THE GREENING OF BUDDHIST PRACTICE
by Kenneth Kraft
the traditional Buddhist contemplative retreat into nature
become an active engagement with its salvation?
KRAFT is associate professor of Asian religions at Lehigh
University in Bethlehem, Pa. He is the author of Eloquent
Zen: Daito and Early Japanese Zen (University of Hawaii
Press, 1992) and the editor, most recently, of Inner Peace,
World Peace: Essays on Buddhism and Nonviolence (State
University of New York Press, 1992). This essay was originally
presented at the Kyoto Seminar for Religious Philosophy, in
January 5, 1993, a Japanese ship called the Akatsuki
Maru returned to port with a controversial cargo: an estimated
1.5 metric tons of plutonium. Its 134-day voyage was the first
step in a Japanese plan to send spent nuclear fuel to Europe
to be reprocessed as plutonium, which will then be reused as
fuel in nuclear reactors. However, the Akatsuki Maru's
20,000-mile round trip provoked expressions of concern in more
than forty countries, including public demonstrations in France
and Japan. Experts charged that such voyages could not adequately
be shielded from the risks of a nuclear accident or a terrorist
attack. Editorial writers questioned Japan's commitment to its
own nonnuclear principles (reactor-grade plutonium can also
be used to make nuclear weapons). Pointing to the nuclear aspirations
of North Korea and other countries, some observers called for
a worldwide halt in the recovery of plutonium from spent fuel.
(named after Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld) is one
of the deadliest substances known to humankind. A single speck
ingested through the lungs or stomach is fatal. Plutonium-239
has a half-life of 24,400 years, but it continues to be dangerous
for a quarter of a million years. If we think in terms of human
generations, about twenty-five years, we are speaking of 10,000
generations that will be vulnerable unless the radioactivity
is safely contained. In Buddhism, the number 10,000 is a concrete
way of indicating something infinite. That may also be the unpleasant
truth about plutonium: it is going to be with us forever.
American scholar-activist Joanna Macy has suggested that our
most enduring legacy to future generations may be the decisions
we make about the production and disposal of radioactive materials.
Our buildings and books may not survive us, but we will be held
accountable for what we do with the toxic substances (nuclear
and nonnuclear) that we continue to generate in such great quantities.
Buddhists have long believed that the present, the past, and
the future are inextricably linked and ultimately inseparable.
"Just consider whether or not there are any conceivable
beings or any conceivable worlds which are not included in this
present time," a thirteenth-century master asserted.(1)
For human beings at least, to sabotage the future is also to
ravage the past and undermine the present. Although the threat
of nuclear holocaust appears to have abated, we are beginning
to see that the ongoing degradation of the environment poses
a threat of comparable danger. As the Akatsuki Maru
ships plutonium to Japan, it is also carrying a radioactive
cargo, a "poison fire," into our common future.
am reminded of a Zen koan still used in the training
of monks. The master says to the student: "See that boat
moving way out there on the water? How do you stop it?"
To give a proper answer the student must be able to demonstrate
that he has "become one" with the boat. Just as one
must penetrate deeply into a koan to solve it, Buddhists
around the world have begun to immerse themselves in environmental
issues, attempting to approach urgent problems from the inside
as well as the outside. An increasing number of practitioner-activists
believe that the only way to stop the boat of ecological disaster
is to deepen our relationship to the planet and all life within it.
this essay I would like to survey some of the ways in which
Buddhists are responding to the environmental issues faced by
so many countries today. I will concentrate on spiritual/religious
practices and forms of activism that take place in a spiritual
context. Although many Buddhists in Asia and elsewhere are becoming
increasingly aware of ecology, I focus principally on North
American Buddhists, who seem to be taking the lead in the "greening"
of Buddhism. Of course, what we need most are human
responses to the environmental crisis rather than "Buddhist"
ones; when the Buddhist label is used here, it is almost always
used in that spirit.
Practices Related to the Environment
list of individual practices must begin with traditional forms
of Buddhist meditation (and closely related practices such as
chanting). Meditation can serve as a vehicle for advancing several
ends prized by environmentalists: it is supposed to reduce egoism,
deepen appreciation of one's surroundings, foster empathy with
other beings, clarify intention, prevent what is now called
burnout, and ultimately lead to a profound sense of oneness
with the entire universe. "I came to realize clearly,"
said a Japanese Zen master upon attaining enlightenment, "that
Mind is not other than mountains and rivers and the great wide
earth, the sun and the moon and the stars."(2)
some Buddhists, meditation alone is regarded as a sufficient
expression of ecological awareness. Others supplement time-honored
forms of meditation with new meditative practices that incorporate
nature imagery or environmental themes. For example, the following
verse by the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is widely
used by his American students, who recite it mentally in seated
in, I know that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.
in, I see myself as a flower.
Breathing out, I feel fresh.
in, I see myself as a mountain.
Breathing out, I feel solid.
in, I see myself as still water.
Breathing out, I reflect things as they are.
in, I see myself as space.
Breathing out, I feel free.(3)
Nhat Hanh has helped to popularize another method of individual
practice -- short poems (gatha) that can prompt us
to maintain awareness in daily life. Many of these "mindfulness
verses" also function as reminders of our interconnectedness
with the earth. The verses may be memorized or posted in appropriate
locations. For example, when turning on a water faucet, a person
following this practice will mentally recite:
flows from high in the mountains.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us,
and sustains all life.
one's hands can become an occasion for renewing one's dedication
to the environment:
flows over these hands.
May I use them skillfully
to preserve our precious planet.(4)
following verse, meant to be used when getting into a car, again
evokes a twofold mindfulness -- for the moment and for interrelatedness:
this powerful car,
I buckle my seatbelt
and vow to protect all beings.(5)
cultivation of intimacy with nature is a central aim for many
Buddhist environmentalists. Buddhist activist Stephanie Kaza,
who has written about her "conversations" with trees,
suggests other ways to develop empathy with the natural environment:
may engage in relationship with the moon, observing its waxing
and waning cycle, position in the sky, and effect on one's
moods and energy. One may cultivate relationships with migrating
shorebirds, hatching dragonflies, or ancient redwoods. One
may learn the topography of local rivers and mountains. These
relations are not one-time encounters; rather they are ongoing
deepening sense of connectedness with our surroundings sometimes
acquires an emotional intensity comparable to that of love or
marriage. One practitioner writes, "This kind of in-love-ness
-- passionate, joyful -- stimulates action in service to our
imperiled planet. Walking in the world as if it were our lover
leads inevitably to deep ecology."(7)
we turn our attention to group practices, we find that new and
diverse forms are being created at a rapid rate. For American
Buddhists, the family has become fertile ground for the potential
elaboration of spiritual practice in daily life, and environmental
concerns are often addressed in this setting. A parent from
Colorado treats recycling as a "family ecological ritual,"
using it "to bring out the meaning of interbeing."(8)
At most American Buddhist centers, conservation of resources
and reduction of waste is a conscious part of communal practice.
The responsibilities of the "ecological officer" at
one center include: "educating workers and management about
waste, recycling, conservation, etc.; evaluating operational
procedures in terms of waste and efficiency; and investigating
ecologically correct product lines."(9)
Zen Center of Rochester, New York, conducts an "earth relief
ceremony" that includes chanting, circumambulation, devotional
offerings, prostrations, and monetary donations. Buddhist rituals
traditionally end with a chant that "transfers the merit"
of the event to a designated recipient. The earth relief ceremony
ends with the following invocation:
we have offered candles, incense, fruit, and tea,
Chanted sutras and dharani.
Whatever merit comes to us from these offerings
We now return to the earth, sea, and sky.
May our air be left pure!
May our waters be clean!
May our earth be restored!
May all beings attain Buddhahood!(10)
Rochester Zen Center also sponsors rites specifically on behalf
of animals. Ducks and other animals are purchased from pet stores
or breeders and released in their natural habitats, and relief
ceremonies for endangered species are held.
northern California the Ring of Bone Zendo has found ways to
integrate backpacking, pilgrimage, and sesshin, the
intensive meditation retreat that undergirds formal Zen training.
First conceived by poet and Zen pioneer Gary Snyder in the 1970s,
this "mountains and rivers sesshin" emphasizes long
hours of silent, concentrated walking in the foothills of the
Sierra Mountains. "The wilderness pilgrim's step-by-step
breath-by-breath walk up a trail," writes Snyder, "is
so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of
body-mind joy."(11) The daily schedule also includes morning and evening
periods of seated meditation and a morning lecture by the teacher,
who expounds on the "Mountains and Rivers Sutra" chapter
of The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, by Zen master
Dogen. This text includes the following passage:
is not just that there is water in the world; there are worlds
in the realm of water. And this is so not only in water --
there are also worlds of sentient beings in clouds, there
are worlds of sentient beings in wind, there are worlds of
sentient beings in fire, there are worlds of sentient beings
in earth. . . Where there are worlds of sentient
beings, there must be the world of Buddhas and Zen adepts.(12)
Ring of Bone Zendo conducts weeklong backpacking sesshins twice
a year, and the practice has spread to other West Coast Zen
March 1991, Thich Nhat Hanh inaugurated another kind of group
practice in a six-day meditation retreat specifically for environmentalists.
The two hundred people who traveled to Malibu, California, for
the event included members of Greenpeace, Earth First!, Earth
Island Institute, Rainforest Action Network, Natural Resources
Defense Council, and other environmental organizations. Some
were practicing Buddhists; others had little previous exposure
to Buddhism or meditation. The retreat interposed periods of
meditation with lectures by Nhat Hanh, silent walks through
the Malibu hills, and gentle singing. In his talks, Nhat Hanh
stressed the value of "deep, inner peace" for environmental
activists: "The best way to take care of the environment
is to take care of the environmentalist."(13)
of the sites administered by the San Francisco Zen Center is
Green Gulch Farm, a sizeable tract of land in scenic Marin County,
California. Green Gulch functions as a semi-rural Zen center,
complete with a large meditation hall, guest rooms, an abbot's
cottage, and a Japanese-style tea house. But Green Gulch is
best known for its extensive organic garden, which has been
lovingly cultivated for two decades by numerous Zen practitioners,
newcomers and veterans alike. On Earth Day, April 22, 1990,
over a hundred friends of Green Gulch participated in special
celebratory rituals that concluded with a dedication to the
animals and plants that had died in the garden. The text read
and Animals in the Garden,
welcome you -- we invite you in -- we ask your forgiveness
and your understanding. Listen as we invoke your names,
as we also listen for you:
sparrows, quail, robins, and house finches who have died
in our strawberry nets;
Cooper's hawk who flew into our sweet pea trellis and broke
orange-bellied newts who died in our shears, in our irrigation
pipes, by our cars, and by our feet. . . .;
and moles, trapped and scorned by us, and also watched with
love, admiration, and awe for your one-mindedness. . . .;
all plants we have shunned: poison hemlock, pigweed, bindweed,
stinging nettle, bull thistle;
call up plants we have removed by dividing you and separating
you, and by deciding you no longer grow well here.
invoke you and thank you and continue to learn from you.
We dedicate this ceremony to you. We will continue to practice
with you and for you.(14)
dedication follows ritual conventions that are found not only
in Buddhism but also in other traditions. It directly addresses
unseen beings or spirits, invites them into a sacred space,
expresses sentiments ranging from grief to gratitude to awe,
and concludes with a pledge of continued spiritual striving.
The admission that many animals and plants had to be sacrificed
for the garden to flourish should not be construed as hypocrisy;
rather, the passage acknowledges the mystery of life and death,
and it affirms -- realistically, amid complexity -- the cardinal
precept not to kill. In the complete text, the detailed naming
of animals and plants recreates a rich natural realm, elicits
renewed attentiveness to that realm, and generates the cumulative
power that ritual invocations require.
consciously created group ritual that illustrates the greening
of Buddhist practice is called the Council of All Beings. It
began in 1985 as a collaboration between Joanna Macy and John
Seed, an Australian who embraced Buddhism and then became a
passionate advocate of rainforest preservation. According to
Seed, the Council of All Beings helps people to move "from
having ecological ideas to having ecological identity, ecological
self. . . In the end, what we want to do is to turn
people into activists."(15)
The Council is usually presented as a daylong workshop or longer
retreat in a setting with access to the outdoors; participants
vary from a dozen to a hundred.
ritual begins with shared mourning. Participants are encouraged
to express their sense of grief and loss in response to the
degradation of the earth. "One by one, people bring forward
a stone or twig or flower, and laying it in the center, name
what it represents for them. . . In the ritual naming
of these losses, we retrieve our capacity to care."(16)
The premise is that we ordinarily refrain from expressing our
anguish about the planet because we fear that we may be overwhelmed
by sadness, or because we assume that such feelings are socially
unacceptable. In the second phase of a Council, called "remembering,"
participants are led through exercises that reinforce their
sense of connectedness with the earth. Methods include guided
meditations and visualizations, body movement, drumming, and
"sounding" -- imitating the voices of animals or other
natural sounds. Macy once had an opportunity to demonstrate
part of a "remembering" exercise to the Dalai Lama.
Taking his hand in hers, she said:
atom in each cell in this hand goes back to the beginning
of time, to the first explosion of light and energy, to the
formation of the galaxies and solar systems, to the fires
and rains that bathed our planet, and the life-forms that
issued from its primordial seas. . . We have met
and been together many times.
of course," said the Dalai Lama. "Very good."(17)
the culmination of the ritual, each participant chooses a nonhuman
life-form, imaginatively identifies with it, and then speaks
on its behalf before the group. The form chosen may be an animal,
a plant, a river, or a mountain. Circumstances permitting, the
participants make masks or breastplates to reinforce their adopted
identity. Gathering to form the Council of All Beings, the recreated
life-forms describe their plight, how they have been affected
by humans, and their chances of survival. At a signal from the
leader, some of the participants shed their selected identities
to become human listeners inside the circle. Each of the life-forms
is then asked what strengths it has to offer human beings in
this time of planetary crisis. Here are some typical responses,
as paraphrased by Macy:
lichen, work slowly, very slowly. Time is my friend. This
is what I give you: patience for the long haul and perseverance."
is a dark time. As deep-diving trout I offer you my fearlessness
of the dark."
lion, give you my roar, the voice to speak out and be heard."(18)
Council of All Beings expresses in modern terms the trans-species
compassion that has long been a Buddhist ideal. Council participants
not only mourn the loss of animals and plants (as at Green Gulch);
they also strive to listen to other beings and imaginatively
become them. In a ritual context, this crossing of human/nonhuman
boundaries is not meant to answer complex questions about the
relative value of species; its thrust is to enable participants
to reconnect with an ecocentric (nonanthropocentric) world.
Although the Council's format is still being modified, and its
dissemination seems to have been hampered by a dearth of talented
facilitators, it offers a foretaste of what Gary Snyder once
called "a kind of ultimate democracy," in which "plants
and animals. . . . are given a place and a voice
in the political discussions of the humans."(19)
Buddhism's Global Reach
increased communication and cooperation among Buddhists around
the globe, Buddhist-inspired environmentalism is also becoming
manifest in national and international arenas. Thailand, for
example, has been the source of several influential projects.
The Buddhist Perception of Nature Project, founded in 1985,
uses traditional Buddhist doctrines and practices to teach environmental
principles to ordinary villagers and city-dwellers. The International
Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), established in 1989 by
Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sulak Sivaraksa, puts environmental
concerns high on its agenda, with special emphasis on Third-World
issues. In rural Thailand, environmentally conscious monks have
helped protect endangered forests and watersheds by "ordaining"
trees: villagers are loath to chop down trees that have been
symbolically accepted into the Buddhist monastic order.
unusual example of a Buddhist program with global repercussions
is found in a successful baking business run by the Zen Community
of Yonkers, New York. Since the late 1980s the Zen Community
has cooperated with Ben and Jerry's ice cream company to produce
Rainforest Crunch cookies. The product uses certain nuts and
nut flour in an ecologically sustainable way, so it helps to
protect Amazonian rainforests and support Brazilian farming
cooperatives. A percentage of profits is donated to groups like
the Rainforest Action Network. With $1.6 million in annual sales
(1991), the bakery has also provided employment to about two
hundred local residents, some of them formerly homeless. The
advertising slogan for this popular product is a cheerful reminder
of interconnectedness: "Eat a Cookie. Save a Tree."
best-known international spokesperson for Buddhism, the Dalai
Lama, has made many statements in support of environmental responsibility
on a global scale. Strictly speaking, the Dalai Lama's teachings
may not qualify as environmental "activism," but his
ideas and his example are important sources of inspiration for
socially engaged Buddhists. With his usual directness, he says,
"The Earth, our Mother, is telling us to behave."(20)
The Dalai Lama has proposed a five-point peace plan for Tibet
that extends the notion of peace to the entire Tibetan ecosystem.
He first presented his peace plan in 1987, speaking before the
United States Congress, and he restated it in his 1989 Nobel
Peace Prize address and again at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.
On these occasions he has said, in part:
to the Chinese invasion, Tibet was an unspoiled wilderness
sanctuary in a unique natural environment. Sadly, in the past
decades the wildlife and the forests of Tibet have been almost
totally destroyed by the Chinese. The effects on Tibet's delicate
environment have been devastating. . .
is my dream that the entire Tibetan plateau should become
a free refuge where humanity and nature can live in peace
and in harmonious balance. . . The Tibetan plateau
would be transformed into the world's largest park or biosphere.
Strict laws would be enforced to protect wildlife and plant
life; the exploitation of natural resources would be carefully
regulated so as not to damage relevant ecosystems; and a policy
of sustainable development would be adopted in populated areas.(21)
decade ago the Dalai Lama supported nuclear power as a possible
way to improve living conditions for the world's poor, but since
then his thinking has changed. As part of his peace plan, he
now rejects any use of nuclear energy in Tibet, not to mention
"China's use of Tibet for the production of nuclear weapons
and the dumping of nuclear waste."(22)
if the Dalai Lama's ambitious plan seems unrealistic by the
standards of realpolitik, his proposal has exposed a worldwide
audience to a Buddhist vision of a desirable society. Central
to that vision is the attempt to extend the ideal of nonviolence
(ahimsa) to all forms of life. Some people come to
embrace environmentalism as an extension of their commitment
to nonviolence, just as others come to embrace nonviolence via
their commitment to the environment.
final example of Buddhist-inspired environmental activity that
is finding expression on a national and international scale
is called the Nuclear Guardianship Project (NGP). Its targeted
problem is radioactive waste, which brings us back to the Akatsuki
Maru and its 1.5 metric tons of dangerous cargo. The concept
of nuclear guardianship, advocated most forcefully by Joanna
Macy, begins with the premise that current technological expertise
does not offer a certifiably safe method for the disposal of
nuclear waste: plans to bury the waste underground overlook
known risks; transmutation and glassification schemes have not
yet been perfected; and other proposals (such as shooting the
waste into space) are even less realistic. From these assumptions,
Macy and other project participants argue that nuclear waste
should be stored in an accessible manner using the best available
technology, monitored with great care, and recontained in new
ways as technology advances.
the thinking of NGP strategists is not limited to scientific
and political calculations. If we are to succeed in protecting
future generations from lethal radioactivity, they claim, people
must also be inspired mythically and spiritually. Without a
grander vision and deeper motivation, we might not even be able
to implement whatever technical solutions become available.
For Macy, one possible way to foster new attitudes would be
to turn each nuclear site into a center of activity related
to guardianship. She describes the genesis of this idea:
started with a kind of vision I had in England in 1983, when
I visited the peace camps that had spontaneously arisen around
nuclear bases. . . I sensed that I was on sacred
ground. I had a feeling of déjà vu. I thought, "Oh,
maybe I'm being reminded of the monasteries that kept the
flame of learning alive in the Middle Ages." People made
pilgrimages to those places too. But then I realized, "No,
this is about the future. This is how the radioactive
remains are going to be guarded for the sake of future beings."(23)
such sites would require unwavering vigilance, they would entail
a social version of the mindfulness practice that is so central
to Buddhism. "We can contain the radioactivity if we pay
attention to it," writes Macy. "That act of attention
may be the last thing we want to do, but it is the one act that
She goes on to suggest that surveillance communities built around
today's nuclear facilities could also become centers for various
activities beyond the technical process of containment: pilgrimage,
meditation retreats, rituals "of acceptance and forgiveness,"
even a kind of monastic training. One hopeful NGP participant
declares, "Let us build beautiful shrines, life-affirming
shrines, with gardens and rooms for meditation."(25)
content merely to outline the possibilities, Macy and others
are experimenting with ritual forms to be used in study groups
and public workshops. They are even willing to modify the traditional
four vows taken by Mahayana Buddhists, by adding a fifth vow:
beings are numberless; I'll do the best I can to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I'll do the best I can to put
an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless; I'll do the best I can to master
The Poison Fire lasts forever; I'll do the best I can to
The Buddha way is unsurpassable; I'll do the best I can
to attain it.(26)
NGP event often begins with an invocation to beings of the past,
present, and future, welcoming them as companions and allies
in a time of need. Future beings are summoned with these words:
you who will come after us on this Earth, be with us now.
All you who are waiting to be born in the ages to come, it
is for your sakes too that we work to heal our world. We cannot
picture your faces or say your names -- you have none yet
-- but we would feel the reality of your claim on life.(27)
a three-day NGP retreat in Mendocino County, California, seventy-five
participants enacted a future pilgrimage to a guardian site,
half of them playing the role of pilgrims, the rest posing as
resident guardians. Some of the texts that are used in these
NGP exercises look back at the present from an imagined future.
One passage reads in part:
Guardians, we are gathered here at the Great Guardian Site
of Rancho Seco a brief two hundred years since the turning
from the Times of Nuclear Peril. Here in the Silkwood Pavilion
we are engaged in the essential practice of Remembering. We
must remember, because we cannot uninvent the nuclear technology
that almost killed our planet. . .
what power it unleashed! Yes, the poison fire was first used
for weapons, against great cities of a great people. And we
know the names, and you can say them in your heart -- we shall
not forget them: Hiroshima, Nagasaki. A quarter of a million
people burned at once, then many more sickened slowly, for
that is how it destroys -- slowly, hidden. Yet still our ancestors
built bombs with the poison fire, scores of thousands more,
and called them "war heads."
then our ancestors of that time -- this is also painful to
remember -- they took that poison fire to make electricity.
We know how easy it is to share the power of the sun and the
wind. But they took the poison fire and used it to boil water.
And the signs of sickening grew. . .
the Governments tried to bury it. There were places called
Carlsbad, Yucca Mountain: deep holes half a mile down. They
wanted to bury it as if the Earth were not alive. . .
among our ancestors in those dark times were those whose practice
of mindfulness allowed them to look directly at the poison
fire. They looked into their hearts and thought: "We
can guard the poison fire. We can overcome our fear of guarding
it and be mindful. Only in that way can the beings of the
future be protected." They remembered us!(28)
of the Nuclear Guardianship Project have been formed in Germany,
Switzerland, and Russia. The NGP has also been introduced to
Japan, where one cannot help but note that major reactors have
already been given religious names that would fit a guardian
site perfectly: "Monju" -- bodhisattva of wisdom,
"Fugen" -- bodhisattva of compassionate action, and
"Joyo" -- eternal light.
Nuclear Guardianship Project is difficult to assess. It has
not yet made inroads among nuclear engineers, much less been
tested in the public domain. To some observers it seems wildly
fanciful, because it expects to transform deep-seated psychological
responses to nuclear waste: denial of responsibility ("not
in my backyard") and denial of danger ("it's not making
us sick"). The NGP must contend with lingering disagreement
among scientists on technical issues, and it must deal with
the economic realities of implementing accessible containment
on a massive scale. However, the greatest source of resistance
may be our apparent unwillingness to reduce our material standard
of living voluntarily. The best way to limit future nuclear
waste is simply to stop producing it, but that course would
call for radical social changes that few citizens anywhere are
willing to contemplate. It is one thing to recognize the risks
of nuclear energy, but quite another to change the systems and
personal habits that currently demand it.
of the NGP's potential to influence affairs in the political
realm, the concept of nuclear guardianship is certainly intriguing
as a religious vision. This is not the first time that Buddhists
have believed that the world is coming to an end in some significant
way, and that an unprecedented response is required. In past
eras, predictions about the imminent disappearance of the Buddha's
teachings led to a revitalization of religion and sometimes
to major shifts in society. By directing attention to the distant
future, Macy invites us to "reinhabit" a deep, mythological
sense of time; such a perspective is a welcome antidote to the
impoverished, constricted sense of time that prevails in industrial
societies. In a similar manner, the NGP calls for a dramatic
extension of our sense of ethical responsibility. The notion
of guardianship begins with plutonium but goes on to embrace
numberless unborn beings and the planet as a whole.
of Departure from Buddhism's Past
is clear that an ecologically sensitive Buddhism exhibits significant
continuities with traditional Buddhism, continuities that can
be demonstrated textually, doctrinally, historically, and by
other means. Sustained inquiry by scholars and practitioners
will continue to elucidate those links. It is also instructive
to consider the ways in which today's green Buddhism may depart
from Buddhism's past. The individual and group activities surveyed
here are not only innovative on the level of practice; in many
cases they also embody consequential shifts in Buddhists' perceptions
of nature and society.
several contexts we have seen ecobuddhists struggling to think
and act globally; that breadth of commitment is itself a trait
that distinguishes today's activists from most of their Buddhist
predecessors. Just as current environmental problems are planetary
as well as local, present-day Buddhism has become international
as well as regional. For centuries, classic Buddhist texts have
depicted the universe as one interdependent whole, and elegant
doctrines have laid the conceptual foundation for a "cosmic
Contemporary Buddhist environmentalists are seeking to actualize
that vision with a concreteness that seems unprecedented in
the history of Buddhism.
increased awareness of the sociopolitical implications of spiritual
practice is another feature that might qualify as a departure
from earlier forms of Buddhism. Socially engaged Buddhism is
one of the notable developments in late twentieth-century Buddhism,
and environmental Buddhism is an important stream within this
larger movement. There is a well-known Zen story in which a
master rebukes a monk for discarding a single chopstick. The
original point is that even if the chopstick's mate is lost,
it still has intrinsic value and can be put to use in some other
way. In today's world, the widespread use of disposable chopsticks
might suggest other lessons about the far-reaching environmental
impact of daily actions.(30)
Green Buddhists no longer assume that spiritual practice can
take place in a social or environmental vacuum. Moreover, they
believe that an overly individualistic model of practice may
actually impede cooperative efforts to improve social conditions.
importance of women and of women's perspectives is another characteristic
of ecobuddhism that distinguishes it from more traditional forms
of Buddhism. Today's environmentally sensitive Buddhists want
to free themselves and others from sexist patterns of thought,
behavior, and language. Women, no less than men, are the leaders,
creative thinkers, and grassroots activists of green Buddhism.
The influence of women also manifests itself in an aversion
to hierarchy, an appreciation of the full range of experience,
and an emphasis on the richness of relationships (human and
nonhuman). Out of this milieu, the notion of the world "as
lover" has emerged as a model for a new bond between humanity
and nature. The ancient Greek goddess Gaia, who has been reclaimed
by many people as a symbol of the earth, is also embraced by
Buddhist environmentalists, men and women alike. Even the Buddha
is sometimes feminized, as in the following gatha by Thich Nhat
entrust myself to Earth;
Earth entrusts herself to me.
I entrust myself to Buddha;
Buddha entrusts herself to me.(31)
perceptions of nature denote another area in which past Buddhism
and present Buddhism diverge. Buddhists have long been sensitive
to the transitory nature of things. In Japan, for example, generations
of poets have "grieved" over the falling of cherry
blossoms. Yet according to the premodern Buddhist view, nature's
impermanence is also natural, part of the way things are, so
the process of extinction (in a paradoxical way) is also reassuring.
The grief of Buddhist environmentalists is prompted not by falling
cherry blossoms but by the actual loss of entire species of
living beings, and by the continuing devastation of the planet.
A new dimension of meaning has been added to the time-honored
Buddhist notion of impermanence. Gary Snyder writes:
extinction of a species, each one a pilgrim of four billion
years of evolution, is an irreversible loss. The ending of
the lines of so many creatures with whom we have traveled
this far is an occasion for profound sorrow and grief. . .
Some quote a Buddhist teaching back at us: "all is impermanent."
Indeed. All the more reason to move gently and cause less
assumptions about nature's power to harm human beings have been
augmented by a fresh appreciation of humans' power to harm nature.
In an early text the Buddha gives his monks a prayer which reads
love to the footless, my love to the twofooted, my love to
the fourfooted, my love to the manyfooted. Let not the footless
harm me, let not the twofooted harm me, let not the fourfooted
harm me, let not the manyfooted harm me. All sentient beings,
all breathing things, creatures without exception, let them
all see good things, may no evil befall them.(33)
passage expresses generous concern for other beings, yet it
also serves as a protective charm against dangerous animals
(especially poisonous snakes) -- if I don't harm them, they
won't harm me. In contrast, the ceremonial texts from Green
Gulch Farm or the Nuclear Guardianship Project are most concerned
about human threats to nature. Religious power is invoked in
each case, but in the new texts that power is summoned to protect
the environment from us and to atone for our depredations.
many Buddhist cultures, nature has functioned as the ideal setting
in which to seek salvation. Traditionally, movement toward nature
was regarded as a type of withdrawal: one retreated
to the mountains or the jungle to be free of society's defilements
and distractions. But for contemporary Buddhists a deepening
relation with nature is usually associated with a spirit of
engagement. Even if the experience of heightened intimacy
with nature is private and contemplative, that experience is
commonly interpreted as a call to action. In this new context
nature nonetheless retains its potential soteric power. For
many Buddhist activists, preservation of the environment doubles
as a spiritual path to personal and planetary salvation.
and supporters of contemporary Buddhist environmentalism have
already raised a number of provocative questions. Seasoned Buddhist
practitioners suspect that the comparisons between "ecological
awakening" and a true enlightenment experience are too
facile. Buddhist scholars in North America and Japan ask if
there a point at which the distance from traditional Buddhism
becomes so great that the Buddhist label is no longer appropriate.
Others express concern about the New Age elements that seem
to be part of ecobuddhism (such as NGP rituals evoking the future),
and they are not sure how to assess such elements. Buddhist
environmentalists take these issues seriously and raise further
questions. In daily life, how can traditional Buddhist practices
and new ecologically oriented practices be meaningfully integrated?
To what degree can a modern environmental ethic be extrapolated
from these individual and group practices? What is the relation
of green Buddhism to other forms of environmentalism, including
deep ecology? Such questions will continue to generate discussion
and reflection as the various forms of socially engaged Buddhism
evolve and mature.
certain perspectives it may seem that Buddhist environmentalism
is marginal, especially in the United States. After all, "green
politics" has appealed only to a minority in the culture
at large; Buddhism captures only a percentage point or two in
the national religious census; and even within American Buddhist
communities, not everyone is interested in environmental issues
or their relation to practice. If there is a way to communicate
the key ideas and basic practices of green Buddhism to a wider
public, it has not yet been found. Granted, Buddhists may have
affected the outcome in a number of local campaigns, saving
an old-growth forest in Oregon, protecting a watershed in northern
California, blocking a proposed nuclear dump in a California
desert. In such cases, however, it is hard to isolate distinctively
potential significance of green Buddhism can also be considered
from a religious standpoint. Even if there is little visible
evidence of impact, Buddhism may nonetheless be contributing
to a shift in the lives of individuals or the conduct of certain
groups. Some would argue that if only one person's life is changed
through an ecological awakening, the repercussions of that transformation
have important and continuing effects in realms seen and unseen.
An abiding faith in the fundamental interconnectedness of all
existence provides many individual activists with the energy
and focus that enable them to stay the course. Simply to return
to a unitive experience is often enough: "We don't need
to call it Buddhism -- or Dharma or Gaia. We need only to be
still and open our senses to the world that presents itself
to us moment to moment to moment."(34)
[Back to text] Dogen, in Philip Kapleau,
The Three Pillars of Zen, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday,
[Back to text] Quoted in Kapleau,
The Three Pillars of Zen, 215.
[Back to text] Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching
Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living (Berkeley:
Parallax Press, 1992), 11-12.
[Back to text] Thich Nhat Hanh, Present
Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living
(Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990), 9, 10.
[Back to text] The Mindfulness
Bell 1:3 (Autumn 1990): 16.
[Back to text] Stephanie Kaza, "Planting
Seeds of Joy" (unpublished paper, 1992), 13.
[Back to text] Lenore Friedman, "Book
Reviews," Turning Wheel (Fall 1991): 39.
[Back to text] The Mindfulness
Bell 4 (Spring 1991): 17.
[Back to text] The Ten Directions
11:1 (Spring/Summer 1990): 15.
[Back to text] Rochester Zen Center,
"Earth Relief Ceremony" (unpublished manual, 1992).
[Back to text] Gary Snyder, The
Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press,
[Back to text] Thomas Cleary, trans.,
Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen (Honolulu: University
of Hawaii Press, 1986), 98.
[Back to text] The Mindfulness
Bell 7 (Summer/Fall 1992): 6.
[Back to text] "Earth Day Ceremony
at Green Gulch Zen Center," Buddhist Peace Fellowship
Newsletter (Summer 1990): 32-33.
[Back to text] Rik Scarce, Eco-Warriors:
Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement (Chicago:
Noble Press, 1990), 227.
[Back to text] Joanna Macy, World
as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991),
[Back to text] Ibid., 202.
[Back to text] Ibid., 205.
[Back to text] Gary Snyder, Turtle
Island (New York: New Directions, 1974), 104.
[Back to text] Allan Hunt Badiner,
Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology
(Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990), v.
[Back to text] The Dalai Lama, "Five-Point
Peace Plan for Tibet," in Petra K. Kelly, Gert Bastian,
and Pat Aiello, eds., The Anguish of Tibet (Berkeley:
Parallax Press, 1991), 291; the Dalai Lama, "A Zone of
Peace," in Martine Batchelor and Kerry Brown, eds., Buddhism
and Ecology (London: Cassell, 1992), 112-13.
[Back to text] Kelly, Bastian, and
Aiello, The Anguish of Tibet, 288.
[Back to text] "Guardians of
the Future," In Context 28 (Spring 1991): 20.
[Back to text] "Technology
and Mindfulness," Nuclear Guardianship Forum 1
(Spring 1992): 3.
[Back to text] N. Llyn Peabody,
"A Summary of the Council Discussion," Buddhist
Peace Fellowship Newsletter 10:3/4 (Fall 1988): 23.
[Back to text] "Buddhist Vows
for Guardianship," Nuclear Guardianship Forum
1 (Spring 1992): 2.
[Back to text] Macy, World as
Lover, World as Self, 207.
[Back to text] The Fire Group, "Remembering
at a Future Guardian Site," Buddhist Peace Fellowship
Newsletter (Winter 1991): 18-19.
[Back to text] Francis H. Cook,
Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (University
Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), 2.
[Back to text] Even if disposable
chopsticks do not contribute to the destruction of rainforests
(experts disagree), comparable examples are abundant.
[Back to text] Nhat Hanh, Present
Moment, Wonderful Moment, 59.
[Back to text] Snyder, The Practice
of the Wild, 176.
[Back to text] Anguttara Nikaya,
Pali Text Society Publications 2, 72-73.
[Back to text] Nina Wise, "Thâystock
at Spirit Rock," The Mindfulness Bell 5 (Autumn
of Cross Currents is the property of Association
for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not
be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission
except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval
software used for access. This content is intended solely for
the use of the individual user. Cross Currents, Summer94,
Vol. 44 Issue 2, p163, 17p