The Oneness of Life and Its Environment
Historically, human societies worked in co-operation with and felt a profound physical and spiritual connection to their natural environment. Arguably, the by-product of scientific advance has been the loss of this reverence, for example, the creation of industrial cities at the expense of vast tracts of land. This has led to an increasing need to dominate and exploit natural phenomena for profit.
These days we know that the environment has an immense effect on people, for example, turn on the television and we may well find a programme trying to unravel whether our path in life is shaped through ‘nurture’ (one’s upbringing) or through ‘nature’ (genetic inheritance). Plus the lack of green space in our cities has been blamed for the rise in asthma-related illnesses in children.
However, whilst our environment can influence us either positively or negatively, it also works the other way round: we can influence and change our environment. This is because human beings and their environment are inextricably connected. In Buddhist writings human beings are likened to the body and the environment to a shadow cast by the body and stated that when the body bends the shadow bends too. We may already see this theory at work through, for example, a person whose extraordinary presence can ‘light up a room’ when they enter it!
On a less superficial level, the ‘shadow’ is cast far beyond the realm of human life by encompassing the natural environment, space and the cosmos. This belief is rooted in an incredibly profound theory known as the oneness of life and its environment (Jp. esho funi), which firmly places human life as an integral part of the vast physical universe. However, it is not merely a passive statement that we are all ‘part of nature’, rather it should be used as an active tool to overcome problems in our own life and the world. Magicians understand this.
At a fundamental level there is no separation between our internal life and our immediate circumstances. Therefore, the causes we make through our thought, word and action manifest in our external surroundings. Once we acknowledge that we shape our environment, both constructively and destructively, we become more confident to tackle issues that cause us suffering.
This is further clarified by examining the doctrine of three realms: the realm of the self, the realm of living beings (society) and the realm of the land (natural environment).
Realm of the Self
Life consists of the five components: form, perception, conception, volition and consciousness. Form is the physical aspect: i.e. male or female, tall or short. It also includes our five sense organs, eyes, ears, tongue, nose and skin. The other four components are the mental aspects of an individual life. Perception is the function of receiving information through the senses. Conception is the function of analysing the received information and forming a coherent mental picture. Volition is the desire to take action based on this information. Consciousness unites all these thought processes.
One of the immediate benefits of seeing ourselves and our environment as one results in a realisation that we have the power to reverse its current assumed relationship to a mutually beneficial one.
Realm of Living Beings (Society)
This indicates the collective body of individuals who interact with one another. Each individual is born into a social environment with its own unique set of cultural or hereditary rules. A person is a product of this and equally contributes to and modifies it.
This also encompasses other life forms. For example, walking through a forest we can encounter a large amount of life forms, from birds above our heads to tiny organisms in the ground beneath our feet, all occupying their own unique environment and cycle of existence. Yet each one is joined to us and each other by a thread of life.
Nature is one vast organic movement directed by a single life-force and operated by means of a single gigantic nervous system, a majestic and harmonious order in which countless living organisms coexist and co-operate, but also devour each other to keep the system alive.
Realm of the Land (Natural Environment)
This is the place or land where people live and carry out their day-to-day activities. The state of the land is a reflection of the state of life of the people living on it.
…If the minds of living beings are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds — Buddhist quote.
What can we do?
Once we fully grasp the implications of the oneness of life and its environment we realise that in order to create a truly harmonious, peaceful world we must learn how to respect the inherent dignity and greatness of life. This includes not only the beauty and majesty of nature but also of other human beings. The process starts in the realm of the self. As we develop respect for our own life we also establish respect for others. However this process is not one way. Indeed, it is the very act of striving to respect others that at the same time develops our own inner confidence. Learning to respect ourselves and others creates a change in our fundamental life-condition.
It doesn’t mean that in order to achieve this kind of attitude we have to physically cut ourselves off from modern society and retreat to a forest to contemplate or worship nature! Transforming deep-rooted tendencies which have caused us to disrespect ourselves or others is not a matter of will power or finding a way to control our mind. As we follow this path we naturally begin to be in harmony with the universal life-force or thread of life that connects us to all living beings. The principle becomes clearer the more we examine the connection.
Through this process we can alter the core condition of our lives. Thus our negative perception of our situation can change to a positive one, the starting point for us to make an actual change in our situation or environment. We gradually move towards a life where we feel hopeful, stronger and more confident, is increasingly dominant. Thus we develop the qualities of courage, compassion and wisdom and we can start to overcome our previously invisible negative and destructive tendencies.
When we transform ourselves at this profound level we not only resolve our immediate problems, but also make a powerful cause to change issues in the global environment. In other words, when people change, society changes. This may sound like a slow and ineffectual process, especially when we are confronted with an increasing amount of global catastrophes both natural and man-made. It could be argued that urgent action is needed to resolve these, rather than working on our own self-awareness. But attempts to solve issues often illustrate how unclear we are about our own contribution to these problems. It is easy to feel powerless or even apathetic about what is happening in a world seemingly beyond our control.
Yet we can easily see the impact our own negativity, anger or greed has on our environment, for example, after a bad day at work we could succumb to an attack of road rage and then, arriving home full of anger, take it out on our nearest and dearest. It’s just a small jump to see the collective results of greed, anger and ignorance on an international or global level. War, famine and environmental destruction are examples of man-made catastrophes in the realm of living beings (society), which have had a devastating effect on the natural environment (realm of the land).
Making the concept of oneness of self and environment a core principle in our life gives us courage and hope because as we can see our own potential to overcome negativity and realise that we have the power to alter the progress of our society. As we become more hopeful, so our desire to change things around us grows and a ripple of positive thoughts and actions, starting from us, spreads out to other people in our immediate environment and further still, eventually affecting all humanity. This means that the collective causes made by human beings start to reflect a more positive life-state, one in which the dignity of all life is more important than satisfying a never-ending demand for profit. In this scenario societies will learn how to develop a harmonious relationship with the natural world, taking only what they need to survive.
At the core of the human spirit, there is a potential love for other human beings and for nature. There is also an irresistible urge to challenge the riddles of life and the universe, an impulse to search for the aesthetic beauty and scientific truth. Love, the longing for beauty, the yearning for truth: these are all eminently human energies, and through the expression and manifestation of these energies great changes are brought about in the human environment.