Buddhist attitudes towards nature

Richard P. Hayes
May 1993

The following article was prepared as a public lecture at McGill University.
  1. Historical and geographical overview of Buddhism
  2. Views on nature within general teachings of Buddhism
  3. General assessment of the value of Buddhist attitudes for modern environmentalists

Historical and geographical overview of Buddhism

Buddhism started in the northeastern part of India in Ganges valley (5th century BCE). For the first two hundred years, it was only one of several small groups of people who had renounced the domestic life for a life of homeless wandering. Because the whole basis of the religion was a rejection of the worldly values of marriage and family life, and because male Buddhists and female Buddhists live in strictly segregated communities, it was not a religion that could easily become popular are expand. During the first 200 years, therefore, there were probably no more than a few thousand Buddhists at any one time.

The institutional nature of Buddhism changed dramatically when the Indian emperor Aśoka adopted the ethical codes of Buddhism as a means of unifying the great diversity of ethnic groups he had conquered. The ethical code of Buddhism serves this purpose well, because it is a universalist code that claims that all human beings (regardless of tribe, social position, gender) have essentially the same duties and responsibilities and that every living thing deserves the same care and respect.

Aśoka sent Buddhist missionaries to all parts of his own empire and also to neighbouring kingdoms and empires. Consequently Buddhism spread to all parts of India and from there westward expansion to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Anatolia (3rd century BCE); eastward by sea to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia; Northward via Central Asia to Uzbekistan and Turkestan, and from there eastward to China, Tibet, Mongolia, Manchuria, Korea, and Japan.

Each of these areas into which Buddhism moved was already quite diversified; since it was adopted as the religion of people from many cultural settings, and since Buddhism was generally quite adaptable to the cultures to which it moved, it is pointless to try to generalize on what kinds of stances it has taken historically on any range of ethical and political controversies.

Views on nature within general teachings of Buddhism

  Four Noble Truths

Although there is a great deal of doctrinal variety to be found within the many schools of Buddhism, there is one set of doctrines that are quite central. This set of doctrines is known as the Four Noble Truths (catvāri ārya-satyāni) (literally, the four realities worthy of respect).

  1. Everything is unsatisfactory. Some pain is obvious. Other pain is hidden. In general, nothing provides satisfaction, because nothing is permanent. Everything with which we deal is composite, and all composite things are bound to decompose eventually.
  2. The cause of dissatisfaction is desire. There are positive desires: to own things, to control things, to have pleasure. And there are negative desires: to avoid discomfort, to avoid what we find unpleasant.
  3. Dissatisfaction can be eliminated only by curbing desire. The only strategy that enables a person to find peace and contentment is to learn to accept things as they are. This means not striving for possessions, not striving for knowledge, not striving for change. The cessation of the urge to strive for things is called nirvāṇa . This is the ultimate goal of Buddhism.
  4. There is a way to eliminate dissatisfaction. Deliverance from desire requires a great deal of self-discipline. In practice this usually involves following a set of precepts, or guidelines of good conduct.

The most basic guidelines for disciplined conduct are a set of ten that were set down by the Buddha. These ten precepts were to be followed by all people, by celibate monks as well as by people with families, by women as well as by men, by people in power as well as by the weak. Moreover, every school of Buddhism in every country recognizes these ten precepts as central to the practice of Buddhism.

  1. I undertake the discipline of refraining from taking life.
  2. I undertake the discipline of refraining from taking what is not given.
  3. I undertake the discipline of refraining from offensive conduct in the pursuit of pleasures.
  4. I undertake the discipline of refraining from deceptive speech.
  5. I undertake the discipline of refraining from belligerent speech.
  6. I undertake the discipline of refraining from inconsequential speech.
  7. I undertake the discipline of refraining from malicious speech.
  8. I undertake the discipline of refraining from greed.
  9. I undertake the discipline of refraining from animosity.
  10. I undertake the discipline of refraining from fruitless points of view.1

Doctrine of karma

Of central importance to a Buddhist understanding of good conduct is the notion that every action has natural consequences. And all actions are in turn the consequences of mental states. Therefore, Buddhist training tends to place great importance on becoming aware of one's own mental states. Awareness of one's own mental states is known generally as mindfulness (smrti) . There are essentially three kinds of mental state:

  1. Kuśala:  This word literally means competent or healthy. It corresponds in many ways to the English word sane (healthy). Healthy, sane, competent actions are those that bring no unnecessary (avoidable) harm to oneself or others. Examples of such mental states are: kindness, compassion, impartiality, nonattachment, mental flexibility, tolerance.
  2. Akuśala:  Incompetent, unhealthy, insane. Examples of such mental states are anger, envy, pride, mental rigidity, intolerance.
  3. Neutral:  Experiencing the consequences of previous mental states. The experience of contentment follows from competent mental states, and the experience of discontent that follows from incompetent mental states.

According to the Buddhist doctrine of karma, every action has natural consequences, but not all these consequences can be experienced in the course of a single lifetime. The actions that one does in one lifetime are therefore carried forward into future lives. Within tradition Buddhism one finds the doctrine that, depending on how one has lived in the immediately previously life, one is liable to reborn in one of six states.

  1. Deva  There are said to be some thirty paradises in which beings can be born. Life in these paradises is said to be long and generally pleasant, and the deities that live there are for the most part benign. They may interact with human beings from time to time.
  2. Asura  In contrast to the devas, the asuras tend to be malevolent, cranky, difficult, although some are said to be friendly if they are treated well. One type of asura is known as a yakṣa; this is normally an invisible being, although they can become visible to people. They are also capable of possessing corporeal beings. These spirits can be found almost anywhere, but they are especially plentiful in the wilderness.
  3. Human being
  4. Animal  People who are excessively greedy, lustful, violent, angry, bitter, unreflective and undisciplined are bound to be born as birds, animals, insects, reptiles and so forth.
  5. Ghost
  6. Resident of purgatory

Attitudes towards nature as a whole

On the whole, wilderness is portrayed in very negative terms. Wilderness is dangerous and unpleasant. It is filled with ferocious animals that are busy ripping one another apart, vying for territory and stealing food from each other. It is also populated by all kinds of frightening and unpredictable spirits (yakṣas) .

Generally speaking, the ethical guidelines mentioned are supposed to govern one's conduct towards all sentient beings, that is, towards living beings that are aware of their own existence and have a discernible will to continue living. Plants are regarded as insentient. Nevertheless, many plants (especially trees and shrubs) are the homes of animals, insects and even spirits, whose habitation must be protected.

General assessment of the value of Buddhist attitudes for modern environmentalists

On the negative side: there is a strong tendency towards resignation and acceptance of things as they are. In nearly every society in which Buddhism has become prominent, Buddhists have been severely criticized for taking a fairly passive attitude towards social problems. In China, the Confucians tended to be very critical of the Buddhists' lack of social conscience; so have Communist regimes; so have the new religious movements.

Many European and American Buddhists, who come from Jewish or Christian backgrounds and are used to political, social and environmental activism grow frustrated with the sense of patience that most Buddhist teachers have, and their indifference to political reform and social reform. Very typically, Buddhist teachers will say that there is no point at all in trying to modify social policies, laws and so forth until the attitudes of individual people is modified.

Moreover, most traditional Buddhist teachers will quickly point out that:

On the positive side: ethic of restraint in consumption and exploitation. Strong resistance to consumerism and other ways of living that are the fundamental causes of destruction to nature. The Buddhist life is above all an invitation to a life of simplicity, and learning to be content with very small pleasures.


1Some schools of Buddhism have replaced this with: I undertake the discipline of refraining from showing disrespect for the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

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