The Green Buddha
Insight Books: Totnes, UK, 1995.
299 pp., $18.00 (paper).
One might be surprised that the restless and fervent voice of Christopher Titmuss in The Green Buddha belongs to a former Buddhist monk and a worldrenowned meditation teacher, as well as a Green activist. Titmuss’ fundamental tenet, that “the root problem is a spiritual one,” will get no argument from anyone who is looking deeply at the vast array of interconnected problems facing us and future generations, but the moral haughtiness of his tone can be exasperating.
The reader is likely to crave more equanimity from such an elder statesman of the dharma. The author’s invective often belies oversimplification, and a too-hasty labeling of villains. There are few heroes in this book, where even the Buddha is found wanting. According to Titmuss the founder of Buddhism lacked an analytical spirit with regard to the social issues of his day. Such criticisms seem dislocated in time, unfounded and presumptuous. Moreover, the book’s primary flaw is this inconsistency between its strident tone and the dispassionate middle path itself.
Titmuss is unrelenting and sometimes shrill in his rejoinder that things are really bad—that the ego has already corrupted the heart of all human institutions, with “tragic consequences for humanity and the Earth.” In the light of a widespread analysis of global problems, he declares, any expression of optimism indicates foolhardiness, and he insists that if there is ever to be a new dawn, it will require the “drama of nonviolent revolution and widespread sacrifice.”
The possibility of a Green, valueinfused economic community is given short shrift in The Green Buddha. According to Titmuss, employers are hostile to people on the path. While this is generally true, there is a significant and growing number of companies that encourage personal growth for their employees. Similarly, Titmuss is too quick to dismiss institutions of higher learning as mere “breeding grounds for selfish desire, ruthless ambition and arrogant lifestyles.”
What remains helpful is his inyour-face report on the shadow side of consumer economics and the globalization of the economy. He summarizes the ways in which poor nations are plundered by rich ones, and his historical analysis of institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, while Marxist in flavor, is convincing in its conclusion that “under the guise of independence, the Third World was economically and militarily recolonized.” Even though Green economics will be more expensive, he explains that the “current economic ideologies will cost us the Earth.”
Titmuss makes excellent suggestions for the full disclosure of environmental-related information to shareholders and to the general public. But he complains that public attention to the environment is “short-lived and fickle.” Given his criticism of the media I’m surprised that he didn’t see how the multitude of corporate relationships—from sponsorship to ad sales to joint ventures—keep the lid on important environmental stories through a subtle yet insidious kind of self-censorship. The press would like us to believe it is John and Mary Q. Public who are inconsistent in their environmental concerns, when in fact the opposite is true. When a major news magazine accepts millions in advertising revenues from the world’s biggest multinational, can we reasonably expect them to report on that corporation’s destruction of rainforests and the global efforts to stop it?
Titmuss’ stand on vegetarianism and Buddhism is also telling. This is an ancient argument, and I suspect that Buddha’s refusal to criminalize the eating of meat was based not on a lack of compassion, as Titmuss suggests, but on the wish to avoid becoming a kind of Buddhist fundamentalist, an extreme to which Titmuss himself seems dangerously close.
Part of The Green Buddha is devoted to chapters on Jesus (who is declared with absolute certainty to be Maitreya, the “Buddha of the Future”), Karl Marx, Wittgenstein, women in general, T S. Eliot, and Prince Charles (who Titmuss suggests could be compared to Prince Siddhartha if only he’d work harder for his awakening and renounce his royal position). But for all of its whimsy, the book closes on a more credible—if similarly idealistic—note with open letters to the world’s political leaders, calling their attention to how ego and the desire for power influence their political judgments, and to the Earth and its inhabitants, with a powerful and inspiring statement of “The Green Vision.”
Allan Hunt Badiner, a Consulting Editor to Tricycle, is the editor of Dharmagaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology (Parallax).
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.