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Engaged Buddhism and community ecology

For the most part, Buddhists have historically been less concerned with explaining the world than with generating personal peace and enlightenment. However, the emergence of “engaged Buddhism” — especially in the West, has emphasized a powerful commitment to environmental protection based in no small part on a fundamental ecological awareness that lies at the heart of Buddhist thought and practice.

People who follow ecological thinking (including some of our hardest-headed scientists) may not realize that they are also embracing an ancient spiritual tradition, just as many who espouse Buddhism — succumbing, perhaps, to its chic, Hollywood appeal — may not realize that they are also endorsing a worldview with political implications that go beyond bumper stickers and trendy, feel-good support for a “free Tibet.”

Biologists readily acknowledge that living processes are connected; after all, we breathe and eat in order to metabolize, and biogeochemical cycles are fundamental to life (and not merely to ecology courses). Nonetheless, biology — like most Western science — largely seeks to reduce things to their simplest components. Although such reductionism has generally paid off (witness the deciphering of DNA, advances in neurobiology, etc.), ecologists in particular have also emphasized the stunningly complex reality of organism-environment interconnection as well as the importance of biological “communities” — which doesn’t refer to the human inhabitants of a housing development.

Although “community ecology” and complicated relationships among its living and nonliving components has become a crucial part of ecological research, recognizing the existence — not to mention the importance — of such interconnectedness nonetheless requires constant struggle and emphasis, probably because the Western mind deals poorly with boundary-less notions. This isn’t because Westerners are genetically predisposed to roadblocks that don’t exist for our Eastern colleagues, but simply because, for reasons that no one seems as yet to have unraveled, the latter’s predominant intellectual traditions have accepted and embraced the absence of such boundaries.

In The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling captured the power of such recognition in the magical phrase by which Mowgli the human boy gained entrance into the life of animals: “We be of one blood, you and I.” Being of one blood, and acknowledging it, is also a key Buddhistic concept, reflected as well in the biochemical reality that human beings share more than 99% of their genes with each other. At the same time, there is no reason why Mowgli’s meet-and-greet should be limited to what transpires between human beings. After all, just as the jungle-boy interacted with other creatures — wolves, monkeys, an especially benevolent snake, panther, and bear, as well as a malevolent tiger — everyone’s relationship to the rest of the world, living and even nonliving, is equally intense. Thus, we share fully 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, and more than 92% with mammals generally; modern genetics confirms that we literally are of one blood, just as modern ecology — along with modern Buddhism — confirms that the alleged distinction between organism and environment is an arbitrary error of misperception, and not the way the world really is.

The interpenetration of organism and environment also leads both ecologists and Buddhists to a more sophisticated — and often paradoxical — rejection of simple cause-and-effect relationships. Thus, the absence of clear-cut boundaries among natural systems, plus the multiplicity of relevant factors means that no one can be singled out as the cause — and indeed, the impact of these factors is so multifaceted that no single “effect” can be recognized either. Systems exist as a whole, not as isolated causative sequences. Are soils the cause or effect of vegetation? Is the prairie the cause or effect of grazing mammals? Is the speed of a gazelle the cause or effect of the speed of a cheetah? Do cells create DNA or does DNA create cells? Chickens and eggs, anyone? “Organism” and “environment” interconnect and interpenetrate such that neither can truly be labeled a “cause” or “effect” of the other.

Expansive view of bison grazing on a mountainside by Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Expansive view of bison grazing on a mountainside by Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It has long been known, for example, that organisms generate environments: beavers create wetlands, ungulates crop grasses and thereby maintain prairies, while lowly worms — as Darwin first demonstrated — are directly responsible for creating rich, loamy soil. On the other hand (or rather, by the same token) it can equally be concluded that environments generate organisms:  the ecology of North America’s grass prairie was responsible for the existence of bison genes, just as causation proceeds in the other direction, too. Even as ecologists have no doubt that organism and environment are inseparable, ethologists — students of animal behavior — are equally unanimous that it is foolhardy to ask whether behavior is attributable to nature or nurture, i.e. environment or genotype. Such dichotomies are wholly artificial … something that Buddhists would call maya.

Western images are typically linear: a train, a chain, a ladder, a procession of marchers, a highway unrolling before one’s speeding car. By contrast, images derived from Indian thought (which gave rise to both Hinduism and Buddhism) are more likely to involve circularity: wheels and cycles, endlessly repeating. Although there is every reason to think that evolution proceeds as an essentially one-way street, Eastern cyclicity is readily discernible not only in ecology — a discipline that is intensely aware of how every key element and molecule relevant to life has its own cycling pattern — but also in the immediacy of cell metabolism, reflected, for example, in the Krebs cycle, or the wheel of ATP, the basic process whereby energy is released for the metabolism of living cells.

At the same time, and as we have noted earlier, there is no single entity labeled “Buddhism,” just as there is no single phenomenon identifiable as “Christianity,” “Judaism,” or “Islam.” And certain schools of Buddhism (e.g. Zen) are more sympathetic to ecological ethics than are others (e.g. Theravada, which remains more committed to personal enlightenment). To be sure, the science of ecology is partitioned as well, to some extent between theoreticians (fond of mathematical models) and field workers (more inclined to get their hands dirty in the real world), but also between ecology as a hard science and ecology in the broader sense of ethical responsibility to a complex natural world. Most spiritual traditions have some sort of moral relationship to the natural world built into them, from Christian stewardship to shamanic identification. Yet another reality, and a regrettable one, is that for the Abrahamic religions in particular (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), separateness — of soul from body, individuals from each other, heaven from hell, human beings from the rest of the natural world, and so forth — is the primary operating assumption. This is assuredly not the case with Buddhism.

For me (and I assuredly am not alone in this), Buddhism is not a religion but rather, a practice system and philosophical perspective. And it is with pleasure and optimism that I point to the convergence between Buddhism and biology generally — and ecology in particular — as something that is not only fascinating but also deeply reassuring.

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