As “permies” spread far and wide in search of the perfect herb spiral, the ethical message gets progressively diluted and permaculture ends up often being confused as simply a smarter system for growing food and promoting “sustainable” living.
As we know, no single element within PC is anything radically new, this applies especially to its ethical foundations – Care for People, Care for the Earth, Fair Share – which are included within the recommended codes of behaviour of all major religious and philosophical systems.
BEWARE, these principles are very hard to live up to truly, regardless of how much we might agree with them as we read them on a page and we all need all the help we can get in this endeavour.
In this spirit, I reproduce here an excerpt from “Knowing Anicca and the way to Nibbana”, by the late Sayagyi U Chit Tin, one of the foremost disciples of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. The book is regularly used in lectures during meditation retreats at Splatts House and the other centres in the Sayagyi U Ba Khin tradition.
The Story of the Two Acrobats
The Buddha told the bhikkhus the following story: once there were two acrobats who did their act using a bamboo pole. One day, the master said to his apprentice Medakathalika, “Now get on my shoulders and climb up the bamboo pole.” When the apprentice had done as he was told, the master said, “Now protect me well and I will protect you. By protecting and watching each other in that way, we will be able to show our skill, make a good profit, and you will get down from the pole safely.”
But Medakathalika said, “Not so, master. You should protect yourself, and I too will protect myself. By keeping myself secure, I will be protecting you. Self-protected and self-guarded in this way, we will protect each other by protecting ourselves and will safely perform our feats.”
This discourse deals with the relations between ourselves and our fellow beings, between individuals and society. It sums up in an admirable way the Buddhist attitude to the problems of individual and social ethics, of egoism and altruism. The two sentences which summarize the teaching supplement each other and shouldn’t be taken separately: “By protecting oneself, one protects others. By protecting others, one protects oneself.”
Today, social activity is greatly stressed, so people may be tempted to quote, in support of their ideas, only the second phrase: “By protecting others, one protects oneself.” A one-sided quotation such as this would misrepresent the Buddha’s teaching, however. The Buddha expressly recommended the apprentice’s method. One must first carefully watch one’s own steps if one wishes to protect others from harm.
“By protecting oneself, one protects others.” The truth of this statement begins at a very simple and practical level. It is obvious that on the material level, protecting your health will go far in protecting the health of our environment. Caution and circumspection in all our actions and movements will protect others from any harm that could come to them through our carelessness or negligence.
On another level, moral self-protection will safeguard other individuals and society against our own unrestrained passions. If the three roots of all unwholesome acts—greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha)—take root in our hearts, what grows from these roots will spread far and wide and, like a jungle creeper, it will suffocate the healthy growth all around.
On the other hand, if we protect ourselves from these three roots of unwholesome acts, our fellow men will be safe from our greed for possessions or power, our unrestrained lust and sensuality, from envy and jealousy; they will be safe from the destructive or even murderous consequences of our hate and enmity—from our outbursts of anger, from an atmosphere of bad humour and quarrelsomeness that can make life unbearable for those around us.
Greed and hate also have infectious power. If we think only of getting more, we will rouse or strengthen these possessive instincts in others too. Our bad example may become the standard for our environment—our children, the younger generation, for example. We may also persuade others to join us in satisfying the desire to own more and more. If we are full of sensual desires, we may kindle that fire of lust in others too. If we act with hatred, we will make others hate in return. Greed and hate are like contagious diseases. We will protect ourselves and others as well if we make ourselves as immune as possible.
As for the third root of unwholesome acts, we all know how through delusion or ignorance much harm can be done to others through the stupidity, thoughtlessness, illusions, and delusions of a single person.
Without wisdom and knowledge, attempts at protecting oneself and others will mostly fail. One will see the danger after it is too late. One will not make provision for the future. One will not know the right, effective means for protecting and helping. Therefore, self-protection through wisdom and knowledge is of the greatest importance.
History has shown us that great mass delusions of a very destructive nature have often been started or kindled by a single person or a small group of people.
If we leave untouched the actual or potential sources of social evil within ourselves, any external social activity of ours will be either futile or glaringly incomplete. So if we are motivated by a spirit of social responsibility, we cannot shirk the hard task of self-protection, and that means we must work for moral and spiritual self-development.
Now we come to the next level in the interpretation of our text. It is expressed in the following words of the sutta: “And how does one, by protecting oneself, protect others? By repeated practice, by meditative development, by frequent practice of moral self-protection.”
Moral self-protection will lack reliability as long as it starts to function only after a struggle with motives or if it has to be enforced against conflicting habits. The outcome of the struggle may sometimes go against our good intentions, or we may fail to enforce them on deep-rooted habits within.
Only when moral self-protection becomes a spontaneous function will it give real safety to ourselves and to others. This naturalness isn’t a gift from heaven. It has to be acquired by repeated practice. So the sutta says that it is repeated practice that strengthens self-protection until it is strong enough to protect others too.
Practice on the practical, emotional, and intellectual levels won’t be enough, however. The roots won’t be firm and deep enough unless the practice includes meditation as well. By meditation, the practical, emotional, and intellectual motives of self-protection will become a mental property that cannot be easily lost again.
Now let us consider the second phrase: “By protecting others, one protects oneself.” The Buddha explained what this means: “through patience, through a non-violent and harmless life, through loving kindness, and pity.”
A man who governs his relationships with others by these four principles will protect himself better than weapons and physical strength could. Patience or forbearance will help him to avoid many conflicts and quarrels. It will be easy to make many friends, those for whom he has shown patient understanding. Through not using force or coercion, he will rarely become an object of violence himself, since he doesn’t provoke it.
So moral self-protection is the basis. But it is only possible if it doesn’t conflict with the protection of others. Otherwise, it will defile as well as endanger the individual. And protection of others mustn’t conflict with the four principles of patience, non-violence, love, and pity. It mustn’t interfere with the spiritual development of the individual.
These two principles of self-protection and protection of others are equally important in individual and social ethics and provide harmony between them both. They lead the individual on to the highest realization of the Dhamma and provide at the same time a firm foundation for society. To be able to protect oneself and others there has to be mindfulness.