Buddhism and the environment

In Insight and Experience, Metaphysics, Philosophy and Traditional Wisdom by Hayley Douglas1 Comment

In seeking environmental sustainability, Buddhist philosophy provides practical wisdom – offering space to reassess and re-define our worldview.

Buddhism lights the path towards transcending the anthropocentric (human-centric) age of today, through dealing directly with the individual mindset. A more balanced view of ourselves and the world in which we live begins to emerge. 

“Peace and survival of life on Earth as we know it are threatened by human activities which lack a commitment to humanitarian values. Destruction of nature and natural resources results from ignorance, greed, and lack of respect for the Earth’s living things.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama stated on World Environment Day on June 5, 1986.

Today, thirty-two years on, his message is equally pertinent. Our global community faces many challenges, and the situation requires a group effort to actively steer things towards a more desirable future for us, and generations to come. Individuals, communities, politicians, and businesses all play a crucial role in achieving sustainable development.

The problem

Technological advancement has transformed the world at an incredible rate. Thanks to population growth, rampant materialism, and all that comes in its wake, the environment – our life support system – is suffering greatly. Natural ecosystems are degrading at alarming rates; unsustainable deforestation of old growth forest continues, as does the political commitment to fossil fuels. Unsustainable agricultural practices endure, which, coupled with an increasingly unstable environment, threaten the future of global food security. Efforts to reduce carbon emissions are producing positive results in parts of the world, although many experts fear our global achievements and targets are not sufficient.

Time is running dangerously low. If governments and the market continue with business-as-usual, our precious time will continue to dwindle away.

Social sustainability

What can we, as individuals, do to influence the situation for the better? If you’re reading this magazine there’s a good chance you’re interested in living holistically. You are probably already well aware of the need to assess habits in favour of a healthy planet.

Despite a willingness to actively participate in the quest for sustainability, as individuals, we all face challenges trying to reduce our day-to-day impact. To do this we are required to go over every aspect of our lives, assessing our consumption habits and investigating where our food and material needs come from. It is a big task that requires time and effort, but it is effort well worth your while.

Many of us wonder why, despite widespread awareness of environmental issues, some individuals choose to ignore the situation and continue living as they always have. In our consumer-based society, coupled with questionable strategic mixed messages through the media, this is all too easy to do. For those in power, a steady flow of predictable consumption fuelled by smart marketing ensures the shopping mall continues to provide a setting for modern day worship, which those who benefit from seek to protect, no matter how grave the cost.

Consumer fundamentalism

Consumer fundamentalism is at the core of the modern world. Even if we can articulate the problem and what needs to change, putting it into practice is another thing entirely. True sustainability requires that we look beyond recycling and renewable energy targets and get to the core of the sustainability mess. What got us here in the first place?

The missing link in the sustainability quest is the requirement to reassess our cultural ideology. We may find many of our ‘needs’ are not really needs at all. We must recognise that our human-centric worldview has to change if we are to be serious about turning things around.  “Endless growth on a finite planet” (term coined by Kerryn Higgs), is simply not an option.

So, this is where Buddhism comes in.

Buddhism and the West

During the Chinese invasion in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama was forced to flee his homeland along with many of the Tibetan people. Since then, the Dalai Lama has maintained prominence in the public eye, and Buddhism has experienced a growth of popularity in the West. One could argue that now, more than ever, the global community needs a new and revised view of the world and of our relationship to it. Buddhist philosophy has arrived in the West in a timely fashion, offering practical wisdom for such times. In reflection, His Holiness noted that he was lucky to have a place to escape to. But (referring to the environment) “now the whole world has a problem and there is no other place to escape”.

“It is not difficult to forgive destruction in the past, which resulted from ignorance. Today, however, we have access to more information. It is essential that we re-examine ethically what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations”, said His Holiness The Dalai Lama at World Environment Day, 1986.

Self and environment

Buddhist philosophy calls for us to assess our relationship with the environment. Ancient Buddhist scriptures speak of ‘the container and the contained’.

“The world is the container, we are the contents, without the container, the contents cannot be contained. Without the contents, the container contains nothing, it’s meaningless”, recites the Dalai Lama. Materialism and the external world distracts us. This has prevented us from truly realising the innately interdependent relationship we have with the Earth.

A Buddhist remedy for this lies in the first of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths – the belief that attachment is the root cause of all human suffering. Buddhists practice non-attachment to phenomena as a way of curtailing suffering. Instead of feeding the distraction of material desire, the practice of the Noble Truths diverts these habitual thought processes towards feelings of contentment with what we have. The practice of mindfulness quiets the mind and brings our attention to the here and now. And with regular mindfulness practice, we can retrain our habitual processes to act as a practical tool to counter materialism. The mindset we cultivate instead is one of deep respect for all that sustains us (the ‘container’), and our awareness of the earth as our life support system deepens.

Petal. Photo by Emma Macey

Photo by Emma Macey


A central theme in Buddhism is that of the sentient being; any living, thinking being on Earth is considered to be a fellow sentient being, to be treated with equality. The practice of non-violence (ahimsa), stemming from the Five Buddhist Precepts (Buddhist ethics) is applied to all sentient beings. “Where there is a mind there are feelings such as pain, pleasure, and joy”. We have a “universal responsibility for both mankind and nature”, said the Dalai Lama. How we treat the ones we love should extend to all living things, including the plant kingdom. The complex web of life must function healthily, or else we are all affected and potentially suffer.

Buddhist philosophy beckons us to relinquish our obsession with the external world. It calls us to cultivate a deeper involvement with our internal world. It is here that we can realise our imbalances and develop compassion beyond ourselves. We must extend compassion to our neighbours, to all living things, and to the environment. For without the healthy functioning of our planet, we ourselves cannot thrive. A genuine commitment to accepting universal responsibility for the whole planet is necessary to divert us from disaster and to ensure a habitable planet for generations of all life forms to come.

Love and compassion is a universal religion

The Dalai Lama is well known for his quote “Love and compassion is a universal religion”; these qualities are the “essence of any religion”. It is this statement that dissolves the boundaries of religions, cultures, and international borders. This statement encourages a new way of viewing the self and others. The erection of invisible fences within our ‘them and us’ worldview provides the foundation of a dangerous construct. This construct contributes to inequality, poverty, war, and environmental degradation. This perceived separation is the cause of so much suffering in the world. We must transform this underlying context. If not, we cannot begin living in a more sustainable and harmonious way with each other and the Earth. 

Transforming the self

So, Buddhism urges us to begin with ourselves. The Dalai Lama highlights that we have great intelligence and wisdom. However, he also  suggests that we tend to use our intelligence in the wrong way. Buddhism holds the view that individual enlightenment will change the world, so, in light of the environmental crisis, turn your attention inward to focus on inner development. Question your views, again and again, and fine-tune your worldview to reflect one of humility, compassion, universal responsibility and non-attachment to material wealth.

Each and every one of us possesses within ourselves seeds of compassion, as Buddhist philosophy teaches. As we transform ourselves from within and deepen our compassion, we begin to carve out a newly revised worldview. Slowly but surely, we can chip away at the core of the environmental crisis. Do this, and the rest will flow.


About the author

Hayley Douglas

Hayley Douglas is a student of International Aid & Sustainable Development at Murdoch University, with a lifelong interest in Eastern philosophy. Hayley hopes to inspire readers to consider environmental ethics in their daily lives.

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  1. A beautiful written article Hayley. So much to consider for us all, a simple, compassionate life should be our ultimate goal. Looking forward to more!

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