Buddhist Philosophy and the Ideals of Environmentalism

Dissertation, Durham University (2010)
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I examine the consistency between contemporary environmentalist ideals and Buddhist philosophy, focusing, first, on the problem of value in nature. I argue that the teachings found in the Pāli canon cannot easily be reconciled with a belief in the intrinsic value of life, whether human or otherwise. This is because all existence is regarded as inherently unsatisfactory, and all beings are seen as impermanent and insubstantial, while the ultimate spiritual goal is often viewed, in early Buddhism, as involving a deep renunciation of the world. Therefore, the discussion focuses mostly on the Mahāyāna vehicle, which, I suggest has better resources for environmentalism because enlightenment and the ordinary world are not conceived as antithetical. Still, many contemporary green ideas do not sit well with classical Mahāyāna doctrines. Mahāyāna philosophers coincide in equating ultimate reality with ‘emptiness,’ and propose knowledge of this reality as a final soteriological purpose. Emptiness is generally said to be ineffable, and to involve the negation of all views. An important question is how to reconcile environmentalism with the relinquishing of views. I consider several prevalent themes in environmentalism, including the philosophy of ‘Oneness,’ and other systems that are often compared with Buddhism, like process thought. Many of these turn out to have more in common with an extreme view that Buddhism seeks to avoid, namely, eternalism. I attempt to outline an environmental position that, like the doctrine of emptiness, traverses a Middle Path between eternalism and nihilism. I conclude by proposing that emptiness could be regarded as the source of value in nature, if it is seen in its more positive aspect, as ‘pliancy.’ This would imply that what Buddhist environmentalists should seek to protect is not any being in its current form, nor any static natural system, but the possibility of adaptation and further evolution.



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Author's Profile

Colette Sciberras
Durham University

References found in this work

Nicomachean ethics.H. Aristotle & Rackham - 1998 - New York: Oxford University Press. Edited by Michael Pakaluk.
Animal Liberation.Peter Singer (ed.) - 1977 - Avon Books.
Evolution and the levels of selection.Samir Okasha - 2006 - New York: Oxford University Press.
Four Dimensionalism.Theodore Sider - 1997 - Philosophical Review 106 (2):197-231.

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