Buddhism in Nature

Buddhism in Nature

By Gil Fronsdal

When the Buddha, at age 29, left his palace life to seek liberation, he spent most of his remaining fifty – one years living in the forests, woodlands, and parks of Northern India. These natural settings were the incubator for both his awakening and his teaching. The important connection he saw between nature and the practices he taught is encapsulated in his emphatic instruction to meditate in the forest at the foot of a tree. He claimed that as long as his followers practice in the forest the path of liberation would not decline. The Buddha’s great Awakening, or bodhi, at the age of 35 occurred as he sat meditating outdoors under a tree, protected by its canopy. One legend explains that after his Awakening he spent seven days gazing in gratitude at the tree that sheltered him in his final quest for liberation. The tree — known scientifically as Ficus religiosa — is held up as the living symbol of the Buddha’s Awakening and represents the important connection between Buddhism and the natural world.

The Buddha chose to die in a quiet forested area. His lying down to die peacefully and mindfully between two trees is a powerful image of living (and dying) in harmony with the natural world. In Buddhism nature is not seen as an adversary; it is our partner for liv ing at peace. In between his Awakening and his death, the natural world was ubiquitous in the Buddha’s life and teachings. Forests and woodland parks were the most common setting in which people met the Buddha and heard his teachings. As such, nature provided the backdrop and unspoken context for his teachings and how people heard them.

For example, when he recognized his son, Rahula, was ripe for liberation, the Buddha led him to a grove deep in the woods. Sitting on the ground, surrounded by large, majestic tropical trees, the Buddha offered teachings that guided his son to awakening. The natural setting must have contributed to Rahula’s ability to receive the teachings as deeply as he did. The tranquility of the grove and the grandeur of the great trees sharpened his attention, calm, and receptivity. The diminishing of self – preoccupation that comes from sitting in an inspiring natural setting probably made it easier to be impacted by the Buddha’s teachings on not clinging to self. The sense of being protected and supported by nature must have made it easier to trust letting go fully.

There is a long tradition of Buddhist monastics living simple lifestyles in the forests. In fact, there is a monastic tradition called “forest monastics.” One monk, a disciple of the Buddha named Maha Kassapa, expressed his joy in meditating in the mountains with the following verses:

With beautiful darkening clouds,
Streams of pure water,
And ground covered with ladybugs,
These rocky heights delight me.

Covered in blue flowers
As the sky is covered in clouds,
And filled with flocks of birds,
These rocky heights delight me.

Without crowds of people,
But visited by herds of deer,
And filled with flocks of birds,
These rocky heights delight me. — Theragatha 1062 – 5

Because such delight is an aid to meditation, for centuries many Buddhists have found it helpful to practice outdoors, in natural settings. The great 20th Century Thai forest monk, Ajahn Buddhadasa not only practiced for decades in the forests, he also gave most of his teachings outdoors. Those who listened to his teachings did so sitting on the ground among the trees.

The Buddha often used examples and metaphors from nature to illustrate his teachings: Growing in spiritual practice is like the rising sun dispelling the darkness of night. Progress along the path of practice is like mountain streams flowing downhill. Deep concentration is like a peaceful pond; having insight is likened to looking into a clear, still mountain lake; spiritual maturity is “entering the stream” leading to awakening. Awakening is like the heartwood at the core of a tree. Someone who is fully liberated is like a lotus rising out of muddy water while being unstained by the mud below.

In the modern world, it is easy to discuss Buddhism without reference to the natural world. Many books about Buddhism emphasize the psychological, therapeutic, and philosophical aspects of the religion without any mention of the role nature can have in the lives of Buddhist practitioners. These books commonly leave out the backdrop in which the teachings were originally given. The natural world outside of urban settings points to a freedom from the complexity of social life. A peaceful and beautiful natural setting can loosen self – identification and self – preoccupation as these become irrelevant. It also can provide a sense of serenity that supports inner calm; many people breath e easier when relaxing in nature.

Nature can also be an effective teacher. In particular it can provide lessons in the impermanence of life; just as change is inherent in nature, so we can expect we will change. Being in nature can also teach us the importance of living in harmony with nature. In addition, spending time in the wilderness can help us confront our fears and build skills of attention and self – reliance. A long tradition in Buddhism sees an intimate and mutual interaction between nature and people’s inner life; the health of the natural environment is closely tied to the people’s physical and spiritual health. Caring for the environment is a way to car e for our selves. And if we really care for our own well – being, we would care for the environment.

When we live disconnected from nature, it is hard to remember the intimate connection between our life and the health of the natural world. When we spend time in nature, it i s easier to understand how they work together. If we take up the Buddha’s instruction to meditate at the foot of a tree, perhaps our appreciation of the natural world will grow. And perhaps sitting in nature will show us the natural world that is within each of us.

Even if we cannot be outside in the natural world, with a calm, clear mind, we can find the natural world within us. In important ways, the nature within and the nature outside of us are the same — they live in mutual relationship. If we then want to care for our environment, we will become “nature taking care of nature.”