Josh Herzfeldt-Kamprath

Book Review

Batchelor, Martine, and Kerry Brown, eds. Buddhism and Ecology.
London : Cassell Publishers Limited, 1992.


The ecological problems facing us today are universal problems. This is one fact that cannot be overlooked any longer. The implications of such an understanding create the need for a global effort of awareness and action, not just from us who are primarily ‘western,’ Christian, and among the world’s most wealthy, but from all who exist within the confines of our sphere of life.

This awareness, however, cannot be extracted from the various peoples and traditions around the world from without, and instead must be offered up from within each. In Buddhism and Ecology, we are presented with an overview—from people within the Buddhist context—of how Buddhism and Buddhist teachings address and speak to the ideas surrounding the ecological issues faced with the world today. Though written in 1992, and therefore not current according to the more recent ecological understanding, it offers insight into the Buddhist worldview and remains relevant to the world today due to the nature of the universality of Buddhist thought.

Buddhism and Ecology is divided up into three main sections: teachings in the Buddhist scriptures, practices among practitioners of Buddhism, and how Buddhism responds to the growing ecological crisis. Within each of these sections, several essays are presented dealing with the overarching topic of the subunit as well as addressing all issues at hand. These essays range from commentary on excerpts from Buddhist scripture to a description and commentary of one writer’s experience in a Japanese Zen monastery high in the mountains to philosophical commentary on Buddhist practices. While each of these essays serves its own function and purpose within a certain context, they all address the much larger issues faced globally and propose a way to go about fixing the problems, one that is Buddhist in nature but accessible and available to everyone.

Section One – Buddhist Teachings

Section one is devoted to exploring Buddhist scriptures and teachings. It begins by looking at certain texts and outlining some of the basic Buddhist principles. One of the foci of Buddhist teaching is the denial of an individual self. For Buddhists, there is no ‘I’ but rather an interconnected whole of which ‘I’ am a part. This becomes the basic starting point from which to understand how Buddhism approaches the world and its issues.

This cannot, however, be understood as a stand-alone ideal. One of the overarching philosophies is (ironically enough) the fact that everything is interconnected. From this, the self no longer exists because instead of ‘me’ being separate from ‘you,’ we are both the same thing. Furthermore, we are both the same as a rock, a waterfall, a beetle, or the sun. A Japanese Zen master, Dogen, puts it thusly: “There are myriads of forms and hundreds of grasses throughout the entire earth, and yet each grass and each form itself is the entire earth” (12).

The philosophy of interconnectedness sets the stage for a natural ecology which is inherent in the teachings rather than applied as an afterthought. Martine Batchelor states that the “recognition that human beings are essentially dependent upon and interconnected with their environments has given rise to an instinctive respect for nature” (12). Buddhist thought is inherently ecological and fully centered on nature and the world. This focus on interconnectedness is reinforced by two important values within Buddhism: compassion and loving-kindness. Batchelor sums up these two values:

Loving-kindness is understood as the wish for others to be happy, and compassion is the wish to alleviate suffering. Both start with ourselves, by recognizing the fact of our own suffering and seeking to uproot its causes. Before turning to the plight of others, it is necessary to understand deeply the origins of suffering within ourselves. Such insight can then lead to a genuine capacity to show others the way to freedom from their inner pain. Ultimately loving-kindness and compassion extend to all living things: people, animals, plants, the earth itself. (4)

This lengthy quote sums up nicely the ideals of Buddhism as they apply to ecology. Becoming aware of one’s inner pain and suffering, and doing away with that pain and suffering, leads to the ability to project outward a philosophy of loving-kindness and compassion, aiding in the relief of the suffering of all which is to include not only fellow humans, but everything.

Another principle of Buddhism dealing with nature is that of anicca, or changeability. The world, apart from the interference from creatures, will change over time in an ongoing process. Buddhism recognizes, as Lily de Silva points out, “that, although change is inherent in nature, humanity’s moral deterioration accelerates and shapes the changes bringing about circumstances which are adverse to human well-being and happiness” (21). What hurts the planet and the world hurts us (because of the principles of interconnectedness!). We as humans need to realize what we are ultimately doing to ourselves. De Silva summarizes for us what Buddhism has to offer: “Buddhism offers humanity ‘the middle way’, a simple moderate lifestyle eschewing both extremes of self-depravation and self-indulgence” (29). In this way, Buddhism is a way of life which, according to the central aspects outlined above, brings to light the ecological controversy as good as any philosophy, religion, or way of life. In fact, the protection of all that is becomes central to all that a Buddhist does. This brings us to the second section focused on these philosophies in action.

Section Two – Buddhist Practice

In section two we are presented with three essays describing varying and distinct Buddhist communities and traditions. The first focuses on Ladakh, a mountainous region near India and Tibet; the second on three Japanese case studies, a Tendai monastery, a Zen temple, and a Shin temple family; and finally, the third discusses the merging of Buddhism with the western thought, especially those of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Though each has its own unique context and struggles, each relies upon the core values outlined in the first section. I will briefly discuss each.

Helena Norberg-Hodge discusses in chapter four her experience traveling around the region of Ladakh to various villages and the capital, Leh. The main thrust of Norberg-Hodge’s discussion revolves around the clashing of modern technology and thought with the once isolated village communities of the Ladakh region. She describes in detail how each of these villages survived for many, many generations at the extremely high altitudes, entirely self-sustained. They developed methods and practices which worked with nature and the environment, destroying nothing in the process, allowing them to live in harmony for many generations. Norberg-Hodge describes their lifestyle: “For the Ladakhis there are no great distinctions or separations between work and festivity, between human spirituality and attendance to the natural environment” (45). She describes certain festivals of harvest which seem less like work in the fields purely for sustenance and more like worship and communion with each other and nature. Furthermore, as primarily Tibetan Buddhist communities, “the Ladakhi sense of self is based on a complex web of interconnection and constant change, rather than a notion of static isolated individuality” (51). This and other Buddhist principles permeate the way of life of these simple people.

Things changed however, as the region became overrun with tourists after it came to be under the control of India. The small mountain communities, once self-sufficient, could no longer support themselves and the growing tourist economy and were thus forced into giving up many of their old ways in favor of conforming and attempting to catch up with the rest of the modernized world. Norberg-Hodge finishes her essay by briefly discussing the more recent attempts to synthesize the old ways with the new in an effort not to shun ‘modernization’ but accept it and work within it while holding on to the most important values of living with and caring for the world around you.

Chapter five, written by W.S. Yokoyama, presents meditation as a central aspect of Buddhist practice as well as an important tool in fighting the ecological practice. Yokoyama describes the meditation practices in three Japanese Buddhist communities: a Tendai monastery, a Zen temple, and a Shin temple family.

The focus of meditation in the Tendai monastery is centered particularly around an encounter the Yokoyama had with a particular practitioner who was on a 1000 day walking pilgrimage on a “fixed path around Mount Hiei” (58). Yokohama comments on this practice and the implications it has for a modern ecological understanding by pointing out that meditation, in this sense, allows for a thorough communion with nature. “As the practice [of meditation] deepens, s/he [the practitioner] enters into communion with the delightful beauty of the world, its rocks, trees and flowers” (59). What this allows for is a deep resonance with the problems faced with the world today and a understanding of the need for a better balance of nature and humanity.

Yokoyama moves on to describe briefly Zen meditation practice as well as the practice of meditation in a modern Shin temple family. These each reflect different takes on the place and importance of meditation. For the Zen practitioner, the focus on a koan serves as the vehicle through which to meditate. In the Shin household, a teenage daughter is reminded to say her prayers at the altar on her way to school, a practice which consists of reciting the name of the Buddha. Whereas the former meditation serves as a way to achieve enlightenment, the latter is a simple ritual performed in haste and annoyance by a young person.

Yokohama concludes by mirroring much of what has been said by the previous authors in that “love of nature and respect for religious aspirations, elements basic to the Japanese mind, will make the Japanese people responsive to the views of Buddhist thinkers and scholars who have only recently begun to voice their opinions on the environmental issue” (64).

In the last chapter of this section, Peter Timmerman relates the emergence of Buddhism in the west, and the impact each had on the other, to the growing environmental awareness of the second half of the 20 th century. He builds this up in an effort to construct a ‘Buddhist Environmentalism’ which criticizes the Romantic ideal of the individual as outdated and proposes the ideals of Buddhism, specifically interconnectedness (implying awareness), as necessary to move forward.

Timmerman’s overview of Buddhism in the west explains how the Romantics, rebelling against the ideology of the Enlightenment, were drawn to Buddhism and Buddhist thought. However, they retained the Enlightenment ideal that the individual is the “measure of all things” (66). This understanding led to a misinterpretation of the Buddhist ways.

The ‘Buddhist Environmentalism’ that Timmerman proposes develops out of his claim that “if there is an essential task of environmentalism today, it is to create a new politics which can respond powerfully and adequately to the problems we face” (73). He proposes that the Buddhist method of careful contemplation, paired with the Buddhist teachings of interconnectedness, love, and compassion, can provide the world with a lens through which to view, and consequently understand, the ecological crisis facing the world. “Being a Buddhist is a geopolitical act because it provides us with a working space within which to stand back from our aggressive culture and consider the alternatives” (75).

Section Three – Buddhist Response

This final section of the book is the synthesis of the first two. Here, in several essays, we are presented with the application of the teachings and the practices in several Buddhist movements which embody the spirit of a Buddhist environmentalism. First we are shown the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka, second the effort to reforest Thailand spearheaded by Ajahn Pongsak, and finally Thich Nhat Hanh and his Tiep Hien Order of Vietnamese monks.

The Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka is a grassroots method of what amounts to community organizing. It begins with the invitation by a village for a Sarvodaya worker to come, assess the needs of the village, and institute some sort of program, be it a community garden, digging canals, or some other labor program. The responsibility is then placed upon the community itself to organize and plan the program. This is meant to guide the community toward a self-motivation which allows them to begin to work communally to support themselves. Eventually leaders emerge, usually from the younger folks, who are then trained at Sarvodaya centers for specific skills. They return to their community to put that skill into practice. Throughout this process, the Buddhist ideals of a community of interconnected beings, love, and compassion permeate all that is done.

The next focus is on the deforestation which has taken place in Thailand. Ajahn Pongsak, a Thai monk, has emerged as an opponent of various legislations which have been detrimental to the efforts to preserve and rebuild the forests in Thailand. Pongsak works primarily in northern Thailand where he is the abbot of a monastery which serves as the center of the efforts to reevaluate the situations in the country. He practices what is known as ‘engaged Buddhism,’ which is not content to simply meditate on issues but rather put the Buddhist ideals to use in the service to others and the environment. His rationale is summed up in this quote from an interview with him: “Dharma, the Buddhist word for truth and the teachings, is also the word for nature. That is because they are the same. Nature is the manifestation of the truth and of the teachings. When we destroy nature we destroy the truth and the teachings. When we protect nature, we protect the truth and the teachings” (99). This method of engaged Buddhism shows how much of what has been outlined in the preceding sections, much of which seems idealistic and passive, can indeed benefit the environmentalist movement toward protecting and saving the world.

The final movement shows Thich Nhat Hanh and his Vietnamese monks and his application of the same engaged Buddhism outlined above. He says: “here we do not practice only in the meditation hall, but outside as well, while washing clothes, cooking meals and so on” (102). He emphasizes a practice called mindful breathing in which one takes a moment before doing an action or approaching an event to reflect upon the implication and consequences of what might happen. In this manner, one is adequately prepared to face and deal with whatever may arise. He and his monks live by fourteen precepts, each of which mirrors the core Buddhist beliefs. They are cast in such a way, however, to emphasize the idea of engaged Buddhism. In this manner, the lifestyle of Thich Nhat Hanh, his monks, and indeed all who have been presented in this book show how one can live a life which does not further the harm being done to the planet and in fact works toward a solution.


Throughout the majority of this book, I continually asked myself the question of how any of it mattered. I was being shown teachings and practices which, at a conceptual level, seemed perfect. What I did not see, was what those could do for the crisis we are faced with. As I continued to read, however, I began to realize that, in the process of showing me these teachings and practices, I was also being shown how they can in fact be put into action. This was further emphasized as I read the final few chapters.

I am impressed with how naturally the Buddhist ideals and teachings merge with the goals of the environmental movement as well as how they are so overlooked. Many do not realize that Buddhists have been environmentally conscious much longer than any can imagine. The Buddhist way of life in and of itself, serves the planet and, if adopted, can lead to an environmental lens through which to view the world.

Koans are riddles or puzzles of sorts given to the student by the master to be reflected upon and answered.