A Buddhist Response to Paul Ingram

by Stephanie Kaza

Stephanie Kaza is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont, Burlington, VT 05405. She is the author of The Attentive Heart: Conversations with Trees (Ballantine, 1993) and is currently working on a book on Buddhist environmental ethics.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.145-148, Vol. 22, Number 3, Fall, 1993. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock. Note: If you found this article helpful, please consider contributing to the Center for Process Studies by making a donation ..


Dr. Kaza applauds Dr. Paul O. Ingram’s enthusiasm for Buddhist-Christian dialogue on the critical topic concerning the terrible cumulative impacts on the planet’s air and water, landforms and ecosystems and their devastation as an outcome of human activity over the recent past.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, the world is haunted by the dark side of interrelatedness. Human impact on the soils, rivers, land, air, and seas has reached devastating proportions in many places. Pesticides from farms in California accumulate in seals in the Arctic, radiation from Chernobyl spills north to Sami reindeer herds. Western forests are clear-cut, and eroding soil clogs salmon spawning areas. In industrialized areas, air and groundwater pollution contribute to rising rates of cancer and other diseases. The picture is sobering; it cries out for our attention.

Paul Ingram’s (See Paul O. Ingram The Jeweled Net of Nature, at www.religion-online.org.) major question reflects the spiritual and ethical human angst of existing in an undeniably interconnected world -- How then shall we live? I agree that Western views and practices responding to the natural world have been strongly shaped by Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman philosophy. It is our responsibility as Westerners to thoroughly investigate the structure and implications of these views in light of their environmental impact. I believe this deconstruction work is not only healthy, it is necessary for a full awakening to the systemic nature of widespread environmental deterioration.

Buddhist-Christian dialogue is an excellent arena for this conversation. Together we can use the tools of Buddhist analysis and Christian theologies to examine the complexities of the situation on behalf of the Earth. To lay blame on any single causal agent is not only simplistic but obstructive to dialogue. To blame is to create convenient but false dualisms of good and bad, which leave one mired in choosing sides and labeling enemies. From my Buddhist environmentalist perspective, we are all in this together, and we can’t afford to waste time pointing fingers at each other.

In the challenge and sometimes great suffering of this awakening process, there is often a great yearning for "harmony," often construed as the natural order of life from which we have strayed. Ingram suggests harmony is central both to the new ecological paradigm arising from science and to Kukai’s Buddhist world view. As this word has great potential for misinterpretation, I would like to comment from a Buddhist point of view on what harmony is and is not.

Harmony is not necessarily "balance," as Ingram implies in his third principle (7). The balance of nature is a Romantic idea of a pristine order before human influence, reflecting some notion of baseline stability, i.e., "the way things were." Scientists have wrestled with inadequate data and fossil records to describe the pre-human environment, but it is a difficult task at best. Stability of ecosystems is only relative; the concept of climax communities has been replaced by a more dynamic model of nature. Chaos theory explains the patterns set in motion by single specific and often random events; biological speciation reflects these events as well as temporary climate or landform stability. Under the fluctuating dynamics of change, "the balance of nature" is fleeting at best.

From a Buddhist perspective, harmony is more accurately seen as the fullness of nature in the widest sense, including humans and including terrible forces of destruction. To live in nondual harmony is to embrace the nature of all reality as 1) impermanent, 2) not existing as separate, and 3) interdependent. These characteristics are true for all forms of existence -- a thought, a tree, a lie, a city, a mountain. All arise and pass away; none hold a separate self-contained life; and each depends on numerous causes and conditions to come into being. To align with reality as it exists -- whether it is peaceful, violent, nourishing, or destructive-is to find the liberated mind of harmonious nonduality. This requires the systematic and rigorous investigation of one’s own and one’s society’s ideas of reality. Attachment to deluded concepts of nature generates the suffering of alienation -- the root of human separation from the environment. Thus, the Buddhist quest for harmony cannot be a peaceful escape to a serene projection of nature. The practitioner must avoid such laziness and actively root out deceptive ideas in order to be fully available to the awesome dimensions of the natural world. In so doing, one comes to experience and recognize the interdependent nature of all human, plant, and animal interactions. The harmonious life is then the responsible life, in which one accepts one’s role in the web as causal agent and chooses to act accordingly.

Kukai’s method for attuning oneself to the "eternal cosmic harmony" cultivates the experience of underlying unity in the relationship of mind and matter, subject and object, seer and seen. The four mandalas point one toward physical, ontological, communicative, and karmic nonduality. The goal of nondual understanding is especially attractive right now to Westerners living in a world characterized by fragmentation -- of landscapes, cities, families, and social communities. But I would like to emphasize that in the relative view of reality, differences do exist. And it is these differences we must negotiate to address difficult environmental problems. Beings do exist in distinct forms; this in itself is what allows for conversation and flow of activity. We have some choice about how we will interact with human and non-human others. The fact of distinction and differences sets up the possibility for dialogue, hope, and creative collaboration. Paying careful attention, we see how one desert is not the same as another, how different trees flourish under specific conditions, how some cultures speak with animals as spirit-friends. I believe the very practice of observing difference in great detail leads directly to profound understanding, instance after instance, of the penetrating unity of reality.

The question remains -- How then shall we live? Kukai’s three Mysteries of Body, Speech, and Mind offer some possibilities. The traditional prohibitory Buddhist precepts are guidelines for restraint, encouraging the practitioner to care for these three mysteries. "No killing," "no stealing" prevent abuse of material form or body; "no lying," "no slander or gossip" prevent abuse of communication; "no abuse of intoxicants, sexuality, anger, or delusional thoughts" prevent abuse of consciousness. How do these translate into caring for the earth?

The Mystery of the Body is the mystery of the Earth body, the human body, the landscape body, the bodies of plants, animals, rivers, and mountains. Not defaming this mystery in all its forms requires not polluting the soil, air, or water, not supporting excessive, unsustainable harvesting, consciously treating all beings as manifestations of the Mystery of Body. No killing means no thought of killing the interdependent nature of existence.

Speech, in Kukai’s sense is self-revelation; one’s sounding or speaking reflects one’s nature -- the creek rumbles, the blackbird warbles, the lightning booms. Human speech of Western cultures tends to objectify nature, maintaining dualities of hierarchical value with people above nature. One tends to speak about or for others, assuming that humans are the only life forms that self-reveal through speech. In contrast, Buddhist practices of environmental right speech would include non-stereotyping of animals, plants, and landscapes; non-anthropocentric bias in consideration of all interdependent relations; and non-objectification of others. In recognizing the wider Mystery of all self-revelatory beings, one would listen for or speak with the truth of the Other in co-equal conversation.

To examine the Mystery of Mind requires attention, reflection, and observation of the invisible interiority of self. Habits of thought and mind consciousness are shaped by both individual and social conditioning. Two predominant Western habits are enemyism and anthropocentrism, both of which promote false dualisms between people and nature. Enemyism is the habit of viewing the Other as a stranger to be feared, projecting one’s own negative traits onto the Other as destructive. To the extent one fears the natural world -- snakes, bats, cockroaches, poison oak, quagmires -- one labels certain forms of existence as enemy and rationalizes their destruction. The Buddhist antidote to anthropocentrism is not ecocentrism or biocentrism, but rather a-centrism, as Ingram points out (14). The Mystery of Mind arises in all forms of existence, everywhere at once. To observe and participate in the acentric nature of reality requires deconstructing the habits of mind that preserve self-isolation in all the many forms these take. Conversely, one can praise the Mystery of Mind by naming one’s dependence on others, cultivating gratitude and joy in the existence of infinite relationality.

The aesthetic order of nature suggested by new physics, process theology, ecology, and Buddhist philosophy presents a radical shift from the currently dominant "logical order" of mainline Christianity and Western rational thought. Recognizing the differences between the two and the implication of each for environmental health and stability, one can again ask the question -- How then shall we live? How can we cultivate a nondualistic appreciation of "rightness" which reveals the full expression of emergent nature? The Buddhist practices of mindfulness and living in the present moment are two places to begin. Mindfulness in breathing, mindfulness in walking, mindfulness in eating -- by paying close attention to these simple, daily activities, one gains continuity in remembering the intimate, dependent relationship with the natural world. The air we breathe, the ground we walk on, the food we eat all become practice teachers.1

The practice of living in the present moment means paying attention to the particular nature of each moment, each situation, each interaction, each relationship. In this practice, one notices the tendency to generalize, to universalize, and aims to penetrate the limits of conditioned ideas to see the actual reality in its specificity. Living ecologically in the present moment may mean investigating one’s own watershed, learning where one’s food is grown, understanding one’s dependence on economic use of trees and oil. Over and over, one takes on the challenge of observing the contributing causes and conditions of each particular moment. In this way, one gains confidence in breaking free of "preassigned patterns of relatedness" established by the logical order, allowing one to fully apprehend the infinite creativity of the natural order.

Ingram draws a strong parallel between Kukai and Whitehead in their emphasis on continuity within nature -- organic and inorganic, human and nonhuman. He describes this continuity primarily as manifested in material form and location. Yet there is another aspect of this parallel which I feel is crucial to understanding the environmental crisis we face today. Whitehead’s doctrine of "the immanence of the past energizing the present," the "vector-structure" of nature, could be compared with the Buddhist law of karma. Since all activities cause effects and are influenced by many causes, this law simply states there are consequences to actions. Strong actions have strong consequences. Karma expresses the continuity through time of nature, including human actions. Thus we live now with the fruits of the actions of early industrial capitalism, nuclear weapons used in World War II, the Green Revolution, widespread deforestation. The terrible cumulative impacts on the planet’s air and water, landforms and ecosystems, area natural outcome of human activity over the recent past. Seeing this continuity is important, for right within it lie the seeds of understanding. It is right in the middle of this particular mess that we will be pushed to find a way through.

I applaud Ingram’s enthusiasm for Buddhist-Christian dialogue on this very critical topic. We can only benefit from building friendship on behalf of the Earth as we investigate this material together. As a small contribution to the dialogue, I offer a simple set of Buddhist guidelines common to all Buddhist traditions -- the Three Pure Precepts. Framed here in the language of interrelationship, they can perhaps provide a starting point for evaluating oar individual and collective actions with the Earth in answering Ingram’s question -- How then shalt we live?

I vow to refrain from all action that ignores interdependence

This is my restraint.

I vow to make every effort to act with mindfulness.

This is my effort.

I vow to live for the benefit of all beings.

This is my intention.2



1See, for example, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness and Present Moment, Wonderful Moment (1990), both published by Parallax Press. Berkeley; and The Miracle of Mindfulness, Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

2 I wrote this version of the Three Pure Precepts for an Earth Day precepts ceremony at Green Gulch Zen Center, Muir Beach, California in April, 1990. The full ceremony is described in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Journal, Summer 1990, pp. 32-33.