China Promotes Buddhism to Protect the Environment
When I think of China, I don’t immediately think of environmental protection. Instead, I think of cities choked with severe air pollution, a medicinal culture that prizes the bones and meat of endangered animals, clashes between Chinese miners and Tibetan monks over land, and the country’s growing consumerism. While China is one of the fastest developing nations in the world, this growth isn’t a good thing if it comes at the expense of a healthy population and a healthy planet.
But things are changing. According to a recent PBS report, the officially atheist country is turning to religion to draw strength and address the countless environmental problems it faces.
“I was called in for a meeting in 2006 with the minister for the environment and the minister for religion, and they were very frank,” said Martin Palmer the secretary general of Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a secular body that helps the world’s major faiths develop environmental programs. “They said the single-child policy has created the most selfish generation in China’s history, because each child has been brought up as the center of attention for the family. Nothing is too much to give them. And these two Communist Party officials said we want the religions to help us bring compassion back.”
The Chinese ministers’ advocacy for religions is somewhat surprising given the country’s recent history. When China became communist, religious practices were discouraged. In fact, many temples and churches were closed and had their property seized during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1977. At that time, religious practitioners were persecuted.
But the situation eased after 1977 and a number of Buddhist temples were allowed to reopen. Today, the temples are alive with worshippers and, according to some surveys, nearly 1 in 5 Chinese — more than 240 million people — are Buddhists. And that number is growing as China continues to struggle with environmental problems.
One recent convert to Buddhism is Liu Jiangiang, an investigative journalist. His first story about the environment was an expose about illegal dam construction on the upper Yangtze River — a story that made national headlines. But his success eventually got him fired, so he continued his work at China Dialogue, an international online journal. After 10 years of reporting, he admitted to feeling burned out.
“Every day what we do are good deeds, which may give us positive energy, but meanwhile what we are facing is the darkest side of the world,” Jiangiang told PBS. “As an environmentalist, every day what we see is polluted air, polluted rivers, and the slaughter of wild animals. This kind of negative energy attacks us every day. Where do we draw our strength from?”
Jiangiang’s decision to become Buddhist surprised some of his friends who were brought up believing that religion is nothing more than a superstition. But to others, his grief over the environment and his source of strength in Buddhism is very familiar.
“Who will protect the environment?” asked Tashi Sange, a Tibetan Buddhist Monk in China. “In the West and in China, it’s the government’s responsibility. But the Tibetans don’t think this is the way. This is not the Buddhist way. If you think that way you are not Buddhist. You are the protector. No matter if you are a newborn or an 80-year-old, you are all protectors. You are all responsible. You have the responsibility. All life should be protected.”
And this is the way the Chinese government seems to want to encourage its citizens to think — that the individual has ultimate responsibility to protect nature, not the government.
“What we think in our hearts and minds will determine the state of the environment,” said Dai Binnguo, Chinese politician and diplomat. “Traditional Chinese culture promotes harmony between man and nature and encourages limited consumption and a simple way of life. We support this. We don’t oppose taking from nature. We do oppose over-exploitation. We want gold mountain, but we also want clear water and green mountain.”
While the government will eventually have to do its part to protect the environment, the rise in Buddhism in China promises a new morality when looking at consumerism and exploitation. Perhaps the people will guide the government in making the right choices for the future.
You can check out the whole PBS report here:
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