Kosei Books
Dharma World Magazine homeCurrent Issueback issues of Dharma World MagazineKosei Publishing Co.Dharma World buddhist magazineKosei BooksRissho Kosei-kai English web site
Dharma World Buddhist magazine

The Greening of Buddhist Practice

by Kenneth Kraft


With increased communication and cooperation among Buddhists
around the globe, Buddhist-inspired environmentalism is also becoming manifest
in national and international arenas.

On January 5, 1993, a Japanese ship, the Akatsuki Maru, returned to port with about one-and-a-half metric tons of plutonium. Its 134-day voyage was the first step in a Japanese plan to send spent nuclear fuel to Europe to be reprocessed as plutonium, which would then be reused as fuel in nuclear reactors. However, the ship's twenty-thousand-mile round trip caused concern in more than forty countries, including public demonstrations in France and Japan. Experts charged that such voyages could not be adequately shielded from the risks of a nuclear accident or a terrorist attack. Many questioned Japan's commitment to its own nonnuclear principles (reactor-grade plutonium can also be used to make nuclear weapons). Pointing to the nuclear aspirations of North Korea and other countries, some observers called for a worldwide halt in the recovery of plutonium from spent fuel.

Plutonium is one of the deadliest substances known. A single speck ingested through the lungs or stomach is fatal. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,400 years, but it continues to be dangerous for 250,000 years. If we think in terms of human generations, about twenty-five years, we are speaking of ten thousand generations that will be vulnerable unless the radioactivity is safely contained. In Buddhism, the number ten thousand is a concrete way of indicating something infinite. That may also be the unpleasant truth about plutonium: it is going to be with us forever.

The American scholar-activist Joanna Macy has suggested that our most enduring legacy to future generations may be the decisions we make about the production and disposal of radioactive materials. We will be held accountable for what we do with the toxic substances (nuclear and nonnuclear) that we continue to generate in such great quantities. Buddhists have long believed that the present, the past, and the future are inextricably linked and ultimately inseparable. "Just consider whether or not there are any conceivable beings or any conceivable worlds which are not included in this present time," a thirteenth-century master asserted.(1) Although the threat of nuclear holocaust appears to have abated, we see that the ongoing degradation of the environment poses a threat of comparable danger.

In response to this threat, Buddhists around the world have begun to immerse themselves in environmental issues, attempting to approach urgent problems from the inside as well as the outside. An increasing number of them believe that the only way to prevent ecological disaster is to deepen our relationship with the planet and all life upon it. In this essay I will focus principally on North American Buddhists, who seem to be taking the lead in the "greening" of Buddhism. Of course, what we need most are human responses to the environmental crisis rather than Buddhist ones, so when the Buddhist label is used here, it is almost always used in that spirit.

Individual Practices Related to the Environment

A list of individual practices must begin with traditional forms of Buddhist meditation (and related practices, such as chanting). Meditation is supposed to reduce egoism, deepen appreciation of one's surroundings, foster empathy with other beings, clarify intention, prevent what is now called burnout, and ultimately lead to a profound sense of oneness with the entire universe. "I came to realize clearly," said a Japanese Zen master upon attaining enlightenment, "that Mind is not other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars."(2)

For some Buddhists, meditation alone is regarded as a sufficient expression of ecological awareness. Others supplement time-honored forms of meditation with new meditative practices that incorporate nature imagery or environmental themes. For example, the following verse by the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is widely used by his American students, who recite it mentally in seated meditation:

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I see myself as a flower.
Breathing out, I feel fresh.
Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain.
Breathing out, I feel solid.
Breathing in, I see myself as still water.
Breathing out, I reflect things as they are.
Breathing in, I see myself as space.
Breathing out, I feel free.(3)

Thich Nhat Hanh has helped to popularize many mindfulness verses that function as reminders of our interconnectedness with the earth. The verses may be memorized or posted in appropriate locations. For example, the following verse, meant to be used when getting into a car, evokes a two-fold mindfulness---for the moment and for interrelatedness:

Entering this powerful car,
I buckle my seatbelt
and vow to protect all beings.(4)

The cultivation of intimacy with nature is a central aim for many Buddhist environmentalists. Buddhist activist Stephanie Kaza, who has written about her "conversations" with trees, suggests other ways to develop empathy with the natural environment:

One may engage in relationship with the moon, observing its . . . effect on one's moods and energy. One may cultivate relationships with migrating shorebirds, hatching dragonflies, or ancient redwoods. . . . These relations are not one-time encounters; rather they are ongoing friendships.(5)

Group Practices

Group practices related to the environment are being created at a rapid rate. For American Buddhists, the family has become fertile ground for spiritual practice in daily life, and environmental concerns are often addressed in this setting. One parent from Colorado treats recycling as a "family ecological ritual," using it to teach interconnection.(6) At most American Buddhist centers, conservation of resources and reduction of waste is a conscious part of communal practice.

The Zen Center of Rochester, New York, conducts an earth-relief ceremony. Buddhist rituals traditionally end with a chant that transfers the merit of the event to a designated recipient; here is how the earth-relief ceremony ends:

Whatever merit comes to us from these offerings
We now return to the earth, sea, and sky.
May our air be left pure!
May our waters be clean!
May our earth be restored!
May all beings attain Buddhahood!(7)

The Rochester Zen Center also sponsors rites specifically on behalf of animals. Ducks and other animals are purchased from pet stores or breeders and released in their natural habitats, and relief ceremonies for endangered species are also held.

In northern California the Ring of Bone Zendo has found ways to integrate backpacking, pilgrimage, and sesshin, the intensive meditation retreat that undergirds formal Zen training. First conceived by poet and Zen pioneer Gary Snyder in the 1970s, this "mountains and rivers sesshin" emphasizes long hours of silent, concentrated walking in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. "The wilderness pilgrim's step-by-step, breath-by-breath walk up a trail," writes Snyder, "is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind joy."(8) The daily schedule also includes morning and evening periods of seated meditation and a morning lecture by the teacher, who expounds on the "Mountains and Rivers Sutra" chapter of The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, by Zen master Dogen. This text includes the following passage:

It is not just that there is water in the world; there are worlds in the realm of water. And . . . there are worlds of sentient beings in earth. . . . Wherever there are worlds of sentient beings, there must be the world of Buddhas and Zen adepts.(9)

The Ring of Bone Zendo conducts weeklong backpacking sesshin sessions twice a year, and the practice has spread to other U.S. West Coast Zen groups.

In March 1991, Thich Nhat Hanh inaugurated another kind of group practice in a six-day meditation retreat specifically for environmentalists. Of the two hundred people who attended, some were practicing Buddhists; others had little previous exposure to Buddhism or meditation. The retreat interposed periods of meditation with lectures by Nhat Hanh, silent walks through the hills, and gentle singing. In his talks, Nhat Hanh stressed the value of "deep, inner peace" for environmental activists: "The best way to take care of the environment is to take care of the environmentalist."(10)

One of the sites administered by the San Francisco Zen Center is Green Gulch Farm, which functions as a semirural Zen center. Green Gulch is best known for its extensive organic garden, which has been lovingly cultivated for decades. On April 22, 1990 (Earth Day), more than a hundred friends of Green Gulch participated in special celebratory rituals that concluded with a dedication to the animals and plants that had died in the garden. The text read in part:

Plants and animals in the garden, we welcome you---we invite you in---we ask your forgiveness and your understanding. Listen as we invoke your names, as we also listen for you: Little sparrows, quails, robins, and house finches who have died in our strawberry nets; young Cooper's hawk who flew into our sweet pea trellis and broke your neck. . . . We call up plants we have removed by dividing you and separating you, and by deciding you no longer grow well here. We invoke you and thank you and continue to learn from you. We dedicate this ceremony to you. We will continue to practice with you and for you.(11)

This dedication follows ritual conventions that are found in several traditions. It directly addresses unseen spirits, invites them into a sacred space, expresses sentiments ranging from grief to gratitude, and concludes with a pledge of continued spiritual striving. The admission that many animals and plants had to be sacrificed for the garden to flourish acknowledges the mystery of life and death, and it affirms---realistically, amid complexity---the cardinal precept not to kill.

Another consciously created group ritual that illustrates the greening of Buddhist practice is called the Council of All Beings. It began in 1985 as a collaboration between Joanna Macy and John Seed, an Australian who is a passionate advocate of rain forest preservation. According to Seed, the Council of All Beings helps people to move "from having ecological ideas to having ecological identity."(12) The council is usually presented as a daylong workshop or longer retreat in a setting with access to the outdoors; participants vary from a dozen to a hundred.

The ritual begins with shared mourning. Participants are encouraged to express their sense of grief and loss in response to the degradation of the earth. In the second phase of a council, called "remembering," participants are led through exercises that reinforce their sense of connectedness with the earth. Methods include guided meditations, visualizations, and imitating the voices of animals or other natural sounds. Macy once demonstrated part of a remembering exercise for the Dalai Lama. Taking his hand in hers, she said:

Each atom in each cell in this hand goes back to the beginning of time, to the first explosion of light and energy. . . . We have met and been together many times. "Yes, of course," said the Dalai Lama. "Very good."(13)

For the culmination of the ritual, each participant chooses a nonhuman life form, imaginatively identifies with it, and then speaks on its behalf before the group. Gathering to form the Council of All Beings, the recreated life forms describe their plight, how they have been affected by humans, and their chances of survival. Each of the life forms is then asked what strengths it has to offer human beings in this time of planetary crisis. For example:

I, lichen, work slowly, very slowly. Time is my friend. This is what I give you: patience for the long haul and perseverance.

I, lion, give you my roar, the voice to speak out and be heard.(14)

The Council of All Beings expresses in modern terms the transspecies compassion that has long been a Buddhist ideal. Council participants not only mourn the loss of animals and plants (as at Green Gulch) but also strive to listen to other beings. In a ritual context, this crossing of human/ nonhuman boundaries is not meant to answer complex questions about the relative value of species; its thrust is to enable participants to reconnect with an ecocentric (nonanthropocentric) world. The council offers a foretaste of what Gary Snyder once called an "ultimate democracy," in which "plants and animals . . . are given a place and a voice in the political discussions of the humans."(15)

Green Buddhism's Global Reach

With increased communication and cooperation among Buddhists around the globe, Buddhist-inspired environmentalism is also becoming manifest in national and international arenas. Thailand, for example, has been the source of several influential projects. The Buddhist Perception of Nature Project, founded in 1985, uses traditional Buddhist doctrines and practices to teach environmental principles to ordinary villagers and city dwellers. The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), established in 1989 by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sulak Sivaraksa, puts environmental concerns high on its agenda, with special emphasis on Third World issues. In rural Thailand, environmentally conscious monks have helped protect endangered forests and watersheds by "ordaining" trees: villagers are loath to chop down trees that have been symbolically accepted into the Buddhist monastic order.

The best-known international spokesperson for Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, has made many statements in support of environmental responsibility on a global scale. Strictly speaking, the Dalai Lama's teachings may not qualify as environmental "activism," but his ideas and his example are important sources of inspiration for socially engaged Buddhists. With his usual directness, he says, "The Earth, our Mother, is telling us to behave."(16) The Dalai Lama has proposed a five-point peace plan for Tibet that extends the notion of peace to the entire Tibetan ecosystem: "It is my dream that the entire Tibetan plateau should become a free refuge where humanity and nature can live in peace and in harmonious balance." He rejects any use of nuclear energy in Tibet, not to mention "the manufacture, testing, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons."(17)

Even if the Dalai Lama's ambitious plan seems unrealistic by the standards of realpolitik, his proposal has exposed a worldwide audience to a Buddhist vision of a desirable society. Central to that vision is the attempt to extend the ideal of nonviolence (ahimsa) to all forms of life.

An imaginative example of Buddhist-inspired environmental activity is called the Nuclear Guardianship Project (NGP). Its targeted problem is radioactive waste, which brings us back to the Akatsuki Maru. The premise of nuclear guardianship, advocated most forcefully by Joanna Macy, is that current technological expertise does not offer a certifiably safe method for the disposal of nuclear waste: plans to bury the waste underground overlook known risks; transmutation and glassification schemes have not yet been perfected; and other proposals (such as shooting the waste into space) are even less realistic. Macy and other project participants therefore argue that nuclear waste should be stored in an accessible manner using the best available technology, monitored with great care, and recontained in new ways as technology advances---if we are to succeed in protecting future generations from lethal radioactivity.

For Macy, one possible way to foster new attitudes would be to turn each nuclear site into a center of activity related to guardianship. The idea arose when she "visited the peace camps that had spontaneously arisen around nuclear bases." She suddenly realized: "This is how the radioactive remains are going to be guarded for the sake of future beings."(18)

Because such sites would require unwavering vigilance, they would entail a social version of the mindfulness practice that is so central to Buddhism. "We can contain the radioactivity if we pay attention to it," writes Macy. "That act of attention may be the last thing we want to do, but it is the one act that is required."(19) She goes on to suggest that surveillance communities built around today's nuclear facilities could also become centers for various activities beyond the technical process of containment: pilgrimage, meditation retreats, rituals of acceptance and forgiveness, even a kind of monastic training.

Not content merely to outline the possibilities, Macy and others are experimenting with ritual forms to be used in study groups and public workshops.

An NGP event often begins with an invocation to beings of the past, present, and future, welcoming them as companions and allies in a time of need. Future beings are summoned with these words:

All you who will come after us on this Earth, be with us now. . . . It is for your sakes too that we work to heal our world.(20)

During one three-day NGP retreat, seventy-five participants enacted a future pilgrimage to a guardian site, half of them playing the role of pilgrims, the rest posing as resident guardians. Some of the texts that are used in these NGP exercises look back at the present from an imagined future. One passage reads in part:

We are gathered here . . . a brief two hundred years since the turning from the Times of Nuclear Peril. . . . We are engaged in the essential practice of Remembering. We must remember, because we cannot uninvent the nuclear technology that almost killed our planet. . . . Oh, what power it unleashed! Yes, the poison fire was first used for weapons. . . . And then our ancestors of that time . . . took that poison fire to make electricity. . . . And the signs of sickening grew. . . . And the Governments tried to bury it . . . as if the Earth were not alive. . . . Yet among our ancestors . . . [some] looked into their hearts and thought: "We can guard the poison fire. . . . Only in that way can the beings of the future be protected." They remembered us!(21)

Chapters of the Nuclear Guardianship Project have been formed in Germany, Switzerland, and Russia. The NGP has also been introduced to Japan, where one cannot help but note that major reactors have already been given religious names that would fit a guardian site perfectly: "Monju," bodhisattva of wisdom; "Fugen," bodhisattva of compassionate action; and "Joyo," eternal light.

The NGP is difficult to assess. To some observers it seems wildly fanciful, because it expects to transform deep-seated psychological responses to nuclear waste: denial of responsibility ("not in my backyard") and denial of danger ("it's not making us sick"). However, the greatest source of resistance may be our apparent unwillingness to reduce our material standard of living voluntarily. It is one thing to recognize the risks of nuclear energy but quite another to change the systems and personal habits that currently demand it.

By directing attention to the distant future, Macy invites us to "reinhabit" a deep, mythological sense of time. Her vision calls for a dramatic extension of our sense of ethical responsibility. The notion of guardianship begins with plutonium but goes on to embrace numberless unborn beings and the planet as a whole.

Points of Departure from Buddhism's Past

The continuities between traditional Buddhism and ecological Buddhism can be demonstrated textually, doctrinally, historically, and by other means. At the same time, today's green Buddhism departs from Buddhism's past. Many of the activities surveyed here are not only innovative on the level of practice but also embody shifts in Buddhists' perceptions of nature and society.

In several contexts we have seen eco-Buddhists thinking and acting globally---that very breadth distinguishes them from most of their Buddhist predecessors. For centuries, classic Buddhist texts have depicted the universe as one interdependent whole, and elegant doctrines have laid the conceptual foundation for a "cosmic ecology."(22) Contemporary Buddhist environmentalists are actualizing that vision with new concreteness.

The increased awareness of the sociopolitical implications of spiritual practice also qualifies as a departure from earlier forms of Buddhism. There is a well-known Zen story in which a master rebukes a monk for discarding a single chop-stick. The original point is that even if the chopstick's mate is lost, it still has intrinsic value and can be put to use in some other way. In green Buddhism, the theme of disposed/ disposable chopsticks has additional, ecological meanings that must not be overlooked. The importance of women and women's perspectives is another distinguishing feature. Women, no less than men, are the leaders, creative thinkers, and grass-roots activists of Buddhist environmentalism. The influence of women also manifests itself in an aversion to hierarchy, an appreciation of the full range of experience, and an emphasis on the richness of relationships (human and nonhuman).

Shifting perceptions of nature denote another area in which past and present diverge. Buddhists have long been sensitive to the transience of phenomena. In Japan, for example, generations of poets have "grieved" over the falling of cherry blossoms. Yet according to the premodern Buddhist view, nature's impermanence is also natural, part of the way things are. The grief of Buddhist environmentalists is prompted not by falling cherry blossoms but by the actual loss of entire species of living beings and by the continuing devastation of the planet. A new dimension of meaning has been added to the time-honored Buddhist notion of impermanence. Gary Snyder writes:

The extinction of a species, each one a pilgrim of four billion years of evolution, is an irreversible loss. The ending of so many lines of creatures with whom we have traveled this far is an occasion for profound sorrow and grief. . . . Some quote a Buddhist teaching back at us: "all is impermanent." Indeed. All the more reason to move gently and cause less harm.(23)

Perennial assumptions about nature's power to harm human beings have been augmented by a fresh appreciation of humans' power to harm nature. In an early text, the Buddha gives his monks a prayer that reads in part:

All sentient beings, all breathing things, creatures without exception, let them all see good things, may no evil befall them.(24)

This passage expresses generous concern for other beings, yet it also serves as a protective charm against dangerous animals (especially poisonous snakes)---if I don't harm them, they won't harm me. In contrast, the ceremonial texts from Green Gulch Farm or the Nuclear Guardianship Project are most concerned about human threats to nature. Religious power is invoked in each case, but in the new texts that power is summoned to protect the environment from us and to atone for our depredations.

In many Buddhist cultures, nature has functioned as the ideal setting in which to seek salvation. Traditionally, movement toward nature was regarded as a type of withdrawal. But for contemporary Buddhists, a deepening relation with nature is usually associated with a spirit of engagement. Even if the experience of heightened intimacy with nature is private and contemplative, that experience is commonly interpreted as a call to action. Preservation of the environment doubles as a spiritual path to personal and planetary salvation.


Critics and supporters of contemporary Buddhist environmentalism have already raised a number of questions. Seasoned Buddhist practitioners suspect that the comparisons between ecological awakening and enlightenment are too facile. Buddhist scholars in North America and Japan ask if there is a point at which the distance from traditional Buddhism becomes so great that the Buddhist label is no longer appropriate. In daily life, how can traditional Buddhist practices and new ecologically oriented practices be meaningfully integrated? To what degree can a modern environmental ethic be extrapolated from these individual and group practices? What is the relation of green Buddhism to other forms of environmentalism, including deep ecology? Such questions will continue to generate discussion and reflection as the various forms of socially engaged Buddhism evolve and mature.

From certain perspectives, it may seem that Buddhist environmentalism is marginal. Even within American Buddhist communities, not everyone is interested in environmental issues or their relation to practice. If there is a way to communicate the key ideas and basic practices of green Buddhism to a wider public, it has not yet been found. Granted, Buddhists may have affected the outcome in a number of local campaigns, such as saving an old-growth forest in Oregon, protecting a watershed in northern California, or blocking a proposed nuclear dump in a California desert. In such cases, however, it is hard to isolate distinctively Buddhist influences.

The potential significance of green Buddhism can also be considered from a religious standpoint. Even if there is little visible evidence of impact, Buddhism may nonetheless be contributing to a shift in the lives of individuals or the conduct of certain groups. Some would argue that if only one person's life is changed through an ecological awakening, the repercussions of that transformation have important and continuing effects in numerous realms both seen and unseen. Faith in the interconnectedness of all existence provides many individual activists with the energy and focus that enable them to stay the course. Simply to return to a unitive experience is often enough: "We don't need to call it Buddhism. . . . We need only to be still and open our senses to the world that presents itself to us moment to moment to moment."(25)

Abridged from CrossCurrents, summer 1994, vol. 44:2; www. crosscurrents.org/greening.htm.


(1) Dogen, quoted in Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 310.
(2) Quoted in Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen, 215.
(3) Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1992), 11-12.
(4) Mindfulness Bell 1, no. 3 (Autumn 1990): 16.
(5) Stephanie Kaza, "Planting Seeds of Joy" (unpublished paper, 1992), 13.
(6) Mindfulness Bell 4 (Spring 1991): 17.
(7) Rochester Zen Center, "Earth Relief Ceremony" (unpublished manual, 1992).
(8) Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), 94.
(9) Quoted in Thomas Cleary, trans., Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986), 98.
(10) Mindfulness Bell 7 (Summer/Fall 1992): 6.
(11) "Earth Day Ceremony at Green Gulch Zen Center," Buddhist Peace Fellowship Newsletter (Summer 1990): 32-33.
(12) Rik Scarce, Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement (Chicago: Noble Press, 1990), 227.
(13) Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991), 202.
(14) Ibid., 205.
(15) Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (New York: New Directions, 1974), 104.
(16) Quoted in Allan Hunt Badiner, Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990), v.
(17) Sidney Piburn, ed., The Nobel Peace Prize and the Dalai Lama (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1990), 42.
(18) "Guardians of the Future," In Context 28 (Spring 1991): 20.
(19) "Technology and Mindfulness," Nuclear Guardianship Forum 1 (Spring 1992): 3.
(20) Macy, World as Lover, World as Self, 207.
(21) The Fire Group, "Remembering at a Future Guardian Site," Buddhist Peace Fellowship Newsletter (Winter 1991): 18-19.
(22) Francis H. Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), 2.
(23) Snyder, Practice of the Wild, 176.
(24) Anguttara Nikaya, Pali Text Society Publications 2, 72-73.
(25) Nina Wise, "Thâystock at Spirit Rock," Mindfulness Bell 5 (Autumn 1991): 19.

Kenneth Kraft is a professor of religious studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a scholar of Japanese Zen and a leading interpreter of contemporary Buddhism. Dr. Kraft's numerous books include The Wheel of Engaged Buddhism and, as coeditor, Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism.

This article was originally published in the July-September 2008 issue of Dharma World.
Kosei Publishing

Copyright (C) 1997-2019 by Kosei Publishing Co. All rights reserved.