Can Chinese Religion Help Solve Climate Change?
Following the rise of Buddhist environmentalism in Taiwan, and Taoist environmentalism in mainland China, an acclaimed historian of China and Chinese religion opens a new discourse on faith’s role in Earth’s future sustainability.
Applying his pioneering approach to the study of Chinese religion, Professor Prasenjit Duara explores the intersection of ancient Asian religious traditions with modern calls for environmental protection.
Can Chinese Religion Help Solve Climate Change?
Professor Duara pioneered an early interest in Chinese religion with his 1988 book, “Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900-1942.” This work helped re-shape opinions on the topic, identifying Chinese religion as one of the most powerful forces in China’s traditions-based society. His recently published work, “The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future,” is a great follow-up, insisting that, in China, faith can play a significant role in finding solutions to Earth’s global warming.
Recently interviewed in Beijing, Duara offered his perspective. “We need the NGOs and the U.N.,” he noted, “and we also need bioengineering and market mechanisms. But one of the most important factors that has emerged in the past 10 or 20 years — slowly, but catching on — is that the most effective communities are in some ways the most traditional, too. They have integrated ideas about nature and community that are faith-based.”
Duara sees a parallel current in motion, comparing the rise of Buddhist environmentalism in Taiwan with the rise of Taoist/Daoist environmentalism in mainland China. At the sacred mountain of Maoshan in Jiangsu Province, he notes that the Taoist deity Laozi is depicted as a “green” god and the surrounding temple communities place great emphasis on protecting their local ecology.
Environmental Protection Efforts in Asia
Born in Assam, India, Duara was educated at the University of Delhi, University of Chicago, and Harvard. He has also taught at Stanford, the University of Chicago, the National University of Singapore, and is currently teaching at Duke University.
The beginning of Duara’s interest in Chinese religion and its major role in the cultural life of China’s communities came while writing his first book. “I intended to write a book on revolution in north China,” he explains. “Instead I stumbled on how religion held society together. My research showed a network between people and villages linked by temple fairs and rituals that brought people into contact with each other.”
With this diverse background, the 66-year-old professor offers a colorful, multi-cultural view of environmental protection efforts carried out within the framework of ancient Asian faith traditions.
Referring to the photo on the cover of his new book, Duara explains, “The painted faces are of people who live in the Prey Lang forest in Cambodia.” He adds, “The forest faces destruction by massive logging. These people hold demonstrations, painting themselves and staging ritual dramas using traditional ideas of avatars as well as from the movie Avatar to publicize their cause. They have organized surveillance systems of the forest and links to NGOs.”
In India, Duara reminds us of the 1970’s Chipko women tree-hugging movement that blossomed into a huge movement for environmental protection. Today, however, the professor is disappointed. “India now faces the problem of the strong man that we have in other states with the rise of leaders like [Russian President Vladimir V.] Putin and [Chinese President] Xi Jinping. It’s interesting what they’re going after: environmental movements. They are banning foreign NGOs and closing these groups down.”
Asian Transcendence Nurtures Moral Authority
In his latest book, Duara points to the idea of transcendence as a fairly recent driver in Chinese religion. Particularly in Asia, Duara believes, there was a unique Asian development springing from Karl Jasper’s 1949 theory of the Axial Age. “The transcendent idea says there’s something beyond… It might not help you immediately in the here and now, but it gives you moral authority to do what is right.”
In Asia, Duara believes, this idea further developed into the “idea that you can accept other notions of how to achieve that transcendental state. So there are transcendental ideas, but not just one path to get there.”
According to Professor Duara, this inherent ability in Chinese religion to embrace others’ paths is more inclusive than what is generally found in the Abrahamic faiths. He explains, “The problem with the Abrahamic faiths is their idea of an absolute truth. Buddhism or these other pluralistic religions don’t have as much confidence in a substantive, transcendental truth, which comes with the idea of an absolute god.”
Duara continues, “An absolute truth brings about reform movements that are very radical because they always want to get back to the pure and the true — such as in fundamentalist Islam, or early Protestantism. This leads to the idea of expanding your nation, or your prosperity, even if at the expense of others.”
From Transcending Personal Salvation to Embracing Universal Goals
Professor Duara prefers the Asian dialogical approach as a better method for solving today’s problems, such as climate change, global warming, and environmental protection. Duara contends that Chinese religion is rooted more conceptually in dialog.
Historically, he admits, the concepts of Chinese religion “repressed others, of course, but ultimately they didn’t have that doctrinaire dimension of excluding other truths. They linked ideas of personal cultivation with universal goals. To the extent they survive, they could be transported to other places.”
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