During the course of my research here in Japan, I’ve encountered a wonderful tradition that has been carried out over the past thousand years in the northern area of Japan, called ‘somokuto.’ A sumokuto is a stone monument with an inscription carved into it that says “May all the flowers and trees achieve enlightenment.” It is placed at the location where trees have been cleared to make way for human habitation and acts as a kind of tombstone or memorial dedicated to those trees and flowers and plants that have sacrificed their lives in the name of human progress. This practice stems from the belief that all living things, including plants, have the potential for enlightenment in this and future lifetimes, and that even plants need our prayers and best wishes for helping them along on their own spiritual journeys.
The stones also act as a reminder of our deep connections with nature and our responsibility in taking care of the natural world. Wouldn’t it be great if we could introduce this practice into the Western world? Every time an area gets cleared to make way for a housing development or a shopping centre, thousands of plants die and all the animals and insects that depended on them must perish too. I don’t think it’s possible to stop this kind of development, but what if we could recognise this loss of nature in some way, such as erecting a stone monument to remind us of what was once there; to honour and acknowledge the natural world in a way that brings other people’s awareness to that connection as well. This is a simple thing that we in our own small communities could do as a way of honouring our relationship to the natural world. And how much more important is this reminder than in our ever-widening urban landscapes?
I think that developing a deeper personal and communal awareness of the way our lives impact on nature should be the root of our practice towards sustainability. Instead of a top-down approach, we need to work on a bottom-up approach to sustainability. The top-down approach is where we all have opinions about the actions of government parties and agencies, who argue ad nauseum about carbon tax levies and sustainable development. Instead, we should take a bottom-up approach that involves practicing awareness of our own daily impact on nature around us. This awareness practice helps to generate a sense of connection to nature by reminding ourselves that every one of our actions will somehow impact the natural world that we are a part of.
As you walk along the footpath, bring your awareness to the earth below and look out for the little weeds that always manage to find a way to thrive – they are the remnants of all the plants and flowers and trees that once covered that land where you are now walking. If we can always be aware of this history, then we will grow to feel once again the connection we have as living beings with the living earth. Even if there are acres of concrete, we can still develop an awareness of the living earth and appreciate what has been sacrificed for us to be able to live in a house and drive the roads and use the supermarket and so on throughout our constructed modern lives. This awareness practice is the root of sustainability.
Then as individuals who make up our local community, we should encourage communal awareness, such as the Japanese practice of somokuto. When I get home I am going to talk to the local Indigenous elder about this practice and see if there might be some way we, as a community, might be able to incorporate aspects of somokuto with local indigenous customs to mark the place where a new shopping centre is about to be built. I’ll let you know what comes of that in a later blog.