Category Archives: Buddhist gardens and environmental ethics

Sigiriya Buddhist Garden in Sri Lanka

Sigiriya’s garden was probably made by Buddhist monks

Sigiriya has an exceptionally interesting garden. Though often described as a ‘palace garden’ its character is much more likely to derive from the time when it was a Buddhist monastery. What looks at first sight like a ‘formal water garden’ of the kind made in Renaissance Europe was probably a set of baoli ponds used by the monks for drinking water, washing and ritual cleansing. The beautiful goddesses on the mirror wall are akin to those in other Buddhist monasteries of the period.

Beliefs, gardens, design and #GardenBeliefs

Beliefs have led to the planting of Nelumbo nucifera the Sacred Lotus since ancient times

Beliefs have led to the planting of Nelumbo nucifera the Sacred Lotus since ancient times

Beliefs have always influenced garden design styles, just as they influence contemporary gardens. And  just as they will surely influence future gardens. I do not have a religion but I do believe in beliefs and in their importance for designers. Neil MacGregor’s radio series on Living with Gods is therefore of great interest to me. Taking objects and places as examples, MacGregor explains the beliefs that led to their creation. This is what I tried to do when writing histories of Asian, European and British garden design.  So when I can see a connections between what MacGregor say and the history of gardens I will blog and tweet about them using the hastag #GardenBeliefs. I am hoping he will devote a programme to Nelumbo nucifera the Sacred Lotus – but doubt it. It was a celebrated garden plant long before the Buddha made it a very famous garden plant as recorded in the story of the Flower Sermon:

Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. As they had done so many times before, the Buddha’s followers sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching. But this time the Buddha had no words. He reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water. The disciples were greatly confused. Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower: what it symbollized, and how it fit into the body of Buddha’s teaching. When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakasyapa, the disciple suddenly understood. He smiled and began to laugh. Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakasyapa and began to speak. “What can be said I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.”

Alan Watts a great interpreter of Buddhist ideas for westerners made a wise comment on contemporary religious ideas (he uses the term ‘faith’ where I  use ‘belief’):

The present phase of human thought and history … almost compels us to face reality with open minds, and you can only know God through an open mind just as you can only see the sky through a clear window. You will not see the sky if you have covered the glass with blue paint. But “religious” people who resist the scraping of the paint from the glass, who regard the scientific attitude with fear and mistrust, and confuse faith with clinging to certain ideas, are curiously ignorant of laws of the spiritual life which they might find in their own traditional records.

The Manali to Leh Highway & Landscape Change in Ladakh


Taking the footage for this video, in September 2014, was a good opportunity to reflect on landscape change in a hitherto remote region of India: Ladakh. There are many considerations:

  • Ladakh was an important sector on the of the Silk Road Network, particularly for north-south trade and travel between India and China. The video uses quotations from European travelers who undertook the journey c1850-1950.
  • Travel between Ladakh and Pakistan ended with the partition of India in 1947.
  • Travel between Ladakh and China ended with the closure of the border, by China, in 1949.
  • India responded by closing Ladakh to all travel and tourism
  • From 1949 until 1974 Ladakh was cut off and isolated as rarely in its history
  • Since 1974 Ladakh’s economy has become dependent on the army, which invests in roads. The military population of Ladakh is now greater than the civilian population but the army keeps its personnel largely separate from the local people.
  • Ladakh’s other post-1974 economic prop is tourism. In summer there are more tourists than locals in the regional capital, Leh.
  • Westerners, in the main, want Ladakh to remain an undeveloped and traditional region.
  • Ladakhis, in the main, want to experience the ‘luxuries’ of western civilization.

So what should be done? I think Ladakh would have done better, if it could, to have followed the development path of Bhutan. This involves a very cautious approach to development and a concentration on the luxury end of the tourism market.
As things stand, the best approach is probably the adoption a forward-looking development policy as firmly rooted as possible in the principles of context-sensitivity and sustainability. This policy is exemplified by the Druk White Lotus School and its Dragon Garden.
Romesh Bhattacharji, an Indian who knows Ladakh very well, wrote in 2012 of the new roads which will open up Zanskar that ‘Many people, all outsiders typically, I have met, however, also moan about the loss of the traditional way of life of the people of Zanska. The latter want a better way of life than just being museum relics for tourists’ It is a well-aimed criticism. But ‘traditional’ and ‘development’ need not be in opposition: a Middle Way is also possible, by design. The Druk School and Dragon Garden make a cameo appearance on the above video and are explained in more detail by the videos on the DWLS Dragon Garden Playlist.

Landscape architecture as narrative – for a Dragon Garden in Ladakh


This video was produced to explain the ideas behind the making of a Dragon Garden for a Buddhist-influenced school in Ladakh. The aim was to explain the design to the school’s clients and end-users: the children.
I began studying landscape architecture in 1969 and was introduced to the subject by a garden historian (Frank Clark) and by an admirer and student of Ian McHarg (Michael Laurie). Frank had a keen appreciation of the role of association (with the classical world) in design. Michael, I later appreciated, was a Modernist – as was McHarg. It took me a long time to realise that these approaches have most value when combined.
Landscape Urbanism can, and in my view should, be regarded as a design approach which integrates ecological and cultural approaches to landscape design (‘Michael and Frank’ in my own mind).
‘Why the Dragons want a Garden in Shey’ is a children’s’ story. A great flood almost destroyed the Buddhist school in 2010. So the dragons said they would help make a garden. But only if the children would help too. When the garden was lush with vegetation and buzzing with bees, two of the children decided to become landscape architects.
There is also a more ‘grown-ups’ account of the Dragon Garden’s landscape architecture on Youtube.

Landscape architect volunteers help make a Dragon Garden for the Druk White Lotus School

What is the difference between a trade and a profession? A Wiki article lists the characteristics of a profession as being present when: (1) an occupation becomes a full-time occupation (2) the establishment of a training school (3) the establishment of a university school (4) the establishment of a local association (5) the establishment of a national association (6) the introduction of codes of professional ethics (7) the establishment of state licensing laws.
I agree but would add that the code of professional ethics should include an element of idealism and altruism. As part of this, it should be the norm for professional people to follow the lawyers’ good example in doing unpaid work for good causes (pro bono). Lawyers have to spend much of their time defending the guilty and protecting the interests of land-and-money-grabbers. I therefore feel good when they do pro bono work and it also makes me happy to see young landscape architects doing volunteer work – as with helping to make a Dragon Garden for the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh.

Japanese Zen Gardens by Yoko Kawaguchi and Alex Ramsay Frances Lincoln 2014 – review

Tenryu-ji, photographed by Alex Ramsay

Tenryu-ji, photographed by Alex Ramsay

This book has excellent photographs, by Alex Ramsay, and the inclusion of garden plans is most welcome. Kawaguchi writes with admirable clarity about Zen gardens – compared to those I have seen of the 1,926 books on Amazon returns for a search on Zen Gardens. Allen Weiss, for example, begins Zen Landscapes (2013) by stating that ‘The essential elements of the dry Japanese garden are few: rocks, gravel, moss’. Kawaguchi explains that this is not how ‘Zen garden’ is used in Japan: it simply means ‘the garden of a Zen temple’ and such gardens are not stylistically distinct from other Japanese temple gardens. So Weiss should have used kare-sansui or dry landscape in his book title. I would also complain if ‘Protestant’ was the adjective used, overseas, for the gardens of eighteenth century England. I therefore recommend Kawaguchi as the first book to read on Zen gardens. Yet there are some critical points to make. First, I would like the introduction to have said more about the principles of Buddhism, the distinct characteristics of Zen Buddhism and the relationship between Buddhism and gardens. Second, the plans lack contours and, to my eye, look too English. Third, I would like the points made to have had bibliographic references. I do not think this would have spoiled the book design and I do not think it would have mattered if the references were to Japanese publications which English readers cannot follow.
Part One of the book gives a historical overview of the gardens made for Japanese Zen temples. The first such temples are dated to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (while the first Buddhist gardens in Japan date from the sixth century). The influence of Chan Buddhism, from China, which became Zen Buddhism in Japan, is associated with the Emperor Kameyama. He abdicated at the age of 24, in 1274, and became a Buddhist monk in 1289 and the abbot of Nanzen-ji. Ryoan-ji, which fascinates visitors and provides foreigners with their image of a ‘Zen garden’, is a mystery. Little is known of its date or its symbolism: ‘it is almost as though visitors to the temple have needed to be reassured that the garden is indeed a work of genius rather than a case of humbug’ (p.61). Kawaguchi also discusses the influence of Zen on twentieth century gardens, notably in the work of Shigemori Mirei.

Part Two of the book reviews the symbols and motifs used in Zen gardens. Many have Buddhist roots and many do not. The view from Shinju-an (illustrated below) uses symbols drawn from the beliefs of pre-Buddhist Japan: Shinto. Other symbols come from Daoism and China, including the turtle, the crane and the islands of the immortals.

My view is that it is pity to make either ‘Japanese gardens’ or ‘Zen gardens’ without the understandings of ideas and symbols which Kawaguchi provides. To state a tautology: the gardens of Zen temples are temple gardens.

japanese_zen_gardens_kawaguchi2

Tibetan Buddhist Peace Garden in London

 Interesting that it is quite possible to do a good design which is also the wrong design. This is what I think happened in the case of Hamish Horsley’s 1999 design for the Tibetan Peace Garden beside the Imperial War Museum, as explained in the video. Part of the problem is the small scale and obscure location of the Peace Garden vis-a-vis the War Museum. Surely we all prefer peace to war and to not want to see peace tucked away in a convenient, if noisy, corner. I think the scale problem could still be resolved, and cheaply, by placing prayer flag high in the trees – to let them waft their prayers for peace to every corner of the globe.

Mandalas in garden and landscape design

This video is an attempt to involve the forces of nature in making and un-making a ‘flower and sand’ mandala pattern.
Mandalas are diagrams which help explain, in Giuseppe Tucci’s phrase, ‘the geography of the cosmos’. Buddhist mandalas explain the Dharma – the Buddha’s teaching. It is both a philosophical system and a course of action. Sand mandalas are made in Tibet, as part of a monk’s training – and then ‘ritually destroyed’. The outer region of a mandala represents the world and the universe – samsara. It is impermanent. The inner region of a mandala represents nirvana – an ideal condition in which the spirit is liberated from the cycles of death and suffering. Some Buddhists think of nirvana as a real place. Other Buddhists think of nirvana as a state of mind. Mandala diagrams often have Mount Meru, a palace and a palace garden at their centre. The diagram then explains the path from suffering to enlightenment. It is a path which requires, study, meditation and compassion.
For western garden designers, and for non-Buddhists, a fascinating comparison can be drawn with the Neoplatonist/Idealist axiom that ‘art should imitate nature’. In aesthetic theory, it is now interpreted as a call for ‘naturalistic’ and ‘representational’ art. But for most of its history ‘art should imitate nature’ was a call to embody the fundamental essences of Nature in works of art. The principles of optics, for example, were seen as Laws of Nature which could and should be employed in the design of baroque gardens. Under the influence of Christianity, from the time of St Augustine (354-430) onwards, this meant the ideals, laws and principles upon which God’s design for the universe was founded. We could say that a mandala-based design is also ‘an imitation of Nature’ (which Buddhists understand as the Dharma).

Environmental, vegetarian and Buddhist ethics

I do not want to be reborn as a factory farmed chicken - and nor do I want to eat prisioners

Greta Gaard recalls a conversation with her Dad about ‘my dietry freedom at the age of 11’.
‘What if I came up to you, and ripped your arm off, and ate it?’ I was practically yelling at my father. ‘How would you feel about that? And what kind of person would that make me?. Happily, he was silent. ‘Don’t you see? I’m not goint to eat Pookie [our dachshund], I’m not going to eat your arms and legs, and I’m not going to eat anyone else’s either’. This conversation was the formal beginning of my environmentalal ethic. Of course, I didn’t think of it that way at the time. [Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions edited by David R. Keller 2010 p.45]
I stayed in a hotel recently and the owner informed me that he only ate the flesh of animals which do not have a central nervous system. I did not ask about slugs but I did wonder about the religious and physiological aspects of his diet. I have read that humans could not have evolved to their present condition without consuming the proteins which come from animals and our place in the food chain is part of our ‘nature’. But have humans reached a point at which they can/should give up eating fish and meat? The Economist reports that ‘The world’s average stock of chickens is almost 19 billion, or three per person’ – and most of them are kept in ghastly conditions. Buddhists believe that accumulating bad karma can lead to one being reborn as a lower form of life. If I am to reborn as a chicken I most definitely would not want it to be in Africa, India or China. Nor would the US or Australia suit me well. I suppose the UK would be the best place, because the country has moderately well developed animal welfare policies, but even this would be grim.
Should good environmentalists be vegetarian? One consideration is that if all humans became vegetarian then the Earth could support a much larger human population, thus promoting the happiness of a greater number. But if man is ‘just another animal’ then (1) should we worry about the loss of 19bn chickens if humans became vegetarian (2) have we a moral obligation to extend human rights to the animal kingdom?
Battery chickens factory farming image courtery aleutia

Disclosure: I was a vegetarian for many years and am now as strict as I can be about only eating ‘organic’ fish and meat – but I have doubts about my dietry policy and took a guilty pleasure in an inorganic ‘Full English’ breakfast one day last week.

Two modern Buddhist garden designs at the 2013 Chelsea Flower Show

After publishing six short videos on Buddhist gardens on this blog last week, you can well imagine that I was delighted to find two contemporary Buddhist-inspired garden designs at the 2013 Chelsea Flower Show: The Sound of Silence garden by Fernando Gonzalez and the Mindfulness garden by Martin Cook. Martin won a Gold Medal and Fernando a Silver-Gilt Medal – my explanation is that Fernando did not include flowers in his design. It is, after all, the Chelea FLOWER Show. My suggestion was that the wavy white mountains could stand in a lotus pond (following the traditional pattern of mandalas and mandala gardens). Congratulations to them both – I believe that Buddhist ideas have an illustrious future in gardens – less as representations of the Buddha than as interpretations of the Dharma. Fernando admires Japanese Zen gardens. They derive from Chinese ideas and I look forward to the day when Chinese landscape architects and garden designers recover their long-lost interest in Buddhist philosophy. That day will surely dawn.

The Dragon Garden in Shey and Landscape Architecture for the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India

This is the sixth of 6 videos on the relationship between Buddhism and garden design.
The Dragon Garden in Shey, Ladakh, India, is being made under the influence of Buddhism but is a secular school within the Indian School system. The architecture, based on an mandala, is by Arup Associates. The garden and landscape design is by the department of landscape architecture at the University of Greenwich in London. It extends the mandala concept outward from the school buildings. The Druk White Lotus School (DWLS) is under the patronage of the Dalai Lama and is funded by a UK-based charity, the Drukpa Trust.
The influence of Buddhism on garden design is explained in an eBook

Eco-Buddhism, landscape architecture, Ian McHarg and environmental ethics

Eco-Buddhism, landscape architecture and environmnetal ethics is the second of six videos on the relationship between Buddhism and the history of garden and environmental design.
Buddhism declined in many Asian countries during the twentieth century but became one of the fastest-growing faiths in Europe, the Americas and Australia. This led to an encounter with the environmental movement and a substantial literature has developed on what is called Eco-Buddhism, Green Buddhism or Environmental Buddhism. Though he did not advocate a Buddhist approach, Ian McHarg’s advocacy of Design with nature and of Lynn White’s argument against the Christian attitude to nature, associates McHarg with Buddhist Environmentalism.
The influence of Buddhism on Environmental Ethics is discussed in an eBook

Chinese Gardens: the influence of Chan and Pure Land Buddhism in China

Chan and Pure Land Buddhist Gardens in China is the fourth of six videos on the relationship between Buddhism and the history of garden design.
Buddhism spread to China from India. The practice of forming monastic communities with temples and gardens also took root in China but the Buddhist-influenced gardens made in China were not the same as any which are known to have been made in the India. They were Mahayana Buddhist Gardens and appear to have been influenced by Tibetan mandalas with lotus ponds, Buddha halls and representations of mountains. They were the subject of paintings in Tibet and of garden design in China. Chan (Zen) and Pure Land ideas also took developed in China and are likely to have influenced garden design.
The influence of Buddhism on garden design is explained in an eBook

Buddhist garden design in Japan, including Zen and Pure Land Gardens

Buddhist garden design in Japan is the third of six videos on the relationship between Buddhism and the history of garden design.
Buddhism spread to Japan from China and Korea, as did the Chinese style of laying out cities, palaces, temples and gardens. Japanese gardens were often made for Buddhist monasteries, where they tend to be called Zen gardens, and for retired emperors who wished to live as abbots and conduct their preparation for the Pure Land and nirvana. The term ‘Zen garden’ was not used until the 1930s but has become very popular.
The influence of Buddhism on garden design is explained in my eBook on Buddhist gardens

Buddhist garden design in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal

Buddhist garden design in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal is the second of six videos on the relationship between Buddhism and the history of garden design.
Buddhism began in North India and, over the next 1500 years, almost died out in India. But it survived in Sri Lanka – which also has good examples of ancient Buddhist gardens used by monastic communities. See: Sigiriya, Polonnarauwa, Anuradhapura – Mahamegha Gardens (Mahamevuna Uyana),
The influence of Buddhism on garden design is explained in an eBook

What is a 'Zen Buddhist garden'? and is the idea Japanese, Chinese or Western?


Wybe Kuitert, a notable scholar of Japanese garden history, has challenged the the theory that stone and gravel gardens, like Ryoan-ji, were inspired by Zen Buddhist ideas. He argues that the theory did not appear before the 1930s and that it then arose from an American scholar (Loraine Kuck) who was influenced by Japanese nationalist thinkers who wanted to argue that Japanese culture was more harmonious and less aggresive than western culture. I am persuaded by Kuitert’s account of the origins of the now-common classification of Ryoan-ji but doubtful that his alternative explanation is adequate. From a knowledge of Japan which is much less than Kuitert’s, it appears to me that (1) stone-and-gravel gardens are very likely to have been influenced by Chinese precedents (2) whether or not the Chinese precedents were specifically Chan (ie Zen) Buddhist, they were certainly influenced by Buddhist ideas and their Daoist parallels.
There are three difficulties in tracing the Chinese precedents of stone-and-gravel gardens: (1) so far as I know, there are no visual or records (2) there may be textual records of Buddhist gardens in Song China but, if so, they would have to be investigated by Chinese garden historians with the ability to find and read the relevant documents (3) research into the influence of Buddhism on Chinese gardens is not a popular field of research in China – because Chinese governments have very often wanted to downplay the influence of all foreigners on Chinese civilization.
I hope these questions will receive the attention they deserve someday. Here are some quotations from Kuitert to stimulate the necessary research (from Kuitert, W., Themes in the History of Japanese Garden Art University of Hawaii Press 2002). But, for what it is worth, my view is that the categorization ‘Zen Buddhist Garden’ is valid- unless and until better information becomes available.
p.130 ‘The Oriental supposedly sees himself not as an individual at war with his environment but rather as fundamentally a part of all that is about him.’
p.133 In previous chapters we have seen that the medieval garden makers were not devoted Zen priests but usually menial stoneworkers…
P.133 The present pages on the evolution of a scenic garden style, however, show that this is not the only interpretation. From the preceding it is clear that this type of garden stemmed in theory (and at least part of its practice) from the Chinese intellectual and literary canon of landscape art. The building of a garden was calculated intellectual activity, not an instantaneous act of religiously inspired intuition. It found its place in Zen temples and warrior residences because it enhanced a cultural ambiance. That its appreciation involved religious aspects rather than artistic ones is questionable. A Zen religious experience was interpreted in modern European terms of philosophy by Nishida. It was Suzuki who extended this interpretation to culture and the arts – thereby making the mistake of explaining the intent of the original creator of historical works of art with it. Kuck similarly stated that the Ryoan-ji garden is ‘the creation of an artistic and religious soul who was striving… to express the harmony of the universe’. With this statement she assigned the twentieth-century religious or aesthetic experience she felt on seeing the garden to the soul of a medieval garden maker. Kuck mixes her own historically determined interpretation with an old garden that came about in a completely different cultural setting.
The above photograph of Ryoan-ji is courtery jpellgen. It captures the aspect of the garden which attracts and mystifies western visitors: ‘Karesansui. Ryoan-ji in Kyoto has a world famous zen rock garden. Here you can see some of the simplicity that makes this garden so impressive. The position of the stones and the carefully maintained sand is a sight to behold. Ryoan-ji is a famous temple of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism. It dates back to the 1400’s and was originally associated with the Fujiwara family (big suprise there). The most famous aspect of Ryoan-ji, however, is the karesansui (dry landscape) rock garden–believed to be the finest in the world. It contains 15 stones, although I had trouble finding the last one. Apparently, most people can only see 14 unless you have the right perspective of this 30mx10m garden.’

'Form is emptiness' – in Buddhism, garden design and landscape architecture

The enclosure on Vulture Peak Rajgir, India is believed to the be the place where the Buddha delivered the teaching recorded in the Heart Sutra. It contains the famous lines:
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form
Emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness
Whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form

The phrasaeology is meant to induce meditation. ‘Emptiness’ (Śūnyatā) may be interpreted in relation to the Buddhist concept of non-self (Anatta). Nothing we see has a separate ‘self’. Everything is inter-connected. The lines embody a paradox and this may be deliberate – because there is so much about the nature of the universe which cannot be understood. My own understanding of the lines is as follows:
– objects appear to have form but, because they are connected to everything else, this is an illusion
– the ‘everything else’ to which objects are connected can only be perceived through forms
This gives the lines from the Heart Sutra a relationship with Plato’s Theory of Forms and with the modern distinction between particulars and universals. We might say that universials are known only from particulars and that particulars are understood only when they can belong to universal categories. The favourte example is cats (see Fig 1). We only know the universal ‘cattiness’ through particular examples and we only know that particular cats ARE cats because of our acquiaintance with the universal form of cats.
Assuming I have interpreted the Buddha and Plato correctly, I am more attracted to the Buddhist version. Plato conceived the forms as eternal and unchanging. For a landscape architect or garden designer this is unappealing. It implies that all possible forms and designs already exist. The Buddhist version gives important positions both to the form which a designer ‘assembles’ and to the inter-connected cosmos (I almost wrote ‘compost’) from which the elements are drawn – and to which they will return. Forms have no ‘self’; they change every instant; they are impermanent (annica). Modern science confirms that everything is in flux. We notice it more in outdoor than indoor environments. With time the fourth dimension, landscape design appears to be a four-dimensional art.
The photo is from Wikipedia, with thanks. The design uses one of the primary Platonic forms: the square. Compare it with the photo of St Francis, below. Monasticism was a Buddhist idea and the monks seem to belong to the Axial Age, of the Buddha, Plato, Confucius and the author(s) of the Old Testament. Or do they belong to an even earlier age when India rishis meditated in forests, caves and mountain retreats? And why was it such a great period in the history of philosophy and religion? Should philosophers and religious leaders – and landscape designers – work in the great outdoors, instead of in fusty musty offices? Yes. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

Lynn Townsend White, environmental ethics, Christianity and Buddhism

Pope Francis and St Francis of Assisi are the best hopes for Environmental Christianity

I have mentioned Lynn Townsend White several times in this blog without, I am sorry to say, having read his 1966 article (see comments re Buddhism and re Christianity). It is available online and I recommend it The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis Lynn White, Jr. As a historian, he is in the same league as Lewis Mumford and Sigfried Giedion but is field of view is wider, because he is a historian of ideas with an interest in the environment, rather than the other way about. Here is the famous passage from White’s paper, in bold, with the sentences which precede dnd follow it in italics:
To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.
What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship. More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one.
The beatniks, who are the basic revolutionaries of our t ime, show a sound instinct in their affinity for Zen Buddhism, which conceives of the man-nature relationship as very nearly the mirror image of the Christian view. Zen, however, is as deeply conditioned by Asian history as Christianity is by the experience of the West, and I am dubious of its viability among us.
Possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi. The prime miracle of Saint Francis is the fact that he did not end at the stake, as many of his left-wing followers did. He was so clearly heretical that a General of the Franciscan Order, Saint Bonavlentura, a great and perceptive Christian, tried to suppress the early accounts of Franciscanism. The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility–not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.

With this in mind, it is heartening that the new Pope has taken the name Francis. Pope Francis and St Francis of Assisi are the best hopes for Environmental Christianity – and possibly for the world environment. If Lynn White is correct that Christian beliefs underlie the attitude to the environment of Post-Christians and Non-Christians around the world, then a re-orientation of Christianity around St Francis could contribute much to ‘saving the planet’. Let’s hope this will include a new attitude to birth control. If the catholic church does not want to use modern technology for this purpose then, as in old Tibet, it could be done by having a very large population of non-breeding monks and nuns. Like St Francis, they could love animals. White went on to write that
Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature
may point a direction.  I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists
.

Environmental Buddhism, landscape architecture and the Gyama Valley mining disaster in Tibet

I have been reading about Buddhist environmentalism recently. The divergent views can be summarised as follows:

  1. Many western commentators believe that Buddhism is a wholly environment-friendly faith, because of the belief in the ‘oneness’ of the world.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.