As C. G. Weeramantry, a former judge at the International Court of justice put it,
“Buddhism is replete with perspectives on long-term future. It stresses at every stage the fleeting nature of the present and the transitory nature of present acquisitions. The present is but a fleeting moment of time in infinity which extends to eaons both behind and before us…
With its uncompromising quest for justice, righteous conduct and non-violence and with the spirit of universalism which pervades it, Buddhism offers a rich reservoir of conceptual materials on all aspects of the human condition.” (in Tread Lightly on the Earth. Religion, the Environment and the Human Future (Stanford Lake Publication 2009)).
Buddhism is usually regarded as an Eastern religion (though other religions regard it as a kind of atheism as it does not accept the concept of a Creator God) rather than a philosophy as we understand it in the West i.e. a creation of Ancient Greeks. However, it might be better described as a “philosophy of life” (see E. Conze, Le Bouddhisme. Dans son Essence et son Développement (1971, Petite Bibliothèque Payot Paris) at 13), the focus of which is to show the path to enlightenment, and which “emphazises self-reliance and the individual’s own power and potential” (Dalai Lama, ‘The Buddhist Concept of Mind’ in D. Goleman and R.A.F. Thurman (eds), MindScience. An East-West Dialogue (Wisdon Publications 1991) at 13).
A key element of Buddhist thought is the concept of free will. Individuals have choice and nothing is imposed on them. They are responsible for their own patterns of conduct. Therefore, wrong conduct will have evil consequences while right conduct will avoid them.
Another cornerstone of Buddhism is the belief in anatta i.e. there is no independent and permanent self and as such all things are interdependent and connected.
As a result of these two concepts, the natural environment cannot be seen as separate from human beings and environmental damage can only be deemed to be the direct result of free will without due regard for the consequences.
As some Japanese Buddhists would say, “humanity and the environment are two but not two”. This relationship based on mutual dependence or esho funi is particularly well encapsulated in the words of Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk:
“We should deal with nature the way we should with ourselves! We should not harm ourselves; we should not harm nature. Harming nature is harming ourselves, and vice versa. If we knew how to deal with our self and with our fellow human beings, we would know how to deal with nature. Human beings and nature are inseparable. Therefore, by not caring properly for any of these, we harm them all.”
This paper argues that far from trying to re-imagine “humanity” in the nexus of human rights and the environment, one should try remembering who, and understand how to see ourselves as we really are. In this respect, Buddhism might provide us with valuable insights on our self and our relationship with the world we inhabit.