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.

8 thoughts on “Environmental Green eco-Buddhism and the ethics of landscape architecture and garden design

  1. jerry

    Tom, if you listened to me that do a research about the relationship between buddhism and garden design or landscape design or urban design. I think I would be much happier and have more use.

  2. Christine

    Yes. Buddhism is an amazing religion and is very different from Christianity in a number of respects while having a surprising number of similarities.

    It is not at all unusual that their is no God concept as at the time Buddha lived only the Jews were Mono-theist and of course Christ was yet to be born so there were no Christians.

    If the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan was the time in history in which Heaven was again opened -after being closed at the Fall – then the destiny of the soul in Buddha’s time would also have been different.

    Here are two key differences:

    1. Without the sacrament of Baptism the full effects of the punishments of Original Sin in human nature would have been commonly felt by all.

    2. And there was no access to an everlasting life after death! (Think the Beatles song Imagine there’s no Heaven…)

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    There is an interesting interview with Ninian Smart here. He gave a week of lectures at the University of St Andrews in 1967-8. My interest in eastern religions dates from those lectures but I did not know anything about his personal life until finding this interview. He reports that the army taught him Chinese! I also like the comments that he saw himself as ‘a Buddhist-Episcopalian’ and that ‘the study of comparative religion can make one “comparatively religious”‘ and that ‘Buddhism is complementary to Christianity — it adds to it’. Then there is the insigtful remark from St. Francis of Xavier, when he reached in Japan in 1547: he wrote to the Pople that ‘It is unfortunate that the Lutherans were here before me.’ By this he meant that Pure Land Buddhism, which had the most influence on garden design, was so much like the Lutheran strain of Protestantism. In the mid-sixteenth Christianity had an influence on garden design which it has not had before or since.

  4. Christine

    It is interesting that Ninian Smart says;

    “we have underplayed the idea that our moral and spiritual troubles have to do with a lack of clarity or insight because original sin has dominated so much of our thinking.”

    It is possible that our lack of clarity or insight may be due to what is called Original Sin or sometimes The Human Condition!

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The BBC is running a series on one of my favourite animals: penguins http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Penguin and I am wondering if I could introduce them to Scotland (which I think would be ‘wrong’). Compared to humans, penguins are better at swimming and much more smartly ‘dressed’ – but not so good at walking. They also have a deep commitment to family life and completely shared responsibility for children. Does this make them more virtuous than other animal species where the father ‘neglects’ his offspring? Or is the penguins ‘ethical’ behaviour simply a matter of occupying an evolutionary niche? And would we be doing the same if we converted the coast of Antarctica into a penguin factory farm? – which must be a tempting proposition for non-Buddhists who enjoy penguin-burgers.

  5. Christine

    Yes you did shock me with your penguin burger suggestion – but then it seems the UK has been eating all sorts of different animals unknowingly lately!

    Penguins are very well dressed and very good fathers which is undoubtably part of their charm! You are right there is much to be considered aboout how things are done in the animal kingdom.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Ah Ha. Are humans part of the ‘animal kingdom’?
      The horse ‘scandal’ has provided many opportunities for jokes and my favourite is the spelling ‘spagetti bolog-neigh-se’.

  6. Christine

    Whether or not humans are part of the ‘animal kingdom’ depends on who you choose for your apexical ancestor (given that the missing link is still missing…[ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/evolution/7550033/Missing-link-between-man-and-apes-found.html ]) – the ape or Adam?

    If you choose Adam and then look for an evolutionary link with the ape – ie. to have it both ways – well it is necessary to find the first non-furry one.
    [ http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/19/science/why-humans-and-their-fur-parted-ways.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm ]

    This is one of the Fatima children’s [ http://www.catholicculture.org/news/features/index.cfm?recnum=35248 ] view on why God gave Adam and Eve clothes.
    [ http://www.michaeljournal.org/dressadam.htm ] Here is how the events of Eden and their significance are described in the Jewish account. [ http://www.jewishpathways.com/chumash-themes/garden-eden ]

    It is interesting that the account give the reverse transformation in the snake from almost human to animal.


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