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Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Inner Ecology: Buddhist Ethics And Practice

By Ronald Epstein


If ignorance, particularly ignorance of the illusory nature of the self, is the basic cause of our lack of enlightenment, why can't we just do a little introspection and see clearly who we really are and become enlightened?

In theory we can, but when most of us do look within, we cannot fathom the depths of our own minds, because our minds are not clear and still. Instead we find them to be turbid and in constant flux; they are terribly polluted. It is our own mental pollution that keeps us from enlightenment. We try to plumb our minds, but it is more like trying to see to the bottom of a badly polluted pond used as a factory sewer than gazing to the bottom of a clean, clear, still mountain pool.

The analogy of environmental pollution is very helpful. By exploring it, we can understand clearly the nature of our own inner mental pollution. By reviewing the principles of environmental ecology, we can see how mental ecological action can restore our minds to their natural condition, their original pristine nature: clear, pure, and wonderfully bright and enlightened.

What do we mean by environmental pollution? Poisons, pollutants, have been introduced into the environment, upsetting the environmental balances, so the holistic ecosystem no longer functions normally, naturally. Why? A part has been favored at the expense of the whole. Because of greed for profit, because of impatience in getting some things done, because of just plain foolishness, some product is manufactured, something is built, grown or refined, completely disregarding the side-effects of that activity.

What do we mean by mental pollution? Mental poisons, such as greed, desire, and anger, have entered the mind. They stir it up and make it turbid. Why? A little part of the mind, the selfish ego of the individual, has been favored at the expense of the whole. The sense of ‘me and mine’ blinds us to the feelings of others and covers over our true nature, that is all-encompassing, that lies beyond the petty distortions of the view that divides the world of experience into self and other.

In cleaning up our environment it is not enough to sweep up the garbage. We must get at the source of the pollution, though it may take us a while to find out where it is actually coming from. When we do find the source, we regulate it through legislation and surveillance, while trying to convince the perpetrators, the selfish special interests, to take a look at the big picture. If we can get them to enlarge their viewpoint and see that in the long run the pollution is beneficial to no one, they will cease polluting of themselves.

Cleaning up our mental pollution begins with recognizing that our greed, desire, and anger are poisoning us, and then moving to ban their coarse manifestations from our every day actions. But that by itself is not enough. We have to trace the pollution back to where it arises in our minds and find out why it is generated in the first place. At its source we find ‘me and mine’--basic selfishness and disregard for others that pollutes and distorts our every thought and action.


What the Buddha taught were practices which enable us to eliminate mental pollution permanently. Simply put, these practices have three aspects: moral precepts, meditational concentration, and wisdom. The three aspects have been compared to the legs of a tripod, which support a vessel. Remove any one of the three and the vessel collapses. Likewise, cease to follow the precepts and your practice collapses; let concentration lapse or become muddled about what is happening, and your practice becomes ineffective.

Why is following the moral precepts essential to successful Buddhist practice? To answer this question, let us first take a look at the most fundamental moral guidelines taught by the Buddha: abstention from 1) the taking of life; 2) stealing; 3) sexual misconduct; 4) false speech, and 5) intoxicants. Why do people kill? Why do people take what is not freely given? Why do people commit rape and adultery? Why do they wallow in mindless affairs, blinded by the passions in the name of “love”? Why do they lie, speak harshly and deceptively, and take so much pleasure in gossip? Why do they smoke, drink, take pot, snort cocaine, shoot heroin, and pop no end of pills to go on this “trip” or that?

All these activities can be traced back to fundamental insecurity and fear generated by the self. Why? The self is always trying to establish the reality of its own illusory nature; it is always trying to make itself seem permanent when it is basically impermanent. To counteract the basic insecurity and fear generated by this impossible situation, the self tries to establish defenses - veils and diversions – to direct attention away from the basic difficulty. Our negative emotions - greed, desire, and anger –” become the vehicles of the quest for wealth, for sexual gratification, for fame and power, for myriad pleasures and pamperings of the body. The real purpose of it all is to erect a tremendous mind-polluting smokescreen that functions as an ego-defense by veiling the fundamentally illusory nature of the self. The more the ego can direct our attention outwardly and involve our energies in external gratification, the safer it feels; the less chance there is that its true nature will be discovered.

The moral precepts are designed as basic guidelines for counteracting the pollution of the ego-defenses. By following the guidelines the pollution is naturally removed and the mind cleared. Just as anti-pollution laws must be closely monitored to insure compliance, so too the precept-guidelines for our own mental and physical actions must be closely monitored by our own mindfulness. If we conscientiously do so, we will quickly be able to identify the sources of our turbid energies so that we can restructure and redirect them. As the inner ecological balance is restored, they will no longer function as pollution which screens and protects the illusion of self, but the transformed and redirected energies will become the vehicle for locating and eliminating the source of the pollution - the same illusion of self that it formerly screened.

The precepts are the guidelines for transformation. They show us how to restructure our energies into the original and natural patterns of attunement with the entire universe, so that our sense of alienation is dissolved. When we naturally experience and act out of the fundamental equality of our identity with all living beings, we will have restored the ecological harmony to our minds. Our mental ecosystem will function naturally and holistically, and it will generate the wisdom of clear seeing and compassion for all life. That is the basic teaching of the Buddha.

One final point. According to Buddhist teachings, when we reach this stage of understanding, we see clearly that all outer pollution is merely a reflection of the pollution within our own minds. Our shared environment is the karmic result of the sum total of the thoughts and intentions that every single individual projects outwardly in his or her own actions. Again, self-image is the crux of the problem. From individual selves are generated the self-images of corporations, of political constituencies, and of nations. In each case there is sacrifice of the whole for the part, of the limitless for the limited. Our ego-directed intentions and motivations create the problems. When the ego direction, basic selfishness, is removed, clear intentions and clear motivations lead the way to a new attunment that is also at-one-ment.

* A revised and expanded version of “Cleaning Up the Pollution in Our Minds,” Proper Dharma Seal, No. 7, Oct. 1985.

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