not be free from the temptations of the religion of consumerism, and we will remain stuck in this illusory search for happiness.”
The third principle is the principle of contentment and this is traditionally related to our sexual activity. On the one hand we are enjoined to refrain from any form of exploitation or manipulation to satisfy our sexual desires and on the other hand we are encouraged to practise contentment with our current sexual status, instead of constant neurotic seeking after new experiences. Ultimately this principle aims at what is referred to as a state of stillness, simplicity and contentment which frees us to a large extent from any neurotic dependence on sex. For most of us this principle will in practice mean trying not to use subtle, or even not so subtle, manipulation or emotional blackmail to get others to behave as we want them to and it will also mean meditating to attain to more tranquil and contented states of mind.
The fourth principle of Buddhist ethics is truthfulness. Truthfulness is essential to the functioning of any society. Without truthfulness there can be no trust and without trust human relations fall apart and we are left with an atmosphere of suspicion and hatred. Truthfulness as an ethical principle has to be based on loving kindness and not used as a weapon to hurt others. And truthfulness, like all these ethical principles, begins with ourselves. We need to be honest with ourselves about what we think, what we feel, what we do and what we say. To be honest with oneself is not necessarily an easy matter, it may entail facing up to unpleasant aspects of our character and it may seriously dent our pride and even possibly put us in the position of needing to apologise to others.
Truthfulness means, firstly, being factual in what we say or write. It also means steering clear of exaggeration for effect. Exaggeration is one of the great building bricks of egotism. Truthfulness means not understating things and it means not deliberately omitting relevant information. Omissions can distort a narrative to the point of falsehood. And of course, truthfulness means not deliberately lying. When we tamper with the truth it is usually because we want to be seen in a particular light or we want to gain some advantage: we want to be liked, we want to be popular and bending the truth can seem to be an easy way to get attention and approval or get whatever we want. Of course if we do that habitually the person who gets attention and approval will be a fiction and in our hearts we will be lonelier than ever. For friendship to exist, for any loving human relationships to exist, there has to be honesty, otherwise we only have fictions relating to fictions, facades relating to facades, which is, to say the least, unsatisfactory.
The fifth principle of Buddhist ethics is the principle of awareness or mindfulness. You could say that awareness is just as fundamental as love. We need awareness that is saturated with love and compassion and our love and compassion needs to be as aware as possible. Love and compassion without awareness can degenerate into sentimentality and pity and awareness without love can be cold and alienated. So these two qualities, love and awareness, need to be developed in tandem. That is why we teach the two meditation practices, Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana. The Mindfulness of Breathing cultivates awareness and the Metta Bhavana practice develops loving kindness. Awareness begins with ourselves. We need to become more aware of our bodies and our actions, we need to become aware of our thoughts and of our emotions. This forms the basis for awareness of other people, awareness of the world around us and ultimately awareness of reality.
Sangharakshita has said ''awareness is revolutionary. It is revolutionary in that it brings about change of a far reaching and profound nature. Awareness is naturally expansive. As we become more and more aware become more expansive and full of life. Our energy becomes more focused and more available to us and we become more capable of taking responsibility for our lives. Our normal state is not really one of being aware, we don't really know what we're thinking, feeling, doing or saying and other people are just projections of our unconscious needs, desires and aversions. We think we're being original when all our views and opinions are received. We think we are independent of influence when our whole life is a constant swinging from one influence to the next.
Awareness gives us the possibility of a genuine individuality and more real relationships with other people. It is revolutionary in that it throws the light of truth onto our lives and wakes us up to what is really going on. Awareness transforms us. The greater the awareness the more far reaching the transformation and there is no limit to how aware we can become. Buddhahood or Enlightenment could be said to be a state of perfected awareness. Awareness of other people and awareness of the world around us shows us that we are one with humanity and one with nature. It shows us that there is beauty everywhere. Lack of awareness, which is self-centredness, is narrow in perception and sees threat and ugliness everywhere. Awareness sees beauty and optimism even in the most unlikely places.
Awareness of reality is a constant immersion in the reality that all life is process, all life is flux and change, all life is interconnected and interdependent. To be constantly immersed in this vision, to experience this all the time is to be free from all ill-will and possessiveness. This awareness gives life a quality of lightness and a vast prospective that turns all personal fears and anxieties into absurdities and makes much of what seems important in the world around us look ridiculous. Perhaps that is why the Dalai Lama is always laughing so heartily! However because of the presence of compassion there is no arrogance or impatience in this awareness. There is rather a tender regard for the suffering of the world which is one's own suffering too when one ceases to separate oneself from others and the world.
These then are the five principles that we undertake to live by when we embark on the spiritual path: non-violence, generosity, contentment, truthfulness and awareness. These are the principles that we train ourselves in over and over again in order to transcend the poisons of neurotic greed, ill-will and spiritual ignorance, which are the cause of human suffering, both on the personal level and the global level. By training ourselves to live by these principles we contribute to our own well-being and to the well-being of the whole world.
Perhaps all this gives some little explanation of the symbolism of the inner two circles of the Wheel of Life. The Wheel of Life is an ancient symbol over two thousand years old. In one Buddhist text, which dates from 100 years BC, the Buddha is depicted as telling his followers to paint the Wheel of Life at the entrance to every monastery and to have a monk on standby to explain the imagery to visitors and novices. In this essay then we are taking part in an age-old ritual. Buddhism was wiped out in India, so that only one ancient image of the wheel of life survives in India, at the caves of Ajanta. But Tibet inherited the riches of Indian Buddhism and the Wheel of Life is still very much used in Tibetan temples. It is the nature of symbolism that it cannot be tied down to concepts and that there is always more to say. The Wheel of Life is a mirror of truthfulness and in it we see ourselves, warts and all. We also see the seeds of our happiness, the seeds of our Enlightenment even. Sometimes our vanity leads us to the mirror and sometimes our vanity keeps us away from a mirror, but this mirror shatters our vanity so that we can begin to see things as they are really are and so that we can make the choice to embark on the path of the higher evolution of consciousness, which is in reality no choice, because we cannot live by choosing death, we can only live by choosing life.
To conclude here is a little story from 'The Snow Leopard' by Peter Matheson which perhaps illustrates this point quite well, "the Lama of the Crystal monastery appears to be a very happy man, and yet I wonder how he feels about his isolation in the silences of Tsakang, which he has not left in eight years now and, because he's crippled may never leave again. Since Jang-bu, the interpreter, seems uncomfortable with the Lama or with himself or perhaps with us, I tell him not to inquire on this point if it seems to him impertinent, but after a moment Jang-bu does so. And this holy man of great directness and simplicity, big white teeth shining, laughs out loud in an infectious way at Jang- bu's question. Indicating his twisted legs without a trace of self-pity or bitterness - they belong to all of us - he casts his arms wide to the sky and the snow mountains, the high sun and the dancing sheep, and cries, "Of course I am happy here! It's wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!"