Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Buddhism

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In 1967 Lynn White, in an effort to address the roots of the growing global environmental crisis, put forward the thesis that the biblical worldview, which placed God outside of nature and authorized human beings to exploit nature for their proper ends, had been a major factor in the West's degradation of the natural environment (White, 1967). The ensuing controversy sparked by his thesis diverted attention from his underlying point at the core of the religion and ecology movement, namely, that human ecology is deeply conditioned by religious beliefs. Although White viewed Franciscan piety as having a more benign attitude toward nature than mainstream Christian theology, he found in Buddhism an even more holistic, egalitarian worldview and an environmentally friendly style of life. This entry seeks to explore White's sensibility regarding Buddhism by first analyzing four dimensions of the Buddhist worldview from the standpoint of their potential ecological significance, and then examining the normative values of a Buddhistically grounded lifestyle consonant with an ecology of human flourishing.

Four Dimensions of a Buddhist Ecological Worldview

Although over the centuries Buddhism has developed diverse forms from the time the Buddha taught his dharma in India over 2,500 years ago, its holistic principle of causal interdependence (paicca samuppāda, idappaccayatā ) has remained the normative core of its philosophical worldview. Buddhists view this interdependent world as conjoined in four ways: existentially, morally, cosmologically, and ontologically. Existentially, Buddhists affirm that all sentient beings share the fundamental conditions of birth, old age, suffering, and death. The existential realization of the universality of suffering lies at the core of the Buddha's teaching. Insight into the nature of suffering, its cause, cessation, and the path to the cessation of suffering constitutes the essence of the Buddha's enlightenment experience, formulated as the four noble truths and enunciated in the Buddha's first public teaching.

The tradition conveys this universal truth via the story of the founder's journey to nirvāa, the logical interrelationship among the four noble truths, as well as in many, often poignant, narratives. In one account a young mother approaches the Buddha after the death of her infant child. She pleads with the Blessed One to restore her child's life. In response the Buddha directs the grieving mother to bring him a mustard seed from a house in a village where death has never occurred, and if she finds such a household he will resuscitate her child. The mother returns to the Buddha not with the mustard seed but with the existential realization of the universality of suffering caused by death. The touching story of a mother's grief over the death of her baby speaks to the heart; the syllogistic logic of the four noble truths speaks to the mind.

Suffering and Compassion

Buddhism links the existential condition of the universality of suffering with the moral virtue of compassion. That the Buddha, after his enlightenment, decides to share his insight into the cause of and the path to the cessation of suffering rather than selfishly keeping this knowledge for himself, is regarded by the tradition as an act of universal compassion. Extrapolating from the example of the Buddha, Buddhist environmentalists assert that the mindful awareness of the universality of suffering produces compassionate empathy for all forms of life, particularly for all sentient species. They interpret the Dhammapada 's ethical injunction not to do evil but to do good as a moral principle advocating the nonviolent elevation of suffering, an ideal embodied in the prayer of universal loving kindness that concludes many Buddhist rituals: "May all beings be free from enmity; may all beings be free from injury; may all beings be free from suffering; may all beings be happy." Out of a concern for the entire living environment, Buddhist environmentalists extend loving kindness, compassion, and respect beyond people and animals to include plants and the earth itself: "We humans think we are smart, but an orchidknows how to produce noble, symmetrical flowers, and a snail knows how to make a beautiful, well-proportioned shell. We should bow deeply before the orchid and the snail and join our palms reverently before the monarch butterfly and the magnolia tree" ("The Sun My Heart," Nhat Hanh, p. 85).

Karma, rebirth, and Buddhist cosmology

The concepts of karma and rebirth (sasāra ) integrate the existential sense of a shared common condition among all sentient life forms with the moral nature of the Buddhist cosmology. Not unlike the biological sciences, rebirth links human and animal species. Evolution maps commonalties and differences among species on the basis of physical and genetic traits; rebirth maps them on moral grounds. Every form of sentient life participates in a karmic continuum traditionally divided into three world-levels and a hierarchical taxonomy of five or six life forms. Although this continuum constitutes a moral hierarchy, differences among life forms and individuals are relative, not absolute. While Buddhism traditionall privileges humans over animals, animals over hungry ghosts, male gender over the female, monk over laity, all forms of karmically conditioned lifehuman, animal, divine, demonicare related within contingent, samsaric time: "In the long course of rebirth there is not one among living beings with form who has not been mother, father, brother, sister, son, or daughter, or some other relative. Being connected with the process of taking birth, one is kin to all wild and domestic animals, birds, and beings born from the womb" (Lakāvatāra Sūtra ). Nirvāa, the Buddhist summum bonum, offers the promise of transforming karmic conditionedness into an unconditioned state of spiritual liberation, a realization potentially available to all forms of sentient life on the karmic continuum. The belief that plants and trees or the land itself have a similar potential for spiritual liberation became an explicit doctrine in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism and may also have been part of popular Buddhist belief from earliest times in the realization that all life forms share both a common problematic and promise: "bodhisattvas each of these, I call the large trees" (Lotus Sūtra ).

Although the Buddhist doctrines of karma and rebirth connect all forms of sentient existence together in a moral continuum, Buddhist ethics focus on human agency and its consequences, and, in this sense, Buddhism is anthropocentric, not biocentric. The inclusion of plants and animals in Buddhist schemes of salvation may be important philosophically for the attribution of inherent value to nonhuman forms of life; however, it is humans who are the primary agents in creating the present ecological crisis and who will bear the major responsibility for its solution.

The myth of origins in the canon of Theravāda Buddhism (Aggañña Sutta ) describes the deleterious impact of human activity on the primordial natural landscape. Unlike the Garden of Eden story in the Hebrew Bible, where human agency centers on the God-human relationship, the Buddhist story of first origins describes the negative impact of humans on the earth, which results from their selfishness and greed. In the Buddhist mythological Eden, the earth flourishes naturally but greed and desire lead to division and ownership of the land, which in turn promotes violent conflict, destruction, and chaos. It is human agency in the Buddhist myth of first origins that destroys the natural order of things. Although change is inherent in nature, Buddhists believe that natural processes are directly affected by human morality. From the Buddhist perspective our relationship to the natural environment implies an intrinsic moral equation. From a Buddhist perspective, therefore, an environmental policy based solely on a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis cannot solve the problem. At the heart of the matter remain the moral issues of greed, hatred, and violence.

The account of the Buddha's awakening (nirvāa ) delineates the major elements of the Buddhist worldview in terms of the concrete particular, the general, and the universal. Tradition records that during the night of this defining experience the Blessed One first recalled his previous lives within the karmic continuum; then he perceived the fate of all sentient beings within the cosmic hierarchy; finally he fathomed the nature of suffering and the path to its cessation formulated as the four noble truths and the law of interdependent co-arising (paicca samuppāda ). The Buddha's enlightenment experience is mapped in a specific sequence: an understanding of the particular (his personal karmic history), the general (the karmic history of humankind), and finally the principle underlying the cause and cessation of suffering. Subsequently, this principle is broadened into a universal law of causality : "on the arising of this, that arises; on the cessation of this, that ceases." Buddhist environmentalists find in this template a vision that integrates all aspects of the ecosphereparticular individuals as well as general speciesin terms of the principle of mutual codependence.

These three stages, encompassed by the Buddha's enlightenment experience, suggest a model of moral reasoning applicable to environmental ethics that integrates general principles and collective action guides with particular contexts, or in the catchphrase of the popular bumper sticker, "Think globally; act locally." Effective schemes of environmental justice require both general principles, such as those embodied in the Earth Charter, and enforceable programs of action appropriate to particular regions and nation-states.

Ontological Foundations of Buddhist Ecology

In the Buddhist cosmological model individual entities are by their very nature relational, which undermines the autonomous self vis-á-vis the "other," whether human, animal, or vegetable. Buddhist environmentalists see their worldview as one that rejects hierarchical dominance of one human over another or humans over nature, and as the basis of an ethic of empathetic compassion that respects biodiversity. In the view of the Thai monk Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu (19061993),

The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the earth. When we realize that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprisethen we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish (Swearer, 1998, p. 20).

In later schools of Buddhist thought the cosmological vision of interdependent causality evolved into a more substantive sense of ontological unity. The image of Indra's net found in the Huayan (Jap., Kegon) tradition's Avatasaka Sūtra has been a potent metaphor in Buddhist ecological discussions: "Just as the nature of earth is one, while beings each live separately, and the earth has no thought of oneness or difference, so is the truth of all the Buddhas." For the American writer Gary Snyder the Huayan image of the universe as a vast web of many-sided jewels, each constituted by the reflections of all the other jewels in the web and each jewel being the image of the entire universe, symbolizes the world as a universe of bio-regional ecological communities. Buddhist environmentalists argue, furthermore, that ontological notions, such as buddha-nature or dharma -nature (e.g., buddhakāya, tathagata-garbha, dharmakāya, dharmadhātu ) provide a basis for unifying all existent entities in a common sacred universe, even though the tradition privileges human life in regard to spiritual realization.

For Tiantai monks in eighth-century China, the belief in a universal buddha-nature blurred the distinction between sentient and nonsentient life forms and logically led to the view that plants, trees, and the earth itself could achieve enlightenment. Kūkai (774835), the founder of the Japanese Shingon school, and Dōgen (12001253), the founder of the Sōtō Zen sect, described universal buddha-nature in naturalistic terms: "If plants and trees were devoid of buddhahood, waves would then be without humidity" (Kūkai); "The sūtras [i.e., the dharma ] are the entire universe, mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, plants, and trees" (Dōgen). Buddhist environmentalists often cite Dōgen's view as support for the preservation of species biodiversity, a view that ascribes intrinsic value to all species by affirming their shared dharmic nature.

For Buddhists the truth of the principle of causal interdependence as a universal, natural law was authenticated in the narrative of the Buddha's own nirvāa and his teaching (dharma ). As has been noted, Buddhist scriptures and other texts employ the hermeneutical strategies of metaphor, story, and discursive logic to promote and explicate this truth. Throughout Buddhist history, poetry has also been an important literary tool for conveying the dharma and the truths of the interdependence of humans and nature. An early Pali sutta incorporates early Vedic traditions and extols nature's beauty by drawing on the metaphor of Indra and the landscape of abundance:

Those rocky heights with hue of dark blue clouds
Where lies embossed many a shining lake
Of crystal-clear, cool waters, and whose slopes
The herds of Indra cover and bedeck
Those are the hills wherein my soul delights.
(Theragātā )

East Asian traditions under Daoist influence best represent this poetic expression. The early ninth-century Chinese Buddhist poet and layman, Han-shan, writes:

As for me, I delight in the everyday
Way Among mist-wrapped vines and rocky caves
Here in the wilderness I am completely free
With my friends, the white clouds, idling forever
There are roads, but they do not reach the world
Since I am mindless, who can rouse my thoughts?
On a bed of stone I sit, alone in the night
While the round moon climbs up Cold Mountain
(Kaza and Kraft, 2000, p. 54).

Although the various expressions of Buddhism's holistic, interdependent worldview that range from logical paradigms to poetry offer both guidance and inspiration to ecological thinking, the natural world looms largest for the achievement of an ecology of human flourishing.

An Ecology of Human Flourishing

Buddhism arose in north India in the fifth century bce at a time when the region was undergoing a process of urbanization and political centralization accompanied by commercial development and the formation of artisan and merchant classes. The creation of towns and the expansion of an agrarian economy led to the clearing of forests and other tracts of uninhabited land. These changes influenced early Buddhism in several ways. For instance, the transformation of the natural environment that accompanied these changes was a factor in the Buddhist conception of human flourishing. Early monastic Buddhism was not biocentric, but naturalism seems to have played a role in popular piety, and naturalistic sentiments came to be infused in Buddhism in China, Korea, and Japan. As we shall see, while nature as an intrinsic value may be lacking in early Buddhist thought and practice, it nonetheless was always central to the Buddhist concept and articulation of the ecology of human flourishing.

The S angha and Nature

Even though the picture of the Buddha seated under the tree of enlightenment traditionally has not been interpreted as a paradigm for ecological discourse, today's Buddhist environmental activists point out that the decisive events in the Buddha's life occurred in natural settings: the Buddha Gautama was born, attained enlightenment, and died under trees. The textual record, furthermore, testifies to the importance of forests, not only as the preferred environment for spiritual practices such as meditation, but also as a place where laity sought instruction. Historically, in Asia and increasingly in the West, Buddhists have situated centers of practice and teaching in forests and among mountains at some remove from the hustle and bustle of urban life. The Buddha's own example provides the original impetus for such locations: "Seeking the supreme state of sublime peace, I wandereduntilI saw a delightful stretch of land and a lovely woodland grove, and a clear flowing river with a delightful forest so I sat down thinking, 'Indeed, this is an appropriate place to strive for the ultimate realization ofnirvāa '" (Ariyapariyesana Sutta ).

Lavish patronage and the traffic of pilgrims often complicated and compromised the solitude and simple life of forest monasteries, but forests, rivers, and mountains have remained important in the Buddhist ecology of human flourishing. Recall, for example, the Zen description of enlightenment wherein natural phenomena such as rivers and mountains are perceived as loci of the sacred, as in Dōgen's Mountains and Water Sūtra. Although some religious practitioners tested their spiritual mettle in wild nature, more often the norm appears to be a relatively benign state of nature conducive to quiet contemplation as suggested by the above quotation, or by the naturalistic gardens that one finds in many Japanese Zen monasteries originally located on the outskirts of towns. Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu called his forest monastery in south Thailand the Garden of Empowering Liberation (Suan Mokkhabalārāma), observing: "The deep sense of calm that nature provides through separation from the stress that plagues us in the day-to-day world protects our heart and mind. The lessons nature teaches us lead to a new birth beyond suffering caused by our acquisitive self-preoccupation" (Swearer, 1998, pp. 2425). For Buddhist environmentalists, technology alone cannot solve the eco-crisis. A radical transformation of values and lifestyle will be required. Communities like Suan Mokkhabalārāma provide an example of a sustainable lifestyle grounded in the values of moderation, simplicity, and non-acquisitiveness.

Buddhadāsa's Garden of Empowering Liberation stands not as a retreat from the world but as a place where all forms of lifehumans, animals, and plantslive as a cooperative microcosm of a larger ecosystem and as a community where humans are taught to practice an ecological ethic. Such an ethic is characterized by the virtues of restraint, simplicity, loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity, patience, wisdom, nonviolence, and generosity. These virtues represent moral ideals for all members of the Buddhist communitymonk, lay person, political leader, ordinary citizen, male, female. Political leaders whose mandate it is to maintain the peace and security of the nation, are admonished to adhere to the ideal of nonviolence. King Aśoka (third century bce), the model Buddhist ruler, is admired for his rejection of animal sacrifice and the protection of animals, as well as for building hospices and other public works. The Buddhist ethic of distributive justice extols the merchant who generously provides for the needy. Even ordinary Thai rice farmers traditionally left a portion of rice unharvested in their fields for the benefit of poor people and hungry animals.

The twin virtues of wisdom and compassion define the spiritual perfection of the bodhisattva praised by Śāntideva, the eighth-century Indian poet-monk, in these words:

May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until all are healed.
(Bodhicaryāvatāra )

For contemporary engaged Buddhists, most notably the Dalai Lama, a sense of responsibility rooted in compassion lies at the very heart of an ecological ethic: "The world grows smaller and smaller, more and more interdependent today more than ever before life must be characterized by a sense of universal responsibility, not only human to human but also human to other forms of life" (Sandell, 1987, p. 73).

A Critical Appraisal of Eco-Buddhism

For many Buddhist environmentalists, compassion naturally results from the intellectual understanding that all life forms are mutually interdependent. Others, however, argue that while a cognitive recognition of interdependence is necessary, it alone is not a sufficient condition for an ethic of mutual regard. These critics point to the centrality of practice in Buddhism, the threefold path to moral and spiritual excellencevirtue, mindful awareness, wisdomas the key element in an ecological ethic. For the Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926), it is the practice of mindful awareness, in particular, that opens both heart and mind to the inter-beingness of humans and nature:

Look deeply : I arrive in every second to be a bud on a
spring branch to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile
learning to sing in my new nest to be a caterpillar in the
heart of a flower to be a jewel hiding itself in a
stone. ("Please Call Me By My True Names," Nhat Hanh, 1987)

Critics of the ethical saliency of the traditional Buddhist vision of human flourishing also argue that such nondualistic philosophical concepts as not-self (anātman ) and emptiness (śūnyatā ) undermine human autonomy and the distinction between self and other, essential to an other-regarding ethic. What are the grounds for an ethic or laws that protect the civil rights of minorities or animal species threatened with extinction when philosophically Buddhism seems to challenge their significance by deconstructing their independent reality as an epistemological fiction? Furthermore, they point out that the most basic concepts of Buddhismnirvāa, suffering, rebirth, not-self, and even causalitywere intended to further the goal of an individual's spiritual quest rather than engagement with the world. They affirm, therefore, that Buddhism serves primarily a salvific or soteriological purpose and that any attempt to ecologize the tradition distorts the historical and philosophical record. Buddhist environmentalists respond that their understanding of the tradition brings to the debates about human rights and the global environment an ethic of social and environmental responsibility more compatible with the language of compassion based on the mutual interdependence of all life forms than the language of rights. Furthermore, to apply Buddhist insights to a broad ecology of human flourishing represents the tradition at its best, namely, a creative, dynamic response to contemporary problems.

A related but more sympathetic criticism from within the Buddhist environmental movement suggests that for Buddhism to be an effective force for systemic institutional change, the traditional Buddhist emphasis on individual moral and spiritual transformation must be adjusted to address forcefully the structures of oppression, exploitation, and environmental degradation. While preserving the unique Buddhist emphasis on the practice of mindful awareness and a personal lifestyle of simplicity, under the inspiration of A. T. Ariyaratna, the founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka, Sulak Sivaraksa, co-founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and other leaders, a new form of environmental and socially engaged Buddhism has emerged dedicated to the creation of a just, equitable, and sustainable world.


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Donald K. Swearer (2005)