The Question of Buddhist Environmentalism

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444).

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (31 July 2023) | Viewed by 10004

Special Issue Editor

Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057-1135, USA
Interests: East Asian Buddhism; Buddhism and literature; Buddhism and film; Buddhism and science; theories and methods in the study of religion
Special Issues, Collections and Topics in MDPI journals

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

One of the most prominent manifestations of socially engaged modern Buddhism across both the Western and Asian regions is Buddhist environmentalism. In the past three decades, publications penned by both Western practitioners and Asian Buddhist leaders have asserted the consilience between Buddhism and ecological concerns. Studies have also attested to the environmentally conscious practices of contemporary Buddhist communities across the globe. On the other hand, historians of Buddhism have pushed back on the conjunction between Buddhism and environmentalism, pointing out that Buddhist traditions do not exhibit environmental concerns or friendliness and, indeed, were not above participating in structures that exploited nature for human gains.

The aim of this Special Issue is to highlight contributions that consider the transition of Buddhism from its historical past to its current engagement with pressing ecological issues. Articles may take any number of directions, from countering the critics of Buddhist environmentalism via additional historical and textual sources, to descriptive accounts of how current Buddhist communities make the connection between past and present practices, to theoretical considerations of how to account for change and evolution within Buddhist traditions, to the role of ethical concerns in shaping living religious traditions. Ideally, all contributions will promote the notion that Buddhism and environmentalism form a coherent and viable conjunction.

Prof. Dr. Francisca Cho
Guest Editor

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Keywords

  • Buddhism and ecology
  • Buddhist modernism
  • religious change
  • adaptation
  • historical criticism
  • ethics

Published Papers (7 papers)

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13 pages, 768 KiB  
Article
The Personal and the Planetary: Buddhism, Climate Change, and Anthropocene Time
Religions 2023, 14(10), 1313; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14101313 - 19 Oct 2023
Viewed by 978
Abstract
Dipesh Chakrabarty describes the problem of climate change as in part one of temporal incommensurability. For most of human history, we have enjoyed the primacy of anthropocentric “world-historical” time. But as climate change becomes an increasingly dominant preoccupation in our daily lives, we [...] Read more.
Dipesh Chakrabarty describes the problem of climate change as in part one of temporal incommensurability. For most of human history, we have enjoyed the primacy of anthropocentric “world-historical” time. But as climate change becomes an increasingly dominant preoccupation in our daily lives, we experience a rupture in everyday world-historical time and the incursion of a new timescale: the inconceivably vast and impersonal scale of “planetary-geologic” time. The incommensurability between the personal scale of human time and the vast planetary scale of climate change has produced an affective crisis, confronting us with the very limits of our imaginative capacity. In this essay, I argue that although the specifics of climate change may be new, human imaginative engagement with deep time is not. Animated by the conviction that Buddhist literature and thought contain robust theoretical and conceptual ideas that can enrich philosophical and ethical thinking, I bring select Buddhist concepts to bear on the problem of temporal incommensurability. Rather than suggest any general “Buddhist” way of thinking about time, I argue that Buddhist sources can offer new conceptual points of entry into the problem of temporal incommensurability itself, specifically addressing how we might differently conceptualize the relationship between the personal and the planetary in order to address the affective crisis identified by Chakrabarty. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Question of Buddhist Environmentalism)
25 pages, 2296 KiB  
Article
Contesting Religious Boundaries with Care: Engaged Buddhism and Eco-Activism in the UK
Religions 2023, 14(8), 986; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14080986 - 31 Jul 2023
Viewed by 1282
Abstract
The word “Buddhism” conjures up a variety of images and connotations: monks meditating on hilltops, mindfulness, cheerful Buddha caricatures. It is unlikely that these depictions suggest engagement with societal issues. And yet, this is precisely what many Buddhist communities and traditions are involving [...] Read more.
The word “Buddhism” conjures up a variety of images and connotations: monks meditating on hilltops, mindfulness, cheerful Buddha caricatures. It is unlikely that these depictions suggest engagement with societal issues. And yet, this is precisely what many Buddhist communities and traditions are involving themselves in around the world. Often referred to as “engaged Buddhism”, this development in the Buddhist tradition refers to the application of Buddhist principles and practices to situations of social and environmental suffering. Nevertheless, there are critics of this emerging trend who contend that Buddhists should refrain from engaging in societal issues, believing that such involvement contradicts the teachings of the Buddha and distracts from the ultimate goal of liberation. Built on two years of ethnographic research, this paper explores the ways in which a particular environmentally engaged Buddhist group known as “Extinction Rebellion Buddhists” adapt their religious beliefs and practices in response to the challenges posed by the Anthropocene, where concerns for our collective world have resulted in increasing interest in the ways in which humans actively care for the environment. In reformulating Buddhist principles and meditation as a “politics of care”, care becomes a tool for change, with the group not only confronting the pressing issues of the Anthropocene but also disrupting Buddhism’s traditionally inward-looking, other-worldly tendencies, carving out space for autonomy and transformation within the broader landscape of UK Buddhism. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Question of Buddhist Environmentalism)
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19 pages, 315 KiB  
Article
Toward a Buddhist Ecological Ethic of Care
Religions 2023, 14(7), 893; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14070893 - 11 Jul 2023
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Abstract
This article thinks alongside the feminist ethic of care tradition to articulate a Tibetan Buddhist ethical approach to the more-than-human world. It begins by unpacking the characterization of Tibetan Buddhist ethics as a moral phenomenology before highlighting the major parallels between Buddhist moral [...] Read more.
This article thinks alongside the feminist ethic of care tradition to articulate a Tibetan Buddhist ethical approach to the more-than-human world. It begins by unpacking the characterization of Tibetan Buddhist ethics as a moral phenomenology before highlighting the major parallels between Buddhist moral phenomenology and the ethic of care tradition. Having made these parallels evident, this article then looks at how the ethic of care tradition has been applied to issues in animal ethics and environmental ethics to similarly think through how a Buddhist moral phenomenology might function in these more-than-human contexts. To further nuance this ecological application of Buddhist ethics, this article then takes up the question of veganism and argues that a Tibetan Buddhist care ethic would ideally adopt the positions of ethical veganism while also recognizing the socio-economic barriers to doing so in certain contexts. Ultimately, this article argues that when Buddhist moral phenomenology is applied to the more-than-human world, it presents as a Buddhist ecological ethic of care which recognizes the interconnected nature of duhkha, the necessity of approaching situations with care as one’s primary conative mode, and an emphasis on context, relationships, and positionality. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Question of Buddhist Environmentalism)
18 pages, 266 KiB  
Article
The Development and Dissemination of Pro-Environmental Dharma among Taiwan’s Humanistic Buddhists
Religions 2023, 14(2), 273; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14020273 - 17 Feb 2023
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 1453
Abstract
In the early 1990s, two of Taiwan’s humanistic Buddhist groups—Buddhist Tzu Chi Compassionate Relief Foundation (Tzu Chi) and Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM)—began incorporating modern environmentalism as a major component in their religious teachings, practices, and behavioral norms. Neither group had been clearly pro-environmental [...] Read more.
In the early 1990s, two of Taiwan’s humanistic Buddhist groups—Buddhist Tzu Chi Compassionate Relief Foundation (Tzu Chi) and Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM)—began incorporating modern environmentalism as a major component in their religious teachings, practices, and behavioral norms. Neither group had been clearly pro-environmental before the 1990s, but Venerable Cheng Yen, the founding master of Tzu Chi, and Venerable Sheng Yen, the founding master of DDM, redefined and expanded Buddhist teachings and practices to include modern concepts and practices of environmental sustainability as central components of their dharmas. This comparative ethnographic study contributes to scholarship with findings regarding how and why the two groups developed and disseminated pro-environmental dharma: (1) both groups began promoting environmentalism as a moral, religious response to Taiwan’s waste management crisis of the early 1990s; (2) both groups tied their pro-environmental teachings to two of the most popular elements of Buddhist dharma among Chinese humanistic Buddhists—the bodhisattva path and pure land teachings; (3) both groups fully integrated environmental teachings, practices, and behavioral norms into all aspects of their organizations; and (4) both groups adjusted the framing of their pro-environmental messages to match specific audiences in their work in order to promote environmentalism in Taiwan’s society. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Question of Buddhist Environmentalism)
17 pages, 826 KiB  
Article
Freeing Animals: Sino-Tibetan Buddhist Environmentalism and Ecological Challenges
Religions 2023, 14(1), 110; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14010110 - 12 Jan 2023
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 1768
Abstract
Buddhist environmentalism in its varieties across the world is an integral part of the global environmental discourse centered on exploring new planetary ethics for sustainable futures. While recognizing the Buddhist role in global environmental movements, the author of this article proposes that the [...] Read more.
Buddhist environmentalism in its varieties across the world is an integral part of the global environmental discourse centered on exploring new planetary ethics for sustainable futures. While recognizing the Buddhist role in global environmental movements, the author of this article proposes that the observable strength of Buddhist environmentalism is in local and global environmental advocacy grounded in the Buddhist ethics of interdependence, even as, canonically, Buddhism does not offer what is commonly recognized by scientists and scholars as traditional ecological knowledge or religious ecology. To substantiate this, this article offers a textual assessment of the Buddhist canon’s lack of systematic ecological knowledge, and a case study of how freeing domestic animals and advocating vegetarianism among contemporary Tibetan Buddhists in China, inclusive of non-Tibetan converts, mainly benefits human wellbeing and at the same time is entangled in social affairs that have little to do with the ecological wellbeing of the Tibetan Plateau and urban China. This debate is by no means intended to negate the successes of Buddhist environmentalism; instead, it draws fine lines between the claimed canonic basis of Buddhist ecology, the strength of Buddhist environmental advocacy, the everyday practices of Buddhism, and the aspirations for strengthening the ecological foundation of Buddhist environmental activism. Thinking in line with eco-Buddhists, the author concludes the article by proposing an Earth Sutra, a hypothetical future canonic text as the ecological basis of Buddhist environmentalism. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Question of Buddhist Environmentalism)
14 pages, 278 KiB  
Article
Buddhist Environmentalism as Seen through Religious Change
Religions 2022, 13(12), 1191; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13121191 - 06 Dec 2022
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Abstract
This article considers the disagreement between scholars of Buddhism around whether the tradition is or is not amenable to environmental concerns. It identifies the gap between the two sides as arising from a problem in how historical-critical methods divorce moral concepts from materiality [...] Read more.
This article considers the disagreement between scholars of Buddhism around whether the tradition is or is not amenable to environmental concerns. It identifies the gap between the two sides as arising from a problem in how historical-critical methods divorce moral concepts from materiality in the study of religious history. This paper considers paticca-samuppada as a central moral concept in Buddhist tradition, one that has indeed changed via translation over the course of Buddhist history. This is the moral concept that leads directly into current environmentalist discourse, in its translation as interdependence. The paper first considers the translation of paticca-samuppada in historical tradition as well as in the hands of environmentalist authors. It then considers why paticca-samuppada as interdependence is a context-appropriate contribution, in settings of industrial political economy heavily directed by an abstract, mathematical concept of capital in connection with the moral concept of unlimited growth. The paper concludes by suggesting that contemporary Buddhist environmentalism be understood as a case of religious change. It concludes that the Buddhist eco-critical position is untenable, in light of processes of change in religious traditions, and suggests that the study of religious history should better account for how it is that religious change occurs. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Question of Buddhist Environmentalism)

Other

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9 pages, 207 KiB  
Essay
Touching the Earth: Buddhist (and Kierkegaardian) Reflections on and of the ‘Negative’ Emotions
Religions 2023, 14(12), 1451; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14121451 - 22 Nov 2023
Viewed by 697
Abstract
This article develops the philosophical work of Joanna Macy. It argues that ecological grief is a fitting response to our ecological predicament and that much of the ‘mental ill health’ that we are now seeing is, in fact, a perfectly sane response to [...] Read more.
This article develops the philosophical work of Joanna Macy. It argues that ecological grief is a fitting response to our ecological predicament and that much of the ‘mental ill health’ that we are now seeing is, in fact, a perfectly sane response to our ecological reality. This paper claims that all ecological emotions are grounded in love/compassion. Acceptance of these emotions reveals that everything is fine in the world as it is, providing that we accept our ecological emotions as part of what is ‘in the world’. This is non-dualistic acceptance or ‘fierce’ acceptance. This paper focuses primarily on the revolutionary qualities of ecological grief: a paradoxical revolution, coming as it does from a profound process of acceptance. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Question of Buddhist Environmentalism)
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