The following article was prepared as a public lecture at McGill University.
Buddhism started in the northeastern part of India in Ganges valley (5th century BCE). For the first two hundred years, it was only one of several small groups of people who had renounced the domestic life for a life of homeless wandering. Because the whole basis of the religion was a rejection of the worldly values of marriage and family life, and because male Buddhists and female Buddhists live in strictly segregated communities, it was not a religion that could easily become popular are expand. During the first 200 years, therefore, there were probably no more than a few thousand Buddhists at any one time.
The institutional nature of Buddhism changed dramatically when the Indian emperor Aśoka adopted the ethical codes of Buddhism as a means of unifying the great diversity of ethnic groups he had conquered. The ethical code of Buddhism serves this purpose well, because it is a universalist code that claims that all human beings (regardless of tribe, social position, gender) have essentially the same duties and responsibilities and that every living thing deserves the same care and respect.
Aśoka sent Buddhist missionaries to all parts of his own empire and also to neighbouring kingdoms and empires. Consequently Buddhism spread to all parts of India and from there westward expansion to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Anatolia (3rd century BCE); eastward by sea to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia; Northward via Central Asia to Uzbekistan and Turkestan, and from there eastward to China, Tibet, Mongolia, Manchuria, Korea, and Japan.
Each of these areas into which Buddhism moved was already quite diversified; since it was adopted as the religion of people from many cultural settings, and since Buddhism was generally quite adaptable to the cultures to which it moved, it is pointless to try to generalize on what kinds of stances it has taken historically on any range of ethical and political controversies.
Although there is a great deal of doctrinal variety to be found within the many schools of Buddhism, there is one set of doctrines that are quite central. This set of doctrines is known as the Four Noble Truths (catvāri ārya-satyāni) (literally, the four realities worthy of respect).
The most basic guidelines for disciplined conduct are a set of ten that were set down by the Buddha. These ten precepts were to be followed by all people, by celibate monks as well as by people with families, by women as well as by men, by people in power as well as by the weak. Moreover, every school of Buddhism in every country recognizes these ten precepts as central to the practice of Buddhism.
Of central importance to a Buddhist understanding of good conduct is the notion that every action has natural consequences. And all actions are in turn the consequences of mental states. Therefore, Buddhist training tends to place great importance on becoming aware of one's own mental states. Awareness of one's own mental states is known generally as mindfulness (smrti) . There are essentially three kinds of mental state:
According to the Buddhist doctrine of karma, every action has natural consequences, but not all these consequences can be experienced in the course of a single lifetime. The actions that one does in one lifetime are therefore carried forward into future lives. Within tradition Buddhism one finds the doctrine that, depending on how one has lived in the immediately previously life, one is liable to reborn in one of six states.
On the whole, wilderness is portrayed in very negative terms. Wilderness is dangerous and unpleasant. It is filled with ferocious animals that are busy ripping one another apart, vying for territory and stealing food from each other. It is also populated by all kinds of frightening and unpredictable spirits (yakṣas) .
Generally speaking, the ethical guidelines mentioned are supposed to govern one's conduct towards all sentient beings, that is, towards living beings that are aware of their own existence and have a discernible will to continue living. Plants are regarded as insentient. Nevertheless, many plants (especially trees and shrubs) are the homes of animals, insects and even spirits, whose habitation must be protected.
On the negative side: there is a strong tendency towards resignation and acceptance of things as they are. In nearly every society in which Buddhism has become prominent, Buddhists have been severely criticized for taking a fairly passive attitude towards social problems. In China, the Confucians tended to be very critical of the Buddhists' lack of social conscience; so have Communist regimes; so have the new religious movements.
Many European and American Buddhists, who come from Jewish or Christian backgrounds and are used to political, social and environmental activism grow frustrated with the sense of patience that most Buddhist teachers have, and their indifference to political reform and social reform. Very typically, Buddhist teachers will say that there is no point at all in trying to modify social policies, laws and so forth until the attitudes of individual people is modified.
Moreover, most traditional Buddhist teachers will quickly point out that:
Indeed, if one looks at the popular (as opposed to the scientific) environmentalist movement, one hears far more lamentations about the destruction of baby seals, spotted owls and songbirds than about the destruction of small pox and polio viruses, or ticks, leeches, spiders and cockroaches.
Much of the popular environmentalist movement is little more than an expression of a sentimental fondness of everything that is cute and cuddly, or a romantic preference for what seems primitive and unspoiled by the complexities and sophistications of modernity. This sentimentality is often coupled with a sense of moral outrage against those for whom the natural world is of value only insofar as it can be refashioned for some kind of commercial gain. In nearly every part of the world, we find a standoff between these two systems of essentially irreconcilable systems of values.
The traditional Buddhist attitudes tends to be to avoid taking sides in any controversy. Therefore, it would be as uncharacteristic of a traditional Buddhist to side with the environmentalists as with the developers.
On the positive side: ethic of restraint in consumption and exploitation. Strong resistance to consumerism and other ways of living that are the fundamental causes of destruction to nature. The Buddhist life is above all an invitation to a life of simplicity, and learning to be content with very small pleasures.
1Some schools of Buddhism have replaced this with: I undertake the discipline of refraining from showing disrespect for the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.