Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism
Edited by Stephanie Kaza & Kenneth Kraft
Shambhala Publications:Boston, 2000
500 pp,; $16.95 (paper)
Ten years ago, Earth Day director Christina Desser proclaimed that from that day forward, the environment would be the screen through which all other decisions are made. The choices one makes about spiritual paths and the practice of Buddhism proves to be no exception. Buddhist practice cultivates a view of humanity and nature that is fundamentally ecological. It is through unremitting attentiveness that our perception opens to the interdependence and fragility of all life. Zen Master Eisai expressed it this way: “Because I am, heaven overhangs and earth is upheld. Because I am, the sun and the moon go round. The four seasons come in succession, all things are born, because I am, that is, because of Mind.”
Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft have done a great service in producing the most comprehensive gathering of Buddhist environmental resources to date in their new book, Dharma Rain. There is no lack of sources to inspire ecological awareness in early Buddhism, and Dharma Rain makes an important contribution by pulling together much of what is existent in one place.
Thorough as it is, the book sidesteps some fundamental issues in the eco-Buddhist discussion, and underrepresents its scope in other respects. Declaring as they do that the 1996 Harvard Conferences on Religion and Ecology inaugurated the field, the editors may have overlooked some earlier important contributions. David Barash published an article in 1973 entitled “The Ecologist as Zen Master” in which he discussed what he considered the remarkable parallels between Zen Buddhism and the then-emerging public concept of ecology. He felt that the interdependence and unity of all things was fundamental to both Zen practice and the science of ecology, and that they share a common non-dualistic view of the fundamental identity of subject and surroundings. He concluded that “the very study of ecology, is the elaboration of Zen’s nondualistic thinking.” In 1984, Robert Thurman’s and Carl Ruck’s ideas in On Nature from the Boston University series on philosophy and religion by L. S. Rouner were also seminal. From Sri Lanka in 1989 came Bellanwila Wimalaratanas book, Buddhism, Society and Environment and its capacious analysis of Buddhism’s understanding of the intricate web of life. Shann Davies’s 1985 book, Tree of Life: Buddhism and Protection of Nature, led the stream of recent publications on Buddhism and ecology.
In Part Two of Dharma Rain, “Contemporary Interpretations of the Teachings,” I would have liked to have seen an exploration into the scholarly debate that has arisen around the question of whether Buddhism is being tied too tightly to ecological concern. As Kenneth Kraft writes elsewhere, “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 are asking if there a point at which the distance from traditional Buddhism becomes so great that the Buddhist label is no longer appropriate."
The book would have benefited from a discussion about the ideas of Lambert Schmithausen and Noriaki Hakamaya who question the establishment of ecological ethics in early Buddhism, and who are critical of Green Dharma on the grounds that “canonical” Buddhism implies a negation of the natural realm for all practical purposes.
In Part Three, “Buddhism in the World: Ecoproblems in Buddhist Countries,” the many examples and insights from Buddhist ecological activity in Thailand are instructive, with no less than three pieces from Sulak Sivaraksa on where the eco-Buddhist tire meets the road of real world social practices.
Peter Matthiessen, Zen-gardener Wendy Johnson, and the late Rick Fields are among the voices heard in Part Five: “Home Practice, Wild Practice.” Also within this section, reflecting at once the richness and complexity of Buddhism, there are thought-provoking essays relating to the classic debate in Buddhism about eating animals or not that includes ideas from Philip Glass and Gary Snyder.
If the preponderance of scientists and ecologists are right, we currently dwell in an epoch the future will know as the great dying. Edward O. Wilson and others offer compelling evidence that human behaviors are bringing about the fastest wave of species extinction known in the four-billion-year history of the planet.
The key to unlocking the powerful contribution that Buddhism can make to restoring ecological health is its recognition that the crisis lies in the habits of our mind as much as in the destructive habits of our behavior. As Kaza has observed, “an environmental ethic is not something we apply outside ourselves; there is no outside ourselves. We are the environment, and it is us.” The final word must go to Zen Master Dogen who pointed out, “If you yourself, who are the valley streams and mountains, cannot develop the power which illuminates the true reality of the mountains and valley streams, who else is going to be able to convince you that you and the streams and mountains are one and the same?”
Allan Hunt-Badiner is a contributing editor to Tricycle. He edited the book Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology. He lives in Big Sur, California