In a now-classic manuscript published nearly a half-century ago in the journal Science, historian Lynn White argued that “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” derive from a Western religious tradition that itself dates from more than thirty-five centuries ago . That tradition, initially espoused by a largely nomadic, mostly illiterate, early Bronze Age tribe of desert-dwellers, not only separated humanity – i.e., themselves - from the rest of the natural world, but also claimed Old Testament sanction for the view that nature exists for them (which is to say, us) and, moreover, that it is therefore our God-given right – in fact, our obligation – to exploit it, even to the point of outright abuse.
Here is Genesis 1: 28, from the King James version of the Bible: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” This extraordinary societal and theological hubris – all the subduing and having of dominion - is not only a personal, biological and Buddhistic absurdity, it is as persistent as it has been downright destructive.
In this regard, we might take at least some comfort from the several ecumenical movements in the West that have begun to espouse “faith-based stewardship,” intended to counter that troublesome Abrahamic theology of human centrality. The idea, in brief, is that human beings have a responsibility to care for God’s creation, such that “dominion” includes protective responsibility. But even as we might applaud this development, it is difficult not to register a small shudder of distrust, because even so laudable an enterprise as human “stewardship” still revolves around the stubborn, persistent idea that We Are Special .
In a sense, there isn’t all that much difference between claiming on the one hand that nature exists for human beings to exploit, and, on the other, urging that it exists for us to protect. Either way, Homo sapiens is presumed to occupy a uniquely privileged place in the cosmic scheme, one that distinguishes us from everything else. Even an ethic of stewardship takes it for granted that we and the natural world are separate and distinct, and also that we were created for a purpose, part of which happens to involve taking care of nature – of something external to us .
Better, of course, to take care of nature than to exploit it, but as Buddhists are likely to conclude, nature is quite capable of taking care of itself … except, perhaps, when people insist on messing it up. And any fair, open-minded look at the world we inhabit – and of which we are an integral part, just as it is a part of us – must conclude that we have messed it up quite a lot. There is also no avoiding the fact that human actions have done and continue to do a great deal of harm to other human beings as well - not simply insofar as Homo sapiens are part of the greater worldwide ecosystem but as a consequence of how our actions ramify directly into human social systems.
The First Precept of Buddhism is ahimsa ("Do no harm"). Like many such precepts, it is lovely in theory, yet impossible in practice: Even if one elects to be vegetarian—and not all Buddhists do—no one can survive without doing harm to carrots, broccoli, rice grains, etc. Buddhism’s First Precept therefore shares something with G. K. Chesterton’s famous observation about Christianity; namely, that it has not been tried and found wanting but rather, found difficult and left untried. It is not just difficult, but literally impossible for people to live without inflicting some sort of harm upon other living beings.
To take an extreme case, strict Jains insist that when walking along a sidewalk they must be preceded by sweepers whose job is to brush away any tiny, unseen organisms, lest they be stepped upon. Such doctrine strikes most of us as ridiculous. Nonetheless, it is not only possible but also desirable—if not essential—to live in a way that minimizes unnecessary harm, a path that is described in Buddhism's "Eightfold Way" and, in modernized form, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s “14 Precepts” of the Tien Hiep Order of “Interbeing.” Just as the hurtful approach of Judeo-Christian doctrine toward the natural world can be seen as emerging largely from Genesis, the Buddhist-promoted desirability of a thoughtful, protective and supportive attitude toward our planet generally and toward “all sentient beings” in particular derives from its biology-friendly concepts, which lead directly to modern, “engaged Buddhism.”
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time Buddhist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, whose most recent book is Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science, just published by Oxford University Press.