Buddhism Environment Ethics Essay Ideas

Introductory Remarks

Someone who studies Buddhism without practicing meditation has also accumulated knowledge only as decoration. We hold our own fate in our own hands. We have the capacity to practice until all concepts about birth and death, and being and non-being, are uprooted.

—Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart

Many Americans are currently seeking Truth, visiting classes in philosophy one after another, and studying meditation under various Oriental teachers. But how many of these students are either willing or able to cut through to the tree’s very core? Scratching half-heartedly around the surface of the tree, they expect someone else to cut the trunk for them.

—Nyogen Senzaki, quoted in Nine-Headed Dragon River,
by Peter Matthiessen

Only those thoroughly concerned with life and death need enter.

—Sign above the gate to Eiheiji Temple, Japan

Course Description

This course is an introduction to the relationship between Buddhism, ecology, and society. In doing so it provides a Buddhist perspective on ecological and social thought and an ecological and social perspective on Buddhism. We will explore parallels and divergences, and how each can enrich and critique the other.

We will begin the course with an overview of basic Buddhist ideas and central aspects of the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment. We will then turn to an ecosocial history of Buddhism, examining ways in which certain Buddhist leaders and schools have relevance to environmental and social thought. These sections allow us to explore Buddhism’s relationship to several major schools in contemporary ecosocial thought. Finally, we will consider forms of contemporary ecosocial Buddhist activism. Throughout the focus will be on the complexity of the Buddhist tradition and of its relationship to ecology.

Our goal is both to understand and to critically assess Buddhist ideas, experience, and activism. We will discuss the significance and profundity of the Buddhist worldview and environmental action and also engage the problems they present. The point of the course is to develop an initial sense of the meaning and value of this alternative way of viewing and interacting with the natural world.

This course is an advanced introductory course-introductory in that I assume you know nothing about the subject, advanced because it is a demanding class not normally suitable for first-year students. It counts toward the Humanities or Intercultural Studies core requirements, and toward the Intercultural Studies-East Asia, Environmental Studies, and Peace and Conflict Studies concentrations.

This course is a discussion class and your preparation for class discussion is critical to its success. Many of the assignments have study questions that will assist you in your preparation for class discussions. Students are required to respond to the questions and hand them in at the end of discussion.


  1. Introduction to Buddhism
    The most obvious goal is to introduce you to Buddhism, in particular, that form of Buddhism we can call meditational [as opposed to, say, pietistical].

  2. Introduction to Another Culture
    A more general goal is to introduce to you a way of looking at the world and living within the world that is different from what we are used to in the modern West. As such, this course is part of Guilford’s Intercultural Studies Program, which is based on the belief that any educated adult in this country needs to have some significant exposure to cultural values that differ from our own.

  3. Introduction to Contemporary Ecosocial Philosophy and Spirituality
    Major issues, ideas, and schools of thought.


  1. Critical Thinking
    An even more general, and perhaps more important goal, is to develop critical inquiry. That is, we will focus on developing the ability to think critically: to understand why someone has her or his ideas and values, to critically judge those ideas and values, and to understand why you judge them the way that you do.

  2. Effective Writing
    Interrelated to the previous goal is the development of your ability to write. One of the primary ways of learning to think is learning to write. Through clear, correct, probing, and persuasive writing we learn to develop and express good thinking. The two papers will be peer edited and rewritten.

  3. Speaking-and-Listening
    Another crucial way to develop good thinking is to develop the ability to think on your feet [or from your seat], that is, to discuss your ideas with others. Good discussion, like good writing, is a skill we need to continually work on. Because of the experiential character of this course, class discussion (e.g., small discussion groups) will play a prominent role.

  4. Interpersonal Skills
    We will develop interpersonal, cooperative skills primarily in two ways: discussion and peer editing. We will work on class discussion as a cooperative inquiry, consciously reflecting on what it takes to work together effectively in such a setting. Peer editing also is a cooperative way to develop writing skills.

Guilford’s Five Principles

  1. Innovative, Student-Centered Learning
    This is a discussion based course rather than a lecture based course. Students read material before coming to class and critically discuss the views and issues involved in class. Discussions are in both full-class sessions and small-group settings. In addition, students act as peer editors. Approximately 20% the grade concerns their participation and leadership in class discussions. The ultimate focus of the class is not the reception of knowledge but the development of student’s own views and thinking.

  2. Creative and Critical Thinking
    Part of the creative thinking in this class is found in its application of Buddhism to ecological and social theories and issues. The entire course is focused on active, critical thinking, with students analyzing assumptions and implications and critically evaluating Buddhism within the context of ecological and social issues.

  3. Cultural and Global Perspectives
    The course is intercultural in its examination of a religion that arose within the Asian context, but which is increasingly important in the West. Students consider the issue of cross-cultural adaptation of an Asian religion, critically examine Buddhism from a Western perspective, and critically examine traditional Western views from Buddhist perspectives.

  4. Values
    The course emphasizes the question of value, particularly ecological and social values and ways that Buddhism may or may not be relevant to developing values in contemporary society.

  5. Practical Application
    The course does not directly involve practical application in the sense of students doing work outside of the classroom. However, the course is directly concerned with the practical application of values first at a cultural level and then at a personal level. Instead of theory-building, the fundamental issue of the class is answering the question: How should we as individuals and as a collective culture live our lives in relation to the environment and society?

Buddhism Introduction

Center for the Study of World Religions
Harvard Divinity School
Religions of the World and Ecology Series
Duncan Ryuken Williams and Mary Evelyn Tucker, eds.


Duncan Ryuken Williams


Throughout the past several decades, Buddhist practitioners in both Asia and the West have engaged in a wide variety of efforts to protect the environment. A Buddhist priest led a recent campaign to save an ancient urban forest in Tokyo from being turned into an apartment complex; the priest erected a large sign near the grove stating that the trees have “Buddha-nature.” Similar efforts in forest conservation from a Buddhist perspective have occurred in Thailand, where a number of environmentally minded monks have selectively “ordained” trees in the forests. Traditionally, a Thai Buddhist novice is ordained by the shaving of the monk’s hair and by his acceptance of saffron robes. Thai monks have used this symbolic act of initiation to “ordain” the trees in the rain forest as “members of a Buddhist order” by tying strips of saffron cloth around them. This rather unique tactic has actually prevented the logging of quite a number of acres of forest. This creative adaptation of Buddhist concepts and practices for environmental concerns has been taking place since the early 1960s in three larger communities: the academic, the Buddhist, and the environmental.

In the academic community, scholars from a variety of disciplines have evaluated Buddhist perspectives on nature, ecological ethics, and actions taken by Buddhists for environmental causes. While Buddhologists have focused on Buddhist sutras and other textual sources, as well as on individual Buddhist thinkers’ perspectives on nature, environmental philosophers have turned to Buddhism as a conceptual resource for a new ecological ethics. At the same time, scholars in the fields of anthropology and sociology have studied contemporary Buddhist movements and individuals who have been involved as “engaged Buddhists” in environmental activism.

Members of the second group, both ordained and lay members of the Buddhist community in Asia and the West, have been speaking, writing, and organizing activities leading toward a more active Buddhist role in addressing the environmental crisis. Well-known ordained leaders, such as the Dalai Lama, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, and Thich Nhat Hanh, have recognized the need to address such contemporary issues as ecology if Buddhism is to continue to be relevant to many members of the Buddhist community. Institutionally, such organizations as the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and Buddhists Concerned for Animals have served as vehicles for expressing particular Buddhist positions on ecological and peace concerns. Furthermore, the efforts of local temples and lay Buddhists in environmental education, activism, and conservation have been noteworthy. In Japan, for example, even without institutional backing, local temple priests have played key roles in protecting marine life in the Himeiji region, protesting nuclear power and waste in western Japan, and preserving the few ancient groves left in Tokyo. Perhaps even more remarkable have been key lay Buddhists in both Asia and the West, such as Sulak Sivaraksa, Yanase Giryo, Gary Snyder, and Joanna Macy, who, through their writings and activism grounded in a Buddhist perspective, have made a significant contributions to ecological awareness.

Finally, a number of environmentalists have found Buddhist doctrines, such as Buddha-nature, and Buddhist practices, such as meditation, to be extremely useful. Many environmentalists are familiar with the deep ecology movement, inspired and influenced in part by Buddhism, which espouses a nonanthropocentric worldview. Moreover, many environmentalists are familiar with the Council of All Beings, a ritual in which one places oneself in the position of another species, which was designed by Buddhists Joanna Macy and John Seed. Environmental activists who are drawn to Buddhism, but who are not officially Buddhists, might be what Thomas Tweed has called “Buddhist sympathizers,” or persons who are positioned between adherents and nonadherents. Although Buddhism has certainly been influenced by the environmental movement, these last examples suggest ways in which Buddhism, in its worldview and practice, has penetrated the environmentalist community.

This volume was based on a three-day conference at the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions that brought together scholars of Buddhism and environmentally engaged Buddhists. While it reflects some of the juxtapositions of those two groups, the significance of this volume lies in the fact that it is primarily a scholarly one. Previous publications in this area have largely been written by practitioners and environmentalists. Moreover, the two previous scholarly Books of note, Lambert Schmithausen’s Buddhism and Nature and the collection Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames, are limited in both their scope and treatment of the range of Buddhist traditions. This volume, although scholarly in nature, is intended for undergraduate and graduate students as well as for an educated public with some basic knowledge of Buddhist teachings. Rather than being exhaustive, it should serve as a modest beginning so as to encourage further research on the topic of Buddhism and ecology.

The volume begins with an essay by Lewis Lancaster, an overview highlighting some of the key issues and complexities inherent in a study of this topic. One of these involves the problem of generalizing about the Buddhist tradition as a whole. Lancaster signals the need to be aware of the cultural and geographical diversity of Buddhism as well as of the historical contexts of particular Buddhist teachings and practices. Moreover, methodological issues, such as utilizing ideas from the past to inform contemporary issues, are also recognized as problematic in certain respects. Yet, the spirit of this volume is one that, while acknowledging these difficulties, also notes that traditions have always been changing in relation to present circumstances. In addition, it accepts the premise that views of nature are, to a large extent, conditioned by religious and cultural worldviews. Hence, it is important to probe these views historically so as to shed light not only on the past but also on present circumstances. The issue may be described as the coexistence of traditional ideas with modern conditions—or the adaptation of the former to the latter. While this may be an uneasy coexistence, it is not without historical precedent, given the manner in which traditions have adapted themselves to particular times, places, and situations.

The first five sections of the volume reflect cultural, thematic, and denominational approaches to the study of Buddhism in general and the study of Buddhism and ecology in particular. The cultural areas represented in this volume include Southeast Asia, East Asia, and North America, and specific examples are drawn from Thailand, Japan, and the United States. The section on Thailand includes an essay by Donald Swearer on two key figures in the Theravada Buddhist world—Buddhadasa and Dhammapitaka—who have figured prominently in contemporary discussions of Buddhist ecological theories and practices in Thailand. The anthropological essay of Leslie Sponsel and Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel complements this with a discussion of how the Thai Buddhist monastic community is involved in promoting environmental awareness and action.

The following three chapters focus on particular Japanese Buddhist thinkers’ views of nature as a starting point for a discussion of what the Japanese tradition offers in terms of environmental worldviews and ethics. Paul Ingram discusses the case of the medieval Shingon monk Kukai and his mandala-like world of interconnectedness that Ingram terms the “jeweled net of nature.” Graham Parkes also begins with Kkai’s doctrine of this earth being the manifestation of Buddha-nature. He then moves on to discuss the similarly nonanthropocentric and nature-affirming worldview of the medieval Zen monk Dogen. Parkes concludes with reflections on the philosophical and practical problems in the undifferentiated affirmation of all things “natural,” including tuberculosis or toxic waste dumps. Steve Odin considers a wide range of sources to highlight an aesthetic and salvific aspect to a specifically Japanese concept of nature. He links this perspective to the environmental ethics and conservation aesthetics of Aldo Leopold to propose what he calls an “East-West Gaia theory of nature.”

The third geographical and cultural area taken up in the volume is the United States where, despite its relatively brief history, Buddhism has played an important role in the formation of a Buddhist ecology and in the creation of environmentally friendly Buddhist temples. David Barnhill analyzes the work of the Buddhist poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder, who was one of the first Westerners to recognize the rich potential of the interface between Buddhism and ecology. In particular, Snyder articulates a Buddhist-inspired bioregionalism and a Buddhist form of deep ecology. His concept of wildness and his shamanic/mythological orientation is drawn, Barnhill suggests, from his feelings for the dramatic landscape of the Pacific Northwest and his affinities with Native American views of community and land. Stephanie Kaza’s essay focuses on two environmentally sustainable rural communities in Northern California, namely, Green Gulch Farm, a Zen meditation center, and Spirit Rock, a vipassana meditation center. Kaza draws on Gary Snyder’s ecological guidelines for reinhabitation of the land to evaluate the environmental stewardship and educational practices of these centers. Jeff Yamauchi’s essay complements this discussion with another case study of the process of “greening” a Buddhist retreat center, the Zen Mountain Center in Southern California. He surveys efforts to protect the flora and fauna of the region and discusses fire prevention and management of the forest.

This volume also includes a thematic section on the place of animals in Buddhism, in which the particular cultural areas and traditions of India and Japan are examined. Christopher Chapple’s essay deals with various images of animals as found in the early Indian Buddhist stories known as the Jataka tales. Chapple suggests that the wise, compassionate, and foolish animals appearing in these narratives illustrate that Buddhists had a keen awareness of animals and their place in Buddhist cosmology. My essay takes up the Buddhist ritual of releasing animals for merit that has been practiced in both East and Southeast Asia. The study of this ritual in medieval Japan reveals the ironic relationship between the effort at “animal liberation” in the Buddhist tradition and the unintended consequence to this ritual of the loss of animal life.

Another approach to the study of Buddhism in general is to examine different traditions or denominations of Buddhism. In this volume, Ruben Habito and John Daido Loori look to the possibilities and limitations of what the Zen Buddhist tradition can offer to this discussion of environmental issues. Habito points to the experiential realization in Zen of nonseparation of oneself and the world as the starting point for embracing an ecologically engaged way of life. This affirms living in the present moment. However, Habito acknowledges another impulse in Zen that may promote detachment from this world and absorption in cultivating the inner life. Loori, the head abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, gives a Zen interpretation of the Buddhist precepts as a map for an environmental ethic. In his article, originally delivered as a Zen Dharma talk at the monastery, he suggests interpreting the Buddhist precepts so as to develop a way of life that is in harmony with the natural world.

The last two sections of the volume focus on practical/policy-level contributions that Buddhism can make and on theoretical/methodological issues that ought to be considered for future research. The section on the practical application of Buddhism to environmental problems begins with Kenneth Kraft’s chapter on the issue of nuclear waste. Kraft documents the background of Buddhist concern over this unresolved issue and reflects on the responsibilities of the scholar and the engaged Buddhist in facing this particular aspect of the environmental crisis. Rita Gross draws from the wide-ranging spectrum of Buddhist thought to construct a position that undercuts what she calls a pronatalist view toward population. Gross suggests that particular Buddhist teachings on desires and sexuality could help to moderate the more polemical discussions of population and consumption. She thus points toward a middle way between irresolvable extremes on these two issues. In his essay, Steven Rockefeller outlines the core elements of a Buddhist contribution to an emerging global ethics. He focuses particularly on the Earth Charter, which is expected to be submitted to the United Nations General Assembly by the year 2000. The Charter is intended to function as a “soft law” document to undergird efforts at sustainable development in the international community. The practical problems and initiatives discussed by these three authors provide models for future considerations of ways in which Buddhist values can be applied to environmental issues.

The final section of the volume focuses on broader theoretical and methodological questions regarding the interface between Buddhism and ecology. David Eckel and Ian Harris both question facile assumptions that Asian, and particularly Buddhist, worldviews are inherently environmentally friendly. Indeed, they ask when and why Buddhism came to be seen as ecofriendly. They both argue that this conception is relatively recent and that the term “nature” is itself a complex and somewhat problematic term in Buddhist history. Eckel proposes a means of circumventing the complexity of Buddhist views of nature, while Harris advocates continued vigilance in translating Western environmental discourse into a Buddhist setting. Alan Sponberg also observes that there are limits to what he calls “Green Buddhism.” In particular, he questions the view that Buddhism advocates a notion of interrelatedness between all beings that is entirely egalitarian. Sponberg suggests, instead, the need to assess traditional Buddhism more accurately, first, by noting that Buddhism often advocated a hierarchical conception of the human and natural world, and second, by recognizing the usefulness of what he calls the “hierarchy of compassion” in contributing to a specifically Buddhist approach to environmental ethics.

The essays in this volume, then, span a wide range of possible approaches to the study of Buddhism and ecology. The chapters adopt various methodological perspectives, including anthropology, sociology, textual analysis, historical studies, and philosophical or theological approaches. The essays also share tensions between a descriptive and a critical perspective on the one hand and a more interpretive and engaged perspective on the other. In his response at the conference, Charles Hallisey identified this tension as one between the historical and the prophetic. This may be a fruitful tension between an approach that descriptively historicizes certain Buddhist views of nature, or particular examples of Buddhist engagement with environmental issues, and an approach that reinterprets and advocates, with a prophetic voice, Buddhist involvement with particular issues. This volume represents the full spectrum of these orientations and suggests that various approaches are necessary for an adequate understanding of Buddhist views on ecology.

There has never been any one Buddhist perspective on nature or ecology that might be considered definitive. There have been Indian, Tibetan, American, Thai, or Japanese Buddhist perspectives on the natural world, and they differ considerably according to each one’s place and time in history. There is no core “Buddhistic” element to each cultural worldview but rather a diversity of perspectives that might all legitimately be identified as Buddhist.

The essays in this volume may, however, begin to reveal some general orientations that would elicit what might be a more Buddhist than, say, a Christian approach to ecology. Or, as it is a religious tradition, perhaps we can see a Buddhist perspective in contradistinction to a secular one. It is hoped that this volume might spark a continuing inquiry, both to further a more diverse understanding of Buddhist views on ecology (for example, in underresearched areas, such as Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism) as well as to help ascertain common Buddhist themes that might be offered as resources for a new religious contribution to environmental problems.

In conclusion, the editors would like to acknowledge the contributions made by several scholars and engaged Buddhists who participated in the conference upon which this volume is based. These include Joe Franke, Larry Gross, Joan Halifax, Charles Hallisey, Joanna Handlin-Smith, Jeffrey Hopkins, Leslie Kawamura, William LaFleur, Susan Murcott, Marty Peale, Christopher Queen, and David Shaner. The editors are particularly grateful for the assistance of Donald Swearer and Kenneth Kraft in shaping this volume. They also wish to acknowledge the initiative of Masatoshi Nagatomi in teaching a course on Buddhist views of nature at Harvard University for several years before his retirement in 1996. His opening address and his presence throughout the conference was a source of inspiration for the participants.

    Copyright © 1997 Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School.
Reprinted with permission.      

One thought on “Buddhism Environment Ethics Essay Ideas

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *