Buddha’s Interest in Environmental Protection

There are many events in the life of Buddha and his discourses in the ‘Thripitaka’ where the Buddha has expressed his views on environmental protection. As we all know, Buddha’s life from beginning to end was closely connected with the environment – trees, rivers, mountains and other places of natural beauty. It was in Queen Maha Maya’s dream associated with the Himalayas, lakes and arbors in full bloom that she is believed to have conceived the Bodhisattva. She then gave birth to Prince Siddhartha in a Sal grove under a fully bloomed Sal tree. The young prince, still in his tender age, had his first meditative experience seated under a Jambu tree where he attained a high state of spiritual development.

As an adolescent, the Prince rode his horse observing and enjoying the natural beauty in and around the City of Kapilavatthu. On his departure from home or in renunciation Siddhartha rode his favorite horse Kanthaka and passed through forests and rivers. During the six years of strict asceticism for attaining enlightenment he spent most of his time in forests, meditating under trees for which he mostly selected lovely groves and river banks strewn with fine white sand and spots where blue, clean water was available.  Following Buddha’s instructions to his disciples ‘monks, there are those trees, go, sit under them and meditate,’ the Arahant monks and nuns followed suit and after gaining their goal of Nirvana have expressed their joy born of living in beautiful forests thus:

‘I vanquished the defilements by meditating while enjoying the peace and tranquility in this forest without any fear or anxiety…’ (Sambuta Thera)

‘ This forest area of lakes full of cool, blue water, clean and quiet groves, with hills on which red worms emerge from the ground in the rainy season, attracted my mind and those great rocks covered in blue moss,   where  deer and monkeys roam, please my mind’ (Vanavajja Thera).

Many other monks and nuns too have expressed the solemn experience they had by meditating in calm and secluded jungles in the foothills of Himalayas and how that environment helped them gain the bliss of Nirvana.

There are hundreds of sermons of the Buddha which he preached while living in jungles, woods, groves, especially, mango, bamboo and groves of trees like Sal. Buddha’s retirement in the Paarileyya forest for the Rainy season where he was protected by an elephant and looked after by a monkey is a popular episode. Mango groves, Banyan trees and several other plants feature often in the Buddhist literature. Some of the major monasteries offered to Buddha by rich merchants and kings were located in Parks and Groves such as the Jetavanarama, Veluvanarama and Nigrodharama, while some of them were located in Mango groves, Deer parks, Sal Groves, the Dark forest and the Great Forest.

To go back to the life of Buddha, after renunciation and at the end of his great efforts in asceticism for six years, Buddha sat under an Assattha tree where he finally realized the ‘perfect truth’ or deliverance from suffering. Since that day, which happened to be a Vesak Full Moon Day, the Assattha tree came to be called the ‘Bodhi’: the tree of Wisdom.

Fortunately the Sri Lankans have a descendant of the Bodhi Tree of Buddhagaya, still alive at Anuradhapura, the ‘Sri Maha Bodhi’. This is the most highly venerated tree in the world, which is also the oldest tree in the world with a continuously recorded history. Thus the Bodhi tree or the Sri Maha Bodhi has become unique among all the trees in the world.

After attaining enlightenment seated under the Bodhi tree in Buddhagaya, the Master did not leave it without showing his gratitude. He was full of grateful sentiments towards the tree for providing him with shelter to become Buddha and to show his gratitude he stood there for one week looking at it with unblinking eyes. Thus the first lesson Buddha gave to the world was the value of gratefulness- ‘Be thankful to all including plants; not only to human beings for the assistance you had from them.’ Thus to show his gratitude and admiration of nature, Buddha taught his followers to respect nature, not to harm  nature, especially plants.   By prohibiting monks not to damage flora, not even to nip the tip of a leaf, Buddha showed how much he cared for both plant and animal life.  It is clearly stated in the Vinaya that trees should not be cut down, even for building shelters. All forms of plants are protected by the Vinaya rules laid down by Buddha. Monks had to observe the Rainy Retreat (Vas Visiima) to avoid stepping on small worms and insects and crushing the sprouting tender grass if hundreds of them walked every day along paths on their alms rounds. Bhikkhus, especially senior ones, are not supposed to consume anything that would grow or germinate. Hence they cannot eat even a salad if there is something that may sprout like tomato. If such things are offered to the monks at alms-giving, they must make sure that it is ‘suitable for consumption’ by a lay devotee by uttering thrice ‘Venerable Sir, this is now suitable for you to consume.’ In the Buddhist literature there are some stories in which a monk respecting his virtues, would not eat a ripe mango fallen from a tree until it was properly offered to him by a lay devotee. If the layman understanding the situation did not arrive on time, the elderly monk would have died there under the mango tree. Towards the end of the Buddha’s life we find many other occasions when he sat under trees and preached or spent his time absorbed in ‘dhyana’ for days.

Buddha preached his first sermon in the beautiful Deer Park at Isipatana in Benares.  He performed one of his rare and unique miracles seated under a Mango tree named Gandamba Mango Tree. Buddha’s final entering into Nirvana or Parinirvana happened under the twin Sal trees in Kusinara.  Thus there are so many important events in the life of Buddha that happened under trees. He was the religious leader who loved nature and who preferred to stay outside in the open air. Most of his well-known sermons were delivered at such places and in the discourses (suttas) like the ‘Satipatthana’ Buddha advised monks categorically to sit under the root of a tree, in an empty house or in a forest for practicing meditation.

In the following verse we can see how Buddha instructed his followers not to do any harm to plants:

yassa rukkhassa chaayaaya nisiideyya sayeyya vaa

Na tassa saakham bhanjeyya mitta dubbhohi paapako’

‘After enjoying the cool shade of a tree by sitting under it, and having rested there, if someone breaks its branches and leaves,  or do any other injury to that tree,  he is surely a betrayer of friends, an evil and wicked person’.

‘Ramaniiyani arannaani yattha na ramatii jano

Viitaraagaa ramissanti na te kaama gavesino’

[In the beautiful forests to which ordinary people are not attracted, the passionless ones cling to them. They are the ones who do not seek sensual pleasures’]


In the following verse Buddha has encouraged social workers by showing the merit they could gain by growing plants, building Parks and roads and providing water:

aaraama ropaa vana ropaa ye janaa setu kaarakaa

Papanca uda paanam ca ye dadantI upassayam

Tesam diva ca ratto ca sadaa punnam pavaddhati

Dhammatthaa siila sampannaa te janaa sagga gaamino’

“Those who grow flowering plants and maintain gardens and  protection environment, and  help saving forests, build   foot-bridges and other bridges, give drinking water and make ponds for  water and wayside inns, they accrue merit day and night. Such men, established in the dharma will surely be reborn in the heaven.’

We can find many more references to the value of plants and Buddha’s attitude to protection of trees and plants and his admiration of environment, and the intrinsic connection of life with the environment.  Probably in some other ancient Indian religions too there would have been somewhat similar attitudes to environment as in Buddhism. For example a saying like ‘paropakaaraaya phalanti vrukkhsah’– the trees bear fruit for the benefit of others’ must have come from some pre-Buddhist tradition. Buddha was against the Vedic sacrifice (yaga) because large numbers of trees were cut down for firewood and ‘Yupa’ or pillars at the Vedic sacrifices in addition to killing of thousands of animals. Buddha condemned such rituals for protecting both animal and plant life. Unlike in modern times, in ancient times people, and Buddhist monks who guided them, did not cause any harm to the nature, they made use of natural resources but moderately without causing severe damage to the eco-system.  Some Buddhist Kings like Dharmashoka of India introduced a special project under his ministers to plant shading trees along roads and watering the newly planted tree. Emperor Ashoka mentions that he  had ordered to plant medicinal herbs and also to import valuable plants from abroad if they are not locally available. To enhance this effort he had ordered his ministers to build ponds to provide bathing and drinking water to human beings as well as animals. In Sri Lanka some kings had promulgated special rules to prevent cutting down valuable trees and published in inscriptions the punishments to be meted out to the offenders: ‘Hundred gold pieces should be fined to those who cut Tal and Mee trees.’ In the ancient tradition, it is not only the Pipal Religiosa’ or the Assattha tree which was worshipped as a ‘Bodhi’ but  a number of other trees like Na- iron Wood, Sal, Bamboo, etc too were worshipped.  In the list of the 24 Buddhas each one had a different tree for his Bodhi. On Buddha Shakyamuni’s second visit to Sri Lanka at Nagadipa, one of his devoted deities brought a ‘Rajayanatana ‘tree from India which was planted in that island to be worshipped.  The Mango tree was respected from the earliest times in Buddhism in the Island as it was under a mango tree that Venerable Mahinda met King Devanampiyatissa and tested his intelligence before preaching Dharma to convert him.

If we go further back in the history of the island we find Nuga (Banyan) trees mentioned again and again as abodes of deities or demons. There has been a god of the Tal tree who was worshipped by the people at the time of King Pandukabhaya. Thus we see that it was not only the Assattha tree that was worshipped as ‘Bodhi’ but many other plants as well.  According to a beautiful legend about the building of the Ruvanveliseya by King Dutugemunu, at the site selected for his Great Stupa there stood a majestic Telabu tree on which lived a goddess named Ratnamali.  She pleaded with the king’s men to save her tree and to  relocate the Stupa to some other site. However, the king went to see her and bargained with the goddess and finally made a deal. The Goddess would let the king cut her tree and build the Stupa there if he promised to name his Stupa after her name ‘Ratnamali’. And the Great Stupa now stands witness to this legend. This reminds us of a similar incident in the recent history of Sri Lanka.  In J.R. Jayawardhana’s’ government, Minister Gamini Dissanayake was negotiating with the British Government for a big loan to build  a damn across River Mahaveli near Teldeniya; the British government agreed on condition that our government would name the new dam after  Queen Victoria. The biggest loan from Britain to a foreign country at the time was approved when Sri Lanka agreed to their condition with no hesitation. So we have the Victoria dam built in 1985 on British financial aid in the name of their Great Queen. Here we have our Great Stupa built over 2000 years ago in Anuradhapura celebrating the name of the Goddess Ratnamali who fought to save her Ran Telabu tree.

Once again by telling monks not to ruin the lush green grass Buddha has demonstrated his love of environment:

“Monks, someone who is not very sick, should not defecate or urinate on blue grass.’ ‘Do not throw the leftover food on grass; put it in a spot with no worms or in flowing water.’

There are instances of attempts to maintain ecological balance by protecting not only plants but also various animal species in forests. Some Jataka stories show how forests were destroyed by men after animals like leopards and lions left it. According to some other Jataka tales, sometimes even deities had to intervene to protect trees in forests from men when they were about to cut them (Pucimanda Jataka, Vyaghra Jataka, Maha VanijaJataka).

As mentioned earlier, Buddha’s life was closely linked to nature. For many years, he lived as the Buddha in forests or groves; preached hundreds of his discourses in forests; laid down a number of rules in the Vinaya to protect trees and plants and referred to trees, leaves and fruit on many occasions in his teaching. Buddha’s knowledge and love of nature has been recorded in his sermons whilst his disciples recorded their experiences and delight from having lived in forests and meditated under trees, in abandoned houses, in rock caves, on river banks or on hill tops.

Author: Prof. Udaya Prasanta Meddegama

Deputy Rector/ Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy

Director/ Dhammachai Tipitaka Porject


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