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On Buddhism and Environmentalism; Problematizing the Relation The compatibility of Buddhism with ecological awareness and contemporary green

convictions is so often taken for granted, that today, there is hardly a book published about this ancient Eastern religion, which does not have something to say about the environment. It is supposed that the two lifestyles fit neatly together; moderate consumption or frugality, for example, serves both Buddhist and environmentalist goals well. The Buddhist practice of universal loving-kindness and the emphasis on minimizing the suffering of other beings (other animals too) even at cost to oneself, can lead to various green practices such as vegetarianism, boycotting harmful products, protection of wild habitat, and so on. Moreover, certain Buddhist teachings are believed to reflect ecological principles, for instance, the doctrine of dependent-arising (sk. prattyasamutpda )-in brief, that all things depend on others-has a clear resonance with scientific ecology, which studies the relations between natural beings, for instance, species in an ecosystem. Unfortunately, the correspondence is not as straightforward as may seem. Buddhism, for instance, has a harsh and austere view of the world, stated as the First Noble Truth of suffering. Samsara, the ordinary rounds of birth, sickness, old age, and death, is often portrayed as something negative and undesirable, and the more this outlook penetrates our minds, the harder it is to reconcile with the environmentalists respect for life, and appreciation of natural, biological processes. Besides, ultimate enlightenment, at least in the early Buddhist interpretation, occurs when one departs this world altogether, never to be reborn, and in fact, the early Pli word for this supreme goal, nibbana, is sometimes rendered as extinction. It would seem then, that Buddhism and environmentalism disagree in their evaluation of the natural world and its processes, and while the latter is concerned with preserving them, Buddhism appears to want to opt out of this world altogether. Many have argued that Buddhism has a negative view of animal existence. Notwithstanding their beauty, grace, or intelligence, animals are generally considered lower forms of life than humans are, since they are further away from the goal of enlightenment and less able to pursue the path. For this reason, animals deserve our compassion but not our respect and the implication may be that a world with fewer animals and more humans would be a desirable state of affairs (even though this does not permit us to set about eliminating other species). Even though this does not constitute a speciesist position, since it is not claimed that what we do to animals is less morally significant, it would be hard to defend species conservation on these grounds. If early Buddhism can be charged with being world-rejecting, and animal deprecating, this is certainly not the case with the later Mahyna schools, which appear more attuned to green thinking. Here, enlightenment certainly does not mean extinction, but can be described, perhaps, as new non-dualistic way of experiencing reality, one where the emptiness (sk. sunyata) or insubstantiality of all things is perceived. If things are empty, or unreal, then there is no opposition between nirvana and samsara, and it is often emphasized that enlightenment cannot be found anywhere other than in this world.

Moreover, bodhisattvas, that is, beings on their way to enlightenment, resolve never to abandon samsara until all are free from suffering. There is an emphasis on universal enlightenment, an insistence that every single sentient creature, including the lowliest, possesses the seed of Buddhahood. Thus, it appears that the difficulties outlined above for green Buddhism are resolved. Still, one significant problem remains. According to the Mahyna, the closest we can come to describing nirvana is through the negation of all our views about the world. In fact, the highest expression of this nonconceptual, ineffable reality, as we see in the Vimalakirti sutra, is a through a profound silence. Since the highest goal is to rid ourselves of our concepts, and belief in the substantiality of things, it is not clear on what basis we are to defend our concern with the natural world. If we are sincere in our wish for enlightenment, that is, it appears we need to be willing to let go of all our isms. To remain committed to the truth of our environmentalist beliefs, then, to be attached to the contents of this world, and dismayed at their devastation, is to remain shackled to conventional appearances (sk. samvrti-satya) and miss realizing the ultimate nature of things (sk. paramrtha-satya) or nirvana. Of course, it may be countered that a bodhisattva could engage in eco-friendly activities, without a commitment to any views, just as the Buddha continued to act in the world without being subject to delusion. The Mahynist is not attached to the planet but neither does she reject it, and if she is a bodhisattva, it is said, her actions spontaneously result in the benefit of others. In fact, through their activities, bodhisattvas create a Pure World (eg. Buddha Amitabhas Sukhvati) for the sake of all beings, and these are described as incomparably beautiful realms, perfectly conducive to attaining enlightenment. Suffering does not occur here and existence is pervaded with bliss. Therefore, although environmentalism, as an asserted and held-onto position, may not be compatible with Buddhism, Buddhist action and way of life, may yet be beneficial to the environment, as it will result in the development of an ideal abode for as many as possible. It will certainly not involve the exploitation of nature and of beings, or their utilization as a resource. Still, whether environmentalists will want to accept this as a suitable goal is debatable, since some claim that the idea of a Pure Realm is very far removed from what we mean by nature. In short, the connection between Buddhism and environmentalism is not as simple as it is sometimes made out to be. These thoughts are not intended as mere academic pedantry, but are, rather, issues I have grappled with personally (as an ex- Greenpeace activist turned Buddhist.) I think it is safe to say, when all is considered, that we should continue, as Buddhists, to engage in eco-action, to go on recycling, petitioning, and so on. However, if we understand a little about emptiness, we might do this differently than before. There will be a lot less anger, say, at the destruction of rainforest, and a lot more sadness at the thought of the suffering it brings about. If someone disagrees with what we say, we will avoid self-righteous confrontation, but rather try to recall that ultimately, our beliefs are merely that - conventional, partial views of reality. On the other hand, I am not sure if this attitude is what the planet needs right now, it may be the case that a more hardnosed, determined position is required.

In conclusion, I believe that one way Buddhism can aid the planet is by exhorting us to be mindful of all our actions, and more prepared to question our assumptions. If any human qualities are to blame for our ecological crises, it is certainly our overconfidence and selfserving activities. A humanity that is less assertive of itself, less willing to inflict suffering and more prepared to consider the welfare of other species, will surely be welcomed by the nonhuman inhabitants of this planet, and may finally allow some space for nature to recover herself.

(Originally appeared on