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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 101

Buddhist contribution to environmental protection – Judge Weeramantry

Presenting the Buddhist perspectives on the inter-relationships between all living beings and the environment, Judge C. G. Weeramantry, former Vice- President of the International Court of Justice, told the World Future Council in Hamburg that Buddhist teachings and Buddhist kings have been in the forefront of pioneering laws on environmental protection.

Here are excerpts from his presentation:

Buddhism, The Environment And The Human Future


Buddhism is replete with perspectives on the long-term future. It stresses at every stage the fleeting nature of the present and the transitory nature of present acquisitions.

With its uncompromising quest for justice, righteous conduct and non-violence and with the spirit of universalism which pervades it, Buddhism also offers a rich reservoir of conceptual materials on all aspects of the human condition.

It is to be noted that the Buddha after he attained enlightenment at the age of 35 was not a recluse living away from people and their problems but that he moved among them during the remaining 45 years of his life, teaching them how to address their day to day problems. Thus problems of government also engaged his attention. Among the Kings of the time who sought his advice were King Pasenadi of Kosala who along with his regional kings sought his counsel. King Bimbisara of Magadha and his son King Ajasatta are also among those who are recorded as turning to him for advice on governmental matters.

The Noble Eight Fold Path

The noble eight fold path consists of right vision, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right efforts, right mindfulness and right concentration. Treatises could be written on the relevance of each of these to the human future.

On right livelihood for example Buddhist teaching requires every person to consider the manner in which the performance of his duties as employee would impact on society and the future. Employment, for example, in the armaments industry, which imperils the human future, would be a violation of the path of right livelihood. Any employment which causes damage to the environment such as manufacturing of toxic substances, felling of forests and the adverse exploitation of marine resources would also be a violation of right livelihood. Any employment which involves damage to the environment such as working in the nuclear industry, manufacturing toxic substances, and the exploitation and depletion of marine resources would be included in this prohibition.

The Buddhist Scriptures

The vastness of the volume of Buddhist scriptures needs to be appreciated. The Buddha’s discourses, delivered during the 45 years of his ministry, were memorised by his followers and later reduced to writing. A notable compilation is that which was effected in the first century prior to the Christian era by a group of 500 monks at Aluvihare in Sri Lanka. This is one of the most monumental processes of recording in world history, amounting in bulk to several multiples of Justinian’s codification - long celebrated as one of the outstanding compilations of all time.

The Pali Canon, called the Tripitaka or the three baskets, arranges its subject-matter in three collections called the Vinaya Pitaka (the basket of discipline), the Sutta Pitaka (the basket of discourses), and the Abidhamma Pitaka (the basket of higher doctrine).

The legal inquirer will find much material of a legally-oriented character in the Vinaya Pitaka. Meant as a code of discipline for monks, it defines offences with a degree of precision reminiscent of a modern criminal code, and contains many procedural provisions which embody the basic principles of fair trial. In dealing with the 227 rules of conduct laid down for Buddhist monks, it explains the principles underlying them, as well as the numerous exceptions which, as every lawyer knows, must attend the application of nearly every legal rule.

The basket of discourses is immense and contains sermons and didactic stories embodying a vast range of principles of justice – individual, national and international. Comparatively little legal effort has been expended on quarrying from this vast mass of material the legal principles latent within them. This vast literature consists of five collections, known as Nikayas – the Digha Nikaya (34 long discourses), the Majjhima Nikaya (152 middle length discourses), the Samyutta Nikaya (2,889 short discourses), the Anguttara Nikaya (2,308 short sayings, often in the form of maxims or aphorisms), and the Khuddaka Nikaya (over a thousand sayings in the form of stanzas or aphorisms, covering the whole range of Buddhist philosophy). Perhaps the most popular collection of these short sayings, which has been translated into practically every major language, is the Dhammapada, a collection of 423 stanzas.

The basket of higher doctrine (Abhidamma) contemplates the human condition at the most advanced philosophical level. It is replete with insights bearing on the long term future. Some idea of the volume of all this literature can be gathered from the translations of the Pali Text Society, which include the Anguttara Nikaya (5 vols.), the Digha Nikaya (3 vols.), Digha Nikaya Commentary (3 vols.), the Dhammapada Commentary (4 vols.), the Jataka (6 vols.), the Majjhima Nikaya (3 vols.), the Majjhima Nikaya Commentary (5 vols.), the Samyutta Nikaya (5 vols.) and the Vinaya Pitaka (5 vols.)

It is little wonder that this enormous mass of material has not been systematically analysed for its legal content. This is indeed a pity, for it is a storehouse of moral principles on which, in the last analysis, all legal systems, national and international, must be based. Legal inquiry has been inhibited also by the belief that Buddhism did not concern itself with secular legal systems.

From this enormous range of literature numerous principles relevant to the human future can be extracted and elaborated:

Kutadanta Sutta Buddhism points out that it is the responsibility of the government to protect trees and other organic life. It is described in the Sutta on Buddhist polity named, ‘The Ten Duties of the King.’ (Dasarajadhamma). The Kutadanta Sutta points out that the government should take active measures to provide protection to flora and fauna.

Pupphavagga in Dhammapada, points out that one should live in the environment without causing any harm to it. It states: ‘As a bee that gathers honey from a flower and departs from it without injuring the flower or its colours or its fragrance, the sage dwells in his village.’ The flower moreover ensures the continuity of the species and the bee in taking pollen does not interfere with nature’s design.

Suttanipata - This contains a further expression of goodwill towards all forms of life

“Whatever breathing creatures there may be

No matter whether they are frail or firm,

With none excepted be they long or big

Or middle-sized, or be they short or small

Or whether they are dwelling far or near

Existing or yet seeking to exist

May beings all be of a blissful heart.”

Mahasukha Jataka contains a poetic description of the close interrelationship between the plant and animal kingdom.

Sakka: Whenever fruitful trees abound

A flock of hungry birds is found:

But should the trees all withered be.

Away at once the birds will flee.

Rejection of Anthropocentrism

Buddhism is completely averse to the notion that nature and all created things exist for the benefit of mankind. Mankind is part of the entire cosmic order but not in a position of dominance. Humans are just as much subject to the natural order of the universe as any other form of sentient existence. “Buddhism is ecocentric rather than anthropocentric since it views humans as an integral part of nature.

Unity of the Human Family

There is another aspect in which humanity is unique. The Buddha was perhaps the first to point out that whereas every living species on the planet, whether it be a plant or a worm or an insect or a bird or a mammal, has many sub-species within it, humans are all cast in one species.

This reflection is of immense importance on the unity of the human family and has major implications for our topic. This one species occupies one common home and it follows inevitably that it must do all it can to protect its environment and the species itself.

The interdependence of all things

Buddhism strongly emphasises the interdependence of all entities and events. There is no entity animate or inanimate and no event however trivial which is not in some way interconnected with every other. No entity or event is an island unto itself. The linkages and inter-linkages are all-pervasive and inextricable.

In the exposition of the Thai monk Buddhadasa Bikkhu, “the entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the earth. When we realise that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise then we can build a noble environment.”

Coexistence rather than Conquest

The aim that Buddhism instils in every individual mind is emancipation from suffering. The route to that emancipation is not the pursuit of power and possessions but the very opposite – the rejection of the pursuit of those materialistic goals which are so greatly imperilling the human future.

Conquest of the natural environment, of other species or of other groups of the human family is hence the very reverse of the ideals which Buddhism teaches. Co-existence is vital and this requires a recognition and respect of those other species and groups and not an attempt at dominance.

State Duties towards the Environment

Buddhism specified certain basic virtues of rulers in the Dasa Raja Dharmaya. These included:


According to Cakkavattisihanada Sutta the ideal king is expected to protect not only people but quadrupeds and birds.

King Asoka’s 5th Pillar Edict stating that he in fact placed various species of wild animals under protection is one of the earliest recorded instances of a specific governmental policy of conservation.

Also, in Sri Lanka, edicts were issued that not a drop of water was to be permitted to flow into the sea without first serving the needs of agriculture. There were also royal edicts prohibiting the felling of virgin forests.

Ignorance as the Cause of Wrongdoing – the need for environmental education

Buddhism is very clear in its teaching that often the cause of wrongdoing is ignorance rather than wickedness or sin. The natural corollary of this, in the context of the environment, is the need for environmental education.

It consequently becomes the duty of those interested in the environment to spread knowledge regarding the damaging consequences of the environmental destruction we take for granted.

Principles of Trusteeship

Buddhist philosophers and scholars have expanded on these concepts in a manner which makes them intensely relevant to the subject under discussion. Historical examples of such teaching abound, of which one of the best known illustrations is the sermon preached by the arahat Mahinda, son of the Emperor Asoka, to the King of Sri Lanka when the monk accosted the King who was enjoying a hunt in the royal forest.

The monk’s sermon included a reminder to the King that although he was the King of the country, he was not the owner but the trustee of the land on which he was hunting.

The Rights of Future Generations

The Dalai Lama has given expression to the Buddhist perspective in relation to future generations in these terms: “If we develop good and considerate qualities within our own minds, our activities will naturally cease to threaten the continued survival of life on Earth. By protecting the natural environment and working to halt the degradation of our planet we will also show respect for Earth’s human descendants – our future generations.”

A useful perspective on this same line of thought is that “we have not inherited the earth from our parents; we have borrowed it from our children.”

Against this rich background of universalistic and indeed cosmic thought the teachings of Buddhism take added relevance to International Law in an age in which shortages of Earth resources are shrinking planet earth into a common village for all humanity.

Practical Activism

Buddhism has been the inspiration in recent times for much practical work on environmental protection. It is often ranged against governments which seek to improve their economies by rapid “development” which often takes the form of damaging the environmental heritage. The practical movements Buddhism has inspired in several countries are of importance to the rest of the world.

To quote a recent review of this activity, “there has been a kind of Buddhist revolt against the deterioration of nature” in countries like Thailand.

Necessary changes of personal attitude

Buddhism teaches that one does not have to traverse the length and breadth of the Universe to gain a knowledge of what is right or wrong. All this knowledge is latent within oneself. Applying this to environmental protection, what is required is an internal change of attitude. This strikes a resonant chord with the deep ecologists, for deep ecology requires changes of attitude, changes within oneself, as the secret of reversing the environmental crisis. It is not sufficient to correct the external environment. One must begin the process by correcting the attitudes of the individual.

“We are what we think

All that we are arises with our thoughts

With our thoughts we make the world.”

Correction of false values

All this results from “a world ablaze with greed” for which the Buddha’s teachings in such collections as the Gradual Sayings supply the necessary corrections.

* * *

In the result Buddhism offers us a range of powerful concepts for the protection of the long-term future through such principles as interdependence, universalism, moderation, trusteeship, environmental protection, environmental education, sustainable development and a consciousness of the rights of future generations.

Buddhism’s infinite treasury of wisdom cannot any longer be neglected without damage to the human future.

End Notes

i. Samyutta Nikaya,L.Freur (ed.), 5 vols., London.PTS, 1884-1904, Vol. I,pp.70-76,80

ii. Anguttara Nikaya, R..Morris and E.Hardy (eds.) 5 Vols., PTS, 1885-1900, Vol.II,p.182; see also, O.Abeynayake, Fundamentals of Buddhist Polity;1996, Maha Thera Narada, The Buddha and His Teachings, pp.106-113

iii. Suttanipata, in the edition translated and edited by H.Oldenburg and R.Pischel (London, Pali Text Society, 1883), see V:143-52.

iv. Klas Sandell (ed.) Buddhist Perspectives on the Ecocrisis, Kandy, Sri Lanka Buddhist Publications Society, 1987.

v. See Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, Harper & Row, NY, 1858,p.121
Fenning, p.18.

vi. Gray, Dennis D.,1987. “Buddhism Being Used to Help Save Asia’s Environment”, Seeds of Peace 3(2):24-26

Dhammapada, verse (author’s translation).

- Asian Tribune -

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