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  • Video
  • 10 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Getting back to basics

Updated Monday 7th December 2009

We shouldn’t worry about the future of the environment but trust in the present, Venerable Amaranatho of the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery shares his beliefs from the London Faith and Climate Change Conference.


Copyright The Open University


Interviewer: Firstly, I just want to know how you’ve become engaged in environmental issues.

Venerable Amaranatho: Okay. So, interestingly, I haven’t to start off with. We do a lot of work with interfaith groups, and I particularly work with teenagers and young people, and through that work I’ve been invited to come to this conference. And the interesting thing is that actually my whole life as a monk is environmental. The whole form is to do with, it’s connected with nature. So I live in basically a forest area and live a very simple life which is about looking after the environment really, very simple. So I don’t use money and I’m a thing called an alms mendicant, so that means I go out on the street with my begging bowl, and I wait to receive what people will offer me. And so it’s a very simple life based on renunciation, whereas I like to use the word moderation, how do we moderate our behaviour so that we can be with one another, and this is really the message.

So I’m a walking art form, I do this all the time. I don’t just do it now or last year or whatever, this is a form that’s over 2,550 years old, and it’s been doing it from that very point. So if you see my robe, my robe is designed as, it’s cut up into pieces like a rice paddy field. So every morning I wake up, and I put on this robe, that is my reminder. This robe is dyed the colour of a jack fruit.

This particular form that I’m in of Buddhism is called Thai Theravada, and it’s a forest tradition, so it’s called the Forest Sangha, and we have many monasteries around the world, in fact in Thailand we have 200, and they’re all based in the forest. And my teacher’s teacher, he lived in a forest so remote that there was no roads, there was nothing there, and he just lived underneath a tree to start off with. And you walked in the forest, our practice is to walk in the forest and go from village to village.

So in this country we do the same thing, we walk from town to town, and we have, we’ve had two nuns walk across Wales for two months just going from village to village and collecting food and acting as a reminder really.

Interviewer: So in a sense, it’s a silly question to ask a Buddhist how do they engage with environmental issues?

Venerable: I think so because our connection is there, it’s always been there. You know, I mean the interesting thing is that as Asia has developed there’s now a conflict because of course Asian people now would like the values of the West. And so we have a lot more investment from Thai people in England because they can see how difficult it is in Thailand and Asia. So in fact in a way we’re sort of, we’re passing it back in a way. We’re passing back this message, to try to support them here in developing, so actually Western monks have ordained trees in Thailand, as monks, so that this reminds the locals not to harm the trees, because they would never harm a monk, and so this has saved huge amounts of forest. In fact, one of our monks was poisoned by a logger in Thailand because of this. They actually put food in his bowl that was poisoned, and he got ill from it. So it’s, they’ve made some very serious offerings actually to the local people to remind them what they’ve got really.

Interviewer: And looking one year, five years, ten years out, how do you see your community and your own life and work relating to this issue? Will your engagement with environment change in the context of scientific findings about climate change, or is it just…?

Venerable: Well, our teaching is timeless you see, so actually what is there to change? The environment will change, what’s our attitude towards it? So of course we have to make decisions as communities. So we have now made a decision. We’ve had an environmental audit about what we’re going to do as a community. Are we going to have solar power and this sort of stuff? Because of course it costs a lot of money, you know heating and all the rest of it. But our minimum requirement, as a Buddhist monk, a Theravadan Buddhist monk, our minimum requirement to live is a tree. Our minimum amount of food is one bowl for the day, our minimum amount for clothing is rags off a dead body, you know, from a funeral ground, from a charnel ground, and our minimum amount for medicine is fermented urine.

So we have very simple basics. As long as we can get them we can live anywhere. It’s not to say that we would do that, but we have that, that’s our basics. So we’re not making any demands about whether we get our monastery green or whatever. So some people will come, and they don’t have that understanding about being green and environmentally friendly, but we don’t turn them away either, because the important thing is our relationship that maybe over time then something will unfold in their hearts. And as people change individually of course then there’s a global change. It’s always started from one person – Margaret Mead said this as a scientist.

Interviewer: When you mentioned changes in Thailand, for example, and economic development there, how does that get you thinking about the next ten years and Buddhism’s engagement with how, particularly in the Asian context, people think about development, consumption, materialism, it’s looking ten, five years out, ten years out?

Venerable: I think it’s, the interesting thing is you’d see from my point of view is not to look in the future - this is my job as a monk. So you ask me this question I keep turning it around and say it’s only present moment, it is only now, and what you do now will have an effect in the future. I can’t predict the future, and nor can anybody, and then when we rely in past of past or predicting the future we have been suffering, and the core of Buddhist teaching is to understand suffering, and when we understand suffering – no problem. So as soon as we project in the future – problem, as soon as we go back into the past – problem, but when we stay with this present moment actually it’s perfect, and that will help us unfold.

So I don’t know in ten years’ time what will happen. But I do know what’s happening right now, and when I stay with that moment, then complete peace, no problem. Even with all the turmoil, still peace.

Interviewer: Really interesting and I think your answer to my last question is going to be similarly interestingly difficult, is about where you would place yourself on a sliding scale between optimism and pessimism looking ten years out?

Venerable: Okay. So again we did that whole point of the Buddhist teaching is this middle way, is the middle way. So if we go out to optimism, or we go down to pessimism then the same problem, it’s either, you know, oh I’m so happy, it’s all going to happen, the world is perfect, it’s no problem, you know, we’re really going to hit the target, or it’s not working, there’s so many problems that we can’t do it, it’s just terrible, you know. But if we stay in this middle way, if we stay in this centred approach, which is again, this is what this form is doing, this is why I dress the way that I am. I mean lay Buddhists can do it as well or anybody, if when you stay in the centredness and you stay in this place, in the middle way, there’s no problem. And as soon as we go to these other extremes then there’s a problem. And this is where we can find liberation.

This is where we can find liberation from all our problems, and then we will also find the solutions because the solutions will be now, and they will come to us on a plate. We don’t have to struggle for them, they will arrive. And by our very choice of saying oh it’s going to be frightening, or it’s going to be great, we actually block it. But if we allow just the generosity of the universe to send us the gifts, then they’ll arrive. It may not be easy, I’m not saying easy, I’m not trying to say it’s easy, because the practice of staying centred is very difficult, it takes a lot of time to get really to understand who you are, but once you understand who you are, no problem. I want to finish on a story if I may because it’s a very good story about this.

So my teacher was sent. He’s an American teacher, his name is Ajahn Sumedho, and he trained in Thailand. He’s an American, he trained for ten years. He lived a very basic life, primitive life in Thailand with his teacher Ajahn Chah, and there was very great interest in this country for having monks live in England – this was 50s, 60s, something like this, and so somebody from England went out to Thailand and said please send somebody to England to live and start this simple tradition. So the Abbot Ajahn Chah he said to Ajahn Sumedho, “You must go to England”. And he said, “I can’t go to England, I’m a beggar, nobody’s going to give me any food”. And the Abbot said, “Do you think there’s one good person in England?” He said, “There must be one good person”, then he said, “You’d better go”.

So they went and lived in Hampstead Heath. There was a house for them. It was a very simple house, and they would go on alms round every morning. So they would take their bowls, and there were a few Sri Lankan shops, and they would walk around, and they would all walk around Hampstead Heath, and they did this on faith, and sometimes they’d get food, sometimes they wouldn’t, and over six months people saw them. But one day the Abbot and a few monks were walking around Hampstead Heath, and a man came up running along, and he came up to the Abbot, who was at the front of the line, and he said, “I own a hundred acre forest in Sussex, would you like it?” And that’s how our tradition started, and we were given a hundred acre forest. And this 100-acre forest has a whole plan – an environmental plan – about making it all native trees, and so we’re going back again to what it would be like and the community’s looked after that forest.

So if we really trust in our present moment – no problem.


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