Religions and the Environment: Buddhism in Context
The significance of the environment is related in many of the world’s religions today as the concern for environmental conservation rises among the masses. In the contemporary times, various systems have designed ways in which they associate with the environment in order to make it possible for sustainable development to be achieved. One of the systems that have been increasingly concerned with the environment is the religious system. In particular, religious divisions across the world have beliefs that guide the members towards sustainable environmental use. The advocacy for environmental conservation has grown even more ardent, with the consideration of religions as sources of values for the masses. Where religions take the central position in influencing personal values among the followers, the religions are also first to be implicated when it comes to raising the red flag for environmental conservation. As most religions try to carry out environmental conservation sensitizations, Buddhism has effectively related its concern for the environment through a set of laws which guide relationship between humans and the environment.
Religions offer the moral frameworks by which the followers dwell (Guth and Others 364). It is therefore expected that in case any unethical practices or immorality is recognized among members of a religion, the religion itself is called to task concerning the observed practices and a demand is made for better engagement with other human forms. This is not limited to interactions with fellow human beings alone, but extends to the most elemental forms of nature which contribute to the sustenance of man and other life forms. The concern raised due to environmental degradation is assigned to the religious sector to address the need for awareness creation among the public. The dependence on the religious sector to create environmental conservation awareness is well founded based on the argument that religious forums attract multitudes of people who can be informed of the impacts of their activities on the environment. While many mainstream religions and their subsequent doctrines have taken part in the encouragement of environmental conservation, the role played by these religions in practically engaging their adherents in environmental conservation practices is still limited.
Environmental degradation is a result of human activity, making it an essential part of human spirituality. Since religions are tasked with guiding the moral standards of their followers, religion can be said to hold a level of responsibility in environmental conservation. This responsibility can be carried out by providing sustainable solutions to the mitigation of destructive patterns in environmental use practices. Moreover, religious followers tend to adhere to the teachings of their doctrines and incorporation of environmental conservation practice needs into the doctrines can effectively reduce the potential for causing harm to the environment. This has made it essential for studies to be carried out in environmental conservation and its relationship with the religions as well as how different religions advocate for environmental conservation within their inner circles. The mandate to effectively influence people’s decision making capabilities lies with the religious leaders, particularly those considered to be of higher standing such as the pope and Buddha.
Due to the implication placed on religions regarding environmental conservation, practices that encourage conservation are recognized and spoken about boldly. On the other hand, practices that border on environmental destruction are shunned and considered somewhat evil in the religious circles. For instance, western religions have been associated with environmental degradation practices based on the de-sacralization of nature among those religions (Guth and others 364). Considering the religious practices of those western religions, it can be said that this assertion is true to some extent. This is because the said western religions such as Christianity have adopted modernity and economic sustenance in preference for environmental conservation and the appreciation of the environment in all its natural forms. This belief has been further fueled by the comparison made between western religions and other religions which are more natural and/ or more environmentally aligned. The practice of Christianity is withdrawn from the principles of nature conservation, yet still uses various elements of nature without regard for their sustainability. While this claim is not unfounded, it is also contrary to what is commonly advocated for theoretically in the religious circles. In most of the western religions, the concept of environmental conservation is preached and enhanced through words; however, the combination of a lack of stipulated doctrines and the free will of humans makes it difficult to control human activities with regards to the environment. This is different from what is presented in religions such as Buddhism and other nature religions, which have clearly outlined laws regarding conduct in relation to nature and the environment as a whole. The laws offer guidelines and also stipulate the perceived impacts of failing to adhere to these rules and regulations.
The most conservative religion when it comes to environmental issues is Buddhism (sherkat and Ellison 81). This is based on the characterization of the religions laws and beliefs about relationship between humans and nature. Buddhism provides explicit laws on how to relate compassionately to all aspects of nature with the awareness that humans can only thrive through the interdependence of all parts of nature. As a way of life, Buddhism appreciates the contributions of nature to the sustainable growth of human life and believes that it is only by showing loving kindness to all aspects of the natural world that humans can live without injury. In order to make it easy to do right instead of wrong, Buddhism has a set of laws regarding how humans should relate to their natural environments in ways that do not cause injury to other animals and/ or plants.
Many studies have been carried out on the relationship between various religions and the environment. In most of these studies, the focus has been on how various religions view the environment and how the religious views of the environment help to shape environmental conservation and the followers’ ideologies. In the present study, the subject of religion in relation to the environment is explored deeply, to determine the views of various religious practices on the aspect of environmental conservation. In the contemporary times, environmental conservation has been a key global concern and any ways that promise the achievement of environmental sustainability goals is revered and considered geared towards global sustainability. Environmental conservation among religions thus forms an interesting study subject since it offers a different view to the conventional political and economic views of the concept of environmental conservation. While carrying out the study, mention will be made of how various religions regard the environment and how they advocate for its preservation. However, the focal point in the study will be on the subject of Buddhism and its concern for the environment. It is believed that besides the nature religions, Buddhism offers the deepest insight into the environmental conservation concept and thus provides the greatest set of rules regarding environmental conservation. The research will contribute immensely to the already existing literature on religion and the environment and is thus justified as a subject of study. Through a literature review, the subject will be explored with the objective of obtaining valuable information on the subject of religion and the environment.
Nature in Various Religions: Overview
Various religious practices are discussed by different authors on the subject of the environment. According to Peterson and Liu (705), religious practices have enhanced the moral standing of humans in their various forms. This moral standing is restricted not only to the practice of relation with other humans but also on the subject of environmental conservation and relationship with nature. Guth and others (369) assert that the degree of ethical concern raised by various religious practices on the subject of religion makes it mandatory to consider environmental conservation partly as a duty of the religious sects. Recognizing that man is the keeper of nature rather than its exploiter is essential in all religions for the role of stewardship to be advocated for and enhanced in religious circles. Despite this belief, the role played by different religions in environmental conservation has been limited due to constraints of modernity and the desire for economic gain. From the perspective of Jonathan (3), the overriding concern for economic and social gain among religions as opposed to environmental stewardship is a sign of selfishness since it goes contrary to the desires of God, who is reportedly green.
The missing link between the environment and various religions is exemplified in the assertion that most of the Eastern religions have managed to advocate for the environmental conservation in better ways than western religions (Arvill 18). The comparison between Eastern religions such as Buddhism and western religions paints a bleak picture of environmental conservation efforts among the western religions, whose focus is reported as being the economic well-being of the leaders and the followers. With the desire to continue to grow economically, it is possible for people to lose directions in their lives since they fail to recognize their purposes on earth as being stewardship rather than exploitation. The selfishness of western religious practices has made it impossible for these religions to consider nature and the environment as being sacred and instead consider them as modes of economic development (Peterson and Liu 709). In the Eastern religions, the practice of environmental conservation has been advocated for immensely and have yielded exemplary results in terms of influencing the attitudes of the followers in environmental conservation.
From the work by Dewitt (16), modernity has continued to impact the religious view of the environment negatively. Dewitt suggests that modernity is the sole driver of unethical and immoral conduct with regards to environmental exploitation among religious adherents. This unethical exploitation to which nature is subjected has led to increased pollution across the globe, a subject which raises concerns on how the issue of environmental conservation can be addressed through religion. In explaining the impacts of unethical exploitation of the environment, Dewitt suggests that the morals of man have degenerated immensely regardless of their religions to the extent that no regard is placed on environmental conservation principles and the need for better environmental exploitation strategies. Increasing greed has continued to result in over exploitation of the environment with the result that most of the religious adherents no longer care what their religions say about environmental conservation (Krueger 18). Arvill suggests that the continued unethical exploitation of the natural environments causes adverse effects on the environmental particularly due to the fact that it encourages settlement in natural areas (19). The difference between this and the Buddhist perspective of settling in natural areas is that the western religion adherents dwell in natural environments only after modifications while Buddhism encourages unmodified settlements in the natural environment.
While the western religions have been widely admonished concerning their disregard for the environment, the Mormon religion has been recognized for its efforts at environmental conservation. From adopting green practices in building construction to limiting the use of natural resources exploited unethically, the religion has made a clear point concerning its regard for environmental preservation (Guth and others 369).
The Muslim religion on the other hand has implemented environmental conservation practices only to a limited degree through the institution of laws that somewhat advocate for environmental conservation. The Quran has several verses that explicitly advise on how the relationships between humans and nature should appear. First, nature is considered as divine and should therefore be treated as such. The divinity of nature is driven from the argument that since nature was created by the same Divine creator who made humanity, it is essential for humanity to consider nature in the same perspective that they consider its creator. The Quran explains that due to the role placed on man’s shoulders as the controller of nature, he will have to give an account of his actions on the last days (Ozdemir 2).
Based on the explanations of Ozdemir, man should be at peace with the environment because of various reasons. First, man is the steward of all that was created and should give glory to the creator due to the abundance provided by nature. Secondly, as man takes care of the environment he should think of the benefits provided by it as well as the fact that it is from nature that he was created (3). Both of these considerations are necessary in order to fit in perfectly with the environment. It is expressly required that the treatment of the environment i.e. flora and fauna should be based on the consideration of the important relationship that exists between man and the elements of the environment (Guth and others 381). Islamic teachings thus advocate for cleanliness as a way of coming to harmony with nature. They also stress the importance of trees in aesthetics as well as in provision of peace to humans (Ozdemir 5). From the Islamic teachings, it can therefore be said that although the concentration on how to best take care of nature and how to practice environmental conservation is limited, the importance of nature as expressed is significant.
Despite the relative silence of various religions on the subject of environmental conservation, it is clear that most of these religions recognize the importance of environmental conservation policies. Dewitt outlines key perspectives given by the Bible on environmental conservation practices. From his work, Dewitt clearly shows that from a supposed Christian perspective, environmental conservation is an obligation of the Christian faithful (12). The Bible clearly outlines man’s mandate with respect to the resourceful exploitation of natural resources and their subsequent use for man’s well-being. Consideration of the Biblical teachings on environmental preservation clearly brings out the idea that the choice to adopt economic development rather than conservation is a practice of free will. Similarly, Jonathan also supports this point of view that ecological preservation is a mandate of man and exploitation of the natural environment is subject to concerns for preservation (4). Another contribution to this subject is from Krueger (18) who outlines how the Orthodox Church intended to make changes towards a greener culture. The only possible driver of the greening plans can only be the need for environmental conservation. Consequently, while claiming that western religions have de-sacralized nature, it is also essential to recognize the efforts made by the different subsets of the religions in achieving environmental conservation.
Buddhism and Nature
Contrary to the perceptions of most of the religions on the subject of environmental conservation, Buddhism clearly articulates the religion’s stand on the matters of the environment. From rules that guide relationships between humans and the natural environment to assertions that the world is interconnected and interdependent, all features of the religion point towards the efforts for environmental conservation. According to de Silva (16), Buddhism emphasizes the interconnection between human life and nature and encourages cooperation across the different life forms on earth. The link between human life and nature is such that neither can exist independently. For each to be productive, this link has to be nurtured and pampered to ensure that neither of the life forms exploits the other selfishly. The Buddhist mindset in itself is capable of creating the type of attitude required for sustainable environmental exploitation. From Buddhist teachings, compassion and balance is essential in mitigating the potential harm that humans can cause to the environment (Arvill 121).
Various teachings in the Buddhist religion make it possible to advance environmental conservation principles and traditions across the religion’s membership. Buddhism teaches that human beings thrive on interdependence (De Silva 5). Through this teaching, Buddhism explains the interconnectedness of humans and the natural environment in that harm to the environment trickles down to the human beings. All natural systems operate in unity and a destruction of one of the elements causes imbalance and destruction of the other elements of the system. Consequently, any activities that encourage selfish exploitation of the environment can result in harm for the human elements in the world (Arvill 122). If the harm is not experienced in the present generations, it is bound to be experienced in future generations. It is therefore essential for humans to be good stewards of the natural environment to enhance its contribution to the wellbeing of man both in the current generation and in the coming generations.
In order to achieve the harmonious interconnectedness of the various elements of nature and the environment, Buddhism suggests that human beings should deal with the split between their types and based on their differences through encouraging peaceful co-existence. The reason for human suffering as explained by The Dalai Lama (2) is the lack of cohesion among various humans, the aspect of individuality has given rise to separateness which makes it difficult for humans to understand their connectedness with the environment. It is advised that in order to understand the contributions of the environment to human life, human beings should focus on maintaining peaceful co-existence among them. The key to achieving this is through the practice of compassion which indicates that harm done to one another cannot benefit the initiator of the harm i.e. harm is a cyclic situation (The Dalai Lama 3). In order to understand this concept and to accept it as an inevitable part of human life, training and practice are instrumental for environmental conservation to be achieved in the long term. Guth and others (369) suggest that it is through a continuous striving for friendship and harmony among all living beings that a relationship can be created between humans and nature.
The Dalai Lama recognizes the difficulty of creating the perfect relationship between human and nature and provides reasons which can be used to explain the rationale for peaceful coexistence between man and nature (16). The key is to obtain a balance between self-destruction through under exploitation of resources and self-indulgence through selfish over exploitation of natural resources. From this perspective, it is necessary to leverage human preferences for economic and social growth with the environmental preferences for conservation and preservation. This is the only way in which harmony can be achieved between humans and natural forms. By using the idealized Buddhist framework for compassion and harmony, it is possible to create lasting relationships between humans and nature such as that created between Buddha and a wild elephant through gentleness and kindness (de Silva 22).
For environmental preservation to prevail, it is important to deal with the never ending consumption problems associated with the modern man. This is said to be regardless of the religion to which one adheres (Peterson and Liu 710). The balance between nature and human life is important if the environment is to be preserved. Buddhist ideologies refer to the possibility of emptiness as well as functionality in the human being. This possibility is described as being instrumental in structuring the relationship between humans and the environment. The emptiness, defined as ‘Shunyata’, is said to be related to independent existence between various aspects of nature. In explaining the subject of Shunyata, Sherkat and Ellison (80) refer to the relationship between the habitat and the inhabitants. This relationship is referred to as dependent on the possibility of creating an innermost consciousness which is the creator for an internal environment that can allow for peaceful coexistence between the sentient beings within the earth and their habitat.
Several factors are identified by the Dalai Lama as the reasons why human should encompass loving kindness in their relationships with the environment (The Dalai lama 5). First, human nature is described as gentle considering the creation of the human body. Compared to the more hostile forms of nature such as carnivorous animals which have long and strong nails and teeth, the human features are gentler and thus not suited to hostile and destructive behaviors with regards to their relationships with other life forms. Secondly, human beings need companions, not only among themselves but also with other forms of nature within the environment. Companionship thrives on true friendship and harmony, which can only be achieved with a balance between the needs and the provisions of the relationship. It is therefore critical for humans to foster relationships that encourage companionship between the different life forms besides being committed to personal good of the human participants (Sherkat and Ellison 81).
Buddhist Teachings on Environmental Conservation
Based on the generalization of the need for sustainable companionship between humans and their environment, Buddhist teachings provide existence guidelines for sustainable environmental exploitation. From Peterson and Liu (717), the concept of environmental conservation in Buddhist teachings is accorded significance relevance to personal choice. The Dalai Lama also articulates the need for decision making from the heart to encourage environmental conservation and preservation of natural resources (11). The Dalai Lama concludes that the decision to be environmentally conscious depends on an individual’s state of the heart. The decision to be environmentally conscious depends on the development of a general sense of universal responsibility with regards to environmental preservation and compassion.
Besides the creation of relationships based on compassion and dependent of individual decisions, the Dalai Lama also describes the importance of non-greed and non-hatred in the relationship between humans and their environment (4). According to the Buddhist teachings on environmental conservation, greed is identified as the reason for the continued environmental degradation in the world today. The degradation is said to be due to many people advocating for economic development through exploitation of natural resources without consideration of the implications of their actions on future generations. De Silva suggests that such actions, based on Buddhist teachings is indicative of excessive greed and cannot be beneficial to anyone in the long run (3). It is therefore essential for humans to consider the implications of their actions prior to making decisions concerning the exploitation of natural resources. Moreover, delusion is also discouraged during the exploitation of natural resources due to its potential for providing selfish outlooks on the long term impacts of environmental degradation. Instead of advocating for climate change aversion practices among humans, it should have been advisable for the practice to dwell more on prevention of activities that result in climate change (Peterson and Liu 716).
From the identified need for environmental conservation, Buddhism outlines some practices that help in curbing environmental degradation through prevention. For the Buddhist monks and strict adherents of the religion, some practices are considered unethical and unacceptable by the religion’s doctrines. Guth and others (369) provide various Buddhist teachings which align with environmental conservations. First, Buddhism encourages gentleness towards plants and animals in ways that are phenomenal. Buddhism encourages the settlement of its Monks in natural environments such as forest glades due to the belief that such environments enhance meditation which is necessary for inculcation of inner silence and inner peace. To explain the benefits of residence in the natural environment, Buddha encouraged his disciples to be meditating away from home set ups since such contexts act as ‘Sambadha’ (a fetter) which restraints the imagination of the individuals in meditation. With regards to the treatment of animals, various practices, aimed at preventing harm to animals are encouraged among the Buddhist monks. Prohibitions against travelling during wet weather, trading in meat or drinking unrestrained water are all made based on the possibility that such practices would result to harm even to the most elemental animal species (Sherkat and Ellison 80). Moreover, natural environments are to be taken care of intensively through consideration of various pollution implications when misused.
With regards to pollution prevention, Buddhism habits that relate to pollution such as dropping saliva on leaves, urinating in the natural environment and maintenance of grass in its green nature all points towards an environmentally conscious religion. According to de Silva (18) such practices are prohibited due to their potentially detrimental effects on the aesthetic value of the environment and on the quality of the environment as food for other life species. Noise pollution is also discouraged in the Buddhist religion due to its impacts of increasing stress levels, initiating deafness and encouraging imitation (Peterson and Liu 718). It is on the same basis that the religion advocates for the cultivation of inner silence based on peace and harmony. The Buddhists have a quote that says that the rustle of tree twigs within the forest causes tremors only in an impure heart (de Silva 19).
Despite being a personal decision, environmental conservation is also a mandate of various world religions since they are identified with their ability to control human values and ethical concerns in humans. Religions spanning the world have different outlooks on the relationship between humans and the environment. However, key differences exist in the way different religions express their interest in the environmental conservation aspect of life. The western religions such as Christianity have been considered to have de-sacralized nature to the extent that exploitation of the environment without regard for future generations is the conventional practice among religious adherents. This is distinct from the teachings of those religions, mainly found in the Bible, which asserts that the role of humans with regards to the environment is to be custodians and good stewards rather than selfish users. The unethical exploitation of the environment among the religious believers is thus an impact of modernity and is driven by the desire to expand economically.
On the other hand, Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism have done a lot in relation to environmental conservation. Buddhism has clearly outlined beliefs with regards to environmental conservation, with the key objective being to encourage members to consider the interconnection between the habitat and the sentient beings within the habitat and thus act in ways that encourage harmonious collaboration between the two. Practices that enhance harmony between humans and their environment and those that discourage pollution and encourage the productive use of the natural environment have been highlighted by Buddhist teachings and are used to direct the behavior of Buddhist monks.
Islam in its teachings has also expressed the importance of nature, clearly articulating reasons why man should be careful to maintain harmony with the environment due to the benefits offered by the environment and the divinity of nature. However, Islam does not delve much into how humans should take care of the environment or how to preserve it. This can however be drawn from the examples offered in the Quran of how the faithful related to the environment and to nature as a whole.
Based on these findings, the research has been effective in achieving its mandate in determining the perspectives of various religions on the environment and focusing intently on the Buddhist religion. However, a key concern for the research has been its lack of depth due to the limited scope covered. It is thus recommended that future studies should diverge to other religions in dept so that an effective comparison can be made on this subject. Moreover, studies on religions such as Islam and Hindu and their relationship with the environment are still limited, making this an area of interest in the field of religion.
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Jonathan, Merritt. “Green like God: unlocking the divine plan for our planet.” Faith Worlds, 2013.
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