Category Archives: Buddhist gardens and environmental ethics

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.

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.

Mandala landscapes for stupas, temples, gardens and the Druk White Lotus School DWLS


We tend to think of a mandala (मण्डल) as a graphic pattern, though the Sanskrit derivation of the word is from the ‘cycles’ or ‘circles’ (ie ‘sections’ or ‘books’) of the Rig Veda. The Vedas were hymns recited on ritual occasions. Mandala patterns were developed to symbolise the rituals and the ideas underying the rituals. Buddhists took on the idea from Hindus and used mandala patterns in the design of stupas (chortens), tankas and many other things. Used in this way, a mandala symbolises the geography of the cosmos. Early mandala patterns had a lotus flower with open petals and the Buddha at its centre. Circles and squares were added and a mandala came to represent the four material elements of the universe (earth, water, fire, wind) with Mount sumeru as the world axis. Energy moves in a cosmic dance from the centre to the periphery, and then back to the centre, encompassing inanimate and living things.
Buddhist Chinese and Japanese gardens are also mandalas. The word ‘Pagoda’ derives from ‘stupa’ and these gardens symbolise the cosmos, with the temple as a house for a Buddha. In later Chinese gardens temples evolved into garden pavilions for the delight of their owners.
A real landscape can also be a mandala, with the Lapchi region on the Nepal-Tibet border a famous example, which includes Milarepa’s Cave. Lapchi’s mandala landscape is conceived to have three sacred triangles formed by the sky, the earth and the three rivers. The central mountain is seen as the Palace of Chakrasamvara.
The landscape around the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh can be thought of as an emerging mandala landscape.

  • It has a modern mandala plan, by Arup and Arup Associates.
  • It is in view of three famous Buddhist gompas: Shey, Thikse and Matho.
  • It is in the valley of a sacred river: the Indus

Time lapse photography of Buddhist monks using coloured sand to produce a sand mandala (courtesy camera_obscura):

Garden design competition at the Druk White Lotus School in India

The principle of involving school children in the landscape and garden design for the space outside their classrooms applies in every land. This video illustrates the involvement of children from the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh India. There are many reasons for involving school children in the design of school grounds: (1) the children are creative – they know what they like to look at and what facilities they like to have (2) the children learn to take responsibility for their environment (3) the children have an involvment with the natural world (4) the children learn technical skills (5) with luck, some of the children will go on to become landscape architects, taking responsibility for the conservation and improvement of Planet Earth.

DWLS Dragon Garden in Shey, Ladakh, for the Druk White Lotus School


The architectural layout of the Druk White Lotus School, designed by Arup Associates, is based on a mandala. In the Sanskrit of the Rig Veda, the sections were called mandalas, meaning ‘cycles’ or ‘chapters’, rather as TS Eliot divided his Four Quartets into sections. The Rig Veda poems are often described as hymns and were receited by nomads on ritual occasions. When the nomads became settlers special places, including temples, were designed for rituals and they too became known as mandalas. Hindu and Buddhist sacred places, including stupas, are therefore said to have a mandala plan. In Tibetan and Ladakhi culture, which are Vajrayana Buddhist, a mandala is interpreted as a diagram which represents the geography of the cosmos.
The Druk White Lotus School (DWLS) was built in the desert outside Shey, the former capital of Ladakh. The buildings are nearing completion in 2012 and the next stage is to convert the school surroundings from desert to garden and landscape. Since the school was made under the auspices of the Drukpa Lineage, making a ‘Dragon Garden’ is appropriate. ‘Druk’ means ‘Dragon’ and ‘Druk-pa’ means ‘Dragon-person’, with the Lineage led by the Gyalwang Drukpa. What form a ‘Dragon Garden’ might have is yet to be determined.
The above video shows a school ritual (a morning assembly) taking place in a Dharma Wheel at the centre of the DWLS Mandala. Note that the children sitting beside the monk are using their hands to form the mudras. My impression is of kindly, enthusiastic and warm-hearted children – and I wish I had a similar impression when looking at school children in london.
Mandalas can take many forms and can be made in many ways. The below image shows coloured sands used to make a sand mandala.

A Vajrayana sand mandala shows the geography of the cosmos - 'Buddha-land'

A model of the mandala section of the plan for the Druk White Lotus School, by Arup Associates.

Arup Associates mandala plan for the Druk White Lotus DWLS School in Ladakh

The placement of Buddhist stupas as landscape architecture

How are stupas sited in the landscape? Having wondered for some time whether the design and siting of the pyramids at Giza was conceived as a ‘stylization’ of sand dunes on the boundary between the Red Land (desert) and the Black Land (farmed land), I timidly kept the idea to myself until Charles Jencks put forward the same idea. Now I wonder if the largest stupa field in Ladakh (above, at Shey) was conceived as a stylization of a mountain range. The stupas have this appearance but there are many considerations:

  • Hindu gods are associated with mountains
  • Buddhism does not have creator gods but draws much from Hindus ideas
  • Stupas are symbols of the Buddha’s presence
  • Nirvana is represented in Buddhist art as being in a mountainous region
  • Mt Kailash is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists

An interesting aspect of Ladakh is that it has no tradition of making ‘pleasure gardens’ but the whole country appears to have been conceived as a garden.

The Buddhist cave at Phuktal Gompa (Phugtal Monastery)

Phuktal Gompa Buddhist Cave

Phuktal Gompa Buddhist Cave


The great cave of Phuktal Gompa in Ladakh has a sacred spring within. The monastery is said to have been built here because there was a forest on the slopes above, from which a lone tree survives. The cave is supposed to house the spirit of the first guru, Rimpoche.
Caves have a special place in Buddhism, because wandering monks used them for prayer, meditation and rest, and Ngawang Tsering (1717-94) wrote that: ‘Nurtured as sons of mountain solitude they dressed in clouds and mist and wore as hats deserted caves. Totally unconcerned with the world’s ways and mundane happiness they contemplated impermanence to create a sense of urgency and thus to make the best use of their life time. Meditation on the ominpresence of death served as a pillow and they wrapped themselves up in the cloth of mindfulness of karma. The mats which they spread were their awareness of the disadvantages of samsara which they likened to a whirlpool or a tapering flame. I sing my songs to induce kings to rule with the ten virtues, for the sake of the lowly so that each according to his capacity may rejoice in the Dharma, for the sake of the teachers pointing them to tantras, sutras and teachings, for the sake of earnest meditators that they may realise equanimity and insight, for the sake of the yogins with clear perception that they may be endowed with supreme vision action and function’
Image courtesy Kateharris