Overview Essay


Buddhism: A Mixed Dharmic Bag: Debates about Buddhism and Ecology

Christopher Ives, Stonehill College

Originally published in the Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology


See also “Buddhism and Ecology: Theory and Practice” by Les Sponsel



In recent decades Buddhists have started formulating responses to the climate crisis and other environmental problems.   In the months leading up to the 2015 climate conference in Paris, for example, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other Buddhist leaders signed the “Buddhist Climate Change Statement to World Leaders.”  In 2009 several eco-Buddhists published an edited volume, A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, which lead to the formulation of an organization, Ecological Buddhism, and a declaration, “The Time to Act is Now: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change.”  Another group of Buddhists, many of whom are connected to Spirit Rock Meditation Center, founded in 2013 the Dharma Teachers International Collaborative on Climate Change and issued a declaration of their own: “The Earth is My Witness.”  A third recently-formed organization, One Earth Sangha, takes as its mission “expressing a Buddhist response to climate change and other threats to our home.”  A range of other Buddhist organizations and institutions have been offering additional responses to the eco-crisis, including the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (led by Thai Buddhist Sulak Sivaraksa), the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Ordinary Dharma, Green Sangha, the Green Gulch Zen Center north of San Francisco, and the Zen Environmental Studies Institute at Zen Mountain Monastery in New York State, as well as the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in New Hampshire, the Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka, the Tesi Environmental Awareness Movement in Tibet (also known as Eco-Tibet), and the headquarters of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in Japan.  Parallel to the praxis of these groups, eco-Buddhists have published monographs, anthologies, and articles in journals and popular Buddhist publications.  What we are seeing in these writings is the emergence of a new theoretical dimension of the Buddhist tradition: environmental ethics.

In this “greening” of Buddhism, eco-Buddhists have tapped an array of sources: texts, doctrines, ethical values, and ritual practices.  The arguments and activism of these Buddhists, however, are not without controversy. Critics have claimed, for example, that Buddhism has not been as ecological as some have made it out to be, and that eco-Buddhists are engaging in acts of eisegesis by looking selectively in Buddhist sources to support the environmental ethic they brought to their practice of Buddhism in the first place. 

It is important to note that eco-Buddhists are generally focused more on continuing their activism than on responding to the skeptics. In this respect, there is no ongoing debate per se, though several eco-Buddhists have responded to the main criticisms, which concern “interdependence,” identification with nature, Buddhist views of nature, the status of animals, Buddhism in relation to core constructs in Environmental Ethics, and adapted ritual practices.


interdependence and identification

Much of the debate about Buddhism and ecology has centered on interpretations of paṭicca-samuppāda (Skt. pratītya-samutpāda), which eco-Buddhists often translate as “interdependence” but can be more accurately translated as “dependent origination.”  The Buddha reportedly expressed this doctrine as a broad principle: “When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.”[1]   Eco-Buddhists frequently lift up this doctrine in support of their arguments that Buddhism, based on this notion of radical interconnectedness, is ecological and that Buddhist practice fosters a strong awarenss of this interconnection as well as intimacy if not identity with nature.  According to leading eco-Buddhist Joanna Macy, the egotistical self is “replaced by wider constructs of identity and self-interest—by what you might call the ecological self or the eco-self, co-extensive with other beings and the life of our planet” (Macy 1990, 53); and this shift “puts one into the world with a livelier, more caring sense of social engagement” (Macy 1991, 190).

Critics have questioned whether recent discourse on “interdependence” accurately represents the Buddhist tradition.  According to David McMahan, “The monks and ascetics who developed the concept of dependent origination and its implications saw the phenomenal world as a binding chain, a web of entanglement, not a web of wonderment” (2008, 153), and early Buddhist texts advocate not engagement but “disengagement from all entanglement in this web” (154).  Mark Blum writes that early Buddhists were motivated not “to embrace, revere, or ordain nature, but to remove any and all personal craving for and attachment to nature within themselves so as to become aloof or indifferent (upekṣa)” (2009, 215).  Critics also question claims that awakening to paṭicca-samuppāda leads us automatically to value and care for the world. Christopher Gowans writes, “…why should the realization that we human beings are interdependent parts of the natural world give us reason to value other parts of that world?  That all things are interdependent would not seem to establish, all by itself, that these things have some kind of value that we should care about, appreciate or respect” (2015, 287).

The debate about early Buddhist views of the world, however, is not settled.  Some have argued that the main thing that early Buddhists were rejecting was not the world or nature per se but certain ways of viewing it, responding to it, and living in it.  Gowans writes, “It may be said…that in early Buddhism suffering is not an essential feature of the natural world as such, but of our unenlightened way of experiencing the world.  Moreover, enlightenment is not an escape from the natural world, but a non-attached way of living in it (as exemplified by the life of the Buddha)” (2015, 284).  From this perspective, nirvana is less a separate, unconditioned realm realized after one steps back from the conditioned world of samsara than a mental state attained when one frees oneself from the “three poisons” of greed, ill-will, and ignorance. This facet of Buddhist thought becomes more pronounced in the emergence of Mahāyāna Buddhism, in which philosophers like Nāgārjuna, with their critique of the distinction between nirvana and samsara, shift the focus from “transcending samsara” to living an “awakened life in the midst of the world” (McMahan 2008, 158).  (As we will see, Mahāyāna Buddhists view the conditioned world (of nature) described by the doctrine of paṭicca-samuppāda more positively than early Buddhists did, and it is generally out of this Mahāyāna perspective that eco-Buddhists marshal their arguments.) In short, although the monks who formulated the doctrine of paṭicca-samuppāda may have seen the world as a trap, this does not mean that the doctrine constitutes a negative view of the world. 

Rendering paṭicca-samuppāda as “interdependence” has generated derivative statements that have prompted other criticisms.  As I have outlined elsewhere (Ives 2009), eco-Buddhist discourse includes claims like “everything, including us, is dependent on everything else” (Loy 2003, 85); “in an undivided world everything miraculously supports everything else” (Batchelor 1992, 35); and “We are born into a world in which all things nurture us” (Aitken 2000, 426).  Some eco-Buddhists have also derived from paṭicca-samuppāda a notion of responsibility, making claims like “in being aware of interdependence we also assume responsibility for all that occurs” (Deicke 1990, 166).   

We can criticize such claims as these by noting that although things may affect each other, it is not necessarily the case that I depend on everything else or that all things support and nurture me: while I am affected by the destroyed nuclear reactors in Fukushima, they do not support or nurture me and my well-being does not depend on them but depends on my becoming physically independent of them.   Nor in any intelligible ethical sense do we all have to assume responsibility for everything that happens: Jewish children in the Warsaw ghetto did not bear any responsibility for the Holocaust.


Buddhist views of nature

Some eco-Buddhists lift up passages from suttas to claim that from the start Buddhism has valued nature.  For example, they point out that early canonical sources celebrate wild places—with their solitude, silence, and abundant examples of impermanence—as good locations for meditative practice.  Critics have pointed out, however, that the Pali canon also portrays them as dangerous, for it is there that one encounters large predators like tigers, poisonous snakes and insects, bandits, and others who would do one harm.  The preferred nature is a garden or groomed park, and the Cakkavatti-sīhanāda-sutta portrays a future utopia that is more urban than wild, as noted by Ian Harris: “In Jambudvīpa cities and towns are so close to one another that a cock can comfortably fly from one to the next.  In this perfect world only urban and suburban environments are left” (Harris 1991, 108).  This celebration of groomed gardens and urban utopias amounts to what Lawrence Schmithausen terms the “pro-civilization strand” of early Buddhism (1991, 14-17). 

At the very least, however, early Buddhists did not see nature in stark instrumentalist terms as something to be exploited for the sake of building human cities and civilization. David Eckel writes, “one does not attempt to dominate or destroy nature (in the form of either animals or plants) in order to seek a human good” (1997, 337).  “But,” Eckel continues, “neither is the wild and untamed aspect of nature to be encouraged or cultivated. The natural world functions as a locus and an example of the impermanence and unsatisfactoriness of death and rebirth.  The goal to be cultivated is not wildness in its own right but a state of awareness in which the practitioner can let go of the ‘natural’—of all that is impermanent and unsatisfactory—and achieve the sense of peace and freedom that is represented by the state of nirvāṇa. One might say that nature is not to be dominated but to be relinquished in order to become free” (337). 

This view of nature, however, is found mainly in early Buddhism rather than in the frameworks from which many eco-Buddhists are operating: Mahāyāna texts and East Asian Buddhism.  These strands of Buddhism offer a view of nature that differs from what we have sketched thus far.  The Avataṃsaka-sūtra, for example, formulates a notion of interconnection through the metaphor of Indra’s Net and lifts up the seeker Sudhana, who has “a vision of the entire cosmos within the body of the Buddha Mahāvairocana,” becomes one with that cosmic buddha, and thereby stands as the prime example of “the identification of a person with a being who is the universe itself or with the underlying reality of things.” (McMahan 2008, 158).  This interpretation of dependent origination, more positive view of the world, and advocacy of identification with the world helped shape Zen Buddhism and, by extension, Thich Nhat Hanh’s argumentation about “interbeing” as foundation for ecological awareness and compassionate responsiveness to suffering.  

Eco-Buddhists also draw upon such East Asian resources as hermitage traditions, the celebration of nature in arts influenced by Buddhism, and discourse on the Zen-inspired love of nature ostensibly felt by the Japanese.[2]  Also, as is the case with early Buddhism, many East Asian Buddhists value natural settings as good places for contemplative practice and as a bountiful source of symbols for Buddhist teachings like impermanence.  Granted, this is, strictly speaking, a kind of instrumental value rather than intrinsic value, but nature is indeed being valued and the view of the natural world as dangerous, ensnaring, or unsatisfactory has dropped largely out of the picture.


the status of animals

Eco-Buddhists have lifted up the Jātaka Tales, with an array of virtuous animals, as granting value and dignity to non-human species.  They have also cited Buddhist texts that establish a kinship between humans and animals; the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra, for example, in admonishing Buddhists not to eat meat, includes the passage, “In the long course of rebirth there is not one among living beings with form who has not been mother, father, brother, sister, son, or daughter, or some other relative.  Being connected with the process of taking birth, one is kin to all wild and domestic animals, birds, and beings born from the womb” (Swearer 2001, 227).  Eco-Buddhists have argued that this intimate karmic connection between humans and animals provides a basis for valuing animals.

Scholars have pointed out, however, that in most Buddhist texts animals are portrayed as intellectually and morally inferior to humans and exist as one of the three “unfortunate” types of rebirth; they do not restrain their desires, they can be malevolent when they prey on other animals, and they lead an unhappy existence (Schmithausen 1991, 16).  As such, Ian Harris writes, “beyond the fact that they appear to be beings destined for final enlightenment, they have no intrinsic value in their present form” (1995, 107).  In response, Donald Swearer has argued that Harris’s “position is founded on too narrow a construction of the Buddhist view of nature and animals based on a selective reading of particular texts and traditions” and that Harris needs to take into account the Jātaka Tales, which do value animals (1997, 39).  Gowans and Harris point out, however, that the animals in these stories are anthropomorphized and function to motivate humans to cultivate virtues like compassion. Gowans comments that these tales use the device of “depicting various living beings as proxies for human beings,” and “These are mainly morality tales about human beings…” (2015, 282).  Harris claims that “the often highly anthropomorphic character of the essentially pre-Buddhist folk-tradition of the Jātakas may be said to empty the stories of any ‘naturalistic’ content, thus defeating the intention of those who bring them forward as evidence in support of an authentic Buddhist environmentalist ethic” (2000, 121). Moreover, “in the Jātaka context the animals are not animals at all in any accepted sense of the term, for at the end of each story the Buddha reveals that the central character was none other than himself, the bodhisattva, in a former life” (Harris 2000, 121).

Even so, one might respond, animals are viewed there not as mere objects but as sentient beings with at least some value, even if the tradition did not—until recently—build on this to argue in a systematic way for the protection, moral standing, or rights of animals.


Buddhism in relation to Environmental Ethics

Overlapping with the debate about the proper connotation and denotation of core Buddhist doctrines like paṭicca-samuppāda has been a debate about Buddhism and Environmental Ethics in the formal sense.   Some critics have argued that Buddhism is ill-equipped to argue for the sorts of things that typically appear as cornerstones of philosophical and religious formulations of environmental ethics, whether rights, intrinsic value, or the sanctity of nature. 

Some Buddhist writers have made claims about animal rights.  Philip Kapleau, for example, has written, about the rights animals “undeniably have” (1986, 13).  Critics have raised the issue of what might be a legitimate Buddhist basis for claims about the possession of rights, given the Buddhist rejection of the soul and any other sort of separate, atomistic existence apart from the web of changing relationships that constitute things.  In response, eco-Buddhists have argued that intrinsic value and moral standing derive from sentience, especially the ability to feel pain and suffer in a significant sense.  Others have looked to buddha-nature, but Buddhists do not agree on the connotation and scope of this construct.  Some think of it as the potential to become awakened while others see it as an inherent awakening. Early Buddhists ascribed it only to (sentient) animals, not to (insentient) plants, while some in East Asia extended the scope to plants and even to inorganic things like rocks and waters.  Some eco-Buddhists have celebrated this broad attribution of buddha-nature as a powerful ethical resource, but in terms of the doctrine’s usefulness for environmental ethics, we must address the issue of what “the view of the presence of Buddha-Nature even in plants, mountains, and rivers entails for practical behavior” (Schmithausen 1991, 24).

Entering this debate, one can argue that rather than forcing Buddhism to fit into received categories and frameworks in environmental ethics (or Western philosophical ethics more broadly), eco-Buddhists might remain true to their tradition and still construct a viable environmental ethic by taking as their primary focus the alleviation of suffering of humans and other sentient beings, or in positive terms, the promotion of their sustained well-being, which is contingent upon certain types of ecosystems.

Of course, focusing on humans and other sentient beings lands us in the arena of the debate about the respective values of individuals and the wholes of which they are part, that is to say, the ongoing debate in Environmental Ethics between individualism and holism.  In large part Buddhist ethical concern—expressed through such doctrines as non-harming, loving-kindness, compassion, and the bodhisattva ideal—is directed toward individual suffering beings, not groups, species, or wholes like ecosystems.  

In general, however, while they may not agree on whether the main Buddhist ethic is a virtue ethic or a form of utilitarianism, scholars and Buddhists tend agree that central Buddhist virtues—or to put it in a way that is more faithful to Buddhism, wholesome mental states—do offer resources for environmental ethics in several senses, especially the informal sense of “sets of beliefs, values, and guidelines that get put into practice in attempts to live in an ecological manner” (Ives 2013, 544).  As I have outlined elsewhere (2013), Buddhism offers a view of flourishing that is based on the cultivation of an array of “wholesome” mental states and values with clear environmental ramifications: generosity, non-acquisitiveness, simplicity, frugality, restraint, contentment, loving-kindness, non-harming, and mindfulness.

Simply put, as humanity faces the eco-crisis, Buddhism offers a value system and way of living that not only lead to greater fulfillment than materialist and consumerist living does but also prove useful for mitigating such problems as global warming and adapting to a new world in which we will all be forced to live more simply.  That being said, Stephanie Kaza has laid the groundwork for an important debate with a remark about one of the Buddhist values often lifted up in eco-Buddhist discourse: “The practice of detachment to hobble the power of desire could actually work against such environmental values as ‘sense of place’ and ‘ecological identity’” (2006, 201).

While the de facto virtue ethic of Buddhism does offer resources for ecological living, the discipline of Ethics features an ongoing debate about the limitations of virtue ethics—Buddhist or otherwise—in responding to urgent problems like the climate crisis.  Though the cultivation of a virtuous character over the course of a lifetime may very well lead to a more sustainable way of being, it does not readily prompt the kind of immediate response that the climate crisis calls for, nor does it offer much help in making decisions about what might be most effective response to the climate crisis and other environmental problems.


adapted ritual practices

In addition to tapping Buddhist metaphysical constructs, texts, and values, eco-Buddhists have reformulated ritual practices, invented new practices, or simply engaged in activism in response to environmental problems,[3] and these efforts have spawned debates as well.  Buddhists in Thailand have been debating the practice of ordaining trees as a way to protect them from logging and protect rural farming communities that depend on forests.  This practice, originating in the 1980s, immediately caused backlash from developers and government officials whose profits, power, and agendas were threatened by the practice.  Critics among the laity and the sangha administration have claimed that the environmentalist monks performing the rituals cannot ordain trees, for ordination rituals can be done only for humans (Darlington 2012), and that political and economic activism is inappropriate for monks and reduces their purity.  In particular, as Sue Darlington points out, the ordinations “challenge what people consider sacred—placing trees on the same level as monks goes against the sacred and social hierarchy in place” (2012, 23). 

This debate in Thailand is part of a larger debate about the appropriateness of Buddhist activism.  Over the years this author has heard Zen masters and other Buddhist teachers advocate that their students devote their efforts to intensive meditative practice and defer social activism until after they have woken up or at least reach advanced stages on the Buddhist path.  Some have even said that if one tries to save the world before extricating oneself from the self-centered ego, one will only end up making things worse.  As part of a critique of broader “Engaged Buddhism,” some have also argued that eco-Buddhism is a watering down of Buddhism insofar as it draws attention away from sustained wrestling with existential suffering and directs it to political agitation.

An eco-Buddhist might respond to this criticism by noting that existential suffering is not the only form of suffering that the Buddha took seriously, and working to reduce social, economic, and other forms of suffering through activism falls within the scope of the foundation Buddhist commitment to reduce suffering in all of its forms.


concluding remarks

Perhaps the harshest criticism to date in the debate about Buddhism and ecology has come from Ian Harris, who once wrote that eco-Buddhism consists primarily of “exogenous elements somehow tacked on to a traditional Buddhist core which is incapable, without modification, of responding to the present environmental crisis” (1995, 206).  Granted, some eco-Buddhists may be misconstruing doctrines, but most are simply reinterpreting them in response to the eco-crisis, and this hermeneutic should not be dismissed out of hand. In some respects they are doing the “modification” that Harris mentions, and in most cases what we are seeing are reinterpretations of doctrines and practices in ways that at the very least do not contravene the overall Buddhist worldview and may actually be drawing out its ecological ramifications in a legitimate exegetical manner.  In this respect eco-Buddhists are engaging in the sort of intellectual labor that, for example, biblical theologians have been doing for centuries as they look selectively in the Bible for passages that support the constructive argument they are making (and defending as consistent with what they take to be the core principles of Judaism or Christianity) in response to challenges they have faced in their particular historical situations. For example, many sections of the Bible accept—or at least do not reject—slavery, but this does not mean that anti-slavery arguments that have tapped other parts of the Bible are illegitimate. Likewise, the presence of negative views of wild nature and animals in early Buddhist texts does not in and of itself delegitimize theorizing that draws from other resources in those—or other—Buddhist texts (though it does undermine broad claims like “Buddhism is an ecological religion” or “Buddhists have always revered nature”).

Like other religious traditions, then, Buddhism has continuously changed as its beliefs and practices have been reinterpreted in different cultural contexts and historical moments.  So as David McMahan points out,

Simply to dismiss the current environmental and ethical discourse of Buddhist interdependence as an inadequate representation of traditional Buddhism…would fail to take seriously the process of modernity as it manifests itself on the ground…. Like virtually all normative religious reflection, this discourse is practitioners’ constructive response to an unprecedented situation, not a historiographical endeavor.  Pointing out the incongruities between ancient and modern cosmologies, while crucial, is not more historically important than showing how the often radical reconstitution of doctrine in terms of present circumstances has attempted to bridge these incongruities.  The history of religions is precisely the history of such reconstitutions of doctrine and practice, which are themselves reconstitutions of prior versions (2008, 180)


It is also important to note that some of the most important eco-Buddhists doing this modification and reinterpretation are not convert Buddhists who might be bringing exogenous elements from their Christian, Jewish, or leftist roots to bear on Buddhism but rather renowned Asian Buddhists who were brought up in the Buddhist tradition, such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhadasa, and Sulak Sivaraksa.  Harris seems to assume that eco-Buddhists are all Western converts or simply people approaching Buddhism from typically Western perspectives, but this is clearly not the case (even allowing for some degree of Western influence on Asian eco-Buddhists).  For this reason, the argument that “much that masquerades under the label of eco-Buddhism…on analysis, turns out to be an uneasy partnership between Spinozism, New Age religiosity and highly selective Buddhism” (2000, 132) does not do justice to the full scope of eco-Buddhism.

At the same time, eco-Buddhists, or at least those focused on theory more than praxis, have much intellectual labor to do. For example, work needs to be done to clarify the exact resources that the doctrine of dependent origination offers. As a metaphysical construct, it does highlight how we are all embedded in nature and our actions affect everything around us and everything affects us, but, this process of interrelating or “interbeing” pertains to all configurations of reality, whether a relatively pristine wilderness area or a nuclear reactor that is melting down.  For this reason, if we are to avoid the naturalistic fallacy of conflating the “is” and the “ought,” and if we are to make wise decisions, we need to make distinctions between various configurations (such as the pristine wilderness area, the lethal reactor, this or that economic system, this or that way of living) by considering which are desirable or optimal and which are to be mitigated or eliminated.  Some eco-Buddhists have begun addressing this question (Jones 1993, 2003; Loy 2003; Kaza 2008; Ives 2000, 2011), and as their formulations become more systematic we can expect further debates.


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[1] This appears, for example, in the eleventh section of the Bahudhātuka Sutta in the Majjhima Nikākaya. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, trs. (2001), The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya (Boston: Wisdom Publications), 927.

[2] Technically, as several of us have pointed out, in Japan the nature that is valued and loved most is a tamed, distilled, miniaturized, and stylized nature, not wild creatures, ecosystems, or the wilderness (Ives 2005, 900).

[3] For example, see Kaza 2000 and Swearer 1997 and 2001.   


Header photo: Paro Taktsang Buddhist Monastery, Paro Valley, Bhutan