Image: © Carole Leslie, ZenDotStudio, Forest Buddha, Carole Leslie, mixed media on canvas, 8 x 8 inches
Image: © Carole Leslie, ZenDotStudio,
Forest Buddha, Carole Leslie, mixed media on canvas, 8 x 8 inches

Does meditating on your zafu help us deal with climate change, or are Buddhists getting away with “sitting” out the ecological crisis? It may be surprising to some that Buddhism, often regarded as otherworldly and introspective, has been a launching pad for environmental activism in the 21st century. Shakyamuni Buddha’s 2,600-year-old teachings have inspired the modern and diverse ecological efforts of the Sri Lankan organization Sarvodaya and individuals including Australia’s John Seed, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand’s Phra Khru Pitak, America’s Joanna Macy and Gary Snyder, Vietnam’s Thich Nhat Hanh, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Buddhist teachings continue to inspire and inform the activism of a new generation of environmental leaders.

If, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, it’s not Buddhism if it’s not engaged, then it follows that our individual enlightenment and societal harmony are inseparable. Inner peace and world peace, personal prosperity and economic equality, personal health and planetary health—all of these are illusory dualisms in the eyes of the dharma.

So, are Buddhist environmentalists who risk arrest by protesting coal fire or nuclear power plants practicing Buddhism—or are they practicing politics? Both, it turns out: “Even if a bodhisattva investigates the highest wisdom,” said Tsongkhapa, founder of the Dalai Lama’s school of Tibetan Buddhism, “one is not a proper bodhisattva unless one applies skillful means for the benefit of other sentient beings.” Perhaps this is one reason that while so many other religions remain focused on heaven above, Buddhists stay fairly down to Earth.

There are, however, voices that support the separation of dharma and state, or of meditation and activism. Disciples of the Buddha, they propose, have a duty to liberate their minds and leave the rest of the world alone. At one extreme is the Pali scholar Michael Olds, who considers hunger strikes and other forms of aggressive physical protest “extreme acts of anger that propagate wrong views claiming to be the dhamma.” Olds points to the Middle Length Sayings of the Pali canon, where he finds the idea that even when one is being sawed to pieces by bad people, adopting a heart of anger is “not doing the Buddha’s work.”

Tricycle founder and author Helen Tworkov in her Spring 1993 editorial suggests that some engaged Buddhists manifest unhealthy do-gooder tendencies, harboring “Cub Scout and Brownie Buddhism.” The problem, as Tworkov sees it, is that their “selfcherishing identification” as social heroes “takes precedent over the slow, often painful, process of cultivating an open heart.”

But is personal meditation practice a sufficient response to willful and wanton ecological destruction? Part of the problem lies in trying to answer this question using a modern English term such as “detachment” as a translation for viraga—which has led many Buddhists to avoid social engagement— when a closer translation of the word is “impartial” or “freed from the passions.” In her book Detachment and Compassion in Early Buddhism, Dr. Elizabeth J. Harris writes: “The question would not arise for those thinking exclusively in Pali, using terms like viraga and karuna [compassion]. It would be evident to them that they do not imply apathy or indifference, but rather the necessary freedom from attachment so that actions do not become biased or partial.” What often passes for compassion, she says, can cloak emotions of a very different kind: anger, closed-mindedness, or the wish to interfere.

Harris reminds us of a particular philosophical debate in which the Buddha was challenged by the assertion that the most worthy person is one who speaks neither in dispraise of the unworthy nor in praise of the praiseworthy. The Buddha disagreed, rejecting the refusal to take sides, and argued that one who speaks in dispraise of the unworthy and in praise of the worthy is best (Anguttara Nikaya 2.100.1). Harris concludes that the Buddhist view of detachment does not mean a withdrawal from striving for truth but a movement toward seeing the true nature of things more clearly.

Some Buddhist scholars have taken the position that while the world will be demonstrably worse off if, for example, the black rhino becomes extinct, it is difficult to ground such a view on a sound Buddhist footing. In their final analysis, the goal for all life is cessation. But while the Buddha spoke about the happiness in nonaction, something he deemed an integral part of right effort, it is a misunderstanding to conclude that the pursuit of liberation implies a lack of concern toward everything worldly.

The Buddhist scholar and activist Joanna Macy claims that the path cannot be reduced to the personal ego. Arguing that “the pain we feel for the world is not reducible to individual needs and wants,” she concludes that the genuine teaching of Buddhism is an awareness of universal interconnectedness, mutual conditioning, and the radical interdependence of all phenomena. This resonates strongly with what she calls “deep ecology” as well as with modern general systems theory. By dismantling the separate, continuous ego-self, Macy explains, one is led to identify with and take responsibility for the whole world, humans as well as all other beings.

The German scholar of Buddhism Lambert Schmithausen is willing to admit that Buddhist spiritual and everyday practice may contribute to a sort of de facto environmentalism, though he carefully points out that he doesn’t think it “establishes nature … as a value in itself.” Alan Sponberg, in his essay “Green Buddhism and the Hierarchy of Compassion,” says that only when we have at last cultivated a significantly different state of awareness can we expect to act in accord with the basic interrelatedness of all existence. Simply attempting to change specific environmentally detrimental behaviors will not work by itself. In fact, the Buddhist solution to the environmental crisis is nothing short of the basic Buddhist goal of enlightenment. The practice of advocating for and being an example of ecological responsibility is itself an effort toward realization.

For this reason, the British monk Venerable Khemadhammo rejects the very term “engaged Buddhist” for posing a false distinction between everyday practice and social or environmental engagement. The fruits of nonattachment are not only linked with the gaining of knowledge, the “incomparable self-awakening,” says the Dalai Lama, but are also related to “creating an ecologically just and harmonious society.” In other words, with its famous insistence on nondiscrimination, Buddhism is a discriminatingly ecological practice.