Mitakuye Oyasin

Apr. 29, 2017

The Greek word, oikoc which has morphed to eco, means home. It is the root word of ecology and economy. The entire planet is our home, the home to all species. Home is a place of relationships and I have consistently discussed the importance of relationship not only for a quality environment, but also for a quality life. Lakota Native Americans have a term for this: Mitakuye Oyasin, all my relations. This reflects a worldview of interconnectedness and is used in many Lakota prayers and ceremonies. The entry of an inipi, built for a sweat lodge ceremony, is purposely build low to the ground to force participants to humbly crawl in as they recognize their place in the ecosystem. One states Mitakuye Oyasin as one crawls into the structure for this sacred prayer and purification ceremony.  It is a prayer of oneness and harmony with all forms of life: other people, animals, birds, insects, trees and plants, and even rocks, rivers, mountains and valleys.

The interconnectedness of life is not just recognized by Native American spiritual traditions. For example, Hindus advocate the practice of ahiṃsā (non-violence) and respect for all life because divinity is believed to permeate all beings, including plants and non-human animals. Millions of Hindus recite Sanskrit mantras daily to revere their rivers, mountains, trees, animals, and the earth. In Hinduism, protecting the environment is an important expression of dharma, duty, virtue, cosmic order- basically ethics. Hinduism teaches that Sanyasa (asceticism) -- restraint in consumption and simplicity in living -- represents a pathway toward moksha (liberation) that treats the earth with respect. A well-known Hindu teaching --Tain tyakten bhunjitha -- has been translated, “Take what you need for your sustenance without a sense of entitlement or ownership.”

Taoist documents contain numerous examples illustrating the connection of all life. Relationship is central to the Taoist view of reality: all things/events (shih or wu) is what it is only in relation to others. Thus, in Taoism, as well as in ecology, the relationships between natural phenomenon help determine their identity. The organic, integrated character of systems theory closely resembles the vital interconnectedness of Taoism. Taoism also includes the concept of chi, roughly translated as life force, which mirrors the food web as energy flows through ecosystems. Wu-wei, one of the central tenants of Tao, means to work or act in accordance with nature.

Buddhism idealizes and emphasizes interconnection. Because all actions are based on the premise of interconnection, the Buddhist mindset is effective in cultivating modesty, humility, and balance, which may ultimately mitigate the harm done to the environment. Compassion drives Buddhist thinking and striving for harmony and friendship among all beings creates a more perfect relationship between humanity and nature. From this perspective, ethics requires a balance between self-destruction and self-indulgence.

So, the connectedness of life is an ancient idea that is held by many great spiritual traditions as well as ecologist of today. Yet modern life does not recognize its importance. Too many Westerners are disconnected from nature, which has produced callousness towards nature. Because humans are not connected to the environment, they tolerate higher levels of ecological abuse. The reductionist view, which ignores the contextual framing of relationship and humility, disregards the fact that natural phenomenon cannot be understood in isolation from the environment in which it exists. Humans are simply a part of the whole environment, no more, no less. The word religion comes from the Latin religare which means union. A nonanthropocentric environmental ethic that respects relationships, represented by many spiritual practices, is a form of enlightened collective human self-interest.