An Article by LaUra Schmidt, MS Environmental Humanities
The earth is facing contemporary environmental crises that will lead to catastrophic outcomes. Can practicing an ecologically-friendly religion help mitigate some of the current crises? Buddhism seems to have an “ecological perspective.” But where does this religion, grounded in over 2,500 years of tradition and Eastern philosophy, stand on the issues of environmental degradation and conservation? Is Buddhism “eco-friendly”? Prevalent themes within the religion, like mindfulness, interdependence, compassion, lovingkindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity can support a conservationist’s mindset. However, as with any religion formed in a pre-modern society, Buddhism has undergone many divisions and transformations. The ancient tradition has evolved alongside its practitioners and its texts require a modern day interpretation to be applicable to contemporary society and its problems. The core truths are still present; the idea of dukkha (suffering, pain, dissatisfaction) and how to overcome it, but some modern-day practitioners feel that following a Buddhist path means protecting the Earth and all beings on it.
Can practicing Buddhism help mitigate some of the issues plaguing the planet? It is clear that the world is facing contemporary environmental crises that will lead to catastrophic outcomes. A firm belief in, and following through with the traditions of, an “eco-friendly” religion could create an “eco-friendly” mindset for the practitioner. Like many religions, Buddhism seems to have an “ecological perspective.” But where exactly does Buddhism, a religion grounded in over 2,500 years of tradition and Eastern philosophy, stand on the issues of environmental degradation and conservation? Is Buddhism “eco-friendly?” With any historical account, interpretations among people can differ, and Buddhism is not excluded. Various parts of the doctrine, of any religion, will be more applicable to the modern world than others due to the changes in society from the time that the tradition came into existence. Some fundamentalists believe that the original message taught by the Buddha is being selectively construed by those who interpret the texts in an “eco-friendly” way. Several contemporary Buddhists, like Sulak Sivaraksa, understand the importance of applying the Buddha’s message to the world around them. They see their religion as having much to offer in terms of conservation and protecting the natural world. Although this tradition has a long history, modern Buddhists can still apply Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings to the world. The ancient tradition of Buddhism has much to teach the modern world with regard to the treatment of the environment.
Brief History of Buddhism
Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, lived in the 5th century BCE in what is, today, the country of Nepal. Born into a family of privilege, Siddhartha had little exposure to the pain and suffering of the world beyond the palace walls. Discontented by the luxury provided for him, he left the palace and journeyed around the kingdom. The young man discovered that suffering and impermanence plagued the lives of those outside of his limited sphere of exposure. This had a profound effect on the young prince and from that point on he was unsatisfied with his sheltered life. Siddhartha left the palace and tried to find his own way. He experimented with gurus and ascetics and decided their methods were lacking. After some time, Siddhartha found shelter under a fig tree, Ficus religiosa. While under the tree, he entered into a meditative trance and became enlightened. From that point onward, Siddhartha Gautama was known as the Buddha and taught others the knowledge that he had uncovered, the Dharma (Cooper and James 2005:41).
To become enlightened means that one recognizes the truth about all that is. At the core of Buddhism is the belief that all beings are caught in the never-ending cycle of rebirth known as samsara. Suffering and “wandering on” are characterizations of samsara. It is the ultimate goal, as Siddhartha Gautama discovered, to break out of this negative cycle and attain Nirvana. As the Buddha taught, one attains Nirvana through enlightenment. Once one has an adequate understanding of The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Noble Path, and the law of karma, one can break out of cyclical existence.
Comprehending The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Noble Path is the most fundamental set of truths according to Buddhism. The Buddha, or The Awakened One, taught the Four Noble Truths:
1) Suffering is inherent in life.
2) Suffering is caused by craving.
3) Craving and hence suffering can be destroyed.
4) The Holy Eightfold Path is the course leading to the cessation of suffering. (Cooper and James 2005:42)
According to David Cooper and Simon James, the first two elements of The Eightfold Noble Path deal with the wisdom to rightly understand how the world functions (Right View and Right Intention). The following three elements concern ethical conduct. Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood ensure the practitioner is honest, lives his/her life according to ahimsa (non-harming), and that he/she chooses a career that is not based in the sale or trade of living beings, intoxicants, or weapons. The last three elements in The Eightfold Noble Path deal with mental development. Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration are factors that remove “unwholesome mental states” like delusion, hatred, and attachment and instead substitute them with mental states capable of enriching lives like compassion, love, joy (2005:44).
In addition to an adequate understanding of The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Noble Path, one must also be aware of the law of karma. The basic idea of karma was not new to Siddhartha; it was already prevalent in the ancient Indian society. However, the Buddha understood karma in a different way. The Vinaya Sutra states, “For every action we perform we experience a similar result” (Batchelor 1992:8). The word karma translates to “action.” Every action one performs and every thought one has, is subject to the law of karma. If one’s thoughts and actions are negative, negative karma is accrued which will result in a rebirth in the lower levels of cosmic order (animal, ghosts, or even hell-beings; Harvey 2000:150). However, if the thoughts and actions are positive, one will attain a rebirth higher in the cosmic order, like a god or a human. To accrue good karma, one must focus one’s thoughts and actions on compassion and lovingkindness towards all other beings. A human rebirth is seen as “precious” because there is a good balance between comfort and suffering. Comfort in life allows one to focus on the Dharma while suffering serves as a motivator for spiritual change and creates the desire to break out of samsara. Rebirth as a human is also ideal because people possess a greater understanding of morality (Cooper and James 2005:42; Harvey 2000:151). A birth as a god would not provide the motivation to break out of cyclical existence, and a rebirth as an animal would constrain spiritual development. Therefore, the “superior” human rebirth is not justification for domination or exploitation of other beings because all beings are caught in the cycle of rebirths. Instead, according to Harvey, humans must exhibit kindness to beings lower in the cosmic order; because the present birth as a human is temporary and only dependent on past karmic deeds. After this life, one will be reborn, and has been reborn, in different cosmic orders. An understanding of karma shows a follower of Buddhism how illogical it is to ignore the struggle of animals; every being has been an animal and will be one again in the future, unless of course one reaches liberation (2000:151). With an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Noble Path, and the law of karma, the Dharma can have a positive impact the planet.
Ecologically Relevant Buddhist Concepts
Although thousands of years have passed since Siddhartha first taught the fundamental truths, the central themes are still relevant. The first of the five precepts every Buddhist must follow is the commitment to ahimsa, or non-violence. Practitioners are forbidden from deliberately taking the lives of, or causing harm to, other sentient beings (Cooper and James 2005:132). Because of this, one ought to protect life and incorporate compassion and lovingkindness into his/her life. Some even argue that protection ought to be extended to non-sentient beings like plants, and even entire ecosystems (134). The commitment to non-violence is an idea that comes about with an in-depth understanding of how the world functions.
At the core of Buddhism is mindfulness (sati). With the right mindset, beings will be aware of the true reality of existence. Humans uncover mindfulness through meditation; they tap into the energy that is inside each being. Through meditation the practitioner can connect to the energy that is that of the Buddha within; the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. It is through that connection with the Buddha that the meditator begins to understand compassion, love, joy, togetherness and nondiscrimination (Nhat Hanh 2008:15). Mindfulness opens up the being to awareness; awareness of the true nature of the world around him/her. Constructed concepts and views fall away and the mindful being can now understand what is real; that everything is inherently empty of self-existence. When one understands the truth of reality, one is less inclined to grasp at that which is conditional, and instead has a deeper respect for the natural world.
When one harbors the right mindfulness, one will uncover that all things are interdependent. Various conditions come together for a finite time to create a particular “thing.” When the conditioning factors disappear, so too, does the “thing” (Cooper and James 2005:45). When those conditions are removed and the “thing” is not propped up by the interconnection of the conditions, it is clear that the “thing” lacks self-existence. All things are like this; they are empty of an inherent self-existence and only exist in relation to all other things. Since everything is void of “essence,” or empty of self (sunyata), everything exists only because of the interaction of every other thing. Stephen Batchelor explains this concept by saying that having nothing at the center of focus is equal to everything being at the center (1990:180). A person is not outside of this concept. A human is a combination of constantly changing mental and physical constituents that are “dying and reborn every moment” (Cooper and James 2005:45).
Interdependence is exemplified in The Avatamsaka Sutra by the concept of the “Jewel Net of Indra.” At each intersection of a net there is a jewel which reflects an infinite number of other jewels, as well as itself (Harvey 2000:153). No one jewel has a separate entity because it exists as a reflection of all other jewels; it has no self-nature. This concept represents the idea of interdependence, because every “thing” lacks “self-nature.” The idea that each thing depends on everything else for it to be is known as conditioned arising or dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada).
All of existence is impermanent and marked by change, because of conditioned arising. These conditions are impermanent, lasting only for a certain time before the matter and energy are recycled into the universe. An example of the recycling of matter would be the carbon atoms that make up any organic being. The carbon in the atmosphere is fixed and then stored by plants through the process of photosynthesis. An herbaceous animal eats the plant and the carbon is utilized within that animal. Next, a human will eat the animal, and the carbon from the atmosphere will be used to make up that body. Eventually, the human dies, the body decomposes, and a new organism takes up the carbon. Scientists explain this situation as being part of the carbon cycle, but the Buddhists would understand this to be an example of impermanence and interdependence. All things are dependent upon each other (interdependent) and are interrelated. Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk, refers to this as “interbeing:”
The flower cannot be as a separate entity; it has to inter-be with the light, with the clouds, with the rain. The word “interbeing” is closer to reality than the word “being.” Being really means “interbeing.” Interbeing and nonself are the objects of our contemplation. We have to train ourselves so that in our daily lives we can touch the truth of interbeing and non-self in every moment (2008:99).
The realization that everything is dependent upon every other thing for its existence changes how one behaves toward other beings. Because all things are interdependent, it is understood that we should “refrain from acts of harm to nature since we know we are harmed at the same time” (Donegan 1990:197). This understanding creates a radical transformation within the being and promotes a more compassionate lifestyle.
Compassion (karuna), a theme present in the Buddhist tradition, could help mitigate some of the ecological disasters if understood and put into practice. Harvey defines compassion for other beings by the desire for all others to be free from suffering. He continues, “It is the antidote to cruelly, and is to be distinguished from sadness” (2000:104). Realizing all of existence is the same, and interdependent, should instill a sense of compassion for all beings. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that insight, as a result of compassion, is useful and safe. But, people must be able to express their compassion in order to change (2008:75). People must utilize their compassion in the world in order to preserve it. When people genuinely wish to alleviate the suffering of other beings, the destruction to the natural world will cease.
Mahāyāna is a main branch of Buddhism that holds the core belief that all sentient beings will eventually become a buddha. The first step to becoming a buddha, though, is to acquire the state of Bodhicitta. Cooper and James discuss the meditational practices that aid in inducing Bodhicitta. In the meditation “Six Causes and One Effect” one understands that all sentient beings, at one point, have been your mother, which would automatically elicit kindness from you. Repaying the kindness, a genuine love and compassion, and a decision to help all sentient beings become enlightened are also discovered as the “causes.” All the causes lead to the “effect,” which is the Bodhicitta (2005:61). Another popular meditation exercise is “Exchanging Self with Others.” In this practice, the person meditating contemplates that all beings desire happiness and no one wants suffering. This person realizes that he/she is only one out of numerous beings and it is selfish to be concerned only with his/her own happiness (Cooper and James 2005:61). One who harbors Bodhicitta is known as a Bodhisattva. These people forego enlightenment until all sentient beings, including animals, also achieve enlightenment. Cooper and James cite the Lotus Sutra, which assures that eventually all beings will enter into Buddhahood. Other Buddhists support this idea by quoting the Diamond Sutra, a text capturing the conversation between The Buddha and his disciple, Subhuti:
All living creatures of whatever class, born from eggs, from wombs, from moisture, or by transformation, whether with form or without form, whether in a state of thinking or exempt form thought-necessity, or wholly beyond all thought realms- all these are caused by Me to attain Unbounded Liberation Nirvana. Vajracchedika Prajna-paramita Sutra 26 (The Diamond Sutra) (2005:61).
Thich Nhat Hanh considers the Diamond Sutra the “most ancient text on deep ecology” (2008:70). This text expresses the notion of compassion and the idea of bodhisattva. Nhat Hanh explains, from his understanding of the Diamond Sutra, “We have to do our best to help every living being cross the ocean of suffering….If you are still caught in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, or a life span, you are not an authentic bodhisattva.”
Lovingkindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity are also themes prevalent in the Buddhist tradition. As an antidote to hatred and fear, Harvey explains that lovingkindness (maitri) is the hope that all beings experience true happiness (2000:104). When the concern for ourselves outweighs our lovingkindness for others, problems arise. By destroying habitats and upsetting the ecological balance, humankind is clearly not concerned with the happiness of all beings. If we regarded the happiness of others as we regard the happiness of ourselves, environmental degradation would stop, or at the very least, slow.
Empathetic joy (mudita) is the ability to find joy in the good fortune of other beings and to find “happiness in the happiness of others” (Cooper and James 2005:98). Harvey adds to the definition of empathetic joy, that it is the antidote to envy and discontent, but different than “giddy merriment” (2000:104). The emotion of empathetic joy can be utilized to clean up the current state of the environment. When humanity can find happiness in the happiness of others, including animal life, it would be more difficult to pollute habitats and drive the extinction of numerous species. By polluting and destroying natural habitats, people do not want to find happiness in the happiness of other beings; they selfishly pursue their own agendas. Evoking a genuine feeling of empathetic joy would force many people to reconsider their values and goals, especially in regard to the environment.
Equanimity (upekkha), however, is an emotion of balance, which can develop a sense of peace and inner strength in a Buddhist practitioner. It is through equanimity that a Buddhist reminds himself/herself not to be caught up in events that can sometimes cause distractions, and it can remind a practitioner to “see with understanding” (Fronsdal, pars. 4-5). It is through the experience of equanimity that one comes to understand that beings suffer and/or experience happiness because of the karma they have accrued. Harvey argues that equanimity is the antidote to approval and aversion, but is not considered indifference (2000:104). It is the middle ground between attachment and indifference. Maintaining an impartial stance on all sentient beings means that lovingkindness and compassion can be expressed equally to all beings containing sentience. The embodiment of equanimity will ensure that the practitioner observes the natural world differently and is genuinely concerned about the happiness of other beings.
Critiques of “Eco-Buddhism”
The world in which Buddhism originated was drastically different than the modern world. The society at the time any religion is founded has a significant impact on the religion itself. It is unlikely that environmental degradation, and therefore environmental protection, were concerns to the people in the Buddha’s time. Most of the environmental concerns arose because of the effects of the Industrial Revolution and globalization that took place after the 1800’s. People lived much closer to nature while Siddhartha was alive; the internal combustion engine and big industry were in the distant future. It is doubtful that the Buddha could have seen the exact direction humanity would take and the current welfare of the planet. Siddhartha Gautama did, however, understand that existence is full of dukkha (suffering, pain, dissatisfaction; Cooper and James 2005: 38). If people try to overcome their personal suffering by indulging in selfish desires it will perpetuate the cycle of dissatisfaction. Since the Industrial Revolution, people within developed nations have turned to consumerism and capitalism to satiate their desires. Several developing nations are unsustainably progressing because they aspire to have the same comfort and conveniences that people within developed countries take for granted. Humanity as a whole is leading a very unbalanced existence creating large-scale environmental degradation. What does the historical Buddhist doctrine say with regard to the current problems the planet faces?
The teachings of the Buddha address all aspects of the universe through a scope of human psychology. Nirvana can only be reached by the individual through an understanding of how the world functions. In the process of reaching enlightenment, one learns how to appropriately treat the natural world. David Cooper and Simon James look to virtues like humility, self-mastery, and equanimity, which are developed through the individual process of overcoming dukkha. In Cooper and James’ understanding of Buddhism, nature is seen as merely a resource to help beings develop personal virtues (2005:118). It is through one’s engagement with nature that one can observe impermanence and tranquility, which propagate the development of Buddhist virtues. Observing the natural world allows one to overcome his/her “unwholesome roots”, like greed, hate, and delusion (122). The idea of having an intimate connection with nature, instead of utilizing the natural world as a resource, is disregarded by Cooper and James.
According to historical Buddhist doctrines and texts, the natural world, like everything else, is part of samsara. Just as people are seen as being stuck in negative cyclical existence, so too is nature. The historical Buddhist teachings do not praise the inseparability between humanity and the natural world (Cooper and James 2005:111). It is the task of the human to transcend or escape all that causes dukkha, including samsaric nature.
Cooper and James disagree with what they consider to be a “green” or “ecocentric” Buddhist perspective (2005:110). These authors feel that the leap that some Buddhists, to whom they refer as “ecological holists,” make from the doctrines of no self and conditioned arising to showing that we are interdependent with nature is unsupported by the Buddhist texts. The “inseparability of humanity and nature” does not support the idea that this tradition is “green” (113). These authors argue that the “ecological holists,” like Thich Nhat Hanh and other authors featured in Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, are practicing selective Buddhism. “Ecological holists,” as well as those belonging to the deep ecology movement, use humanity’s inseparability from nature as justification for their pro-environment stance. The deep ecology movement, founded on Buddhist principles by Arne Næss, preserves the idea that the environment and the individual have a “symbiotic relationship” with each other (McMahan 2008: 169). Followers of the movement believe that the natural world and humans are not separate entities; they are interdependent and equal in value. The “ecocentric” Buddhists and deep ecologists extract portions from the Buddhist texts that flow with their personal worldviews. Cooper and James see this practice as unnecessary and forced. The goal of Buddhism is to end suffering and reach liberation; it is not to celebrate humanity’s connection with the natural world.
Damien Keown also critiques some of the ideas of “ecological holists.” Keown’s initial argument is that one who rightly understands the Buddhist views of how the world functions would understand that the status of natural world is bound to disintegrate because it is part of samsara. As such, environmental degradation is just a part of the negative cycle (2007:97). This idea begs the question, if the destruction of the environment is part of existence in samsara, just as humans are, should humans care about preservation and conservation? Keown’s solution to this conundrum is to point out, as Cooper and James did, that Buddhism is a psychological tradition. The environmental crisis is actually reflective of the human psychological crisis where people are overcome by apathy, selfishness, ignorance and greed (101). Technological advances can help the environment much less than humanity as a whole harboring “qualities such as wisdom, compassion, self-discipline, and mindfulness” (101). Keown continues, “With respect to ecology there is every reason to think that a person who is well-disciplined, self-controlled and restrained will consume less of the earth’s resources than a person whose appetites are uncontrolled” (103). This author is less concerned about “eco-Buddhists” going out into the world and enacting positive change, and he is more focused on people harboring the right virtues to quiet the desire to destroy. There is not a need for “ecological holists” selectively choosing excerpts from Buddhist texts, but an “orientation of traditional values towards a new set of problems concerned with the environment” (110).
The Construction and Justification of Modern “Eco-Buddhism”
The Buddhist tradition has been altered in several ways even before it became popular in the west. New ways to interpret texts coincide with the changes that occur within the religion. One can choose to be either progressive or fundamentalist in his/her interpretation of the texts, but the way in which one understands the Dharma is how the Buddhist religion fits for him/her.
Buddhism has undergone numerous transformations since Siddhartha Gautama taught the Dharma. McMahan notes that the original Buddhist tradition coming from the Pali literature was changed when the Mahayana texts appeared in southern Asia (2008:156). The idea of the bodhisattva who sacrifices entrance into Nirvana until all sentient beings are enlightened was a new concept for Buddhism. The tradition was altered again when it migrated into eastern Asia (159). Here, Buddhism was exposed to Daoism, which “created conditions for a reevaluation of the phenomenal world within Buddhist traditions” (160). Some traditions, like Daoism, in eastern Asia highly revered the natural world which influenced a more positive view of existence. It was also in eastern Asia that the idea of “buddha-nature” came to be popular. Through meditation, one could contact his/her own buddha-nature. The idea of the buddha-nature within, which is waiting to be discovered, was radical and a completely new direction for the tradition.
Buddhism also changed when it encountered the western world. The Romantic Movement pushed the idea that the “ego” within each human needs to be reconnected to the wholeness of the natural world (163-164). This idea affected Buddhism because now each person could reconnect his/her buddha-nature to the world around him/her. Buddhism was also impacted by the Trancendentalists. The protection of nature and the spirituality within the world was emphasized by transcendentalists, and western Buddhism picked up on those themes (166). It is clear that Buddhism has been reshaped several times throughout its long history. The result of all these alterations is several different branches claiming to be Buddhist at the core. Because of how they evolved, some branches may be more useful in combating environmental degradation than others (Keown 2007:98).
The dichotomy that exists in the current age demands that followers either read the ancient texts literally, or offer new interpretations to fit the modern world. Some, like Cooper, James, and Keown, feel that people have gone too far in their interpretations of Buddhist texts. These authors argue that the justification being used by modern environmental Buddhists is different, and contrived, from the original teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. People following the ideas of Cooper, James, and Keown take a fundamentalist approach with regard to Buddhism. They believe that any idea that deviates from the original teachings found within the Pali Cannon is considered progressive and is therefore selective Buddhism. With respect to how the tradition evolved, there have been innumerable reformations to Buddhism. Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, two of the three main branches of Buddhism, could be considered a form of selective Buddhism as compared to the original teachings of Gautama. Modern “eco-Buddhism” can still be considered a form of Buddhism; it is just another branch in an ever-evolving tradition.
Contemporary Buddhists believe that texts and doctrines can be interpreted in various ways to maintain relevance within the current society. As with any religion, it is important for Buddhism to evolve alongside society to meet the needs of its practitioners. If a religion fails to keep up with the contemporary world, it will be left behind because people will have no ability to relate. “The reconfiguration of traditional doctrine and practice in response to novel historical circumstance is the norm in the development of religions. Texts and doctrines are never static but are repeatedly reappropriated to deal with changing situations….. The text or doctrine, then, is not a static reference point but a dynamic process whose meanings are always being reconstituted,” within the boundaries built into the texts themselves (McMahan 2008:179). As long as the reinterpretation stays true to the most fundamental understandings of the religion, and has a large following from prominent Buddhists as well as lay people, the religion will continue to evolve to be applicable to the modern world (180).
Some modern Buddhists contextualize their belief with the evolution of their religion. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhism can be used to help solve current issues because the practice of meditation keeps one in touch with his/her inner Buddha:
Everything, even the Buddha, is always changing and evolving. Thanks to our practice of looking deeply, we can realize that the sufferings of our time are different from those of the time of Siddartha, and so the methods of practice should also be different. That is why the Buddha inside of us also needs to evolve, so that the Buddha can be relevant to our time. (2008:7)
Nhat Hanh also offers an interpretation of Buddhism pertaining to the “changeability” of texts:
Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times. (Nhat Hanh par 2)
Thich Nhat Hanh, and other progressive Buddhists, claim that modern religion can evolve to fit in the modern age. If the tradition cannot help solve modern problems it is useless.
It can even be argued that modern “eco-Buddhism” is an example of skillful means (upaya). The Buddha utilized skillful means as a way to help his audience understand a complex teaching (Cooper and James 2005:59). The Dharma can be adapted so that a particular audience can learn a difficult concept. Those who follow the Mahāyāna path understand that skillful means was implemented when the new sutras, like the Lotus Sutra, appeared in India. The audience was not ready for the idea of the Bodhisattva in the time of Siddhartha Gautama, so the new sutras appeared when the people could understand the complex truths contained within the new texts. “Eco-Buddhism” could have been waiting to surface until the world could comprehend how to rightly view and treat the planet as a whole. Now that humanity can see the effects of their destructive decisions, it is easier to understand the importance of preserving the natural world. Perhaps the truth of “eco-Buddhism” has been present all this time, it just needed to be delivered via skillful means. Stephen Batchelor argues: “Buddhism is teaching nothing new at all; it simply shows us a way to recover the innate ecological wisdom we have lost” (1990: 182).
Do practitioners of Buddhism actively engage in their societies because of their Buddhist ideals? People are compelled to act (or to not act) for a number of different reasons: religious, social, and personal, to name a few. One might assume that the actions performed by a Buddhist would be because of the Buddhist ideals that they maintain. Perhaps, though, one has other motivations. One’s motivation may not match up with his/her beliefs, but then again, one’s beliefs might provide a foundation for action. Some environmental activists, known as engaged Buddhists, point to ideals in their religion with which they can relate, and they use those ideals to elicit change in their communities.
Engaged Buddhism is a term used to categorize the Buddhists in the world that are actively trying to create social change. These people concern themselves with the issues of social justice and environmental preservation. Engaged Buddhists come from a variety of branches within the tradition, and they work within a mixture of mediums to send their messages. Books, journal articles, workshops and seminars, and rallies to support their cause are some of the ways that engaged Buddhists reach out to the world. Engaged Buddhists focused on the environment work to preserve the natural world. Cooper and James note that to have responsibility means that one must be “pro-active” with environmental issues (2005:136). It is not ideal for Buddhists to be passive observers to the environmental destruction of the modern age. Thich Nhat Hanh adds to the idea about the responsibility of a Buddhist by saying that the “term ‘engaged Buddhism’ was created to restore the true meaning of Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is simply Buddhism applied in our daily lives. If it’s not engaged, it can’t be called Buddhism” (2008:75). For those concerned with social change, being engaged in the world is what it means to be Buddhist.
Sulak Sivaraksa is another well-known socially-engaged Buddhist from Thailand. Born in 1933, Sivaraska has dedicated his life for the causes of social justice and environmental sustainability (“Sulak Sivaraksa” par.1). He is from the Theravada sect of Buddhism and feels that the message that Buddhism offers is applicable no matter how complex the world has become. Sivaraksa’s involvement in engaged Buddhism began in the 1960’s when he formed the journal Sangkhomsaat Paritat (Social Science Review). Sulak Sivarasksa’s journal became hugely successful in Thailand and through his participation in this publication he had exposure to grassroots organizations (Chopra, par. 3). Those organizations inspired Sulak to become an activist because he believes that is the best way to change the world. To Sivaraska, becoming an activist was following through with what the Buddha taught.
Sulak Sivaraska uses engaged-Buddhism as his way to practice the Dharma. Mindful breathing, Sivaraska acknowledges, is the first step to changing the world:
When the breath is in control, mindfulness arises, which can be developed into compassion, loving-kindness, and so on. I remember a Tibetan monk who had been tortured in a Chinese prison for 22 years. When he reached Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama asked him: “What were you scared of the most in prison?” He replied: “I was afraid that I might lose my compassion towards the torturers.” The seed of this sort of strength lies in mindfulness and correct breathing. (Chopra, par. 15).
In addition to speaking about mindfulness and compassion, this activist has a lot to say on how societies develop. In his essay, “True Development,” Sivaraksa supports societal development that eliminates craving and violence, and instead focuses on the development of the spirit (1990:171). Materialism, he argues, is a harmful to society and acts as a distraction. Fewer desires would promote a healthier society. When society is transformed from being ego-centric and materialistic to being in touch with the natural world, environmental degredation will be reduced and the inner strength of the people will be increased (172).
Sivaraska is an engaged-Buddhist that is doing his best to make a difference in the world. He founded and directs the non-governmental organization, “Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation” in Thailand. The organization is “committed to social justice with ecological vision and based on engaged spirituality” (“Sulak Sivaraksa” par. 1). In addition to running the foundation, this Buddhist activist originally organized the “International Network of Engaged Buddhists”, an organization that works to bring together engaged Buddhists from all parts of the world (“INEB” par. 1). Because of his efforts, he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice and received the Right Livelihood Award, which is also known as the alternative Nobel Prize (Chopra par. 1; “Sulak Sivaraska” par. 5). Sulak Sivaraska has utilized the Buddhist tradition to help him create change in the world.
The wisdom that Buddhism offers is ancient; yet still progressive. The world is unbelievably different now as compared to the time Siddhartha Gautama first became enlightened. Despite the differences, the core beliefs of Buddhism, The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Noble Path, and the law of karma, still allow the practitioner to understand the true nature of reality. Time and societal change do not falsify those fundamental truths. Central themes like mindfulness, interdependence, compassion, lovingkindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity come from an adequate understanding of existence and could promote environmentally-friendly behavior within the practitioner. Once an individual sees that he/she is, along with all other things, ultimately empty, or devoid of an “essence,” he/she understands that all beings are interrelated. Seeing things as they really are breeds a genuine desire for all beings to be happy, and to find happiness in the happiness of other beings.
“Eco-Buddhism” is a relatively recent branch of the tradition that emphasizes humanity’s inseparability from the natural world. Whether one argues that this branch is selective within the tradition, the inner-buddha within each being is constantly evolving so as to be applicable to the modern world, or this new branch was introduced by skillful means, numerous Buddhists feel that their religion has an ecological component that teaches conservation and respect toward the environment. Some engaged-Buddhists, like Sulak Sivaraksa, find motivation within their religion to make the world a better place. Fundamentalist thinkers, like David Cooper, Simon James, and Damien Keown, believe that “eco-Buddhism” strays from the original teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. They fail to acknowledge that Buddhism has been evolving since it was first taught, over 2,500 years ago. “Eco-Buddhism” is just the newest form of an ancient religion.
The Buddhist tradition creates an avenue for understanding existence, and even has the potential to make the world a better place. The whole of humanity is caught in samsara, with all other beings, and people attempt to satiate their desires in very unpractical, unsustainable ways. Humans are unhappy, so they grasp after materialistic things that create superficial happiness, which leads to more grief, more desiring, and more destruction. By understanding and incorporating the central themes of Buddhism into the human ideology, people will not strive after impermanent solutions to their problems. They will see existence as it really is, and realize that all beings deserve respect and compassion. The death of the natural world could stop if all of humanity began to see existence as the “eco-Buddhists” do.
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