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Buddhism and Ecology: Challenge and Promise

Donald K. Swearer
Harvard University

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1982) and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) addressed three different global environmental problems—toxic contamination of the food chain, the worldwide consequences of nuclear proliferation, and the impact of global warming. These warnings led to major changes in national and international policy: the banning of the widespread use of DDT as a pesticide, the START treaties that negotiated nuclear arms reduction agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the Kyoto agreements to cut carbon dioxide emissions. Each utilizes science to advance a public policy agenda. In addition, each shares a similar holistic worldview, namely, that all life-forms are interdependent or, as the 1975 National Academy of Sciences Report stated, our world is a whole “in which any action influencing a single part of the system can be expected to have an effect on all other parts of the system.” The “Religions of the World and Ecology” project brings the rich historical and contemporary resources of the world’s religions into critical dialogue with the global environmental crisis. In particular, it seeks to broaden and deepen the symbolic, conceptual, and practical dimensions of their distinctive holistic worldviews for an understanding of human flourishing, community, the natural environment, and their interactions. The project also seeks to influence both social behavior and public policy by encouraging ongoing collaboration among various interdisciplinary arcs that must be forged if the environmental crisis has any hope of being resolved.1 This paper explores ways in which the Buddhist traditions might contribute to this discussion and to the practice of a more ecologically aware lifestyle.

Buddhism’s Holistic Worldview
Despite significant variations among the different Buddhist traditions that have evolved over its 2,500 year journey throughout Asia and now in the West, Buddhists see the world as conjoined on four levels: 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 and its cessation, and the path to the cessation of suffering constitutes the capstone of the Buddha’s enlightenment experience (Mahasacakka Sutta, Majjihma Nikaya) as well as the content of the four noble truths, the Buddha’s first teaching. That the Buddha decides to share this existential insight into the cause and cessation of suffering is regarded by the tradition as an act of universal compassion. 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 alleviation 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 total living environment, Buddhist environmentalists extend loving-kindness and compassion beyond people and animals to include plants and the earth itself.

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.

The 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 commerical 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. Indic Buddhism was certainly not biocentric and the strong naturalistic sentiments that infused Buddhism in China, Korea, and Japan appear to have been absent from early monastic Buddhism, although naturalism played a role in popular piety. Nonetheless, the natural world figures prominently in the Buddhist conception of human flourishing perhaps, in part, because of the very transformation of the natural environment in which it was born. As we shall see, while nature as a value in and of itself may not have played a major role in the development of early Buddhist thought and practice, it was a necessary component of the tradition’s articulation of an ecology of human flourishing.

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.

About this Author

Donald Swearer joined the Harvard Divinity School as Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies after he retired from Swarthmore College in 2004 as the Charles and Harriet Cox McDowell Professor of Religion. His recent publications include: The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia (SUNY, 1995/rev. ed. Silkworm Books, 2007); The Legend of Queen Cama (SUNY, 1998); Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand (Princeton, 2004); and The Sacred Mountains of Northern Thailand and Their Legends (Silkworm Books, 2004).



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).