Pollution and the Environment:
Some Radically New Ancient Views
by Ronald Epstein
Dharma Realm Buddhist University Public Lecture Series
Talmage, California
May 19, 1992

Published bilingually in English and Chinese in Vajra Bodhi Sea: A Monthly Journal of Orthodox
Buddhism. Pt. 1, v. 30 (Dec. 1999), pp. 36, 12, and following issues.

It is very easy to get the feeling here in our local community that we have reached an impasse on pollution and many other environmental issues. The lines are clearly drawn, and all too often loud name-calling drowns out the little meaningful dialogue that is actually taking place. My purpose tonight is to present some ways of looking at environmental questions that are very old, yet which may represent fresh approaches to many of us. Perhaps some of the ideas can provide new beginnings for meaningful dialogues and perhaps even solutions. The three main ancient traditions that I would like to discuss, albeit very briefly,  are Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.


According to ancient Taoist teachings, our natural state is one of few desires. When our desires are unnaturally increased, psychic and physical imbalance and all kinds of problems result. Yet we all know that our desires are purposely exacerbated by the arts and advertising of our modern civilization. Our economy basically runs on the fuel of 'more is better', a strategy of purposely and systematically trying to push our desires out of their natural tendencies and strengthen them out of all natural proportion. The policy of continuous growth and development, which I see as one of the main reasons why our economy advocates unnatural levels of desire, also makes little sense from a Taoist point of view. Everything in nature has its cycles of coming into being, developing, decaying, disappearing, and then another cycle of birth or coming into being and so forth follows. The only thing in nature I can think of that grows nonstop are cancer cells. Should we then ask the question: Do we have a cancerous economic system? (See Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, pp. 62, 75ff.)

The Taoist classic The Way and Its Power (tao te jing) gives this advice against the artificial exacerbation of our desires:

For the Taoists, exacerbation of the sense desires can never lead to happiness.  If you think about it, I think you will find that it is fundamentally this exacerbation of the desires, coupled with ignorance, that has led to almost all of the major environmental problems that we are now facing.

Yet, if we do not exclusively cater to our culture's call for every increasing personal gratification, then where do we find our center? The Taoists suggest that the first step is in awareness of the patterns of nature, both within our own body and mind and in the natural environment that we usually think of as "outside". Nature can be for us a template, a model, a paradigm, an anchor, a beacon.

The nature outside of us can resonate with the natural patterns within and help us to get back in touch with our natural selves. When we destroy our natural environment or make it unavailable for people to tune back into, we destroy one of the most precious healing resources for our civilization-jaded psyches.

Recently, in the same vein the Catholic theologian Thomas Berry stated, "The inner world has to be constantly nourished by the outer world. With what we are doing to the outer world now, we are damaging our psychic structure [bold added] as well as reducing our resources." (Timeless Visions, p. 30).


The great inheritor of the Confucian tradition in China, Mencius, who lived in the early 3rd century BC, wrote:

Even in ancient times people took for granted the degraded state of the environment and did not realize the beauty and richness that been destroyed. Protecting it takes constant vigilance.  Likewise protecting our own nature takes constant vigilance and this is the job of ethical education. But awareness of what is innate and good can be uncovered in everyone, says Mencius.

A Sung Dynasty Confucian scholar Chang Tsai [early 11th cent. AD] wrote:

A modern Confucian scholar Professor Wei-ming Tu commented on these ideas: For some of you this may call to mind some of Saint Francis' comments about our brotherhood and sisterhood with all creatures and all creation. Yet what perhaps needs emphasis, beyond the idea of our profound interrelationship with all being, is the idea of filial piety or respect. If we truly understand the fundamental nature of our interrelatedness, then that should lead to profound respect not only for our fellow human beings, including those on the other side of pollution issues and other environmental issues, but also for all creatures great and small. This respect finds its roots ultimately in fundamental respect for life.


Those Confucian ideas that I have just mentioned bring to mind an ancient Buddhist teaching that the earth is a great enlightened being, a great Bodhisattva, who gives us a place to live on her body, to grow and to walk the path to enlightenment. This being, the earth, is our mother. She gives birth to us, nourishes us, and it is to her that we return at death. We owe her the same kind of love and respect that we should have for our human mothers.  The earth is the mother of all the beings that live upon her. Since all of those beings have the same mother as we do, they are all our own brothers and sisters.  We should cherish and respect them as we should the brothers and sisters of our own human nuclear family.

In March 1989, the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, Chan Patriarch and founder of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, visited Pendle Hill, a Quaker center in Pennsylvania. When he was there, he was asked the question: "How do we protect our ecology and the global environment?" He replied,

The Master went on to say: What does that mean? "The ultimate way to rescue the environment is to return to a state of innocence and truth, and not to engage in fighting, selfishness, avarice and deceit."

At the time of his enlightenment the Buddha said:

The Buddha was saying that the only reasons that we are alienated from the true source of our being, our enlightened nature, is that our minds are polluted and those pollutants--selfishness, desire, greed, anger, and so forth--cause us to cling to the very things that alienate us from our natural enlightened state of being. In our state of alienation, we then influence the world around us in unnatural ways, which sooner or later result in distortion of the natural patterns of the environment. That distortion then can cause pollution and other environmental problems. What this is telling us is, that if we trace the causes of environmental problems back far enough, we find at their source polluted minds, minds that are smogged over so that their original clear, pure, bright nature and their universal interconnectednesss are no longer visible.

Some of you may be thinking: If this was the case at the time of the Buddha, over 2,500 years ago, when problems of pollution were relatively small, why are the problems now so immense? Some of the reasons are obvious, and some are more difficult to get at.

One of the obvious reasons is the population explosion. Think--the population explosion itself is a sign of severe disturbance and alienation from the natural patterns of our own minds and the world. Remember the ancient Taoist teaching that the natural state is one of few desires. Of course the problem of population is extremely complicated, but when we find complication and confusion, we need to return to basic principles.

Another important reason, which is perhaps not as obvious, has to do with causation and responsibility. Jesusí saying, "As ye sow, so shall ye reap," is also a succinct statement about the workings of cause and effect, or karma, as it is known in the Buddhist tradition.  Buddhism emphasizes that our verbal and physical behavior is the outcome of our intentions--subtle or not-so-subtle mental habits, desires, and ideas.  If my intentions are good and pure, my behavior will be good and pure.  If I am motivated by a turbid mind, filled with selfish desires, greed, hatred, and violence, then my speech and actions will accord with what is in my mind.  We do tend to see the world and its living beings through the tinted and distorted lenses of our own minds.  Turbid and defiled minds lead to turbid and defiled actions, that destroy and pollute the planet that is mother and home to us all.


How then can we all work together to insure the continued health and vitality of our mother the earth to clean up our own nest? If I am motivated by a mind that is clear and pure, a mind filled with selfless loving-compassion, a mind at peace with itself and the world, then my speech and actions will naturally, and without special effort or intention on my part, promote the vitality of the earth and its ecosystems.

However, one heritage of our modern scientific and technological world has been a widespread breakdown of awareness of the consequences of our actions. If the causal pathways of our actions are very long, complicated and obscure, then it is very difficult for us to take proper responsibility for the consequences of our actions. this, I think, is another major cause of our environmental problems.

In the ancient world, for the most part, people could see clearly the consequences of their own environmental actions. In the modern world, the astute use of our own senses is often not enough. For example, we cannot see ozone. Or when we use paper, do we see or even think about the trees or the dioxin and other chemicals that are used in the paper-making process and then are dumped into our waterways? Or when someone buys a Big Mac, they do not see what is happening when the cow is grazing, what it is eating, where the manure ends up, and of course they do not directly participate in, or even see, the killing of the cow. Many little children do not even know that beef and milk come from cows. Their knowledge of the causal chain stops with what they personally see and experience: the plastic packages in the supermarket. For them beef and milk come from MacDonalds and the supermarket. Therefore, in the modern world we have to realize that paying attention to the consequences of our actions is going to take a new kind of special effort.

In conclusion I would like to suggest that in tackling pollution and other environmental problems, both locally and globally, we can benefit from some of the ancient ideas I have presented. In particular there are three notions that deserve our special attention:

1) We should pay special attention to the state of our own minds and our own intentions. Even if we feel that our cause is noble, if we act out of anger and without fundamental respect for everyone involved, we are only making matters worse. And, of course, violent actin only begets more violence.

2) We should act out of knowledge of the causal consequences of our actions, no matter how obscure and complicated the causal interrelationships might be, and no matter how long term the effects might be. In our daily activities and in our jobs, we have to make a concerted effort to educate ourselves, our children and our communities about the environmental consequences of our actions and to take responsibility for them. We cannot in good faith shift responsibility to future generations. One result of this kind of analysis may be the simplifying of our lifestyles.

3) We should increase our awareness of our fundamental and causal interrelationship with all life on the planet and have profound respect for our mother earth and profound respect also for all the older children of mother earth, for all our brothers and sister both human and non-human.

I firmly believe that, if we can emphasize these three approaches, both through own example and in the education of our children, then we can really begin to make some headway, not only in overcoming pollution and environmental degradation, but in revitalizing and stopping the fragmentation of our communities, and in finding real satisfaction and meaning in our own lives.


Although the problems of pollution are now much more extreme than they have ever been before, the problems themselves are not new.

When we led simpler more natural lives, when there were many fewer human beings upon the globe, the impact of human life was light. Food, clothes, implements, shelter were all made from natural substances and even though the garbage mound was at the front door, it quickly composted and disappeared. What did not disappear left diggings for archaeologists, but took little space on the planet and made little impact on the rest of the world.

With the advent of urban life came deforestation and air and water pollution. Already in the days of Socrates, Plato, and Mencius we have word of some of the developing problems.

In ancient Greece Plato decried the incredible environmental damage that had been done to the Attic peninsula:

Thirteenth century England also had its problems: Over a thousand years ago in T'ang Dynasty China, the hills around the capital, Loyang, were deforested for about 200 miles in every direction.  The logs were then burned to provide carbon ink for the burgeoning bureaucracy of the Chinese government.
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