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Buddhism, Ecology, Society (Barnhill)

Course Title

Buddhism, Ecology, Society
Religion 250


David Barnhill
Dana Professor of Religious Studies
Guilford College




Buddhism; Ecology; Cultural Studies

Pedagogical Level



Fall 1999


Guilford College


Introductory Remarks

Someone who studies Buddhism without practicing meditation has also accumulated knowledge only as decoration. We hold our own fate in our own hands. We have the capacity to practice until all concepts about birth and death, and being and non-being, are uprooted.
—Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart
Many Americans are currently seeking Truth, visiting classes in philosophy one after another, and studying meditation under various Oriental teachers. But how many of these students are either willing or able to cut through to the tree’s very core? Scratching half-heartedly around the surface of the tree, they expect someone else to cut the trunk for them.
—Nyogen Senzaki, quoted in Nine-Headed Dragon River,
by Peter Matthiessen
Only those thoroughly concerned with life and death need enter.
—Sign above the gate to Eiheiji Temple, Japan

Course Description

This course is an introduction to the relationship between Buddhism, ecology, and society. In doing so it provides a Buddhist perspective on ecological and social thought and an ecological and social perspective on Buddhism. We will explore parallels and divergences, and how each can enrich and critique the other.

We will begin the course with an overview of basic Buddhist ideas and central aspects of the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment. We will then turn to an ecosocial history of Buddhism, examining ways in which certain Buddhist leaders and schools have relevance to environmental and social thought. These sections allow us to explore Buddhism’s relationship to several major schools in contemporary ecosocial thought. Finally, we will consider forms of contemporary ecosocial Buddhist activism. Throughout the focus will be on the complexity of the Buddhist tradition and of its relationship to ecology.

Our goal is both to understand and to critically assess Buddhist ideas, experience, and activism. We will discuss the significance and profundity of the Buddhist worldview and environmental action and also engage the problems they present. The point of the course is to develop an initial sense of the meaning and value of this alternative way of viewing and interacting with the natural world.

This course is an advanced introductory course-introductory in that I assume you know nothing about the subject, advanced because it is a demanding class not normally suitable for first-year students. It counts toward the Humanities or Intercultural Studies core requirements, and toward the Intercultural Studies-East Asia, Environmental Studies, and Peace and Conflict Studies concentrations.

This course is a discussion class and your preparation for class discussion is critical to its success. Many of the assignments have study questions that will assist you in your preparation for class discussions. Students are required to respond to the questions and hand them in at the end of discussion.


  1. Introduction to Buddhism
    The most obvious goal is to introduce you to Buddhism, in particular, that form of Buddhism we can call meditational [as opposed to, say, pietistical].

  2. Introduction to Another Culture
    A more general goal is to introduce to you a way of looking at the world and living within the world that is different from what we are used to in the modern West. As such, this course is part of Guilford’s Intercultural Studies Program, which is based on the belief that any educated adult in this country needs to have some significant exposure to cultural values that differ from our own.

  3. Introduction to Contemporary Ecosocial Philosophy and Spirituality
    Major issues, ideas, and schools of thought.


  1. Critical Thinking
    An even more general, and perhaps more important goal, is to develop critical inquiry. That is, we will focus on developing the ability to think critically: to understand why someone has her or his ideas and values, to critically judge those ideas and values, and to understand why you judge them the way that you do.

  2. Effective Writing
    Interrelated to the previous goal is the development of your ability to write. One of the primary ways of learning to think is learning to write. Through clear, correct, probing, and persuasive writing we learn to develop and express good thinking. The two papers will be peer edited and rewritten.

  3. Speaking-and-Listening
    Another crucial way to develop good thinking is to develop the ability to think on your feet [or from your seat], that is, to discuss your ideas with others. Good discussion, like good writing, is a skill we need to continually work on. Because of the experiential character of this course, class discussion (e.g., small discussion groups) will play a prominent role.

  4. Interpersonal Skills
    We will develop interpersonal, cooperative skills primarily in two ways: discussion and peer editing. We will work on class discussion as a cooperative inquiry, consciously reflecting on what it takes to work together effectively in such a setting. Peer editing also is a cooperative way to develop writing skills.

Guilford’s Five Principles

  1. Innovative, Student-Centered Learning
    This is a discussion based course rather than a lecture based course. Students read material before coming to class and critically discuss the views and issues involved in class. Discussions are in both full-class sessions and small-group settings. In addition, students act as peer editors. Approximately 20% the grade concerns their participation and leadership in class discussions. The ultimate focus of the class is not the reception of knowledge but the development of student’s own views and thinking.

  2. Creative and Critical Thinking
    Part of the creative thinking in this class is found in its application of Buddhism to ecological and social theories and issues. The entire course is focused on active, critical thinking, with students analyzing assumptions and implications and critically evaluating Buddhism within the context of ecological and social issues.

  3. Cultural and Global Perspectives
    The course is intercultural in its examination of a religion that arose within the Asian context, but which is increasingly important in the West. Students consider the issue of cross-cultural adaptation of an Asian religion, critically examine Buddhism from a Western perspective, and critically examine traditional Western views from Buddhist perspectives.

  4. Values
    The course emphasizes the question of value, particularly ecological and social values and ways that Buddhism may or may not be relevant to developing values in contemporary society.

  5. Practical Application
    The course does not directly involve practical application in the sense of students doing work outside of the classroom. However, the course is directly concerned with the practical application of values first at a cultural level and then at a personal level. Instead of theory-building, the fundamental issue of the class is answering the question: How should we as individuals and as a collective culture live our lives in relation to the environment and society?

The course is divided into four parts:

Part 1: Introduction to Buddhism, Ecology, Society
Part 2: Introduction to Buddhist Thought and Experience
Part 3: Contemporary Exemplars of Ecosocial Activisim
Part 4: Critiques and Theoretical Issues


None listed

Quiz and Midterm Exam
Final Exam
  1. Quiz and Miderm Exam
    There will be a quiz and a midterm examination on terms, reading, and geography utilized throughout the semester. You will know beforehand exactly what information you will be responsible for.

  2. Papers
  1. A 3–4 page paper on one aspect of the Four Noble Truths.
  2. A 7–8 page paper on one aspect of Buddhist ideas and values and its significance for environmental philosophy and spirituality.
  3. An 8–9 page paper on Buddhism and ecology.
  1. Final Exam

  2. Discussion
    Includes study-questions, preparation for discussion, and quantity and quality of class participation.

Note on Percentages of Projects in Grading

All percentages are approximate and based on contribution to the final grade.

Note on Papers Due
Because papers will be peer edited, you must hand in the papers at the beginning of class on the due date. If the first paper is turned in after the beginning of class, it will be marked down one mark (e.g., B- to C+) per day. A late final paper will be marked down one full letter grade per day. Do not miss class in order to work on your paper. In order to pass the course, all assignments must be handed in.

Attendance and Participation
Due to the difficult nature of the material and the importance of class discussion, regular attendance is crucial to all concerned. Students will be allowed two absences due to circumstances other than illness [bring note on the illness]. Each subsequent absence will result in a reduction of the final grade one mark (e.g., B- to C+) per absence. Three absences for any reason before the midterm, and five absences for any reason before the end of the course will result in removal from the class. Absences on days when a paper is due or there is peer editing will count double. Classes missed because of athletic contests do not count as absences due to illness.

Because the classroom is small, tardiness is a significant distraction and discourtesy. Students arriving after role will receive a tardy mark; those arriving over ten minutes late will receive two. Three tardy marks equal one absence. If you come in after roll call, be sure to tell me immediately after class so you are not marked as absent.


Required Texts

Barnhill, David. “Handbook on Papers.”

Barnhill, David. An Interwoven World: Buddhism and Ecology
(manuscript in process).

Queen, Christopher ed. Engaged Buddhism in the West (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000).

Thich Nhat Hanh. The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries
on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra
(Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax
Press, 1988).

Tucker, Mary Evelyn, and Duncan Ryuken Williams. Buddhism
and Ecology
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,


Part 1: Introduction to Buddhism, Ecology, and Society

Aug 25

Introduction to Buddhism and Ecosocial Thought

Aug 27

Introduction to Ecology
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, Interwoven World, “Appendix: Basic Concepts in Ecology.”
Aug 30

Introduction to Ecological Philosophy: Schools, Issues, History, and Terms


Sept 1

Introduction to Buddhism
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Introduction and Ch 1: “History: Background to the Study of Buddhism.”
Sept 3 Introduction to Studying Ecosocial Buddhism
Assigned Reading
  • Lancaster, “Buddhism and Ecology: Collective Cultural Perceptions,” in Buddhism and Ecology, 3–16.

Assignments Due

  • Study Questions Due
Sept 6

The Study of Buddhism and Ecology
Assigned Reading

  • Queen, “Introduction,” in Engaged Buddhism, 1–44.

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due

Part 2: Introduction to Buddhist Thought and Experience

Sept 8

Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Ch 2: “Epistemology: Buddhist Attitudes toward Language and Truth.”
Sept 10

Introduction to Buddhist Thought and Experience -
Assigned Reading

Video on Buddhism

Sept 13

Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Ch 3: “Suffering: The First Two of the Four Noble Truths.”
Sept 15

Enlightenment and Equanimity
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Ch 4: “The Third Noble Truth and Equanimity.”

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due
Sept 17

The Path and Introduction to Meditation
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Ch 5: “The Fourth Noble Truth and Meditation.”
Sept 20

The Moral Cosmology of Karma
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Ch 6: “The Moral Cosmology of Karma.”

    Assignments Due
  • Quiz on Chs 1–5
Sept 22

Reality: Impermanence, Emptiness, and Dependent Co-Arising
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Ch 7: “Reality.”
Sept 24

Buddhism Continued

Video Buddhism

Sept 27

Reality: Interbeing According to Thich Nhat Hanh
Assignments Due

  • Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding, 1–54.

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due
  • First Paper Due (at beginning of class)
Sept 29

Mind and (Non)Self
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Ch 8: “Non-ego: Conciousness and Reality.”
Oct 1

Meditation and Review
Video (?possible?)

Oct 4

Buddhism and Action
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Ch 9: “Buddhist Ideals of Action.”
Oct 6

Buddhist Thought
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Ch 10: “Buddhist Views of Thought and Language.”
Oct 8

Buddhist Values: The Five Precepts and the Four Divine Abodes: Nonviolence and Compassion
Recommended Reading

  • Loori, “The Precepts and the Environment,” in Buddhism and Ecology, 177–86.
Oct 11

Buddhist Ethics
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Ch 11: “An Outline of Buddhist Ethics.”

    Assignments Due
  • Mid-term Exam on Chs 1–10
Oct 13

Buddhist Ethics
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Ch 12: “A Holistic, Ecosocial Buddhism.”

Part 3: Contemporary Exemplars of Ecosocial Activism

Nov 15

Introduction to Ecosocially Engaged Buddhism
Video and Meditation

Nov 17

Sulak Sivaraksa
Assigned Reading

  • Swearer, “Sulak Sivaraksa’s Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society, Engaged Buddhism, 195–236.

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due
  • Prewriting Due
Nov 19

Dhamapitika and Buddhadasa
Assigned Reading

  • Swearer, “The Hermeneutics of Buddhist Ecology,” in Buddhism and Ecology, 21–40.

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due
Nov 22

Assigned Reading

  • Santikaro Bhikkhu, “Buddhadasa Bhikku,” in Engaged Buddhism, 147–94.

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due
Nov 24

The Sarvodaya Movement
Assigned Reading

  • Bond, “A. T. Ariyaratne and the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement,” in Engaged Buddhism, 121–42.
  • **Macy, “In Indra’s Net: Sarvodaya and Our Mutual Efforts for Peace,” in The Path of Compassion, 170–80.

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due
  • Three Copies of Paper Due (at the beginning of class)
Nov 26

Peer Editing

Nov 29

Engaged Buddhism
Video Engaged Buddhism

Assignments Due

  • Finish Papers
  • Final Version of Papers Due (at the beginning of class)
Dec 1

Thich Nhat Hanh
Assigned Reading

  • Sallie King, “Thich Nhat Hanh and the Unified Buddhist Church,” in Engaged Buddhism, 321–64.

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due
Dec 3

Soka Gakkai
Assigned Reading

  • Metraux, “The Soka Gakkai,” in Engaged Buddhism, 365–400.
Dec 6

Applying Buddhism to a Contemporary Issue
Assigned Reading

  • Kraft, “Nuclear Ecology and Engaged Buddhism,” in Buddhism and Ecology, 269–90.
Dec 8

Reflections on Engaged Buddhism
Assigned Reading

  • King, “Conclusion: Buddhist Social Activism,” in Engaged Buddhism, 401–36.

Part 4: Critiques and Theoretical Issues

Dec 13

Philosophy of Nature?
Assigned Reading

  • Eckel, “Is There a Buddhist Philosophy of Nature?” in Buddhism and Ecology, 327–46.

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due
  • Prewritings Due (at the beginning of the class)
Dec 15

Critique of Ecosocial Buddhism
Assigned Reading

  • Harris, “Buddhism and the Discourse of Environmental Concern,” in Buddhism and Ecology, 377–96.

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due
Dec 17

Critique of Using Buddhism for Ecosocial Concerns
Assigned Reading

  • **Larson, Gerald. “‘Conceptual Resources’ in South Asia for ’Environmental Ethics,’” in Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, 267–77.

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due
Dec 20

The Problems and Paradoxes of Nondualism
Assigned Reading

  • **McLellan, “Nondual Ecology,” in Tricycle.
  • Parkes, “Voice of Mountains, Trees, and Rivers,” in Buddhism and Ecology, 110–25.

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due
Dec 22

An Ecosocial Approach to Nondualism
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill on Nondualism

    Assignments Due
  • Three Copies of Paper Due (at the beginning of class)
Dec 24

Peer Editing
Assignments Due

  • Read Peer’s Paper
Dec 27

The Self in Buddhism, Deep Ecology, and Ecofeminism
Assigned Reading

  • **Curtin, “Dogen, Deep Ecology, and the Ecological Self,” in Environmental Ethics, 195–213.

    Assignments Due
  • Study Questions Due
Dec 29

Relational Holism and the Self in Ecosocial Buddhism
Assigned Reading

  • Barnhill, An Interwoven World, Ch 13: “Relational Holism: Buddhism and Deep Ecology.”

    Assignments Due
  • Final Version of Paper Due (the first day of finals week at 9 am)


NOTE: Reading Assignments are to be read before coming to class

**Reading on Reserve