7 Reasons Buddhists don’t give a shiite about the Environment.

Via on Jul 30, 2010

Buddhists: Too Busy to Touch the Earth?

Walking the path toward selflessness often means getting really self-absorbed. Sorting yourself out? Practicing meditation, going on Buddhist retreats? Likely means you won’t be spending the best part of your daily energies fighting (peaceably, that is) for a better planet.

I grew up in the Shambhala Buddhist community, and although it’s improved marginally over the years (as has the rest of American society, I should point out) in terms of basic eco-responsibility, our Buddhist “feast” food still generally comes from Safeway or whereever’s cheapest in big plastic trays. We eat meat like there’s no tomorrow, and yes this is holocaust-analogy-appropriate factory-farmed meats, generally. In our daily lives, I can’t think of a Buddhist who goes out of his or her way to bike about, as do many “normal” folks in my hometown. Our BBQs involve plenty of plastic cups, forks, throwaway.

We may be inspired to sort out the suffering in our minds—but creating enlightened society? Nah.

So what’s the deal, you ask?

Here’s 10 reasons (okay, couldn’t think of 10, suggest a few in comments and I”ll add ’em in) why we Buddhists tend to navel-gaze rather than get off the meditation cushion and make some external change:

1. Preventing too many Activities. We’re more interested in meditation—the practice of achieving inner peace. Getting involved in politics, eco-responsible initiatives at school or work…brings up too much klesha.

2. Grant your Blessings that Confusion may dawn as Wisdom. Out of Sight, Out of Mind. Like all Americans, we like reading our books but don’t think about how those books came to us. We like buying statues of Buddhas and brocade and incense and have no idea if they were ripped out of temples or are made out of toxic substances. We have no idea because we don’t care. We don’t care because, fundamentally, Buddhism is for many of us a path that leads us out of confusion and into wisdom—a self-centered, navel-gazing path.

3. Never Forget Hinayana. Activism is often just self-righteous aggression that creates more confusion. As Buddhist Beat poet put it, “aggression begets aggression.” And, even in 2010, much of the environmental movement is caught up in an us vs. them, good vs. evil mentality. From a Buddhist point of  view, we’re all basically good, fundamentally okay. We all just want to be happy. We all want blue skies and green grass for our children. Better to meditate more, and shout less, the thinking goes.

4. There’s no point to fighting samsara. Nihilism runs strong and deep, even in we Buddhists who talk the emptiness and luminosity game. What’s that, you say? Buddhists love to talk about how all things are empty. But the Buddhadharma loves to remind us that just because things are empty doesn’t mean they’re not full and wonderful and important, worth respecting, too.

5. Karma is internal, not external. We Buddhists seem to think that responsibility for our actions is irrelevant, unless it’s emotional, relational actions. In which case we’re all about it: did I cause confusion? Did I upset you? Is my mind troubled? But when it comes to external cause and effect, such as failing to recycle or use biodiesel? Who gives a shiite.

6. We’re busy fighting other battles. You only have so much time to split up—enjoying life here, raising a family there, running a business here, meditating and doing Buddhist retreats there. We’re doing good work, creating peace and compassion internally, and as Margaret Mead said, small groups have the power to change the world. So let other small groups work in more direct ways to help the environment.

7. We don’t connect inner mindfulness with outer mindfulness. We don’t connect our Buddhist practice of joyful discipline with our day-to-day, moment-to-moment actions—turning off a light switch or smoking or eating gmo crap seems to have little connection to meditation practice, Dharma study, the paramitas (virtues).

8. WTF? I’m out of ideas. Really, I’m a bit at a loss. Got a thought? Offer it in comments, and I’ll likely add it in here.

Above left, environmental issues seem far away, fraught with aggression and politics. Above right, the Karmapa, a young Buddhist leader, is passionate about protection our environment. Below, the Dalai Lama has helped lead the way in connecting Buddhism and Environmentalism, even giving up his traditional meat-rich Tibetan diet and asking his students to do the same.


“Peace and the survival of life on earth as we know it are threatened by human activities that lack a commitment to humanitarian values. Destruction of nature and natural resources results from ignorance, greed and lack of respect for the earth’s living things.

“Our ancestors viewed the earth as rich and bountiful, which it is. Many people in the past also saw nature as inexhaustibly sustainable, which we know is the case only if we care for it. It is not difficult to forgive destruction in the past that resulted from ignorance. Today, however, we have access to more information, and it is essential that we re-examine ethically what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations.”

“As people alive today, we must consider future generations: a clean environment is a human right like any other. It is therefore part of our responsibility towards others to ensure that the world we pass on is as healthy, if not healthier, than we found it.”

About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now elephantjournal.com & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | facebook.com/elephantjournal | twitter.com/elephantjournal | facebook.com/waylonhlewis | twitter.com/waylonlewis | Google+ For more: publisherelephantjournalcom



58 Responses to “7 Reasons Buddhists don’t give a shiite about the Environment.”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    You forgot one other point…What is of concern and important today will also pass and vanish giving way to yet other concerns not yet considered.

  2. Nick says:

    Buddhism isn't eco-friendly??????? Wait… Who gives a shit?

  3. Matt says:

    I do agree that there could be more being done by the religion that expresses itself as the way of Compassion, but does it really have to be put that way?
    More and more is being done to reverse, or at the very least slow down the degradation of our environment, something that happened far too fast and almost entirely within the time frame that started with the Industrial Revolution. But considering that many monastery traditions involve begging for food, and that includes gurus like Marpa and Milarepa of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition you were raised in, is it really that wrong that some communities are just doing the best they can with the resources they're given? The coming together and sharing of food encourages the union of the sangha, one of the three jewels. Disposable plastic cups and forks may not be the best tools, but they are one way to do it.

    The Buddha and the Dharma teach that we should strive to be vegetarians, and sutras like the Lankavatara Sutra clearly express that in more than meaningful ways, but unfortunately the road isn't always a straightforward path. I appreciate that your criticism encourages others to seek better ways, but I do believe you could have put it in a less offensive presentation.

  4. #
    Merilyn Rinchen Hand Artist of these beautiful appliques used for HH Karmapa's book on the environment is Leslie Temple! See her work at: http://www.tibetcolor.com

    Jodie Gilbert The picture does not go with the headline. I was a taken back to see such a negative headline with his picture. Maybe use a different picture.

    Aron Stein This is a dumb joke. I think. I don't get it.

    George Danellis ‎@way, did you get up on the wrong side of the zabuton? While I agree that Buddhists' level of awareness of environmental challenges might not be met by a similar level of action, perhaps you are holding the bar a bit too high for your dharma brothers and sisters.

    Chris Battis Sorry, Waylon; a swing and a miss…

    Aron Stein As I said. It must be a joke, just a bad delivery. The idea is funny.

    elephantjournal.com Chris, Aron, George…read the article if you didn't before commenting. I grew up at two meditation centers, and the level of environmental responsibility was sadly lacking. Generally, food-wise and energy…well just read the article instead of commenting on photo, headline first?

    elephantjournal.com George, the bar should be not high but straightforwardly responsible particularly for those seeking to lead awake, karmically-responsible lives, yes?

  5. #
    Christina Omorochoe Waylon, Perhaps when you were growing up the general level of environmental interest and accountability was sadly lacking. At any rate, this has not been my experience and I sincerely hope your experience improves. Be the change ~ with compassion. peace out

    elephantjournal.com Thanks, Christina! Things haven't improved, hardly at all, in my experience, I'm sorry to say.

    Christina Omorochoe Very sorry to hear it, Waylon. It has been my experience that things are now better and worse in equal measure – the best of times, the worst of times as Dickens famously wrote. We must be grateful to and encouraging of socially engaged Buddhists! Be the change ♥

    Aron Stein
    I DID read your article. I assumed it was humorous since you made such sweeping generalizations. Ironic for a yogi or Buddhist. Now I feel it's just bitter. I'm sorry you had a bad experience. Such is life and people are people. I don't ass…ume people are the same or even similar. I'm a certified Anusara instructor. I also lived in a Buddhist monastery off and on for over ten years. We cooked vegetarian meals, recycled, served the homeless community and conserved power, etc…

    Yes there are plenty of Buddhists who are self absorbed assholes. Sometimes referred to as the stink of zen. It may be a by product of practice at times but it's not something you can judge to be better or worse than the stink of yoga or the stink of an environmentalist, or a right wing republican, etc. People in the Yoga community are often far more unaware than the Buddhist I have known. Just because they recycle and buy smart cars does not mean a thing.

    There is no obligation on the part of a Buddhist or anyone to be responsible in the way you seem to think one 'should'. That in itself indicates a duality one might say. Take responsibility for your own life and perception first. That's the primary 'goal' if there is one. Of course really there is no goal, there is no path.See More

    Gene Yakub
    I find this a bit confusing and contradictory. Are you actually pointing at people who profess to be Buddhists but don't practice what they preach/are preached at? Otherwise why would you highlight the Karmapa and the Dalai Lama? Judging a… source by its afficianados is mistaken.
    I see you are conected to The Huffington Post to which I unsubscribed recently after giving up on its constant refrains of criticism and putting everyone down. So easy to be a crit!


    Susan Handlen Waylon, I have to take issue. Of course we can all do more, but a lot is changing/changed. I eat very little meat. At my Shambhala Center we do our best to be environmentally sensitive. And our feast food doesn't come from the supermarket. It comes from Whole Foods. That's about the best we can do. You say you "grew up" in 2 centers – you grew up a while ago! Things change . . .

    Jessie Fletcher
    Wow, quite a conundrum indeed. On the one hand we do have practitioners who are apathetic in being politically active in regards to believing activism is being fought on a level where our political leaders are speaking on our behest. On t…he other hand it is those same leaders who claim to be acting in the general public and environments interest, who are making back room deals to fatten their bank accounts in order to fulfill a self serving elitist agenda. The wheels of time are in full progress almost to a point of no return. Individual awareness to the illusions which are beset in front of us is the only way forward. May we all be blessed with spontaneous conscious awareness!!! Om Mani Padme Hum See More

    elephantjournal.com Gene, if you read the article, which it seems you did, you'd see I highlighted the Karmapa and the Dalai Lama as wonderful examples, and linked to some of their work in encouraging responsibility in Buddhist communities.

    Susan, things can change, but my local community house and my local Shambhala Center, while doing some things very well, are what the eco community could call, at best, "green lite."

    Matt, in fact, environmental degradation is speeding up. We just had the six hottest months in recorded history. Have you seen the clock: http://www.dbcca.com/dbcca/EN/ or even more interestingly http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/

    Actually, Gene, I'd say that non-anonymous criticism is among the hardest things. I'm talking about my own Buddhist community, here, and simply pointing out that our actions are oft not eco-responsible, and that they easily could be. And based on the number of critical comments I'm getting, there's a fair amount of blowback–which isn't easy for me. And that's fine.

  6. Terry says:

    Where is perfection? Thanks for your interesting observations and for the courage to speak about these issues. “Peace is every step” TNH

  7. Ginny says:

    Back to what I thought was the original (somewhat tongue in cheek) intent of Waylon's post…… acceptance and the concept of impermanence can hinder some Buddhists from getting off the cushion and onto eco activism. Thus displayed in this morning's words from Sharon Salzberg, "One of the primary tools we have in spiritual life is the understanding that everything is changing all of the time, that nothing is fixed, and nothing is permanent. Because of that truth, when we make a mistake we realize that we can begin again." Thanks Waylon for making this point and appreciating the ironic.

  8. Padma Kadag says:

    I think that this subject is very interesting and covers manymany points which are important…

  9. Matt says:

    Waylon, what I said is that more is being done to reverse the situation, not that it is being reversed or slowed down, unfortunately. The very fact that those clocks you linked exist point that more and more people are being made aware of the problem, and awareness is the first step to enlightenment.

    I never meant to demerit your efforts to bring these matters to light, I only disagree with the way you exposed your ideas, that's all. As I said before, I appreciate your initiative.

  10. anonymous says:

    So are you saying we should be activists only and that it is selfish and non eco friendly to just try and improve our own life both inner and outer? The first teaching- love oneself and then you can love others. I mediate and I recycle, etc etc. Maybe I am simple minded but this post is a little… off and a little …pointless?

  11. Kris says:

    When we are sitting we are not consuming!

  12. I have noticed the same types of inaction in the yoga community, but there will always be hypocrites. They are everywhere!

  13. Nyima Wimberly says:

    I have to say, Waylon, that this seems sort of full of shit. Not because I disagree with your specific points as lines that a Buddhist may use to avoid personal responsibility to engage, but because there is no overarching evidence laid out here that Buddhist do this disproportionately to any other group. In my personal experience, Buddhists are much more likely to be engaged in environmental issues that the vast majority of the population. The Buddhists that don't engage use the same tactics as anyone else: "I am justified in some way to not engage," "there is no way that I could engage that would be of any help," or "there is nothing to engage." It is perhaps more frustrating to here them use a shared spirituality as their weapon of choice to express neurosis, but it is personal escapism, as you well know, not Buddhism. If it was Buddhism, you would be climbing up the social ladder toward owning that Hummer you always wanted. It sounds to me like you are just venting, which is OK.
    Much love, Waylon. Thanks for putting yourself out there!
    Nyima Wimberly

  14. Padma Kadag says:

    If we do not believe or have faith in the guarantee that when we uncover our Buddha nature and attain enlightenment that ALL mother sentient beings are liberated, and not one left out or "behind", from samsara, which includes our current perception that there is an environmental holocaust going on, then we really cannot call ourselves Buddhist. Having said that…I eat food when I need to eat food..I enjoy nature too..so I can also lend a hand where a hand is needed to protect this earth. So long as we know that utilizing concepts, as we do, and understand that we reify them withsolidity that the real work is in liberating one's self and all beings. Not perpetuating the illusion of samsara with good or bad deeds.

  15. Annie says:

    Could not agree more! I was just having a conversation with coworkers about how being a yogi you are a self-less individual. How can yogis be completely selfless by spending time improving their practice and spending money on something they could most probably do on their own if they put their mind to mastering themself. I am a yoga teacher and I appreciate people coming to my classes but I also think there must be a purpose in coming to class. What is your intention for each class? You must always take something away from your practice, be it meditation, yoga or a job, with the intention of giving something back to someone else or to a cause.

  16. I can name 7 times I have seen senior Buddhist practitioner say they don't give a shit. Maybe they need permission to give a shit from a teacher, I don't know. All in all the greater path is only available to those who do care and do something about it, all the time. Simple.

  17. Shunyata Kharg says:

    Funny post, Waylon, thanks!

    I think there's a lot we can do by stopping doing things. Buddhism, in a good measure, is about becoming aware of the consequences of our actions, mindfulness. So we stop consuming so much. Then we do as much as we can to consume stuff produced with ecological mindfulness. That's the "easy" part.

    The more difficult part is knowing how to put this across to those who can't see it (Buddhists or not). On a relative level there is such a thing as truth. Obviously. It is true to say the Earth revolves around the Sun. It is false to say the opposite. So AGW is a truth backed up by the best thing humans have to date to decide what is real and what isn't (relatively speaking) – science. We know how much suffering AGW is causing and will cause to sentient beings. But what can we say to those who steadfastly deny its reality?

    That, my friend, is the question. I don't have the whole answer, by any manner of means. I've got as far as thinking that the answer has got to be a quiet insistence on pointing out the consequences of our actions. We are free to do as we like. We are not free from the consequences of doing so.

  18. Nathan says:

    I think it is important that one of the foremost proponents of Engaged Buddhism has been Thich Naht Hahn. I pretty much disagree with the entire premise of this post, actually, as I find most Buddhists I know to be very concerned with issues of the environement.

  19. EtonaLife says:

    I think your understanding of Theravada (which you disrespectfully refer to as Hinayana – more dualism) is off. We are not all essentially good or bad. We are all caught in the cycle of suffering. By investigating ourselves, moment by moment, we are moving towards freedom from that suffering. The investigation continues off of the cushion and the mindfulness, insight, and resilience that has been developed gives us greater capacity to make the right environmentally compassionate decisions in the relevant moments.

    While the Buddha warned against becoming involved in political discussion, he himself was an iconoclast – challenging the very foundations of Hinduism. Zen Buddhists had an unmistakable voice for peace during the Vietnam War. Very recently the Theravada monks of Burma have organized and risked their lives to speak out against the oppression of the Myanmar government. It sounds like your Sangha could grow in the areas of environmental and political action. I'd encourage you to lead such a movement within the community without making broad unsupported generalizations about others.

  20. Daimon says:

    I too am rather appalled at the oblivious attitude toward environmental choices taken by the Buddhist groups I am familiar with. However, I think the problem is a fundamental human one, not just Buddhist. The contradictions are more striking in a Buddhist context given the stated concern for all sentient beings combined with actions that directly harm sentient beings. It should not be hard to connect those two dots and make environmental responsibility part of Buddhist practice, as indeed some are doing.

    Back to the statement that this is a human problem: When we adopt a goal as being supremely important (like achieving enlightenment or – more humbly – doing practices) (or making money, or achieving status, or anything else) we automatically discount all other goals in favor of our chosen one. They simply do not have the visibility and certainly not the priority of our chosen goal. They become ignorable.

    Until ethical/environmental action in the world is integrated into Buddhist goals it will be discounted and ignored.

    And Waylon, on a personal note, in reading your bio the desire for 12 children struck me as very weird in the context of this post. Disconnect? Little can be as destructive as growing the human (especially Western human) population exponentially. Even if that is meant humorously (and I don’t know if it is or not), the aspiration influences people. I have one child and I’m not sure that was a good idea, given the way things are headed.

  21. Sondra says:

    OK – any religion asks you to first look inside to either find god or peace/end to suffering in Buddhist case. And as a practicing Buddhist I must tell you that my form of practice has always been about awareness of the world around me – I am more at peace breathing clean air and I practice mindfullness much better when I am restoring the local wetlands as a volunteer. I think anything can be taken to extremes. I stay far away from Zen as staring at "empty" blank walls is not my path to end suffering. My path is to actively engage the universe and practice compassion with each action and step I take. Mindfullness can be found choosing active awareness. I am non-thiest and find Buddhism the philosophy of how I want to change not only myself but help those around me. It was a conscious choice to practice compassion and mindfulness – not somethng my parents raised me to do. I find agency and peace in engaging in the world and making my small difference. We are all not sitting in monestries, sitting on cussions for hours or staring at walls – some of us, AI would venture many of us are the ones leading the charge to change through love and compassion.

  22. Judi Howell says:

    We could posit the more general question, why do we ‘sit’ at all? In preparation before attending a conference to discuss bringing civility back(?) to political process and government policy, I’m reading Arawana Hayashi’s article on feminine principal and it’s basis for any kind of action. Bringing meditative experience out of the meditation hall is as challenging as first learning to sit! That being said, meanwhile, how hard is it to not use paper and plastic? Recently seen in a comment: raze da gaze! Helpful, that.

  23. PRADEEP says:


  24. Buddha Rocket says:

    We are the environment.

  25. […] Lewis’ recent, scathing article, “7 Reasons Buddhists don’t give a shiite about the Environment,” ruffled some feathers—of overly contented, misguided birds, if you ask me.  There was a […]

  26. […] Waylon posted an article titled “7 Reasons Buddhists don’t Give a Shiite about the Environment,” in which he points out eminent Buddhist teachers such H.H. The Dalai Lama and H.H. The Karmapa have […]

  27. Shitter says:

    Walking the path toward selflessness often means getting really self-absorbed. Sorting yourself out? Practicing meditation, going on Buddhist retreats? Likely means you won’t be spending the best part of your daily energies fighting (peaceably, that is) for a better planet."

    I just asume this person doesnt know much about buddhism. But i do have a question for this idiotic little cunt: I LIKE TO FUCK MY ROOMMATE ONCE IN A WHILE< DOES THAT MAKE ME AN ASSHOLE TOO BECAUSE IM NOT SAVING THE PLANET AT THAT MOMENT?! DOES THAT MAKES SEX BAD? I LIKE TO EAT A BURGER AT MACDONALDS ONCE IN A WHILE, DOES THAT MAKE ME AN ASSHOLE BECAUSE IM NOT SAVING THE EARTH AT THAT MOMENT< DOES IT MAKE MACDONALDS BAD? YOU FEELING ME?! What a dumb ignorant waste of space are you, fuck me… I hope you have somekind of social disorder, cause i cant think of a better reason for a person to make utterly stupid comments like this.

  28. Thoroughly Disgusted says:

    This article is a perfect example why no one should submit to any type of dogmatic prescription to spirituality.

  29. Thoroughly Disgusted says:

    In addition, all this crap about "harming sentient beings"…has not one of you read "The Secret Life of Plants"?

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