Saturday, July 29, 2006

Eco-Buddhist Worldview

Duncan Ryûken Williams - 1996 Japan/U.S. Seminar

Duncan Ryûken Williams
Eco-Buddhist Worldview, Green Precepts, and Bio-Sangha: Buddhism as a U.S.-Japan Bridge Toward Environmental Ethics and Sustainable Living
January 22, 1996

In his 1985 book Pacific Shift, published by Sierra Club Books, William Irwin Thompson coined the term "Pacific Shift" to indicate a cultural, historical,
and geographical shift of Western civilization from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  In the book, he observed that a profound transition from an industrial
to an ecological worldview was also a part of this civilizational shift which he termed the "Pacific cultural ecology."  Most significantly for my talk,
he suggested that Buddhism could be considered as one of the key perspectives in a new emergent "Pacific cultural ecological worldview."  When I first
read Thompson, I really didn't see the empirical evidence for an emergent Pacific cultural ecology with Buddhism as its basic worldview.  Indeed I thought
of his notion as somewhat fanciful.  Since then, books, conferences, and retreats which have considered the interface of Buddhism and environmentalism
have appeared in great number with environmentalists and Buddhists, particularly in the U.S. and Japan, taking a leading role in defining a Buddhist ecological
worldview that would inform both environmental ethics and sustainable living.  The aim of my talk today, then, is to highlight what I consider to be three
key themes that has characterized this interface of Buddhism and environmentalism: namely -- a worldview shared by Buddhism and ecology, an environmental
ethics inform by Buddhist precepts, and a notion of sustainable communities based on those "green" precepts.
1. Eco-Buddhist Worldview

One of the ideas that has been central to Buddhist perspectives on environmental issues has been that the environmental crisis is a crisis not only of technology,
politics, science, and industry, but perhaps fundamentally a crisis of perception.  It is a crisis of perception because, in the Buddhist analysis, the
roots of the over-exploitation of natural resources or the pollution of land, air, and water lies in a misperception of our relationship with the natural
world and even more fundamentally a misperception of ourselves.

What then is it that Buddhists suggest is the correct perception of ourselves and the natural world?  Put briefly, it is that the "self" or any "thing"
is not autonomous -- it does not exist per se.  This Buddhist doctrine of "non-self-ness" suggests a perception of ourselves, not as independent units
floating in space, but rather a perception of the self as relational, grounded, interconnected.  Let me take a moment to illustrate what I mean by the
Buddhist doctrine of "non-self-ness."  This green mug, for instance, from our usual way of perception is simply a mug.  However, here the suggestion is
that if perceived more deeply, this mug does not exist per se.  With a different kind of perception we can see in the mug nonmetallic minerals from the
earth, we can see a high-temperature kiln, we can perhaps even vaguely see the family of the person who put the green glaze on the mug.  It is this kind
of perception of the fundamental interconnectedness of the mug with other elements, the interconnectedness of ourselves with other beings, the interconnectedness
of rivers with mountains, and so on that is the  Buddhist worldview that is seen to parallel the ecological worldview in which when one part of the ecosystem
is disturbed, it affects the whole ecosystem.  The flip-side of non-self-ness, then, is interconnectedness and it is worldview that I would want to emphasize
as my first point.
2. Green Precepts

The second aspect of the interface of Buddhism and environmentalism, in my view, lies in the way of acting that is derived from the worldview of interconnectedness. 
In the Buddhist case, it is precisely from the perception of interconnectedness that ethical principles emerge.  When it is clear that what we do, what
our neighborhoods do, what our nations do affects other individuals, other neighborhoods, other nations and further that all our actions and other people's
actions affect the natural world and vice versa, it is not possible to live ethically and leave the environment out.

Let me say a word, then, about Buddhist precepts (moral rules) which can bring an important perspective on environmental ethics.  Like many other religious
systems, Buddhism has various sets of guidelines regarding ethical living.  But perhaps unlike other religious systems, Buddhist precepts ought not  be
understood in dogmatic or absolutist terms.  What do I mean by this?  Let me give one example.  The first rule in Buddhist precepts is "do not kill." 
This seems easy and virtuous enough.  From an environmental standpoint, not killing in terms of other human beings (war) or not killing in terms of animals
(vegetarianism) would obviously be laudable.  But if we took the precept "do not kill" to its logical end, there is no reason why it ought not apply to
vegetables (i.e.. being a vegetarian would still violate the rule) and there is no reason that killing in an indirect way (say, wearing leather clothing)
is acceptable.  Furthermore, sometimes to not violate one precept (such as do not kill), we have to violate another precept (such as do not lie) - for
instance, if a gunman asked you if you knew the whereabouts of a loved one he wanted to kill, you might lie (and break a precept) to save a life (keep
a precept).  All of this to say that what seems to be a straightforward ethical principle such as "do not kill," when realistically thought about in terms
of the way we live, is more complicated than at first glance.  That Buddhist environmental ethics ought not to be dogmatic or absolutist means, then, that
we see these ethical injunctions as guideposts that shine a direction towards which we ought to move, rather than an inviolable  commandment.

To think about ethical principles, then, cannot be a simplistic affair and to think about environmental ethics in particular requires further careful consideration. 
If the precept "do not kill" can be put in affirmative terms as "preserving life as much as one is able," then in terms of how this precept might work
applied to the natural world, we can vow to recycle as much as possible, we can vow to be as energy-efficient as possible, or we can vow to eat as low
on the food-chain as possible.  None of these need to be absolute, but that we are invited to consider how we keep a moral or ethical precept when we consider
how the environment matters.
3. Bio-Sangha

Finally, the third and final aspect of the interface of Buddhism and the environment lies in creating communities of sustainable living.  When it comes
right down to it, living an ethical life is surely easier with a network or community of people who share and support each other's attempts to live sustainably. 
Actualizing environmental ethics takes the efforts of more than one individual.  Both in the U.S. and in Japan, Buddhist communities (or Sanghas) have
taken seriously the challenge of living sustainably based on the worldview and ethics noted above.  In terms of the United States, such rural Buddhist
centers as Zen Mountain Center and Green Gulch Farm in California and Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York have developed programs for environmental
education, bioregional learning, recycling, rituals to protect animals, and organic farming.  Examples such as these  of a Buddhist way of sustainable
living have provided momentum to smaller temples and groups of individuals to examine how in other kinds of settings such as an urban or suburban community,
people can develop networks to encourage a sustainable way of life based on Buddhist worldviews and ethics.
4. Conclusion

To conclude, let me suggest that if there is anything to learn from the growing conversation on Buddhism and ecology, it is that when we think about environmental
ethics and sustainable living, we ought to do two things.  On the one hand, we might consider if and in what way, the environmental crisis is not only
a crisis in technological or political terms, but a crisis of perception and of ethical values.  The kinds of perspectives suggested above may offer us
a way to re-think how environmental ethics are developed and what kind of ethical principles are necessary, appropriate, and realistic.  On the other hand,
we might learn from actual communities of sustainable living how environmental ethics are actually being put into practice.  It seems to me that without
learning in an "on-the-ground" way how sustainable living is actually practiced our discussions may become disconnected from the real, ecological systems
that we are a part of.

As I suggested in the beginning, there has developed a growing network of people both in the U.S. and Japan who view Buddhism as a conceptual, ethical,
and practical resource in a concern for the environment and sustainable living.  I hope I have been able to convey  a sense of what this emerging conversation
is about and why it might be of interest to any of us thinking through the special role the U.S. and Japan might have in developing environmental ethics
and sustainable living.


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