Our concern for the future

Universal responsibility and the environment: Our concern for the future

“Our planet is our house, and we must keep it in order and take care of it if we are genuinely concerned about happiness for ourselves, our children, our friends, and other sentient beings who share this great house with us.” – The 14th Dalai Lama
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As a boy studying Buddhism, I was taught the importance of a caring attitude toward the environment. Our practice of nonviolence applies not just to human beings but to all sentient beings—any living thing that has a mind. Where there is a mind, there are feelings such as pain, pleasure, and joy. No sentient being wants pain: all wants happiness instead. I believe that all sentient beings share those feelings at some basic level.

In Buddhism practice we get so used to this idea of non-violence and the ending of all suffering that we become accustomed to not harming or destroying anything indiscriminately. Although we do not believe that trees or flowers have minds, we treat them also with respect. Thus we share a sense of universal responsibility for both mankind and nature.

Our belief in reincarnation is one example of our concern for the future. If you think that you will be reborn, you are likely to say to yourself, I have to preserve such and such because my future reincarnation will be able to continue with these things. Even though there is a chance you may be reborn as a creature, perhaps even on a different planet, the idea of reincarnation gives you a reason to have a direct concern about this planet and future generations.

In the West, when you speak of “humanity,” you usually mean only our existing generation of human beings. Past humanity is already gone. The future, like death, has yet to come. Western ideas usually deal with the practical side of things for only this present generation of human beings.

Tibetan feelings about the environment are based entirely on religion. They are derived from the whole Tibetan way of life, not just from Buddhism. For example, consider Buddhism in Japan or Thailand, in environments different from ours. Their culture and their attitude are not the same as ours. Our unique environment has strongly influenced us. We don’t live on a small, heavily populated island. Historically, we have had little anxiety with our vast area, low population, and distant neighbours. We haven’t felt as oppressed as people in many other human communities.

Mother Earth has somehow tolerated sloppy house habits. But now human use, population, and technology have reached that certain stage ‘where Mother Earth no longer accepts our presence with silence.

It is very possible to practice the essence of a faith or culture without practicing a religion. Our Tibetan culture, although culture, although highly influenced by Buddhism, did not gain all its philosophy from Buddhism. I once suggested to an organisation dealing with Tibetan refugees that it would be interesting to do some research on how much our people have been affected by their approach to life itself in Tibet. What are the factors that make Tibetans generally happy and calm? People are always looking for answers in our unique religion, forgetting that our environment is just as unusual.

Concern for the environment is not necessarily holy, nor does it always require compassion. We Buddhists express compassion for all sentient beings, but this compassion is not necessarily extended to every rock or tree or house. Most of us are somewhat concerned about our own house, but not really compassionate about it. We keep it in order so that we can live and be happy. We know that to have happy feelings in our house we must take care of it. So our feelings may be of concern rather than compassion.

Similarly, our planet is our house, and we must keep it in order and take care of it if we are genuinely concerned about happiness for ourselves, our children, our friends, and other sentient beings who share this great house with us. If we think of the planet as our house or’ as “our mother—Mother Earth—we automatically feel concerned for our environment. Today, we understand that the future of humanity very much depends on our planet, and that the future of the planet very much depends on humanity. But this has not always been so clear to us. Until now, you see, Mother Earth has somehow tolerated sloppy house habits. But now human use, population, and technology have reached that certain stage ‘where Mother Earth no longer accepts our presence with silence. In many ways, she is now telling us, “My children are behaving badly,” she is warning us that there are limits to our actions.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso is the spiritual leader of Tibet. Since taking asylum in India in 1959, His Holiness has become a global advocator of peace, compassion and happiness. He is the first Nobel Laureate to be recognised for his concern for global environmental problems.

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