The Relevance of Vipassana for the
By Prof. Lily de Silva
is a great threat to the survival of humankind on this planet. If effective measures
are not taken immediately, a catastrophe, which is similar in destructive capacity
to that caused by nuclear war, is imminent as a result of environmental pollution
and increased exposure to U.V. radiation through ozone depletion. The rate of
pollution caused by human beings far exceeds nature's ability to purify and rejuvenate
its life-sustaining air and water. We understand the problem that we now face,
hence the search for development with sustainability. But it is our contention
that a radical solution has not yet been looked for, let alone found, and that
man is only trying to grapple with this enormous global problem with patchwork
From the point of view of the Buddha's teaching, environmental
pollution is but the external manifestation of man's internal moral pollution,
which has assumed alarming proportions and reached a crisis. A number of Suttas
in the Pali Canon such as the Agga~n~na (Digha. III. 80), Cakkavattisiihanaada
(Digha III 58) and some in the A"nguttaranikaaya (I. 160; II. 75) express
that when moral degeneration becomes rampant in society, it causes adverse changes
in the human body and in our environment. The legend in the Agga~n~na Sutta states
that moral degeneration causes the loss of beauty in the human personality and
depletion of natural food resources in the external world. These adverse repercussions
are proportionate to the extent of moral degradation.
Crime also increases
in society and, grappling with these problems, people try to organize appropriate
social institutions to make life more tolerable, peaceful and comfortable for
one and all, to the best of their ability.
Thus Buddhism believes that moral
consciousness/the human mind, the human body, the external world consisting of
fauna and flora, and society are intricately interconnected through an all-embracing
network of cause and effect, to make one whole psychologically sensitive and responsive
ecosystem. It is this fact that the Buddha succinctly summarizes in the stanza:
niyyati loko cittena parikissatiCittassa ekadhammassa sabbeva vasa"m anvaguu
The world is led by the mind; it is dragged hither and thither by the mind.
mind is one reality under the power of which everything goes.(Sa"myutta-nikaaya,
If we loosely translate the phrase cittena niyyati loko as "the
world operates through human ideas," we can see at a practical level how
the face of the earth has been changed with advancing human ideas/knowledge during
the course of history. At the dawn of civilization when man was hunting and gathering
food, nature remained almost undisturbed. During the age of settled agricultural
life, irrigation schemes were developed and the face of nature was modified to
a certain extent. The industrial revolution brought about further changes with
excessive exploitation of natural resources and mass production. The twentieth
century, which boasts of 90% of the scientists the world has ever produced, has
ushered in the Nuclear Age and the Space Age.
Thus we see how human ideas have
brought about vast changes in nature, to such an extent that Nature's purifying,
rejuvenating and replenishing capacities have been outstripped by man's activity
of exploitation, causing unprecedented pollution and impoverishment. According
to Buddhist interpretation, the root cause that is responsible for this crisis
is man's greed for luxury, wealth and power. The human brain has developed without
keeping pace with the human heart and moral responsibility. Intellectually, modem
man may be a giant, but emotionally he is a dwarf suffering with spiritual bankruptcy.
One sociologist observes that modem man has one leg strapped to a jet plane and
the other leg tied to a bullock cart.
Thus man is tom apart with conflicting
desires and practical realities. Further, man's intellect is limited; he lacks
the vision to see how far-reaching his behavior and activities are, and how they
affect negatively or positively his own well-being, and unsuspected aspects of
the physical activities of Nature.
The Buddha's theory of pa.ticcasamuppaada
too maintains the same principle, that mind and matter, man and nature are interconnected
and interdependent. Man depends on nature for sustenance, for, it is said: Sabbe
sataa aahaara.t.tthitikaa. In search of food and also clothing, shelter and medicine,
humans change their environments according to their technological skills. For
example, modem men use chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides in agriculture
for better harvests. These destroy the natural bacterial balance, which gives
rise to adverse chain reactions, which in turn affect human health and well-being.
the same truth of dependence of man and Nature is reiterated in the commentaries
through the theory of the five cosmic laws, pa"nca niyaama dhamma. The five
are as follows: physical laws (utuniyaama, lit. season law), biological laws (biijaniyaama,
lit. seed law), psychological laws (cittaniyaama, lit. mind law), moral laws (kammaniyaama,
lit. action law) and causal laws (dhammaniyaama, lit. reality law). (Sa"mlyuttanikaaya
1125 states as synonyms dhamma.t.thitataa dhammaniyaamataa idappaccayataa). Causal
laws operate within the first four spheres as well as among them.
cosmic laws, physical, biological, psychological and moral, interact with one
another, and man experiences weal or woe, happiness or unhappiness according to
the nature of moral energy he generates. If wholesome moral energy is widespread,
there is peace in society and life is comparatively happy and comfortable. If
unwholesome moral energy is widespread, strife in society is similarly rampant
and life becomes more and more troublesome.
The sixth and fifth Centuries B.C.
can be cited as an exceptionally fortunate era when morally wholesome energy was
poured out through the teachings of spiritual giants such as the Buddha, Jina
Mahavira, Zoroastra, Confucius and Socrates, from different quarters of the world.
The twentieth century seems to be the direct opposite of that era. Crime, terrorism
and war reign supreme in the world today. Famine, starvation and malnutrition
have engulfed many of the third world countries. AIDS and other luxury related
deadly diseases are rampant in affluent countries. This state of affairs reminds
us of a commentarial statement regarding the fate of mankind in a morally bankrupt
world. According to that, when mankind comes under the grip of greed, hatred and
delusion, its downfall is brought about by famine, fire/weapons, and disease respectively
(Diighanikaaya A.t.thakathaa III. 854). The situation in the modern world is such
that all three morally unwholesome motivational roots seem to be active and man
is receiving three-pronged retribution for his own immoral actions.
important point raised in the Agga~n~na Sutta is that man is a creature with a
strong tendency for imitation (di.t.thaanugati"m aapajjamaanaa). Therefore
new ideas, actions and behavior on the part of a few, quickly become new trends
in society, especially when they are pleasure-oriented and economically attractive.
Aided by modem mass media and commercial propaganda, sensualism, aggressiveness,
hunger for wealth, status and power have become social trends in the modern world.
According to our thinking, this imitative tendency is not the only cause responsible
for these current trends, as they seem to be aided by the collective consciousness
of mankind (called Dhammadhaatu in Pali), which envelops the whole world. We therefore
tend to argue that terra firma is covered over by a biosphere and an atmosphere
into which is absorbed what we prefer to be called the psycho sphere. Our argument
for putting forward this idea is as follows:
The Saama~n~naphalasutta (Diigha,nikaaya
I.76) states that the mind is interwoven with the body, and that it can be seen
to be so by one who has developed the fourth jhana, like a colored thread that
passes through a transparent gem. It can be surmised that the mind is associated
with the air element in the body because the breathing pattern changes with emotional
changes, e.g., we sigh when we are sad, we yawn when we are lazy, we snort when
angry and gasp in pain. These changes can be accepted as conclusive proof that
the mind and breath are fused together. It is scientifically known that the carbon
dioxide level of the exhaled breath increases under negative emotional stress.
This may be because the breath has absorbed from the bloodstream toxic chemical
properties added to the blood from the endocrine glandular secretions when the
mind is charged with negative emotions such as anger and fear. When large masses
of people pour out such psychogenic venom with each exhalation, the atmosphere
gets polluted in a subtle way, and it is very probable that sentient beings and
even vegetation are sensitive to this type of pollution. It is experimentally
known that plants thrive much better in an environment of peace and love, but
they tend to get stunted or they wither away when harshly treated with violent
abusive words even though both groups are equally well provided with water, manure,
sunlight and horticultural care.
According to scientific thinking air pollution
with increased carbon dioxide is due to fossil fuel burning which in the long
run would contribute to global warming with catastrophic effects on human well-being.
It is now conjectured that the disappearance of the dinosaurs from the face of
the earth is due to reduction of oxygen level and increase of carbon dioxide in
the atmosphere. The present situation of environmental pollution is far more grave
than that which caused the extinction of those enormous beasts, as carbon dioxide
is produced by machines unknown during the dinosaur age. While metal machines
physically pollute the atmosphere, billions of human machines also add psychogenic
toxins to the carbon dioxide they breathe out. Therefore we venture to argue that
pollution in the psychosphere is a crucial factor in the environmental crisis
man is faced with today. Even the physical pollution caused by emissions from
machinery and over-exploitation of natural resources is the result of man's greed
for luxury, wealth and power. It is therefore possible to conclude that the environmental
pollution is really the external manifestation of the internal moral pollution
of modern man.
As man's moral disposition has a direct deep-rooted relationship
with the environmental crisis Vipassana meditation offers a relevant practical
method to effect a wholesome attitudinal change in man to give him a sense of
direction and goal in life, and also help him restore the sustainability of nature.
a phrase from Erich Fromm we can say that man has to change his attitude from
the 'having mode' to the 'being mode' of life. Man motivated by the 'having mode'
tries to satisfy his greed extracting as much as possible from nature, thus leading
to excessive exploitation bringing in its wake all the ills of pollution and depletion.
Man inspired by the being mode on the other hand utilizes nature's resources to
satisfy his needs and this attitude leads to conservation and sustainability of
nature. It is interesting to note that ancient Indian Languages such as Sanskrit
and Pali do not even have a verbal root 'to have'. The idea of having has to be
expressed periphrastically. If one wishes to say 'I have sons and wealth' in Pali
one must say Puttaa me atthi dhana"m atthi, which literally means 'to me
there are sons, there is wealth'. Thus the being mode had been so ingrained in
the human heart of ancient Indian culture even language lacked a verbal root 'to
Vipassana meditation teaches man to lead a simple life satisfying his
needs. Appicchataa, the ability to be satisfied with little is methodically cultivated
as a virtue of great value. If it is cultivated collectively by mankind, giving
up the present trend of consumerism, much of the sting of the eco-crisis can be
mitigated. All the ills of large-scale deforestation such as soil erosion, landslides,
changes in weather-pattern, drought, etc. are fundamentally related to consumerism.
Without changing to a simple life style an effective solution to these life threatening
problems cannot be worked out.
Metta forms a part and parcel of the meditative
life. If one practices mettá one would refrain from over-exploitation and
over consumption out of sympathy for future generations too as non-renewable natural
resources are fast diminishing due to demands made by the present consumerist
life style. Practicing mettá man would also have sympathy for other species
and forms of life, which are threatened by extinction today. It is strategically
important to remember that natural bio-diversity is extremely valuable for a healthy
Vipassana meditation cleanses man of his psychological
impurities. Nature can cope with the biological impurities produced by man, but
nature cannot help nor cope with the psychological pollution produced by man.
Hence the spread of crime, terrorism and war like an epidemic in society, pollution
related diseases threatening human life, and the imminence of large-scale destruction
through ecological imbalance and pollution.
Let us come back to the Buddha's
statement: cittena niyyati loko that the world operates through the human mind.
So long as the human mind is motivated by morally wholesome intentions, man can
lead a comparatively happy life and nature would be manageably hospitable. When
the motivational roots are evil, man experiences misery as is maintained by the
first two verses in the Dhammapada. Now it appears that evil is so widespread
that even nature has been adversely affected, rendering it more inhospitable.
The environmental crisis has to be treated as the result of a moral crisis. Man
has to cultivate a morally wholesome attitude and lifestyle for a change for the
better and this has to be accepted as a survival imperative.