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Polson man relates Buddhism to spiritual environmentalism
Daniel Henning of Polson, center, kneels and takes his vows as a Buddhist monk in Myanmar recently.
Courtesy photo

POLSON - Polson's "Deep Ecology" author Daniel Henning broadened the spiritual aspect of his studies recently when he was ordained as a Theravada Buddhist monk during a four-month stay in Yangon, Myanmar.

His head was shaved, he recited vows, and the monastery abbot presented him with a traditional orange meditation robe to wear during meditation. The ceremony was in the temple of Shwe oo Min Monastery in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, Burma.

Theravada Buddhism is one the three branches of Buddhism. It is also known as the Southern School (to distinguish it from the Northern School prevalent in China, Korea and Japan, and the "Diamond" School of Tibetan Buddhism).

It has some 100 million adherents worldwide, mostly in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka. In the United States, it is often known by the name of its meditation practice, Vipassana.

"While in the monastery, you must swear to obey the five Buddhist precepts, there is a prohibition on eating after 10:30 a.m., and you have 227 other rules to live by," he said. Those strictures are relaxed when you leave the monastery and resume secular life, after getting permission of the abbot and reciting to him three times "I am a man." These signify one's return to the secular world, Henning said in a recent interview.

During the months in the monastery, most of one's time is spent in silent meditation and spiritual reflection, he said. Despite his ordination as a Buddhist, he retains his religious identity as a Christian, he said.

"For me, there is no essential conflict between a Buddhist spiritual practice and Christianity," said Henning, who continues as an Episcopalian lay reader at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Polson.

"In fact, they can complement one another," he said. Buddhism also complements and can inform the Deep Ecology movement, which he defines as the "spiritual dimension of the environmental movement." Its emphasis is on the essential oneness of all living things, and the view that man is only one element of this wholeness.

"Deep Ecology reflects an awareness and concern about the intrinsic value of all living beings and the integrity of their natural home, along with a sense of limits of human beings in the scheme of things. They are spiritual approaches, and have a love and dignity for all living beings. This awareness permeates Buddhism, with its teachings of impermanence, causality, non-self or emptiness, equanimity, loving kindness and compassion, which in turn reflect the 'oneness' of all living beings," he said.

Henning, professor emeritus of political science and environmental affairs at Montana State University-Billings, has carved out a notable second career during the 12 years since his retirement from full-time teaching. He has written for the U.N. Environment Program and the World Conservation Union, presented at a conference in India organized by the Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists) and he spends each winter in southeast Asia, where he has visited forest preserves and consulted with numerous governmental agencies on protecting forests and wildlife.

He has written numerous articles and monographs on protection of the environment and has lived in several Buddhist spiritual communities in Thailand, Myanmar and Nepal.

Henning also has two books to his credit: "Buddhism and Deep Ecology," an attempt to directly relate Buddhism to the environmental movement in the West, and "Tree Talk and Tales," consisting of personal anecdotes and essays reflecting his experiences with trees in forests in southeast Asia and elsewhere. Both are published by 1st Books Library.

He wrote an essay that concludes the recent anthology "Heaven and Earth and I: Ethics of Nature Conservation in Asia" (Penguin Enterprises), joining such luminaries as Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Maneka Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Queen Noor of Jordan in discussing political, economic and spiritual aspects of the conservation and environmental movements in Asia.

In preparation for publication is a monograph "Buddhism and Deep Ecology for the Protecting of Wild Asian Elephants in Myanmar" which has been praised as "an excellent potential teaching tool for any Buddhist country in which elephant conservation is an issue" by Alan Rabinowitz of the New York Zoological Society.

"I have been in the Orient a long time, and I have some insights," Henning said. "Study must be interdisciplinary and get to the values behind things - the spiritual values."

To that end, he will lead a three-day, one-credit, graduate level seminar at the University of Montana from May 16-18 called "Biodiversity and Protected Areas in Southeast Asia."

He also has begun a Monday night insight meditation session at 7:30 p.m. in the basement of St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Polson. The session consist of meditation practice, discussion and guided meditations. Call (406) 883-2040 for more information.

"Buddhism holds that all living beings - animals and plants as well as human beings) have a right to exist," he said. "We need to educate ourselves about the intrinsic worth of all life, instead of its worth to us as humans."

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at jstromnes@missoulian.com

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