“Do you want to be the Grinch who stole Buddhism?” An elderly gentleman asked me this question after I had given a talk in Berkeley on the environmental history of the dharma. Although the question did strike me as quite odd—albeit humorous—I did understand why it was being asked, since in my lecture I had pointedly argued against the popular image of the dharma as an inherently environmental religion. I claimed instead that a better way to conceptualize Buddhism’s historical relation to nature was to think of it as Max Oelschlaeger has summarized America’s environmental history:

Propelled by a capitalistic political economy, wilderness areas were transformed into civilization. Cities were built, canals dredged, forests cut and burned, grasslands fenced, and the land brought into use for crops and cattle. . . . The Republic was burgeoning demographically and economically, and wilderness was viewed almost exclusively as a natural resource to be exploited.

Of course, that is not how the dharma is perceived in the popular imagination. Buddhism is generally conceived as the environmental religion par excellence. Yet, as scholars have shown over the past 20 years, the development of eco-Buddhism is a modern one. In many ways it is also an inversion of the classic orientalist paradigm whereby the West is male, active, and practical while the East is feminine, passive, and intuitive. And while this binary opposition was often utilized to explain and justify Western domination in both practice and theory, it was also the case that the dynamic of the framework could be flipped.

In their critique of modernity the German Romantics and American Transcendentalists turned the equation around and lauded Asians and Asian religions for being in tune with the natural world. This positive assessment was in turn picked up by Asians, who used it to not only reconceptualize their own traditions but also to critique Christianity and European colonialism—an intellectual move that perhaps reached its most sophisticated elaboration in the hands of Japanese ultranationalists, who, emulating the Nazi fascination with the environment, promoted extensively the idea of an innate Japanese connection with nature. This idea has famously been carried forward by a number of writers ranging from Lafcadio Hearn to D. T. Suzuki and E. F. Schumacher to Lynn White, who, in his seminal 1967 article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” stated flatly:

What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship. More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion . . . [such as] Zen Buddhism, which conceives of the man-nature relationship as very nearly the mirror image of the Christian view. The ideas emanating out of such works still continue to shape the general understanding of Buddhism and its relationship to the environment.

However, to fully understand the lived experience of Buddhists—and how they transformed the environment—it is necessary to move beyond such modern imaginings. We need to recognize not only that Buddhism is not an inherently environmental religion, but also that in pursuing power and profit Buddhists in particular have historically exploited the natural world.

Related: No Easy Answers

The fact that there is actually no evidence that Buddhism was historically environmental in the modern sense of the term should come as no surprise, since environmentalism, at least as we understand it today, did not yet exist at the time of the Buddha. And the idea that any species—let alone humans—could go extinct did not become widespread until the 19th century. Noteworthy here, however, is that the underpinnings of an environmental ethos are not just absent but antithetical to early Buddhist thought. In fact, much of what we can identify as causes of the environmental degradation leading to mass extinction today—deforestation, massive population growth, and out-of-control wealth accumulation—were aided and abetted by Buddhist culture as it spread across the world’s largest and most populous continent.

Indeed, to explain the profound environmental consequences of Buddhism—the only religious, political, social, and cultural system to spread across Eurasia—we need to put this protocapitalist agro-expansive drive at the center of our narrative framework of Buddhist and Asian histories. Three intertwined processes—the expansion of the market economy, agricultural expansion, and urbanization—were witnessed again and again as the dharma spread across Asia.

Of course, to those weaned on the modern discourse of eco-Buddhism—or what has been called “green orientalism”—such an image is no doubt jarring. But that does not make it any less true. Built on generating wealth through the exploitation of resources on the commodity frontier, Buddhism was premised on a distinctive prosperity theology.

On account of the Buddha’s focus on transcending this world, it is understandable that his teachings do not focus on, much less romanticize, nature. Rather, early Buddhist texts are openly hostile toward the environment. In the Digha Nikaya, for example, Buddhists are thus told to generate a “distaste for the world” because it is impermanent:

And when the rains come not, all seed life and vegetation, all trees that yield medicine, palms and giants of the jungle become parched and dried up and are no more. Thus impermanent, thus unstable, thus insecure are all compounded things. Be ye dissatisfied with them, be ye repelled by them, be ye utterly free from them!

Of course, much of the dharma’s disregard for nature in this passage can and has been explained by its so-called yogic aspect. Since the ultimate aim of Buddhism is to transcend the world, it makes sense that not too much intellectual energy is to be spent on glorifying it. Or in other words, when the goal is nirvana, there is very little motivation for the preservation of nature.

One can search the early Buddhist canon in vain for anything that could be interpreted as an appreciation of nature. If nature is ever employed in early Buddhist texts, it is almost always in terms of impermanence, decay, and as something to be avoided. Thus it is not surprising that when one does find a rare passage about a beautiful mountain lake, like that in the Vinaya (4.9.4), the point of the passage is actually to reveal that the lake is a manifestation of hell.

The Moonlight - Waning Crescent Moon, 2012. 140 x 140 cm/90 x 90 cm. ultra giclee print.
The Moonlight – Waning Crescent Moon, 2012. 140 x 140 cm/90 x 90 cm. ultra giclee print.

In contrast to virtually every other religion, Buddhism does not have a mythological vision of a pre-urban idyllic past. There is no Buddhist Garden of Eden. Nor does the early dharma have anything remotely resembling the moral condemnation of urban life as epitomized in the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rather, according to the Pali canon, the golden age of the hoary past was actually a time of massive overpopulation and unfathomable worldwide urban density. The Buddha’s prophecy in the Cakkavatti-sihanada Sutta aspires toward precisely such a world where the human population “will be as thick with people as the jungle is thick with reeds and rushes,” and the natural world will have been so obliterated by urban sprawl that the distance between cities is basically nonexistent.

Such paeans to urbanization can readily be explained by the fact that early Buddhism was codified at a time of increasing urbanization. Of the 4,257 teaching locales found in the early Buddhist canon, for example, fully 96 percent are in urban settings. Similarly, of the nearly 1,400 people identified in these texts, 94 percent are described as residing in cities. This pro-urban sentiment continued to shape the Buddhist tradition for centuries to come, as witnessed in a 7th-century commentary on Nagarjuna’s famous Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way, in which the author, Avalokitavrata, proclaims that the dharma should only be taught to those living in cities.

The appearance of cities is a common explanation for the initial human separation from nature. The environmental scholar Donald Hughes has argued that the creation of such anthropogenic environments ushered in a whole range of new values, including what he has labeled the “Great Divorce,” a sense of separation between culture and nature. Moreover, according to Mark Elvin, professor emeritus of Chinese history at Australian National University, the “Great Divorce” fosters not only an intellectual split between man and the natural world but also a distinct separation between human actions and their environmental consequences. Willful ignorance of environmental destruction is thus actually part and parcel of the urbanization process, since:

. . . the creation of the city began a decoupling between the dominant, decision-making part of the human population, now living increasingly in a built environment, and the rest of the natural world . . . [W]here and when a decision was made less and less coincided with where and when its environmental impact was felt. Decisional distance of this sort has the dimensions of space (from the point of decision to the point of impact), time (from present to future generations), and social rank (from decision-makers to the lower classes). Increasing it has progressively lessened the awareness of and sensitivity to the environmental effects of their policies among rulers and their advisers. This still holds today.

It was also the case during the formative period of Buddhism.

With urbanization came a transformation of India’s economy. The Buddha’s teachings, as recorded in his collected discourses, directly address questions of wealth and livelihood within a market economy. In theAnguttara Nikaya the Buddha proclaims:

Wealth is desirable . . . Sloth and non-exertion is an obstacle to wealth . . . Monks, by increasing in ten growths the Aryan disciple grows in the Aryan growth, takes hold of the essential, takes hold of the best for his person. What ten? He grows in landed property, in wealth and granary, in child and wife, in slaves and folk who work for him, in four-footed beasts, he grows in faith and virtue, generosity and wisdom.

In recent decades a great deal of research has revealed the close linkage between Buddhism and the expanding economy of early India. Scholars have pointed out how the dharma functioned as a prosperity theology fueling the wealth production of both the new urban merchant elite and the rural landed gentry. Other scholars have explained how the Buddhist theory of karma and merit institutionalized a moral hierarchy that justified social and economic exploitation. And as other research has shown, individual Buddhists not only were key players in the creation of this proto-capitalist market economy but also maintained many of the financial institutions—such as banks, interest rates, loan contracts, and currency rates, not to mention the slave trade—that were necessary for such a system to function. It is this amalgam of forces that helps explain why Buddhism was so successful as a missionary religion across the trade routes of Eurasia.

Building on this research, some scholars have also highlighted how this entrepreneurial expansion was in many cases tied to imperial expansion, which in many ways has gone hand in hand with Buddhism. In her study of commerce under the Satavahana dynasty, for example, the Indian scholar H. P. Ray has argued that “monasteries acted as pioneers and as centers providing information on cropping patterns, distant markets, organization of village settlements and trade. They also helped establish channels of communication in newly colonized regions, and these channels could then be used by the state to enforce its authority.” Such colonial projection of power and the attendant reinscribing of local practices with Buddhist ones has recently been confirmed by archaeological evidence that shows that many Buddhist institutions were specifically built on top of earlier sacred sites in order to displace earlier traditions with the new laws, language, and religio-economic systems of the metropolis. Yet, while this was certainly the case, few scholars have taken the next step to explore how such colonial projects and their new economic regimes were tied into transformations of the natural world.

In the spread of the new economic order, as cities grew to become the principal site of a new, Buddhist Asia, their rural surroundings were also transformed. The Civaravastu of the Buddhist monastic code tells us that one day the Buddha was strolling along with his disciple Ananda on the top of Mount Vaidehaka, and when they looked out upon the surrounding countryside, the Buddha was enchanted by the acres upon acres of irrigated farmland. He was especially moved by the “level fields and level environs adorned with rows,” which were “particularly lovely in their divisions in arrangement.” The Buddha was so taken by this enticing vision of subjugated nature, in fact, that he decreed that henceforth monastic robes should contain this pattern, which they do to this day.

Related: How A Growing Buddhist Movement is Responding to the Ecological Crisis

The Buddha’s promotion of agricultural production and irrigation is reflected in the farming metaphors and parables that fill the Buddhist canon. In many cases the Buddha goes well beyond the standard tropes of planting seeds and ripening fruit in discussing the theory of karma and expounds quite explicitly on the practicalities of farming. In one teaching, for example, the Buddha makes it clear that agricultural output depends on properly clearing the forest. The Buddha also recognized the need for irrigation as a basic responsibility of anyone working the land.

Monks, these three preliminaries are to be carried out by a yeoman farmer. What three? Herein, monks, the yeoman farmer must first of all well plough and harrow his field, and when those things are done he must sow his seed at the proper season. Having done this, he lets in the water and lets it out again in proper season.

(Anguttara Nikaya)

At the same time, however, the Buddhist tradition also came to recognize that irrigation is very often not simply an individual activity but one that is embedded in larger social relations, as is well captured in theKunala Jataka, the story of the Buddha resolving a water dispute between two communities who had built a dam together.

The Moonlight - Full Moon, 2012. 140 x 140 cm/90 x 90 cm. ultra giclee print.
The Moonlight – Full Moon, 2012. 140 x 140 cm/90 x 90 cm. ultra giclee print.

Based on the discovery of 16 large dams around the important early Buddhist site of Sanchi, the archaeologists Julia Shaw and John Sutcliffe have recently argued that the introduction of irrigation was actually an important element in the propagation of the dharma: Monks “moved into new areas with a practical tool: the key to sophisticated irrigation for maximizing rice yields. They were not much concerned with converting local populations, but rather offered a set of practical incentives for locals to give their economic support to the monastery.” As Buddhists pushed into new areas, they not only built irrigation systems to sustain their particular moral economy but also introduced rice growing into areas where it had previously not existed.

Because rice could produce more abundant yields than any other crop then available in India, the Buddhist promotion of irrigated rice farming certainly played a role in doubling the rate of population growth during India’s early historical period. Historical archaeologist and geographer Janice Stargardt has conjectured, based on archaeological evidence in the Buddhist polity of Satingpra in southern Thailand, that during the 9th to 13th centuries the irrigated land under cultivation went from 50,000 hectares to 130,000 hectares. Such an increase would have meant an expansion of rice production from 48 million kilos to 130 million, or even 202 million kilos if there was double cropping. With such an increase in available food, Stargardt further contends that the population would have increased almost fourfold. It is precisely such explosive population growth that enabled urbanization and the growth of a trading culture in which Buddhism has historically thrived.

The proliferation of humanity that Buddhism has advocated has, however, also come to be the likely cause of its own future extinction. It is only under the greatest irony that human prosperity, taken to its narrowest ends, has run up against the limits of the planet.

A general maxim of environmental history is that all humans have used and exploited the environment for their own ends. Pointing out that Buddhists have done so as well should therefore really surprise no one. However, as the question that began this article attests, for those steeped in the modern notions of eco-Buddhism such a claim can still be disconcerting. Indeed, some may very well claim that such a revisionist history is simply desecrating the positive image of the dharma that dominates the popular imagination.

But such a critique ignores the possibility of change. If anything, what the brief material presented here reveals—especially when juxtaposed with modern Buddhist environmental thought and activism—is that both the dharma and, more important, Buddhists have radically changed in the modern world.

Buddhists are no longer by definition the urban elite exploiting both the natural resources and people on the commodity frontier of yore. Of course, some invariably are. But at the same time it cannot be denied that there has also been an intellectual sea change in Buddhist thinking about the environment during the 19th and 20th centuries. This transformation has had real-world impact, as evidenced by Thailand’s tree ordination movement and the Soto Zen “Green Plan” for Japan, which have both done much to not only bring environmental issues to the fore but also actually change people’s practices. There is also the case of the South Korean nun Jiyul Sunim, whose activism has transformed the entire discourse about environmental protection in Korea. In doing so, she has problematized the narrative of “economic development at all costs” that has driven much of Asia’s modern history.

That Buddhism and Buddhists have changed—and are actually having a positive environmental impact in the world—is therefore something that needs to be recognized, especially since the general consensus about our current ecological situation is one of monumental doom. Some even contend there is really nothing that can be done. Is this all we can really look forward to: extinction?

According to the Buddha, the dharma itself will eventually disappear. And as the age of the Anthropocene tells us, we may in fact become extinct whether we seek nirvana or not.

Yet the Buddha also taught us that everything changes. And thus the environmental history of Buddhism can inspire in us a glimmer of optimism. If a tradition whose success has been built on the creative destruction of the environment can change as much as the dharma has in the last century and a half, then perhaps there is some hope for us after all.

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