Buddhism and Ecology: Challenge and Promise
Donald K. Swearer
The concepts of karma and rebirth (samsara) integrate the existential sense of a shared common condition of all sentient life-forms with the moral dimension of the Buddhist cosmology. Not unlike the biological sciences, rebirth links human and animal species. Evolution maps commonalities 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. Traditional Buddhism may privilege humans over animals, animals over hungry ghosts, male gender over the female, monk over laity but all forms of karmically conditioned life-human, animal, divine, demonic—are 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” (Lankavatara Sutra).
Nirvana, the Buddhist highest good, 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. That plants and trees or the land itself have a similar potential for spiritual liberation became an explicit doctrine in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism but may even have been part of popular Buddhist belief from earliest times—in sum, a realization that all life-forms share both a common problematic and promise.
Although the Buddhist doctrines of karma and rebirth link together all forms of sentient existence in a moral continuum, Buddhist ethics focus on human agency and its consequences. The inclusion of plants and animals in Buddhist soteriological schemes may be important philosophically because it attributes inherent value to nonhuman forms of life. Nonetheless, humans have been the primary agents in creating the present ecological crisis and will bear the major responsibility in solving it.
The myth of origins in the Pali canon 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 created by selfishness and greed. In the Buddhist mythological Eden, the earth flourishes naturally, but greedy desire leads to division and ownership of the land that in turn promotes violent conflict, destruction, and chaos. In short, in the Buddhist myth of first origins, human agency destroys the natural order of things. Though change is inherent in nature, Buddhists believe that natural processes are directly affected by human morality.2
Within the Buddha’s enlightenment vision (Nirvana) all the major dimensions of the Buddhist worldview are found. Tradition records that during the night of this experience the Buddha 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 coarising. The Buddha’s enlightenment evolved in a specific sequence: from an understanding of the particular (his personal karmic history), then to the general (the karmic history of humankind), and finally to the principle underlying the cause and cessation of suffering. Subsequently, this principle is further generalized as a universal law of causality: “On the arising of this, that arises; on the cessation of this, that ceases.”
Buddhist environmentalists find in the causal principle of interdependence an ecological vision that integrates all aspects of the ecosphere—particular individuals and general species—in terms of the principle of mutual codependence. Within this cosmological model individual entities are by their very nature relational, thereby undermining the autonomous self over against the “other,” be it human, animal, or vegetable.
Buddhist environmentalists see their worldview as a rejection of hierarchical dominance of one human over another or humans over nature, and as the basis of an ethic of emphathetic compassion that respects biodiversity. In the view of the Thai monk, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, “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 enterprise . . . then we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish.” A Western Buddhist, observing that the Buddhist worldview or dharma not only refers to the teachings of the Buddha but also to all things in nature, characterizes Buddhism as a “religious ecology.”3
In later schools of Buddhist thought the cosmological vision of interdependent causality evolved into a more substantive sense of ontological unity. Metaphorically, the image of Indra’s net found in the Hua Yen (Jp. Kegon) tradition’s Avatamsaka Sutra has been especially important in Buddhist ecological discussions. For Gary Snyder the 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 bioregional ecological communities. Buddhist environmentalists argue, furthermore, that ontological notions such as Buddha-nature or Dharma-nature (e.g., buddhakaya, tathagatagarbha, dharmakaya, dharmadhatu) provide a basis for unifying all existent entities in a common sacred universe, even though the tradition privileges human life vis-a-vis spiritual realization. For T’ien-t’ai 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. Kukai (774–835), the founder of the Japanese Shingon school and Dogen (1200–1253), the founder of the Soto Zen sect, described universal Buddha-nature in naturalistic terms, “If plants and trees were devoid of Buddhahood, waves would then be without humidity” (Kukai); “The sutras [i.e., the dharma] are the entire universe, mountains, and rivers and the great wide earth, plants and trees” (Dogen). Buddhist environmentalists cite Dogen’s view as support for the preservation of species biodiversity.
Two types of criticism have been leveled against Buddhist environmentalists (sometimes characterized as ecoBuddhists or Green Buddhists); scholars who argue that ecologizing the Buddhist worldview distorts the philosophical and historical integrity of the tradition; and, practioners who see a tendency in Green Buddhism to reduce the tradition to a one-dimensional teaching of simple interrelatedness at the expense of its classical emphasis on the development of spiritual and ethical transformation. The four dimensions of the Buddhist worldview as proposed above offer a framework for understanding both the advocates of Buddhist environmentalism and their critics.
Although the picture of the Buddha seated under the tree of enlightenment has not traditionally been interpreted as a paradigm for ecological thinking, today’s Buddhist environmental activists point out that the decisive events in the Buddha’s life occurred in natural settings: that the Buddha Gotama was born, attained enlightenment, and died under trees. The textual record, furthermore, testifies to the importance of forests, not only as an environment preferred 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 wandered . . . until . . . I 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 of . . . Nirvana’” (Ariyapariyesana Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya).
Lavish patronage and the traffic of pilgrims often complicated and compromised the solitude and simple life of forest monasteries, but forests, rivers, and mountains constitute an important factor 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. Although religious practioners often tested their spiritual mettle in wild nature, 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 today in many Japanese Zen monasteries originally located on the outskirts of towns.
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu called his forest monastery in south Thailand “the Garden of Empowering Liberation,” 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.” For Buddhist enviromentalists, centers like Buddhadasa’s Garden of Empowering Liberation also present an example of a sustainable lifestyle grounded in the values of moderation, simplicity, and non-acquisitiveness. Technology alone cannot solve the ecocrisis. More importantly, it requires a transformation of values and of lifestyle.
Buddhadasa intended the Garden of Empowering Liberation not as a retreat from the world but as a place where all forms of life—humans, animals, and plants—live as a cooperative microcosm of a larger ecosystem and as a community where humans can develop an ecological ethic. Such an ethic highlights 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 community— religious practioner, lay person, political leader, ordinary citizen, male, female. For example, political leaders who are mandated to maintain the peace and security of the nation, are also expected to embody the virtue of nonviolence. In this connection, King Asoka is cited for his rejection of animal sacrifice and protection of animals. The twin virtues of wisdom and compassion define the spiritual perfection of the bodhisattva (saint) but these prized moral qualities, associated especially with the Buddha or monks, are represented in narrative and didactic literature by a variety of human and animal life-forms. For contemporary engaged Buddhists—the Dalai Lama especially—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.”4
For many Buddhist environmentalists compassion necessarily follows an understanding of all life-forms as mutually interdependent. Others argue that a mere cognitive recognition of interdependence is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for an ecological ethic. These critics emphasize the centrality of practice in Buddhism and the tradition’s insistence on training in virtue and the threefold path to moral and spiritual excellence (morality, mindful awareness, wisdom). Among contemporary engaged Buddhists, the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, has been the most insistent on the central role of mindful awareness in the development of a peaceful and sustainable world.
Critics of the ethical saliency of the traditional Buddhist vision of human flourishing argue that philosohical concepts such as not-self (anatman) and emptiness (sunyata) undermine human autonomy and the distinction between self and other, essential aspects for 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 undermine their significance by deconstructing their independent reality as an epistemological fiction? Furthermore, they point out that the most basic concepts of Buddhism—Nirvana, suffering, rebirth, not—self, and even causality-were intended to further the goal of the individual’s spiritual quest rather than engagement with the world. They conclude, therefore, either that Buddhism serves primarily a salvific or soteriological purpose or that the attempt to ecologize the tradition distorts the historical and philosophical record. Buddhist environmentalists respond that their 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 its contemporary context.
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 more forcefully the structures of oppression, exploitation, and environmental degradation. While preserving the unique Buddhist emphasis on the practice of mindful awareness and a lifestyle of simplicity, today’s engaged Buddhist activists are, indeed, addressing head-on international issues ranging from the disposal of nuclear waste to human rights violations in Myanmar and a just and peaceful resolution of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The most internationally visible leaders in this movement are the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh but they are joined by many others from around the globe including Sulak Sivaraksa, Ahangamage T. Ariyaratna, Joanna Macy, and Kenneth Kraft.
1 James Gustafson, A Sense of the Divine (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1994).
2 Lily de Silva, “The Hills Wherein My Soul Delights,” in Buddhism and Ecology, Martine Batchelor and Kerry Brown, eds. (London: Cassell, 1992).
3 Martine Batchelor and Kerry Brown, eds., Buddhism and Ecology (London: Cassell, 1992).
4 Nancy Nash, “The Buddhist Perception of Nature Project,” in Buddhist Perspectives on the Ecocrisis, Klas Sandell, ed., (Buddhist Publication Society, 1987).
This article was originally published in Earth Ethics 10, no.1 (Fall 1998).