The Marriage of Buddhism and Deep Ecology

By C. Jotin Khisty

Originally printed in the Spring 2009 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Khisty, C. Jotin. "The Marriage of Buddhism and Deep Ecology." Quest  97. 2 (Spring 2009): 64-69.

Theosophical Society - C. Jotin Khisty, Ph. D., is professor emeritus in the department of civil, architectural, and environmental Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He has published extensively in the areas of urban planning, transportation engineering, and systems science. Buddhism and deep ecologyIn 2005, people all across the world sat up in their seats to watch Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth. They were stunned to see the environmental degradation and destruction that has occurred and the profound threat it poses to all life on the planet. Then, in October 2007, many of us jumped with joy when Gore and the U. N. Panel on Climate Change were jointly awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. This recognition gave us hope of a way to work through our political, economic, and environmental systems in order to reverse the effects of decades of indifference and damage to our planet.

One of the paramount reasons for this degradation is not hard to find. The organizing principle of society for at least the last hundred years has been: What will make the economy grow larger and produce greater profit? But with a new consciousness on the horizon and a transformation of the human heart all around the world, it is very likely that for the next hundred years, the organizing principle may be: What will make the planet more sustainable? This has to be the new lens through which we look at the world. After all, the voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new vistas but in having new eyes.

This article aims to explore the connections between two important disciplines: spiritual systems, particularly Buddhism, and deep ecology. Spiritual systems are more than a belief in a transcendental deity or a means to an afterlife. They are a way of understanding both the cosmos and our role in its preservation. In this way they are closely connected with ecology, which embraces a cultural awareness of kinship with and dependence on the natural environment for the continuity of all life.

Buddhism, one of the world's great spiritual systems, offers a well-developed philosophy of our connection with nature. Deep ecology is focused on the survival and self-renewal of all living beings. (It is so called in contrast to "shallow" ecology, which is essentially anthropocentric and technocratic.) Celebrating the marriage of spiritual systems and deep ecology fosters a moral and cultural awareness of the kinship of the natural environment and the continuity of life.

We hear of ecological disasters occurring around the world almost on a daily basis. Almost all of these crises are a result of human neglect, apathy, and greed. They range from resource depletion, species extinction, pollution growth, climate change, to population explosion and over consumption. As far back as 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists, consisting of over 100 Nobel laureates and 1600 other distinguished scientists from seventy countries, warned us of the deepening ecological crisis caused by human activities on this planet. They warned that a great change in the stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated (Uhl, 124).

Almost all such warnings have been ignored and ridiculed by our politicians. One prominent source of disinformation about global warning, for instance, has been the Bush-Cheney administration. It has silenced scientists working for the government about the extreme danger we are facing, and has appointed "skeptics" recommended by oil companies to government positions as our principal negotiators. The world has been thunderstruck by the arrogance and ignorance of such political leaders and their cronies (Gore, 264).

The reasons for this disconnection from nature, especially in the West, are not hard to detect. Spiritually and psychologically we live inside a bubble of the "self," as though we are "in here" and the rest of the world is "out there." According to Buddhist thought, this sense of separation manifests itself in the form of the Three Poisons—greed, ill will, and delusion. Examples of these poisons can be seen everywhere in the current ecological crisis. Greed rooted in untrammeled economic growth and consumerism is the secular religion of advanced industrial societies. Similarly, the military-industrial complex promotes ill will, fear, and terror, while propaganda and advertising systems are well known for deluding the public about everything under the sun. A fundamental question of our time is whether we can counter these forces by developing attitudes of respect, responsibility, and care for the natural world and so create a sustainable future.

From its origins in India about 500 years before the birth of Christ, Buddhism spread throughout Asia and is now exerting an ever-increasing influence on Western culture. We in the West are awakening to the fact that there is a more ancient science of mind than our own. The well-known philosopher Alan Watts pointed out that historically the Buddha (563-483 BCE) was the first great psychologist and psychotherapist. He not only recognized the meaning of existential anxiety or suffering that we all experience but offered ways of treating it. Many psychologists, psychiatrists, and scientists regard the discovery of Buddhist philosophy in the West today as a kind of second renaissance (Varela, 22).

Contrary to popular belief, Buddhism is in essence a philosophy and not a religion. Buddhist philosophy over the centuries has been very carefully thought out and documented by some of the best scholars and practitioners across the world. A starting point is the central tenet concerning the interconnectedness of all life—human beings, animals, plants, birds. Buddhist ethical teaching emphasizes that this interdependence comes with a moral component. For humans, that means maintaining a sense of universal responsibility in whatever we do.

The cornerstone of all Buddhist teachings is the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that of suffering (or existential anxiety), starting with birth and continuing on through aging and then on to the inevitability of death. The second truth is the realization that human craving and greed are at the very root of our suffering. The third truth stresses that it is possible to eliminate craving, greed, and suffering by transforming the mind. The fourth truth is the Eightfold Path, the Buddhist formula of practices for cultivating this transformation, leading to the extinction of both craving and suffering (Rifkin, 101). Buddhists assert that mindful awareness of existential anxiety produces compassionate empathy for all forms of life.

Two other concepts form the bedrock of Buddhist thinking: impermanence and interdependence. All phenomena are impermanent, because everything is in transition. Interdependence refers to the fact that everything is a part of everything else.

The philosophical roots of the deep ecology movement can be found in the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Roszak, Lewis Mumford, Rachel Carson, and others, going back to Baruch Spinoza and the Buddhist philosophers. But it was in 1972 that the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess coined the term to distinguish it from "shallow" anthropocentric and technocratic ecology. Since then, Naess has spelled out a comprehensive platform describing the meaning and scope of deep ecology, as outlined in an eight-point summary:

1. The well-being of human and nonhuman life on earth have value in themselves.
2. The interdependence, richness, and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values.
3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
4. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
5. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with substantial decrease of the human population. Moreover, the flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
6. Policies must therefore be changed. The changes in policies will affect basic economic and technological structures.
7. Ideological change is required in order to emphasize quality of life rather than striving for an ever-higher standard of living.
8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation to help implement these changes (Naess, 68).

To imagine oneself as a separate ego, separate from everything else, locked up in a bag of skin, is a hallucination. Everything is indeed connected with everything else. Given the profound similarity of Buddhist thought to deep ecology, it is not difficult to realize that the "egocentricity" of an apparently isolated self needs to be replaced by "ecocentricity."

How can we harness this obvious interconnection between Buddhist thought and deep ecology in order to tackle the urgent problems that continue to threaten the sentient beings on this planet? As Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic, wrote: "The only option for us is a change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience. It's not enough to invent new machines, new regulations, and new institutions. We must develop a new understanding of the true purpose of our existence on earth. Only by making such a fundamental shift will we be able to create new models of behavior and a new set of values for the planet" (Uhl, 307).

Like Havel, scores of philosophers, economists, and politicians have recognized that the advancing human crisis is result of the lack of deep spiritual roots, brought on to a great extent by the divorce of spiritual meaning and identity from life. But how can we wake up to face this human crisis?

Today there is already evidence of an emerging cultural shift as millions of people and their leaders are stirring, as if from a trance, to deal with these issues. Here are some possible avenues of approach:

  • Collective awakening. Spiritual awakening in an individual is sometimes called the "opening of the third eye." When this awareness occurs collectively, it can be called the "opening of the fourth eye." Evidence of this collective awakening started in the 1960s and has matured in subsequent years, dealing head-on with problems as diverse as postmodern anomie, free-market globalization, and global terrorism.
  • Building sustainable systems. The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities—social, cultural, and physical. This goal is best attained in four steps: (1) introducing "ecoliteracy" in order to understand how ecosystems evolve for sustaining the web of life; (2) moving toward "ecodesign" by promoting organic farming, energy- and resource-efficient industries, nonmotorized transportation, and low-cost housing, and by reducing energy consumption; (3) thinking in terms of relationships, contexts, patterns, and processes for ecodesign; (4) striving for resource efficiency, service-flow economy, and energy conservation in order to reduce ecological degradation (Capra, 230-32). So far the records in these areas of nurturing have been deplorable.
  • Transforming the world economy. According to free-market capitalism, all values are monetary values determined by buyers of goods and services in a competitive market. The prime movers of this system are the transnational corporations (TNCs), whose economic powers frequently surpass that of many sovereign states. To grow, these TNCs must make enormous profits and consume the world's raw materials. TNCs and their advocate, the World Trade Organization (WTO), have been largely able to get what they want because of their influence in manipulating the global market for their own profit. Poor countries and the poorer sectors of the world are the worst victims of the WTO. Today, one-third of all economic activity worldwide is generated by only 200 corporations, which are linked to each other by strategic alliances. While the WTO was initially hailed by nations rich and poor as an organization that would produce huge economic benefits which would trickle down to everybody, it failed to live up to this promise, instead creating fatal consequences such as the breakdown of democracies, the rapid deterioration of the environment, and increasing poverty and alienation.

    Consumerism is now recognized as the most successful religion of all time, winning more converts more quickly than any previous belief or value system in human history. Philosopher David Loy has pointed out that the strategies of the WTO and the World Bank have been exposed, with the result that there are regular riots whenever their meetings are held. These two organizations are clearly ill-suited for building a just, sustainable, and compassionate society that can nurture sufficiency, partnership, and respect for life and its values. Naturally, a new kind of civil society, organized to counterbalance globalization is gradually emerging, embodied in powerful nongovernmental organizations such as Oxfam and Greenpeace.

  • Transforming ethics. Activists devoted to peace and social justice acknowledge that there is a spirit of coerciveness that is present in all cultures, manifesting particularly in violence and crime. This coerciveness can be counteracted by several strategies.

Creative nonviolence in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Buddhist ethics is one well-documented possibility. Essentially this means that one does not struggle against the opponent but rather against the situation. Political and social adversaries are seen as potential partners rather than as enemies. Satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance, also pioneered by Gandhi, is one form of such creative nonviolence. The principle of ahimsa (harmlessness)—the refusal to kill any living beings—has also been put to use in stopping armed conflicts.

It is said that when people saw the Buddha soon after his enlightenment, they were so struck by the extraordinary peacefulness of his presence that they stopped to ask: "What are you? Are you a god, a magician, or a wizard?" Buddha's reply was stunning. He simply said: "I am awake." His answer became his title, for this is what the word buddha means in Sanskrit—one who is awakened. While the rest of the world was deep in "sleep," dreaming a dream known as the waking state of life, the Buddha shook off the slumber and woke up (Smith and Novak, 3-4).

Although the Buddha's wake-up call was issued a very long time ago and has since been repeated time and time again by almost every known spiritual system, it is unfortunate that a mistaken metaphysics has led us to an alienation between us and the earth and between us and other sentient beings. It is essential that we reestablish and restore an awareness of this interdependence. Naturally, such a transformation requires profound reeducation at every stage of our lives. Private foundations, nongovernmental organizations, businesses, academic institutions, and religious organizations have an equal stake in setting priorities in this endeavor. In this context the advice of the Dalai Lama is particularly poignant:

The Earth, our Mother, is telling us to behave. . . . If we develop good and considerate qualities within our own minds, our activities will naturally cease to threaten the continued survival of life on Earth. By protecting the natural environment and working to forever halt the degradation of our planet, we will also show respect for Earth's human descendants—our future generations—as well as for the natural right to life of all of Earth's living things. If we care for nature, it can be rich, bountiful, and inexhaustibly sustainable.

It is important that we forgive the destruction of the past and recognize that it was produced by ignorance. At the same time, we should reexamine, from an ethical perspective, what kind of world we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations (Hunt-Badiner, v).


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C. Jotin Khisty, Ph. D., is professor emeritus in the department of civil, architectural, and environmental Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He has published extensively in the areas of urban planning, transportation engineering, and systems science.


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