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Phra Paisal's Temple School
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Phra Paisals Temple School
A Buddhist perspective on learning from nature
A talk by Phra Paisal Visalo

Earth Expeditions
Chiang Dao, Thailand
13 June 2005


Listen to the trees speak, hear the stones teach dharma

Buddhadasa Bhikku


I would like to welcome you to Thailand, especially to this area. As some of you may know, Chiang Dao is well known not only for its natural heritage, but also for its association with Buddhist saints. Many famous monks lived, stayed, and practised meditation here, especially on the mountain of Chiang Dao. As a result, local people consider it a sacred place. Even now, many monks still come to the mountain. Some come here for a pilgrimage; some for a retreat. Some stay for weeks and months in the forest to practise meditation.

In fact, it is not just here at Chiang Dao where ecological, cultural and spiritual values converge. Many natural sites or things in the country are regarded not only for the physical benefits they bring but also for their role in soothing the soul. When villagers look at a natural scene, like the forest or mountain, they do not see a source of materials that they can use for their physical needs. They see a place of spiritual meaning, whose value might not be easily calculated, but can be felt in the heart. In other words, when local people look at a forest, they do not think of it as a natural resource or a habitat for wildlife. They consider it home to what they consider sacred divine beings that reside in trees or the gods of the mountain.

In paddy fields, we will find not only rice seedlings or paddy ears, but also the venerable Mae Phosop, or Goddess of Grain. In the same vein, a river or stream is not just a source of our drinking water but also an abode of Phra Mae Khongkha, Goddess of Water, who watches over and protects the resource.

It has long been a tradition for Buddhist monks to visit the forest for meditation. In fact, many monasteries are located right in the forest, like my monastery in the Northeast of Thailand. This tradition in which monks live and practise meditation in the forest was formed by the close connection between Buddhism and nature. The history of Buddhism and the life of Buddha himself are intimately linked with nature. According to legend, the Buddha was born under a tree. He attained enlightenment under a tree, the Bodhi tree 1 . He spent most of the 45 years of his mission as the Buddha in the forest. He also passed away under a tree. So we can see that Buddha had a close relationship with nature. His disciples also preferred and advocated living in the forest.

The question is: Why are Buddhism and nature closely related? I think it is because the purpose of Buddhist meditation is to understand the essence of nature the essence of the world as it is. According to the Buddha, the word dharma (nature) covers all aspects of nature not only the physical, but the mental and spiritual aspects as well. That is why the Buddha advised all Buddhists, especially monks, to practise and learn from the forest, from nature. There are many aspects of nature from which we can learn and benefit. And the Buddha tried to encourage his disciples to have a proper attitude towards nature.

The learning-from-nature emphasis is not limited only to Buddhism, though. If we look around, we will find that an appreciation of nature as a source of spiritual well-being has long been embedded in human beings from every race around the world. It began to change only about a few hundred years ago.

PROVIDER OF NECESSITIES, INSPIRATIONS AND PEACE

Nature benefits us in many ways. First of all, it provides us with necessities of life: food, shelter, medicine and clothing. Even more basic than that, water which we cant live without is also derived from nature. And of course, this includes the very air we breathe.

The second benefit is what I call sensual pleasure. By sensual I mean the sights and sounds of nature. We do not only exploit natural resources in terms of food, goods, or mining, but we also learn to appreciate them. When we get up in the morning, we see a beautiful dawn. We hear bird songs and we smell flowers. So we obtain sensual pleasure from seeing, from smelling, from touching.

When we visit an island or the sea, we feel happy. The happiness is inspired by the sight and sound of nature of the sea, an island or the sky. In this sense, nature becomes a source of culture, an origin of arts and sometimes of entertainment. People go to the outdoors to ski, swim or hike. These sensual pleasures may not help us earn a living but they enrich our experience.

More importantly, we can learn to feel at peace, or to experience peace itself, when we are in the midst of nature. This third benefit is one that not many people understand. When we are in the forest, we will learn to appreciate not only its natural beauty but also peace in our mind.

The serenity is different to pleasure. To feel pleased, excited or joyful, the mind must be stimulated. To feel peaceful, the mind must be free. In this sense, peace of mind is more refined than pleasure.

I think this third aspect is what people really need. However, it is not easy to experience it sometimes because of outward distractions to our busy mind. When we put ourselves in natural surroundings, we may feel anxious or uneasy at first. But after a few days in the forest a few days in nature without a television, cell phone, MP3 player or iPod we may feel peace developing gradually and slowly in our heart. Indeed, peace is the nature of the mind with which all of us can come into touch when we stay in the tranquil, natural world and rid ourselves of distractions. I think this third benefit is the reason the Buddha advised his disciples and all Buddhists to live and practise meditation in natural surroundings so as to find that peace.

When we look at the sky at night, we may first wonder at its beauty. Once you learn to be aware of your mind, you will sense a feeling of peace that gradually develops. When you are at that stage, you dont care about seeing something spectacular. Rather, you experience a peaceful feeling of being under the sky at night. I think this is a natural reaction to nature. Deep in our hearts, this is what we want. We seek peaceful experience. We are hungry for peace of mind, and that hunger can be addressed when we are in nature.

Once you find yourself in the midst of nature, try to live in its harmony as much as possible, without intervention from technology. I think one can develop a friendship with and respect for nature because I am confident that deep in our minds we long to go back to nature. There was an experiment in a hospital. They compared patients who stayed in a room with pictures depicting a scene from nature or with windows opening out to a green view, to those in a bare room with no access to nature. It turned out that patients in the room with some elements of nature recovered better than those without.

So I think it is in our instinct to be connected to nature. However, many people are turning to technology now. They think about artificial things. Once they learn to get in touch with their original nature, they like to return to the forest.

Wisdom like dewdrops on a leaf

Is this all that nature has to offer? According to Buddhism, there is more. Nature not only gives material necessities, sensual pleasures and peace of mind, but also wisdom.

While the feeling of peace is temporary, wisdom endures. Nature can reveal many truths to us. When we see an old leaf falling down from a tree, for example, we realise the transient nature of life. There is a Japanese saying that in a dewdrop on a leaf, the truth of life can be shining.

Nature also reminds us humans of how tiny we are. In the middle of the sea, the mountains, or under the vast blanket of stars, we become aware of our own insignificance. Self-centredness is pure ignorance. Underneath it all, we are not any different from an ant or a speck of dust, but we often forget this basic truth.
Nature also teaches us that true freedom has nothing to do with material possessions. A bird can fly everywhere with just its two wings. Isnt it laughable to boast our freedom to travel when every time we go on a trip, we usually fill up our car with all the gadgets? Indeed, the more we own, the less free we become.

I think wisdom is the most important thing we can harvest from nature. It is the main reason why the Buddha advised his disciples to spend time in natural surroundings, especially in the forest, to learn about ones self and to learn about the nature of existence. With that realisation, one can be free from attachment, which is the main cause of suffering. When we see a falling leaf, if we are mindful enough, we realise that all things are impermanent not just the leaf or tree but also our own life. When we look at the cloud, we see our inter-relationship with nature. We see that the sun, the moon, the sky, the rain, the river, the sea, the animals, and all human beings, are all connected in one way or another. That complex web of connection can sometimes be seen in a puff of cloud or a small drop of water.

I think this fourth aspect is very important for us to understand. Ajahn 2 Mun, a renowned forest monk, who lived 70 years ago, is one of the Buddhist saints who achieved enlightenment in this area in Chiang Dao. One day, a senior monk asked him how he could understand dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, without ever attending a formal school. Ajahn Mun replied that for those with wisdom, dharma is everywhere.

Ajahn Mun understood dharma deeply because he learned from nature. We can do that as well, if we learn how to read into these truths that nature reveals to us.

The lesson from nature can be like radio or TV signals. They are everywhere, but we cannot perceive them until we have a radio or TV set that can transform the signals into comprehensible sounds or images. Wisdom from nature is like that. It manifests itself everywhere. The question is whether the mind is open or receptive enough to understand the revelation.

TALL TREES HAVE DEEP ROOTS

The close relationship between Buddhist teachings and nature is very special to me not just as a Buddhist monk, but also as a social activist. Im involved with many social activities concerning human rights, peace, non-violence and forest conservation. I find that to sustain those activities, we need a solid foundation. We need strong and deep roots. Its like a tree. A tree can grow tall and spread its branches only when its roots are deep enough, or expansive enough.

When you see a big tree, you exclaim: Oh, it is very tall! The canopy is very dense; the branches extending wide. If you could examine its roots, you would see that the tree can grow so tall because its roots can reach as deeply. Without the deep roots, the tree wouldnt stand tall. Without the expansive support underground, it cant branch out. It wont be able to withstand a storm or survive all kinds of predators.
What have I learned from a tree? I learned that if we cultivate the mind to be profound enough, we would be able to reach a source of pure joy deep inside it. That inner joy from within our own hearts would serve as our sustenance, as nourishment, that helps us to carry on any task with stamina and happiness.

All of us have two aspects to our life. There is an external element, our work, livelihood and relationship with others, and an internal one, which sustains our external activities.

The external and internal aspects of our lives cannot be separated. When we develop our inner life to the point that we can tap into a source of happiness within, we will be strong enough to overcome obstacles both in work and in life. We may be criticised. We might even fail. But we would still stand strong because we are nourished by an inner source of fulfilment.

Many people equate happiness with outside factors money, praise, fame or admirers. But the truth is that all these things are not meant to last. They change all the time, easily too. If we allow our state of mind to depend on these things, it will be ever changing and constantly chaotic as well. We wont be able to find peace.

But if we focus on cultivating our inner life, we will find self-contentment from within, which will nurture other activities we are engaged in. This is spirituality.

You can learn a lot from a tree. It transforms everything, good or bad, to produce positive results. It turns animal carcasses or dead leaves into beautiful flowers and delicious fruits. The bad can be transformed into the good, if the roots are healthy enough.

Even in the dry season, a big tree remains evergreen, whereas a small shrub withers. A lot of trees remain green even in the heat of summer in Thailand. The leaves dont fall because the roots are deep enough to reach into water underground when there is no rain. Even though the sun is scorching, the trees still stand and give shelter to animals.

What does this mean to us? Or what does it mean to me? It means that if we have this spirituality, we can tap into a source of happiness deep in our inner being. We can endure the hardship of daily life. We may face criticism. We may fail. But well still feel fresh and strong and happy because deep in our minds we can touch the source of happiness.

All things are impermanent

Happiness, for most people, depends on external factors friends, money, praise or admiration. But these things are impermanent. It is very unlikely that one will receive praise and fame all the time. These things are subject to change. If our happiness is dependent on them, our life will be constantly fluctuating and unstable.

But if we can find a source of happiness in our own mind, we can continue to lead our life happily despite criticism, failure or misunderstanding. Wed be like strong trees in summer they are still green even when there is no rain and the weather is very hot. I think we should learn to be like these evergreen trees that stand strong throughout the year despite a fluctuation in the weather, despite the hot summer or long drought. We can learn a secret of happiness from trees. Trees can transform the heat of the sun into a cool shade. Why? Because they are strong. That is a good quality.

As a social activist, I try to cope with sufferings and changes both in our life and the world around us. To achieve this, meditation is the key. The first goal of meditation is to find peace of mind. We can do it by staying in a quiet forest. Then, we have to be mindful and aware of our negative feelings anger, hatred, disappointment or sorrow. Once we learn to be aware of our state of mind, we learn how to be free from emotions, to let them go.

In the beginning, we become peaceful when all is quiet around us. A serene forest, majestic mountain or calm sea can give us solitude. We absorb silence from the forest and plant it in our mind.

If we are in a place that is very noisy, it is difficult to find peace. However, once we learn how to maintain inner peace with mindfulness and self-awareness, we can be peaceful even when we are in the middle of a city, in the street or amid a crowd. True peace is one that is established in the heart. The environment is a facilitating factor, not a necessity.

The impermanence we see in nature is no different from that of fame, success, prosperity or our own existence. Its subject to the same law of impermanence. So when we achieve fame, when people admire us, we have to understand that this will not last. It will change. Fame can be replaced by scandal. Praise can turn into gossip. Good health can change to sickness. Success can become failure. In fact, someone made an interesting point that success is a form of failure to show up in a longer run that in success is hidden failure. The observation is similar to a Buddhist saying that health and sickness are one and the same thing. The Buddha once said that death is in life, sickness is in health, and ageing is in youth. These things cannot be separated. If we can understand this truth, we will not be impressed by fame, good health, prosperity or success, because we are aware that they will soon change. They will soon transform into the opposite.

Somebody once asked me how to deal with criticism. What can we do to avoid being angry or sad when criticised? I told them the trick is not to be overtly happy when people praise you because if you feel joy in the face of admiration, it is inevitable that you will become sad and angry in the face of criticism. This is the rule of life, the rule of the game. If you feel happy when you win, you will feel sad when you lose.

When we learn that goodness and badness are two sides of the same coin, and that they can change back and forth, we will be able to stabilise the mind. We will remain calmer and more collected when something happens to us, whether it is good or bad.

This is what I call peace. This is peace we can learn from meditation. This is peace we can cultivate from the truth that nature reveals to us. For me, this kind of practice and understanding helps me to face fluctuations in life -- a success or failure of work. It helps me not to feel disappointed when things do not turn out the way I wish.

Someone might ask if this kind of life is boring. To me it is not, because the real source of happiness is in the mind. It does not come from external conditions. Internal happiness lasts longer.

In Buddhism, there is no separation between our own nature and that outside. That is why there is a correlation between what happens in nature and the quality of the mind. When I teach meditation to city people, I remind them to try to observe and appreciate nature in their daily lives, in their everyday surroundings.

If the mind is open to nature, we will feel free, even in prison. During World War Two, many people were incarcerated in concentration camps, like the one in Auschwitz. Although they were put in the most terrible surroundings, some managed to survive. These people said that they had the heart to live on because they could see a beautiful flower outside the window or a bird that perched outside a window in the harsh, cold weather. Seeing a tiny and fragile seedling emerge from the hard soil could inspire people to keep up hope and keep on fighting. This is a lesson from nature. This is what I try to remind people that you can learn from nature wherever you are.

As I have always stressed, in the beginning of our practice we can learn the truth from nature by being in it. Then, once we have sufficiently developed the mind, we can learn from nature inside us. I think the nature inside us is very important. When people say, Go back to nature, we should not think only about going back to nature out there in the countryside, but also going back to the nature inside us. Its very important.

Ethics from nature

The wisdom that we can develop from nature can be divided into two categories. The first concerns the truth of existence 3 that I outlined the impermanence of all things, the unsatisfactoriness of all things and the truth of non-self. These come under the category of truths that we have to realise. The second category concerns an ethics to be gained from nature.

For example, we can learn about the diligence of ants or bees. These small creatures work diligently all the time and never know what hopelessness means. We human beings sometimes feel discouraged and despair. But do you see despair in an ant or a bee? Never! If we destroy an ants nest or a beehive, they just start building it again. They never feel desolated. The ants or bees may move to another place if they feel unsafe, but they would never stop building a new home. Thus when you feel despair, you can observe these tiny creatures and feel empowered.

There is a tale of a monk in the Buddhas time who felt dispirited by the meditation routine. One day, he saw an elephant that had become stuck in a big hole. Although a long time had passed, the elephant did not stop trying to pull itself out of the hole. Then, the monk understood: If a beast like that elephant did not give up easily, why should he? As a result, the monk continued to practise meditation until he attained enlightenment. This is what I call a lesson on ethics from nature.

We can all learn from plants, even small shrubs. Last year, I organised a spiritual green walk-athon called ``Dharma-yatra'', which involved trekking through several hillside communities in the Phu Khong area of Chaiyaphum province in northeastern Thailand. For seven full days we had to trudge along under a scorching sun. Everyone was feeling hot and tired and our party was close to total disarray.

At one point we walked by a small shrub. Diminutive and fragile-looking, it had sprouted up right by the side of the road. The intriguing thing about it was its bright red flowers. Despite the sweltering heat, the flowers had turned to directly face the sun, their petals fully open, almost as if they were greeting it with a smile. Seeing that, we all felt suddenly refreshed. If those dainty blooms weren't afraid of the sun, how should we be?

Plants have the ability to transform sunlight into shade. And they are great teachers, too; there are so many things to be learned from them. When we humans have problems, we should try to emulate plants -- to turn hurdles into lessons, suffering into happiness.

In my monastery, I stay by a big pond. In October, a kingfisher usually pays a visit. The bird is alone. All day, it perches on a lotus pod in the middle of the pond. The sun is strong but the kingfisher sits there in equanimity. I feel ashamed when I see that kingfisher. This is because sometimes I feel unhappy to be alone. I feel restless and I cannot stand the heat for long. But the kingfisher remains there, looking calm and cool like a hermit.

When the kingfisher is able to catch a fish, its happy even though the fish is small. It is always content with what it has.

Unlike the bird, I sometimes am not satisfied with what I have. I want more things. I want them better. And I want them bigger or more high-tech, like a more modern computer. But the kingfisher seems perfectly fine with what it has, perfectly happy in its solitude. So, when I start to feel restless, I think of the kingfisher and I feel better. I have learned many things from this kingfisher, so I regard it as a teacher. This teacher of mine always comes by towards the end of the rainy season, before winter starts. It reminds me to be content with a solitary life.

The first time I spotted the kingfisher, I admired its beauty. It has beautiful wings and magnificent plumage. That is what I called sensual pleasure. After awhile, that pleasure cultivates a sense of peace in my mind. When the mind is at peace, I start to see dharma in the tiny kingfisher.

I think we can learn a lot from other animals, too. In the beginning, we may see only their beauty. But when we reflect on their nature or behaviour, we see something about ourselves. We get in touch with goodness inside us the feeling of being at peace. We realise some truths and virtues that are necessary for leading a good life, such as how to cooperate with one another, how to co-exist in peace, even how to sacrifice, from what we see in plants and animals.

I would like to tell you a story about an incident that happened a few months ago in Canada. I didnt witness it myself. A person mentioned it in a letter to me. It goes like this. A goose somehow got trapped in an iced-up stream. I dont know how it got there in the first place. However, the temperature dropped very quickly and the goose was caught in the ice.

Then, a flock of swans arrived. At this point the writer became anxious because geese and swans do not enjoy a good relationship. She was afraid that when the swan saw the goose, they would attack it. But what happened was truly amazing. When the swans saw the goose, they tried to help it. Four or six of them tried to peck the ice off the gooses feet. They did so for a long time, until the goose could lift up its feet.

Still, the goose could not fly away because its wings were held down by ice flakes. The swans thus helped preen feathers on the gooses wings until it could extend and fold them freely. Once the goose regained its strength, the swans continued on their way.

I think this is an astonishing account. It teaches that compassion exists beyond species. We can learn a lot about cooperation from these animals. This is another kind of wisdom that we can learn from nature, from the world of animals, besides wisdom in spiritual terms.

THE GUIDING LIGHT

The benefits of nature come in many aspects and dimensions. That is why Buddhism emphasizes that we know how to live in peace with nature, to let it guide us to mental calm and serenity.

When the mind is free from distraction, the truths from nature can enlighten it. These truths are omnipresent, but we do not always see them because the mind is not free enough. It is only when the mind is still, when we are mindful of things around us, that we will realise these lessons from nature. When we can achieve that, it will seem like there is light in the mind. With that light, the darkness will disappear. Sorrow and sufferings will have no way to hide.

The late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, whose centenary of birth we are celebrating this year (May 2006), set up Suan Mokkh Forest Monastery so that we could live in harmony with nature. When people came to visit him at the monastery, he would advise them to go listen to the trees speak and hear the stones teach dharma.

The more we learn from nature, the freer we will be from suffering. The wisdom that we gain will lead us to peaceful bliss even when we are no longer in natural surroundings. We will feel peaceful in a busy city, on a street or in the workplace, because we know how to put suffering away from our heart.

When there is a light of wisdom in the mind, we will not feel gloomy when people say bad things about us. We will be mindful not to take it personally, but to consider if we can make any use of the criticisms. As it is often said, sufferings are not there to be lamented. Rather, they are there to be analysed.

When we can develop this right attitude, we will remain calm no matter what happens in life.

An enlightened mind will lead us to lasting peace. Wisdom is thus the ultimate benefit we can gain from nature. Indeed, if we look deeper into the matter, we will learn that human beings and nature are inseparable. We are no more important than nature, as nature is no more important than us. In the end, human beings and nature are one.

 

1 A large fig tree, Ficus religiosa
2 master or teacher
3 Three marks of existence or three dharma seals: Impermanence or Anicca all conditioned things are in a constant state of flux and eventually cease to exist, Unsatisfactoriness or Dhukka nothing (found in the physical world or the psychological realm) can bring lasting deep satisfaction, and Non-self or Anatta nothing has a separate existence or a separate life, but everything has to inter-be with everything else.

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