Monthly Archives: February 2013

Environmental Green eco-Buddhism and the ethics of landscape architecture and garden design

Environmental Green Eco-Buddhism

Environmental Green Eco-Buddhism

In 1969 I began studying landscape architecture at the Univesity of Edinburgh. That year saw the publication of Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature. McHarg gave a lecture at the university and one of our teachers (Michael Laurie) was a student and a great admirer of McHarg. Like many who join the landscape profession, I was hazy about its nature. Several recollections come to mind. I remember Michael asking us to produce ‘Master Plans’. ‘Wow’ I thought – because I was expecting to be more like a garden designer – ‘I’m going to become a master’, though I could not imagine what of. Then I remember being told we must ‘sell’ ourselves, which sounded more like being a mistress than a master. One of our teachers said that in ‘selling’ our designs, we must always mention ‘ecology’ and ‘the environment’. Another teacher told us that our professional body (now the Landscape Institute) was ‘half learned society and half trade union’ [he was wrong]. Looking back, I do not think any of this advice provides the strong grounding in ethics and ideas which a profession requires. The twentieth century was a great time for science, innovation and iconoclasm but a bad time for beliefs and ethics – possibly because so much was changing. In the twenty first century, there are public demands for the professions to have ethics: even bankers, journalists, politicians and police officers. I extend the demand to the environmental professions – including landscape architecture. But where can we look for inspiration? As discussed elsewhere, some religions are in difficult positions with regard to environmental ethics and, for a profession, it would be difficult to turn to a single ‘religion’ for an ethical base. And there are additional problems when adherents turn to ‘fundamentals’ which were established 2000 and more years ago. McHarg thought there was an anti-nature streak in Christianity and is thought to have borrowed this idea from Lynn White. White was a troubled Christian – and attracted to Buddhism because it seemed to be a more environmental faith.
Buddhism is a belief system. Though sometimes described as a ‘religion’ the Buddha’s teaching had no creation story and no gods. Nor did the Buddha want to be ‘worshiped’. Some Buddhist sects became more like the other religions but CHANGE (anicca) is an essential characteristic of Buddhism – and one which favours the development of green, environmental, eco-Buddhism. Buddhism can be compared to open-source software in this respect. Everyone can draw upon the core code and everyone can make contributions. Buddhists have never fought each other in the way that Protestants have fought Catholics and Shias have fought Sunnis. Without giving them a specifically Buddhist interpretation, it is evident that the core principles could be of use to the environmental professions come from the Ayran Path:
1. Right view
2. Right intention
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration

Buddhism has the very attractive characteristic of being kind to animals. Wiki puts it like this ‘Animals have always been regarded in Buddhist thought as sentient beings, different in their intellectual ability than humans but no less capable of feeling suffering. Furthermore, animals possess Buddha nature (according to the Mahāyāna school) and therefore an equal potential to become enlightened.’
Buddhism dates from what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age – as do the origins of the world’s other major philosophical and belief systems. That period seems to have had a talent for beliefs equaling our own priod’s talent in science, which may be a reason for looking so far back to find sound ethical principles. It is of interest that the medical profession dates from the Axial Age and has a good base in the Hippocratic Oath. I once had a go at adapting the Hippocratic Oath for landscape architecture.
Wiki gives the following figures for the numbers of adherents of the major world faiths:
Christianity 2,000–2,200
Islam 1,570–1,650
Hinduism 828–1,000 I
Buddhism 400–500
Nobody knows how many Chinese people are, to a greater or lesser extent, followers of Buddhist ideas. If the number is large, Buddhism could move up the rankings. My impression is that ‘communist China’ is now building more Buddhist temples than any country has ever built at any point in history.

Buddhist Gardens and the Dragon Garden in Shey, Ladakh

If anyone would like a (free) ticket, I am giving a lecture about the influence of Buddhism on garden design – to be followed with a lecture by Simon Drury-Brown on the design of the Dragon Garden for the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India. Tickets are available from Eventbrite. The design of the school, by Arup Associates, is based on a mandala. The design of the garden extends the mandala concept and gives it a wider application.
The great Italian scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, Giuseppe Tucci, explained the mandala concept in a way which makes it well suited to forming the basis for a landscape plan for a school community. Tucci wrote that ‘First and foremost, a mandala delineates a consecrated superficies and protects it from invasion by disintegrating forces symbolized in demoniacal cycles. But a mandala is much more than just a consecrated area that must be kept pure for ritual and liturgical ends. It is, above all, a map of the cosmos. It is the whole universe in its essential plan, in its process of emanation and of reabsorption. The universe not only in its inert spatial expanse, but as temporal revolution and both as a vital lprocess which develops from an essential Principle and ratates round a central axis, Mount Sumeru, the axis of the world on which the sky rests and which sinks its roots into the mysterious substratum. This is a conception common to all Asia and to which clarity and precision have been lent by the cosmological ideas expressed in the Mesopotamian zikurrats and reflected in the plan of the Iranian rulers’ imperial city, and thence in the ideal image of the palace of the cakravartin, the ‘Universal Monarch’ of Indian tradition‘. The Druk School will become a place where teachers, students and visitors are encouraged to think about the nature of the cosmos and the nature of human life. The landscape design is being developed by landscape architecture staff and students from the Univesity of Greenwich. Design, construction and fund-raising are managed by a UK Charity, the Drukpa Trust. The school has won a sheaf of international awards. The architects, Arup Associates, explain that

  • Classrooms face the morning sun to make the most of natural light and heat.
  • The school is largely self-sufficient in energy.
  • Two boreholes and solar pumps supply the school site with all the water it needs.