Buddhism and the global environmental crisis

The problem
There is a short discourse, number 591 In the Udāna collection, which opens with the Buddha sitting outside on a dark night and with oil lamps lit in front of him. Many insects are circling around these lamps, attracted by the light. Some of them fly straight into the flames. Seeing that, the Buddha utters an “inspired utterance,” comparing those insects with people “attached to forms and sounds”, who head straight for their own destruction.

This short discourse can be easily interpreted as a parable of the global climate crisis, just this time humanity in general is heading for destruction of planetary proportions. Enchanted by a dream of an endless economic prosperity, people are unable to see what a catastrophe approaches and how close we are to our own extinction. Forerunners of that unprecedented era of environmental and then human suffering are such grave problems like greenhouse effect and global warming, natural resources depletion, thinning of the ozone layer, acid rains, deforestation etc.

According to the United Nation’s Environment Program report,2 the situation is really dramatic:

  • The global population will reach 8.9 billion in 2050, up from 6 billion in the year 2000.
  • Almost 80% of forests have been cleared so far.
  • Global warming will raise temperatures by up to 3.6°C, triggering a ‘devastating’ rise in sea level and more severe natural disasters.
  • There will be a billion cars by 2025. In 1945 there were only 40 million.
  • Global use of pesticides is causing up to five million acute poisoning incidents each year.
  • Global emissions of CO2 reached a new high of nearly 23 900 million tonnes in 1996 – nearly four times the 1950 total.
  • If present consumption patterns continue, two out of every three persons on Earth will live in water-stressed conditions by the year 2025.

Roots of the problem
In line with the Buddha’s claim of the leading role of the mind, the roots of our irrational behavior and the global crisis are in fact psychological. Thus, the environmental crisis is actually a crisis of our consciousness. Some leading factors triggering it are:

1. Greed of corporations and financial institutions, as well as individuals, especially business people and politicians.

2. To secure their social domination, they invest a lot of resources into instigating fear and anxiety among the general population around economy and jobs security, various kinds of terrorism or armed conflicts. Thus, various systems of surveillance are introduced under the pretext of national security.

3. Arrogance, producing national, racial, cultural and social antagonisms and tensions. Thus, nowadays we have “American exceptionalism”, Islamic holly war and white supremacy as some among many manifestations of the same idea of superiority.

4. Keeping all these three deadly influences in place is the fourth one, ignorance. Keeping people ignorant about the real situation, through applying two main strategies: hiding/denial of the facts and producing more and more sources of distraction. This lethal combination leads many people to apathy, skepticism and confusion.

The reckless consumer culture imposes ever-increasing demands for energy and natural resources, causing thus environment degradation. Not only transportation or electricity production, with the use of enormous quantities of fossil fuels, plays a role of a massive producer of the greenhouse effect. Existing model of industrial agriculture is responsible for even 32% of global carbon emission. A lion share is contributed here by the meat production industry, which is on top of that responsible for causing unnecessary animal suffering.

The common denominator behind all these factors is the illusion of the permanent self and imposing market logic on all domains of human activities. Thus, the idea is born that the only reasonable mode of behavior is to maximize one’s own interest at the expense of all others, by objectifying other people and turning them just to a means of one’s own or corporation’s ends. And that end is pursuing the illusion of an infinite growth. Thus, we put ourselves into a suicidal situation, which is maintained by three very powerful social forces: corporate system, political system and mass media.

Solution in general
Cittena niyyati loko”,3 says the Buddha. Therefore, the quality of the mind decides on the state of the world. Since our mind if gripped by materialism, greed and thirst for more and more sensual pleasures, political, economic and ecological state of the world is just a reflection of such mind. Contrary to all that, Buddhism advocates a friendly attitude towards nature and supports maintaining harmonious and mutually dependent relationship between plants, animals and people.

The whole Buddha’s life can be viewed as a lesson in nature-friendly living. He was born in the Lumbini park, where his mother on her way to the parental home because of premature labor pains. When he left home and started his life of a samana, he went into a forest to experiment with various ascetic practices. Six years later he was enlightened under the famous bodhi tree. During his 45-years long teaching career, whenever possible, he was inclined to spend his time in seclusion, in the forest, advising his disciples to do the same and stay away from various distractions. For such a forest-dwellers the Buddha says:

They do not sorrow over the past,
Nor do they hanker for the future.
They maintain themselves with what is present:
Hence, their complexion is so serene.

This attitude is clearly stated in various other suttas. For example, in the Dhammapada the Buddha praises living in the forest, understanding at the same time that they are not attractive to those obsessed with property and pleasures of the senses:

Forests are delightful,
but the worldlings find no delight in them;
only those who are free from passion will find delight in them,
for they do not seek sensual pleasures.

Finally, when the moment to die came, the Buddha again choose the place between two sal trees in the vicinity of Kusinara to lay down, despite the Ānanda’a suggestions to choose some more respectable city. Thus, he ended his life in the same natural environment as he started it 80 years earlier.

It is often said that the basis of the Buddhist world view is a law of causality and interdependence, exemplified by the chain of dependent co-arising (paticca samuppada). Translated into many practical situations, we can see that despite all our efforts to build comfortable, sometime luxurious environment for us and “conquer” the nature, we are not separated from the rest of our environment, but tightly interwoven, interrelated. And not just with our natural surroundings, but also we as human beings affect each other at the deepest level. When a nuclear disaster in Fukushima happened, leaked uranium didn’t stay in the Japanese territorial water, but actually polluted the whole Pacific Ocean. When massive transportation in Europe dramatically pollute the air, the gasses from truck and car exhaust do not stay in Europe, but pollute air globally. When China dispose of around 3.53 million metric tonnes of plastic yearly5 into its rivers, that plastic pollutes not only them, but all oceans.

Consequently, our and the suffering or our fellow beings, generated by great ignorance and attachment, becomes ever greater. In his formulation of the four noble truths the Buddha addressed this problem of human suffering as generated by greed and attachment, advising developing practice of compassion (karuna) and loving-kindness (metta) as a medicine. The clear moral examples of such attitude, which were meant probably for pedagogical reasons for the present and future Buddhists, were given in the collection of Jataka stories. There the Buddha in his innumerable previous lives was reborn as an animal or a tree, showing limitless compassion towards other beings who suffered. This expands also to a number of rules for monastics, ensuring their great care about the environment. Thus, traveling was prohibited during the rainy season, to make sure they do not destroy the crops walking across the fields. Or, they are prohibited to destroy any plant, which is probably a reflection of the strong influence of the ahimsa principle common for most of the Indian religious traditions.

Solution in particular: examples of individual teachings
Among the ancient Buddhist texts, it is the Aggañña Sutta, also rightfully called The Book of Genesis,6 that speaks about the issues of greed and suffering with regard to nature. The sutta presents three interrelated movements that indicate cosmological, environmental and societal development throughout the history. In the middle one, it explains the relationship between degradation of the human character and the degradation of the natural environment. Impelled by greed, beings have no concerns about the way their acts affect their surroundings. Hence, they loose primal luminosity and their bodies became coarser and coarser. With such solidification of the body, differences between them appeared and some became beautiful, the other ugly. Consequently, the conceit was conceived among the beautiful ones, and they started looking upon the ugly beings. All these changes were going in parallel with the degradation of the environment and worsening of the living conditions. This relationship between ecology and ethics continued to be one of the main motives in all Buddhist consideration on the environmental protection.

How much the Buddha valued nature, especially protection the existing ones and planting new trees is reflected in many suttas. For example, in the Vanaropa Sutta, he was asked by the deva about those who earn great merit. His answer was the following:

Those who set up a park or a grove,
The people who construct a bridge,
A place to drink and a well,
Those who give a residence:
For them merit always increases,
Both by day and by night.7

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha advised:

O’ Monks, cut down the forests of defilements.
But, do not cut down the trees.
Fear comes from the forests of defilements.8

For the humanity, unrestrained greed for sensual pleasures and reckless accumulation of wealth is like cutting the proverbial branch it is sitting on. Although humans are aware this course of behavior is unsustainable, greed still doesn’t allow them to abandon it. On the other hand, according to the Sigālovāda Sutta, careful resource management is highly advisable. Also, wealth should not be used for our own purpose only, but for the benefit of others too:

The wise man trained and disciplined
Shines out like a beacon-fire.
He gathers wealth just as the bee
Gathers honey, and it grows
Like an ant-hill higher yet.

With wealth so gained the layman can
Devote it to his people’s good.
He should divide his wealth in four
(This will most advantage bring).

One part he may enjoy at will,
Two parts he should put to work,
The fourth part he should set aside
As reserve in times of need.9

Excessive production of material goods, often poorly manufactured in a such way to break after some time and thus create necessity for another purchase is bad enough. But on top of that, what is really tragic is that under various influences, like fashion or social competing, people often dispose of perfectly good products, just to “keep up with fashion trends”, buying new clothes or a model of a cellphone advertised by some trendsetting magazines or social networks. In this way we cause double damage: deplete natural resources essential for the future generations (our sons and daughters) and at the same time we create enormous amounts of unnecessary waste. In the light of that fact, it is fascinating to read the following dialogue recorded in the Vinaya Pitaka:

King Udena spoke thus to the venerable Ananda:

“Did not our concubines come here, good Ananda? “

“Your concubines did come here, your majesty.”

” Did they not give anything to the honorable Ananda?”

“They gave me five hundred inner robes, your majesty.”

” But what can you, honourable Ananda, do with so many robes? “

“I will share them, your majesty, with those monks whose robes are worn thin.”

“But what will you do, good Ananda, with those old robes that are worn thin?”

“We will make them into upper coverings,’ your majesty.”

” But what will you do, good Ananda, with those upper coverings that are old?”

“We will make these into mattress coverings, your majesty.”

“But what will you do, good Ananda, with those mattress coverings that are old? “

“We will make them into ground coverings, your majesty.”

“But what will you do, good Ananda, with those ground coverings that are old? “

“We will make them into foot-wipers, your majesty.”

” But what will you do, good Ananda, with those foot-wipers that are old?”

“We will make them into dusters, your majesty.”

” But what will you do, good Ananda, with those dusters that are old?”

“Having torn them into shreds, your majesty, having kneaded them with mud, we will smear a plaster-flooring.”

Then King Udena, thinking: “These recluses, sons of the Sakyans, use everything in an orderly way and do not let things go to waste,” bestowed even another five hundred woven cloths on the venerable Ananda. Therefore, this was the first time that a thousand robes had accrued to the venerable Ananda as an alms of robes.”10

The way of practice as a solution
Knowing about strong advocacy of the Buddha’s teachings in favor of environment protection, it doesn’t come as a surprise that in this precarious situation for the whole world and the future of the humanity strong ecological movement crystallized, based on the principal idea of correspondence between internal ecology (morality) and the external one. This movement, so-called Green Buddhism, is just a smaller part of a wider phenomenon called Socially Engaged Buddhism. It emerged in the West in the 1960s and was in the full swing by the 1980, when Buddhist leaders were explicitly addressing the eco-crisis and incorporating ecological awareness in their Dhamma talks and written teachings:

In his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize speech, His Holiness the Dalai Lama proposed making Tibet an international ecological reserve. Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh invited his followers to join the Order of Interbeing, teaching Buddhist principles using ecological examples. Zen teachers Robert Aitken in Havaii and Daido Loori in New York examined the Buddhist precepts from an environmental perspective. Buddhist activist Joana Macy creatively synthesized elements of Buddhism and deep ecology, challenging people to take their insights into direct action. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship, founded in 1978, added environmental concerns to its early activist agenda.11

Aimed not only at addressing environmental and climate crisis, but at the personal insight too, Green Buddhism introduced new forms of a practice, by directly opposing devastation of nature reserves and animal habitats at various places. Thus, in Thailand, teak forests were being cleared massively for foreign trade. This caused massive flooding and landslides, causing a national wave of protests. They were joined by Buddhist monks in the countryside, with their ritual ordination of trees, as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the forest in danger.

As Buddhist environmental activism spread, the “forest monks”, as they came to be known, formed an ethical front in the protest against overexploitation. Other monks got involved with activists to question economic development and its environmental impacts. Plastic bags, toxic lakes, and nuclear reactors were targeted by Buddhist leaders as detrimental influences on people’s physical and spiritual health. In Burma, Buddhists concerned about the environment drew attention to the impacts of a major oil pipeline and the decimation of tropical forests. In Tibet, the environmental impacts of Chinese colonization were documented and publicized by support groups in the West.12

All these considerations reflect close affinity between Dhamma and the environmental concerns. Based on this, several key principles in that relationship could be formulated, as signposts for our actions to prevent the catastrophe looming over our common future:

1. Reverence for life in any form. We must stop putting humans into some special position in the community of beings inhabiting this wonderful planet. All beings matter.

2. Our greatest happiness stems from helping others. Therefore, we need to give up our own attachments and help others. Altruism is in our genes. Led by that natural impulse, we need to help the marginalized among us that are usually hit the hardest by climate disruption.

3. Interconnection and interdependence. Leaving behind an illusion of a separate self, we should stop looking at others just as means to achieve our selfish goals. We can not feel and be better off in a world where everyone around us suffers. Our happiness, well-being and safe future is a common endeavor.

4. Renunciation and simplicity are the only remedy to climate disruption, and they should be strongly promoted. The best way is by a personal example. In the wider social context, this should be translated into an economy based on the principle of sufficiency, dedicated to qualitative growth, rather than ever-increasing production and consumption.

5. Buddhism as a social agent. The principles of Buddhism help us engage with life, not remove ourselves from it. The Buddha was actively engaged with his social and cultural contexts, and for Buddhism to have relevance today it must help people understand how to engage in today’s political and social context.13

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, Transl. (2000), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Boston, Wisdom Publications.
Gnanarama, Pategama (2012), And Approach to Buddhist Social Philosophy. Singapore, Buddhist and Pali College.
Horner, I. B. (Transl., 1963), The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka). London, Luzac & Company.
Kaza, Stephanie (2019), Green Buddhism: Practice and Compassionate Action in Uncertain Times. Boulder, Shambala.
Loy, David (2018), Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis. Boston, Wisdom Publications.
Pandey, K.C. (2008), Ecological Perspectives in Buddhism. New Delhi, Readworthy.
Sarada Thero, Weragoda, Transl. (1993). Treasury of Truth: Illustrated Dhammapada. Taipei, CBBEF.
Stanley, John; Loy, David R.; Dorje Gyurme, Eds. (2009), A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency. Boston, Wisdom Publications.
Walshe, Maurice, Transl. (1995), The Long Discourses of the Buddha. Boston, Wisdom Publications.

1 Upāti Sutta
2 UNEP Global Environment Outlook 2000 report.
3 “This world is led by the mind…”, Citta Sutta, SN 1:62.
4 Bodhi (2000), Vanna Sutta (SN 1.10).
5 Source: https://www.condorferries.co.uk/plastic-in-the-ocean-statistics
6 Richard Gombrich, “The Buddha’s Book of Genesis?”, Indo-Iranian Journal, volume 35, issue 2-3 (1992), pp. 159-178.
7 Bodhi (2000), p. 122.
8 Vanaṃ chindatha mā rukkhaṃ, vanato jāyate bhayaṃ, Sarada (1993) verse, 283. p. 879.
9 Walshe (1995), p. 466.
10 Horner (1963), p. 404.
11 Kaza (2019), p. 66-67.
12 Ibid, p. 67.
13 Loy (2018), p.187.

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