by Kenneth Kraft

Can the traditional Buddhist contemplative retreat into nature
become an active engagement with its salvation?

KENNETH 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 Kyoto, Japan.

On 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.

Plutonium (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.

The 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.

I 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.

In 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.

Individual Practices Related to the Environment

A 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)

For 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 meditation:

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.

Breathing in, I see myself as a flower.
Breathing out, I feel fresh.

Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain.
Breathing out, I feel solid.

Breathing in, I see myself as still water.
Breathing out, I reflect things as they are.

Breathing in, I see myself as space.
Breathing out, I feel free.(3)

Thich 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:

Water flows from high in the mountains.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us,
and sustains all life.

Washing one's hands can become an occasion for renewing one's dedication to the environment:

Water flows over these hands.
May I use them skillfully
to preserve our precious planet.(4)

The following verse, meant to be used when getting into a car, again evokes a twofold mindfulness -- for the moment and for interrelatedness:

Entering this powerful car,
I buckle my seatbelt
and vow to protect all beings.(5)

The 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:

One 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 friendships.(6)

The 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)

Group Practices

When 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)

The 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:

Tonight 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)

The 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.

In 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:

It 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)

The Ring of Bone Zendo conducts weeklong backpacking sesshins twice a year, and the practice has spread to other West Coast Zen groups.

In 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)

One 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 in part:

Plants and Animals in the Garden,

We 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:

Little sparrows, quail, robins, and house finches who have died in our strawberry nets;

Young Cooper's hawk who flew into our sweet pea trellis and broke your neck;

Numerous orange-bellied newts who died in our shears, in our irrigation pipes, by our cars, and by our feet. . . .;

Gophers and moles, trapped and scorned by us, and also watched with love, admiration, and awe for your one-mindedness. . . .;

And all plants we have shunned: poison hemlock, pigweed, bindweed, stinging nettle, bull thistle;

We call up plants we have removed by dividing you and separating you, and by deciding you no longer grow well here.

We 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)

This 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.

Another 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.

The 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:

Each 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.

"Yes, of course," said the Dalai Lama. "Very good."(17)

For 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:

"I, lichen, work slowly, very slowly. Time is my friend. This is what I give you: patience for the long haul and perseverance."

"It is a dark time. As deep-diving trout I offer you my fearlessness of the dark."

"I, lion, give you my roar, the voice to speak out and be heard."(18)

The 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)

Green Buddhism's Global Reach

With 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.

An 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."

The 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:

Prior 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. . .

It 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)

A 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)

Even 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.

A 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.

But 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:

It 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)

Because 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 is required."(24) 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)

Not 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:

Sentient 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 them.
The Poison Fire lasts forever; I'll do the best I can to contain it.
The Buddha way is unsurpassable; I'll do the best I can to attain it.(26)

An 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:

All 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)

During 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:

Pilgrims, 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. . .

Oh, 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."

And 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. . .

And 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. . .

Yet 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)

Chapters 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.

The 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.

Regardless 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.

Points of Departure from Buddhism's Past

It 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.

In 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 ecology."(29) Contemporary Buddhist environmentalists are seeking to actualize that vision with a concreteness that seems unprecedented in the history of Buddhism.

The 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.

The 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 Hanh:

I entrust myself to Earth;
Earth entrusts herself to me.
I entrust myself to Buddha;
Buddha entrusts herself to me.(31)

Shifting 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:

The 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 harm.(32)

Perennial 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 in part:

My 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)

This 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.

In 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.


Critics 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.

From 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 "Buddhist" influences.

The 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)


1. [Back to text]  Dogen, in Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 310.

2. [Back to text]  Quoted in Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen, 215.

3. [Back to text]  Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1992), 11-12.

4. [Back to text]  Thich Nhat Hanh, Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990), 9, 10.

5. [Back to text]  The Mindfulness Bell 1:3 (Autumn 1990): 16.

6. [Back to text]  Stephanie Kaza, "Planting Seeds of Joy" (unpublished paper, 1992), 13.

7. [Back to text]  Lenore Friedman, "Book Reviews," Turning Wheel (Fall 1991): 39.

8. [Back to text]  The Mindfulness Bell 4 (Spring 1991): 17.

9. [Back to text]  The Ten Directions 11:1 (Spring/Summer 1990): 15.

10. [Back to text]  Rochester Zen Center, "Earth Relief Ceremony" (unpublished manual, 1992).

11. [Back to text]  Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), 94.

12. [Back to text]  Thomas Cleary, trans., Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986), 98.

13. [Back to text]  The Mindfulness Bell 7 (Summer/Fall 1992): 6.

14. [Back to text]  "Earth Day Ceremony at Green Gulch Zen Center," Buddhist Peace Fellowship Newsletter (Summer 1990): 32-33.

15. [Back to text]  Rik Scarce, Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement (Chicago: Noble Press, 1990), 227.

16. [Back to text]  Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991), 200.

17. [Back to text]  Ibid., 202.

18. [Back to text]  Ibid., 205.

19. [Back to text]  Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (New York: New Directions, 1974), 104.

20. [Back to text]  Allan Hunt Badiner, Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990), v.

21. [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.

22. [Back to text]  Kelly, Bastian, and Aiello, The Anguish of Tibet, 288.

23. [Back to text]  "Guardians of the Future," In Context 28 (Spring 1991): 20.

24. [Back to text]  "Technology and Mindfulness," Nuclear Guardianship Forum 1 (Spring 1992): 3.

25. [Back to text]  N. Llyn Peabody, "A Summary of the Council Discussion," Buddhist Peace Fellowship Newsletter 10:3/4 (Fall 1988): 23.

26. [Back to text]  "Buddhist Vows for Guardianship," Nuclear Guardianship Forum 1 (Spring 1992): 2.

27. [Back to text]  Macy, World as Lover, World as Self, 207.

28. [Back to text]  The Fire Group, "Remembering at a Future Guardian Site," Buddhist Peace Fellowship Newsletter (Winter 1991): 18-19.

29. [Back to text]  Francis H. Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), 2.

30. [Back to text]  Even if disposable chopsticks do not contribute to the destruction of rainforests (experts disagree), comparable examples are abundant.

31. [Back to text]  Nhat Hanh, Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, 59.

32. [Back to text]  Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, 176.

33. [Back to text]  Anguttara Nikaya, Pali Text Society Publications 2, 72-73.

34. [Back to text]  Nina Wise, "Thâystock at Spirit Rock," The Mindfulness Bell 5 (Autumn 1991): 19.

Copyright 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