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Buddhist Philosophy and the Ideals of Environmentalism

Buddhist Philosophy and the Ideals of Environmentalism

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Published by: Rajendra Prasad Pandey on Apr 15, 2011
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To view change as ultimately real and interminable could easily lead to despair.

Hartshorne, for instance, maintains that there is no end to the creative process; there must

always be some sort of change happening, he claims, something or other must become

something else, ad infinitum (1970, 14). In his words, ―what is objectively necessary

absolutely is that the creative process must produce and continue to produce creatures‖

(1970, 30; emphasis added). Rendered into Buddhist language, this would sound like he

is saying that there is no escaping the cycles of saṃsāra and no way to stop creating

kárma—that is, no enlightenment or nirvana. Beings are simply condemned to keep

turning the wheel of becoming, from one birth to another, and, coupled with the bleak

picture of life that was painted above, it would not be surprising if someone with this

view were to fall into a nihilistic mood. Hartshorne seems to imply a similar view when

he admits that, on his account, there can never be complete satisfaction of one‘s wants

(1970, 66).

On the other hand, on the Buddhist account, one is able to transcend the realm of

becoming, to go ‗beyond‘ time and change, precisely by seeing their emptiness. Yao


suggests that the ―very goal‖ of Buddhism, as he puts it, is to ―see through the passage of

time, and to realize the nature of reality, beyond the momentary and impermanent‖ (Yao

2007, 513). His use of the word ―goal,‖ however; is a little ambiguous; as he

acknowledges further on, one of the ways of transcending time requires that we give up

all thought of achieving goals, and, most of all, we give up hope of attaining spiritual

accomplishments. We cut off clinging to the past, he says, as well as anticipating the

future, and in that way, we remain in the present moment. This is not to be grasped at as a

static moment, but a dynamic present, ―a continuous effort and activity to maintain
presence‖ (2007, 514). Once again, the word ―effort‖ could be misleading, since, as many

Buddhist masters reveal, and as Yao too is well aware, one of the key ingredients in

‗remaining present‘ is the ability to stay fully relaxed (Yao 2007, 513).

In chapter 2, it was suggested that when it comes to Buddhist practice, the

realization of emptiness, as opposed to philosophical understanding, the Yogācāra School

was supreme. To view change, time or movement as empty, in Yogācārin terms, is

perhaps, to see them as subjective or imaginary additions onto a phenomenologically

neutral world. When a bodhisattva realizes the pure, consummated nature, reality without

dualistic contamination, it is said that ―all differentiations disappear‖ (Nagao 1992, 64).

Therefore, time and change disappear too, since, as we have seen, both depend on, and

emerge from the experience of differentiated phenomena. Importantly, this is not to be

understood as an absolute negation of change. It is not accurate to say that time and

change do not exist at all—conventionally, it is entirely legitimate for us to go on uttering

statements about the past, and making predictions for the future, and we can also retain

our belief in causation. Another misinterpretation to avoid is the idea that there are two

realms, one with time and change, and another without. Rather, the consummated world

is this very same world, only without the imagined additions, or where time and change

are experienced as imaginary. It is ―established anew by the enlightened sages,‖ every

time they realize the conventionality of the discriminations made in the everyday world

of change (Nagao 1992, 63).

Realizing the emptiness of change allows the bodhisattva to overcome nihilism. It

will be recalled that there were three facets to this extreme view; the concern with

nonexistence and annihilation, a gloomy vision of the world and preoccupation with


suffering, and finally, a sense of the purposelessness of unending change. Regarding

nonexistence, it has emerged several times throughout this dissertation that the Middle

Way has no room for either absolute existence, or absolute nonexistence. A certain

degree of existence in phenomena is necessary if we are to recognize their emptiness—it

will be recalled from chapter 2 that emptiness cannot be cognized directly, but rather is

dependent too; dependent, that is, on phenomena that arise and perish. This was referred

to as ‗the emptiness of emptiness.‘

For this reason, perhaps, the grief that arises at the loss of someone or something

that is held dear can be mitigated if it is understood that nothing in the world ever

perishes completely. Individuals or objects do not exist inherently, and therefore they

cannot cease to exist either; rather, what happens is that these so-called ‗things‘ become

other ‗things.‘ The next section will consider some examples of environmental changes,

in particular, extinction, which generally cause us distress. For the time being, we can

consider whether the Buddhist teachings on death have anything to say to Westerners

who may not believe in rebirth. It is not necessary to believe in past and future lives to

see that an individual does not perish altogether when he dies; rather, parts of him live on

in his works, offspring, and in other people‘s memories of him. Of course, this does not

mean the individual is immortal; again, since he was always empty of inherent existence,

it is not accurate to state either that he exists or that he does not, as the Buddha pointed

out. Meditation on emptiness can lessen, perhaps, the semblance or sensation of loss that

we naturally experience when bereaved.

Regarding the second facet of nihilism, the preoccupation with adverse or

repugnant aspects of the temporal world, this sort of discrimination too could begin to

wane once the emptiness of change is glimpsed. If one were contemplating the loss of an

ecosystem or an indigenous species, for instance, one could mentally try to establish

precisely where the change lay. Is it in the past forest? The future one? Is it in the present

moment? Above it was argued that change itself could not be found anywhere; rather it is

something we ascribe to reality. When we acknowledge our inability to find change, to

―pin it down as a reality‖—when we understand, for instance, that we cannot apprehend
the forest‘s ‗becoming-degraded,‘ or the population‘s ‗dying-out‘—we free up emotional

energy that we had been wasting on worrying about this decline, and which we are then


able to redirect into useful work. We can then actually let go of the past, and question our

expectations of the future. As we have seen, strict determinism is not true, and this means

that any prediction has a tone of probability rather than absolute necessity. Rather than

fearing or dreading future changes, we could instead work to bring about more desirable


In Buddhist imagery, time is seen as the devourer of humanity—―Mara the

dreaded evil‖ (Koller 1974, 206)—yet once the bodhisattva realizes time‘s emptiness,

duḥkha is eliminated and the bodhisattva becomes the ―devourer of time‖ (Koller 1974,

207). Kalupahana stresses that the bodhisattva does this by eliminating craving for

existence or nonexistence, thereby putting an end to change (Kalupahana 1974, 183).

―When time is understood to be a conceptual construct, with no real power,‖ according to
Koller, ―one is freed from one‘s bondage to an inevitable death‖ (1974, 207). Obviously,

it is not that one becomes immortal, but rather dying is no longer a worry (Kalupahana

1974, 183). Realizing that time and change are not real, therefore, also reduces suffering.

In short, when the bodhisattva sees through the illusion of time, sickness, death, and other

inimical characters of the natural world lose their fearsome aspect. ―The terrible and

productive aspects of time are [then] shown to be the same‖ (Lancaster 1974, 212).

It is important that we do not attempt to read a positive affirmation in what has

just been said. To talk of the negative and positive aspects being ―the same,‖ for instance,

is not, of course, an ultimate truth, but merely a conventional way of intimating an

ultimately indescribable experience of the world. Since our negations are non-affirming,

we must not assume the truth of the contrary of that which we have negated; to say that

there is no change, ultimately, does not mean that there is permanence. Rather, we

attempt to stay with the experience of the ―unfindability,‖ of change, which, in chapter 2,
was equated with the Yogācāra‘s affirmation of the ―existence of emptiness.‖

This endeavour could provide a direction to the everyday flux of arising and

perishing phenomena, and could therefore overcome the third aspect of nihilism, the

sense of purposelessness. Rather than attempting to find a purpose by positing a goal to

be reached at the end of a process, instead we could achieve our purpose at every moment

when we fulfil the ‗goal‘ of remaining present at each moment, realizing the lack of

svabhāva in the phenomena that arise and perish in our mind stream as well as their


fluctuation. Whatever samsaric experience arises, that is, we attempt to realize its

emptiness. This could provide a meaning to our lives despite the incessant change that

process philosophers have pointed out. We could use that very never-ending process

itself to accomplish our ends at each moment. The same point was made at the start of the

last century when Leighton spoke of the ―time-transcending...experiences... [that are]

constituted by the fulfilment of purposes,‖ where every present moment is taken as a

complete end in itself (Leighton 1908, 566). In the next section, I shall take up this theme

again, where I shall relate it more specifically to environmental purposes.


While exploring the relations between time, change and suffering, it was suggested, at the

start of this section, that to become too caught up with the unfavourable aspects of

existence could cause one to fall into a nihilistic attitude, an extreme view that the

Buddhist Middle Way avoids. Although Buddhism and process philosophy share an

emphasis on change and flux, I argued that there was a fundamental difference, in that,

unlike Hartshorne, Buddhism does not take change to be ultimately real. The process

view of change coheres with our ordinary understanding of time and causality as having a

direction, in the sense of pointing towards the future. The past is believed to be real and

determinate, while the future is unreal and completely open. I argued that this was merely

a conventional description of change, which arbitrarily relies on memory but excludes

prediction and anticipation. The Buddhists hold, instead, that time is unreal and does not

exist. This is because the past is no longer here, the future is not here yet, and the present

is ephemeral, and does not linger even for the shortest moment. Hartshorne‘s arguments

for the reality of the past as opposed to the novelty of the future, could not withstand

Nāgārjuna‘s deconstruction of causality.

I then considered the theory of time as a fourth dimension. On this account, there

is no difference between past, present, and future, rather, all objects and events at all

times exist tenselessly. This appears to pose a challenge to Buddhist doctrine; however,

we found that this view could not account for change; it merely posits an eternal

unalterable block. Nāgārjuna, in fact, rejects both the three-dimensional and the four-


dimensional views of time, arguing that on neither account could change be found. This

is because, no matter how deeply we analyse a stretch of time, we can never point exactly

to where the motion or change is. Instead, we impute change onto a stretch of time; we

perceive a series of differentiated events and conclude that there is change.

Finally, I drew out some implications for overcoming nihilism. The view that

change is real and interminable could suggest that there is no escaping the suffering of

saṃsāra and could easily lead one to despair. On the other hand, the Buddhist goal of

transcending change and time, by giving up clinging to the past and future and relaxing in

the present, enables us to overcome all three aspects of nihilism. Regarding the first

problem of nonexistence and annihilation, since beings and change have no inherent

existence, nothing can be absolutely annihilated. Meditating on this could lessen the grief

of losing those that are dear to us. This has to do with the second aspect, the concern with

the terrible nature of the impermanent world. By realizing that change cannot be found to

exist inherently, we are able to reduce our emotional response and free up energy for

useful work. We are then no longer in the grip of our dualistic ways of seeing things but

can instead experience all phenomena that arise with equanimity. Finally, the third aspect

of meaninglessness in a dysteleologic world can be overcome by making it our purpose to

achieve this transcendence of time at each moment, making every moment an end in



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