The Ecological Dimensions of East Asian Buddhism Critically Considered.

Stewart McFarlane

Lancaster University

Nature and Buddha-nature: The Ecological Dimensions of East Asian Buddhism Critically Considered.

The Engaged Buddhist view

The Critical Buddhist view

Criticising the Critical Buddhist view

Buddhism, values and society

The problem of Buddhist environmentalism.

Buddhism, nature, causality and interdependence.

Spiritual and biological hierarchies and the issue of discrimination.

The Contribution of Son Buddhism




  Much of this paper is concerned with the contrast between two very different kinds of arguments on the issue of Buddhism in relation to environmental concerns.The first reflects an Engaged Buddhist perspective and stresses the urgent relevance of Buddhist practice to environmental issues. The second is the Critical Buddhist perspective, which regards the concern with environmental issues as not a legitimate Buddhist concern, and further argues that the supposed Buddhological basis for much reflection on Buddhism and the environment is based on a misinterpretation of Buddhism.

The Engaged Buddhist view

“…to be a Buddhist today is a geo-political act for the obvious reason that every one of our acts now adds to or subtracts from the load of human affairs which burdens the earth. It is also a geopolitical act because, given the continuing devotion to consumerism, one of the most radical acts we can perform in our society is to consume less, to sit quietly meditating in a room, or try and think clearly about who we are trying to be. And finally, being a Buddhist is a geopolitical act because it provides us with a working space within which to stand back from our aggressive culture and consider alternatives.” (Batchelor and Brown eds. 1992 p. 75)

The above sounds like a radically challenging expression of an engaged Buddhist environmental perspective. But a the same time it could be argued that it reflects a very traditional approach to teaching Dharma. Taking the issue that immediatedly concerns the listener, and subtly turning that concern into a direct reflection on their own meditative experience. Stephen Batchelor takes a very similar approach

“So the ecological crisis we witness today is, from a Buddhist perspective, a rather predictable outcome of the kinds of deluded behaviour the Buddha described 2,500 years ago. Greed hate and stupidity, the three poisons the Buddha spoke of, have now spilled beyond the confines of the human mind and village politics to poison quite literally the seas , the air and the earth itself. And the fire the Buddha spoke of as metaphorically engulfing the world and its inhabitants in flames is now horribly visible in nuclear explosions and smouldering rain forests, and psychologically apparent in the rampant consumerism of our times.

Perhaps we need these disasters to prompt us to consider more deeply what the Buddha was saying all along. For ecological crisis is at root a spiritual crisis of self-centred greed, aided and abetted by ingenious technologies run amok”.

(Batchelor in Batchelor and Brown 1992 p33.)

It is interesting to note that Batchelor and many other contributors who see Buddhism as a positive resource for environmental attitudes and actions, frequently cite the Hua Yen teaching of interdependence and mutual entailment of dharmas, and Ch’an teachings on Buddha nature, in support of Buddhist ecological thinking (1). Martine Batchelor’s use of a poem by Uisang and some lines from Dogen are typical examples:

Since Dharma nature is round and interpenetrating, it is without any sign of duality.
All dharmas (phenomenon) are unmoving and originally calm.
No name , no form; all (distinctions) are abolished.
It is known through the wisdom of enlightenment, not by any other level.
The true-nature is extremely profound, exceedingly subtle and sublime. It does not attach to self nature, but takes form following (causal ) conditions.

In one is all in many is one. One is identical to all, many is identical to one.
In one particle of dust are contained the ten directions
And so it is with all particles of dust. (ibid p.11)
Not only is ther water in the world, there is a world of water with a world in it. this is not just true for water, but for all material things – there are animate worlds in clouds, wind fire, earth, Dharma worlds, one blade of grass and a staff. Where there is an animate world ther is a world of Buddhas and Patriarchs.Study this principle well. (Dogen, Shobogenzo – Sansuikyo Mountains and Water Sutras trans.Nishiyama 1988, p226)

The Critical Buddhist view

It is one of the ironies of the contemporary debate that the teachings which are frequently cited in support of a Buddhist ecological world view and basis for environmental action, namely the Hua Yen notion of interdependence of Dharmas, and the developed Chinese Mahayana notions of Buddha-nature and the Japanese interpretation of the teaching of original enlightenment, are precisely those which Hakamaya Noriaki condemns as non Buddhist. Further more he sees the supposed Japanese value of harmony with nature as based on such notions, as simply a retreat into quietism and a justification for inaction and ethical stagnation. He regards the uncritical conflation of “Buddhist” teachings of Original Enlightenment with an undifferentiated Tao, and Chinese concepts of nature and spontaneity as having undermined the distinctive character of Buddhist causal analysis (pratitya samutpada) (2).

In India the indigenous way of thinking was, as taught in the Upanisads, to posit a fundamenatal basis or substance such as brahman or atman.Buddhism arose in response to this way of thinking. It denied a spatial and unchanging single topos, and instead that the only truth is a temporal process of conditioned arising (paticccasumppada/pratitya samutpada)…. when Buddhism was transmitted to China as a “foreign religion” its central teaching was overturned… and as a result not even a smidgen left of the distinctive features of Buddhism – the Buddhist concepts of conditioned arising and causality have been eliminated in favour of teh indigenous Chinese concept of “nature” or “spontaneity” (Jpn,shizen) (Hakamaya in Hubbard 1997 p 95)

He argues that true Buddhism should be based on a correct understanding of the teaching of no-self and its ethical implications. Notions of original enlightenment, the Buddha-nature of natural phenomena and the interpenetration of dharmas are in fact not Buddhist at all, according to Hakayama. Hakayama’a position is based on a radical re-interpretation of Buddhist doctrinal tradition, for him prajna is not illuminating insight or non-conceptual awareness, it is discriminatory knowledge with regard to what is not self, and is causally conditioned. He appears to regard every expression of Buddha-nature and original enlightenment as tainted by substantivism (dhatu vada)and as contradicting the teaching of no-self and as therefore unBuddhist.He argues that the substantivism of the notion of original enlightenment teaching and the traditional valuing of harmony, between teachings (Taoism, Shinto and Buddhism) has led to ethical inertia and quietism and has allowed the power elite of Japanese society and their apologists to subtly replace true Buddhism with a deeply ethnocentric, Shinto influence, ideology, which priveleges the Japanese version of the harmonising vision, and in effect eliminates the individual in favour of the whole . He is particularly critical of Prince Shotoku’s Constitution, written in the Sixth century CE. He sees Shotoku’s embracing of the value of harmony and Ekayana Buddhism, as a strategy for maintaining bureaucratic control and conformity. He regards the teaching of no-self and the correct understanding of pratitya-samutpada (dependent origination)as true Buddhism, and believes that Buddhist ethical practice is central and should express the teaching of no-self. Such teaching and practice, he argues, is at variance with the dominant patterns of conformity for the sake of harmony and lack of commitment to social equality and to ethical action which has plagued Japanese history. He sees virtually all Japanese Buddhist interpretations of the Lotus Sutra as tainted by dhatuvada if correctly understood as a text critical of wrong views and which embraces the use of skilfull means. This is an important admission to which I shall return in discussing Hakamaya’s position in relation to Dogen.

Many of Hakayama’s claims are too broad in their range to be systematically discussed here (2). It should be noted that he rejects the suggestion that harmony with nature is a Buddhist value, and argues that this is derived from Taoism and Shinto. He is therefore strikingly at odds with Engaged Buddhist perspective. He sees the embracing of notions of original enlightenment and the identification of Buddha nature with natural phenomena, as leaving no grounds for traditional Buddhist ethical teaching and conduct. Again it is ironic that it is these perspectives which are the ones cited by Engaged Buddhists as providing the basis for a Buddhist environmental outlook. The same Buddhological concepts are being cited by one group as the basis for ethically engaged action, are being criticised by another as the basis for ethical inaction as well as political conformity. Unfortunately while condemning Japanese ethnocentrism, conformism and quietism and praising a critical Buddhist perspecti

ve such as that found in the Lotus Sutra, Hakamaya gives us no details as to what form a Critical Buddhist programme of moral action might take, either in relation to environmental concerns or any other. Still less does he offer a social programme or the possibilities of one which does rest on true Buddhist teachings. One reason for this might be that he regards the early moral teachings of the Buddhism as already providing the basis for such a programme and that it is uneccessary to re-invent it.

It appears more likely that his view of the early Buddhist radical challenge to subtantivism, and its eloborating of the causal determined nature of the human condition, is more of a challenge at the individual, rather than the collective level.

Criticising the Critical Buddhist view

One of the difficulties with Hakamaya’s position is that while rejecting the dominant ethical,social and political ethos of Japanese society, and lays much of the blame for this at the substantivist interpretations of Buddhism, he is unclear on the issue of whether “true” Buddhism could support any particular social or political system, or as to what sort of a system might reflect, or be in accord with Buddhist ethics and values.

I believe that he exaggerates the role of the specific ideas of original enlightenment, in shaping Japanese ideology and ethical values. He isolates them from a wider context and ignores the very complex politcally and ideological processes. The dominant state ideology of Japan since the time of Prince Shotoku (6 th century CE) until the Meiji restoration, has not been Buddhism, Taoism or Shinto but Confucian. It was a Confucian idea of harmony and conformity which was effectively employed by the bureaucracy. One of the advantages of that Confucian ideology was that it was neutral with regard to the specific claims of rival Buddhist sects or Shinto beliefs, and therefore could provide an over riding official value system for state and public life. Much as it had done in China.

Hakayama’s claim that all teachings of Buddha-nature, tathagatha-garbha and Hua Yen Dharma theory are substantivist, needs to be critically examined, given the extensive qualifications offered in the texts themselves. For example, the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana sutra, one of the core texts expounding Buddha-nature, repeatedly warns against interpreting Buddha-nature as a self or atman.

“Good sons! If someone maintains that all sentient beings definately possess the Buddha-nature which is eternal, blissful, personal and pure, (and further maintains that the Buddh-nature) is neither produced nor born,but is not percieved by sentient beings due to the presence of defilements, it should be understood that he has slandered the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha”(T 12, p.580c)

Here Buddha-nature is specifically the means of referring to the potential of all beings to be Enlightened and attain Buddhahood. The use of the expression must be understood as metaphoric.This seems to be precisely the way Chinul uses them in his writings as we shall see later in this paper. Another way of saying this is that many expressions of Buddha-nature are skilful evocations of the potential for enlightenment. As such they need not be seen as substantivist or essentialist. Dogen is frequently cited by Hakamaya as one who stood out against the universalising, substantivist tendencies of Tendai, as well as a critic of the easy tendencey to harmonise Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. He castigates those who misread Dogen as an exponent of Original Enlightenemnt and as one who rejects confronting the realities of karma, cause and effect, in favour of an easy universalism and subtantivism. The problem for Hakayama is that while it is clear that Dogen rejects formulations of the Ori

ginal Enlightenment teaching which suggest belief in an eternal mental nature or lead to quietism, his Shobogenzo is full of phrases and passages which are derived form hongaku literature (see: Grosnick 1979 pp248-256). Hongaku teachings can of course give rise to quietism or belief that if beings are already Enlightened by virtue of their possession of Buddha-nature, then there is no need for Buddhist practice. This is of course not the view of the major writings of the Tendai school. Dogen is aware of this danger and insists on the necessity for practice. What Dogen does is appropriate elements of hongaku teaching derived from his Tendai background and scholastic training, and use them to emphaise his own teaching on the undivided nature of practice and enlightenment. A passage from his Shobogenzo makes this clear:

“The Patriarchs adamantly asserted that one must practice diligently, not allowing the realization that is inseperable from practice to be defiled by klesas. If one undertakes this profound practice, original realization overflows in one’s hands. If one puts forth the body of original realization, profound proctice is completely carried out” (trans Grosnick 1979 p256).

Dogen clearly rejects the notion of an eternal mental nature which is inherently pure and innately Enlightened. He labels as heretical any teaching which suggest such notions, usually dismissing them as forms of the Senika or naturalistic heresy. At the same time he virtually paraphrases Tendai hongaku expressions in order to make his point about the need for practice.

“Everyone possesses the Buddha-mind but if they fail to practice the true Way it will remain dormant. We have, however the example of Buddhist practice to follow and if we persevere, our Buddha-mind will manifest itself and we can receive the seal of transmission…..

Remember, however that land is not always soil, earth although very great is not always fruitful; similarly everyone has the Buddha-nature but if not manifested in practice it will not bear fruit. Symbolically there is the land of the heart and the land of the treasure. Yet all these land are based on the experience of enlightenment. Mountains , water and earth have their origin in “emptiness” and are manifestations of “form is emptiness(Shobogenzo – 4 Shinjingakudo “Learning through Body and Mind”).

The crucial issue for Dogen is not one of correct doctrine, but correct intention and above all, correct practice. Hakamaya is greatly puzzled as to why Dogen is cited as a supporter of the notion of the Buddhahood of mountains, rivers, grasses and trees, when in Hakamaya’s view he vigorously opposes it. The question which emerges is. “why does Dogen appear to speak with two voices on this issue?”

The answer it seems to me is that if such expressions of Buddhanature lead to or are products of spiritual complacency and quietism, then Dogen rejects them. Where they are expressed in terms of the urgent task of expressing the inherent Buddhahood of things in practice and experience, then he supports them. Underlying Dogen’s aruments is an insistence on the reality of karmic conditions, that is accepting and confronting the realities and consequences of our own actions. This brings us to the issue of skilful means. The apparently contradictory statements to be found in Dogen with regard to Buddha-nature, are due to the fact that as a Buddhist teacher he is not trying to make statements which are objectively true, so much as statements who are spiritually appropriate. If a listener understands Buddha-nature as a basis for ethical and spiritual inaction then Dogen will tell that person that there is no Buddha-nature. If another person understands Buddha-nature as the urgent requirement

follow the practice and conduct of a Buddha then Dogen will give them the teaching of Buddha-nature. What counts is how beings respond to what is said, which depends on their prior orientation and state of mind. This is of course perfectly consistent with methods of skillful means. Examples of this kind of usage abound in the writings of Dogen. The following passage from the Buddha-nature chapter of Shobogenzo makes will be sufficient to illustrate this.

When scholars hear the word “Buddha-nature,” they think it is a kind of “eternal self,” like that expounded by the non-believer Senika. This is because thy have never met a man of the Way, nor clarified their self, nor met a master. They mistake the wild movements of their minds for the enlightened wisdom of Buddha- nature

Some say that Buddha-nature is similar to the seed of a plant; when it receives the nourishing rain of the Dharma, it naturally sprouts – leaves, flowers and fruit appear, and the fruit contains its own seeds. This is the view of ordinary, unenelightened people. Those holding such a view should learn that the seed, flowers, and fruit each and at the same time have the pure mind. Within the fruit there are seeds. Although the seeds are not visible, still the root, stem, and the rest grow. Without outside assistance the branches multiply and a large tree appears. This procedure is not insiode or outside; it is true for any time of the past or present. Therefore, even though we have an unenlightened view, the root, stem , branches, and leaves all live, die, “totally possess,” and become and are Buddha-nature simultaneously.

“Sentient beings do not possess Buddhanature.” To a man who has just encountered a Buddha and heard the Dharma for the very first time, this is the most incomprehensible, most taxing statement of all. Later, whether through having followed a good master or through having studied the sutras, this statement is the most joy giving of all. If we do not totally feel the truth of “sentient beings do not possess Buddha-nature,” then we have not yet experienced Buddha-nature.Shobogenzo – Bussho (Buddha-nature)

Dogen is using the contradictory statements themselves to challenge listeners and bring them to higher levels of understanding. The apparent contradictions are nothing more than Dogen’s skill, teaching on a level appropriate to the understanding of those hearing and bringing them to a higher level. This is why Dogen both asserts and denies the identity of beings and Buddha-nature. Assertions about the possession or non possession of buddhanature are secondary to the demonstration of Buddha-nature in the practice of the Buddhist. His radically immanenetist assertion of the identity of Buddhahood and natural phenomena, is his way of re-articulating the fundamental Mahayana understanding of the non-differentiation of Samsara and Nirvana. To Dogen this confirms rather than undermines the need for practice. At the same time he rejects the separation of practice from enlightenment. So that one does not follow the precepts, meditate and purify oneself in order to become a Buddha, one does those things to express the Buddhahood already apparent. But it only really becomes apparent when the practice of the Buddha is achieved. Significantly and problematically for Hakayama, Dogen is happy to express the necessity for practice in radically immanentist and universalist language and is perfectly comfortable with Tendai sounding assertions of the indivisiblity of practice, Enlightenment and natural phenomena,

Practice is conducted together with the mountains, rivers and the great earth…. How should we understand the identity of the Buddha and ourselves? We must first understand the practice of the Buddha. The practice of the Buddha is conducted together with the whole great earth and with all beings. were it not all encompassing, it would not yet be Buddha-practice(Shobogenzo – 92 Yuibutsu Yobutsu “Only a Buddha transmits a Budda”)

When we add to these statements Dogen’s use of the notion of the preaching of the non-sentient (mujo seppo), then a fare more positive attitude to natural phenomena emerge, than that described by Hakamaya. For Dogen the identification of all phenomena with Buddha-nature, means that natural phenomena can have a particular value in disclosing Dharma to the practitioner. Admittedly this is only apparent to one already engaged in practice. He quotes the Chinese poet Su Dongpo to this effect:

The sounds from the valley stream are the mouth of the Buddha,
The forms of the mountains are his pure body,
The eighty-four thousand verses heard during the night,
How should I tell them to the people the next day? (T 82, 2582:38c)

These statements are important for the elucidation of Dogen’s position on the necessity for practice , and the indivisbility of practice and Enlightenment.They are clear expressions of his teaching of radical immanence and nonduality. They are statements about higher practice and should be understood in terms of their soteriological intent. They are not they are in themselves expounding a systematic ecological position. Fortunately we have examples elsewhere in Dogen’s writings where he does directly relate the soteriological issue of the need for practice, to the role of compassion and attitudes to nature. Here he is in agreement with Mahayana teachings, that the highest form of compassionate action is selfless and dispassionate, in other words it is non-attached action carried out for its own sake because it is the nature of Buddha-dharma.

“A long time ago, during the Shin era in China, there was a man named Koyu who, on seeing a fisherman catch a turtle bought it and released it on the river.In the Gokan period, there was a man called Yoho who as a boy saved a sparrow at the foot of Mount Kain. when these people saw the turtle and the sparrow, they simply felt sorry; they did not expect any special merit. They could not help themselves from helping their benevolent minds simply caused them to do so”. (Shobogenzo – Bodaisatta Shishobo, The Bodhisattva’s Four Ways of Helping Beings).

What is reflected here is not an instrumentalist view of nature. The animals are not saved from any motive of self interest or in the pursuit of merit or because they are may be of value economically. They are helped because they are there, and as such are seen as objects of the Bodhisattva’s compassion. They are valued intrinsically, rather than instrumentally. I would argue that such an attitude come closest to a Deep Ecological position, in which the intrinsic worth of nature is acknolwdged, and given priority over what specific benefit it may offer to humans. Unsurprisingly, Buddhism does not speak with a single voice on this issue. Other texts and rituals suggest a more pragmatic and instrumentalist view more consistent with a humanistc eclogical position, sometimes designated “shallow ecology”. Here the environmental attitudes are much more closely related to Buddhist social and political teachings and practices.

Non of these are systematically addressed by Hakamaya, despite his concern for the social implications of Buddhist teachings. It is the engaged Buddhist who offer much more in the way of constructive debate and evidence on these issues.

Buddhism, values and society

As we have seen, the endorsement of the Buddhahood of natural phenomena does in itself constitute an environmental value. Though the passages from the Shobogenzo chapter on the Four Ways the Bodhisattva Benefits Beings, provides many suggestions which could easily provide the basis for an environmental ethic. It is interesting to note that while Hakamaya is critical of the social and political values of much of Japanese society, and rejects any suggestion that it expresses anything resembling true Buddhism, he is not forthcoming on what values and policies in a society might be consistent his account of Buddhism. His focus is of course on Buddhism as a textually based soteriology, concerned with the understanding of karma, moral cause and effect and the pursuit of the path. But given his insistence on the centrality of karma, and relationship between intention, action and result, then the way these processes relate to society and the environment might have been considered. Not surp risingly it is the Engaged Buddhists who actually address these issues in relation to text and practice.

One example is provided by Christipher Titmuss in the Green Buddha. He extensively cites the Kutadanta-sutta, Cakkavati Sihanada-sutta and Agganna-sutta to support the view that “the social conscience of the Buddha was an integral part of his teaching” (Titmus 1995 p 213). He regards the injunctions on kings to relieve the suffering of the poor, as an expression of loving kindness in action. Despite the mythic context, he regards the Buddha’s analysis of the causes of suffering, violence and social collapse, as related to socio-economic as well as karmic factors as an intentional expression of Dharma. He interprets such injunctions as placing rulers under a serious obligation to reduce poverty and restore peace and justice as a legitimate exprssion of Buddhist teaching (1995 p 211). In the Kutadanta sutta (Digha Nikaya vol. 1, Ling 1981 pp 91-100)) the Buddha in a former life as religious advisor to a great king, that he can restore peace and order in his kingdom not by performing the traditional animal sacrifice,or by applying severe punishments to wrongdoers, but by ensuring that all those working in his kingdom are properly rewarded for their labours. The king is advised to supply traders and businessmen with capital, to help them prosper, and that wealthy brahmans, ksatriyas and householders should be encouraged to establish charitable foundations in all directions, to support the poor,and the wandering mendicants and wise teachers.The Buddha declares that after has done all this he can perform a non-violent sacrifice.

As Richard Gombrich points out, the story is told to a Brahmin not a king, and it it seems to be more concerned with the nature of sacrifice, than be a practical outline of policy (Gombrich 1988 p 83). Such policies would have been unthinkable to the real kings at the time of the Buddha. But their very articulation does represent something of a criticism of despotic and punitive rulers, and does offer radical alternative that might cause a more sympathetic ruler to re-consider his priorities. If the rulers of the kingdoms of north India were as despotic and pragmatic as Gombrich suggests, then it would have been unthinkable for the Buddha to offer such radical advice on the use of charity and the re-distribution of wealth. Then it becomes more credible that such ideas would be taught in the form of highly mythic and fantastic accounts. In other words, the Buddha or early Buddhists are using indirect means on tactical and expedient grounds to present some radical and challenging ideas.

The influential Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta (Digha Nikaya 111, Ling ed. 1981 pp 115-128) is another text frequently quoted for its ethical and social content. Gombrich suggests that its lack of a context, unlike most suttas in the Digha Nikaya, and its exaggerated mythological content, make it unlikely to be the word of the Buddha. The text is however regarded as such by tradition, and its content must therefore be taken seriously. It describes a succession of strong and righteous rulers in ancient times whose merit and success was marked by a Celestial Wheel in the the sky, and by the great longevity of them and their subjects.The average lifespan being forty thousand years. Periodically the wheel would slip, but provided the ruler at the time took counsel from the wisest hermit in the kingdom and acted accordingly, it was restored. Then one ruler began governing according to his own ideas, and ignoring the example of the previous rulers, and not taking counsel from the hermit. When a man was brought before him for stealing, the king gave him money to support his family. Other subject heard of this and they also stole. The king realised that by rewarding theft, he was encouraging it, so he had the next offender executed. People by now had habituated to stealing, so that rather than stop, they armed themselves to prevent capture. When some were captured they lied about their crimes, and so society degenerated. Lying and stealing were rife and people become progressively coarser and shorter lived. Eventually society and values collapsed, people were killing their own families to eat,and the human lifespan dwindled to ten years. Then a small group resolved to abstain from violence and live cooperatively, and in doing so gradually improved the human condition and the lifespan, so once again people began to prosper and live in harmony, villages and towns developed all over India. Eventually a wise and righteous Universal Monarch (Cakkavatti) emerged and during his reign Metteya (Maitreya) the next Buddha will appear, to teach Dharma throughout the world.

Buddhist scholarship tends to examine historical and textual accounts for an understanding of the relationship between Buddhism, monarchy and socio-political issues during the early devlopment of Buddhism. Gombrich doubts whether many canonical passages dealing with kingship and politics were meant to be normative or offer practical policies intended for rulers. He argues that many of the passages are intentionally mythological, and are dealing with “fantasy” kings, not practical guidlines for real kings. He suspects the “authenticity” of the famous Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta ( Gombrich 1988 pp81-82,Digha Nikaya 111, Ling ed. 1981 pp 115-128). He suggests that its lack of a context, unlike most suttas in the Digha Nikaya, and its exaggerated mythological content, make it unlikely to be the word of the Buddha. Even if we accept Gombrich’s point about the inappropriate time-frame of the story and its undoubted mythic style, it does establish an important connection between the human condu ct and Dharmic or ethical orientation, and human health, wealth and happiness, on material, ethical and spiritual levels. It appears to make a point about the importance of exemplary rulers and thir need to listen to wise counsel. Though not a technical treatise, the story establishes that moral cause and effect or the working of karma are not merely individual processes, but have important social and cosmic dimensions. The story clearly emphasises the role of the righteous ruler in improving the social and moral environment in which virtue is rewarded and wrongdoing punished. And significantly, establishing the conditions in which Dhamma can operate.

We have seen that Buddhist textual and scholars and Engaged Buddhists tend to use Buddhist texts in quite different ways. Christoper Titmus, an Engaged Buddhist and Environmental campaigner, cites the Kutadanta-sutta, Cakkavati Sihanada-sutta and Agganna-sutta to support the view that “the social conscience of the Buddha was an integral part of his teaching” (Titmus 1995 p 213). He regards the injunctions on kings to relieve the suffering of the poor, as an expression of loving kindness in action. Despite the mythic context, he regards the Buddha’s analysis of the causes of suffering, violence and social collapse, as related to socio-economic as well as karmic factors as an intentional expression of Dharma. He interprets such injunctions as placing rulers under a serious obligation to reduce poverty and restore peace and justice as a legitimate expression of Buddhist teaching (1995 p 211). Protecting the environment is therefore seen as a part of the wider socio-economic project, in that the natural support system for human sustenance must be maintained.

Even if Buddhism is seen as a pure soteriology concerned with the path to the cessation of suffering, pursued by spiritually heroic individuals, then the presence of a biological support system for their efforts, which is not threatened by pollution or total destruction, is a minimal requirement.One that basis it would appear that the Engaged Buddhist approach the environment has an advantage over the Critical Buddhist approach. Even if the Critical Buddhist position is taken and Buddhism is a pure soteriology concerned with pursuit of the path to Enlightenment, Critical Buddhist theory does not account for the need for a material support system for the practice of the Sangha. One of the messages to be drawn from the early Enlightenment accounts of Sakyamuni was that it was necessary to take food and sustain himself before he could make the necesssary meditative effort to achieve awakening. The fact that according to traditional accounts he was fed by a village woman who thought he was a tree spirit, reflects the fact that the the conflation or interaction of Buddhism and animism was an early occurrence, and largely in my view, a non problematic one. This again contrast strongly with Hakamaya’s view, which is that the identification Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with the kami in Kamakura Japan, was highly damaging to the purity of Buddha-dharma.

The problem of Buddhist environmentalism.

My friend Ian Harris has taken up many of the issues in this debate and broadly come down in agreement with the position of Critical Buddhism, that the notion of Buddhist environmentalism cannot be sustained. He argues that environmental concerns are not at the heart of the Buddhist tradition, and that when people speak of “Buddhist environmentalism” they are really addressing a series of secular concerns which can be happily assented by contemporary Buddhists. He further suggests that what is claimed as “Buddhist environmentalism” is in fact a unconscious adoption of Christian stewardship traditions and liberal values, subtly eroding traditional Buddhist values, aided by interfaith dialogue and increased exchange of ideas. Having admitted that historical scholarship may reveal that early Buddhists did live in harmony with their environment, and that even if their “doctrinal position” did contribute to that harmony we still would not be justified in describing them as environment alists. He makes this claim by the simple device of defining environmentalism in such a way as it must inevitably exclude traditional Buddhists. “If we accept that environmentalism is the conscious attempt to critically appraise the adverse by-products of the scientific enterprise…” (Harris 1991 p. 111). Harris is simply dealing in anachronisms here. He sets up a scientifically informed western environmental view and suggests that traditional Buddhists did not have it. They did not have the scientific method and theory to develop such a view, and they were not the main perpretators of environmental destruction. What the authors of Buddhism & Ecology and the Buddhist section of the Assisi Declarations are saying is that there was an indigenous understanding in Buddhism of the value of living harmoniously with nature and not surrendering to unwarranted exploiting and plundering of natural resources. To put this another way, surrender to greed, hate and ignorance have practical, environmental, as well as karmic and spiritual consequences. They are suggesting that modern Buddhists and environmentalists are in a position to draw on psycho-spiritaul insights and training, as well as that indigenous understanding of the importance of valuing the environment. Their work is concerned with changing values and raising consciousness as an important part of attempting to lead a more ecologically harmonious lifestyle. They are also involved in implementing and supporting practical environmental programmes of action in several countries. I shall return to the role of activists in later discussions.

Buddhism, nature, causality and interdependence.

Returning to the more theoretical debate, Harris’ suggestion that the early Buddhist mode of dealing with the natural world was essentially traditional and non-reflective is not supported by the evidence provided by the texts. They were apparently aware of the subtle and vital interdependence of the natural and the human world, and were furthermore aware of humanity actual and potential impact upon it. This is to be expected of an agriculturally based society. The important development in early Buddhism is that the that knowledge and understanding present was informed by psychological, ethical and spiritual considerations. It is these which are primarily addressed by the contributors to Batchelor & Brown. It is noticeable that even where there is historical evidence for traditional Buddhist attempts to live in harmony with nature and to protect habitats and species from destruction, Harris ignores it. After conquering many of the states of North India, king Ashoka (268-233 BC) renounced war and introduced edicts which banned hunting, protected forests, planted trees, particularly medicinal and fruit trees, greatly reduced meat eating at court, and banned animal sacrifices by Brahmins and others (see: Ling 1973 ch 9, De Bary 1958 pp142-150). Ling’s perspective on this material is interesting because he tries to understand the role of Buddhism in shaping significant phases of Asian history and civilisations. He employs textual and historical evidence to do this

Harris’ suggestion that the failure to have a clear concept of nature as separate from humanity militates against a Buddhist environmental ethic/theory is problematic (Harris 1991 p 104). Such a failure only militates against a Christian dualistic stewardship type model. Hakayama goes even further and regards it as strength of true Buddhism as a pure soteriology that it should have no clear concept of or position on “nature”. The point about the engaged Buddhist treatment of pratityasamutpada (conditioned co-production)as pivotal to a Buddhist attitude to the environment, is that it highlights the complexity of relationship between consciousness, mental states, physical action and their consequences. The point about pratyasamutpada and teachings on karma in general is not as Harris claims that actions have unpredictable results, but that actions not informed by Dhamma, and actions dominated by craving, grasping, hatred and ignorance have disastrous results. In other words, along broad parameters, results are quite predictable. What the accounts of the operation of karma, and the moral fables or “folk tales” of the Jataka, which are recounted in Batchelor and Brown, seem be saying is the level of interdependence between human realms and natural realms, that action on one level has consequences on the other. If anything they suggest a continuity between human and natural which is such that an arbitrary separation between “human” and “natural” becomes difficult to sustain. This holistic notion of continuity and interdependence is developed theoretically and experientially in the Mahayana traditions, particularly those of T’ien T’ai and Hua Yen (see Batchelor and Brown 1992 pp10-12). It is notable that it was in the practice traditions of Chinese and Korean Buddhism, one manifestation of this sense of interdependence and continuity was the strict observance of vegetarianism for monks and nuns, and strong support of it among devout lay Buddhists. The tales of extreme altruism and self sacrifice by Bodhisattvas which are found in the Jataka (eg the monkey king story) were taken seriously in the Chinese tradition as exemplary moral tales, and they also illustrate the kind of continuity and interdependence between humanity and nature which is celebrated in East Asian Buddhist traditions. The forceful case for vegetarianism found in the Lankavatara sutra (chapter 8)and compassion to animals in the Brahmajala sutta again reflect such notions of continuity and interdependence (see Batchelor & Brown 1992 pp6-7 & Williams 1997 p150). The mistake that scholars such as Harris make is to interpret the folk sounding advice in the Lankavatara sutra and Bodhisattva precepts, and the extreme morality tales in the Jataka, on only one level. The idea we should not eat meat because we and our parents have in the past been just about every species of animal, so to kill and eat them is like killing and eating our own relatives, is a rhetorical device, designed to shock people into confronting their actions when they eat meat. The point about the differentiated and developmental teaching of Buddhism is that, the reasons for engaging in an action can subtly change. As the understanding and the practice deepens what was done selfishly or out of fear for the consequences, may later be done out of genuine good will or fellow feeling, and later still might be done spontaneously, out of the loving kindness and compassion of the Bodhisattva.

Spiritual and biological hierarchies and the issue of discrimination.

While agreeing with Hakamaya that Buddhism does not support social discrimination and ethnic or racial prejudice, it is undoubtedly the case that Buddhist texts and authorities from all schools and traditions except models of spiritual understanding and moral attainment which are both developmental and hierarchical. Such models are implicit in the notion of “Path” itself. This means that beings at different levels of understanding and attainment are taught in ways and at levels appropriate to their understanding and attainment. The Buddha’s and any enlightened teacher’s skill in teaching consists in their capacity to identify and adapt to the level of those being taught. This explains why the Buddha’s response to what appear to be the same questions could vary according to the situation and understanding of the questioner.One way of articulating this kind of differentiation is through the concepts of conventional truth(samvrti-satya) and ultimate truth (paramartha-satya).This distinction is usually associated with Mahayana Buddhism, particularly the philosophical tradition of Madhyamika. Steven Collins has shown convincingly how it is equally appropriate to the Pali texts and the Theravada tradition. He applies it specifically to the various levels and types of discourse developed around the notions of person (anatman/anatta), and relates these levels to the social categories in Theravada Buddhist societies and to the distinction between ‘Kammatic Buddhism’ and ‘Nibbanic Buddhism’ (Collins 1982: ch. 5). Given the variety of levels of discourse and the process of accommodation to different levels of attainment which are evident in Buddhist texts and teachings, it is apparent that definitive statements and generalisations about the nature of Buddhist ethics are extremely problematic. The tendency to evaluate generalised statements about Buddhist ethics, according to the standards of western ethical theories and assumptions is one which should be resisted. Buddhist ethics cannot be reduced to classical western ethical theory, but Buddhist ethical insights can illumine western notions of ethics, in both theoretical and practical ways. The importance of control and understanding of the mind is an important dimension of Buddhist ethical understanding from which all moral reformers can learn. The extent to which Japanese nationalistic attitudes were supported by ideas of Original Enlightenement and ethnocentric State Shinto, or by Confucian notions during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is to be condemned, but we should not assume that such abuses in the service of militaristic or nationalistic interest were inevitable outcome of Original Enlightenment and dhatu-vada teachings.

The Contribution of Son Buddhism

It is quite clear that the teaching of Original Enlightenment are is not neccessarily substantivist, quietist or antinomian. Dogen clearly uses elements of those teachings yet avoids the pitfalls of all such tendencies. The intention behind the teaching of Original Enlightenment was to emphasise the universal and immediate availability of Complete Awakening. In other words it expresses the potential of all beings to be Awakened. Given that such an awakening consists of the eradication of suffering through the overcoming of craving and grasping, then the tendency towards quietism and antinomianism is obviously a mistake . The T’ien T’ai and Hua Yen formulations of the teaching endorse the traditional Buddhist view, which is in turn endorsed by both Dogen and Chinul; that the causes of suffering are fundamentally produced in the mind, and that greed, hate and ignorance are mental products. Their approach is to abolish them at their source, by calming or dissolving them as soon as they arise, by seeing them as insubstantial or empty. In his great work “Excerpts from the Dharma Collection” Chinul makes it clear that eradicating unwholesome actions requires seeing the source of such actions in the mind, and calming the mind from where they issue. While quoting the Avatamska Sutra and commentaries, that in the Dharmadhatu beings are already Buddhas, Buddhahood is not achieved until all defilements are eradicated,

“If defilements are not yet eradicated, it cannot be said that Buddhahood has been achieved; but once the defilements are utterly eradicated and merit and wisdom are brought to perfection, it is called the achievement of Buddhahood since of old”( Chinul trans Buswell 1983 p.326)

It appears to me that the Son traditions, as systematised and expounded by Chinul is in a particularly strong position to counter some of the critique offered by Hakamaya. Chinul is deeply familiar with, and draws on the Chinese Mahayana textual tradition including the Lotus sutra, Avatamsaka, Awakening of Faith and Chinese Brahma jala (Fan Wang Ching) as well as the Ch’an /Son transmission texts and Kungan/ Hwado collections. It is a practice tradition which he consciously sought to distance from state and court affairs and less prone to the kind of political conformity, presented as other worldliness that Hakayama so condemns in institutionalised Japanese Zen monasticism. Finally it attempts to establish a balance between textual understanding and meditative practice. Hakayama and some apologists for Buddhists environmental ethics completely ignore the realities of daily monastic practice in their understanding of Buddhism. This is unfortunate because it is often in such a context where the textual teachings begin to emerge as experiental rater than propositional realities. To provide a simple example. The verses in Son mealtime ceremonial clearly make reference to the reality of human dependence both on nature and the efforts of others, and stress the need to respond with gratitude and selflessness. In a sense the ceremony of meal taking in the monastery emphasises the interdependence of Dharma and material sustenance, which was first expressed in the story of Sakyamuni’s Awakening, when he needed to eat a meal offered by a village woman, in order to gain the strength to resume his meditative practice. The wording of the ceremony intentionally evokes that incident, and vividly exemplifies the the notions of dependence on natural resources and human labour. Both of which are necessary if the Buddha-Dharma is to be practiced.

The Buddha was born in Kapilavastu, Enlightened in Magadha, Taught the Dharma in Benares.

Spreading these bowls of the Tathagata, Which respond according to our needs, We pray that the food given, those who give and the those who eat shall be universally empty and calm.

The pure Dharma body, Vairocana Buddha,
The consumate reward body, Rocana Buddha,
The myriad transformation bodies, Sakyamuni Buddha,
The Buddha who is to come Maitreya Buddha,
All the Buddhas in the ten direstion and in the three periods,
All the dharmas of the ten directions and three periods,
He of great wisdom Manjushri Bodhisattva,
He of great practice, Samantabhadra Bodhisattva,
He of great compassion, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva,
All the venerable bodhisattva-mahasattvas.

Receiving food, We now vow that all sentient beings, Will have the joy of meditation as their food, And be sated by the bliss of Dharma,

Thinking of the effort which went into preparing this food,
we contemplate from where it has come.
May we try to make ourselves worthy of this offering.
Our task is to guard the mind and leave behind faults such as craving.
We take this food lest we become thin and die,
We eat this food so we may become enlightened.


It is clear that there is a wide divergence between the Critical Buddhist and the engaged Buddhist view on the nature of Buddhism and the role it has in formulating a view of nature or a response to environmental crisis. The divergence is interesting because bth are significantly locating the basis for their views in the same textual material; specifically that concerned with notions of Buddha-nature and Original Enlightenment. It is also significant that both perspectives argue that Buddhism should fundamental challenge, rather than support conservative and socially divisive political systems. The Engaged Buddhists maintain that the social and political challenge to an entrenched and destructive predominantly capitalist value system, derives naturally from its analysis of the human condition. The Buddhist understanding of causality and interdependence means that the individual spiritual crisis directly relates to the social, economic and environmental disasters that we face. The Engaged Buddhist perspective looks to Buddhism not only it’s diagnosis of the human condition and it’s global implications, but looks to Budddhism directly to provide the resources to meet that crisis. Critical Buddhism accepts that Buddhism radically challenges conventional substantivist assumptions about human nature and the human condition, and asserts the centrality of understanding the causal process, but resist any kind of translation of that analysis into any kind of socio-political or ecological agenda or response. For Critical Buddhism, the relationship between what are regarded as core, normative teachings and practical action in a contemporary context, even on a central issue as social equality, appears problematic. Historical and textual analysis and reframing of the problems, do not in themselves constitute the basis for a solution.

It appears to me that the Korean Son tradition as articulated by Chinul, while drawing on a rich textual tradition, which again is full of expositions of Buddha-nature and Original Enlightenment, does not fall into the trap of substantivism or quietism. Neither are Buddhis teachings invoked in support of the existing social and political order. The emphasis like that in Dogen’s life and writing, is one which focusses on the need for practice. Here the analysis of the human condition in terms of the causal conditions which give rise to suffering are not arrived at as propositions or doctrines, but are directly experienced. The challenge then is to identify the ways in which the individual’s understanding of the causes of suffering, conflict and discrimination can be translated socially aor even globally. It appears to me that the Engaged Buddhists, do acknowledge the reality of that challenge, whereas Critical Buddhists are reluctant to accept the challenge as relevant to their situation.

Stewart McFarlane – Lancaster University


1) A more detailed exposition of the interdependence as an environmental concept can be found in Francis Cook “The Jewel Net of Indra” in Callicott, J.B.& Ames, R.T (eds)Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought SUNY Press 1989, pp213-229.

2) The most accessible source in English for Hakamaya’s thought in English is: Hubbard, Jamie (ed) Pruning The Bodi Tree. The Storm Over Critical BuddhismUniversity of Hawaii, 1997. This contains two long essays by Hakamaya himself as well as several critical essays. For Hakamaya’s specific views on nature and the environemnt see:

Hakamaya Noriaki “Shizen-hihan to-shite no Bukkyo (Buddhism as a Criticism of Nature”, Komazawa-daiguku Bukkyogakubu Ronshu 21 (1990): 380-403.

see also:

Hakamaya Noriaki Hongaku shiso hihan (Critique of the idea of Original Enlightenment)Daizo Shuppan, Tokyo, 1989.

Swanson, Paul “Zen is not Buddhism” Recent Japanese Critiques of Buddha-nature

Numen Vol 40, 1993, pp115-149.


Baird Callicot J. and Ames R.T. (eds) 1989 Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought SUNY Press

Batchelor M, and Brown K, (eds.) 1992 Buddhism and Ecology Cassell, London.

Buswell R.E. 1983 The Korean Approach to Zen. The Collected Works of Chinul

Buswell R.E. 1992 The Zen Monastic Experience Princeton University Press

Grosnick W.H. 1979 The Zen master Dogen’s Understanding of the Buddha-nature in the light of the development of the Buddha-nature concept in India, China and Japan UMI Ph.D. Thesis, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Gombrich R.F. 1988 Theravada Buddhism Routledge and Kegan Paul

Harris I.C. 1991 “How Environmentalistic is Buddhism?” Religion 21, pp101-114.

Hubbard J. and Swanson P.L. (eds) 1997 Pruning the Bodhi Tree. The Storm over Critical Buddhism University of Hawaii Press

Ling T.O. 1981 The Buddha’s Philosohy of Man Dent, London

Nishiyama Kosen (trans.) Dogen Zenji 1975 Shobogenzo Japan Publications Trading Company, Ltd.

Tanahashi Kazuaki (trans.) 1985 Moon in a Dewdrop. Writings of Zen Master Dogen Element Books, England

Titmus C. 1995 The Green Buddha Insight Books,Totness, England

Tucker M.E. and Williams D.R. (eds) 1997 Buddhism and Ecology Harvard University Center For the Study of World Religions