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The Green Buddha: Buddhism and Sustainability by Dr Patricia Sherwood

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ABSTRACT:At the heart of sustainability and Buddhist philosophy is the notion of interbeing and the interconnectedness of all life. This paper presents the profound contribution that Buddhism has made philosophically and in socially engaged environmental projects in Western countries particularly Australia and the USA. Green Buddhism presents a model of holism, eco-karma and co-dependent arising that provides an alternative to the fragmentation of the model of western capitalism that is based on individualism, eco-exploitation, homo-centrism, dualism and linear causality. It also explores projects of environmental hope that have emerged from the green Buddhist movement in the west.


The Green Buddha: Buddhism and Sustainability Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them Consuming desires are endless: I vow to stop them Bio-relations are intricate: I vow to honour them Buddha’s way is compassion: I vow to become it.

Adapted from the four Bodhisattva Vows by Ginsberg, Synder and Whalen

Introduction: the sustainability problem

The earth is a beautiful environment for many living beings including human beings who are inextricably interconnected in the web of life for survival and growth. Traditionally this interconnectedness was expressed by the notion of a Great Chain of Being which comprises matter, body, mind , soul , spirit in all its diverse expressions, each level embracing the other until finally all things are enfolded by spirit, the Goddess, God, Tao, /Brahman, Atman, Buddha or the like depending on the religious tradition. (Smith cited in Wilber 1998,p.6). However, the rise of empiricism in western culture with its profoundly materialistic, atomistic and analytic world view has resulted in the disintegration of this Great chain or nest of being world view and the fragmentation and reduction of the earth and its inhabitants to a purely material, atomistic world to be exploited and manipulated by scientific endeavours. This has contributed greatly to the current environmental devastation which positions the earth on the brink of environmental collapse.

Ironically, science has also drawn a very clear picture, albeit materialistic, that documents the current crisis in the earth’s environment. As early as 1962, Rachel Carson published her profound work, Silent Spring, linking the use of pesticides with the destruction of other species particularly birds and the contamination of the water and earth. In 1980 the World Conservation Strategy was launched by the UN, followed in 1987 by the Bruntland committee report, all outlining the delicate interdependence of the planet’s people, environment and other species and arguing for a sustainability policy and conservation strategies (Yamamoto & Kuwahara ,2010, p.129) Species are disappearing at the rate of one every twenty minutes ( Levin, 2002). Every minute, 12,000 tons of Co2 are added to the environment and 51 acres of tropical rainforest are destroyed. Every hour, 1692 productive acres of land become desert, and 1800 children die of malnutrition (Environmental statistics, 2012) Global temperatures are rising and the rate is predicted to be between 2 and 6 degrees centigrade depending on the model and this temperature rise will have profound disturbances in weather and crop patterns (Meehl et al, 2007).The scientific evidence that we are destroying our planet is clear. The question remains as why don’t we act to stop the destruction of our ecosystem.

I would argue that capitalism with its aggressive emphasis on continuing growth in GNP, unrelenting resource consumption, rugged individualism and licensed exploitation of people, species and environment underpins the materialistic ethos. The free market together with secularism has created an ungoverned arena for capitalism to harvest with few constraints. What is needed is a radical change in values, a system of ethics that governs human relations which is compatible with the goals of sustainability. Fritjof Capra (1997) supports the need for a radical shift in perception, thinking and values that promote synthetic, holistic world views rather than the fragmented worldview of prevailing empiricism and it capitalistic companion of quick profits as any cost. Essentially we need a new model to govern human culture and economy that promotes present and future well being and supports sustainability as defined by the Bruntland report (1987) cited in Yamamoto et al ( 2010,p130): Development which fulfils the desire of the present generation so that the capability for future generations to fulfil their desires is not reduced or compromised ... we must control and minimize unfavourable influences to the atmosphere, water and other natural systems and aim to preserve the overall ecosystem.

Buddhism and the sustainability solution


Buddhism offers a shift away from a purely materialistic definition of happiness and sustainability to one that is based on human happiness and the recognition of interconnectedness. There are no limits to human desires for material goods particularly when rugged individualism and the associated fear, greed and injustice prevail. Frey and Stutzer (2002) completed a survey in the US showing that although income per capita had more than doubled between 1946 and 1996 the number of people who said they were happy had not increased during the same period. Likewise in Japan although income increased five or more times from 1958 to 1991, the level of happiness remained unchanged. Frey and Stutzer (2002) completed a survey in the US showing that although income per capita had more than doubled between 1946 and 1996 the number of people who said they were happy had not increased during the same period. Likewise in Japan although income increases five or more times from 1958 to 1991, the level of happiness remained unchanged. (Yamamoto et al, 2010, p.137). Therefore a quality of life index that measures the degree of human happiness could well replace the GNP and become a more accurate reflection on human well being. In fact, Bhutan has introduced a GNH (Gross National Happiness index) which uses human happiness rather than material production and consumption as the primary indicator of human development. Over 96% of Bhutanese described themselves as very happy despite the country’s GNP rating among the poorest economies (Yamamoto et al, 2010, p.140)

Buddhism offers a comprehensive three fold system for creating happiness. This involves freeing the mind from unending aversion, desire and mental suffering which depends upon the Buddhist quality of bhavana or mindfulness; creating a just society in which people are free from fundamental insecurities of danger famine, disease, war through the implementation of dana or generosity, and thirdly creating freedom from oppression and exploitation as a result of sila or moral action (Sivaraksa, 2011 p.4).

In addition as a philosophical system Buddhism offers alternative values to the current empiricist/ capitalistic values that dominate the world and which can form the basis of sustainable development model. These include the values of co-dependent arising, impermanence, ecocentrism, holism and which underpin two critical movements that must occur in human values if sustainability is to become a reality, namely the move from a material world view to a complex energetic world view and the move from an individualistic world view to an interdependent world view based on interbeing. Martin Luther King (1967) so brilliantly captured these realities:

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality . . . Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our


universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize the basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality. We will now examine these two essential movements to create sustainability and how the core values and ethics of Buddhism supports these transformations at the most fundamental levels.

Buddhism and the move from material reality to complex reality inter-dependent co-arising versus fragmented linear causal models

Interdependent co-arising sees all things and phenomena as interdependent and arising from multiple conditions and causes and embedded in a world of complex conditions and relationships. Thich Nhat Hanh (1999) developed the concept of “interbeing” to describe these complex relationships and enumerated profound ethical guidelines in his “Fourteen precepts for interbeing” which include the 11th precept specifically focused on environment in the economic sense: Aware that great violence and injustice have been done to our environment and society, we are committed not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. We will do our best to select a livelihood that helps realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Aware of global economic, political and social realities, we will behave responsibly as consumers and as citizens, not supporting companies that deprive others of their chance to live.

An excellent example of a Buddhist inspired project that recognises interbeing is John Seed’s Rainforest Information Centre (1994).Although based in Australia, it is actively part of supporting rainforest preservation projects throughout the world and is an excellent example of sustainable development based on Buddhist principles. All money that John Seed earns running workshops goes to support rainforest projects in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Ecuador and other destinations. He has been innovator of the sustainable walkabout sawmill project in Papua New Guinea where local people are given an option to work their forests sustainably and avoid the exploitation of large scale multinational logging companies. They are provided with the small saws to log sustainably in a manner that maintains the sustainability of their ecosystem, creates employment and enables a rotational system within the forest logging to be maintained. It is an economic system that recognises the needs of all species and is based on Buddhist values of metta.


Toh (2010, p. 63) points to the Buddhist values of Metta, or loving kindness that underlies a sense of acting with kindness towards other human beings, the planet, and other living species and which is essential to sustainability in this planet for it ensures that with qualities of kindness, consideration for the needs of others will govern action rather than greed or the pursuit of individual possessions at the expense of the sustenance needs of other living beings. Of the four Buddhist core ethical qualities named the four divine Abodes, loving-kindness and recognition of interconnectedness towards all beings is central and recorded in the Metta Sutta:

May all beings be at ease
Whatever living beings there may be
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none, The great or the mighty, medium, short or small, The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away, Those born and to be born May all beings be at ease.
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state. Let none through anger or ill-will Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child, So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings, Radiating kindness over the entire world.

Eco-nurturing versus eco-exploitative models

Interconnectedness means that boundaries disappear and one becomes acutely aware that everything is interrelated and every action has consequences that ultimately affect the entire planet. I would support Swearer’s view(2012) that a mere cognitive understanding of interconnectedness does not alone lead to an ecological ethic that supports sustainability . Compassion or Karuna is essential to engage the heart in an empathetic connection to all parts of the ecosystem and to value their right to an existence. Internationally significant leaders in the socially engaged Buddhist movement that challenge exploitative and oppressive structures non violently and through creating just and sustainable models include the Dalai lama, Thich Nhat Hanh Joanna Macy and Gary Synder. The Dharma Gaia Trust, based in NSW, Australia is a shining example of environmentally engaged Buddhism.

Its stated mission is to nurture awareness of the complementarity of Buddhism and ecology by generating funds for Buddhist-inspired ecological projects in Asia and the developing world building mutually respectful and responsible East-West partnerships publicizing the efforts of engaged Buddhists working on environmental projects motivating Buddhist communities to actively engage in the ecological challenges of our time by providing education and inspiration


See: for further information on this Buddhist inspired environmental action group. One project is the Tibetan refugees in exile sustainable organic agriculture program conducted by Jonathon Halpern to educate and assist refugees develop sustainable methods of farming for food and managing their ecosystem in exile. Another project is the Ladakh Nuns Association led by Jill and Graeme Jameson to facilitate the development of natural herbal medicine gardens and sustainable harvesting as well as tree planting both fruit bearing and reafforesting trees. Dr Tenzin Palmo, an English Buddhist nun initiated the project in 1993 to assist the nuns develop sustainable lifestyles and to renew their traditional medical herbal skill base. The project has continued to provide education and training for the expanding nuns’ community that promotes environmental and eco-nurturing awareness among the community. This project together with many other initiatives, demonstrate the power of Buddhist eco-nurturance to create sustainable projects even among the poorest people on the planet.

Buddhism and the move from individualism to community of interbeing.

The great disease arising from the capitalistic world view that undermines the core of sustainable development is the focus on individualism with its famous Darwinian justification of “ the survival of the fittest”. It pits me against them, and makes it in my interest to deprive others of their rightful livelihood, to consume more than I need and to accumulate huge amounts of wealth because of the advantages of my birth, family or political inheritance. Susan George writing in 1976 in How the other Half die, identified the root of the problem of world starvation as political elites and the western predilection for greed. Over 37 years later and the problem of inequity has escalated, its root causes remain largely unchanged and unchallenged by the dominant capitalistic paradigm. Buddhism offers a fundamental paradigm shift by producing a world view that is based on holism and integration and which ecocentered rather than homocentered. These two dimensions of a sustainable paradigm will be elucidated below.

Holism versus dualism : elimination of good/bad, black white, evil/ holy

The essence of Buddhism brings us to the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all and the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness. Fritjof Capra notes the liberating awakening of going beyond the world of opposites, transcending the dualistic separation of us/them and good/ evil (1975, p.158). Such dualistic thinking consolidates and justifies the exploitation of environments, peoples and species because it promotes a hierarchical justification for environmental exploitation and unsustainable actions. Thich Naht Hanh (1989) poignantly captures this transcendence of dualism in his magnificent poem:

Please call me by my true names
...I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones My legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee On a small boat,
Who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate
I am the sea pirate
My heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with Plenty of power in my hands,
And I am the man who has to pay his Debt of blood to my people,
Dying slowly in a forced labour camp.

Please call me by my true names,
So I can hear all my cries and my laughs at once, So I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, So I can wake up,
And so the door of my heart can be left open, The door of compassion.

The antidote to dualism is compassion which is the place of non judgement, not needing to separate oneself from others or to establish good/ bad hierarchies which justify the oppression and exploitation of those defined as bad or inferior. Compassion is only achievable when one has encountered all the elements of bad/ inferior, ugly that one has projected onto others, within oneself and then accepted that the only enemy is within. we are only capable of destroying the world in which we live because we have first contaminated our own mental states (Sherwood, 2012, p.5). Jung reminds us that: the human being who starts by withdrawing his own shadow from his neighbour is doing work of immense, immediate political and social importance" ( cited in von Franz, 1998). One must first deal with the inner pollution, the anger and the hatred which drives one to destroy and exploit others and the world or to fight those who are destroying it. both are trapped in a endless cycle of hatred. Clearing the inner pollution is the first step because only then can one clearly experience the fundamental non dualistic nature of reality.


Joanna Macy is a western Buddhist who has contributed profoundly to the training of environmental activists employing the core Buddhist tenants of karuna, (compassion) metta (loving kindness) mudita (deep empathy) and upekkha (inner peace). Her remarkable techniques and strategies for training are well documented in her book World as Lover, world as Self (1991). Macy 's contribution to Buddhist environmentalism cannot be over estimated as she has trained thousands of deep ecology activists in

Australia, Europe and the US to engage in profoundly Buddhist transformative strategies to act for the environment and to engage in Buddhist practices that support their environmental activism. she herself and initiated and led many activist deed and one of her most influential projects has been her nuclear guardianship project in which she has profoundly used the teachings of mindfulness to create groups of persons to act as guardians over nuclear waste sites. These concerned citizens make it a vigil to monitor the Nuclear waste dumps to ensure that the sites are maintained to prevent spills an leaks into communities and surrounding environments.( 200o, p.295).

This has been an important aspect of training among Buddhist environmental activists in the west. They have become aware that they must first deal with their inner anger and rage. this clearly illustrated in the case study of Vivienne Elanta who undertook many environmental protests to bring public attention to the need to conserve the natural world.

If I had not encountered Buddhism, Vivienne admits:

"I may well have become an eco-fascist. I can see the potential to be one because that was the style of my family system and the style I was used to. Buddhism taught me the skillfulness of compassion over hatred, and that essentially we are all one…" (Sherwood, 2004,p.46).

One example of her engaged Buddhist environmental action was to stand as a Green party candidate for Marmion, a beach side suburb of Perth undergoing substantial clearing of its natural environment. She established her office as a platform in a 200 year old Tuart tree in Doveridge Drive, Duncraig. The tree with two neighbouring jarrah trees, had been earmarked for felling to make way for the proposed Homeswest old age housing project. She called for redrafting the development planes to leave space for the trees. She treated police efforts to dissuade and remove her with compassion and kindness so that even the police become convinced of the worthiness of her cause. After a three day sit, in the tree, it was saved from development. When interviewed about her love of tress she replied: "I go with the view that we are a mere strand in the web of life and not dominant over it.”

Detachment from the dualistic position of us and them leads one to a greater inner peace and a realization that the process rather than the immediate outcome is most significant Buddhist teaches that one must maintain a stat of peace and compassion so that one sows theses seeds rather than hatred and despair for a future ripening for in Buddhism , the energetic patterns we create by our thoughts and deeds go well beyond our own lifetime. John Seed when interviewed by Wes Nisker (2000:288) describes how Buddhism has benefited his environmental action and helped him focus on the process rather than the immediate outcomes.

I think I developed some qualities in meditation that are very useful in environmental work such a being able to focus on the process rather than the goal. That is very useful since the fruits of environmental action can be pretty bitter at the moment. For every forest we save, we can’t but notice that a thousand forests disappear. So the sitting practice taught me how to work joyously without seeing any sweet fruits of my action.

Significant work in the animal rights field has been initiate by Buddhist influenced activist in the west. Vanya palmers documents the her involvement in defending sentient beings in animal form to prevent cruelty, abuse and exploitation. She documents Brad Millers seminal work in establishing the Humane Farming Association in 1985 which in 2000 had over 20,000 members and which has held many animal rights campaigns including boycott veal campaign, ending and humanising factory farming as well as working to stop the fur trade and promote vegetarianism to reduce cruelty to animals and reduce the environmental pollution and pressure created by met eating. (Palmers, 2000,p.279).

Another important project was the Pilgrimage conducted by over 25 Australian activists with Buddhist training that involved a peaceful protest to all Uranium sites in Australia over 55 days and it included educating indigenous people on whose lands the sites were located about the health hazards and their

rights. This epic journey during 1997 is inspirational for the peace, compassion and kindness that marked the protestors and educators action along their journey. It has been beautifully documented by Ristic (2002). Macy's profound commitment to Buddhist practices and her lucid understanding of Buddhist principles of min has lead her to develop training on converting environmental despair into a quiet powerful force within green activists so that they do not succumb to their own fear, distress, grief and loss but are able to continue to strive with peace and compassion to transform and embrace all aspects of human experience including environmental abuse and destruction. As part of this work she is helping activists and the public open their hearts to embrace the planet , cracking through their denial, their homocentricism and seeing with eyes of compassion the suffering of all on this planet .

Ecocentrism versus homocentrism: an inclusive not-self world view.


Core to the shift from an unsustainable paradigm of living based on elite homocentrism is the movement to an embracing paradigm of ecocentricism which is based on interconnectedness of all life, animate and inanimate, again a central feature of the Buddhist notion of interconnectedness. Buddhism presents a paradigm so interconnected that the notion of self as a permanent entity becomes ultimately illusionary.

John Seed (2000, pp288-289) describes how the notion of not-self has permeated to the heart of his environmental activism in the rainforests: in the realisation of no-self…I find myself surrendering completely to the rainforest The closest thing to meditation practice for me now is to lie down in the forest when it’s dry , cover myself in leaves and imagine an umbilical cord reaching down into the earth. The I visualise myself as being one leaf on the tree of life, both as myself personally and as a human being, and I realise that the sap of that tree runs through every leaf, including me, whether I’m aware of it or not.

He has striven to expand people's perception of themselves as some discrete entity by designing and running councils of all Beings, usually a three day workshop in which the individual takes on the persona of another species and for that time speaks and acts through the eyes of that species. these workshops have been conducted in Australia, Europe, US, USSR powerfully cracking away the homocentric world views of participants and leading them to more eco-centric world views. Seed ( 2000,p.291) explains:

I help organise and lead gatherings called the council of All beings and the exercises we do at these gatherings give us a sense that we are not so much a personality as an intersection of these great cycles. we begin to break the illusion of being separate from the rest of creation..

Many of the leading environmental centres in the world with outstanding track records in peaceful environmental activism have been initiated by Buddhist environmentalists. John seeds rainforest information centre in northern NSW in Australia, Gary Synder's Green gulch Zen Center, Brad Miller's humane farming association in the United state to name a few.

Conclusion: Buddhism for the 21st century

Upon a planet facing enormous environmental challenges in the coming century just to survive as a home for its many beings, human and non human animate and inanimate forms, there is an urgent need to move from our current capitalistic empiricist paradigm that has produced this separation from our earth, air , water, soil, other species and other people and replace it with a paradigm that produces connectedness within ourselves, between each other and with all the species and forms and structure upon this system. Buddhism with its philosophical emphasis on interbeing, holism, mindfulness, ecocentism, complex energetic patterns of interrelationship and its interdependent co-arising patterning at all times our interconnectedness is a philosophy and world view that offers a pathway through the environmental collapse that we now confront. It focuses on the restoration of our own mental states, so that our own internal mental environment is freed from greed, hatred and delusion. Instead compassion, loving kindness, empathy and peace become the mental states upon which outer environmental action to repair the planet can safely build. Like the warriors of shambala the weapons for environmental activism that Buddhism offers are compassion and insight, the only sure foundations for an effective environmental ethic. it is a world view that is large enough to embrace the present and the future and to create a meaningful unity. In the words of Albert Einstein:

The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism. (Albert Einstein)





Author: Dr Patricia Sherwood