Early Buddhism and Ecological Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 4 1997

The Early Buddhist Tradition and Ecological Ethics

Lambert Schmithausen
University of Hamburg

This paper is concerned with ecological ethics, and examines the contemporary ecological crisis from the perspective of early Buddhism.
Through an examination of early texts (mainly the Pāli Canon) it asks to what extent ecological ethics has formed part of the teachings of Buddhism and whether contemporary ecological concerns can be integrated into this tradition. A range of divergent opinions held by modern authors are critically reviewed in the first section, followed in section two by a discussion of nature in the light of the Buddhist evaluation of existence. Section three considers the adequacy of the doctrine of Origination in Dependence as a basis for ecological thics, and section four discusses early Buddhist spirituality and ethics in the context of ecological concerns. Section five is devoted to evaluations of nature versus civilization and section six discusses the status of animals. The conclusion is that early Buddhism was impressed not so much by the beauty of nature as by its sombre aspects. It seeks not to transform or subjugate nature but to transcend it spiritually through detachment. However, although Buddhism does not romanticize nature it does not mean it is altogether impossible to establish an ecological ethics on the basis of the early tradition.

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