Does Buddhism promote environmentalism?

buddha statue under tree are buddhists environmental

A seated Buddha statue under a tree in Andalusia, Spain. | Luis Dafos / Alamy Stock Photo

Notions of ecological degradation and environmentalism as we know them today didn’t exist in ancient India. As far as we know, the Buddha never spoke explicitly about the need to protect the natural world and steward its resources, but some of his teachings (for example, the Agganna Sutta) do make a connection between human morality and what happens to the natural world. The Buddha taught the dharma, a path of developing wisdom and compassion in order to uproot human suffering, and he focused less on social or political action—although Buddhist teachings have important social implications.

In recent years, Buddhism has developed a reputation as an environmental religion (even though some several scholars have argued that Buddhism has historically contributed to ecological degradation.) Many contemporary Buddhists are concerned with the environment and climate change and draw from Buddhist teachings to inform their activism. For instance, the doctrine of interdependence has served as a call to cherish the web of life and preserve its intricacies. The Middle Way, as Buddhism is often called, is said to counsel against the excessive consumption that ravages our planet.  Teachings about karma emphasize that our actions bear fruit, for good or ill, and this includes the impact of human activity on ecosystems and the planet as a whole.

Engaged Buddhism, a strand of Buddhism that combines dharma practice with social and political activism, counts the ecological crisis and environmentalism among its top priorities. Some leading voices on this topic are the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh; the Theravada scholar and monk Bhikkhu Bodhi; the professor and Zen teacher David Loy; and the scholar and activist Joanna Macy. They believe Buddhist teachings on compassion, renunciation, and non-harming can act as an antidote to the greed, delusion, and heedlessness that have led to ecological degradation across the globe. 


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