Us and Them: Buddhism, identity and community

A resource for teachers, parents and students (aged 12 to 16)


What does Buddhism, a spiritual tradition born in India 2500 years ago, have to contribute to 21st- century discussions of community cohesion and citizenship?
Amongst its many teachings, Buddhism has something distinctive to say about the topics of identity and self.
Buddhism also offers the teaching of the Four Sangrahavastus/Sanghavatthus: four means of bringing people together for the common good.
These teachings appear in early scriptures and in those of the later, Mahayana, tradition. We think they deserve to be better known in the modern Buddhist world. In the translations we have used, they are:

  • generosity
  • kind speech
  • beneficial activity
  • exemplification

These materials use these four behaviours as a lens through which to look at the activities of a range of Buddhists in Britain and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

You may find this Glossary of Buddhist terms helpful


5 sections, each with video components, questions and suggested activities as well as an information sheet for download. Click on a section to jump straight to it.

1: Who are we?

1a Belonging
1b Identity
1c The Four Sangrahavastus

2 Generosity

3 Kind speech

3a Real communication
3b Who’s responsible?

4 Benefiting others

4a Democracy?
4b What is happiness?

5 Being an example

5a Waste and karma
5b Recycling, karma, compost

Who are we?

1a Belonging

What’s it like to be young, British and Buddhist?

Discuss/consider before watching the video

  • Where or when do you feel you “belong”?
  • What do you think or feel about belonging?

In the video, notice what people say about

  • themselves
  • what they think or believe
  • what’s important to them
Belonging (click to open)

Nam is the British-Vietnamese Buddhist interviewed in this programme. In the video he says he is Buddhist and Vietnamese. There are Christians in his family too, and he has lots of “English” friends.

Belonging is important to him, but he says being a Buddhist is much more important than that, because of the way it’s made him think about life.

Many Vietnamese people came to Britain in the 1970s as refugees from communist Vietnam, following the Vietnam War. Nam was born in Britain.

Some of Nam’s Vietnamese friends told us they wanted to get a good education so that they could go back to Vietnam and help their people, for example as doctors.

Think about and discuss

  • What did Nam mean by “English”? Who do you think is British?
  • Is it more important to have beliefs or to belong? Is it possible to choose?
  • Do you have to believe to belong? Might people choose to be part of a community or group even if they didn’t share the beliefs of the other members? Why?
  • Do you have to belong to believe? Can people live by religious or spiritual beliefs without being part of a group or community?
  • Could standing up for one’s beliefs sometimes mean having to leave a group?
What makes someone a Buddhist?

Buddhists might have a variety of views on this – here are a few:

  • they come from a Buddhist family and culture. If your family were Buddhist, you might feel you were too, even if you didn’t know very much about what the Buddha taught.
  • they attend a Buddhist temple, often or just for festivals
  • they agree with Buddhist teachings, such as the precepts taught in most Buddhist traditions.
  • they have committed themselves to following the Buddha’s teachings, privately or in a ceremony witnessed by other Buddhists. (see What is the Sangha? section)
  • they Take Refuge in the Three Jewels/Triple Gem. They put their trust in the Buddha, who showed the way leading to Enlightenment; the Dharma – his teachings – and the Sangha.

Can you think of other reasons why someone might consider themselves
a Buddhist?

What is the Sangha?

The word Sangha has several meanings. Some Buddhists use it to refer to Buddhist monks and nuns only; some use it to refer to a whole community of Buddhists, or all Buddhists everywhere, whether monastic, lay or ordained. It can also refer to all the women and men who have ever gained Enlightenment. Buddhism teaches that such people prove that it is possible for any human being to reach perfect wisdom and compassion.


1 Odd one out? Hannah and her friends talk
about what it’s like to be the only Buddhist in their school. However, we can feel like the odd one out even when we’re somewhere we belong.

Get together with at least two friends. Write down

  • all the things you have in common
  • ways in which you show you belong (clothes,
    uniforms, hair, traditions etc)
  • how you know each other (neighbours,
    school, groups)
  • what makes you feel you belong when you are

Now each person says something which makes them different from the others in this group. (You don’t have to talk about anything private.)

2 Web work Check out the Ask A Buddhist webpages using the menu above. Here Buddhists answer young people’s questions about Buddhism and being a Buddhist.
In the Being a Buddhist section, choose three questions. Watch at least two answers to each question.

Identify at least five things most of these Buddhists seem to have in common, however different they may be as people. Now finish these two sentences:

1. I think being a Buddhist means…
2. Something people might not know about
Buddhists is that…

3 Find Buddhist groups in your area Use the web to find local Buddhists. If they have a temple or centre, ask to visit. (Some Buddhist groups meet in people’s houses.) Tell your parents before arranging a visit.

What are Precepts?

Most Buddhist traditions have a list of precepts, that people undertake to follow to the best of their ability. Some Buddhists see them as rules; many Buddhists see them more as guidelines. Either way, they help Buddhists train themselves to become wiser and more compassionate. Some Buddhists think of them as promises.

Precepts describe the way a Buddha would naturally behave all the time. If we’re not Enlightened, we just have to do our best!

Buddhist traditions have different but similar precepts. In some traditions Buddhists undertake to follow more precepts the more they their trust in the Three Jewels deepens, and the more commitment they feel. You could say Buddhists express their trust in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha by living by the precepts, more and more wisely and kindly.

The Five Precepts
The commonest set of precepts is the Five Precepts: five things Buddhists aspire to avoid. These were first recorded in the earliest scriptures, known as the Pali Canon, and they are followed by many Buddhists, particularly in the Theravada tradition. Some Buddhists also list them in a positive form, as things to develop.

What is 'Taking Refuge'?

A refuge is a safe place, where we will not suffer. We take refuge, or try to find safety, all the time. Buddhism says we use things, like new clothes, computers and video games, etc to make us feel safe and confident.

However, the Buddha said that only the Three Jewels/Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) were really trustworthy. Everything else is impermanent and so will disappoint us sooner or later. (The Three Jewels are also known as the Three Refuges.)

The Buddha taught people to depend on the Three Jewels for safety more than on anything else. For some Buddhists Taking Refuge is a formal ceremony where a person affirms their confidence in the Three Jewels/Refuges and their desire to live by the teachings of a particular Buddhist teacher or tradition. It can also be seen as a lifelong process of deepening understanding of, confidence in, and commitment to, the Three Jewels.

The Three Refuges

English                                                    Pali

To the Buddha for refuge I go       Buddham saranam gacchami

To the Dharma for refuge I go        Dhammam saranam gacchami

To the Sangha for refuge I go      Sangham saranam gacchami

The Five Precepts

Behaviour to avoid              Behaviour to develop

harming living beings             loving-kindness

taking the not-given                         generosity

sexual misconduct              stillness and contentment

false speech                              truthful speech

taking intoxicants that cloud the mind                 mindfulness or awareness

Could you live by the Five Precepts? Which would you find hardest?

Who are we?

1b Identity

Young British Buddhists explore identity

Discuss/consider before watching the video

  • What do we mean when we talk about a person’s ‘identity’ or ‘personality’?
  • What does it mean, to ‘know who you are’?

In the video, notice what people say about

  • self and identity
  • the way people feel about themselves
The teaching of no (fixed) self

Buddhism has a particular contribution to make to discussions of community cohesion and identity. Identity is something we all need. According to Buddhism, it’s also something to let go of, again and again, in every moment.

The Buddhists in the video explain the teaching of no fixed self (anatman/anatta). In the Buddhist view, everything is composite and depends on other things. Thus, everything changes constantly, including us (anitya/anicca).

The most famous scriptural exposition of anatman/anatta describes the monk Nagasena’s discussion of a chariot with the ancient king Milinda. Where does the essence of the chariot lie? The king cannot answer. “Chariot” is a concept applied to a temporary arrangement of wheels, chassis, reins, etc. So it is with our moods and thoughts, and our bodies which alter as our nails grow and stomachs fill and empty. Thus, there is no soul, no unchanging pure essence which outlives the body.

Buddhism simply observes that this is the Way Things Are – and when we behave as though things did have a fixed identity we suffer because we are not behaving in accordance with Reality.

Nurturing what is positive in tradition can provide security and help build community – up to a point. However, clutching at a sense of me, my culture, my tradition (even my Buddhism) leads to disharmony, defensiveness, warfare; polarisation with people who are “not like us”.

Identity and the onion

In the video Venerable Amaranatho says:

If we look at our identity, we can see it in terms of an onion. We’re just peeling off the layers, layer upon layer, and slowly as well, and we’re investigating each layer as it comes off. And although we reconstruct it at the end because we need to function in the world, the essence is that there is no onion.

This sounds a bit mysterious. What is he talking about?!

We see an onion as a thing and think ‘onion’. However, Buddhism says that if we take away the layers there is nothing left which we can truly call an onion.

When he talks of peeling off the layers slowly, Amaranatho is referring to the way a Buddhist may choose to reflect on the various aspects of their personality or identity. Doing this, they will see that there is nothing fixed about them: each of us is a collection of tendencies and habits developed in response to all the things which have influenced us in life.

Buddhism says everything is like that. There is no bit of Amaranatho which remains the real Amaranatho if we take away all the other bits.

So Buddhism says we have no fixed identity or personality that we need to protect. Everything is always changing. For example, while you are reading this, you are having mental responses to what you are reading and your hair and nails are growing.

Buddhism teaches that eventually, with practice, we can come to see that there are really no ‘things’ at all; just processes.

However, only a Buddha could really live like this. People who are not Enlightened yet still need a sense of self, and some healthy self- respect. That means most of us.

Everyone can change for the better
If there is nothing about us which is fixed, it follows that we can all change for the better.

Buddhism teaches that as we make an effort to act more kindly and wisely we will become happier, kinder, wiser people. (If we put energy into our unhelpful habits, we will still change, but become more and more unhappy and unpleasant to know!)


1 Groups Brainstorm all the types or groups you belong to, and the labels people give themselves and other groups; eg. Sri Lankan, Muslim, white, boys, redheads, etc. Does each person just have one label? Get people to stand in one kind of grouping, and then another. How much do people move? Does anyone not move at all? What does this tell you about people, identities and labels?

2 Discussion A sportswear company uses an image of a meditating Buddhist monk to advertise their new trainers in the UK. (This activity is based on a true story.) Some UK Buddhists are offended by this and protest against the advert. Many of these Buddhists’ families come from traditionally Buddhist countries in Asia. Other Buddhists say it doesn’t matter very much. Many of these Buddhists are white or black people who have become Buddhists.

Consider questions of identity, ethnicity, tradition, understanding and respect.

  • What part do you think Buddhists’ different ethnic backgrounds might play in the ways they respond to the advert?
  • Why might two Buddhists of the same background take differing views?
Buddhists in Britain

Although Asian people are a minority in Britain, they are the majority among British Buddhists. According to the 2001 census more than 60% of of British Buddhists come from families who have come from Buddhist countries in Asia. The rest are people who have chosen to become Buddhists, including about 1% who are people of African or Caribbean origin.

The people who have converted to Buddhism could feel like the odd ones out, except that British Buddhists of different ethnic backgrounds don’t tend to mix much so far. In the early 20th century white people set up the first Buddhist temples in Britain; later, Asian Buddhists came to Britain and set up their own temples: Chinese, Burmese, Thai, Sri Lankan, Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Vietnamese etc.

However, some of these groups are part of the Network of Buddhist Organisations (NBO). This enables co- operation and friendship between different Buddhist groups sometimes with very different approaches to Buddhism. When the UK government wants to know how Buddhists might feel about its plans, it often asks groups such as the NBO.

Stand up and be counted!
Every 10 years since 1801 (except during the Second World War), the government of the United Kingdom has conducted a “census”, to collect information about the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and how and where they live. (Other countries do this too.) The 2001 census was the first to ask about people’s religion. It showed there were 152,000 Buddhists in the UK.

However, it is likely that many more people who hold Buddhist beliefs did not tick the box marked ‘Buddhist’. They may not have wanted to fix themselves with a label. They may not have been part of any Buddhist group, either.

Government policy, including spending, is partly based on the census information. The more members a particular religion has, the more services and funding may be provided for people of that religion.

Think about and discuss
Why might some people not want to label themselves “Buddhist”, even if they live by the Buddha’s teachings?

Who are we?

1c The Four Sangrahavastus

The Buddha’s four ways of bringing people together

Discuss/consider before watching the video

  • How do you show care for people?
  • What is society? What does it have to do with you?

In the video, notice what people say about

  • four things recommended by the Buddha
The Four Sangrahavastus

These are variously translated as the four Means of Conversion or Unification, Four Bases of Sympathy etc. Little known in the modern Buddhist world, they are ways of bringing people together in a spirit of kindness, sympathy and co- operation. The Buddha talks about them several times in Sanskrit and Pali scriptures. (Sanskrit: sangrahavastu/Pali:sangahavatthu).

Below are two examples of the first scriptural mentions of these Means of Unification. The first is a short statement by the Buddha. The second is the story of the Buddha’s meeting with a young man named Hatthaka.

It is implied that they have met a while before, though the first meeting is not recorded. We may infer that on the first occasion Hatthaka, a new follower of the Buddha, felt alone and in need of spiritual community. He asked the Buddha what he should do. It appears that, acting on his advice, within a relatively short time his actions have proved amazingly successful.

The Four Sangrahavastus are also mentioned in the Mahayana scriptures. In the Ratnamala scripture, the Indian teacher Nagarjuna includes them in his advice to a king. Elsewhere they are described as the ways in which a “Bodhisattva” draws together a group of people who want to live by the Buddha’s teachings. In Mahayana Buddhism a Bodhisattva is a heroic archetype, the ideal woman or man, helping all beings move away from suffering and towards the perfect wisdom and compassion of Enlightenment.

The first sangrahavastu is generosity. The second is kindly speech. The second two are more complicated. All four overlap considerably: benefiting others (no. 3) clearly involves generosity and kindly speech. Among its shades of meaning no. 4 includes being an example and treating others equally.


1 Young Buddhists online Hannah and her Buddhist friends live far apart. They keep in touch using text and the net. Check out Facebook or other social networking sites to see what Buddhists are doing there. You’ll notice similarities and differences between Buddhists of different traditions.

2 Heroes and heroines In groups, draw up lists of people you consider heroes or heroines or people you admire; maybe people you’d like to be like. Are they perfect, or do they have faults, like everyone else? Choose one each. Create a poem or presentation about them, or a model or picture of them. Make it clear

  • how you think they benefit the world, through either the things they do or the ways they inspire people
  • why you think others should follow their example

Danañ ca peyyavajjañ ca atthacariya ca ya idha samanattata dhammesu tattha tattha yatharaham ete kho sangaha loke rathass’ani va yayato

Generosity, kind words,
doing a good turn for others,
and treating all people alike:
these bonds of sympathy
are to the world
what the lynch-pin is to the chariot wheel.

From the
Anguttara Nikaya,
Pali Canon

Hatthaka's story

The Buddha was staying outside the town of Alavi. Hatthaka, who lived with his family in the town, came with five hundred friends and followers to see the Buddha. They were all committed Buddhists and they brought gifts to show their appreciation of the Buddha.

The Buddha said: “This following ofyours, Hatthaka, is very large. How do you stay united?

“Sir, we stay united by the four means of unification which you taught me.
When I know that I can make a connection with someone through generosity, I use generosity.
When I know that I can make a connection with someone through kind speech, I use kind speech.
When I know that I can make a connection with someone through beneficial activity, I use beneficial activity.
When I know that I can make a connection with someone through exemplification,
I use exemplification.”

“Well done, Hatthaka! This is just the way to bring people together. It always has been and it always will be.”

Then the Buddha gave a talk. Hatthaka and his friends listened, inspired and excited by his words. Then they went home.

Compiled and edited from the Hatthaka Sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya, Pali Canon.

More about the Four Sangrahavastus

The Four Sangrahavastus/Sangahavatthus are four ways, or means, of unifying people; bringing them together in a spirit of kindness, sympathy and co-operation. The Buddha talks about them several times in early scriptures written in two ancient Indian languages, Pali and Sanskrit. (Sangrahavastu is the Sanskrit word; in Pali it’s sangahavatthu.)

If you click on ‘Hatthaka’s story’ you can see a passage from the early Pali scriptures. It tells the story of the Buddha’s meeting with a young man named Hatthaka. (See video.) The last time they met, Hatthaka had asked the Buddha how he could build a group of new friends interested in the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha’s suggestions have obviously been very effective because this time Hatthaka has brought with him 500 new Buddhist friends!

The Bodhisattva
In later Buddhist scriptures the Four Sangrahavastus are described as ways in which a ‘Bodhisattva’ brings together a group of people who want to live by the Buddha’s teachings of wisdom and compassion.

A Bodhisattva is a kind of ideal person – a hero or heroine of wisdom and kindness – who wants to help all beings escape suffering and move towards the perfect wisdom and compassion of Enlightenment. This is a big project! Big projects require teamwork. So the Bodhisattva uses the sangrahavastus to attract people to work together for the benefit of everyone. Some Buddhists aspire to be Bodhisattvas, and consider certain great people to be Bodhisattvas.

2 Generosity

Generosity in the lives of two different groups of Buddhists

Discuss/consider before watching the video

  • In the last 24 hours, what examples can you remember of people giving or sharing time, things or help?

In the video, look out for

  • things or ideas you like or find interesting
  • things or ideas you think sound odd or unpleasant

Buddhism teaches that generosity is a fundamental practice for anyone who aspires to develop wisdom and compassion. Both Theravada and Mahayana scriptures put it at the top of their lists of great virtues to be cultivated on the path to Enlightenment: the Ten Perfections (Theravada) and the Six Perfections (Mahayana).

The early Buddhist scriptures contain numerous references to the importance of giving and various ways and motivations for being generous. Interestingly, these include common pitfalls.

Ways and reasons to give

  • spontaneously
  • because you are frightened
  • to pay someone back because they’ve given you something
  • because you want something in return
  • you just believe it is good to give in life
  • you want people to think you are a good person
  • you want to show kindness/affection
  • you’re angry
  • giving is a tradition in your family
  • you believe giving will lead to a good rebirth
  • you believe giving will help you develop a joyful heart

For Buddhists, generosity is a simple, very important attitude everyone can develop – and it’s a great way of bringing people together.
Generosity helps others and it can also help us. Buddhism teaches that generosity can help us become happier because it links us to others and makes us less self-centred.


1 Ways to give  In the text under ‘Generosity’ is a list of different ways
in which people give, collated from various parts of the early Buddhist scriptures.

Are they all equally kind reasons for giving?

  • Choose the eight reasons you think are the best
  • Explain your choices
  • Give examples from your own experience, of offering or receiving generosity
  • Write them down or create a presentation

2 Happy List Every year, the British newspaper, the Independent on Sunday publishes a ‘Happy List’: 100 people who make Britain a better place. Look at the list. What do you think of what these people have done? Are there any people you think should not be there?

Make your own Happy List: at least three people who make life better for others. Looking at what they have done, or the way they are, can you see any common themes?

Give a presentation about one or two of the people you have chosen. Make a wall display, use PowerPoint or write and perform a drama, poem or song about them.

3 A Buddhist charity  The Karuna Trust is a UK Buddhist charity helping the poor in India and the Himalayas. To raise money for Karuna, Buddhists in Europe volunteer to knock on people’s doors, telling people about Karuna and inviting donations.
Look at their website and find out what they do. How much Buddhism do you see on their site? Why do you think this is?

4 Volunteering One way of being generous is to be a volunteer. Find out about charities and volunteer projects in your area.

The Six Perfections

  1. Generosity
  2. Ethics
  3. Patience
  4. Positive energy
  5. Concentration
  6. Wisdom

(the Sanskrit translation)

  • dana
  • sila
  • kshanti
  • virya
  • dhyana
  • prajna

The Ten Perfections

  1. Generosity
  2. Ethics
  3. Renunciation
  4. Wisdom
  5. Positive energy
  6. Patience
  7. Truthfulness
  8. Determination
  9. Loving-kindness
  10. Equanimity, serenity

(the Pali translation)

  • dana
  • sila
  • nekkhamma
  • panna
  • virya
  • khanti
  • sacca
  • adhitthana
  • metta
  • upekkha
Hatthaka's story

The Buddha was staying outside the town of Alavi. Hatthaka, who lived with his family in the town, came with five hundred friends and followers to see the Buddha. They were all committed Buddhists and they brought gifts to show their appreciation of the Buddha.

The Buddha said: “This following ofyours, Hatthaka, is very large. How do you stay united?

“Sir, we stay united by the four means of unification which you taught me.
When I know that I can make a connection with someone through generosity, I use generosity.
When I know that I can make a connection with someone through kind speech, I use kind speech.
When I know that I can make a connection with someone through beneficial activity, I use beneficial activity.
When I know that I can make a connection with someone through exemplification,
I use exemplification.”

“Well done, Hatthaka! This is just the way to bring people together. It always has been and it always will be.”

Then the Buddha gave a talk. Hatthaka and his friends listened, inspired and excited by his words. Then they went home.

Compiled and edited from the Hatthaka Sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya, Pali Canon.

About the ritual in the video

Buddhist ritual varies a great deal across traditions and countries. At the start of this puja, or worship ritual, the Buddhists chant Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samasambuddhasa, or “Praise to the worthy one, the perfectly Enlightened One!” It’s in Pali, an ancient Indian language of the Buddha’s time.

It’s common in many traditions to follow this with this declaration, three times:

I go for refuge to the Buddha.
I go for refuge to the Dharma.
I go for refuge to the Sangha.

However, these Buddhists are using a different form of words, written by the ordained Buddhist leading the ritual. He describes the Buddha as “the heart of kindness” and “the heart of peace”.

I go for refuge to the heart of kindness.
I go for refuge to the heart of peace.

The Buddhists make offerings of candles and incense to the Buddha, while chanting a mantra, (a series of sacred sounds) praising the Buddha (also known as “Shakyamuni” – the sage, or wise man, of the Shakya clan). This mantra is in Sanskrit, another ancient Indian language.

om muni muni maha muni shakyamuni svaha
Praise to the wise one, the great wise one of the Shakyans!

More about the Four Sangrahavastus

The Four Sangrahavastus/Sangahavatthus are four ways, or means, of unifying people; bringing them together in a spirit of kindness, sympathy and co-operation. The Buddha talks about them several times in early scriptures written in two ancient Indian languages, Pali and Sanskrit. (Sangrahavastu is the Sanskrit word; in Pali it’s sangahavatthu.)

If you click on ‘Hatthaka’s story’ you can see a passage from the early Pali scriptures. It tells the story of the Buddha’s meeting with a young man named Hatthaka. (See video.) The last time they met, Hatthaka had asked the Buddha how he could build a group of new friends interested in the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha’s suggestions have obviously been very effective because this time Hatthaka has brought with him 500 new Buddhist friends!

The Bodhisattva
In later Buddhist scriptures the Four Sangrahavastus are described as ways in which a ‘Bodhisattva’ brings together a group of people who want to live by the Buddha’s teachings of wisdom and compassion.

A Bodhisattva is a kind of ideal person – a hero or heroine of wisdom and kindness – who wants to help all beings escape suffering and move towards the perfect wisdom and compassion of Enlightenment. This is a big project! Big projects require teamwork. So the Bodhisattva uses the sangrahavastus to attract people to work together for the benefit of everyone. Some Buddhists aspire to be Bodhisattvas, and consider certain great people to be Bodhisattvas.

What is rebirth?

Buddhist tradition teaches that when we die, the body ceases to function but there
is some kind of continuity into another life. It’s not possible to say ‘what’ continues, but it’s not a thing or soul. It is more like an ever-changing flow of consciousness, rather than the same person living one life after another.

One traditional illustration of the death-rebirth process is of a candle being lit from a dying flame. The ‘second’ flame is neither a new flame nor the old one, but depends on the first one. It could not exist without the ‘first’ one.

What happens to us in future lives is affected by our behaviour in this life. This is the teaching of karma/kamma.

As we gradually behave more kindly and less selfishly, growing in wisdom and compassion, birth after birth, eventually all our unhelpful habits will be exhausted, resulting in Enlightenment. (Of course, sometimes we’ll be going backwards rather than forwards!)

After a person gains Enlightenment, when they eventually die there is no further rebirth in a human body. The Buddha refused to discuss what happens after this, but taught simply that suffering ends with the ceasing of rebirth.

Although anyone can choose to behave wisely and kindly, no matter how easy or hard their life is, a particularly ‘good’ rebirth would be one in which a person had

  • enough money, clothes, food etc for a simple, dignified life
  • access to the Buddha’s teachings
  • the time and awareness to live by those teachings – for the benefit of others as well as themselves

Think about and discuss

  • What do you think a fortunate life would involve? How do your ideas compare with the ones above?
  • If someone is generous only because they want a good rebirth, is that generosity?
  •  What would be the most generous reason for wanting a good rebirth?


The Buddha’s teaching on rebirth is different from the teaching of the Vedic tradition of his time. This taught that an unchanging soul or essence (the atta/atman) passes from one life to the next, like water poured from one vessel into another. This can be found in some strands of Hinduism
today. Instead, the Buddha taught anatta/anatman, or ‘no (unchanging) self”’

Kind Speech

3a Real Communication

How the way we speak each other can bring us together or separate us

Discuss/consider before watching the video

  • Does speaking or communicating kindly mean being ‘nice’?
  • When and why might it be kind to tell somebody something they don’t want to hear?
  • Apart from speaking and handwriting, what are all the other ways you use to communicate with people?
  • If you could gossip kindly and generously, what kinds of things might you say about people?

In the video, look out for

  • what Locana thinks good communication is about
  • something you already know or have experienced

The trainer in the video is an ordained Buddhist. Locana is her ordination name as a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order. She works as a trainer in a system of communication known as Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Though this is not an explicitly Buddhist system, it is popular with many Buddhists who find it fits with the Buddha’s teachings on this topic.

Kind speech

The early Buddhist scriptures emphasise ethical communication again and again. Right Speech is part of the Noble Eightfold Path. (see below.) Avoiding ‘false speech’ is one of the Five Precepts – guidelines about behaviour which causes suffering and leads us away from Enlightenment. 

In the Buddha’s time, the teachings mainly related to the way people spoke to each other; few people could read or write. Today Buddhists apply these teachings to communication in general. Our body language and the way we use words, whether in email, texts, websites, books or magazines,can bring people together or stir them up against each other.

False speech
False speech isn’t just about telling lies. It also refers to communication which doesn’t fit with the Buddha’s description of the way things are in life.

For example, let’s take gossip. When we talk about someone, we usually talk about their faults and we often say or think that that the person is always like this. Yet, the Buddha taught that everything changes and that all human beings can make progress. We also forget that how this person seems to us has a lot to do with our own attitudes; other people may experience them quite differently.

Finally, gossip is usually unkind so it will lead to unhappiness for the person gossipping as well as the person being talked about.

Do we always have to be ‘nice’?
The Buddha taught his followers to be aware of their intention when doing anything, including speaking. Sometimes we do have to say things which are painful to hear. We need to check we genuinely want to help the other person; shaming and embarrassing people is unkind and and won’t help them change for the better.

Buddhism teaches that helping each other understand how our behaviour causes suffering – for ourselves and others – is an act of great compassion.


1 Keep a communication diary for a week. Here is a diary sheet which you can print off. Every evening, make a note of conversations, emails, texts etc where you discussed another person/people.


  • how often you expressed praise or appreciation
  • how often you expressed irritation or criticism
  • how these communications affected you and the people you were writing or speaking to
  • whether what you said or wrote was based on facts, hearsay or opinions
  • your motivation: did you intend to help the person you were discussing?

2 An adventure with silence
You have all day to text, email and talk, listen to music, use your computer or watch TV.

As an experiment, try spending a short time every day for a week quietly reading, going for a walk or cycle ride or just sitting at your window. You can do this on your own but if you invite others to join in, try silent cooking or other household activities.

Why not? Just try it! See how it feels and what you think about it.

The Noble Eightfold Path

  1. Right vision/understanding
  2. Right intention/emotion
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right meditation/concentration


About silence

Many Buddhist traditions place great emphasis on the value of silence. The daily life of many Buddhists involves periods of silence, if they are monks or nuns. On retreat Buddhists may cook, clean, eat and wash up, all in silence. (The occasional quiet word may be necessary for practical matters.)

For Buddhists silence isn’t better than sound and communication but it is very different. Each is important at different times. (For example, Buddhists can use words to express kindness and to teach people about Buddhism – if they want to hear about it.)

However, in silence, we can see how much energy we use in talking and writing. We can become much more aware of our passing thoughts and moods.

Greater awareness enables us to make better and better choices about the way we speak and behave – and the kinds of things we choose to write or speak about.

What is a retreat?

Whether monastic, lay or ordained, Buddhists may spend time on retreat. A Buddhist retreat is a period of days, weeks, months or even years in which people meditate, study and reflect full time, with others or alone. Retreats often involve silence, whether for a few hours or days at a time.

Kind Speech

3b Who's responsible?

Young people look at the way we respond to what other people say

Discuss/consider before watching the video

  • If we feel upset about something someone says, is it our responsibility or theirs, or a bit of both?
  • “In the seen, only the seen; in the heard, only the heard.” What could this mean?

In the video, look out for

what Jayaraja says about

  • listening
  • feelings
Feelings and emotions in Buddhism

In everyday English, the terms feeling and emotion are often used interchangeably. In Buddhism, they refer to two experiences which are linked but crucially different.

The early scriptures use the term vedana to describe sensations we receive through our senses – including impressions received through the mind, which Buddhism regards as a sense.

The feelings that arise when our senses encounter the external world can be pleasant, painful or neutral. In response to these sensations we experience craving (trsna/tanha; literally, thirst), or its opposite: aversion.

You can see this illustrated in paintings of the Wheel of Life: feeling is represented by a man with an arrow in his eye, or a woman feeling her way forward with eyes closed; craving is shown as a person accepting a drink.

For a Buddhist, the gap between feeling and craving is crucial. If, instead of automatically reacting with craving or ill-will, we can learn to be more aware, we’ll gradually choose more creative responses with much more enjoyable consequences.


1 Webquest
Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) is a Buddhist in Burma. Burma is ruled by a violent military dictatorship: a group of army generals. In 1990 the people of Burma chose Aung San Suu Kyi to be their leader. Although she was democratically elected, the generals have refused to give up power. Until her release in 2010, ASSK spent 15 years under house-arrest or in prison. Despite her long suffering she never speaks unkindly about the generals or the army they command. She says clearly why their behaviour is wrong, but she often mentions that they are suffering human beings, just like she is.

Find out about ASSK.

  • What has she done for her people?

  • How has it affected her family?

  • Do you think it was worth it?

  • The generals consider themselves Buddhists,  just as Aung San Suu Kyi does. How can you tell what someone is really like?

2 Do something!

Amnesty International campaigns for people all over the world who have been unjustly treated by their governments. Those who have been imprisoned because they dared to speak out are known as ‘prisoners of conscience’.

Look at the Take Action section on the Amnesty website. Choose a person or group you wish to support and write a letter or email in support of them. Make your case thoughtfully, factually and respectfully. The government official you are writing to is human, just like you and the prisoner.

“In the seen, only the seen.
In the heard, only the heard.”
The Buddha

Here the Buddha points to the way we often make assumptions and hear more than is being said.


“To observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.”
J. Krishnamurti (1895 – 1986)

If a teacher asks you not to talk when they’re talking
do you hear disrespect or a
simple request to make their job easier?

If someone says calmly that they don’t agree with you,
is that rude or just an honest fact?

More about feelings and emotions

In the video, Beth says that if someone else treats you badly and you feel upset, the other person has ‘made you feel upset’. Probably most people would agree. However, the Buddha said this view was a misunderstanding. Let’s see what he meant.

As Jayaraja says in the video,“There is no-one else responsible for our feelings.”

We have responses to the things that happen to us – for example, things we hear or read. Buddhism says these are our responses. Though these responses occur when someone says something, they are not caused by what others say.

In Buddhism the word ‘feeling’ refers to pleasant or painful experiences we have through our senses, or a feeling of not minding much either way. (In Buddhism the mind is a sense, as well as sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.) In traditional paintings of the Wheel of Life, feeling is represented either by a woman with eyes closed feeling her way forward, or by a man with an arrow in his eye.

Two people reading or hearing the same thing may feel very differently about something they see on TV. They may find it funny, insulting or just not interesting. Buddhism says their feeling depends on their attitudes, the way they think about life; on previous experiences and habits.

In Buddhism, an emotion is different from a feeling.An emotion is what we do next, in response to our like, dislike or indifference; for example, anger, or wanting to have something we have just seen advertised.

Buddhism says we can gradually learn to choose how we express, or act on, our feelings. Gradually we can learn that anger is our choice. It’s our response to others’ behaviour, but it’s not caused by that behaviour.

So, if we are annoyed about something, it is not that someone is annoying us. Buddhism says that we find it annoying. Someone else might feel and respond very differently.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we can just go around being rude and unkind and say it’s just other people’s problem if they don’t like it! The Buddha taught that we always need to do our best to communicate effectively, honestly and kindly.

However, even when we are doing our best, sometimes others won’t like what we say. Sometimes we’ll make mistakes.The listener needs to take responsibility for their feelings and responses.

Self gets in the way

Why do we have to take responsibility for our feelings and responses about the things others say or do?

Buddhism says that in the end, if we’re offended or angry, it all comes down to our strong sense of a Special Me, who must be protected and respected.

We all need respect and love, but the fact is that we just won’t always get them! Life is just like that.That’s the Buddha’s First Noble Truth.

We all need to learn to be kinder and more respectful, but we also have to learn not to take offence.

Freedom of speech

In Britain, it is against the law to say or write things which incite (encourage, urge, stir up) violence against other people.

However, Britain is a democracy. In a democracy everyone has the freedom to express their opinions, even if everyone disagrees with them.

Sometimes it is necessary to speak out against injustice or lies. Buddhists generally try to do this in non-violent ways. Some Buddhists take part in anti-war marches, silent sit-ins, environmental protests etc.

Benefiting others

4a Democracy

Young Buddhists in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan get ready for democracy

Discuss/consider before watching the video

  • If nobody was in charge, how would you decide how to behave?
  • Do you live in a great country?
  • Is it important to vote?
  • If you believed everything you did (and didn’t do) had an effect, how might that make you feel about voting?

In the video, notice what people say about

  • voting and the responsibilities of democracy
  • what worries their parents
Buddhism and democracy

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) president of the United States of America, defined democracy as
government of the people, for the people, by the people”.

The Buddha’s 10th quality of a king/ruler is
to rule in harmony with the will of the people and for their benefit”.

  • Where do these two statements overlap?
  • How are they different?
  • What questions do they give rise to?

For example, what if the people want something which their ruler/government thinks is not going to benefit them? Who knows best?

In Bhutan, the king thought democracy would be best for his people, even though quite a lot of them didn’t want it. Can you have democracy against the will of the people?


1 Decision making With others, brainstorm 8-15 things around your area that you could improve. Be realistic; choose things that take time and effort but do not cost much money.

Put the title of each idea on a separate sheet of paper. Everyone gets three votes, which they cast by putting a tick by the idea/s they like best. You can put two or three ticks on one idea, or one tick on each of three ideas.

Counting the ticks, see which are the four or five most popular ideas. Vote with your feet. Go and stand by whichever of these ideas you want to work on. Others may join you there, but if your first choice idea doesn’t attract enough people to make it work, move to your second choice.

Form one or more project groups. Develop a strategy for your project, invite comments and suggestions from others. Get started!

2 Read a book The novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding tells the story of a group of teenage boys stranded on a deserted island without any adults.

  • As you read, ask yourself what difference it would make if the boys were living by the Buddha’s Five Precepts
  • Is any of the behaviour described in the book not covered by these precepts?

The Four Noble Truths

1 There is unhappiness in life. Nothing’s perfect.

2 Unhappiness comes from wanting things and experiences which can’t make us happy.

3 Good news! It’s possible to stop all this wanting.

4 It takes training, following the Noble Eightfold Path.

Beneficial activity

Arthacariya/atthacariya is the third of the four behaviours recommended by the Buddha for drawing people together. It means beneficial action; behaviour that helps others. Obviously, generosity and kind speech are also beneficial activities. However, arthacariya refers particularly to practical activities – things we do to help others.

Karma/kamma and responsibility

It can sometimes seem that nothing we do makes any difference. However, the Buddha’s teaching of karma/kamma is that acting, speaking and even thinking kindly and
generously will have enjoyable results for us and others; and when we behave selfishly the effect will be unpleasant.

Whatever we do, whoever we are and whether we live in a democracy or under another form of government, we all contribute something to the society in which we live. The only question is, What? Suffering and fear? Friendliness, kindness and generosity? Apathy? (Apathy means feeling you can’t be bothered.)

Buddhists and decision-making

Democracy isn’t perfectly fair. When the majority get their way in a vote or an election there are always some who don’t. However, according to the Buddha’s first Noble Truth, life is just like that: imperfect.

Among Buddhists you’ll find a variety of decision-making processes. Sometimes they decide democratically, by voting.

Sometimes they agree to follow the advice of Buddhist leaders and teachers they consider wisest and most experienced.

Some find consensus decision-making a good way to make sure nobody loses out. This means that through listening and discussion, they reach a decision on which everyone agrees, even though it may be different from what anyone wanted at the start.

The Buddha’s Ten Duties of a King

  1. Generosity
  2. Ethics (eg. living by the Five Precepts)
  3. Willingness to make sacrifices for their people
  4. Honesty
  5. Kindness and gentleness
  6. Being content with a simple life
  7. Being free from hatred and anger
  8. Non-violence
  9. Patience and understanding – respecting others’ points of view
  10. Ruling according to the will of the people and for their benefit
Democracy in Bhutan

Bhutan is the size of Switzerland and lies in the Himalayas, between Tibet and India. It’s an officially Buddhist country, with a Hindu minority. In 2008, the king handed over the monarchy to his son. As planned, the country became a democracy for the first time. The videos in sections 4a and 4b were made in 2007, as the people were preparing for this great change, learning how to take responsibility for choosing their government.

Is voting important?

Buddhism says everything has an effect. Even doing nothing has an effect: sometimes a political party wins an election because not enough people who disagreed with it bothered to vote.

In most democracies, voting is a choice. In some it’s compulsory. In some other countries nobody is allowed to vote. Bhutanese people have been given the right to vote, but some of them don’t want it because they think the king knows better than they do.

The duties of a ruler or government

The Buddha lived in northern India, two and half thousand years ago. In his time, India was not one country but many small ones, with kings who did what they liked and were often at war.

Occasionally consulted by these kings, the Buddha listed ten qualities a good ruler should have. Top of the list is – generosity again! As you’ll remember, generosity is also Number One in the Buddha’s list of four ways of bringing people together.

A modern king's coronation speech

“ …Throughout my reign I will never rule you as a king. I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother and serve you
as a son.

As the king of a Buddhist nation, my duty is not only to ensure your happiness today, but to create the fertile ground from which you may gain the fruits of spiritual pursuit and attain good karma.”

The coronation speech of the 5th king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 2008

Benefiting others

4b What is happiness?

Young Buddhists in Bhutan talk about the nature of happiness

Discuss/consider before watching the video

  • When do you feel happy?
  • Is it possible to be happy all the time?

In the video, notice 

  • what people say about what causes happiness
  • anything you find surprising
Gross National Happiness

Bhutan is a mountainous country the size of Switzerland, in the Himalayas between Tibet and India. Buddhism is the state religion, though some Bhutanese are Hindu.

Bhutan has become well known for its policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). (‘Gross’ means ‘overall’.)

Most countries measure their prosperity in terms of Gross National Product (GNP), which refers to how much money a country earns through selling goods and services to other people and countries.

Introduced in 1972, Gross National Happiness measures a country’s progress in terms of its people’s wellbeing, by looking at four areas:

  • cultural values
  • sustainable development
  • conservation of the natural environment and
  • good governance

All public policy is formulated with GNH in mind.

Are there other things you would have expected to find on this list?

Most Bhutanese are very poor by western standards. However, everybody has enough to eat. With universal entitlement to free primary education and healthcare, rising literacy rates and most people having access to clean drinking water, Bhutan’s people may well be some of the most prosperous people in the developing world.

Not as simple as it sounds!
A Chinese emperor once asked the Buddhist teacher Bodhidharma to sum up the Buddha’s teaching about the way leading to happiness.
“Learn to do good; cease to do evil; and purify the heart”, said Bodhidharma.
The emperor was not impressed. “Is that it? A child of three could understand that!”
“Yes”, said Bodhidharma, “but an old man of eighty cannot practise it.”


1 Adventures in awareness Sit in a circle.
Give everyone one raisin. When everyone is served, start to eat your raisin – very, very slowly with complete attention. Imagine this is the first raisin you’ve ever eaten. Imagine it’s your last!
How long can you make it last?

2 The Japanese Tea Ceremony This is a group mindfulness activity in which tea is carefully made, served and drunk with quiet attention and appreciation.

Try this experiment: as a group, sit quietly in a circle while one or two pairs of people quietly prepare a cold drink.

Each pair of servers has a tray of cups. They quietly move from person to person, one person holding the tray, the other slowly pouring one drink at a time with care and awareness. To say thank you, the server bows, and the person receiving the drink bows back, before the drink is handed over.

When everyone is served, everyone may start drinking. Drink slowly, really appreciating the temperature, texture, flavour etc. If you are serving, notice how the tray feels, how the liquid pours into the cups, etc.

3 Meditation Try the short meditative ‘stilling exercise’ below. Afterwards, draw, write or talk about what it was like for you.

Beneficial activity

Arthacariya/atthacariya is the Buddha’s third behaviour which draws people together. It’s particularly about things we do to help others, but helping involves thinking of others – as well as considering our own needs. The Buddha taught that one of the causes of happiness is kindness, to others and ourselves.

Karma/kamma and the mind

The Buddha’s teaching of karma/kamma means that when we think kindly and generously, we develop a habit of kindness; and thinking unkindly or selfishly we build up less helpful habits.

So karma means we can affect the type of person we become by the choices we make. If this were not possible, people could not make progress on the path to
Enlightenment – perfect wisdom and compassion. There would be no point in following the Buddha’s teaching.

Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Purify the heart.

Dhammapada, 183

Of course, if we are in the habit of behaving selfishly and unkindly, the first thing might be to just to stop! As this line from the early Buddhist scriptures says, to change for the better we must stop causing harm.

However, that’s not enough. We gradually need to develop wisdom and compassion by making a conscious effort to behave more helpfully and kindly.

Positive thinking?

In the video, here’s what the young people say about happiness:

“If we don’t have positive thinking I don’t think we’ll achieve happiness because our mind is such that the more we have, the more we want.”

“Be satisfied with what you have and don’t … be greedy for something which you cannot possess… And if you have that quality of satisfaction, being happy with what you have, I think you will be happy.”

“Happiness is related to mind. If mind is happy… satisfied, happiness will ultimately shower on us.”

They are all referring to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths (see 4a above), which teach that unhappiness is caused by our discontentment with things and experiences as they are.
‘Positive thinking’ here doesn’t mean just ‘looking on the bright side’ all the time, pretending that nothing unpleasant is happening.

Thinking positively means noticing what we’ve got, looking out for what is enjoyable in any thing or situation. There are almost always small enjoyable things in our experience – even when things are not quite right, or even pretty bad, right now. For example, someone alone and in pain might remember all the other people around the world in pain right now and wish them well. As a result they might feel more warmhearted and less alone.


As the school vice principal says, learning to notice and enjoy what we’ve got takes training: “For the mind to be happy we need to train our minds.” We can develop what Buddhists call “mindfulness” – a kind, patient awareness, moment by moment. Mindfulness involves awareness of

  • our thoughts, feelings and what we are doing
  • others and
  • our surroundings

One way of doing this is in meditation, but we can gradually learn to do it all the time.

Being an example

5a Waste and karma

Young Buddhists, waste and karma

Discuss/consider before watching the video

  • Where does your waste go after the bins are emptied?
  • What might it be like if you lived next to it?

In the video, notice 

  • What the young people are learning about at Sunday School
  • How many people, machines and energy it takes to transport and process our waste

Sections 5a and 5b link the way we deal with our waste to the teaching of samanarthata/ samanatthata. This term has connotations of sameness or equality and is variously translated as practising what you preach, treating others as yourself, treating all equally, or behaving consistently. It has also been translated as exemplification, or setting an example, which is the sense in which we choose to use it here.


Buddhism teaches that all phenomena whatever – an earthquake, a meeting or a passing thought – come into existence in dependence on conditions. A simple example is the germination of a seed, which requires oxygen, moisture, light etc. In the absence of any one of those conditions, there is a different outcome. This ‘Law’ of Conditionality is just the way things are; it does not indicate a Creator. This is the fundamental teaching of the Buddha, and all other Buddhist teachings stem from it.

It follows that nothing has any fixed essence (anatman/anatta), because everything changes constantly (anitya/anicca), when its supporting conditions change. Humans find all this rather difficult (dukkha)! It also follows that all phenomena are connected in a complex network of dependence. Buddhist traditions differ in their analysis of this interdependence.


If everything changes when its supporting conditions change, it follows that everything we do, think or say has an effect in the world. The word karma/kamma simply means ‘action’. It’s shorthand for the teaching that all actions have consequences: Buddhism teaches that kind, thoughtful actions have positive consequences; selfish, unkind actions unpleasant consequences.

Buddhist traditions differ in whether they think everything which happens to us is the result of our own actions (karma), or of five types of causation (the niyamas), of which karma is just one. However, the teaching of rebirth means that we are responsible for our existence; for there being a ‘me’ for things to happen to.

We can harness the world’s inherent changeability: as we learn to behave, speak and think with greater wisdom and kindness, we will become more deeply contented and have a better and better effect on the world.

Karma means that we have power: to bring about change, in ourselves and in the world, through developing awareness and changing our own behaviour. The work of the American Buddhist and systems analyst Joanna Macy has been to help people (of all faiths and none) realise they have this positive power.

About the video

The video begins at the London Buddhist Vihara Sunday School. Most of these Buddhist families come from Sri Lanka, where it is traditional to wear white when attending a Buddhist temple. They chant in Pali, the ancient Indian language of the earliest Buddhist scriptures. Reciting Buddham saranam gacchami (‘I go for refuge to the Buddha’), they remind themselves that complete safety from suffering can only be found in Enlightenment. Next they sit in loving kindness (metta bhavana) meditation.

We see teenagers studying a verse from the early scripture, the Dhammapada. It says every small positive thing we do gradually transforms us into wiser and kinder people. This is the teaching of karma/kamma. In other words, the way we behave affects the kind of person we become.

Last, we meet Cara, a Buddhist from the Manchester Buddhist Centre. She and her friend Luke are recycling officers at their school. They witness the consequences of people throwing away things which could have been recycled or re-used – or perhaps never even bought in the first place!

A landfill site is a large hole used for burying waste. This one is a sand quarry. As the sand is removed, the hole is divided into cells which are lined with heavy plastic so that gas and liquid cannot seep out and cause pollution as the material rots down. It takes up to one year to fill and seal each cell, which is finished off with soil, grass and trees.

Pipes collect the liquid and gas from the decomposing waste. The liquid goes to a treatment plant where air is bubbled through it to activate bacteria to digest and purify the waste water. Once the water is clean enough it is released into the sewerage system and is treated again, like the waste water from your house.

The gas is drawn to a power plant. Here, seven large engines burn the methane to create enough electricity for 7,000 homes.


Web quest Cara is a young Buddhist with a particular interest in recycling. Using the recommended websites, find out what Buddhists are doing to raise awareness of other environmental issues. Give a presentation and describe and explain

  • some Buddhist activities in support of the
  • how Buddhist teachings relate to these
  • similarities and differences between Buddhist
    reasons for caring for the environment and reasons of people of another faith, or no faith

The class were studying a verse from an early Pali scripture. Here are two translations:

Do not disregard merit,
saying, ”It will not come to me.”
By the falling of drops even a water jar is filled; likewise the wise, gathering little by little,
fill themselves with good.

One should not think lightly of doing good, imagining “It will not affect me.”

Just as a water-jar is filled up by falling drops, so also the wise are filled up with merit, little by little.

Dhammapada 122

'Engaged Buddhism'

This is a modern term sometimes used by Buddhists who believe that Buddhists should be more active in looking after the earth, other people and animals. They may be involved in political activities, or in social projects such as the soup kitchen in Section 2, Generosity. Some Buddhists think that this is part of what Buddhism is about anyway, so there is no need for a special term such as Engaged Buddhism.

Impermanence and change

One thing to remember is that Buddhism says change and impermanence are quite normal. Everything is always changing. That’s how life is. The climate has changed many times over millions of years. The earth will not last for ever, even if we recycle everything and stop using cars. However, climate change is now happening very fast – apparently because of human greed.

Why take care of the earth?

Sometimes people of other religions talk about ‘stewardship’ of the earth.

Traditionally a ‘steward’ is someone who has the job of taking care of land on behalf of its owner. People who believe in God may believe that God has created the earth and trusts us to look after it on God’s behalf.

However, Buddhism does not involve belief in a creator God. This means that stewardship is not really a Buddhist concept.

Think about and discuss

  • Does anybody own the earth?
  • Do you only take care of things which belong to you?
  • Do you take care of your street?

Some Buddhist reasons to take care of the earth

  • Buddhism teaches that everything depends on other things. We live in a complex network of people, animals and plants, and all of these depend in various ways on a healthy planet.
  • It’s an act of kindness to look after the earth so that other people and living things, and those who come after us, will inherit an earth worth living in.
  • When we care for things, we become kinder, less greedy, wiser people, expressing awareness, generosity and respect. We cause less suffering to other living things. We become happier!
  • Changing ourselves for the better and benefiting others helps us move gradually towards the perfect wisdom and compassion of Enlightenment.

Being an example

5b Recycling, karma, compost

Reycling, karma, compost!

Discuss/consider before watching the video

  • what is it like, seeing or touching old food?
  • could you do anything useful with it?

In the video, notice 

  • anything you already know
  • anything you find surprising or shocking

Sections 5a and 5b link the way we deal with our waste to the teaching of samanarthata/ samanatthata. This term has connotations of sameness or equality and is variously translated as practising what you preach, treating others as yourself, treating all equally, or behaving consistently. It has also been translated as exemplification, or setting an example, which is the sense in which we choose to use it here.

About recycling

Paper Shotton Paper Mill in north Wales is the UK’s largest paper mill. It receives a hundred trucks full of waste paper every day; enough to fill a sports stadium twice a year. This saves cutting down a forest the size of Wales (or the US state of New Hampshire) every year. It can take just seven days for used paper to be recycled and used again.

Glass can be used to make new glass, or for building road foundations. In the UK we use 6 billion glass bottles and jars every year.

Cans Recycling an aluminium can may use 95% less energy than making it from scratch: enough energy to power a TV for 3 hours. If all the aluminium cans in the UK were recycled there would be 12 million fewer dustbins!

Plastic British people use over 15 million plastic bottles every day; enough to fill 100 olympic-size swimming pools every year! Plastic is made from oil, which will eventually run out.

Computers can be mended or recycled. In the UK it’s illegal to put them in a landfill. They contain reusable metals such as gold and silver. The plastic can be ground up and used again and so can the monitors.

Printer cartridges take 1000 years to rot in a landfill.

Composting at Fairfield
Plastic wrappers are removed by hand before the fruit and vegetable waste is mixed with garden waste. The mixture is stacked up in the composting units and the microbes get to work! The huge quantity produces temperatures as high as 70 degrees centigrade, which is why it takes just seven days; inyour garden bin it might take a year. The composted materials age a bit more in big brown piles for a few more weeks. The finished compost is sold to parks, garden centres and allotments, and for road-building. Unfortunately most organic waste is not posted but sent to landfill, where it may attract rats and seagulls. Some landfills use hawks to kill or scare off the seagulls.

Reduce - Re-use - Recycle

Recycling is only the third form of dealing with waste. It’s even better if you can re-use things. However, all this wouldn’t be so necessary if we just thought more deeply before we bought new things in the first place! Food usually goes off in our refrigerators because we bought more than we needed. What if we just didn’t keep buying so much all the time?


1 Stop buying bottled drinks and refill an old bottle instead.

2 Is your school, home or temple taking full advantage of local recycling services? On your own or in a group, use the internet to check out local services for recycling. Do a survey of

  • the kind of waste you all produce and
  • whether it is being disposed of in the best way, given local services
  • ways in which you could produce less waste in the first place. Look out for disposable things being used where washable things could be better.

Give a presentation recommending any changes you consider necessary and showing how your ideas link to Buddhist teachings. If appropriate, you could link to the teachings of other faiths and belief systems too.

3 Start your own compost bin and watch conditionality happen! (You’ll need a garden or yard.) You can buy compost bins from garden centres or make one by putting lots of 1cm (half- inch) holes in the sides and bottom of a plastic dustbin (with lid). (You might need adult help.)

4 “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”
MK Gandhi, Indian leader, peace activist and Hindu

There are things everyone needs in order to stay healthy, like clothes, a home and enough food.

Then there are things we just want, which may, or may not, be important. Use the Wanting Diary for a week. As you watch TV, travel or talk to friends etc, watch how often you find yourself wanting something. Each time you notice, ask yourself questions like

  • What started your feeling of wanting it?
  • Do you really need it, or is it just enjoyable or fashionable?
  • Will you still care about it tomorrow or in three months’ time?

It’s important to keep this diary with kindness and a sense of humour. Wanting things isn’t bad or wrong and everyone needs some fun and enjoyment in their lives! The idea is to develop awareness about our habits.


Buddhism and advertising

Many Buddhists would say that advertising is unethical because it encourages us to want things and, as the Buddha taught, wanting and greed cause suffering. (However, this doesn’t include useful public information about things like trains, health services or how to vote.)
What’s your experience?

Why do we have so much stuff?

  • Does it make us happy?
  • How does it feel when you see advertising for things you want?

Buddhism says any thing or event happens when all the necessary conditions are present. For example, composting happens when vegetation, microbes, moisture and oxygen, etc, are present in the right proportions.

Other essential conditions for composting or recycling – or any behaviour which helps the world – are awareness, positive intentions and positive actions. The Buddha’s teaching of karma/kamma says that kind, generous thought and behaviour have positive, or beneficial, consequences. Selfish thought and behaviour have harmful consequences. The world needs more people with awareness and compassion, who care enough to think about what they do with their waste.