Nature and Spirituality in Eastern Thought

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The conception of the universe, or nature, in the tradition of Eastern thought is that of a self-governing web of relationships whose order comes about not by the transcendent God but by spontaneous cooperation among all things in it. Although not created by God, nature is regarded as divine and sacred and, hence, needs to be revered by humans.

In Hindu thought, especially in the early Vedic period when the universe was seen as being controlled by the devas, divinity was a natural part of this world and was considered to exist in mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, and plants. Natural forces—and natural things, including animals as represented by the sacred cow—were regarded as manifestations of the divine law called rita. In short, nature was sacred in itself. Sacred places—mountains, rivers, and so on—were called tirthas, or “crossings”. These places are still revered today as places where people can cross over from the mundane concerns of life to the transcendent realms of the divine.

The Brahmana period, which saw the rise of the Brahmin class as the mediator between man and nature, and the subsequent Upanishad period brought in a slight variation in the original theme of man-nature continuity in Hindu thought. Man and nature are regarded as one in that the innermost self or soul (Atman) is the same as the universal soul (Brahman), for Brahman is the ultimate reality that underlies all existence and animates all living beings. Spiritual salvation called moksa, or “liberation”, is possible, as is discussed the Upanishads, only when we manage to find unity between Atman and Brahman.

Buddhism inherited the theme of unity of man and nature which Hinduism had developed. As a matter of fact, the Buddha went a step further when he denounced the idea of the individual human being having a distinct and separate self as an illusion: “Thy nature is not constituted by the matter of which the body consists, but by the sankharas, the forms of the body, of sensations, of thoughts. The person is the combination of the sankharas”1.

Our self, like all other things in nature, is a sankhara, a conditioned entity, which is subject to change as nature itself is in a state of constant change. And in this fundamental sameness of all things in nature lies the root of spirituality in Buddhist thought. The idea that all things in nature are fundamentally the same was of central importance in the formation of the Mahayana tradition. In the Tendai school of Buddhism in Japan, for example, all things in nature were regarded as fundamentally the same because they all possessed Buddha-nature, namely, the spirituality that is needed for enlightenment. And Kukai, the founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism in Japan, was quite explicit in expounding the universality of Buddha-nature. According to his view, even trees and plants are endowed with Buddha-nature because they, along with all other things in nature, are ontologically one with the ultimate reality, which he called the Dharmakaya.2

Lao Tzu, revered as the “old master” in the history of Chinese thought, was quite explicit in his declaration of the sanctity of nature: “For those who would like to take control of the world and act on it—I see that with this they simply will not succeed. The world is a sacred vessel; It is not something that can be acted upon”3.

Nature is sacred, according to Lao Tzu, not because of the presence of a supreme and transcending creator behind it. As a matter of fact, nature, or tzu-jan in Chinese, literally means “spontaneous self-generating process”. Nature is sacred because this spontaneous self-generating process, which Lao Tzu calls Tao, ensures, if not intervened by humans, justice and providence to all things in it.

Of the Taoists, Chuang Tzu is best known for his explicit concern over the issue of the relationship between man and nature. What is important, according to Chuang Tzu, is to recognize the unity of all things: “The universe is the unity of all things. If one recognizes his identity with this unity, then the parts of his body mean no more to him than so much dirt, and death and life, end and beginning, disturb his tranquility no more than the succession of day and night”4. How do we go about realizing this unity for ourselves? Chuang-tzu’s advice for us is to completely immerse ourselves in this “spontaneous self-generating process”. In calling us to go “back to nature”, Chuang Tzu reminds us of Rousseau who would make a similar call in eighteenth-century Europe.

Like other traditions in Eastern thought, Taoism, too, suggests meditation as one way of accomplishing unity with nature. In this process of unification, we are asked to get rid of all dichotomous notions—such as those of good and bad, giver and receiver, and subject and object—until we become aware of the unitary origin of all phenomena, namely, Tao. Later on, when Taoism was converted into a religion, Taoists developed rituals, regarding them as effective means of harmonizing human life with the forces of the universe, for humans and the universe share the three life forces—shen (spirit), qi (breath), and jing (vital essence)5.

Confucius himself had very little to say on cosmic matters; in fact, he forbade his disciples to engage in idle speculations on these matters. This does not mean that Confucius was not interested in the question of man’s place in the universe. On the contrary, his whole social philosophy stemmed from his desire to establish the social order which would reflect the kind of order he found in heaven, for, as he put it, “heaven is author of the virtue that is in me”6. Living, as he did, in the midst of the turbulent Spring-Autumn period, it was obvious to Confucius that the social chaos of the day originated in the rule of power and that the social order would not be restored until the rule of virtue founded on sound social ethics was reestablished: “The rule of virtue can be compared to the Pole Star which commands the homage of the multitude of stars without leaving its place”7.

Nature and spirituality come into sharper focus in Mencius who saw human nature as a reflection of heavenly nature. To become a man of virtue was, therefore, nothing but the process of self-realization. The eleventh-century Confucian thinker Chang Tsai went furthest among Confucian thinkers in claiming the basic oneness of man and nature: “heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and even such a small being as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore, that which fills the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I regard as my nature”8.

Nature-worship is central to Shinto, an indigenous faith of the Japanese. In Shinto, kami is the term used to refer to the animate features of the natural environment. Kami are to be found everywhere—in mountains, streams, trees, and rocks—often assuming human forms. Indeed, nature is spirituality itself because kami are endowed with mitama, or “holy spirits” 9. Rigorous physical training, such as praying under a waterfall in a remote mountain on a chilly winter morning, is often employed to invoke kami in nature and us. Here we find an idea of total immersion in nature, the same idea that would be elevated into a worship of nature by Romantic thinkers of the West in the eighteenth century.

Common to all systems of Eastern thought is the idea that nature is an all-encompassing and self-generating process, which includes humans. Nature, in other words, is not an entity that exists outside of the space of human experience. Hence, the idea that nature is an object of rational inquiry, or that things in nature can be exploited for the benefit of humans, is foreign to the traditional view of nature in Eastern thought. Eastern philosophers are indeed united in their insistence that nature is something to be identified with and that humans can benefit only by learning about nature’s ways.

  1. Carus, The Gospel of Buddha, Oxford: One World, 1994, p. 157.
  2. Kukai, Kobo Daishi Zenshu, Tokyo: Mikkyo Bunka Kenkyujyo, 1964.
  3. Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching, New York: Modern Library, 1993, Chapter 29.
  4. Creel, Herrlee G., Chinese Thought: From Confucius to Mao Tze-Tung, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953, pp. 100-101.
  5. Welch, Holmes, and Anna Seidel (eds.), Facets of Taoism: Essays on Chinese Religion, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.
  6. Confucius, The Analects, London: Penguin Books, 1979, VII.23.
  7. Confucius, ibid, II.1.
  8. Callicott, J. Baird, and Roger T. Ames (eds.), Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, Buffalo: State University of New York Press, 1989, pp. 73-74.
  9. See, for example, Aston, W.G., Shinto: The Way of the Gods, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1905.