The Oneness of Life and Its Environment

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One’s life and the environment are often viewed as being completely distinct, but from the comprehensive viewpoint of Buddhist philosophy, they are one and inseparable.

It is a common human tendency to blame our problems and sufferings on things outside ourselves—other people, circumstances beyond our control. The principle of the “oneness of life and its environment,” however, demonstrates that the causes of our joy and sorrow originate within us. When we base ourselves on this principle, seeing our environment as a reflection of our inner life, we are able to take full responsibility for our lives and in this way become empowered to solve our problems and create positive outcomes in the situations in which we find ourselves.

The oneness of life and its environment is clarified within the theoretical framework of “three thousand realms in a single moment of life,” established on the basis of the teachings of the Lotus Sutra by Zhiyi (the Great Teacher Tiantai) in China in the sixth century. It is an overarching explanation of the nature and workings of life.

Typically, one’s view of life and questions of existence are shaped by a consciousness of self, as reflected in Descartes’ famous declaration “I think, therefore I am.” We hold the self to be the basis of reality, and everything else is seen in relation to it. This gives rise to a perception of life structured in terms of dualities—self/other, internal/external, body/mind, spiritual/material, human/nature. From the perspective of Buddhism, however, the self is a temporary phenomenon, a nonpermanent combination of matter and mental/spiritual functions (body and mind).

Life, which is eternal and all-pervasive, transcends what we perceive as the self and is coextensive with the universe. Zhiyi describes this reality as the mutually inclusive relationship of life and all phenomena.

This, then, is the profound nature of our lives from the perspective of the Buddha’s enlightenment, belying our experience of life as being contained simply within the boundaries of our own skin.

What we experience as the day-to-day reality of our lives is the workings of the law of cause and effect, or karma, spanning past, present and future. Our actions and responses in each moment create latent karmic or energetic potentials; when these are activated by external stimuli, they manifest as effects—the events and experiences of our lives. Our reactions and responses to these in turn create further latent karmic potentials—an ongoing cycle that constitutes our subjective experience of life.

If we change ourselves, our circumstances will inevitably change also.

Because no living being can exist apart from an environment, karmic effects are expressed within that environment too. Here the word “environment” does not mean the overall context in which all life occurs. Rather, it refers to the fact that each living being exists within its own unique set of circumstances in which the effects of its individual karma appear. In other words, a living being and its environment are a single integrated dynamic. A living being and its environment are fundamentally inseparable.

According to Buddhism, everything around us, including work and family relationships, is the reflection of our inner lives. Everything is perceived through the self and alters according to the individual’s inner state of life. Thus, if we change ourselves, our circumstances will inevitably change also.

The principle of the oneness of life and its environment clarifies that individuals can influence and reform their environments through inner change or through the elevation of their basic life state. It tells us that our inner state of life will be simultaneously manifested in our surroundings. If we are experiencing a hellish internal life state, this will be reflected in our surroundings and in how we respond to events. Likewise, when we are full of joy, the environment reflects this reality. If our basic tendency is toward the life state of compassion, we will enjoy the protection and support of the world around us. By elevating our basic life state—which is the purpose of Nichiren Buddhist practice—we can transform our external reality.

As Nichiren writes, “If the minds of living beings are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds.”

Everything is interconnected, and our individual lives exert a profound and potentially unlimited influence. As Daisaku Ikeda writes again, “It is Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra, that encourages and enables people to become aware of their great power, to draw it forth and use it. Buddhism gives people the means to develop themselves thoroughly, and opens their eyes to the limitless power inherent in their lives.”

The more we believe that our actions do make a difference, the greater difference we find we can make.