Avoiding Unintended Harm to the Environment and the Buddhist Ethic of Intention (1)

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This paper reflects on how the mainly intention-based ethics of Buddhism relates to issues of causing unintended harm across a range of issues of relevance to environmental concern, such as species protection, resource depletion and climate change. Given our present knowledge, is environmental concern to be seen as morally obligatory for a Buddhist or only a voluntary positive action? Writers sometimes simply assume that Buddhist ethics are supportive of the full range of environmental concerns, but this needs to be critically argued. The paper reflects on a range of principles of traditional Buddhist ethics, both Theravada and Mahayana, and concludes that, in the present world context, Buddhist considerations urge not only that we should not deliberately harm any living being, but that we should also look after the biosphere-home that we share with other beings, by using our knowledge of unintended effects of our actions to modify our behavior, and that we should act positively to benefit others beings, human and non-human, and enhance their supportive environment. The paper also considers issues such as Buddhism's attitude to wild nature, industrialization and "progress."


What kind of world do we want to live in--and what kind of world are we helping to create? What reflections and considerations are most relevant in helping to motivate Buddhists, and those respectful of Buddhist ideas, toward taking greater care of the environment? Should the emphasis be on avoiding harmful actions, and the bad karmic results that come from such actions, or on doing environmentally beneficial actions, perhaps seen as generating good karma? Does Buddhism give sufficient emphasis on avoiding indirect, unintended harm?

The Relevance of Intention

Regarding the nature of Buddhist ethics, it is often stressed that it is one of intention, karma being the impulse or act of will behind an action: "It is will (cetana), O monks, that I call karma; having willed, one acts through body, speech or mind" (A.III.415). For many monastic rules, there is no offense if the relevant action was "unintentional" (asancicca). Thus there is no offense in killing a human if it was "unintentional ... for one not meaning death" (Vin.III.78), for example, if a stone is accidentally dropped on someone during building work (Vin.III.81). Moreover, as Andrew Huxley has shown (1995), the Kurudhamma Jataka (J.III.366-381) emphasizes the idea that, at least in a lay context, unintended harm to others should not be counted against one, and it is not wise to agonize over such matters, such as a king who ceremonially fires arrows in the air, and losing track of one, worries it might have landed in a lake and killed a fish (p. 194-195).

For a number of monastic rules, (2) it is actually specified that there is no fault if the action is "unintentional, for one who lacks mindfulness (asatiya), not knowing"--i.e., being "absentminded" or perhaps "careless." This no-fault clause applies, for example, in the case of the Pacittiya offenses of digging the ground, destroying vegetable growths, sprinkling with water known to contain life, and killing a living being (Vin.IV.33, 35, 49, and 125). In a few Vinaya cases, though, the behavior of a reckless nature is specifically condemned. When some monks, in fun, throw a stone down Vultures Peak, and it ends up killing a man, they are guilty of a wrongdoing, though not the full Parajika offense that would entail expulsion from the monastic order (Vin.III.82).

Moreover, poor mindfulness does not always excuse a person, particularly regarding matters where intention is not needed for an offense to take place. In the Vinaya Parivara, one of the ways that a monk might fall into an offense is "through confusion of mindfulness (satisammosa)" (Vin.V.102 and 194). In such cases, the American Theravadin monk Thanissaro says (1994:24-25)

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