Health & Wellness

What Would Buddha Do? A Buddhist Approach to Environmental Protection

Written by Zak Weinberg

50,000 plant and animal species go extinct every year according to David Tillman, professor of ecology at University of Minnesota. This rate is at least 100 times higher than the natural rate of extinction and approaches the same apocalyptic rate experienced 65 million years ago, after many scientists believe a meteorite hit earth, shifting normal climate levels. But unlike the mass extinction 65 million years ago, today’s mass extinction is caused by one species: humans – not a hunk of burning space elements. So what makes humans so deadly?

I’m going to go out on an editorial limb and say that humans are neck deep in industry, media, and as the somber Malthusians argue, population. We’re at ends with our environment because too many people need too many things, and Earth’s resources are becoming less accessible. So what can we do to secure a healthy environment for the future?

This reporter has no idea really, but I do know a pretty popular philosophy worth looking into, one that started beneath a bodhi tree over twenty-five hundred years ago – Buddhism.

This article gets into basic Buddhist principles, such pratītyasamutpāda and the Four Noble Truths, as well as ideas concerning the Yogachara school, the sangha, and karma. We’ll see how these ideas relate to environmentalism, and environmental protection.

Let’s start with Pratītyasamutpāda, a mouthful for most of us, and a concept that highlights the idea of no-self and cause-and-effect. The concept stresses that nothing arises independently or without affecting something else.

In the field of environmental studies, there’s a similar concept called environmental unification. In practice it’s pretty simple. For example, the construction of freeways in Los Angeles might contribute to the endangerment of the Channel Island Fox. This actually happened, but the story was more complex, involving golden eagles, bald eagles, feral pigs, and DDT. Essentially habitat displacement caused by DDT and urban sprawl in Los Angeles sparked the near extinction of the Island Fox on the Channel Islands. Due to species relocation, the fox species has since made nearly a full recovery.

From a Buddhist prospective, no-self, also called anatman, means there is no individual Island Fox or Los Angeles Freeway system, because the two things are the same.

Now, the Malthusians who argue that population is a primary contributor towards environmental harm, have ideas that don’t fall too far from this Buddhist prospective,  because “many things that people regard as private individual choices, especially regarding whether or how many children to bear, actually are not private matters because of their profound implications for all sentient beings,” said Buddhist scholar Rita Gross in Visions of a New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption, and Ecology.

Since Buddhists don’t believe the idea of a “self”, the value of making and buying products (key contributors towards environmental degradation) are abandoned as well. Buddhist ideology “contains denunciations of personal, corporate, and national greed concerning consumable goods as such greed damages the interdependent ecosystem,” said Gross.

Let’s get off this “self” stuff for a second though, and move on to the first two of the Four Noble Truths and their significance towards a Buddhist-environmental understanding: the first noble truth states that suffering exists. The second noble truth states suffering exists due to attachment or craving (tanha), grounded in ignorance. “Most people think happiness results from getting what we crave, whereas Buddhists would say that happiness happens when tanha is renounced,” Gross said. “Thus craving and happiness are incompatible.”

The Yogachara School, a school within Mahayana Buddhism, also known as the “mind only” school, emphasizes achieving trancelike meditative states to attain Samadhi, a state when subject and object fuse together.

“If everything is in our mind, our toys become less real to us; less appealing,” said Alyson Prude, Religious Studies professor at University of California Santa Barbara.

During her PhD. research, Prude visited a small Yogichara village and saw a few thousand residents living in shacks a few feet away from another, with no waste management system.

“Why would anyone choose to live in such filth?” She asked.

She found her answer with a spiritual leader from the village, who said the residents were happy, unaware of the “filthy” condition.

Perception of the world is more important than the normal associates one makes about the world, he said.

But I don’t think all Buddhists are as content with a filthy environment, and some might note that the environment needs to be in a condition where the cultivation of the mind is a possibility. Someone in Tuvale, for example, might have a harder time reaching enlightenment if the only places left to meditate are under water.

Some Buddhists like Phra Prachak, a Theradava Buddhist monk from Thailand, take a more conservationist approach, by ordaining tress into Buddhist monks, to stop loggers from deforestation. To some people, including Prachak, the Sangha, or holy Buddhist community, includes “other species, plant and animal, as well as environmental features and unseen ancestors and spirits.” To them, the environment is a direct extension of the Sangha, and is worth protecting.

Along the same line of thought, the environment can be understood through a karmic prospective. Buddhists believe in six types of rebirth – God, Demigod, Human, Animal, Ghost and Hell, and Gross writes that “each person has been reborn so many myriad times that each being has at one time or another been a blood relation”. So in essence, we are our environment, and we wouldn’t sever our own limbs right?

It’s clear from a scientific and Buddhist prospective that the environment should be protected. One of the easiest ways to protect the environment is to limit production, consumption, and population. Some Buddhists might encourage people to understand they are apart of a collective spirit, known as pratītyasamutpāda, and are responsible and dependent on another. There is no self or I, so consumption targeted at inflating one’s ego will only perpetuate one’s time in samsara – the cycle of suffering and rebirth. If people understand happiness through a Buddhist perception, that acquiring things will not bring happiness but the cessation of craving will, then consumption will deflate to a natural level reflective of our population’s basic needs. Protecting the environment is ultimately a choice, but if the decision ever gets too tough, remember to ask, “What would Buddha do?”


University Of Texas, Austin (2002, January 10). Extinction Rate Across The Globe Reaches Historical Proportions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 25, 2010, from­ /releases/2002/01/020109074801.htm

Weisner, S. (1993). To Realize Enlightenment. J.C: Cleary.

Gross, R. (2000). Visions of a New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption, and Ecology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press

Prude, Alyson. “Mahayana Schools.” University of California Santa Barbara. Goleta, CA. 4 Feb. 2010.

Chapple, C. (1993). Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press

Komatsu, S. (1991). Buddhism and the World of the Future. Tokyo, JP: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies.

About the author

Zak Weinberg

Zak is a third year environmental studies major, and writing minor, at University of California Santa Barbara. In his free time he enjoys reading, writing, and staying active. Zak also founded a college website in Santa Barbara called Ole Today.