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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 222-228

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Book Review

Buddhism and Ecology:
The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds

Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds. Edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryuken Williams. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997. 467 pp.

As Mary Evelyn Tucker's foreword explains, this book is part of a series of conferences and publications exploring the relationship between religion and ecology initiated by the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University. The volume is divided into several sections. In the first section, "Overview: Framing the Issues," Lewis Lancaster provides an excellent overview of the important role of religion in relation to ecology in "Buddhism and Ecology: Collective Cultural Perceptions." In addition, he discusses some of the promise and pitfalls of interpreting Buddhism to ascertain its perspectives on nature, the human/nature relationship, and so forth.

The first substantive section, "Theravada Buddhism and Ecology," has a focus on Thailand, with essays by Donald Swearer on Thai Buddhist perspectives on nature, and Leslie Sponsel and Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, entitled "Theoretical Analysis of the Potential Contribution of the Monastic Community in Promoting a Green Society in Thailand." Swearer describes the approaches of two preeminent Thai Buddhist monk scholars and activists, Bhikkhu Buddhadasa and Phra Prayudh Payutto, concluding that these two offer distinct but similarly proenvironmental interpretations of Buddha dharma.

The Sponsels' essay is less persuasive. Their thesis is that "the local monastic communities of Thailand have the potential to serve as working models of a green society and that some actually do" (48). The evidence they offer is that "by drawing on the environmental wisdom of the dharma, by serving as a model of a green society, and through the power afforded by their liminal status, local monastic communities have significant potential to contribute to the environmental awareness, information, and ethics of the populace" (Sponsel and Sponsel 53). Since the monastic environment is comprised predominantly of males, however, what contribution do women make to these goals, and how do they become educated into environmental awareness? The authors do acknowledge the gender discrimination of the sangha and recognize both that "one of the concomitants of a green society is gender equity" as well as that the gender bias of the sangha and society in Thailand need to change if a green society is to be realized in Thailand (56). However, assuming that women are equal contributors to environmental destruction as well as the potential for rehabilitation, it would seem to be important to use vehicles for environmental education that provide access to females as well as males, rather than monastic institutions composed exclusively of males (at least the formally recognized ones).

However, the Sponsels see the greatest obstacle to the attainment of a green society in Thailand to be "the disparity between Buddhist ideals and teachings, on the one hand, and the actual practices of Buddhists, on the other" (56). The authors note that in reality, Thailand is increasingly becoming an environmental disaster rather [End Page 222] than an ecotopia. Although the authors contend that Buddhism is one of the most important resources for resolving environmental problems in Thailand because of its ability to "penetrate to the very roots of the problems and to find lasting solutions rather than merely treat superficial symptoms and single issues," they have failed to describe what these principles are in any detail other than the doctrine of interdependent origination and care for all sentient beings, as well as failing to demonstrate specifically how monks actually provide an example of a green society. Thus, their "hypotheses" remain largely unproven and unsupported.

The third section of the volume, "Mahayana Buddhism and Ecology," focuses on Japan. Paul O. Ingram's essay, "The Jeweled Net of Nature," supports the thesis that Shingon (esoteric) Buddhism, especially that of the Japanese monk and scholar Kukai, offer resources for resolving the environmental crisis (as Graham Parkes also does in a later essay in this section). Beginning from the premise that the dualistic, hierarchical, atomizing, androcentric, and sexist characteristics of Western monotheistic religion and...