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Reviewed by:
  • Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds
  • Steven Heine
Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds. Edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryūken Williams. Cambridge: Harvard University Press and the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 1997. xlii + 467 pp. Paper $19.95.

Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryūken Williams, is the first book in the series on "Religions of the World and Ecology" edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim. The book series is an outgrowth of a series of conferences held from 1996 to 1998 at the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, funded primarily by the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation in addition to a variety of other sources. Each volume of the series is to be edited by Tucker along with a specialist in the respective tradition. By the time this review appears, several other volumes will have been published, including books on Hinduism and Confucianism. The aim of the series is to examine the similarities and differences in the attitudes of world religions to ecological issues in an era in which "[f]rom resource depletion and species extinction to [End Page 136] pollution overload and toxic surplus, the planet is struggling against unprecedented assaults … [that are] aggravated by population explosion, industrial growth, technological manipulation, and military proliferation heretofore unknown by the human community" (p. xv). The series editors hope to stimulate "scholars of religion to respond as engaged intellectuals with deepening creative reflection" (pp. xxx-xxxi) rather than remain as seemingly uninvolved armchair observers of the ongoing environmental crisis.

Buddhism may be a likely candidate for the first religious tradition to be examined in the book series because it appears to have a special affinity with environmental concerns and causes for several reasons. The basic Buddhist philosophy of karmic causality and dependent origination stresses the interdependence of all sentient beings who participate in transmigration throughout the six realms; the nonduality of humans and nature; and the moral retribution that awaits those who violate the sanctity of existence. This nondualistic worldview is enhanced, especially in Mahāyā na Buddhism in East Asia, by interaction with the organic cosmology of indigenous Chinese religions based on yin-yang ideology, and the result is a pantheistic notion that, according to Lewis Lancaster, asserts that "(t)he rocks, trees, lotuses, streams, mountains—all have Buddha-nature" (p. 13).

Furthermore, in recent years some Buddhists have been among the leading voices trumpeting the need for ecological awareness and action. For example, the Council of All Beings, a ritual in which one places oneself as in a trance in the position of another species in order to appreciate the impact of ecological decline on it, was designed by Buddhists and has become popular among environmentalists of all persuasions. Also, there are several examples of Buddhist movements establishing environmentally sustainable rural communities in America, and the group known as "engaged Buddhists," many of whom are associated with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, have consistently led protests against the misuse of nuclear power and a host of other issues. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that there has always been another side of Buddhism, which after all is largely a monastic tradition for home-leavers—a side that is hermetic, withdrawing, and socially and environmentally disengaged and, at times in history, corrupt, at least as a by-product of benign neglect.

The question is, which side of Buddhism will prevail in the discourse concerning environmental issues? Will it be the one emphasizing how to analyze and act on the ecological crisis based on the inseparability of all forms of existence? Or will it be the face of Buddhism that may appear disconnected with and neglectful of current social issues in focusing exclusively on the individual quest for enlightenment or, as was the case in medieval China, on the growth of powerful, independent temple complexes? While several of the contributions to the volume rather uncritically celebrate the former side of Buddhist discourse, the more constructive essays make it clear that a notion of Buddhist engagement with the environment...


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