The Lorax Wears Saffron: Toward a Buddhist Environmentalism

Article excerpt

What does it mean to ordain a tree? Would the Buddha have imagined recycling to be a practice of metta? These kinds of questions are the product of the growing attention devoted to the intersection of Buddhism and ecology. For almost two decades, scholars have been examining this intersection of Buddhism and the environment-is it legitimate? How can it be articulated? Is it traditionally Buddhist? Is it a new form of Buddhism?

The field of Buddhism and ecology has grown gradually since the first anthology of Buddhist environmental writing, Dharma Gaia, appeared in 1990. Much of the scholarly work has addressed the ontological strands of Buddhist thought in an attempt to demonstrate that Buddhism is an "environmentally-friendly" tradition. Some of this work has simply focused on descriptions of Buddhist texts as "ecological," although other approaches have been more sophisticated, taking into consideration the cultural contexts of the Buddhism under examination. Not every scholar believes that Buddhism contains a sui generis environmental ethic and some have critiqued work on Buddhist environmentalism for twisting the tradition beyond recognition. Because the environmental crisis as it is currently perceived is a contemporary, or at least modern, phenomenon, the resources that scholars draw upon and the very way in which they define the tradition precedes and conditions (if not determines) their environmental reading of the tradition. Pragati Sahni describes the situation very well: "It is believed predominantly that nearly all Buddhist teachings in their application to the environment remain unclear and ambiguous. Thus, scholars at both ends of the spectrum have legitimate reason to trust their own interpretation and doubt others" (2).


A variety of different approaches have been taken in addressing the issues pertinent to Buddhism and the environment. Many of these approaches attempt to resolve environmental philosophy and ethics debates by applying Buddhist terms and doctrines. For example, Buddhist thinkers such as Joanna Macy and Deane Curtin have used Buddhist perspectives to argue against anthropocentric worldviews. Other Buddhist scholars seek to construct a uniquely Buddhist environmental ethic--an ethic that both justifies Buddhist concern for the environment and further argues that environmentalism is integral to or inherent in Buddhist practice. Examples of this approach run the gamut of renowned Buddhists from the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh to Zen roshis John Daido Loori and Robert Aitken.

Nonetheless, a handful of dominant concepts can be isolated from the growing corpus of research on the topic-concepts such as paticca-samuppada, metta, and anatta. Most of the essays optimistic about the possibility of a Buddhist environmental ethic proceed from one or more of these concepts, correlating them to similar ideas in ecology. They then marshal a set of excerpts from the canon as evidence that even the earliest periods of Buddhist literature (Jatakas, Theragatha, Agganna Sutta) have an ecological sense. Finally, they assert that Buddhists must be mindful of their impact on the earth and live in a way that reduces suffering for all beings. I have simplified what are often more nuanced arguments, but each of these steps tends to find a place in most articles on the subject.

In response to the growing body of literature on Buddhism and the environment, Ian Harris and Donald Swearer each have proposed typologies of eco-Buddhism. Swearer's typology, building upon Harris's, identifies five different eco-Buddhist positions: eco-apologist, eco-critic, eco-constructivist, eco-ethicist, and eco-contextualist:

   The first position [eco-apologist] holds that Buddhist
   environmentalism extends naturally from the Buddhist worldview; the
   second [eco-critic] that the Buddhist worldview does not harmonize
   with an environmental ethic. The third position
   [eco-constructivist] maintains that one can construct a Buddhist
   environmental ethic, though not coterminous with a Buddhist
   worldview, from Buddhist texts and doctrinal tenets; the fourth
   [eco-ethicist], that one should evaluate a viable Buddhist
   environmental ethic in terms of Buddhist ethics rather than
   inferred from the Buddhist worldview. …