I have been reading about Buddhist environmentalism recently. The divergent views can be summarised as follows:
- Many western commentators believe that Buddhism is a wholly environment-friendly faith, because of the belief in the ‘oneness’ of the world.
- Some western commentators (notably Ian Harris) argue that there is scaracely any basis for an environmental ethic in Early Buddhism, because it is a nihilistic faith with a soteriological emphasis on escaping from this world, rather than trying to improve it.
- The Dalai Lama and many other Buddhist leaders are wholehearted supporters of environmental ethics and see the ideas as inherently Buddhist.
In reading about the Dalai Lama’s views I came across this comment: “Now, environmental problems are something new to me. When we were in Tibet, we always considered the environment pure. For Tibetans, whenever we saw a stream of water in Tibet, there was no question as to whether it was safe for drinking or not. However, it was different when we reached India and other places. For example, Switzerland is a very beautiful and impressive country, yet, people say “Don’t drink the water from this stream, it is polluted!”… I remember in Lhasa when I was young, some Nepalese did a little hunting arid fishing because they were not very much concerned with Tibetan laws. Otherwise there was a real safety for animals at that time. There is a strange story. Chinese farmers and road builders who came to Tibet after 1959 were very fond of meat. They usually went hunting birds, such as ducks, wearing Chinese army uniform or Chinese clothes. These clothes startled the birds and made them immediately flyaway. Eventually these hunters were forced to wear Tibetan dress. This is a true story! Such things happened, especially during the 1970’s and 80’s, when there were still large numbers of birds. Recently, a few thousand Tibetans from India went to their native places in Tibet. When they returned, they all told the same story. They said that about forty or fifty years ago there were huge forest covers in their native areas. Now all these richly forested mountains have become bald like a monk’s head. No more tall trees. In some cases the roots of the trees are even uprooted and taken away! This is the present situation. In the past, there were big herds of animals to be seen in Tibet, but few remain today. Therefore much has changed.”
Just after reading this passage I heard of the mining disaster in the Gyama Valley (30 March 2013) in which 83 people died. This led me to look for photographs of forest clearance in Tibet, to see if this could be the cause of the problem, since deforestation so often causes erosion and flooding. I could not find any photographs, so this blog post lacks an illustration. Compared to most of the world’s religions, Buddhism has the great advantage of accepting endless change (anicca) as a fundamental characteristic of the universe and of Buddhism. Islam, by way of contrast, takes the Quran as having been passed from God to Gabriel to Muhammad. This allows some scope for new interpretations (eg in the Hadith) but none for change. Islam is fortunate in having a good base for an environmental ethic. In my view, Buddhism is also in a strong position in this regard and I hope that the reviving popularity of Buddhism in China will encourage the development of environmental ethics everywhere – and of a Buddhist approach to landscape architecture – and mining operations are a special opportunity. Christians have been working at the problem of developing an environmental ethic but have been handicapped by Lynn White’s critical stance.
See the Wiki entry on Religion and environmentalism. Religions often find it difficult to come together but environmentalism offers great opportunities in this regard. Because ‘The Environment’ was not a problem in The Axial Age there are relatively few historical positions which need to be defended.