The Buddhist Ecological Movement

Thai monks ordinate a tree into the Buddhist faith in order to save it from deforestation
Thai monks ordinate a tree into the Buddhist faith in order to save it from deforestation.

In Buddhism we see no real direct reference to environmental concerns or damage in the teachings. This can lead to feelings that Buddhism is not really interested in environmental issues, as Buddhism has espoused non-action and no attachment to this world. People have misunderstood this to mean a lack of interest in the environment. This has resulted in modern scholars and Buddhists reinterpreting the teachings to include an eco-friendly system of beliefs because it extends moral concern to all living things, regardless of sentiency.

Through the “Engaged Buddhist Movement,” Buddhists apply the insights from meditation practice and teachings to situations of social, political, and environmental issues. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is a major thinker and writer in this movement. He has turned his full attention to the dangers of ecological disaster and published the book The World We Have – A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology. In a rare interview, Master Thich said:

The energy we need is not fear or anger, but the energy of understanding and compassion. There is no need to blame or condemn. Those who are destroying themselves, societies and the planet aren’t doing it intentionally. Their pain and loneliness are overwhelming and they want to escape. They need to be helped, not punished. Only understanding and compassion on a collective level can liberate us.

The popularity of the Engaged Buddhist Movement has prompted the creation of various Buddhist, environmental action groups. Earth Sangha is a Buddhist environmental nonprofit organization founded on the premise that the Buddhist way of looking at life can play a major role in healing the planet’s environmental crisis. Their mission is to practice Buddhism in ways that help people become better stewards of the planet, and to do the practical environmental work that good stewardship demands.

One well known group of monks in Thailand have started to take an active role in protecting the environment. Known informally as the ecology monks, this group of Thai Buddhist monks addresses environmental issues as part of their religious duty to help relieve suffering. They believe that there is a direct connection between the root causes of suffering (greed, ignorance, and hatred) and environmental destruction. Drawing on Buddhist principles and practices, ecology monks have adapted traditional rituals and ceremonies to draw attention to environmental problems, raise awareness about the value of nature, and inspire people to take part in conservation efforts.

Concerned Buddhists in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka have also conducted tree ordination rituals where trees are blessed and wrapped in saffron robes to signify their sacred status. These rituals are part of a larger effort to foster a conservation ethic rooted in Buddhist principles and practices. This practice fits with Master Thich’s call for change and action to the way we revere the earth:

It’s wonderful to realize that we are all in a family, we are all children of the Earth. We should take care of each other and we should take care of our environment, and this is possible with the practice of being together as a large family. A positive change in individual awareness will bring about a positive change in the collective awareness. Protecting the planet must be given the first priority.

Perhaps Buddhism doesn’t make specific reference to environmental concerns because Buddhists don’t view the environment as separate from themselves. As Master Thich says, “we are all in a family,” and Buddhists simply believe in taking care of their family members.

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About the Author

Tereasa Maillie is a writer and researcher. She also has a very un-secret life as a producer and playwright. Her work has appeared in various poetry and short story anthologies. Her previous work includes the history of oil and gas in Alberta, Chinese medicine, First Nations and Métis history. You can find her on Twitter+, Google +, and her blog HistoryMinion.
  • Randi Purchia

    Tereasa Maillie thank you so much for writing this article. It is a subject that I have been thinking about lately. It was wonderful to see the photo of the Thai monks wrapping the tree in saffron robes.