Zen Buddhism And Environmental Ethics

Is Zen Anthropocentric?

Simon P. James begins his chapter on Zen Buddhism and environmental ethics by briefly summarizing his first chapter in which he makes the argument that Zen is “neither amoral nor immoral but can be perceived in terms of virtue ethics” (58) on the grounds that there is no strict list things that should be done and should not be done, but rather the Zen Buddhist should act in a way that is in accordance to his achieving Buddhahood (within insight, compassion and good intentions). He then takes up the charge that Zen is inherently anthropocentric, responding, “it seems perfectly reasonable to hold that valuing nature non-instrumentally-that is, valuing it for its own sake rather than for its usefulness- is constitutive of human excellence” (60). In support of supposition, he draws on Aristotle’s views on friendship and caring for fiends for their sake(60). James also notes that the Buddhist’s “cultivation of self takes the form of a decentering of the self and a concern for a wider network of life” (61).

Sentient Beings and the Buddha-nature

James next explores the similarities between Zen and utilitarianism. The strongest connection, is seems, is that both hold sentient beings, because they have the capacity to feel pain, are included in the moral circle. Zen moves beyond utilitarianism in the value it places on non-violence and that “all sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature and are therefore ultimately destined for Buddhahood” (James 62). Because the Buddhist believes in reincarnation, all sentient beings are in the process of reaching Buddhahood, and that a squirrel, for example, may have been a friend or family member in a previous life (63). This belief, then, would maintain that “all animals are also equal in their potential for Buddhahood” (63), which is in itself non-anthropocentric.

Living Beings and the Buddha-nature

James extends the reach of the moral circle further by saying that animals, plants and even mountains and rivers (ecosystems) are also considered to be part of the path to Buddhahood (65). Some Buddhists conceive plants, rivers and mountains “as being spiritually superior to humans” (66) on the grounds that, while humans have to condition themselves to reach Buddhahood, these natural entities represent the Buddha as they are. With these beliefs, Zen moves beyond the utilitarianism to something more holistic—something that recognizes not just the value that individual entities have in themselves but the value they have in relation to the environment whole.
This leads to ethical holism and whether Zen would fit into this school of ethics. Like Aldo Leopold, Zen places “no clear line between a moral concern for nature an aesthetic appreciation for it” ( James 73). Considering the importance of the beauty of the haiku or the tea ceremony, James suggests that through this appreciation, the Buddhist “gradually becomes gentler with all things” (73). James also points out that Zen and ethical holism both stress the importance of having awareness of nature in its entirety (74). The two fall apart from each other in that the extreme holist finds value in a being when it contributes to the good of the whole (an invasive species, for instance, disturbing the health of an ecosystem would lose its value because it would not be productive to the whole, and could, in turn, be removed). For the Zen Buddhist, a being cannot lose its value (76). In the example of the invasive species, the Buddhist would be allowed to remove it, but only in a compassionate way, and, unlike the extreme ethical holists, its removal would not be an obligation (76).

Zen and Deep Ecology

Last, James turns to deep ecology as the best fit for a Zen ethic. For James, Zen Buddhism and deep ecology “are though to share a commitment to the general idea that right (that is ‘eco-friendly’ action will not be generated through the ‘external’ pressure of moral exhortations to behave in environmentally-appropriate ways, but will arise naturally from an ‘internal’ transformation in how one sees the world” (77). This transformation of seeing the world comes with the process of enlightenment, as rejecting the autonomous self and understanding the interdependence one shares with the world (77). Deep ecology and Zen both hold that an ethic, with its prescribed set of rules, cannot be as effective in persuading people to care for the environment as learning to “see the world aright” (79). While some deep ecologists, like Naess, describe “self-realization” as recognizing “one’s identity with some metaphysical Absolute” (79), which Zen would disagree with, James thinks that Zen finds its most comfortable fit within deep ecology.

While this was a fascinating chapter, and I agree with much that James has to say, it seems that this is, like J. Aaron Simmons' article on an Evangelical environmental ethic, geared more towards those that practice the religion at hand. For those that reject the beliefs and concepts of Zen Buddhism (consider American Evangelical Christians for instance), these arguments might come across as ridiculous, and so, standing alone, I cant see this as an being politically viable. As James points out, the Buddhist conception of nature is very similar to deep ecology, so could his intention in writing this have been to provide an Eastern foundation for the deep ecology movement?

The Intrinsic Value of Nature

Chapter four of Zen Buddhism and Environmental Ethics treats an issue which is prevalent in the literature of environmental ethics, the intrinsic value of nature through the lens of Zen Buddhism. James notes the differences, laid out in chapter three, between Zen Buddhism and several popular formulations of environmental ethics, namely Peter Singer's Utilitarianism and Aldo Leopold's ethical holism. However, the introduction to this chapter also points to possible parallels between the Deep Ecology movement and Zen Buddhism in the assumption of nature's intrinsic value. As this assumption of such value usually requires some philosophical qualification, James moves to field some objections to this potential agreement.

The initial objections to justifying the notion of nature's intrinsic value by way of Zen Buddhism rest on the assumption that such an account would combine incompatible notions of the nature of reality. In order to explain Zen's view of reality, James discusses the teaching of emptiness. The primary foundations for this teaching are the interrelatedness and impermanence of all things. No objects contain a fixed nature, something independent of the conditions which generated them. James terms this lacking an absence of "self-existence." At this point, the question is raised whether such an emptiness would allow for any intrinsic properties, much less the existence of intrinsic value. However, James implies that such a conception would betray a simplistic view of both intrinsic value and Zen's devotion to the teaching of emptiness.

According to James, the incongruity between the views of reality arises from an assumed dichotomy between intrinsic and relational value, while supposing all values relational would not preclude the existence of intrinsic value in nature. Most environmental ethicists recognize the value of an organism or species as arising from its relation to an environment, not apart from it. Intrinsic value, such as defined by G. E. Moore, seems impossible to defend if taken as a non-relational abstraction. The point of stressing the intrinsic value of an organism, mountain, or ecosystem arises in light of an over-emphasized instrumental value of said entity.

Moving forward, James notes an implied recognition of nature's intrinsic value in the poetic writings of Dogen. Key figures in the Deep Ecology movement, such as Arne Naess, cite Dogen's depictions of natural scenes as "a major inspiration." But how does this relate to a philosophical defense of intrinsic value? The smaller, less grandiose natural phenomena are given equal weight as other, more imposing sights, in expressing the universal nature of reality. From here, the more confusing discussion ensues.

The Interconnectedness of Emptiness

Enlightenment is, understandably, a tricky subject. To understand the ultimate nature of reality would be to achieve quite a feat, but James attempts to shortly outline what is required in an adequate view of the teaching of emptiness. Emptiness, or the lack of self-existence, entails the interconnectedness of all entities, while not endorsing a view of their non-existence.

Emptiness as presented in experience, rather than as an abstraction, further complicates matters. James clarifies, "It is said that sunyata cannot be encapsulated in words, but must be experienced directly, in enlightenment," (90). Of course, then such an experience of emptiness would rely on one's achievement of enlightenment, but James raises probable objections, resonating with Andrew's criticisms of chapter three. For example, James inquires, "I am not enlightened, so how can I possibly imagine what it is like to experience emptiness? Moreover, even if I could claim some insight into these matters, how could I convey this experience into words?" (90). To give a useful answer to these questions, James delves into a deeper dissection of the teaching of emptiness.

Zen Buddhists such as Dogen claim that knowing emptiness corresponds to seeing the universe within an object. This principle, taken as an abstraction, presents difficulties on the level of metaphysical impossibility. However, James explains this belief by way of a logical experiment, the conclusion of which entails the proposition that “any particular thing is in reality not a distinct entity related in various ways to other entities, but some sort of whole, one encompassing all those entities which it at first appeared to be distinct from and related to,” (92). Still, this explanation appears to be merely a language game. Reference to an object entails all those entities to which the object is related, but does not mean explicitly that the object contains those entities.

The nihilistic interpretation of emptiness would seem to imply the dissolution of all objects into an "undifferentiated field," in which discrete objects cannot be found. However, instances of "awakening" in the teachings of Zen Buddhism refer to a process of perspectives. The nihilistic interpretation may hold ground as a necessary step toward a greater understanding of this emptiness-yet-universality. Somewhat ambiguously, emptiness would entail its own emptiness, an idea which conflicts with the nihilistic view of an undifferentiated field. Such a field would be self-existent, not revealing further emptiness. James rejects the nihilistic interpretation on these grounds. Interpreting the teaching of emptiness to end in a single undifferentiated field as Absolute would reveal one's having "become attached to emptiness, fixated by the void, and to have therefore fallen short of the thoroughgoing non-attachment that would mark a genuine appreciation of sunyata," (95).

So, things are necessary for one's awakening, to be able to see the universe of things within a single object. However, the simple fact of an object’s existence would seem to entail not the literal existence of all things within it but rather that meditation reveals the whole universe of interrelations which produced the object. Apparently, such a view would imply the external relations of discrete objects. Instead we should, as practitioners of Zen, view sunlight, leaves, trees, dirt, sky, and one's mind as being contained within a chair, but not as distinct things. As paradoxical as this view may seem, James compares the idea to Western conceptions of whole stories, lengthy experiences, being crystallized in seemingly useless trinkets. Nevertheless, this formulation of the "condensation" of reality is primarily figurative, not the apparently literal interpretation given by Zen Buddhists.

At certain points in this article, when James is not entertaining objections toward their logical outcomes, the teachings of Zen Buddhism seem to mesh well with certain formulations of "nature's intrinsic value." For example, Thich Nhat Hanh believes that "meditators can see the one in many, and the many in the one," (95). Such ideas could both generate a deeper understanding of the natural world and point toward a "higher spiritual register," (95). If not one, then surely the other is possible. At any rate, James concludes this section (though not the chapter) by critiquing the "astonishing yogic feats" lauded in some other Buddhist schools. Zen thus functions to reject the existence of something beyond objects themselves; if the universe can be seen within a grain of sand, no "antecedent reality" guarantees this relationship. Nonetheless, as James notes in the last section of our limited version of the chapter, this conception of Zen Buddhism's teaching of emptiness does not necessarily entail the intrinsic value to be found in nature. Likewise, if the teaching of emptiness holds, we can never find such intrinsic value; it can only be said that the nihilistic interpretation against intrinsic value is poorly constructed, not that we can then assume such value. Indeed, the section entitled "Identification" draws attention to this problem but then begins to grapple with it by returning to the issue of emptiness. I'm left to wonder if the intrinsic value of various natural entities must be relegated to relative value within an ecosystem, not as something in itself. It would seem as though Zen Buddhism does not support such valuations of nature, at least, not in the mode propounded by the Deep Ecologists.

: James, Simon P. Zen Buddhism and Environmental Ethics. Ashgate: Hampshire, 2004. Print. : full source reference
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