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A Buddhist Perspective on Ecological Crisis and Individual Social Responsibility

Editor’s note: This article was previously published in the 10th issue of the now retired Bodhi Journal in December 2008. It has been republished with some minor formatting changes. 


A – A?guttara Nik?ya
D – D?gha NIk?ya
DH – Dhammapada
Vin – Vinaya Pi?aka
S – Sa?yutta Nik?ya 
Kh – Khuddhaka Nik?ya


The term ecology dates back to 19th century, introduced by the German biologist Ernst Heinrich Philip Haeckel (1834-1919) which he used to refer to a study of organism in the environment. An ecologist named Woodbury defines ecology as “a science which investigates organisms in relation to their environment: a philosophy in which the world of life is interpreted in terms of natural process (Principles of general ecology). In other words, the term Ecology can be considered as the study of the inter-connectedness of the living things.


The ecosystem in Buddhist perspective is seeing things in their relatedness and that naturally implies a deeper understanding of the conditioned co-production, seeing things not as beings but as patterns of relatedness. In other words, the modern theory of the relatedness of man with its surrounding ecosystem totally concurs with the fundamental Buddhist teaching of Dependent co-arising. Nature is the first teacher of man. We cannot divorce man from the nature and its surrounding living creatures. Therefore, we need to see ourselves not as isolated skinned and capsulated egos but as part of the larger body of the Earth.

Man, animal and other creatures as well as the natural resources depended on one another from the start. Everything on earth had served one way or other for living and survival. We humans are related to or made entirely of non-human elements like natural greeneries, earth, water, clouds, sunshine etc. which make us a part of the nature. For the long lasting survival of mankind, the ecosystem needs to be respected highly and preserved. Protecting human life is not possible without also protecting the lives of animals, plants, and minerals. All living sentient beings in one way or another are totally interdependent towards each other for their own survival.

Natural environment, like forests and plant life, serves men and wildlife with numerous benefits, social, economical and environmental. Many daily needs like papers and timbers as well as minerals, and petroleum are forest-provided. It shelters the wildlife habitat and provides recreational opportunities. Vegetables and plants are taken as food by man. The animals are hunted for food as well. Various plants and roots are used as medicinal drugs for healing purposes. It also plays a critical role in the management of global climate. The leaves of trees and plants absorb the deadly and polluted gases like carbon-dioxide which is responsible for global warming and climate change and release oxygen in the process of photosynthesis. The trees block the polluted air and rainwater making them settled. They help the air get purified and maintain an even flow of water to rivers and lakes preventing flood holding the soil still.

The relationship between the plant life and animals is mutual. Men, animals (i.e. baboons, monkey squirrels), nectar collecting birds (i.e. humming birds, bats, sunbirds) and insects (i.e. ants, bees, flies) help plants in pollinations by indirect ways of carrying the seeds from one place to another and spreading them out. Various types of termites play their part for the enrichment of the soils by the woody material works and building termite-mounds with large amount of dead leaves, which circulate fresh nutriment to the plants, and help the soil, get fertilized.

In one of the Buddhist sources, the relationship of a tree to human is explained as follows:

“the tree indeed is the bearer of the flower and the fruit… the tree gives the shade to all people who come near… the tree does not give shade differently (Milindapañh?, VI, 409 – “rukkho n?ma pupphaphaladharo…rukkho upagat?namanuppavi??h?nam jan?nam ch?yam deti…., rukkho ch?y?vemattam na karoti”).

These characteristics of the nature show that nature treats beings impartially and it is us who need to develop mutual respect in return.

Human Morality

Man, without just trying to meet his needs, corrupts the whole natural ecosystem trying to fulfill his wants filled with greed, hatred and delusion. Maurice F. Strong in his article The United Nations and the Environment says: “In these closing decades of the twentieth century modern man is a paradox of extremes. He possesses untold knowledge and wealth, but these have brought no universal end to the indignity of poverty and ignorance. He has conquered space, but on earth he is unable to overcome conflicts and inequities. His mastery of science and technology gives him unprecedented power, but his living world is threatened as at no time since his planetary home first gave him warmth and shelter (world eco-crisis).

Due to the advancement of science and multi-faceted uses of technology, the living environment is faced with destructive threat challenging the healthy eco-system. Excessive urbanization and industrialization of the natural environment are immensely in danger destroying the natural environmental beauty. Vast forest areas are cleared out destroying thousands of tress. Various chemical industrial factories are coming up polluting the whole atmosphere with chemical discharge (i.e. air pollution, water pollution etc) causing various new diseases. Owing to air pollution with toxic gases daily, there is the increase of heat in the air, damaging ozone layer, melting of snow in the North Pole, arising of the sea water level, decreasing of the land area, widening of desert, decreasing pure water, destruction of wild life, disappearing of bio-diversity, and increasing atomic waste in the environment.

Very little is being done in spite of the fact that the human demands on the Earth’s ecosystems cannot continue much longer without severe repercussions for both humans and other species. The natural resources and minerals that took billions of years to form are consumed within couple of years. I would like to quote Krishna Chaitanya, saying: “With the growth of the megalopolis and with town-planners thinking in terms of continuous conurbation extending right across continents, man is tending to forget how profoundly his life is linked with that of nature. He has stripped the hills and valleys of their mantle of green and the rivers, thus abetted in their assault on the weakened earth, are washing away the future into the sea. It is the forest cover that conserves the soil from erosion, regulates the flow of streams and purifies the air we breathe (Profile of Indian Culture, p.18).

According to Buddhism, mind plays the most important role in everything we decide. Thus, one should think of a mental solution before finding a physical solution for problems. From the Buddhist moral point of view, all these things happen due to fundamental insecurity and fear generated by the delusory notion of ‘Ego-ness’ or so called ‘self’. Man deluded with the egoistic misconception of ‘self’ tend to think all impermanent objects as permanent. Egoism generates the negative emotions like greed, hatred or anger and delusion (r?ga, dosa, moha) making us run after the wealth for fame and power, and for sensual gratification. As long as man is motivated by these drives, he can never feel safe and contented. Delusion blinds our eyes from seeing the Truth. Buddhism teaches: “Contentment is the greatest bliss (Dh. Verse no.204). Human craving is the most dangerous thing which knows no bound. Our human mind is strongly motivated by thousands of cravings without an end. Our run after money, wealth, name and fame is all motivated and centered upon idea of ego of self (att?). The notion of self gives birth to three low instincts in us: I am superior to others; I am equal to others; I am inferior to others. When our human psychology works in either one of these three ways, we can never have satisfaction (santu??hi) in the mind.

The Aggaññasutta throws light into the eco-crisis and human morality in their relatedness pointing out the arising of many bad effects, due to the unwholesome behavior driven by selfish desires, which are arisen in men due to the unwanted exploitation of natural resources bringing damages to the environment and vise versa (D. III, 80).

Emphasizing more on morality, the Petavatthu says: “if one were to sleep or sit under shade of a tree, he may not break the branches of that tree. If he does so, he is an evil false friend (Kh, 32).

The Cakkavattis?han?dasutta predicts how the immoral activities of human will gradually cause man’s health to deteriorate at last reducing the average human life-span by ten years (D. III, 71). If immorality grips society, man and nature deteriorate. This is one reason why the Buddha has pronounced that the world is led by the mind (S.I, 39).

According to the Adhammikasutta, social crisis might arise when immoral factors like lust, greed, hatred and wrong values grip the heart of man (A. I, 160). Thus, according to the ideas expressed in Early Buddhism, it advocates that the man’s utility of the natural resources is related to his environment ethics.

Proper management

A close examination of the Buddhist discourses shows that Buddhism is very concerned about the conservation of natural environment. To designate the Order of Nature or Law of Nature, Buddhism uses the term Dhamma or Dhammat?. According to Buddhism, everything in natural world is subjected to change (anicca). If Man lives with awareness of the Order of Nature or Law of Nature, the natural environment will be well preserved. Human being should utilize the natural resources in such a way that they are not depleted but are sustainable. It is undoubtedly a part of samm?j?va (right livelihood).

If there is any environmental crisis, it is due to the way by which man utilizes the natural resources. Man should understand that unlike his greed which is unlimited, the natural resources are very limited. So he should learn to be contented by meeting his most basic needs. E.F. Schumacher in one of his works quoted in the following words of Mahatma Gandhi “Earth provides enough to satisfy everyman’s needs, but not for everyman’s greed (Small is Beautiful).

The use of resources with care and contentedness is emphasized in Buddhism very often. According to the Vyaggapajjasutta (A. VIII, 54), there are four Buddhist principles of life, out of which two emphasize a good relation with proper resource management: preservation, and balanced life.

According to Sigalov?dasutta (D.III, 188), the Buddha advices that a householder should accumulate wealth just as a bee gather nectars from a flower without harming it. Similarly, man is expected to utilize sustainably the natural resources without depleting or harming them.

The wastages of resources are explained in Buddhism with a simile of careless eating of mango fruit (A. IV. 283). A person, wanting to eat a mango fruit, should not shake the whole tree. Many of the young fruits might fall and they go to waste. The fallen fruits could have been consumed by many others who desire them. This is one example of an extreme use of resources.

The Kulasutta (A. IV. 255) furnishes us with the statement: “They have limited consumption……”. It goes on saying that if these principles are followed, that family, institute, organization or society will not decline but progress. 

The Vinayapitaka (Vin. II, 291) records another incident, which highlights the Buddhist attitude in the proper management of resources. Once, Venerable ?nanda explained to King Udena about how the robes are being used in the community: “Those robes are given to monks who have decayed robes. The decayed robes are used as bed-sheets after that they have been used for pillowcases; the old pillowcases are used for carpets; then those old pillowcases are used for door-mates. The old door-mates are used for dusters. At last, when they are about to decay totally, they are used to construct a well after they have mixed them with mud”.

The Bhikkhun?vibhanga of Pacittiyap?li states that water in our natural environment should be treated with much care to preserve its purity and prevent its pollution: “Whoever would throw or would cause to throw urine, excreta, refuse and food remaining on greening grass or any clean environment is committing forfeiture offence (Vin. IV. 205 – 206). It further states: “One should train that he will not throw urine, excreta or spite on water (Vin. IV. 206).

Thus, Buddhism maintains the ideas of proper, systematic management and careful use of natural resources so that they will be preserved for the use of future generations yet to come.


The modern so called civilized man is getting more and more alienated from his true Self and the Nature. Owing to the of growing importance of science and industrial revolution, man has made himself a slave of materialism neglecting his morality and spirituality. His endless greed for wealth and possessions has degraded or depleted the natural resources leading to current ecocrisis.

Understanding the severe ecocrisis caused by Man, Man is now looking for a radical solution. However, while much money is being poured into research aimed at mitigating the ecocrisis, human over-consumption of natural resources has worsened the situation further. From Buddhist prospective, mind is considered as foremost and is the forerunner of every thought. As long as there is an impure state of mind obsessed with intense cravings and greed, the problem of ecocrisis can not be successfully fixed.

Buddhism offers the remedy to this diseased mind through the cultivation of moral and ethical values like compassion, loving kindness, content, self-control, harmonious attitude towards nature etc. Buddhism condemns both extremes of self-deprivation and self-indulgence. It recommends a middle path that is leading a simple, moderate lifestyle, satisfying one’s most basic needs. Buddhism advices man to utilize the natural resources so that eco-balance is always preserved sustainably. The Buddhist teaching of dependent co-arising and the teaching of kamma (action) and its vip?ka (result) clearly point out man’s interrelationship with the nature and his moral responsibility towards it. 


All Pali texts referred to are editions of the P?li Text Society, London.

• D?gha Nik?ya

• A?guttara Nik?ya

• Majjhima Nik?ya

• Vinaya Pi?aka

• Khuddhaka Nik?ya

• Dhammapada

• Milindapañha

• David A. Kay and Eugene B. Skolnikoff. “World Eco-Crisis”, London, The University if Wisconsin Press Ltd. 1972

• Pallegama Ratanasara. Ven. “The Buddhist concept of the Environment and Individual”, Buddhist Mah? Vih?ra, Malaysia, 2001

• Shundo Tachibana, “Ethics of Buddhism”, Curzon Press Ltd. Great Britain 1992

• Chaeles H. Southwick, “Global Ecology”, Sinauer Association, Inc, USA 1985

• Krishna Chaitanya “Profile of Indian Culture”, Clarion Books, New Delhi, 1987

• Woodbury, “Principles of general Ecology”, 1954• E.F. Schumacher, “Small is Beauty”, Blond and Brigs Ltd, 1973 

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