One of the popular images of Buddhism is that its message places great emphasis on interconnectedness and on non-harming. To an extent this image is true, and to an extent those emphases inform and shape Buddhist attitudes to Nature. But looking a little more closely at these attitudes, we find the situation is not so simple. What’s more, Buddhism has become so diverse over its 2,500-year history that it is now impossible to say definitively what are the Buddhist beliefs about, and attitudes towards, Nature.

It may be more fruitful, therefore, to begin by looking at the earliest Buddhist teachings, the Pali Canon, to see what is expressed there, explicitly and implicitly, regarding Nature, and how that has informed and directed so much of the Buddhism that has come later.

Though many now try to suggest otherwise, the Pali Canon and early Buddhism tend to view the world as something to be transcended: one is reborn repeatedly into the world through ignorance and craving, and through enlightenment there can be an end to that cycle. Monks and nuns were encouraged to live in Nature, not so much because of any intrinsic worth or sacredness of Nature, but because living away from towns was more conducive to a simple, calm and undistracted life.

A similar aim was primary in shaping the Buddha’s ethical philosophy. Though stressing certain forms of non-harming and including some consideration of animal welfare, and though encouraging the cultivation of kindness and compassion for all sentient beings, the ethical guidelines and trainings set forth by the Buddha were not principally prompted by a sense of the sacredness of Nature or life; rather, they were advocated because by refraining from obviously causing harm to other sentient beings and by developing a mental habit of kindness one created a simpler life and a more peaceful mind, both of which were necessary to achieve a depth of meditation that in turn would eventually enable one to escape this world of samsara for ever.

In addition to this transcendentally oriented body of teaching, various versions of non-transcendent Buddhism have evolved over centuries in India and in contact with other cultures. They diverge significantly in their interpretations of what non-transcendence means and implies, but many of these traditions, including for instance some schools of Japanese Zen, carry more obviously a flavour of the soil. And they are often guided as much by the same archetype of the natural human being, the human being of simplicity – an archetype that inspires so many modern Western environmentalists – as they are by classical Buddhist teachings.

Many of the streams of Thai Forest Buddhism also share that fantasy of natural simplicity, its ethos and sensibility. It is particularly evident in the teachings of the Thai Forest monk Achaan Chah, as popularised for Westerners by Jack Kornfield and Paul Breiter in the book A Still Forest Pool. But still, teachings on what to believe about Nature, or how to regard it, other than as a support for one’s personal practice, tend not to be central.

Contemporary expressions of Buddhism vary widely in regard to all this. Some retain the transcendental thrust of the early teachings. Some are less transcendentally inclined – for example, much of the lineage of Achaan Sumedho, Achaan Chah’s senior Western disciple. There, individual inclinations among the monks and nuns vary considerably, so that lineage now encompasses within it a wide range of attitudes to Nature and the environment. Many modern forms of Buddhism strive for a more secular vision and to discard what they view as the cultural baggage of Eastern superstitions – about rebirth, for instance, or different realms of being. Some, however, may also have become in many ways less ambitious, more a set of techniques and attitudes designed to alleviate a modicum of personal suffering.

These versions of contemporary Buddhism, often having much in common with certain psychotherapeutic self-help programmes, are generally non-transcendent, and they tend to sit more comfortably with many people in the West today. Their intention is to strip the Buddha’s Dharma (doctrine) down to its essence, the Four Noble Truths – an awareness of suffering, an understanding of how the mind causes suffering, the possibility of relief from that suffering, and a set of practices and guidelines to help move towards that relief. But all sorts of assumptions and beliefs absorbed from contemporary culture are still wrapped up in the path that ensues.

Nature and the world, for example, can just become a mostly irrelevant backdrop to my personal practice – the process of trying to reduce my levels of stress and anxiety, to cope with my life, with my unruly mind and the difficulties of having a body, and with ‘reality’. Often, implicitly, this ‘reality’ is a world and existence that are just what they seem to the modern Western mind with its set of presuppositions and beliefs.

This view and the attitudes that underpin it are taken further through recent theories and experiments in areas such as the neuroscience of mindfulness. While there is undoubtedly much to discover in that domain, the tenor of such investigations often produces unhelpful limitations, for it supports and is supported by the modernist notion of Nature (or the cosmos, or the human being, or mind) as an intricate machine. That idea has gathered such authority that it now almost completely determines how most people in the West intuitively conceive of and perceive Nature. Helpful at times of course, but when it is assumed to be the total and only legitimate truth, not recognised as just one valid perspective among others, then it spawns all kinds of problems.

As suggested earlier, many people are attracted to Buddhism now because it seems to offer a path of spirituality or a way of being in the world that is not dependent on beliefs. But so that Buddhism can continue to grow and serve as a radical resource for those who engage it, it is important to inquire to see just what assumptions and beliefs have been absorbed, whether consciously or unconsciously, from the culture one is living in, and to see just how they are influencing one’s view of Nature and the world.

That said, with the vision of relying less on belief and more on meditation as a path of knowing and understanding, there is an enormous range of meditative experiences that can open, through practice, to transform the way one sees oneself and Nature.

It is possible, for example, to meditate on the theme of interconnectedness. One can approach this in many ways. But often the interconnectedness that is highlighted in modern Buddhist teachings is a material interconnectedness. The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh emphasises this beautifully. One can reflect, for instance, on what was involved in making the paper on which you are reading these words: the trees from which the paper pulp came, the rain that watered those trees, the clouds that released those rains, the ocean waters that evaporated to form those clouds, the sun that warmed the waters to the point of evaporation; the workers on the plantation and at the factory that produced the paper, the food that sustained them and gave them energy, the natural elements and other human beings and perhaps animals that helped to produce that food… All these and more are somehow woven together into this piece of paper. This paper has the clouds, the rain and the soil in it. For some, though not for all this kind of awareness does open up some sense of the sacredness of Nature.

There are other aspects of interconnectedness that can be realised through meditation. Certain experiences and perceptions can sometimes open, when meditation deepens, that can strongly influence the attitude to Nature. One example is a meditative seeing of oneness. Two of the more common mystical perceptions for a meditator here are that all is awareness or all is love; that materiality and solidity are a kind of illusion, and the stuff or substance of the world and everything in it is actually awareness or love. These are usually very beautiful and heart-opening experiences, and each may lead to a particular sense of the sacredness of Nature. This is not always so, however, and for a minority they might lead to a kind of nonchalance in relation to Nature and the world: “It’s all one; it’s all only awareness. So it doesn’t really matter much what happens...”

With practice a meditator will eventually go beyond this view of oneness and this level of experience. For as meditation and insight deepen, more profound levels of interconnectedness are realised. We understand that not only is the matter of the world interconnected, but, more fundamentally, the mind and the world are not ever separate. The world is always seen, sensed, known through the mind; and the mind, we might discover, creates or fabricates the world, in a certain sense.

Even when there is no thinking, some or other subtle conception always remains to dictate our way of looking and so our experience of things and the world. Nature, we come to understand, is not separate from mind, and does not exist in some objective way; it is not inherently “like this” or “like that”. (As Buddhists say, it is, along with all things, including the mind, empty.)

Of course Nature in a number of ways creates and shapes the mind, too. But it is the reverse contingency that is most fruitful to comprehend here: we are always involved in making ‘Nature’. We may romanticise it, or fear its wild and alien power; we may personify it with imaginal figures, imagining and sensing the cosmos as multi-levelled, multi-dimensional and divine in essence; or we may regard it as a meaningless machine to be figured out and even re-engineered. But none of these perspectives, and certainly not the currently widespread modernist view, will ever be the whole truth.

We are left then, not in perplexity or in a dismissal of the world, but in mystical awe of it all. And we are left, too, with a freedom to see in different ways. Through such a depth of understanding, many possible doors of perception become available and are recognised as valid perspectives. How, then, do we want to see Nature at any time? And what are the effects of different conceptual frameworks and ways of looking – on our hearts and our consciousness, on our civilisation and culture, and on the other species that inhabit the Earth? What ways of looking will open a sense of sacredness, of care, of deep beauty, and meaningfulness?

Here we move away from any rigid notion of truth or reality, and open the possibility of seeing and sensing more poetically. For we realise that the state of the consciousness, the heart and the imagination are, along with the conceptual framework of the moment, always part of our sensing and knowing Nature. Acknowledging this, we can respect each of these facets and explore what they open to us.

In relation to the environmental emergencies we face and as a part of helping to develop a healthier relationship of humanity with Nature, this insight into perception and reality and what it opens for us might be the most significant gift that Buddhism has to offer. We cannot, at this point in the evolution of knowledge and civilisation, indulge our nostalgia and revert to a simplistic primitivism. Our understandings and views need not to regress but to progress beyond modernism. And that probably means expanding our comprehension of what constitutes valid knowledge of Nature.

Importantly, opening the doors in such a direction would also be congruent then with postmodern insights and developments in Western philosophy and psychology, and also with modern physics which has gone well beyond the mechanistic, simplistic view of reductionist materialism and the belief that Nature can be know objectively, independently of our ways of observing it.

Surveying its history, then, Buddhism might seem not to have offered much to our relationship with Nature. But some of its streams are beginning to respond more actively to the environmental situation. In Cambodia and Thailand, for example, on the edges of forests threatened by clear-cutting, monks have ceremoniously wrapped monastic robes around trees, marking them as “ordained” into the monastic lineage. They realise that, since their culture does not respect or see sanctity in Nature nearly as much as it sees sanctity in the monastic clergy, this may be the only timely way of changing people’s perception of the forest.

And as the recognition of the urgency of our various ecological crises begins to dawn, some Buddhists are beginning to realise something more basic – that the traditional conceptual framework of Buddhism and its Four Noble Truths needs stretching so that it includes and addresses the suffering caused by climate change and environmental degradation, as well as other social injustices. Christopher Titmuss’s book The Green Buddha, for example, does just that, as does Thich Nhat Hanh’s expansion of the traditional ethical precepts in the Community of Interbeing to include an active caring about one’s impact on the environment.

In much of Joanna Macy’s work the emphasis is more on reconnecting – to our awareness of the Earth’s web of life, its evolution, and our place in it all, as well as to the complex of often difficult emotions we may have suppressed in disconnecting from Nature. These themes are also explored, together with trainings in compassionate environmental activism, at Guhyapati’s Ecodharma Centre in the Catalan Pyrenees. In the UK, DANCE (Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement) seeks to explore and empower a wide range of Buddhist responses to the global environmental emergency, and similar iniatives exist in the US.

Through all of these strands a realisation is slowly emerging that meditation and the direction of practice are always informed by conceptual frameworks, views, images and fantasies – of where the path leads, what ‘enlightenment’ involves, and the nature of Nature. These understandings, as well as the more profound insights described earlier, offer potentially exciting and life-giving avenues, which Buddhism might explore. No longer tied to one way of looking and conceiving – seeing the world as a realm from which to escape, or seeing Nature only through the assumptions of modernism – we can open a freedom to see sacredness everywhere and allow love and passionate care into our relationship with the natural world.

Rob Burbea is Resident Teacher of Gaia House, a Buddhist retreat centre in Devon, England. He is a co-initiator of DANCE (Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement), and the author of Seeing That Frees.