Environmental Concern in the Discourses of Dīgha Nikāya

Lone tree in West Sussex. By Basher Eyre, from www.geograph.org.uk.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 10, December 2008. 


The term ‘environment’ includes the working of biotic and non-biotic or abiotic organisms in the world.[1] When the organisms interacting with the external physical environment form an ecosystem. In this system, the environmental changes occur through the constant interaction between the organisms and the external physical environment. An improper interaction between them in the ecosystem brings about eco-crisis. In this respect, every action that an organism, be it biotic or non-biotic, performs has its impact on the total ecosystem and therefore it plays an important role in determining the environmental change for the betterment or for the worse.

With the development of human civilization, it is the central quest of human beings to fulfill the desires that they have. The fulfillment then eventually will lead them to a prosperous future. People have thought of every possible way to fulfill their desires. Finally with the development of science and technology, people have come to the peak of the material development. The contributions made by the science and technology of present day to improve the living of human lives are enormous. But the frequent occurrences of natural disasters, unlimited number of diseases, accidents, killings, and bloodsheds lead us to the conclusion that they have also brought about proportionate threats to the total environment. At this point, people are wondering about the underlying causes responsible for the arising the environmental crisis? Can this environmental crisis be totally eliminated or at least be minimized and how?

Now when human life itself facing a threat to its very existence, people are looking for a better philosophy by which environmental crisis can be minimized, and through this a better life is possible. In this paper I shall try to put forward the Buddha’s concern of the environmental problems expounded especially in the discourses of D?gha Nik?ya.

02. D?gha Nik?ya (DN)

Buddhism primarily pertains to liberation [vimutti] from suffering [dukkha]. The discourses in D?gha Nik?ya are of no difference as far as this objective is concerned. But, what makes D?gha N?k?ya distinct from other canonical texts are its lengthy presentation, and the historical facts that it presents. It reveals the social, intellectual and spiritual milieu in which Buddhism was expounded by Gotama Buddha. According to G. K. Wijesekera; ”the D?gha Nik?ya, thus, could justifiably be called a mine of information about religious, social, economic and political conditions of India prior to and during the time of the Buddha.”[2]

It has been often doubted whether Buddhism originating in those remote past social and environmental conditions can at all be useful to mitigate the present day environmental problems unknown in the past. Further, Ian Harris remarks that it is impossible to establish an environmental ethic[3] asserting the Buddhist theory of anicca and dukkha. Of course, this view has already been refuted by Dr. P.D. Premasiri in his “Ecological Teachings in early Buddhism” arguing that dukkha does not exist in the change itself, but in one who has the wrong attitudes towards it.[4] The right attitude toward the natural environment[5] is ‘understanding the nature as it is’ [yath?bh?tañ?nadassana?] and therefore acting positively.[6]A close examination of the D?gha Nik?ya reveals that the methods that the Buddha had adopted to address the environmental problems of his time could well be used to mitigate social and environmental problems arisen currently. Moreover, as the teachings of Gotama Buddha emphasizes the conditioned co-production [pa?iccasamupp?da] of phenomena, the relationship between human and nature in this respect is not to be neglected. Thus, we see numerous passages in the different texts of the Tipi?aka revealing the importance of the environmental protection.

Buddhist Solutions to address the eco-crisis of today could be drawn from two perspectives:

1.    The Buddha’s active participation against instances harmful to eco-system; such as mass-sacrifice of animals, and

2.     Buddhist philosophical aspects that have practical appeal to modern ecological discourses.

03. Root Cause of Eco-crisis

A fundamental question that Buddhism seeks to answer regards the root causes of this eco-crisis. Although modern environmentalists analysed and ascertained the facts relating to various social, political, technological, and economical factors conditioning ecpcrisis, the root cause, according to Buddhism, is ‘craving’ [ta?h?] which is caused by human ignorance [avijj?]. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, emphasizing the facts says, “It is due to Ignorance, greed and lack of respect for the earth’s living things that the destruction of nature and natural resources occurs.[7] ” The Sang?ti sutta enumerates seven latent tendencies [anusya-s] or proclivities[8]relating to this assertion. When one is freed from them, one becomes an ?rya-puggala [noble person]. By him then no harmful activities are committed. A detailed exposition of an ?rya-puggala who is free from the latent tendencies and his constructive engagement to the society is explicated in the discussion of Samaññaphalasutta of DN. Kevaddhasutta of DN elucidates that it is through an education in the system of self training that such state of noble personality is obtained.

To explicate in a practical example, in this respect, a person living in a definite circle with some existential views of his own may not be concerned much about the harmful environmental issues of which he or she is also responsible. In a way, he or she is neglectful and in another, ignorant of the environmental ethics that he or she ought to follow to maintain a healthy ecosystem. For this Buddhism would command for a mass-awareness to activate the environmental ethics and theories internalizing them into every individual. For this mass-awakening, the students of natural sciences and environmental studies have much to contribute.

04. The True Sacrifice according to Buddhism

One of the major concerns of the Buddha was challenging the unjust Brahmanic practices that harmed not only the society but also the environment. Mass sacrifices resulting in killing of our fellow beings causing environmental pollution is condemned in both K???adanta and P?y?si suttas of DN. In fact, much of the social teachings of Gotama Buddha were against the Brahmanic social setting where the rigid caste system and sacrifices in the names of gods and for the sake of holiness were prevalent. The caste system was not only responsible for unequal social structure but also for much of social injustices under the Brahmin hegemony. Mass sacrificing of animals, on the other hand, demanded vast disintegration of state economy while hundreds of animals were mercilessly slaughtered vastly damaging the eco-system.

In K??adanta sutta, Gotama Buddha, instead of mass sacrifices of living beings, presented six kinds of gradually higher sacrifices[9] in which neither any being is slain nor any sort of environmental pollution is done. These sacrifices are said to be less difficult and less troublesome, bearing greater fruit and greater advantage.[10] Gotama Buddha emphasized that one should sacrifice the evil tendencies that often influence a person in brutal activities bringing about unhappy consequences. To the Brahmin K??adanta who wanted to establish peace by sacrificing hundreds of animals when the country was facing anarchy, the Buddha proposed for constructive peaceful means not by bloodshed or punishing the wrong doers. These decrees for internal reformation of the wrong-doers at the root level of his or her mind, and by providing for his or her needs justly by the state not letting him or her adopt any illegal methods. Utilizing any force or violence against him or er may not totally eliminate the anarchy as problems always remain.[11]

Sacrifices committed today are not like those according to the Brahminism but for foods and various medical and scientific purposes where humans use animals as they wish. Moreover, people are even killing animals for fun. Therefore, various species are being depleted disturbing the eco-system.

05. The Superiority Concept

The idea of supremacy of the Brahmins among the four castes, centralizing on social, religious, and to some extant political powers, is also responsible for the social and environmental pollutions. Like the Brahmanic idea of supremacy, Man for centuries considered himself as superior to all the beings including even women, and believed that only man has the authority to use other living and non-living things as he pleases. This view, according to Prof. Dr. P.D. Premasiri, was popularized by the Judeo-Christian worldview. According to the Judeo-Christian myth of genesis, man is created in the image of God and therefore man has the complete authority to utilize other living and non-living things according to his will.[12] The Buddha had constantly fought against this idea of supremacy, as evident in the Amba??ha sutta, So?ada??a sutta and the Aggañña sutta of DN, establishing the fact that one may be considered superior or inferior only by morality, humanity, and intelligence but not by mere claims. The Buddha equalizes the position of all the living beings depending on our emotions that life is dear to all and no one wants to be hurt. A morally degenerated person causing harm to social peace, according to Buddhism, is inferior even to animals.

06. The Teaching of morality

The root cause of all the social and environmental problems, as indicated above, is craving latent in the human-psychology. This fact has been emphasized in the Aggañña sutta where it is said that psychological changes [referring to the arising of the evil mentalities such as greed, hatred, and desire] in human beings has two fold effects.

1.    Internal [ajjhatta]: With the arising of greed when those beings that came down from Brahma world and were indulged into various sensual pleasures, they gradually lost their self-luminosity [sayampabh?] etc.

2.    External [bahiddha]: Their involvement in various sensual pleasures and arising of various unskillful mentalities in them brought about a total environmental change. E.g.: the food became gradually coarser, to the extent that they did not have enough food to eat and that led them to steal food from others’ field. Thus conflict came into being.[13]

This observation establishes the relationship between human mind and external world. Prof. Lily De Silva also emphasizes, in relation to Aggañña sutta, “Buddhism believes that though change is a factor inherent in nature, man’s moral deterioration accelerates the process of change and brings about changes which are adverse to human well being and happiness.”[14]

06. State Responsibility and Proper Leadership

According to Buddhism, for the protection of total environmental wellbeing, good leadership is crucial. Mah?sudassana sutta and Cakkavattis?hanada sutta talk about a universal king under whose rule the whole country with its men, animal and the natural environment enjoy a peaceful and harmonious living. According to Cakkavattis?han?dasutta the corruption and deterioration in society occur when there is no good interrelationship between various social, economic and moral factors. This sutta talks about a king who rules the country according to the law [dhamma]. Mah?sudassana sutta also points out when the ruler becomes dishonest, cruel, various social problems occur in the country. A king or leader becomes dishonest when he is controlled by various unskillful mentalities such as greed, power and so on. In today’s society, this is an obvious phenomenon in the sphere of leadership. Each country today wants to be more powerful than the other. Therefore, they are putting a major portion of the total wealth in the country’s defence system in producing various weapons. They are also putting a lot of energy for the material development thinking that people in the country will lead a happy and prosperous life. But the actual situation is otherwise. People are always living in fear.

When various powerful weapons are constantly being produced in developed countries, in the developing and undeveloped countries, people are greatly suffering from hunger, disease and various other defects in life. Moreover, in testing those nuclear weapons to prepare for the potential threats of wars, not only vast money is wasted, but also the environment is polluted by the by products of nuclear tests which immensely damage the environment.

With the fast growing material progress, spirituality slows down. People temporarily become happy with their material life, but they lose their moral values. Therefore, bloodshed, various strange kinds of disease, killing, terrorist activities, accidents, various natural disasters like tsunami, earthquake, flood, cyclone, and other disasters become epic and dire. Foreseeing the potential danger of material development, therefore the Buddha in the P?y?si Sutta says the emphasis on materialism is harmful to the wellbeing of the people, herein and hereafter.[15]

 07. Conclusion

Although Buddhism is primarily concerned with the liberation of beings from the suffering world, it does not ignore the conventional life of people. That is why we see in a number of discourses in the Tipi?aka that the Buddha suggests a way of life by which a happy, healthy and prosperous living is possible. In fact, in the early Buddhist ethical teaching, the Buddha explains that one should reflect, like a mirror, before performing, while performing, and after performing an action, whether the action is harmful to oneself, to others, or to both. One should not perform such action that is harmful to anyone. On the contrary, one should perform such action that is beneficial to everybody. Not only by speaking against actions, such as mass sacrifices of animals by Brahmins, but also the Buddha contributed his thoughts on eco-friendly living. Through his discourse on the Buddhist fundamental philosophical doctrine like the conditioned co-production, he revealed the intimate relationship between Man and nature.


1.    D?ghanik?ya (The long Discourses of the Buddha), trans. By Maurie Walshe. Boston; Wisdom Publication, 1987.

2.    Silva, Lily De. The Buddhist Attitude Towards Nature, in Buddhist Perspectives on the Ecocrisis, edited by Klas Sandell, The Wheel Publication, BPS, Kandy, 1987.

3.    Silva, Padmasiri De. In Search of a Buddhist Environmental Ethics, in Buddhist Perspectives on the Ecocrisis, edited by Klas Sandell, The Wheel Publication, BPS, Kandy, 1987.

4.    Ecological Teaching in Early Buddhism by P.D. Premasiri.

5.    Harris, Ian. Buddhism and Ecology, in ‘Contemporary Buddhist ethics’, edited by Damien Keown. Curzon Press, 2000.

6.    Schmithausen, Lambert. The Problem of the Sentience of Plants in Earliest Buddhism.Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1991.

7.    Schmithausen, Lambert. Buddhism and nature. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1991.

1. Microsoft Encarta Premium 2006.

2. Encyclopedia of Buddhism, vol. ΙV. p. 611.

3. Ian Harris, p.122.

4. Premasiri, P.D. p.20.

5. Here it should be kept in mind that Nature or Natural Environment is the original form of anything and everything without any human intervention or influence.

6. Acting positively referring to actions performed by one, who has developed insight into the three characteristics of things and therefore is devoid of having ontological commitment, clinging or attachment to both conditioned and unconditioned things.

7. The Dalai Lama, His Holiness. An Ethical Approach to Environmental Protection. p. 7. The article is published in the book titled ‘Buddhist perspectives o the Ecocrisis’ – edited by Klas Sandell [Kandy: BPS, 1983].

8. The seven latent tendencies (satta-anusay?) are: obsession with sensual passion (k?mar?g?nusayo), with resistance (pa?igh?nusaya), with views (di??h?nusaya), with uncertainty (vicikicch?nusaya), with conceit (m?n?nusaya), with passion for becoming (bhavar?g?nusaya), and with ignorance (avijj?nusaya).

9. The six kinds of gradually higher sacrifices as enumerated in the Ku?adantasutta of DN. [BPS edition] are – 1. the threefold sacrifice with sixteen attributes, 2. giving regular family gifts to virtuous ascetics, 3. providing shelter for sangha (community of holy sages) coming from four directions, 4. going for refuge to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, 5. undertaking precepts, and 6. the gradual practice of Buddha’s teachings of morality leading to the attainment of jhanas and various insights and ultimately the cessation of corruptions.

10. imin? ca vih?rad?nena appa??hataro ca appasam?rambhataro ca mahapphalataro ca mah?nisa?sataro c?”ti.

11. Ku?adanta sutta of DN. [Wisdom Publication] p.135.

12. Premasiri, P.D. p.5.

13. Aggaññasutta of DN.

14. Silva, Lily De. The Buddhist Attitude toward Nature’ p. 12. In ‘Buddhist perspectives o the Ecocrisis’ – edited by Klas Sandell [Kandy: BPS, 1983].

15. Encyclopedia of Buddhism, vol. ΙV. p. 614.

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