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Against Holism: Rethinking Buddhist Environmental Ethics

Author(s): SIMON P. JAMES


Reviewed work(s):
Source: Environmental Values, Vol. 16, No. 4 (November 2007), pp. 447-461
Published by: White Horse Press
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Against Holism:
Rethinking Buddhist Environmental Ethics

SIMON P. JAMES

Department ofPhilosophy
DurhamUniversity
DurhamDH1 3HN, UK
Email:s.p.james@durham.ac.uk

ABSTRACT

Environmental thinkerssympathetictoBuddhism sometimes reasonas follows:


( 1) A holisticviewof theworld,accordingto whichhumansare regardedas
being'one' withnature, willnecessarilyengenderenvironmental concern;(2)
theBuddhist teaching of'emptiness'representssucha view;therefore (3) Bud-
dhismis an environmentally-friendly religion.
premiseofthisargument
Inthispaper,I arguethatthefirst is false(a holistic
viewof theworldcan be reconciledwitha markedly eco-unfriendly attitude)
as is thesecond(in speakingofemptiness, Buddhistthinkersarenotproposing
an 'ecological'conception oftheworld).Yettheconclusionis, I suggest,true:
Buddhismis in certainrespectsenvironmentally-friendly, notforthereasons
citedabove,butbecauseoftheview,encapsulated initsteachingsandpractices,
thatcertaindispositions to treat
the naturalenvironment well are an integral
partof human well-being.

KEYWORDS

virtueethics,holism,emptiness
Buddhism,

Values16(2007):447-461.doi:10.3197/096327107X243231
Environmental
2007TheWhite
HorsePress

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448
SIMON P. JAMES

1.

Two assumptions areoftenmadein studiesoftheenvironmental implications


of Buddhism:(1) thatBuddhismis an environmentally-friendly religion,and
on the'oneness'of
(2) thatthisis becauseofthestressplaced,initsteachings,
humansandnature.In thispaperI arguethatwhile(2) is false,(1) is true,that
(tobe moreprecise)Buddhism notonaccountofits
is environmentally-friendly,
endorsing somenotionofthe'oneness'ofhumansandnature (whichitdoesn't),
butbecauseofitsdistinctive conception ofthegoodlife.
Beforesettingout thisargument, however,it is necessarybothto clarify
whatitmightmeanto saythathumansandnatureare'one' andtoexplainwhy
anyonemight thinkthatBuddhistsendorsesucha view.A goodplacetobeginin
doingthisis withtheconceptofnature, therealmthat,according to(2), humans
aresupposedto be 'one' with.It mightseemappropriate, then,tobeginwitha
questionsuchas thefollowing:
Q 1) Whatdo Buddhistsbelievenatureis?
This,however,is a poorlyformedquestion,and forseveralreasons.For one
thing,itis notclearwhothe'Buddhists'referred to are.Buddhismis, afterall,
a broadchurch, andBuddhists fromdifferent traditionsoftenbelievedifferent
thingsaboutnature.Indeedit cannotbe assumedat theoutsetof ourinquiry
thattheircomportment towardsnatureis bestunderstood 1
in termsof belief.
A further complicationis thatit is notobviouswhat,in thiscontext, theterm
'nature'means.It is notclear,forexample,whether Ql is meantto referto
nature-as-opposed-to-the-supernatural orto nature-as-a-realm-relatively-unaf-
fected-by-human-activity,ortosomeotherconception. Moreover, evenifwecan
specify what we meanby nature in the context,
present it is a further
question
whether anytraditionsof Buddhismhaveentertained sucha conception. For
instance,one would notbe in
justified assuming thatBuddhists havesubscribed
to thenotionthatrealitycan be dividedintotworealms,thesupernatural and
thenatural.
I willengagewithsomeof theseissuesbelow.Forthemoment, however,
I wouldliketo considerone answerto Ql thatis oftenimpliedin discussions
ofthetopic:
Al) believethatall thingsareempty.
Buddhists
The argument I intendto refute as follows.Sincetheybelieve
runs,therefore,
intheemptiness ofall things,
Buddhistsarecommitted totheviewthathumans
are in somesense'one' withnature;moreover, itis becausetheybelievethis
thattheytendto actwellintheirrelationswiththenaturalworld.

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AGAINST HOLISM

2.

Beforeconsidering theteachingofemptiness (Sanskrit: siinyata),somequali-


ficationsareinorder.First,theteachingis understood inseveraldifferent ways
within thebroadtradition ofBuddhism, withtheresultthatitcanbe misleading
to speakof theteachingof emptiness at all (see, forinstance,Harvey,1990:
104-118). I willbe treating theteaching ofemptiness as ithasbeenarticulated
intheMadhyamaka schoolofMahayanaBuddhism. Moreover, intheinterests
of keepingmyaccountas accessibleas possible,I will be presenting a very
simplified accountofthatteaching.
Second,itmustbe bornein mindthat,accordingto Buddhists, emptiness,
whatever itis (and,indeed,regardless ofwhether itcan properly be saidto be
anything atall),is notsomething thatcanbe adequately understood ina merely
intellectualway,butthatithasrather tobe experienced. So itis important atthe
outsetthatone be awareofhowmuch- or rather, howlittle- anyintellectual
accountofemptiness, suchas theone I willbe presenting below,might be able
to achieve.
How,then,is one to understand theteachingofemptiness? As so oftenin
thestudyofBuddhism, itis besttobeginwiththe'NobleTruths'identified by
theBuddha.The first oftheseTruthsstatesthatourlivesaren'tas satisfying as
theymightbe, arealwaysmarked, thatis, byduhkhaor suffering. The second
identifiesthecause of thisdis-ease,namely,ourinveterate tendency to crave
things,tolustafterthemortoseekobsessivelytobe ridofthem.2 Accordingly,
thepurposeofsomeofthemostimportant Buddhistteachings is toundermine
ourattraction orattachment tothethings we crave.Andthis,indeed,is thebasic
purposeoftheteachingofemptiness: to loosentheholdthingshaveuponus.
As theZen teacherYasutaniputsit,4Once yourealizetheworldof [emptiness]
you will readilycomprehend thenatureof thephenomenal worldand cease
clingingto it'(quotedinKapleau 1985:79).
According totheemptiness teaching, we cravethings(usingthisterminits
widestsense)becausewetendtoseethemas existing inthemselves, independent
bothof theirrelationsto otherthingsandof theirrelationto us. Thisis notto
saythattheworldis merelynothing, an absenceofthings. Theclaimis,rather,
thatwhatever existscannotdo so on accountofitspossessinga non-relational
essentialnature:things, as Buddhists say,areempty(sunya)of 'self-existence'
or 'own-being'(svabhava).Instead,itis saidthatanyparticular thingis whatit
is becauseofthecoincidence ofcertain conditioning factors. So onthisaccount,
themugofcoffeeon mydesk,say,is theparticular thingitis, notbecauseitis
imbuedwithaninherent nature, butbecauseoftherelations itbearsbothtoother
thingsandtome,theperceiver. IfI couldperceiveitas such,if,thatis,I could
see itforwhatitis - conditioned, impermanent, a partialreflection ofmyown
caffeine-addled mind- it,likeanything, wouldhaveless ofa holdon me.

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SIMON P. JAMES

3.

Thisis ofcoursethebarestsketchoftheteaching ofemptiness. I willhavemore


tosayaboutitbelow.Forthemoment, itwillsuffice tonotethat,condensedinto
sucha briefsummary, theteachingmightseemto havesomething incommon
withthepositionsespousedby modernproponents of environmental holism
('ecologicalholists',as I shallrefertothem).
The reasonsforthisconclusionare nothardto discern.Ecologicalholists
suchas Aldo LeopoldandArneNaess aredefinedas suchon accountof their
commitment to a holisticconception of thenaturalworld,accordingto which
anyelementof thatworldcan onlybe adequatelyunderstood in termsof its
relationstootherelements. And,inthis,theywouldseemtobe ofa piecewith
Buddhist thinkers. Fortosay,withNaessforexample,thatorganisms - ormore
generally, -
things mustbe conceivedas 'knotsinthebiospherical netor field
ofintrinsicrelations'(1999: 3) is (one mightsuppose)toconcurwiththeBud-
dhist'sviewthatall thingsarewhattheyareon accountofcertainconditioning
factors.One mightexpecttheecologicalholistandtheBuddhist toagreethata
tree,say,is nota hard-edged, independent object,buta nexusina webofrela-
tionsincluding, notjust so manytonsof wood and leaf,butthesoil,skyand
sun- even,perhaps,thenaturalenvironment as a whole.Moregenerally, one
mightconcludethatBill Devall is rightin suggesting that'Buddhistwisdom,
including theawarenessthateverything is relatedtoeverythingelse.. . isechoed
inthemodernscienceofecology'(1990: 161).
Andonemight, indeed,be tempted togo further. Foriftheseconclusions are
welltaken,onemight expectBuddhists toendorsewhat,forecologicalholists, is
oftenregarded as thecentrallessonofholism:thatwe- i.e.,us humans- should
be regardedas one withnature, notnecessarily in tunewithit,butpartsofor
evenidenticalwithit.One mighttherefore expectBuddhistthinkers toendorse
theviewheresummarised byone ecologicalholist:
[T]hecentral
intuition
ofdeepecology ... istheideathat
thereisnofirmontological
divideinthefieldofexistence.Inother words,theworldis simply notdivided
upintoindependentlyexistingsubjects andobjects,noristhere anybifurcation
inreality
between thehuman andnonhuman realms.Rather allentities
arecon-
stituted
bytheir (Fox,
relationships. 1999: 157;emphasis removed)
Furthermore, onemightconcludethatthisis whyBuddhismis an environmen-
tally-friendlyreligion:thattheBuddhist,liketheecologicalholist,considers
natureworthy of somekindof positivemoralconcernbecauseshe regardsit
as a holisticsystemwithwhichshe,andindeedall othernaturalthings, arein
somesense'one'. Indeedone mightbe tempted to endorsetheviewespoused
byonecommentator, thattheteaching ofemptiness as theviewthat
(interpreted
'nothing hasa separateexistence'),wheninternalisedthrough
practice,enables
us humansto'experience ourselvesandnature
as one'andso fosters'respectfor

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AGAINST HOLISM

thebeautyandpowerofnature'andtheflowering
ofan innate'biospirituality'
(Badiner,1990:xvi-xviii).

4.

impliedhere(I will call it The UnityThesis) runsroughlyas


The argument
follows:
Premise1. A holisticviewoftheworld,accordingtowhichhumansarere-
willnecessarily
gardedas being'one' withnature, environmental
engender
concern.
Premise2. TheBuddhist ofemptiness
teaching justsucha holistic
represents
viewoftheworld.
Buddhismis an environmentally-friendly
Therefore, religion.
The argument is valid(or rather,it couldeasilybe madevalidwereit to be
in
formulated morea carefulbut more cumbersome manner).Butis itsound?
Premise , foritspart,is oftenassumedto true,especiallyby writers
1 be
towardsthedarkgreenpole oftheenvironmental spectrum. Andthisassump-
tionis also madeinmuchoftheliterature devotedto 'GreenBuddhism'.So, to
giveoneofmanyexamples,theZen teacherThichNhatHanhclaimsthatsince
'humanbeingsandnatureareinseparable', 'we shoulddealwithnature theway
in
we shoulddeal withourselves...we shouldnotharmnature'(quoted Harvey,
2000: 151). Butthisdoes notfollow;indeed,Premise1 is false.
Itsfalsitymightnot,however, be obvious.After all,therearenodoubtsome
people,perhapsmany, who believe thatthey perhapshumansingeneralare
and
in somesenseone withnature, andwhoarethereby movedto actwellin rela-
tiontothenatural non-artefactual)
(roughly, environment. Butthereis noreason
to concludethatsomeonewho subscribesto sucha view must,of necessity,
adoptan environmentally-friendly attitude.
Considera proponent ofmaterial-
ism, someone us
(let suppose) who subscribestothe notion that
everything,she
included, is made of matter.
Such an individualclearly that
believes we areone
withnature(forher,thematerial universe),butthereis nogoodreasontothink
thatshe mustbe movedbya positivemoralregardforthenaturalworld.She
might be. Butshemightbe a terrible scourgeoftheenvironment.
Or considerSpinoza'sconviction thathumans,and indeedall things,are
ofa
parts singlereality, 'God or Nature' (Deus siveNatura).Despitebelieving
thathumansareinthisspecialsense'one' withnature, Spinozahimself was an
inveterate anthropocentrist. Herehe is:
... NotthatI denythat
thelower[i.e.,nonhuman] animals
havesensations.
But
I dodenythat wearetherefore
notpermitted toconsider
ourownadvantage,use
them atourpleasure,andtreat
them forus.(1996:135)3
as is mostconvenient

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SIMON P. JAMES

Despitehis conviction thathumansare 'one' withnature,Spinozamaintains


thatwe arejustified in doingwhatever we likewithourcousinsin theanimal
world.
The salientpointhereis thatgeneralclaimsabouthumanity's or
continuity
identitywiththerestof naturecan,in different hands,generatediametrically
opposedprescriptions forhowone oughtto treatthenaturalworld.4Andthe
upshotofthisis thatevenifitturned outthatBuddhistreferencestotheempti-
ness of all thingssignalleda holisticview of theworld,accordingto which
humansare 'one' withnature,thatin itselfwouldnotsufficeto demonstrate
thatBuddhismis environmentally-friendly.

5.

Thereare therefore groundsfordenyingthattheteachingof emptiness, even


ifitdid entailtheonenessof humansand nature, wouldnecessarily engender
anykindofpositiveregardforthenaturalworld.Therearegood reasons,that
is,forthinking thatPremise1 is false.
What,though, ofPremise2,theclaimthattheteaching ofemptiness indicates
an 'ecological'variety ofholism?One thingto note,injudgingtheveracity of
thisclaim,is that,formanyecologicalholists,tosaythathumansare'one' with
theworldthatsurrounds themis tosaythattheyaresubjecttothesameecologi-
cal laws,ofenergytransfer andthelike,as everything else.This,forinstance,
is partofAldoLeopold'spointinclaimingthatwe oughttoregardourselvesas
'plainmember[s] andcitizen[s]'oftheiand-community' (1949: 204).
The Buddhist accountis,however, quitedifferent.
Foronething, tosaythat
all thingsareemptyofself-existence is nottosay,inthemanner oftheecologi-
cal scientist,
thatall thingsarecausallyconnected, forsuchtalkwouldimply
preciselythatdegreeofdistinctness amongthingsthattheteachingofsunyatd
is meantto undermine (Cooper,2003: 48). Foraccordingto thatteaching, the
relationsbetweenthings(again,usingthetermin itswidestsense)are inter-
nal,whichis to saythatanyparticular thingwouldnotbe thethingitis in the
absenceof certainrelationsbetweenit and otherthings.As David E. Cooper
explains,'Justas therelatives ina familyrequireone another inordertobe the
cousins,brothers or whatever whichtheyare,so [accordingto theemptiness
teaching]things.. . in generalrequireone another inorderto be whattheyare'
(2003: 49).
Thisobservation doesnot,initself, fatallyundermine all attemptstoground
someconception oftheunityofhumansandnatureon theemptiness teaching.
Indeed,thatteaching doesentailthat,inonequiteparticular sense,humansand
theworld(ifnot,perhaps,nature)areinseparable. Foritis saidthattofullyap-
preciatetheteaching ofemptiness is torealise,notjustthatthings'outthere'in
theworld,areboundtogether byinternal butthatwhatwe taketobe
relations,

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AGAINST HOLISM

theworldis internally relatedtous,tothosehumanconcerns, perspectives and


'conceptualproliferations' thatarebrought intoplayin itspresenting itselfto
us as a worldinthefirst place(Burton, 2001: 179).Hence,pickingup,presum-
from such remarks as 4itis in ... andthoughts that
ably, scriptural perceptions
there is the the
world, origin of the world' (Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu
Bodhi,1999: 90), The DiamondSutramaintains thatmaterialobjectsare 'a
convention oflanguage'(Iyer, 1983: 27) and the Sixth PatriarchofCh'an(Zen)
that'all things were originally given rise to by man' (Yampolsky, 1967: 151).
Thisanti-realist tendency certainly furnishes a sense to the propositionthatthe
worldis notseparatefromhumanexistence, but thisis evidently not the sense
intended byecologicalholistssuchas Leopold.
And thereare stillotherdifferences betweenecologicalholismand the
teachingof emptiness. Consider,forexample,whattheworldof emptiness
mustactuallybe like.Thereis, ofcourse,a limitto howfarreflection can get
youhere:emptiness, recall,is something tobe experienced, ratherthanmerely
pondered.Indeed,theworldofemptiness, theworldas itappearsin awaken-
ing,is said to be ineffable. The upshotof thisis thatanyworldthatcan,as it
were,be 'effed'cannot,ontheBuddhist account,be theworldofawakening but
mustinstead(in linewiththeanti-realist conclusionscanvassedabove)reflect
certainunawakened concerns, perspectives, andso forth. This,in turn,means
thattheworldofecologicalscience,precisely becauseitis notineffable, must
to a certainextentreflect ourstateofunawakened ignorance (avidya).Indeed,
on theBuddhistview,anyworldwe can capturein words,whether naturalor
urban,is considered to belongto samsara,therealmofcravinganddelusion.
Andthis,foritspart,is saidtobe a realmfromwhichthewisewillseeklibera-
tion.Hencetheliberated person,farfromcelebrating hisor heronenesswith
therealmof nature, is one who is said to have 'overcome theworld',to have
overcomenature(Mascaro, 1986: 72).5
The viewsoftheecologicalholistandtheBuddhistareinthisrespectquite
different.It is certainly nottheaimof Buddhistpracticeto realisethatwe are
onewithnature inanything likethesenseidentified byecologicalscientists. But
the
although arguments developed above may suffice to demonstrate this,they
do not,inthemselves, refute Premise2. For,afterall,notall ecologicalholists
seekto groundtheirideas in science.While,as we have noted,manyfollow
Leopoldin appealingto thefindings ofecology,manyothersfollowNaess in
looking to holistic metaphysical systemsof thekindarticulated by thinkers
suchas Spinoza and Whitehead. We have seen that references to emptiness
bearscantresemblance totheholisticviewsespousedbyscientifically-minded
ecologicalholistssuchas Leopold.Mighttheyhavemoreincommonwiththese
metaphysical conceptions ofecologicalholism?Indeed,might theultimate aim
ofBuddhist practice be torealise,notone'scontinuity withthenatural worldas
describedbyecologicalscience,butone's unityor evenidentity withNature,
conceivedas realityas a whole?

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SIMON P. JAMES

Suggestions ofthiskindcertainly havea popularappeal.Itis oftensupposed


thattoawakentoNirvanais torealiseone'sunitywiththeuniverse. (Thenotion
is there,forexample,in thejoke abouttheZen masterandthehot-dogseller.
'Whatcan I getyou?'asksthelatter. 'Make meone witheverything,' theMas-
terreplies.)Populartheymaybe,butclaimstothiseffect arefalse.Fortalkof
becoming onewitheverything encourages theideathatthe'everything' referred
to is somekindof self-existent metaphysical whole,one thatexists'through
itself,like Spinoza'sDeus sive Natura.But forBuddhismany suchtalkof
self-existentAbsolutesevincesa failurefullyto appreciate theuniversality of
theteachingofemptiness. Forto saythatall thingsareemptyis notto saythat
theyare whattheyare in relationto some self-existent absolute,Emptiness.
On thecontrary, theemptiness teachingholdstrueofall 'things',so thateven
sunyatais saidtobe devoidofself-existence.6
So Buddhists do notaspiretorealisetheir'oneness'withthenature described
byecologicalsciencenor,indeed,withtheNaturereferred to byholistically-
inclinedmetaphysicians suchas Spinoza.But thereare yetmorereasonsfor
doubtingtheveracityof Premise2. For consider,once again,theecological
holist'sposition.The crucialthingto notehereis thatitis preciselythat,a po-
sition:theecologicalholistis clearlycommitted to a particular view(thatthe
worldis a network ofinterrelatedelements, andso on). Buddhistreferences to
theemptiness of things,however,mustbe interpreted differently.To be sure,
onemight be suspiciousofclaims,voicedbyZen Buddhists inparticular,tothe
effect thatsuchtalkhas no philosophical connotations; yetitmustbe admitted
thatitsprimary aimis notto articulatea positionthatcould,as itwere,be set
downon paperandsubjectedtocriticalevaluation. Although talkofemptiness
'does work'in theteachings ofBuddhism, itsfunction is essentiallypractical.
Itswork,inthecontext ofintellectualdebate,is nottoarticulate a positionbutto
exposetheemptiness of,andthusto loosenone's attachment to,anyparticular
-
position not, mightsay,to painta pictureoftheworld,butto loosenthe
one
gripanysuchpictureshaveon us. (Indeed,thiswas essentially theaimofthe
founding textof theMadhy amaka tradition,
Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarikd
{Fundamentals oftheMiddleWay).)1

6.

Premises1 and 2 of The UnityThesisare therefore bothfalse.Buddhisttalk


of emptinessdoes notimplya conception of holismof thekindespousedby
modern-day evenifitdidimplysucha conception,
ecologicalholists.Moreover,
thatwouldnotnecessarily engender anykindof positivemoralregardforthe
naturalenvironment.Whatis more,eveniftheteachingofemptiness entailed
ecologicalholismandecologicalholismentailedsomeformofenvironmental
concern,thatwouldnotjustifytheconclusionthatBuddhismas a wholeis

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AGAINST HOLISM

environmentally-friendly.Foras I notedearlier,we havebeenconsidering the


of
teaching emptiness as ithas been developed in one specific(yetinfluential)
Buddhisttradition, theMadhyamaka, and thegeneralconclusionwouldnot
thereforebe warranted.8
Admittedly,otherwritershavecriticised 'ecological'readings ofBuddhism.
Ian Harris,forone,has questionedwhether thereligionoughtto be regarded
as offeringa formofecologicalholism.('[M]uch thatmasquerades underthe
labelofecoBuddhism...'he concludes,'turnsoutto be an uneasypartnership
betweenSpinozism, NewAgereligiosity andhighly selectiveBuddhism'(2000:
132).)YetforHarristhesereflections castdoubtontheconclusionofTheUnity
Thesis,as well.He suggests,inotherwords,thatbecauseBuddhismis notpre-
an
senting environmentally-friendly formofholismitshouldnotbe thought of
as environmentally-friendlyat all (orat least,thatitshouldn'tbe thought ofas
beingas environmentally-friendly as itis oftensupposedtobe).
Butthisconclusionis unjustified. Forone thing,Buddhistsdo havesome
interesting to
things say about holism, andindeedsomethingsthatarerelevant
toenvironmental issues.9Furthermore, leavingasidetheissueofholism,there
is no needtoconcludethatbecausethepremisesofThe UnityThesisarefalse,
Buddhismcan havenothing tooffer environmental thinkers.ForperhapsBud-
dhismis,insomesense,environmentally-friendly - justnotforthereasonsset
outinThe UnityThesis.

7.

But ifnotto The UnityThesis,whereis one to turn?Whatotherbasis could


concernin Buddhism?
therebe forenvironmental
Hereitmaybe helpfulto recallthequestionwithwhichwe began:
Ql) believenatureis?
Whatdo Buddhists
Intrying torelatethatanswer
andintrying
toanswerthisquestion, toenvironmental
matters,we havebeenled to whatlookson thefaceofittobe a dead-end.
In viewofthis,itmaybe bestto beginanewwitha different question:
Q2) thinkone shouldlive?
How do Buddhists
Thisisa morepromising beginning.Afterall,theBuddhist donotfocus
teachings
on natureperse. Itis truethatancientsourcesprovideanelaboratecosmology;
however, nowhereinthescriptures canonefinda 'theory ofnature'inanything
likethemodernsense,one on a parwiththoseoffered byNeo-Darwinism or,
earlier,byAristotelian teleology.The focus is on
elsewhere, thequestionof
howone shouldlive in orderto attainfreedom on
fromduhkha.Speculations
natureareregarded as beingworthwhile onlytotheextentthattheybearupon
this,morepressingissue.

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SIMON P. JAMES

So,howdoBuddhists think oneshouldlive?Thisquestioncanbeapproached


fromseveralangles;however,one especiallyilluminating responsefocuses
on thosetraitsofcharacter that,accordingto Buddhism, one woulddo wellto
develop.Thusone answerto Q2 runsroughlyas follows.For Buddhists, one
shouldbe generous,compassionate, mindful, and so on - one woulddo well
to live a lifeexemplifying these'virtuous'character traits.Furthermore, one
shoulddeveloptheseparticular traitsbecauseof theirrelationto theultimate
goal ofawakeningfromsamsara.So one shouldbe generous, compassionate,
etc.,becausethesearethevirtues bywhichan awakenedlifeis marked.
The generalclaimhere,then,is thatBuddhismprovidesa conceptionof
thegood life(or whatis equivalent, humanwell-being)as wellas an account
ofthevirtuesbywhichsucha lifemaybe defined. The claim,in short,is that
Buddhismcanbe framed as a (eudaimonist) virtueethic,one similar,incertain
formalrespects, to Aristotle'sethicsor thatof theStoics.Now thisis a bold
proposal,and one thatwouldnotbe endorsedby all writers on thetopic.But
it is notmyaim hereto providea thorough defenceof it.10In theremainder
of thispaper,I willturninsteadto thetaskof examining the'environmental'
implications ofsomecandidateBuddhistvirtues. Mysuggestions inthisregard
cantherefore be regardedas contributions tothewiderprojectofdemonstrating
thatBuddhismcanyieldan 'environmental virtueethic'.11
1willnotbe able,in
thefewpagesremaining, toprovidean adequatedefenceofthislargerclaim.(I
willnotbe able,forinstance, todo justicetothedifferences betweenBuddhist
traditions onthesematters.) Nonetheless, I hopethatI maybe abletogivesome
indication as tohowsucha virtueethicaltreatment ofBuddhist environmental
ethicsmightproceed.12

8.

Let's beginwithcompassion{karuna).Translated intotheidiomofvirtueeth-


ics,theBuddhistview is thata disposition to feeland actcompassionately is
an integral
partofa good(i.e.,awakened)life.13 Atfirst
sight,thismightseema
banalobservation. Afterall,who,apartfromNietzscheans andsergeant majors,
doesn'tthinkcompassiona goodthing? Yetkarunaisdifferent from compassion
ofthecommonorgardenvariety, notleastbecauseitis saidto be an occasion
forbliss,ratherthansorrow(Buddhaghosa,1991: 310). Thismightseemsur-
prising,giventheBuddha'sassessment oftheamountofsuffering intheworld.
Yeton theBuddhistaccount,theawakenedindividualis notdepressedbythe
sufferingsof othersbecausehis sympathy is alwaystempered by non-attach-
ment.So although he feelsfor'samsaric'beings,he does not,so to speak,feel
theirfeelingsin thesamewaytheyfeelthem.Forthekindsoffeelingswe are
herediscussingare classifiedas duhkha,and thismeansthattheyare bound
up witha hostof self-centred delusions.Now an awakenedindividualmust

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AGAINST HOLISM

be able to recognise, ina comparatively detachedandobjectivesense,thatthe


feelingsof whatever beinghe is facedwitharedeludedin thisway;however,
in empathising with'samsaric'beingshe does notfindhimselfpartyto their
delusions.Hencehe does notsuffer in thesamewayas thosehe aimsto help
(Gowans,2003: 142).
Buthereis, perhaps,nottheplace fora detailedanalysisoftheconceptof
karuna.The important pointforthepresent discussionis thatifcompassionis
a virtue,thenit is, on theBuddhistaccount,one thatextendsnaturally to all
sentient beings,notjustto humans,so thatsomeonewhois compassionate in
hisdealingswithotherhumansbutnotinhisrelations withnon-human sentient
beingswouldnotbeconsidered genuinely compassionate atall.Hence,assuming
whatseemsobvious,thatsomenon-human animalsaresentient, karunacounts
as an 'environmental' one,thatis,thatmaybe associatedwitha positive
virtue,
moralregardforthenatural(roughly, non-artefactual) world.
As wellas beingcompassionate, a goodBuddhist is saidtoexemplify a cer-
taingentleness ofdisposition - nottimidity (think,forexample,ofthefearsome
figures portrayedinsomeoftheliterature ofZen),butanunwillingness tostamp
one's markupontheworld.Thisis partly a resultofthegreatemphasisplaced
on abidingby the'FirstPrecept'of Buddhistpractice,theinjunction against
intentionallykilling- or morebroadly, harming or injuring - sentientbeings.
ThegoodBuddhist takescarenottoharmherfellowtravellers insamsara,hu-
manornon-human. Butthisis notto saythatsheis gentleonlyinherrelations
withsentient beings.True,one wouldnotexpectherto spendherleisuretime
hunting foxesor shootingpigeons,butneitherwouldone expectto findher
tramping through thetemplegardens,kickingup thecarefully rakedsandor
carvingherinitialsintotheornamental rocks.On thecontrary, thewomanwho
is non-violentin herrelations withsentient beingswouldalso be gentlein her
dealingswithnon-sentient beings,withplants,evenrocks,and notjust with
humansandfoxes.Shewould,inthewordsofonecommentator, havedeveloped
a 'delicacy'towardshersurroundings (Herrigel,1999:79).
Thisgentleness, foritspart,is intimately relatedto a thirdBuddhistvirtue,
thehumility that,in the sutras,is said to correspond to the 'destruction' of
pride(mana) (e.g., Walshe 1995: 469). As with karuna, this differsfrom what
one mightordinarily thinkofas humility. To be sure,thehumblemandoes not
regardhimself as beingsuperior tohisfellows,butneither doesherankhimself
'worsethan,orequaltoanyone'(Saddhatissa1994:107;cf.110).To saythathe
is humbleis, rather, to saythathe has freedhimself fromtheself-centredness
evident,amongstotherthings,in a preoccupation withsuchself-estimation.
Indeed,no longerobsessedwiththerelation ofthingsorpeopletohimself, the
humblemanfindshimselfable to 'see otherthingsas theyreallyare' (Mur-
doch,1997:385), in their'thusness'(tathata).It seemsreasonableto suppose
thatsuchhumility wouldcounteract, notjustegoism,butalso thatvariety of
anthropocentric conceit,epitomised inSpinoza'sattitude towardsanimals,that

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SIMON P. JAMES

reckonsthingsonlyin relationto humansatisfaction. Thus,in one Buddhist


sutra,we are encouraged to thinkof cows, not as
only producers of milkand
'medicinaldrugs',butas 'ourgreatfriends' andas beingsendowedwiththeir
own'beauty'and'health'.A fewverseslater,thosewhokillandsacrifice cows
arerebuked forregarding themas nothing morethan' appendage ' toourlives
[s]
(Saddhatissa,1994:33-4).
A fourth Buddhistvirtueis, perhaps,thatof mindfulness (smrti)- an alert
awarenessof,amongstotherthings,feelings,thoughts and bodilysensations
(theriseandfallofthebreath, forinstance).In thecontext ofBuddhist practice,
a dispassionate awarenessof thesefactorsis thought to fostera senseoftheir
transience and,accordingly, freedomfromattachment (see further, Gowans,
2003: 189-91). Butas everin Buddhism, theabilityto do thisis notregarded
as beingofbenefit onlyto thepractitioner. Mindfulness is thought to go hand
in handwitha caringand attentive attitudetowardsothers.And,indeed,the
virtuewouldseemtobearuponone's comportment towardsthenaturalworld,
as well.Afterall,manyofus behavepoorlyinrelation totheenvironment, not
becausewe areuninformed aboutenvironmental issues, nor even because we
don'tcareaboutthem,butbecausewe do notpaysufficient attention tohowwe
areactingatanyparticular moment. I, forone,tendunthinkingly toleavelights
on in myhouse,to throwbeercans in thetrash,to leavetheTV on 'standby',
and so on. In doingthesethingsI am likethenovicewho,inone Zen story, is
scoldedbyhisteacherforthoughtlessly pouring bathwater on the bare ground,
ratherthangivingitto theplants(SenzakiandReps, 1971: 83^). Like com-
passion,gentleness and humility, thevirtuelackingin suchbehaviourclearly
hasimplications forourmoralrelations tothenatural world,evenifmorework
wouldbe neededto identify whatprecisely thoseimplications are.

9.

As I haveconceded,thisis merelya thumbnail sketchof a Buddhistenviron-


mentalvirtueethic.Nonetheless, I hopethatthegeneralthesisI havedefended
in thispaperis clear.To recap:I have suggestedthatBuddhismis, in certain
respects,anenvironmentally-friendly ButI havearguedthatthisis not
religion.
onaccountofthefactthatBuddhists believeweare'one' withnature inanything
liketheecologicalholist'ssense(whichtheydon't)andbecausesucha belief
necessarilyengenders environmental concern(whichitdoesn't).Instead,I have
madethetentative suggestionthat Buddhism is environmentally-friendly,
not
becauseofwhatitsaysaboutnature perse, buton account
of itsview ofhuman
life,and,in particular,
becauseof whatit saysaboutthevirtuesan ideal such
lifewouldexemplify. The goodBuddhisttreatsnaturewell,I haveargued,not
becauseshe believesshe is 'one' withthenaturalworld,butbecauseshe has,
through cometodevelopcertainvirtues
practice, ofcharacter.
She treatsnature

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AGAINST HOLISM

well,thatis,becausesheis compassionate,
gentle,humble,mindful,andso on,
notjustinrelationto herfellowhumans,butin herdealingswithall things.

NOTES

1Theviewthat a religion must bedefined interms ofthebeliefs itembodies isculturally


specific.
Compare Ninian Smart's assessment oftheimportance ofbeliefinChristianity
(1989:247)with GavinFlood'saccount ofthedifficulties facedbyanyattempt todefine
Hinduism interms ofa setofbeliefs (1996:12).
2Ormore ourtendency tocravewhat wetakethings tobe.SeeSection 5 below.
precisely,
Furthermore, I amusingtheterm 'things' hereina verybroadsensetodenote, notjust
materialobjects, butanyobjectofcraving,.
3Note1 toProposition 37 ofPart4. On theenvironmental ofSpinoza's
implications
thought,seechapters 11-13ofWitoszek andBrennan, 1999.
4Itcouldbecontended that isengendered
environmental concern notmerely bya com-
mitment totheviewthat humans andnature are'one',butbythefeeling ofbeing'atone'
withnature. Thispossibility isworth exploring: there are,nodoubt, allmanner ofways
inwhich onemight feelatonewithnature, someofwhich might certain
foster kinds of
environmental concern. Whether anysuchexperiences necessarily foster
environmental
concern is,however, another matter.After all,though talkofbeing'atone'withnature
tendstoconjure upimagesofbenign harmony, itis possible toconceive ofsomeone
whoactspoorly withhisdealings withnature butwhononetheless feels'atone'with
it.Think, forinstance, ofthetrophy-seeking hunter's feeling thatheis 'atone'witha
natureredintooth andclaw.
5Verse254.See further, Harris, 2000:122-123andSchmithausen, 1991:12-13.Such
statements must bebalanced against theview, embodied intraditions suchasZen,that the
world ofawakening is insomesenseidentical totheworld as itappears totheunawak-
ened.Ontheroots ofsuchviewsinMadhyamaka thought, seeHarvey, 1990:103-104.
Ontheir implications forourrelations withthenatural world, seeEckel,1997.
6See further,Abe,1989:128-129andRyoen, 1999:294.Thisis nottodenythatsome
Buddhisttraditions (notably,theYogacara andTathagata-garbha) havebeenmore amenable
to'metaphysical' readings ofsunyatd, according towhich itis notsimply anadjectival
qualityofthings, but'something' existing initsownright.
7AsJonardon Ganeri a
notes,metaphysical holism, according towhich theworld is 'like
a net,whereentities aremerely theknots ininterlocking ropes...acquiring whatever
capacitiesthey havebyvirtue oftheir relativeposition inthewholenetwork andnotin
virtueofhaving intrinsic properties''sitsill'withNagarjuna's 'scepticism' (2001:67).
8 Someecological holists maintain thattheBuddhist teaching ofconditioned arising
(pratiya-samutpdda), rather than thatofemptiness, indicates a form ofecological holism.
(Theteachings areinfactintimately related - seefurther, Musashi(1993:192-195).)
Onthedifferences between theteaching ofconditioned arising andecological holism,
seeCooperandJames, 2005:111.
9Fora discussion ofBuddhist holism anditsimplications forenvironmental ethics, see
James, 2004:Chapter 4.

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SIMON P. JAMES

10Fora detailed
defenceofthisclaim,see Keown,2001;CooperandJames, 2005:
Chapter4.
11Onenvironmentalvirtue seeSandler
ethics, andCafaro,2005.
12Fora moredetailed see and
account, Cooper James, 2005.
13Which that
isnottosay,ofcourse, thegenuinely
compassionate willbemoved
person
todevelopsuchdispositions
bya self-interested
wishto herself.
better On therelation
betweenvirtue
ethics, concern
environmental andself-interest,
seeJames,2006.

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