Buddhist Environmentalism

A review of Protecting the Spiritual Environment: Rhetoric and Chinese Buddhist Environmentalism, by Seth Clippard.

How can Buddhists, as Buddhists, respond to China’s environmental crisis? Can Buddhism save the environment? In his provocative and wide-ranging dissertation, Seth Clippard finds answers at the grass roots, arguing that we can only understand Buddhist environmentalist rhetoric locally, within defined communities of practice.

Using Taiwan as a case study, Clippard documents how Buddhist institutions have repurposed global environmental discourse into “spiritual environmentalism” (心靈環保), a uniquely modern and Chinese path to salvation.

Chapters 1 and 2 provide a critical introduction to the field of religion and ecology. Since Lynn White’s “The Historical Roots of Our Environmental Crisis” located “man’s unnatural treatment of nature” in Medieval Europe’s turn to Christian anthropocentrism, scholars have focused on the question of anthropocentricity in religion (Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155.3767 (1967): 1203). Against this trend, Clippard argues for a pragmatic methodology: first principles can be less consequential than the discourse that animates religious activism. While “Eco-Buddhist” scholars may debate core environmentalist ethics in classic Buddhist texts, Clippard asks: what values speak most to Buddhists today?

Following this logic, Chapter 3 argues for rhetorical theory as an analytical bridge between environmental discourse and the formation of “communities of concern” (p. 99). Inspired by the theory of Kenneth Burke, the chapter outlines three aspects of rhetoric that convert activist language into activism: the affective response of an audience, identification with the rhetoric, and the strategic framing of a problem. Even the most radical forms of environmental discourse, including Deep Ecology, Ecofeminism and Social Ecology, inspire audiences not simply by reimagining self and environment, but with rhetorical strategies that play upon affect, identity, and framing.

Chapter 4 explores academic reconstructions of Buddhist ethics and their relation to Buddhist environmentalism. Non-anthropocentric principles, which animate much Eco-Buddhism, are often surprisingly unimportant to Buddhist activists. To underline the point, Clippard marshals case studies from Thailand and Singapore. In Thailand, where clerical ordination has political and cultural currency, activist clergymen have projected the ecclesiastical order onto nature and “ordained” 50 million trees, in the process saving large swaths of forests. Singaporean temples, in contrast, cater to different constituent interests: some may emphasize individual lifestyle choices, others environmentalism as social welfare.  In neither case is the question of anthropocentricity a motivating factor.

Chapters 5 and 6 present focused case studies of three Taiwanese institutions: Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山), Fo Guang Shan (佛光山), and Tsu Chi (慈濟). While each organization has its own mission, audience, and niche, each see in environmentalism a path towards salvation and “purity.” Sheng Yen 聖嚴 (1930-2009), founder of Dharma Drum Mountain, captured this idea with “spiritual environmentalism,” a total program to purify the world’s interconnected “spiritual” (心靈), “social” (禮儀), “living” (生活), and “natural” (自然) environments (p. 311). To advance a Buddhist way of life, Sheng Yen taught, practitioners should be “cultivating the habit of protecting the material environment” (p. 317). Hsing Yun 星雲 (b. 1927), founder of Fo Guang Shan, likewise endorsed the slogan “spiritual environmentalism,” emphasizing that “in order to purify the soils and rivers of our outer environment, we must work to purify our inner spiritual environment” (p. 357). Publications from both organizations have drawn authority from the Vimalakīrti Sūtra: “if the mind is pure, then the Buddha lands are pure” (隨其心淨則佛土淨) (p. 315). While innovating new language and practices, both claim thus claim an enduring connection to Buddhist heritage.

Tsu Chi, under the guidance of Cheng Yen 證嚴 (b.1937) similarly refashions environmental activism as a classic form of spiritual exercise. Organizational literature has promoted recycling in particular and redubbed recycling centers as meditation halls (道場). As Cheng Yen once urged her supporters, “If you take your two applauding hands and pick up garbage, sweep the thoroughfares, and practice recycling, this would help this piece of land become a pure land; turn the garbage into gold and that gold into love” (p. 340). Not only does Tsu Chi, like Dharma Drum Mountain and Fo Guang Shan, endorse a vision of environmentalism-as-salvation, it embraces a self-consciously Buddhist approach to material pollution.

As an interdisciplinary project, the dissertation will speak to scholars of religion, anthropology, rhetoric, and history. Indeed, one of the dissertation’s great strengths is its willingness to transcend our conventional disciplines and triangulate answers from multiple perspectives. Rich with comparisons, Clippard’s study offers further insights into comparable problems in Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, and Deep Ecology.  The writing is deeply thoughtful, philosophically rigorous, and highly nuanced, combining extensive oral interviews with close readings of Buddhist texts.

As a sensitive case study of Taiwan, the dissertation also makes an important contribution to globalization studies. In line with Ramachandra Guha and Robert Weller, Clippard helps decenter the story of global environmentalism. Dharma Drum Mountain, Fo Guang Shan, and Tsu Chi all appropriate globalized language, like “environmental protection” (環保). Yet they infuse the term with a distinct spiritual significance and urgency. While their rhetoric remains in dialogue with both global environmentalism and classic sutras, we cannot simply derive their message from global discourse or Buddhism’s past. Buddhist environmentalism in Taiwan speaks to and for a modern, Chinese-speaking audience.

Can Buddhism save China then? As a world religion, perhaps not. But as a local practice, Clippard provides hope: Buddhists, as Buddhists, have already responded in force.

Jonathan Schlesinger
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Indiana University

Primary Source List

Publications from Dharma Drum Mountain, Tsu Chi, and Fo Guang Shan.
Oral Interviews

Dissertation Information

Arizona State University. 2012. 415 pp. Primary Advisor: Huaiyu Chen

Image: Sheng Yen. Wikipedia.

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