1987 Laureate, Environment
The Buddhist Perception of Nature Project, now in its 12th year, has assembled traditional teachings of Buddhism that relate to human interdependence with, and responsibility towards, the earth and all living beings. These teachings are being used in both formal and informal educational settings throughout Thailand and among Tibetans in India to inspire people to take better care of the world around them.
But the teachings have reached groups well beyond Asian, religious and conventional cultural fields. In the United States, they have been studied in universities and used in the activities of the Earth Ethics Research Group in Florida. In the Philippines, they have been incorporated into nature awareness work by various associations, many of which are Roman Catholic. They have also found their way to the hills of Nepal and to the town of Assisi in Italy.
For the project’s initiator, Nancy Lee Nash, the results are gratifying, but they hardly come as a surprise. A U.S.-born journalist and environmental education consultant who has been based for most of her adult life in Hong Kong, Nash told people from the start that she was "convinced that this is an idea just waiting to happen".
Crucial Breeding Ground
Nash was first struck by the potential role of Buddhist teachings in environmental conservation over 20 years ago during a trip to Thailand. Visiting temple grounds at Wat Phai Lom with renowned Thai naturalist Dr Boonsong Lekagul, she witnessed hundreds of open-billed storks who, finding themselves undisturbed in the sacred place, had chosen it as their breeding ground. A long-time conservationist, Nash knew how strategically important the open-billed stork was for Thailand.
"The storks are crucial for Thailand because their sole diet is a local, rice-devouring species of snail. Without these birds, the snails would proliferate, pesticides would be needed and an expensive, poisonous cycle would begin," Nash explains. "I realised that open-billed storks would be extinct in Thailand but for the fact that their last remaining breeding ground was within the sanctuary of this temple."
Nash quickly grasped the significance of the union of rare bird and Buddhist temple. "Lectures about ecological balance had proven far less effective than simply letting Buddhist philosophy take its course at Wat Phai Lom," she says. She immediately began to think of ways to tap the vast constituency of the world’s 300-500 million Buddhists.
Inherent in Buddhist philosophy is an all-encompassing respect for life and peaceful coexistence with all living things. "All beings tremble at punishment; all fear death," proclaims a Buddhist scriptural passage from Tibet. "Likening oneself to others, one should neither kill nor cause to kill." This respect applies not only to human beings but to every form of life — from powerful animals and enormous trees to the smallest insects and blades of grass.
As symbolic acts acknowledging their respect for nature, ordinary Buddhists in Thailand bought birds from local merchants and released them back into freedom. They did the same for turtles. But the birds would often fly back to the people who had sold them in the first place, only to change hands once more for a profitable sum. The turtles were sometimes land species and drowned when released into the water.
Hoping to transform such symbolic acts into effective conservation, Nash came up with a way to enable ordinary people to understand the links between their beliefs and everyday behaviour and broader environmental issues. She called it the Buddhist Perception of Nature Project.
From its inception, the project aimed to bring together Buddhists from different countries and streams of thought. For the first time ever, all Buddhist literature on ethics, nature and social relationships was investigated for its environmental teachings and examples. These were extracted and compiled into booklets, pamphlets and illustrated material and translated into local languages in a form that ordinary Thais and Tibetans could easily understand. The works were then distributed to teacher training colleges and in Buddhist temples, where most education takes place.
"The research was a daunting task. In fact, it is still ongoing," Nash says. "The religion is more than 2,500 years old and a variety of texts exist in several languages." The research involved in the project is enriching and has served as a blueprint for other kinds of activities. "Our research in India has given scholars the idea to use the Buddhist Perception of Nature model for other subjects," Nash points out.
Another key element of the project was a minimal amount of centralised management. "From the beginning the project was meant to put itself out of business; to be a catalyst, not a monument; to help stimulate activities to be run by others," emphasises Nash. "That has happened, I am glad to say. People who visit me are often surprised to discover that the project’s headquarters is me behind stacks and stacks of research materials!"
Tree of Life
Using minimal resources, some of them from the Rolex Award for Enterprise Nash won in 1987, Buddhist Perception of Nature produced TREE OF LIFE: Buddhism and Protection of Nature, a small book that compiles the most environmentally relevant Buddhist scriptures. Originally 7,000 copies were printed in English, Thai and Tibetan, and a second 7,000 copies are being published this year in an updated, expanded edition. The full text has been translated into German, Burmese, Hungarian and Estonian. Parts of the book have been published in Spanish, Mongolian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian and half a dozen other languages.
"It is used as a resource for teaching programmes in at least three universities with environmental ethics courses in the United States, for various projects with the Tibetan community in India and in Thailand, and elsewhere throughout the world, including the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador," Nash says. "The Thai-language publications have been produced and distributed to more than 30,000 temples, through the academic expertise and energetic work under the direction of Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, one of Thailand’s most respected Buddhist scholars, who has established Buddhism and nature protection in Thailand."
TREE OF LIFE also contains chapters on the scientific view of the world’s environmental situation, since Nash has always been concerned that the religious teachings are married to sound science: "Science as foundation, inspiration as implementation" is her motto.
Nash does not claim to be the first or only conservationist to have sought to enlist religious, cultural and other ethical communities in the effort to protect the environment. In fact, a colleague of hers has discovered more than 50 similarly based projects around the world.
But none has found such a prestigious list of supporters. They include the New York Zoological Society, the World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong and India, WWF USA, the Sacharuna Foundation, the United Nations Environment Programme, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, international hotels and airlines, and people from conservation’s "hall of fame", including the late Sir Peter Scott, George Schaller, and Sir David Attenborough.
Another of the project’s patrons is the Dalai Lama, whose non-political teachings on universal responsibility and humanitarian values gave Nash the impetus to launch the project. As early as 1979, he bestowed his blessing on the plan and later encouraged the cooperation of other Buddhists. His "Declaration on Environmental Ethics" is at the heart of TREE OF LIFE and has been widely translated and quoted. In addition, the Dalai Lama has made environmental responsibility a centrepiece of several addresses, including one he gave at the 1992 Earth Summit held by the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Project as Catalyst
In 1993, Nash was named to the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global 500 Roll of Honour for the Buddhist Perception of Nature Project. "This project develops a new perspective for conservation education," the UNEP citation said. "Her work has inspired similar projects aimed at probing the environmental ethics of religious and native communities throughout the world."
The citation went on to point out that it was Nash who "initiated the first contact between World Wide Fund for Nature International and the Chinese Government. This led to a major cooperative effort to sustain the existence of the endangered giant panda."
Nash also suggested the World Wide Fund for Nature enlist the help of major religious groups in their work. They took her advice and, in 1986, the international conservation organisation held a meeting in Assisi, Italy, to which they invited leaders from five major world religions.
Assisi is known as the home of Christianity’s leading "environmentalist" St Francis. This July, Nash returned to Assisi for an international seminar organised by the Assisi Nature Council on spirituality and sustainable development. There she presented the Buddhist Perception of Nature Project and participated in panel discussions.
The Buddhist Perception of Nature Project’s latest activity is to provide educational materials for a planned sanctuary at the birthplace of Buddha in southern Nepal, in conjunction with the International Crane Foundation and a UN-organised coalition of 11 countries.
Many credit Nash, with her dynamic personality and undaunted drive, for Buddhist Perception of Nature’s growth and success. She, however, discounts any personal role in promoting environmental awareness and insists that the project has simply focused attention on actions carried out traditionally and tried to make them more effective. She attributes her project’s success to the fertile ground which Buddhist reverence for life offered for conservationists.
"Personal and social conduct based on Buddhist precepts of respect for, and interdependence with, all that is alive are cultural imperatives that deserve most of the credit for whatever wildlife safely exists in Thailand and, for that matter, in many other parts of Asia," Nash says.
The project proves that Buddhism is still a vital element in the modern world. "Some people in the West who saw Buddhism as old, eastern or strictly an Oriental religion with a distant relation to their cultures or daily life — if any — are taking a new look, with respect," she observes.
"With the outlook for the global environment and conservation of nature so bleak, the enthusiasm of these organisations and individuals is one of the few things filling the vacuum in our awareness of the urgency of the situation,” Nash says. “As I see it, you have to make use of every possible corner of our society to support a responsible attitude towards nature, and religion can be one of our most powerful allies."
Published in 1997