Buddhism and Ecology: A Virtue Ethics Approach

Keown, Damien V.. 2007. Buddhism and Ecology: A Virtue Ethics Approach. Contemporary Buddhism, 8(2), pp. 97-112. ISSN 1463-9947 [Article]

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Introduction: Whether Buddhism has a compelling ecological dimension or not has been a much discussed question in recent years. I think I should put my cards on the table at the outset and say that I count myself among the sceptics in this respect. I see little evidence that the Buddha or his followers, at least down to modern times, have been greatly concerned with questions of ecology. If anything, there is more evidence of a negative presupposition about the value and status of the natural world in Buddhism. In contrast to Christian teachings, the world was not created by God who, as the book of Genesis tells us (vv.9ff), saw that his creation was 'good', and being good, worthy to be preserved. On the contrary, in Buddhism there seems to be an acceptance, even an expectation that the world will decline. This is thought of as a basic characteristic of the cosmic order: the eventual destruction of the environment is a basic feature of saṃsāra, and exactly what we should expect. Efforts to prevent it may therefore be seen as naive and deluded and contrary to a proper understanding of Dharma, or natural law. Against this background I see no obvious basis on which to address specific ecological questions, such as whether the world is a better place with the black rhino in it than without it. In general, Buddhism seems not to regard the conservation of nature as anything more than a prudential matter, and we are given no explicit reasons as to why we might have have a moral obligation to preserve it. It has to be recognized, furthermore, that the concerns of ecology are essentially modern ones, and the ecological problems we face today such as greenhouses gases and global warming are only intelligible against the background of a scientific understanding of the world. Until Buddhism updates its ancient cosmology it is not clear how it will take part in a dialogue which is conducted in the vocabulary of modern science. Although there are certainly many Buddhists today who have an excellent knowledge of science, it seems to me that the intellectual core of the tradition still conceives of the natural world in pre-modern terms. For the present at least, therefore, I do not see Buddhism as in a position to offer convincing answer to modern ecological problems. I agree with Ian Harris that Buddhism’s ecological credentials are far from being conclusively established, and I also share the view that much recent interest in this area is driven by Westerners pursuing a green agenda. The American Buddhist and writer on ecology Stephanie Kaza herself disarmingly admits ‘At this point it is unclear whether ecological practices are primarily motivated by Buddhist tradition or by American environmentalism.’ Lest this prologue sound unduly negative, let me hasten to add that as we are all aware Buddhism is not a monolithic structure, and some strands or traditions may be more or less resourceful than others in addressing environmental issues. For example, Schmithausen has contrasted what he calls the ‘pro-civilization strand’ with the ‘hermit strand.’ There are also certain underlying features of Buddhist moral teachings that may be conducive to the development of an environmental philosophy. What I wish to do in this paper is to explore one of these by drawing on the Western tradition of virtue ethics and providing an introductory sketch of how it might provide a foundation for ecology in Buddhism.

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Date of publication not yet known. (October 2007)


Buddhism; ecology

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29 October 2007Published

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17 Oct 2007

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29 Apr 2020 15:28

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