Buddhism is a vast and heterogeneous set of traditions embedded in many different environments over more than two millennia. Still, there have been some similar practices across Buddhist cultures that contributed to the construction of local Buddhist environments. These practices included innumerable stories placing prominent Buddhist figures, including the historical Buddha, in particular places. Many of these stories concerned the conversion of local serpent spirits, dragons, and other beings associated with a local place who then themselves became Buddhist and were said to protect Buddhism in their locales. Events in the stories as well as relics and landscape features were marked by pillars, reliquary shrines (stupas), caves, temples, or monasteries that often became the focus of pilgrimage or considered particularly auspicious places for Buddhist practice, where one could encounter buddhas and bodhisattvas. Through ritual practices such as pilgrimage, circumambulation, and offerings, Buddhists engaged environments and their local spirits. Landscapes were transformed into Buddhist sites that were mapped and made meaningful according to Buddhist stories and cosmology. Farmers, herders, traders, and others in Buddhist cultures whose livelihood depended on their environments engaged the spirits of the land, whose blessings they needed for their own good. Just as they transformed the meaning of local environments, Buddhists also transformed the material environment. In addition to building monasteries, stupas, and other religious structures, Buddhist monastics developed administrative and engineering expertise that enabled large-scale irrigation systems. As Buddhism spread through Asia, it brought agricultural technologies that created the watery landscapes enabling rice production and increasing the agricultural surplus that made possible large monasteries and urbanization. In the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st, eco-Buddhist scholars and practitioners have found resources in Buddhist traditions to construct a Buddhist environmental ethic. Some have argued that concepts such as dependent origination, the ethics of loving-kindness and compassion, and other ideas from classical Buddhist traditions suggest that Buddhism has always been particularly attuned to the environment. Critics have charged that eco-Buddhists are distorting Buddhist traditions by claiming that premodern traditions were responding to contemporary environmental concerns. Moreover, they argue, Buddhist ideas such as dependent origination, or its more environmentally resonant interpretation as “interdependence,” do not in fact provide a satisfying grounding for an environmental ethic. Partly in response to such critics, much scholarly work on Buddhism and the environment became more focused on concrete phenomena, informed by a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, place studies, art history, pilgrimage studies, and the study of activism. Instead of focusing primarily on universal concepts found in ancient texts, scholars are just as likely to look at how local communities have drawn on Buddhist ontology, ethics, cosmology, symbolism, and rituals to develop Buddhist responses to local environmental needs, developing contemporary Buddhist environmentalisms.
Buddhism and the Environment
Thích Nhất Hạnh in the Context of the Modern Development of Vietnamese Buddhism
Thích Nhất Hạnh is one of the most internationally recognized Buddhist leaders and has a large and devoted following. Despite this, there is a lack of critical scholarship on his life. The biographical sketches of Thích Nhất Hạnh are hagiographical in nature, portraying him as a peace activist, as an engaged Buddhist, and as a Zen master, and disassociating him from the continued development and transnationalization of Vietnamese Buddhism throughout the 20th century. Understanding the early influences in Thích Nhất Hạnh’s life, before he was exiled to the West in 1967, is critical to contextualizing his later framing as an engaged Buddhist leader and Zen master. As a novice, Thích Nhất Hạnh attended a school in Hue that had been set up by Buddhist reformers. When he moved to Saigon as a young monk, he became involved in writing and publishing. During the 1950s his writing reflected the discourses that were central to the Buddhist reform movement in Vietnam, which had been heavily influenced by the reforms that had started earlier in China. The main foci in Thích Nhất Hạnh’s writings at this time included making Buddhism more relevant to contemporary society and unifying Buddhists in Vietnam. He also wrote essays on Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist literature in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. Many of the central themes of his writings, and of the main journals that he edited, reflected the views of the Chinese Buddhist reformer Taixu on humanistic Buddhism, which had been translated and popularized in Vietnam in the 1930s. Thích Nhất Hạnh was recognized by international peace activists after founding the School of Youth for Social Services, which provided relief to victims of the war and poverty in the 1960s. He became increasingly active as an opponent to the war, advocating for American withdrawal from Vietnam so that the North and South could find a way to bring peace without American involvement. This work cemented him in Buddhist literature as the main proponent of an “engaged Buddhist” movement. However, while he became internationally famous for his efforts, they should be seen in light of his embeddedness in discourses of Buddhist reform that were mobilizing many monks and lay Buddhists to make Buddhism more active in the contemporaneous issues of Vietnamese society. Similarly, Thích Nhất Hạnh is also popularly described as a “Zen master,” and while there is good reason to give him this appellation, it should be understood within the context of modernist Buddhist discourses. Part of the construction of Thích Nhất Hạnh as a Zen master has been achieved by placing him in a Zen lineage. However, this idea of a Zen lineage in Vietnam is incongruous with the way Buddhism was practiced there. While Zen has had a presence in Vietnam for centuries, it was primarily as an elite aesthetic curiosity. There were no sizeable Zen communities or Zen monasteries in Vietnam as there were in Korea or Japan. Thích Nhất Hạnh’s interest in Zen is more reasonably attributable to an emerging fascination with Zen in southern Vietnam in the 1960s, when D. T. Suzuki’s works were translated to Vietnamese and young Buddhists became attracted by the legitimizing role that it could have for a reconstructed Vietnamese Buddhism. Thích Nhất Hạnh was taken up by this wave of popularization in Zen, but he did not start to be constructed as a Zen monk or master until after he was exiled from Vietnam and needed to establish himself in the West at a time when Zen had become interesting to young Westerners.
Engaged Buddhism emerged in Asia in the 20th century as Buddhists responded to the challenges of colonialism, modernity, and secularization. It is often dated to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s challenge to caste discrimination in India in the 1950s and the antiwar activism of Vietnamese Buddhist monastic Thich Nhat Hanh, although recent scholarship has pointed to the influence of Chinese Buddhist reforms occurring in the 1930s. Hanh coined the term “engaged Buddhism” to describe social and political activism based in Buddhist principles in the 1960s. The terms “engaged Buddhism” and “socially engaged Buddhism” were taken up by loosely connected Buddhists in Asia and the West who adapted Buddhism to a range of nonviolent social activist projects such as peacemaking, human rights, environmental protection, rural development, combatting ethnic violence, and women’s rights. With globalization and technological advances, engaged Buddhist organizations and efforts have spread across the globe. Reflecting the culture shift from the modern to the postmodern, generational and demographic shifts within these communities are marked by increased attention to intersectionality and postcolonial thought. Engaged Buddhists see their social and political activities as extending Buddhism’s classical focus on individual suffering to the suffering generated by unjust structures and systems, and set collective as well as individual liberation as a soteriological goal. While there is a consensus in academic scholarship that engaged Buddhism is an expression of Buddhist modernism, recent debates have arisen around whether conservative, nationalist, and even ethnocentric modern forms of Buddhism can be considered as forms of engaged Buddhism.
Ethics and Buddhism
Although canonical Buddhist philosophy does not offer systematic, meta-ethical argumentation in a manner that might be familiar to readers of Western ethical theories, Buddhism has long been deeply concerned with ethical questions, offering detailed articulations of human flourishing, elaborate moral psychologies, taxonomies of virtues, rules for moral conduct, and instructions on spiritual technologies for ethical self-cultivation. The ethical underpinnings of the Buddhist project manifest differently across Buddhist traditions, although teachings such as the Buddha’s diagnosis of the suffering endemic to the human condition and the way to resolve it in the four noble truths, the workings of karma (literally “action” in Sanskrit) and its effects in shaping the world that a being experiences, and the moral-psychological structure of experience together provide a shared set of foundational principles. How these foundational principles are enacted within the ethical teachings and contemplative practices of different Buddhist traditions varies. Among the early Buddhist schools that emerged in the first few centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha, a distinctive ethical focus is its elaboration of the moral psychology of monitoring and purifying unwholesome qualities of feeling and thinking as an essential task on the path of liberation. With the emergence of Mahāyāna (Sanskrit: “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism around the 1st century bce, the ethical lodestone shifts to the cultivation of bodhicitta (Sanskrit: “awakening mind”)—the radically altruistic intention to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit sentient beings—as well as advancing the figure of the bodhisattva (Sanskrit: “awakening being”) as moral exemplar. Vajrayāna (Sanskrit: “Indestructible Vehicle”) Buddhism upholds the basic ethical view of the Mahāyāna while activating them within a contemplative scheme characterized by elaborate tantric rituals, which are said to conduce to a more expeditious realization and are supported by additional sets of ethical commitments. In addition to exegeses of these traditional Buddhist ethical commitments and the practices that support them, much of the scholarship on Buddhist ethics in the 21st century is concerned with constructing systematic interpretations of traditional Buddhist ethics, applying traditional Buddhist ethics to contemporary moral problems, expanding the scope of Buddhist ethical reflection to articulate activist stances on social justice issues, and interpreting the recent secularization of Buddhist practice in evidence-based contemplative science protocols.