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Buddhadharma : Spring 2008
buddhadharma| 75 |spring 2008 logic, reflecting a careful investigation of original texts by a trained ethicist. readers looking for a full-scale endorsement of green Buddhism will not find it here. sahni is a scholar, not an envi- ronmentalist. she is part of a new wave of Buddhist ethicists seeking to broaden their own field to include Buddhist envi- ronmental ethics. she critiques a number of earlier works on Buddhist environ- mental thought for inadequate scholar- ship, evaluating key writers according to their degree of support for a Buddhist environmental ethic. she labels these cat- egories of thinkers “Partisans, Positivists, sanguines, and skeptics.” this survey, however, provides little reference to the field’s historical development. the first popular book on the topic was pulled together quickly for earth day 1990; the first major academic volume came out only eleven years ago, in 1997. As a body of literature within the relatively new arena of religion and ecology, it has fol- lowed a typical trajectory, beginning with broad anthologies that collect a range of exploratory perspectives. these then lay the groundwork for single-author works that take up questions in greater detail, thereby building the field. in critiquing earlier authors for their lack of rigor or accuracy, sahni overlooks the develop- mental nature of the conversation and the different ways in which it has engaged Buddhist students and teachers as well as scholars. sahni’s analysis is somewhat ham- pered by her limited discussion of defi- nitions of “nature.” this is a very old and wide conversation, bridging now into environmental anthropology, politi- cal ecology, environmental policy, and social psychology as people act on their definitions of nature. sahni draws on Western definitions of nature from des- cartes, Plato, and a modern German phi- losopher, Angelica krebs. descartes has been deeply critiqued for his mechanistic and non-ecological view of nature; Plato is seldom a reference point in environ- mental ethics literature. none of these views is particularly holistic; krebs, for example, excludes the human body from nature, reasoning that it is treated under a different discipline. nevertheless, sahni uses these three views she has chosen to conclude that Buddhism offers a cosmo- logical framework for understanding nature. it would seem to me it could be more helpful or culturally appropriate to consider eastern views of nature as a framework instead. this might illuminate some of the dimensions she is interested in while also showing the reader the diversity in eastern cultural and religious approaches to nature. that being said, sahni makes a strong case supporting the view that Buddhist virtue ethics is a sufficient foundation for a Buddhist environmental ethic. Using the classic Pali literature, she lays out specific moral virtues of contentment, generosity, responsibility, wisdom, and respect for life as they relate to environmental behav- ior. Virtue ethics in general are focused on the development of personal charac- ter through rational adherence to ethical guidelines. sahni’s project compares Pali sources in terms of their degree of posi- tive regard toward nature; she concludes that only virtue ethics is consistently sup- ported in these early texts. other schol- ars and teachers, however, have taken up the same questions and found differ- ent answers in the Mahayana literature, which is influenced by chinese and Japa- nese understandings of nature. simon James, for example, has produced an in-depth look at the subject in his book, Zen and Environmental Ethics. And John daido loori has written extensively on the implications of Zen precepts for envi- ronmental concerns; his most recent book is Teachings of the Earth: Zen and the Environment. Both thinkers find a more holistic approach to nature and the culti- vation of human character in their inves- tigation of Zen texts. As part of the Buddhist dialogue regarding the environment, sahni’s book raises some important questions for us. first, are virtue ethics enough to lead us toward sustainability? i would say no. certainly if more people take up the practice of kindness and respect toward nature, it will help mitigate some of the impacts of global human ravaging. But virtue ethics are individual ethics, focused on personal development, not necessar- ily on social or political development. We need to be careful that Buddhism in the West doesn’t amplify even further our own preoccupation with individual- ism, green or not. i believe it is neces- sary to find a basis in Buddhism, as in all the major world religions, for a social ethic that builds healthy societies living in healthy relationship with the nonhu- man world. such a social ethic would be community oriented and would use political, economic, and legal systems to provide incentives and reinforcements for positive social behavior regarding the environment. second, what is the role of philoso- phers and ethicists in confronting envi- ronmental challenges? in the 1970s and ’80s, there was quite a wave of interest in environmental philosophy, with radical thinkers in deep ecology, social ecology, and ecofeminism challenging mainstream conservation views. radical activist strat- egies were informed and inspired by these alternative philosophies that provide a deeper analysis of pervasive norms. can Buddhist environmental thought play such a role? so far i have not seen much evidence for that. Buddhists in the West seem to prefer contemplation to activ- ism, in general. in my view philosophy or ethics alone are not enough to turn the tide. We also need sound ecological science, thoughtful environmental policy, and reasonable economic agreements that are grounded in a commitment to sustain- ing life. third, what is the most effective way to work with the spiritual and ethical dimensions of these concerns? Philoso- phers such as sahni offer logic, rational discourse, and careful historical analysis of religious texts to guide us. this sort of in-depth work is very important to the development of a wider field of thought. i find it quite exciting to see how far Bud- dhist environmental thought has come in such a short period of time. But it is still a very small conversation in the global context of rapidly expanding ecologi- cal deterioration. i believe we also need nature writers, teachers, politicians, and even rock stars demanding our attention in these crucial matters. it will take many more people raising ethical questions if we are to reorient and mobilize our human capacities toward what matters most. to this end, i urge Buddhist students and teachers to take up this environmental ethics discourse as a prime arena for examining the Buddha’s teachings. We need to take our place at the table with christians, Jews, Muslims, hindus, scien- tists, poets, politicians, and economists. in this regard, we can thank sahni and other Buddhist environmental thinkers for offering us thoughtful springboards for reflection and action.