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Spiritual Ecology: Is It the Ultimate Solution for the Environmental Crisis?: Asian Religions

By Leslie E. Sponsel

Asian Religions

Buddhism receives far more attention than other Asian religions in relation to ecology and environmentalism; Hinduism is only a distant second, and the rest have been grossly neglected, with few exceptions.  Among the several dozen books on Buddhism as a variant of spiritual ecology, one of the earliest was Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, edited by Allan Hunt Badiner in 1990.  Many of the contributors, such as Stephen Batchelor, Bill Devall, Joanna Macy, John Seed, Sulak Sivaraksa, Gary Snyder, and Thich Nhat Hahn, are among the Who’s Who on the subject, and they have continued to publish about the topic.  This historic benchmark has a useful glossary and bibliography.  Published a decade later, a more substantial and comprehensive anthology is Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, coedited by Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft.  It contains a general introduction, and seventy-five essays divided into seven parts, each part with its own helpful introduction.  Both of these collections contain mostly reprinted material and are readily accessible for general readers as well as appropriate for academics.

Recent overviews of Buddhism are provided in two short books: Akuppa’s Saving the Earth and Thich Nhat Hahn’s The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology.  Nhat Hahn is a prominent Zen monk and prolific author.  His book emphasizes the relevance for environmentalism of the Buddhist concepts of interconnectedness and impermanence.  Akuppa concentrates on practical tips for living a compassionate and sustainable life, as does Stephanie Kaza in Mindfully Green.  A recent and more substantial overview is Darrin Drda’s The Four Global Truths: Awakening to the Peril and Promise of Our Times, which pursues the conceptual framework of suffering at the very core of Buddhism.

Among the various branches of Buddhism, only Zen has been afforded special attention in several books, most recently by Simon P. James in Zen Buddhism and Environmental Ethics, which is appropriate for novices as well as experts.  One of the best case studies is Susan M. Darlington’s The Ordination of a Tree: The Thai Buddhist Environmental Movement.  It is grounded in years of intermittent research on the rituals and other initiatives of Theravada Buddhist monks in countering deforestation and other environmental problems.

In Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India, edited by Lance E. Nelson, an international assemblage of scholars from various disciplines consider theology, sacred texts, sacred geography, pilgrimage, and ritual.  Their essays are divided into two parts—theological and textual perspectives, and field observations—reflecting two major approaches within spiritual ecology.  In Vedic Ecology: Practical Wisdom for Surviving the 21st Century, Ranchor Prime offers a penetrating discussion, including chapters on Mohandas K. Gandhi and Vandana Shiva.  David L. Haberman’s Journey through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna describes pilgrimage to sacred places.  Especially interesting is Kelly Alley’s On the Banks of the Ganga: When Wastewater Meets a Sacred River.  She focuses on the paradox that the Ganga (Ganges River) is spiritually the most sacred waterway in India, yet physically the most polluted.  Covering another aspect of spiritual ecology in India and beyond is Christopher Key Chapple’s edited book Yoga and Ecology: Dharma for the Earth.  Emma Tomalin provides a critical assessment of South Asian traditions in her Biodivinity and Biodiversity: The Limits to Religious Environmentalism.

Philosopher David E. Cooper wrote Convergence with Nature: A Daoist Perspective.  He relates an important Chinese religion to contemporary global concerns for lifestyles and societies to have a more harmonious relationship to nature.  Only two books have been found for another Asian religion, one most important in Japan.  Shinto Meditations for Revering the Earth by Stuart D. B. Picken offers devotional messages for persons to cultivate a reverence for nature.  In Shinto and a 21st Century Japanese Ecological Attitude, Daniel Shaw argues that this religion is ecocentric in its worship of spirits permeating nature and has the potential to cultivate a sounder environmental attitude and relationship for Japanese society.  The relative neglect of Daoism, Jainism, and Shintoism in works on spiritual ecology is puzzling, because they have been viewed by some as among the most environmentally relevant of all world religions.


Works Cited