Reflections on Buddhism and Deep Ecology

                                                                                                         by David Orton


            “Buddhism as practiced in most Asian countries today serves mainly to
             legitimize dictatorial regimes and multinational corporations.”
                                                                                Sulak Sivaraksa, p. 121

        Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, edited by Stephanie
        Kaza and Kenneth Kraft, Shambala, Boston & London, 2000, paperback,
        ISBN 1-57062-475-5

        I have just finished reading the above anthology of essays, Dharma Rain: Sources of
    Buddhist Environmentalism. Here Dharma, for Buddhism, means the teaching and the
    correct path. There is one Dharma, yet its cultural expressions differ. This is a book with
    over 70 separate articles, dealing with such topics as Buddhist traditional teachings,
    contemporary interpretations of the teachings, essays on Buddhism in the world,
    environmental activism as part of Buddhist practice, challenges within Buddhist thought and
    action, etc. I am not a Buddhist, although interested to learn more about this religion/
    philosophy which seems perhaps, of all the main religions,  to have had the most influence in
    North America on deep ecology and radical environmentalism. Deep ecology supporters,
    like John Seed, Bill Devall, Gary Snyder, Andrew McLaughlin  and Joanna Macy, have all
    been influenced by Buddhism. Has such influence been in the main positive or negative?

        On the positive side, Seed and Macy have, over the past years, organized many
    “Councils of All Beings” in different countries. The Self-realization of deep ecology and the
    interdependence tenet of Buddhism (and ecology) become fused in a moving ritual which
    helps  humans go beyond anthropocentric consciousness. The personal self becomes an
    ecological Self and comes to include all other beings and the planet itself. This breaks the
    illusion that we humans are separate from the rest of Nature. In Buddhism one cannot draw
    a firm distinction between “self” and the “world.” Deep ecology can learn from this. (The first
    Council of All Beings that I took part in was organized in the late 80s at a meeting in Vermont
    and led by McLaughlin.)

        Several essays in this anthology make an explicit link between deep ecology and Buddhist
    philosophy.  I have long felt that Buddhism has something to contribute to deep ecology,
    although what this was, previous to reading Dharma Rain, had not been apparent. After
    reading this book, it did become clear that Buddhism’s sense that appearances do not
    necessarily convey reality, engages with the deep ecology view of asking deeper questions
    and not staying on the surface of things.

        It will be remembered that Buddha himself sat under a Bodhi tree to achieve enlightenment.
    For Buddhism-influenced activists, perhaps trees have a special place in their world view.
    This diverse reader, Dharma Rain, seems to be an honest introduction to the promise and
    the contradictions of this religion. My essay, based on reading and then responding generally
    to the various writings in this anthology, tries to outline some reflections on what Buddhism
    seems to offer for deep ecology. This, notwithstanding the general tendency everywhere,
    that capitalist consumerism overwhelms Buddhism, as it does other religions.

    Spiritual Journeys
        My own “spiritual journey” has been an evolutionary one and is still unfolding. It has
    become more intense, and this is not because of growing awareness of my own approaching
    mortality. As a boy I was “unconsciously” raised as an Anglican. Then with later politicization,
    before becoming involved in the environmental movement, I came to a Marxist materialist
    belief in religion as an “opiate” and a view that people who were deeply religious, had in
    some mysterious way to myself, “parked their brains.” At the same time, one had to
    acknowledge that many religiously motivated people were motivated by their various religions
    to live moral lives and to carry out “good works” in the everyday secular world.

        Later, I came to see the importance of taking some personal responsibility for one’s own
    actions, e.g. living as simply as possible. This view of personal responsibility is opposed to
    a traditional “Left” view of tending to explain individual behaviours as totally socially
    determined. Like Gandhi (a Hindu), I have also seen the importance of an inner spiritual
    purification for the committed eco-warrior. The focus on personal spiritual understanding
    and overcoming material desires within Buddhism has attracted me. As one of the essays in
    this book notes, “It is the reduction of desires that constitutes development.” (Sulak
    Sivaraksa, p.183) This is also the fundamental critique of a never-ending capitalist

        I have come to see that the ecological crisis, and the mind-shift required to deal with this,
    will require all of us to come to terms with a re-sacralization of the natural world. There will
    be new forms of post-industrial animistic Earth-friendly societies, which existing religions can
    potentially contribute to, as they can impede. Point 6 of the Left Biocentrism Primer, a
    kind of summary of the Left tendency within deep ecology, notes:
        “Individual and collective spiritual transformation is important to bring about
    major social change, and to break with industrial society. We need inward
    transformation, so that the interests of all species override the short-term self-interest
    of the individual, the family, the community, and the nation.”

        Since September 11th, the power of religious fundamentalism (and the state-security
    responses to it), as a force for social and environmental change, has entered my
    consciousness. I have come to see that deep ecology supporters have to understand that
    millions of people orient their lives within religious frameworks of ethical beliefs.
    Notwithstanding any view of the opiate nature of religions, and notwithstanding the belief
    that, while the natural world is real - despite the critique of post modernism, the social
    world which fundamentally impacts the natural world is socially constructed. Religious
    beliefs help shape how various cultures impact their environments. Therefore an important
    part of any deeper ecological work is trying to understand how the various religions relate
    to the natural world, the place of humankind within it, and how to ecologically engage with
    this. All religions are clearly not the same in this regard. There needs to be a comparative
    religious quest for any “green” tendencies. Dharma Rain can contribute to this.

        Another “green” feature of Buddhism responds to the deep ecology interest in trying to
    show to others how the human species arose out of other life forms and hence an argument
    for our responsibility to ensuring the continuity of all life forms and their habitats, not just
    human life. Here the Vedic religions (Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism) with their beliefs in
    long term cyclic positions on karma and rebirth seem appealing - as opposed to the
    pro-natalist (more human births are good) and God/human-centered unilinear Abrahamic
    religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity). To be reborn in another life form seems a powerful
    argument, on the surface, to oppose anthropocentrism. Yet the idea of acquiring “merit”
    within karma by Buddhists, favours humans, as individuals, at the expense of other life forms.
    As a poem in one of the religious texts from the past graphically put it: “Because of your bad
    karma you were born a dog.” (Milarepa, p.37) A contemporary writer in the anthology
    makes it clear, for me, the discontinuity with deep ecology, where humans are not special,
    and “sentient beings” - those with the power of sense perception, have no superior
    ecological status:
    “Among possible rebirths the human rebirth is considered by far the most fortunate
    and favorable...Rebirth as a human being is valued because human beings, more than
    any other sentient beings, have the capacity for spiritual development that eventually
    brings the fulfillment and perfection of enlightenment.” (Rita M. Gross, pp.413-414)

        Ecologically aware Buddhists are attempting to outline what an “engaged Buddhism” or
    “eco-karma” would mean. Here is what one of the co-editors of this anthology has to say
    on this:
    “As new terms are auditioned and defined, one of the tests will be their compatibility
    with prior Buddhist tradition. Initially, an expansion of karma in an ecological
    direction does not seem to conform very closely to Buddhism’s past...Cardinal virtues
    such as nonviolence and compassion were applied to individual animals but not to
    species or ecosystems. At the same time, other features of Buddhism could be cited to
    justify the invention of eco-karma. Animals, for instance, have been regarded as
    subject to the laws of karma. In comparison with Western religious and intellectual
    history, that belief alone is a significant step away from anthropocentrism (human-
    centered thinking).” (Kraft, pp. 398-399)

        I have read several articles, not in this anthology, by Sulak Sivaraksa, a Buddhist from
    Thailand. He would be an example of an engaged Buddhist. His ecological and social
    analysis is compatible with left biocentrism, except that for him Buddhism provides the
    ultimate religious and philosophical rationale. A quote from Sulak introduces my own
    reflections in this essay.

        Although only discussed in Dharma Rain in passing, it has been pointed out by others,
    that in Buddhist life, women do not attain high positions. The problem of patriarchy, to an
    outsider, also seems evident, as in Catholicism, Islam, and orthodox Judaism.

        One of the things which puzzled me, looking into Buddhism via the Kaza/Kraft anthology,
    and from previous readings, was the contrast between the simplicity and meditative practice
    around the overcoming of material desires and the garishness of the statues and pictures of
    some Buddhist icons in the temples.

    Middle Way
        To avoid “extremes”, or to follow the Middle Way in all matters, is seen as essential to
    Buddhist practice. I believe this can foster a “Realo” or “stakeholder” approach to
    environmentalism. Yet in any stakeholder discussion forum that I have ever seen, some seem
    to have much more power than others. Also, only human/corporate interests are represented.

        What seems to have happened within deep ecology, is that many can come to a basic
    ecocentric world view. But a fundamental divide occurs over whether or not the activist
    works inside or in fundamental opposition to industrial capitalism. Buddhism, with its Middle
    Way, can seem to orient to the inside approach. In his essay “Deep Ecology and Political
    Activism” in Dharma Rain, Bill Devall speaks of the environmental movement as a “loyal
    opposition” and says, “Political revolution is not part of the vocabulary of supporters of the
    deep, long-range ecology movement.” (Devall, p.386) How can a supporter of deep ecology
    not be disloyal to the industrial capitalist paradigm of values and those institutions which
    perpetuate such values? Contrary to Devall, those who truly put the Earth first are

        Where I live in eastern Canada, one of the main alternative forestry voices, who is himself
    a trained forester, is a Buddhist. His practical forestry work on his woodlot/farm, which has
    been made available to the public, has been influential in the critique of the industrial forestry
    model. This forester conveys, personally, a compassionate yet “above it all”, “there are no
    enemies” attitude, which somehow I have to come to associate with Buddhism.  (I am an
    activist who believes that there has to be a “fire in the belly” and that there are Earth enemies,
    not just misguided people - although some people are certainly ecologically misguided.) As
    one of the essays in this anthology reminds us, compassion must not negate passion: “If one
    is trying to be too kind the passion is watered down.” (Titmuss, p.259)

    Buddhist Economics
        Buddhism can be subversive to capitalist economics. This is shown in one of the essays
    in Dharma Rain where it is pointed out how in the 50s in Thailand, the government prohibited
    the Buddhist monks from teaching “austerity” or “contentment with what one has” because
    this “was seen as an obstacle to economic growth.” (Pipob Udomittipong, p.191) From the
    government’s perspective, Buddhism was to focus on ritual not doctrine.

        For left biocentrists, Earth-centered societies need entirely different economies. Buddhism
    has something to teach in this regard. E. F. Schumacher wrote about what he called “Buddhist
    economics” in the early 70s. Any search for an alternative green economics to that of
    capitalism or socialism with their multiplication of human wants, needs to acknowledge this.
    The concern with “Right Livelihood”, itself part of the Buddha’s “Eightfold Path” is fleetingly
    sketched within E. F. Schumacher’s classic Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as
    if People Mattered. Buddhist economics, according to Schumacher, seeks to move human
    societies away from the acquisition of material things to the cultivation of personal inner
    growth. Schumacher himself was, apparently, not a Buddhist but a supporter of Catholicism.

         In Small is Beautiful, the author notes: “From the point of view of Buddhist economics,
    therefore, production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of
    economic life, while dependence on imports from afar and the consequent need to produce
    for exports to unknown and distant peoples is highly uneconomic and justifiable only in
    exceptional cases and on a small scale.” (p.49)

        Schumacher also points out how modern economics does not distinguish between
    renewable and non renewable goods because monetary price is used to quantify everything
    under capitalism. But for a Buddhist economics, “Non renewable goods (e.g. coal, oil,
    natural gas), must be used only if they are indispensable, and then only with the greatest care
    and the most meticulous concern for conservation. To use them heedlessly or extravagantly is
    an act of violence...” (p.50)

        Important for a critique of capitalist individualism is the Buddhist view that the self has no
    existence. But, I believe, one can also see a potential tendency within Buddhism towards
    narcissism. The editors of this anthology make the point, “Do Buddhist principles support
    liberation for institutions as well as individuals?” (Kaza and Kraft, p.6)

        Deep ecology supporters should be sympathetic to Buddhism. It can contribute to the
    humbling of human arrogance, necessary for fundamental ecological change. Buddhism, unlike
    the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, is a religion/philosophy which is
    non-theistic and with no transcendental Creator or God. This anthology of articles makes it
    apparent that there are various schools of Buddhism with their differences. So generalizations
    by outsiders such as myself, need to keep this in mind. One left bio, himself influenced by
    Buddhism, in commenting on the draft of this article, noted that “The claim is that realizing the
    true nature of reality transforms one’s being in such a way that compassionate action comes

        Buddhism seems a highly ethical religion, with a sense of intrinsic values, yet ultimately the
    ethics remain human centered. For Buddhism, the “self” is a cosmic self and this is in
    fundamental alignment with deep ecology. The capitalist “self” so celebrated in this culture, is
    for Buddhism an illusion and the source of suffering.

        Buddhism is not a “dominion” religion towards Nature but, as has been noted, state
    incorporation can bring this about. Buddhism, it seems, can help the religious activist find the
    inner strength or moral courage to go out and help change this world. But there are no actual
    useful models of Buddhist politics, from a deep ecology and social justice perspective. Yet
    Buddhism can contribute to a different version of what it means to be a person, with a stress
    on interdependence with the universe, not independence. While the concern with an inner
    spirituality is important, this must not become a retreat from worldly engagement. Buddhism
    can help us become awakened to the needed re-sacralization of the Natural world.

    November, 2002

     Acknowledgement: Thanks to a number of members of the internet discussion group left bio, who critically
     commented on the draft.

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