Daoism and the Sustainable Worl
In 2000, the China Daoist Association published an official document banning the use of endangered animals such as the rhino and the tiger in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Why? ?
Because in Chinese philosophy, human beings are tasked with maintaining the delicate balance between yin and yang – and if we endanger that, the whole world collapses.
In this document, the China Daoist Association made the point that if the balance of yin and yang is disturbed in the course of preparing medicinal remedies, for example by hunting to the edge of extinction a wild animal like the rhino or the tiger, then clearly the medicine cannot itself work on the patient. How can you use medicine to restore the balance of an individual from illness, if creating that medicine destroys nature and disturbs the balance in the nature, the balance indeed of the universe?
This profound and wise decision by the China Daoist Association captures why Daoism is one of the most important ways of sustainability. It does not just view sustainability as a purely human concern. Of course, part of our concern is making sure that we and our children and our grandchildren have enough food to eat, water to drink, materials to build and means to travel. But Daoism also always asks that in addition to all this, we help to sustain the whole cosmos of which we are but a part.
Five years before this ground?breaking document on medicine, the China Daoist Association published their first ever Statement on Ecology. It included the following statement:
Daoism has a unique sense of value, in that it judges affluence by the number of different species. If all things in the universe grow well, then a society is a community of affluence. If not, this kingdom is on the decline. This view encourages both government and people to take good care of nature. This thought is a very special contribution by Daoism to the conservation of nature.
This profound vision of the universe and its well being is the scope of the Daoist view of sustainability and as such it forms the heart of the Path–the Dao – that we must all walk.?
The destruction of the natural environment – often today in pursuit of wealth, and sometimes in looking for the ingredients for Chinese medicine in order to make money – has gathered force in the past hundred years and is now like a runaway train.
The engine of this runaway train is greed. Personal greed, organisational greed, national greed, international greed. Everyone seems to want more and more as if by having more and more we become more ourselves. Daoism teaches that this is an illusion – and a dangerous one. ?
One of the Daoist stories I love best is the one about the bowl of water and the dust and I think it captures the heart of Daoist wisdom. You probably know the story. ?
A Daoist hermit – or rather someone trying to become one – has been on meditational retreat in the mountains for months. It is a hot summer day and he has just come down from his remote cave. He is tired, hot and extremely thirsty. He comes to a simple farm where the farmer is a woman with four young children but whose husband had died. She is struggling but is just about managing. He asks her for a drink of water from the cool well. She fetches a bowl and fills it from the well. But then, to his astonishment, he sees her sprinkle dust and little bits of straw on the surface of the water. This means he has to constantly blow on the water to get the dust and straw away from where he is drinking. It takes him ages to drink the water when what he really wanted was to drink it straight down in order to quench his thirst.?
When he finishes, he hands the bowl back without saying a word. But as he goes off he turns round at the top of the road and asks the gods to curse the woman, her farm and her children.?
And off he goes. Twenty years later he happens to walk back into the little valley and is astonished. The farm is now twice the size it had been; there are new homes for the children who have grown up and there are now healthy grandchildren running around. The farm and the family have both clearly prospered. He meets the woman and says: “What has happened?” ?
She replies that he obviously must have asked the gods to bless her and she thanks him. But he says no, instead he had cursed her. She is completely bewildered and asks why. So he tells her about the dust and straw. ?
“But that was to help you”, she says. “If you had drunk that cold water straight down after such a long time without water and in such heat it could have killed you!” The Daoist hermit realises that her act of kindness had been recognised by the gods even if he had been too foolish to understand what she had been intending. And when he realises this, he becomes a wiser man.?
In this story we see so much Daoist wisdom – wisdom that can help us in the contemporary world of China, and pretty much everywhere else too. ?
Our hero wants instant gratification. He wants everything now. He acts as if what he wants is the only thing that matters. And he thinks he is the wise one.?
The farmer, on the other hand, is truly wise. She recognises her responsibility to care for him even if he cannot see that this is needed. And the gods honour her compassion while ignoring his arrogant, aggressive foolishness.?
This story takes us into the heart not just of what sustainable development means but also into the topic of Valuing and Enjoying Life, and the truth that we can only attain anything like real happiness when the two are linked and in balance.?
My organisation, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, or ARC, has had the honour of working with the China Daoist Association for over 16 years. In 2009, at Windsor Castle, which is one of the country residences of Her Majesty The Queen of England, the China Daoist Association presented an Eight Year Plan for the protection of nature. This was honoured by His Royal Highness, The Prince Philip, founder of ARC and former International President of WWF as well as by His Excellency Ban Ki?moon, Secretary General of the United Nations. ?
In that Plan there were many pledges for Daoism to expand its ecological thoughtfulness. Among them was one idea in particular which captured the interest of the wider world. It was the Three Sticks Movement.?
In the ?Daoist Eight Year Plan? it is explained thus:
We call for a healthier and more environmentally friendly style of pilgrimage and travel. The reforms and improvements of pilgrimage styles have already started in Daoist temples and on Daoist mountains. These mainly focus on the “three stick incense burning” – in which temples promote a new tradition of burning just three sticks of incense instead of the previous many sticks in order to reduce pollution caused by burning incense, candles, papers and fireworks on Daoist premises. We also recommend that people give offerings of flowers and fruits. All religious articles must be environment friendly. From 2010 to 2012 we will carry out pilot projects (selecting one to two temples from seven of the major regions of China) and from 2013 to 2017 we will promote and pass on the experiences we learned from these projects to temples across the country.
Why three sticks? As China has become wealthier and, sadly, as corruption has also grown, the idea has arisen that the more incense sticks you offer to the gods, the more they will listen to your prayers and requests. In other words, there is a general idea that you can bribe the gods by huge quantities of offerings. It is as if consumerism and greed has entered the temples. And that is why the Daoists (followed by many Buddhist temples as well), have started the Three Sticks Movement. This says, all you need is three little sticks. No more, just three. And in that simple message is included the wider message that excess has no place in the temple or in Daoism at all. In the most powerful symbolic way Daoism is standing out against many trends in contemporary China and indeed in the contemporary world and is saying, small is beautiful and just a little is enough.?
Why did this idea attract so much attention from the world’s media and indeed from other faiths? Because in a simple and quiet way it challenges the greed and consumerism of the world. In a simple and quiet way it asks us to reflect on what is really necessary. And in a simple and quiet way it asks us what is really at the heart of human contentment and happiness. ?
The answer, according to the ancient wisdom of Daoism, is to only use what you need and to only need what the world can offer sustainably.?
Both the story of the water drinking sage and the story of the ?Three Sticks Movement? express the core truth written by the great sage Lao Zi more than 2,500 years ago.
I have Three Treasures, which I hold fast and watch over closely: the first is kindness, the second is simple living and the third is not to presume oneself to be the chief of the whole world. (Laozi, Chapter 67 of “Dao De Jing”)
Simple living is the heart of the Daoist way of life. And it is a joyful simplicity. To many in our contemporary world, extravagant wealth is the goal. Greed feeds on the desire to have the best of everything and to show it off to the rest of the world. Daoism goes in the opposite direction and in so doing is one of the very few forces in China today, or indeed in the world, which tells a very different story. Once again, the ?Daoist Eight Year? spells this out:
We call further for a Daoist simple life. Daoists should select their daily timetable and their food according to natural principles. Their lifestyle should be environmentally friendly. They should also practice traditional Daoist life-nourishing exercises. “Environmentally friendly” and “energy saving” should be the standards for Daoist temples’ energy choices. Temples should also establish structures that will help to reprocess and recycle used items and waste. Temples capable of doing so should set up sewage cleaning systems. From 2011 onwards we will promote these experiences.
So how can Daoism best help people to rediscover the true Dao, the right Path and the balance of harmony in society and in the universe??
The ?Daoist Eight Year Plan? outlines many of the ways from simple lifestyle through youth camps in nature to help young people learn about Daoism and nature to how to build eco?friendly temples. But I would suggest that one aspect of the ?Eight Year Plan? really holds the secret.
We will collect traditional stories on environment protection to provide useful lessons for today’s environmental reality. From 2010 to 2013 we will collect the stories written by the local temples. After 2014 we will re?edit and print the collection of these stories and distribute them to temples across country.
No other long term plan by any of the faiths from around the world contains this bold idea that we read in the Daoist plan. But why is collecting traditional stories so important? Because in the end people’s hearts and minds are not changed by numbers, of by data, but by stories and visions of a different way of being. ?
When Prince Philip first invited the major faiths to engage with the major international conservation groups 25 years ago he made this point. He said “If facts and figures could save the planet we would be over the crisis. But they do not. Only two things have ever changed the way people behave by touching their hearts and minds – the arts and religion – and often they are the same thing.”?
And how do people discover the great teachings of the faiths? Through examples, yes of course, but also through stories –and this is what lies at the heart of the greatness of Daoism, not just for China but for the world.?
In Daoism you have wonderful stories of simple living; of true happiness which is not built on possessions; of wisdom from and with nature and of where humanity fits in to the greater Story of the Universe. Since I first read them 30 years ago I have always particularly loved the Daoist stories of the Eight Immortals which are often so subversive of the values of ordinary society. The dream of Lü Dongbin, who was an aspiring official destined for high office in ancient China, is a good example of this. ?
If you recall the story, it starts when Lü Dongbin stops at an inn and finds himself sitting opposite the immortal Han Zhong Li. Lü Dongbin falls asleep and dreams of his success in rising to become the Prime Minister. But then everything goes wrong and he ends up seeing his entire family executed by the Emperor and he is sent into exile in the wastelands of Western China. Awaking, he realizes the pointlessness of such ambition, and he leaves that world to become a wandering monk and eventually an Immortal, famous to this day as a healer of illnesses (though only using ingredients that leave the world in balance).?
Or think of the great stories of Tieguai Li (Ti Kuai Li). He was once a handsome young man, who by an accident has to live for Eternity as an Immortal in the body of an old, hideous, hunchbacked cripple. And one of his roles is to constantly humble those who use their wealth to show off or, worse, to oppress the ordinary people.?
You Daoists have some of the world’s greatest stories about what is true happiness; what is true wealth and what is the true path and the world needs to hear these again and again to counter the lies and greed by which we are so often confronted.?
I have in this brief talk, praised the extraordiness of Daoism. But finally I want to praise the ordinariness of Daoism. By this I mean that Daoism has always been a people’s religion – it has only rarely has it been the religion of the rulers. Daoism has always been the religion of those whom others rejected or ignored, and it has been the faith of many great scholars and artists and poets. ?
Two years ago, in 2009, the world looked to the Copenhagen COP meeting to solve the world’s environmental problems. But it did not solve the world’s environmental problems, nor did it really even help that process. Its focus just on climate change was a great mistake because climate change is just one symptom amongst many of the true environmental problem – greed and stupidity. Ever since the failure of Copenhagen, the world has looked for new sources of inspiration and of ways of tackling the world’s vast ecological problems. Increasing it is turning to civil society – to the people for answers and ways forward. In Daoism we have one of the world’s oldest sources of wisdom, insight and quiet leadership for the ordinary people of the world. Daoism offers a different way of understanding what is important and its wisdom is more needed today than it ever has been.?
I will close by quoting the sage and poet ?Zhuang Zi? who in so many ways is the patron saint of Daoist wisdom for everyday life. In Chapter 23 he says the following:
Honours and wealth,?
Distinctions and authority,?
Fame and gain,?
These six are formed by the illusions of the will.?
Looks and style,?
Beauty and reason.?
Thrill of life and memories,?
These six are faults of the heart.?
Hatred and desire,?
Joy and anger,?
Sadness and happiness,?
These six are the knots of Virtue.?
Rejection and acceptance,?
Giving and taking,?
Knowledge and ability,?
These six are the impediments to the free flow of the Dao.?
When these four sets of six no longer trouble the breast,?
Then you can be centred.?
Being centred, you will be calm.?
Being calm, you will be enlightened.?
Being enlightened, you will be empty.?
Being empty, you will be in actionless action (wu wei),?
But with actionless action nothing remains undone.?
The Dao is the centerpiece of the devotions of Virtue.?
Life is the glow from Virtue.
(Secretary General of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation)