A Comprehensive Evaluation of Buddhist Environment Philosophy
The environmental crisis we face today appears in a myriad of manifestations. The forces of climate change, deforestation, air and water pollution, habitat destruction, ozone depletion, land degradation, reduction in biodiversity, and resource depletion have coalesced, endangering not only the human species, but the entire ecosystem within which we exist. Each of these problems again fractalizes into countless rampant environmental-epidemics. Though these individual topics have been managed politically for some time, no blanket solution has ever been touted by either scientist or statesman. This is because the root of these problems is a direct product of human psychology. Neither political ideology nor scientific recourse, it seems, can cure us of our destructive relationship with nature.
To the contrary, what is needed is a cogent belief system which deals with curbing the appetites of human desire, such that a certain dignity for the environment is upheld. It is in my opinion that Buddhism, and in particular Mahayana Buddhism, is the optimal choice for this requisite doctrine. In this article I will illustrate how Buddhism’s reaction to the concept of desire, advocacy of the ‘middle path’, and belief in the significance of life are quite pertinent to the plane of philosophy of environment. Moreover, I will utilized Mahayana Buddhism’s reliance on the notion of “contingent existence” (Pratitya Samutpada) and adherence to the five precepts (paramitas), to provide the groundwork for constructing an ethical responsibility for the environment, including an obligation to those sentient creatures that inhabit it.
Much of the reason for our contemporary environmental predicament is rooted in the conflation of need and desire. As biological organisms, human beings have certain necessities. A person can only exist without water, food, and shelter for so long. These requirements are what we term ‘needs’. As human civilizations progressed, from hunting and gathering societies to those which we observe today, the sense in which we define items ‘needs’ seems to have changed. Much of what we need today, is inarguably unnecessary in a biological and functional sense. “Needing” plastic grocery bags, oversized SUVs, and pesticides for our lawns is—at the very least—a gross semantic misapplication and—in most probability—a complete bastardization of the concept. Rather, contemporary usage of ‘need’ functions as a pleasant euphemism for the luxuries we desire. Buddhism seems to understand this pivotal aspect of human nature and as such, that the Buddha elucidates the Four Noble Truths.
In sum, these tenets describe the nature of existence and provide a path for liberation from worldly suffering (dukkha). The First Noble Truth articulates the very fundament of Buddhist thought, that all of life is suffering. As the Samyutta Nikaya states, “Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, [and] not to get what one wants is suffering”. The Second Noble Truth clarifies that this suffering stems cravings for certain pleasures. That is, the material and immaterial desires which motivate us into action are those which, ironically, cause our suffering. Thus in order to alleviate suffering, it follows that we must unshackle ourselves from the burden of desire. This is the Third Noble Truth: the cessation of appetites. It maintains that the release from suffering (Nirvana) is possible. Finally, the Fourth Noble Truth asserts that liberation from suffering can be attained through the Buddhist eight-fold path. In order to be freed from dukkha, the practitioner must live and act with right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right practice. Following the eight theses constitutes, for the Buddhist, the “middle way”. From this quick exposition of the four noble truths, it seems evident that Buddhism stands quite opposed to our conventional concept of ‘need’ in contemporary society. Rather, these longings quickly fall into the Buddhist category of ‘desires’, and thus are merely impediments in attaining Nirvana.
With the distinction between ‘need’ and ‘desire’ established, we can see that the sincere Buddhist would shy away from over-consumption, on the personal, societal, and global levels. By personal over-consumption, I mean to indicate the vice of gluttony. Directly, in Environmental Ethics in Mahayana Buddhism: The Significance of Keeping Precepts and Wisdom (henceforth referred to as TSKPW), Suichi Yamamoto states that one of the “ten good precepts” of Mahayana Buddhism is “not being greedy”. Thus, it is hard to imagine that a Buddhist, who understands that desires are the driving force behind suffering, and yet continues indulge himself in any excessive fashion.
Over-consumption, in the societal sense, involves the gluttony of personal over-consumption, but done so without regard for fellow members of the society one lives in. This could be seen as a certain thoughtlessness for those around him. We see this manifest ubiquitously around the world today. The fact that 850+ million people starve, while food is blindly wasted, I believe, is evidence enough. Frankly, this number contrasted with obesity rates in the western world is astonishing. If one can conceive of a society in which needs and desires were discriminated properly, it is quite plausible that such statistics would be much less grave. The Buddhist philosopher, Shuichi Yamamoto, addresses this vice specifically in TSKPW arguing that, “Naturally overeating…should be condemned from a [Buddhist] moral point of view.”
Finally, global over-consumption takes form in the unrestrained usage and exploitation of finite natural resources, including land. Desire, spurred on by greed, allows for the pillaging of the few supplies which support the existence of life on Earth. This ‘life’ is not just that of human beings, but all other animals as well. In a 2007 publication entitled, Collected Statements on the Environment, the Dalai Lama states, “Our ancestors viewed the Earth as rich and bountiful, which it is. Many people in the past saw nature as inexhaustibly sustainable…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.” Our actions, if we disavow conventional consumption patterns, and instead seek the Buddhist environmental ethic, then, should be in accordance with the eight-fold path and the middle way.
The middle way, offered in the Fourth Noble Truth is the Buddhist notion that between two extremes, there exists a harmonious bisector. An interesting metaphor illustrating this harmony in terms of the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument, was devised by the Buddha and quoted by Akira Hirakawa. Hirakawa says that the bowstring for a koto is most favorable when the string is neither to tight nor to loose. This adage can be extrapolated to say that the best way to act, live, and exist is always in a state of compromise. Yamamoto further depicts the Buddha’s belief in the middle way between pleasure and pain. He speaks of the Buddha’s initial belief that pain and penance were the route through which enlightenment could be attained. After six years of carrying out austerities with five other ascetics, the Buddha still had not yet attained Nirvana and “realized the futility of trying to attain enlightenment through punishing himself. Indeed, after receiving rice gruel with milk from a women named Sujata he recovered from his physical ordeals, and did in fact attain enlightenment.” This parable indicates that no “absolute wisdom” is gained through self-incurred punishment. Instead, at least in the case of the Buddha, moderation provided the key to freedom. Thus, again we see the flexible way in which we must approach the world. It is not always so simple as cutting off all luxuries or sating every desire. We see that completely ridding the world of plastic grocery bags, oversized-SUVs, and pesticides, is almost as dangerous as saturating the planet with them. Rather, harmony is achieved through a balance of the two. As Yamamoto articulates poignantly, “while accepting the value of both principles, the middle way demands harmony between the two and does not accept an inclination to either side.”
The environmental implications of opting for the middle path may not, at first glance, seem obvious. How is choosing the middle ground relevant when dealing with our pressing environmental concerns? To observe the utility of this tenet, we must first recognize that our present environment conditions do not solely affect humans. In fact, it endangers the welfare of all other animals in our ecosystems as well. This is evinced in the Mahayana Buddhist notion of ‘contingent existence’.
Mahayana Buddhist metaphysics fundamentally relies on the notion of ‘contingent existence’, or pratitya samutpada. As the Buddhists elaborate, to be real is to enter into causal relationships. This concept denies that any entity exists completely independently, or sva-bhava. Not only does this regard living beings, for which contingent existence may be clearer, but concepts, as well. That is to say, material objects as well as ideas lack intrinsic substance due to the interdependent nature of the world. Rather, meaning is derived from relationships and conversely, without these relationships, all is empty of meaning, sunyata. In order to fully articulate this nebulous concept, let us rely on specific Buddhist metaphors; one used by Mahayana Buddhists and another markedly more western.
The first image used, in both Mahayana and Chinese Huayan Buddhism, is that of the Jewel Net of Indra. According to the metaphor, one must imagine a net embroidered with an infinite number of jewels. When observed, within each jewel are the reflections of every other jewel, and the reflections of the other jewels within those jewels. This depiction serves to show the interconnected nature of existence. If one jewel were to be moved, replaced, or altered in any other fashion, the entire net would be changed as a result.
Another, perhaps more familiar, metaphor used to describe the complexity of pratitya samutpada in simple western terms is that of the donut and its hole. In asserting that no one thing, standing completely on its own, has properties, one can look at a donut. A donut is only a donut when it is missing its hole. Thus, the relationship between the missing piece and the circular donut creates the meaning, which comprises ‘donut’. From this illustration, we can then see that every object gains value, or meaning, or definition, only in its relationship with other objects (or lack there of).
When defining the contingent existence that pervades nature, we can choose from a number of isolated examples as microcosms of a greater picture of the planet. One such case is an ecosystem, wherein different plants and animals rely on one another in a symbiotic relationship. When certain members from an ecosystem are removed we see far-reaching effects. In dealing with humans’ place in the environment, we must delve into what type of relationship we have with the organisms that surround us. The doctrine of interconnectedness can be used to judge just how far the effects of our actions reach. Here, Yamamoto elaborates on how we can, in fact, understand that our acts truly affect all other beings. He states,
“This concept of fundamental interdependence and interconnectedness of all phenomena indicates a relation of space (ontology) and a relation of time (formation). The ecological environment of today is included in the relation of space and relation of time. This means that all living things on Earth are related including the circulation of organic or inorganic matter.” (TSKPW)
This explanation of the relationship between all living things on Earth seems to pronounce the obligation we have to encompassing differing accounts when we decide on a course of action. As I stated earlier, Buddhist thought explicitly admonishes the act of over-consumption in both the societal and global spheres. It is on the very basis of this understanding, that is, the knowledge of the close relationship between one’s actions their respective consequences for all other living beings, that Buddhists believe in a respect for nature. As Gyana Vajra Rinpoche declares, in Ecobuddhism.org’s Quarterly Review, “The very existence of every living being on this earth implies interdependence. The notion that the world belongs only to human beings is foolish and naïve.” Shuichi Yamamoto, in Mahayana Buddhism and Environmental Ethics: From the Perspective of the Consciousness-Only Doctrine, finishes where Rinponche left off, stating the consequence of this anthropocentric thought process. “Human desires vis-à-vis the environment have manifested themselves…in the transformation and destruction of nature through deforestation, depletion of natural resources, and development projects, thus neglecting the opinions of all those we affect.”
Instead, we ought to employ responsibility when our actions come to affect other sentient beings. I believe John Dewey, the eminent American philosopher, put forth the best definition of ‘responsibility’ with regard to our topic. To Dewey, responsibility is “the disposition to consider in advance the probable consequences of any projected step and deliberately to accept them: to accept them in the sense of taking them into account, acknowledge them in action, not yielding a mere verbal assent.” Simply, ‘responsibility’ is the act of accounting for all foreseeable outcomes, scrutinizing them, and finally agreeing to their consequences.
Together, the notions of pratitya samutpada and the middle way give us better descriptive insight into philosophy of the environment, but what about our responsibilities to other sentient beings? Because we know that our actions invariably affect other beings, let us explore the Mahayana Buddhist take on human interactions with animals and the possibility of meat consumption, which is a topic of much debate in the ecological community. According to the Brahma-Carya chapter of the Nirvana Sutra, killing animals constitutes the lowest degree of killings. This account also makes provisions for intention. If the animal is killed as game, in the form of hunting perhaps, punishment is much more severe than if the animal was killed to serve a certain purpose. The higher crimes of killing, the Brahma-Carya states, are those which involve humans and the enlightened. This hierarchy seems to indicate that Buddhism, though it maintains in principle that all lives are equal, holds humans as more valuable than other living beings.
In relation to animals, we can also look at two of the five essential Buddhist precepts, or pramitas. According to the Mahayana tradition, for the layperson, there are five precepts which must be followed in order to live a “good” life. These principles include not killing living beings, not stealing, not committing adultery, not telling lies, and not drinking intoxicants. The two most relevant of these five guidelines are the instructions not to kill and not to steal, taken in a broadened interpretation. The former seems to indicate an outright ban on carnivorous acts by Mahayana Buddhism. Thus as a meat eating society, we are left to question whether the Mahayana Buddhist would impugn animal slaughter as a means of food?
Likewise, the precept of not stealing says that we cannot take what is another’s. In this particular case, we can interpret this two different ways. The first can be a belief that in killing animals for their flesh, that is, for food, we are taking their bodies. On the other hand, we can see this as the opinion that our domain should not intrude on the lives of other animals. I would tend to give credence to the latter, as the first attitude is already voiced in a separate tenet. As further evidence, the Brahma-net Sutra explicitly mentions the stealing of a “blade of grass”. Though this may be used to elucidate the notion that theft at any level is prohibited, this seems grounds enough for relying on the second interpretation. Hence, we must also question to what degree is our sphere of influence (in the direct sense, not pratitya samutpada) delimited?
Luckily, for those carnivores who do indulge themselves, these prohibitions come with loopholes. In most of the aforementioned precepts, there are phrases such as “without reason” which indicate that should one provide justification the ruling can be overlooked. Yamamoto defends the killing animals for ingestion, because flesh is, or at least can be argued to be, “the minimum requirements for supporting human life”, and hence constitutes a biological/functional ‘need’.
In the case of the prohibition against stealing space, we can amend responsibility to pratitya samutpada for ethical guidance. If we hypothesize the probable effects we have on other creatures by encroaching on their lands and driving their indigenous populations elsewhere, we can see some pretty dire ramifications. Not only will the species that was driven away be endangered, but it will also disrupt the new ecosystem they were driven into. Much like the butterfly effect, our minor, and in many cases major, actions will have exponentially drastic effects as time passes. These impositions, often, lead to the deaths of the species we displace and in those cases we thus become guilty of killing without adequate reason. Rather, if we endow other animals with agency and utilize Deweyan ‘responsibility’, we can forego further harm. In such cases we will, at the very least, be striving for an intended ideal that encompasses an obligation to other sentient beings.
The foremost aim of Buddhist teachings is to nurture the reflective mind and free oneself of misunderstanding. This is why Buddhism promotes the endeavor of asking questions so zealously. One thing we, as humans, must always question, Buddhist or not, is how we fit into the natural order. Until quite recently, in the span of human existence, men have thought of themselves as separated from nature. Nature was seen as chaotic, while man was seen as cultured and logical. Contemporary thought seeks to abandon this notion by positing that humans exist entirely within nature. We are separated, in our own minds, by a fictitious line dividing the ‘reasoning agent’ from the ‘beast’. Unfortunately, the immediate implication of this outdated partition is the feeling of human superiority. That is, we feel as though that which we can conquer is ours for the taking. This conception of the world, as we are seeing all too clearly, has led us to face some of the gravest problems in our history, where solutions are intricately complex and only slowly rectifiable. There are no quick fixes with the addition of novel technologies, no miracle cures. Though politicians, grassroots movements, and certain population sections have tried to deal with the growing number of crises we face, their efforts have all been nominal and ineffective. This is because, though they did so admirably, each of these groups sought to alleviate the symptoms of the problem rather than its cause. By trying to find solutions to the apparent, these groups ignored the underlying psychological roots of desire and superciliousness, disrespect for nature’s interconnectedness, and ignorance of responsibility. Instead, what is needed is a change in worldview and Buddhism offers just this shift. We must learn to think before we act, question comfort, and empathize for those harmed en route to our personal happiness. It is only by embracing these new psychological qualities that we may be able to escape, not only the evident catastrophes, but also avoid those mental activities which caused them in the first place.