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Buddhist Values & Environmental Awareness in Modern Times

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

This thesis explores how Buddhist values and spiritual concepts promote environmental awareness and sustainability. Buddhism, as philosophy and practice, can be useful in the present face of climate change. Buddhism is a religion that offers insights on moral and ethical virtues, such as compassion and non-violence, which are necessary for achieving a more sustainable and just future. The paper will first explore these Buddhist values and the precepts and teachings behind them, such as the Eight Fold Path. The Eight Fold Path is what the Buddha taught for obtaining enlightenment and includes a set of principles that promote respect for all living creatures. The teachings include right understanding, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and meditation. Buddhist practices can equip one with the awareness of the subtleties of nature. Solitude and being in nature facilitate meditation and reaching an enlightened state. The theory of dependent co- origination can contribute to our understanding of ecology and how we are all interconnected. Thich Naht Hahn argues that “inter being” is a basis for environmental sustainability. However, there are many critics that disagree with this. Rather they believe that “eco-Buddhism” is a modern Westernized concept or interpretation of Buddhism. There are many movements and organizations throughout the world following Buddhist values on their mission for a more sustainable development.

Buddhism gives us the means to respond to capitalism and consumerism, which is

a primary culprit of environmental destruction. Not only must humanity work to address climate change, but must also recognize the underlying societal issues and problems that contribute to it. This requires the redefining of our values and social systems, which Buddhism can influence.

Buddhism has evolved over the last few thousand years over a range of cultural and geographical locations. It represents both a religion, a philosophy and an ethical code. “offering a way for individuals to perceive, understand and take responsibility for themselves, and ultimately for others” (Byrne, 2006, p. 117). According to Barnhill, consumerism goes against Buddhist values and ethics (2002). Consumerism has contributed to the syndrome of constantly being busy, distracting ourselves through the media, internet, shopping and consuming, while Buddhism makes us more aware of our state of mind and reflecting on the nature of our reality, to confront it directly (Barnhill, 2002). Buddhist practices help us to slow down through meditation and becoming more aware of the values and ethics that drive our actions. Non-violence, compassion, awareness, non-attachment, simplicity and understanding are Buddhist values that can positively influence society and promote individuals to become more aware.

The Eightfold Path includes right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration, and right mindfulness. Compassion underpins all of the virtues and forms the mainstay of Buddhist practice. More specifically, in Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is linked to compassion for oneself as well as others. An arahat (one who is worthy) achieves enlightenment but they have not achieved full Buddhahood. However, a bodhisattva forestalls one's own enlightenment in

order to help others achieve liberation from the cycle of samsara (the cycle of existence) – this the ideal for achieving true Buddhahood. Knowing that we all have Buddha nature helps us to recognize our kinship with other people, animals and our natural environment.

The virtues of loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), empathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha) make up the four sublime attitudes or brahmaviharas of Buddhism. Loving kindness is infused with compassion for all those who suffer. According to Dissanayake, these four basic social emotions highlighted by the Buddha have a direct bearing on the idea of social harmony (1983). Cooper and James discuss how loving kindness and empathetic joy may make one “prone to a certain kind of moral myopia”, becoming absorbed in others joy and disregarding the vast amount of suffering outside of one's scope (2005). However, it would be impossible to ignore the widespread suffering of the world if one recognizes the fact that in life there is suffering. The Four Noble Truths state: (1) the truth of suffering; (2) the cause of suffering is ignorance, attachment and desire; (3) the truth of the end of suffering; and (4) the Eightfold Path that leads to the cessation of suffering. This awareness of dukkha (suffering) and the resolution to elicit compassion can help Westerners evoke a sense of responsibility and oneness with other humans. These virtues can also be extended to animals as well as our environment. Human beings, animals and nature interact and are interconnected, which is also exemplified in the Jataka tales demonstrating human and animal kinship. Animals are considered sentient beings, possessing Buddha nature. In Thailand, Buddhist temples often feed stray animals as an extension of loving kindness and compassion.

This brings us to another primary virtue of Buddhism, which includes ahimsa or

non-violence. This is one of the yogic yamas or practices of self-regulation under the eight limbs of yoga. Non-violence also forms the basis of Jainism, as this concept is originally from the Vedas. Ahimsa extends beyond humans to animals, our ecosystem and all creatures in it. The aspiration of Buddhist monks is to reach a stage where they act, as well as think and feel in a non-violent manner (Cooper and James, 2005). Not killing or doing harm is a central Buddhist virtue and ethic interconnected with compassion and loving kindness. Many Buddhists thus adopt a vegetarian diet. This has a positive impact in reducing global emissions, as livestock contributes to almost 15% of global greenhouse emissions.

According to Cooper and James, non-violence is “marked by wisdom that fosters an impartial view of the world in which all sentient beings are viewed with equanimity” (2005, p. 102). It's a mistake to assume that non-violence is only applied to other sentient beings – someone who is gentle and compassionate by nature would surely not be violent and brutal in his interaction with non-sentient beings (Cooper and James, 2005).

Buddhist virtues of compassion and non-violence stand in stark contrast to Western capitalism, which exonerates competition, greed and selfishness. Privatization, accumulation and hoarding of natural resources has contributed to our current state of affairs. These are similar to the three poisons in Buddhism of greed, hatred and delusion. Confronting climate change must therefore entail a change in the moral fabric of our society. Buddhist values of compassion, loving kindness, non-violence and equanimity are the antithesis of capitalism and must form the basis for solutions.

There are many examples of Buddhist organizations and communities across the

world contributing to positive change and sustainability through their work based on such values. For example, in Sri Lanka the Savrodaya Shramadana Movement is based on Buddhist principles. Sarvodaya, a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi, is Sanskrit for “universal lift” or “progress for all”. It is a self-governance movement founded by A.T. Ariyaratne in 1958 on Buddhist principles (Perry, 2006). Objectives include sustainability and development in line with local culture and practices (Dissanayake, 2010). The ethical work underlying the movement has a distinct Buddhist angle (Dissanayake, 2010). The virtues of loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), empathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha) “constitute the moral building blocks of the Sarvodaya movement” (Dissanayake, 2010, p. 88). Public meditation is a part of Sarvodaya communities with Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians all participating (Dissanayake, 2010).

Sustainable development is seen within a Buddhist lens, encompassing compassion, reason, peace, kindness, social harmony and non-violence (Dissanayake, 2010). They conducted participatory surveys in over 600 villages in Sri Lanka where residents listed their ten most urgent needs (Mackintosh, 2009). A clean environment was listed as the most urgent and important of needs among villagers of the movement (Mackintosh, 2009).

In Thailand, the Santi Asoke Buddhist Movement promotes environmental awareness, self-sufficiency and simplicity. Santi Asoke means “Peaceful Asoka” and has grown into a handful of self-sustaining communities founded by Phra Bodhirak in 1975 after leaving the official national Sangha (Harvey, 2015). The aim of the movement is not to “attain high levels of material comfort but to release attachment to the material world

and attain spiritual freedom” (Essen, 2005, p. 155). Their way of right living is in line with Buddhist principles, and aims to revive the forest monk ideal of simple living and self-sufficiency (Essen, 2005). They promote natural organic and ecological farming. They govern their own communities, schools, nursing facilities, vegetarian restaurants, and health clinics where they use alternative healing, such as acupuncture and herbal medicine. They also have shops where they sell items needed by local communities at or below cost while also offering free meals to those in need. Outreach programs provide basic needs for people, including food, medicine, clothing and shelter. They run a printing press, radio stations, and workshops related to Buddhism, art, music, farming, soap making, and herbal medicine. Standing in the face of consumerism, the communities value an approach that focuses on sustainability and livelihoods and is “endogenously inspired, implemented and maintained” (Essen, 2005, pp. 169). The movement has over 10,000 members and offers an alternative vision of economic development based on the way of the Dharma, including wisdom, morality and concentration (Essen, 2005).

The King of Thailand promotes the “sufficiency economy philosophy” (SEP), an alternative development approach similar to “Buddhist Economics” promoted by E.F. Schumacher. The Sufficiency Economy puts sustainability and Buddhist values at the center. It acts as a guide to development that includes the three themes of wisdom, moderation and prudence. The Middle Way is the foundation, which is the Buddhist understanding of moderation and avoiding extremes as a way of reducing inequality and poverty.

Finally, Engaged Buddhism was influenced by Thich Naht Hanh and refers to Buddhists addressing environmental as well as social and political issues. It started in

Vietnam and has spread to the West. Through the lens of engaged Buddhism, we can question our own complicity in the capitalist system. According to Barnhill, engaged Buddhism offers us a social and political alternative to capitalism and consumerism based on generosity, compassion and wisdom (2002).

Buddhism recognizes the impermanence of all things and promotes non- attachment to our transient world. A rich monastic tradition invites us to live a life of simplicity and free from attachment (Barnhill, 2002). However, Barnhill also argues that while the monastic tradition has offered a “model of a non-consumer lifestyle, it does little to affect the industrialized world's accelerating exhaustion of natural resources” (2002). Barnhill critiques capitalism and outlines how Buddhist views of mutual co- arising and compassion, along with techniques, such as meditation and mindfulness, can help us transform ourselves but not necessarily our consumer culture (2004). Nonetheless, Buddhism reminds us to practice non-attachment to the ego, to materialism, to the senses and to both negative and positive emotions. We must shift the underlying value system of American society, and Buddhism helps to substantiate the cultivation of values such as compassion, non-violence and empathy towards beings and non-beings alike. Through non-attachment to material things and voluntary simplicity, we can break the chain of our connection to materialism.

Another Buddhist concept that has been used when discussing Buddhism and ecology is paticca-samuppada, which refers to dependent co-origination or mutual causality. The origin of all things is dependent on causes and conditions. Interdependence

of all things supports our understanding of ecology, which views nature as a connected system. People, organisms, communities, and the ecosystems interact with one another. This is exemplified with the rapid loss of species, extinctions and global climate change. The Avatamsaka-sutra demonstrates interconnectedness through the visualization of a Jewel Net of Indra from the Hua-Yen School of Buddhism, where each jewel reflects the other jewels in the net – the jewels are interwoven and interlinked. As Barnhill points out, whatever we do has an impact and the realization of interdependence “can lead to a chilling sense of one's negative impact on the planet” (2002, p. 58). The Buddhist understanding of interdependence also underlies the concept of karma, which relates to the impact of our actions. Everything we do has an effect. The doctrine of karma brings attention to the importance of motive and intent (cetana) (Byrne, 2006).

Some researchers complain of “green Buddhism” as a modern concept detached from Buddhist tradition and intentionally construed to be eco-friendly (Cooper and James, 2005). Ives offers a thorough overview of the “greening of Buddhism”, including debates around paticca-samuppada and explores criticisms of eco-Buddhism, including how “interdependence” has been misinterpreted, that early Buddhist texts encourages disengagement, rather than engagement and reverence for nature (2016). Cooper and James argue that what makes Buddhism more ecological is not interconnectedness or interdependence, but the human virtues Buddhism extols, such as compassion, non- violence and detaching from one's ego. Kaza's research (2000) explores the greening of Buddhism, as well as Buddhist teachings underpinning the US environmental movement.

The practice of eco-Buddhism has been championed by such activists as Thich

Naht Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Suzuko, and others. Eco-Buddhists believe that everything in the world is connected with everything else, and that by being aware of this interdependence means we should take responsibility for the environment. Some eco- Buddhists quote traditional teachings and text to show Buddhism has always valued nature. While, nature was praised as a place for stillness, solitude and silence, Pali canon also portrayed wilderness as dangerous with predators (Ives, 2016). Early Buddhism was more about letting go of one's attachment to nature and seeing all things as impermanent (Ives, 2016). However, many eco-Buddhists are basing their beliefs on later Mahayana texts. Though Buddhism arrived in the West during the mid 1800s, eco-Buddhism became popular during the 1970s alongside ecological activism (Kaza, 2000). Many don't feel the need to respond to skeptics, but rather stay focused on their activism (2016).

The Buddha obtained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Trees are revered in nature and are respected as living things. In Thailand, Buddhist monks ordain trees in recognition of their sacredness and as a symbol of protection of the forests. Rapid development has meant vast amounts of deforestation and Thai monks are serving a dual purpose, also acting as environmental activists promoting conservation. Such practices with Buddhist roots represent practical steps towards addressing climate change (Strain, 2016) and are “symbolic acts of resistance” (Strain, 2016, p. 152). The tree ordination is a way to protect the remaining biodiversity and brings attention to sustainability as an alternative to the Western model of development based on natural resource exploitation (Strain, 2016). Such acts are tools needed in the face of climate change.

Buddhist practices such as meditation can also be a useful tool with Buddhists

roots. Meditation can promote equanimity and peace in the midst of chaos. Barnhill continues:

Our primary spiritual location is in the thick of things, smack in the middle of the endless round of craving and discontent, morally responsible to it (we are called to work against it) and morally responsible for it (in the sense of participating in it). (2002, p. 60)

According to Barnhill, “one is centered not only in the psychological sense of being undisturbed, but also in location – centered in the middle of craving” (2002, p. 60).

Climate change brings attention to a systematic, moral and spiritual crisis that all of humanity faces, regardless of ethnicity, class or geographical region. In the face of climate change, we have much to learn from this ancient religion that can put us on a path to a better understanding of our surrounding environment. Buddhist virtues of loving kindness, compassion and non-violence are inherently the antithesis of values esteemed within capitalism and the root cause of our environmental destruction. Evoking such values promotes environmental awareness and protection. Such virtues form a Buddhist ethical approach to environmental concerns (Cooper and James, 2005). Buddhist values contribute to a virtuous world-view in line with nature. Buddhist values and methods can be utilized by many, regardless of their faith, to increase our environmental awareness. They can be integrated into holistic development models that go beyond traditional models of economic growth to embrace ethics, values and concern for our environment.

Works Cited

Barnhill, David Landis. 2004. “Good Work: An Engaged Buddhist Response to the

Dilemmas of Consumerism." Buddhist-Christian Studies 24, no. 1, pp. 55-63. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Byrne, Cathy. 2006. Would a Buddhist Freeze a Cane Toad? An exploration of the modern phenomenon of environmental Buddhism and the ethics related to the doctrine of ahimsa (non-harming). Contemporary Buddhism 7, no. 2, pp. 117-127. New York: Routledge.

Cooper, David and James, Simon. 2017. Buddhism, Virtue and Environment. New York: Routledge.

Essen, Juliana. 2005. “Right Development”: The Santi Asoke Buddhist Reform Move- ment of Thailand. MD: Lexington Books.

Harvey, Peter. 2015. An Introduction to Buddhism, 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ives, Christopher. 2016. Buddhism: A Mixed Dharmic Bag: Debates about Buddhism and Ecology. Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology. New York: Routledge.


James, Simon P. 2003. Zen Buddhism and the Intrinsic Value of Nature. Contemporary Buddhism 4, no. 2, pp. 143-157. New York: Routledge.

Kaza, Stephanie. 2000. To Save All Beings: Buddhist Environmental Activism, in En- gaged Buddhism in the West, ed. Christopher S. Queen, pp. 159-83, Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Mackintosh, Craig. 2009. Letters from Sri Lanka – The Sarvodaya Shramadana Move- ment and the Ten Basic Needs. The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia.

Mongsawad, Prasopchoke. 2010. The Philosophy of the Sufficiency Economy: A Contribution to the Theory of Development. Asia Pacific Development Journal 17, no. 1, pp. 123-143. New York: UN Economic and Soical Commission for the Asia and Pacific.

Strain, Charles R. 2016. Reinventing Buddhist Practices to Meet the Challenge of Cli- mate Change. Contemporary Buddhism 17, no. 1, pp. 138-156. New York: Routledge.

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