It’s easy to think of Buddhism and sustainability as natural partners. The connection is almost a cliché. Many people take it for granted that there is a Buddhist view on the environment, and that it teaches a benign, positive and friendly relationship of mutual respect between human beings and the world in which they live.
There are good reasons why people think like this. A whole series of ecological writers and thinkers have been associated with a certain variety of Western Buddhist thought, and it has helped to inspire their work. We could think of people such as the poet Gary Snyder or the ecological activist Joanna Macy.
Snyder is a serious practitioner of Zen Buddhism who spent several years in Japan as well as engaging deeply with Native American spirituality. His poetry and writing refer frequently to Buddhism and have themselves been a major philosophical influence on the ecology movement.
Joanna Macy, who has visited Australia on several occasions, is one of the central spokespeople for a move away from the excesses of a society based around industrial growth and towards a more sustainable world – what she now refers to as the ‘Great Turning’. Macy’s work is also consciously and explicitly Buddhist-inspired.
In their turn, people like Macy and Snyder have been a major influence on younger generations of ecological activists and thinkers. If you look at current ecological initiatives around the world, such as the various Green Parties or the Transition Town movement, you are more than likely to run into Buddhist sympathisers or practitioners. Elements from Buddhist philosophy, above all the idea of the mutual dependence of all phenomena, have been an important source for all of these people, and a resource for environmental awareness, respect for other species and for the wider planetary ecology.
Contemporary Asian Buddhist teachers, such as the Vietnamese Thich Nhat Hanh, have taken up these themes and encouraged their development among Western Buddhists. The tendency, perhaps rather misleading, to see Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion has also aided its acceptability in a contemporary Green context.
In many ways, I don’t have any problem with all of this. I believe that achieving a sustainable relationship with the planet on which we live is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Anything that helps promote more awareness and action is a good thing. Also, as a scholar of Buddhism, it’s encouraging to be engaged with a tradition that has something to say to the contemporary world on matters of real importance.
There are problems, however, when you start to look at Buddhist traditions themselves in more detail. For one thing, an important part of Buddhist thought has always been about escape from engagement with the phenomenal world, rather than commitment to it. The mutual dependence of all phenomena is certainly a key part of Buddhist teaching, but it is traditionally presented as a problem rather than as a positive feature. The processes of mutual causation, for Buddhists, are the processes that lead to suffering and to continued rebirth.
Also, living Buddhist societies do not always seem deeply sympathetic to other species or to the environment. Most Buddhists in the past lived in peasant societies, and their historical experience had more to do with survival in often harsh and difficult conditions than with compassion for other species or the natural world. Being kind to animals was a luxury. Most Buddhists in South and Southeast Asia historically have not been vegetarian. Preserving the ecosystem was certainly not a conscious goal, and would hardly have made any sense to pre-modern Buddhists.
Today, while there are certainly contemporary teachers who will refer to environmental issues, especially while addressing Western Buddhists, ecological awareness is still marginal in most Buddhist societies. Where it is beginning to grow, it has been more a response to recent ecological problems and disasters than a result of any specifically Buddhist initiatives.
There are, all the same, elements in traditional Buddhist societies that might be considered to contribute to ecological thinking and to human sustainability. My own work has been mostly on Buddhism in Tibet, and I will briefly outline two of these.
The first is a kind of implicit ecological thinking that arises from the way in which the environment was and still is seen by Tibetan peoples in terms of spiritual forces, local gods and goddesses of the mountains, rivers and lakes. The world of nature in Tibet is not inert. It is alive, and a source both of assistance, but also of danger and threat.