by Paul O. Ingram

Interdependence is at the heart of environmentalism -- and of Christianity and Buddhism -- and everything else.

PAUL O. INGRAM is Professor of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University and the author of Wrestling with the Ox: A Theology of Religious Experience.

Three years ago on a wet Pacific Northwest morning in November, I stumbled across the bridge that hangs over the creek in front of my house to fetch the morning paper. A splash on my right brought me up short: a great blue heron shrouded in ground fog snapping up salmon fingerlings. It stopped feeding and pinned me to the bridge with a golden-eyed stare for what seemed like several minutes. I was stunned to silence. Then without sound, its great wings lifted it up and it glided straight toward me, never taking its eyes from mine, and, at the last second, dove under the bridge. I turned just in time to see it rise up on the other side and dissolve into mist. A sudden gust of Arctic air rushing through Western hemlocks brought me back to my senses, and I retreated to my house with my morning paper to begin my day.

Whenever I reflect on nature, memories of my encounter with a blue heron haunt my thoughts like a Chinese hungry ghost. A Lakota friend of mine, who is also a shaman, thinks the blue heron is my spirit guide. Perhaps. I also think I have encountered what Loren Eisley once called a "hidden teacher" who has posed for me the central question of environmental ethics: how should human beings live in harmony with the forces of nature that nurture all living things inhabiting the Earth? This essay is about what my hidden teacher, and other more explicit teachers, have taught me about environmental ethics.

The Ecological Relevance and Ambiguity of Religious World Views

As religious world views distinguish the human species from all other life-forms, so too does humanity's presence on this planet distinguish the ecology of Earth from other places in the known universe. As Lawrence E. Sullivan puts it, "Religious life and Earth's ecology are inextricably linked."(1) This is so because what human beings believe about nature is the distinctive contribution our human species makes to Earth's ecology itself. From the point of view of history of religions, the evidence clearly suggests that religious world views, through myth and ritual, model human attitudes and relations to nature by transmitting attitudes of mind and habits of practice to succeeding generations. They do so by engendering fundamental predispositions toward the world because, by their very nature, religious traditions are all-encompassing for at least three reasons.

First, religious world views probe behind secondary appearances and focus human attention and imagination on first-order realities: life at its origins, creativity in its fullest expression, death and suffering at the root of all existence, the possibility of renewal and salvation. These are "primordial" ideas, the "revelation of first things," and as such they have always moved human communities everywhere to interaction with nature.(2) Second, religious world views are all-encompassing because as they provide human beings with a view of nature; they simultaneously generate images of humanity's own position in nature through our capacity for self-reflection and symbolic thought. Thus as all-encompassing, religious ideas do not only relate to other ideas as equals for religious human beings, they constitute a mind-set within which all sorts of ideas commingle in a cosmology. Which means, third, that religious world views are singular because they draw the natural order into a picture of the universe that occurs only in the religious imagination.

Of course from the point of view of environmental studies, the risk of religious world views is that they can, and have, spawned exploitation of nature. Still, religious world views accomplish something secular world-views do not: by affirming a picture of sacred realities that can be compared, contrasted, and interrelated with that which is merely given in ordinary experience, they assert that sense perception and imagination do not give us the whole truth about existence, that "this isn't all there is." As a result, a self-conscious relationship with nature is spelled out that specifies humanity's ideal roles, limits, and responsibilities.

However, the limitations of religious worldviews must also be recognized. The complexity of today's ecological problems require interlocking contributions from the natural sciences, economics, politics, health, and public policy. As we struggle with rethinking humanity's relation with nature, and as we try to contribute to the creation of a globally relevant environmental ethic, the religious traditions of humanity are a necessary, but only contributing, part of this multidisciplinary approach. Here also it is important to reflect on the dark side of religious history and ask how religious traditions themselves have contributed to the ecological damage human beings have foisted on this planet. Questions abound. Why have religious traditions everywhere been so late in their involvement with environmental issues? Have issues of personal salvation traditionally superseded all other issues? Have divine-human relations been so primary that all other forms of relatedness are driven to the periphery of consciousness? Has an anthropocentric bias been at the heart of religious faith and practice wherever it has existed? Does a search for transcendent realities override commitment to the world? Did the religious traditions simply surrender their natural theologies to positivist scientific cosmologies? Have not religious traditions themselves engendered individual and institutionalized manipulation of power that fosters wars, ignores racial and social injustice, promotes unjust gender relations, and exploits nature? We should not underplay this dark side.

Yet an equally realistic evaluation is also necessary. The dark side of religious history should not automatically invalidate the complex world views and cosmologies of humanity's religious traditions as conceptual sources for reflecting, in interrelation with other disciplines, on the structure of a globally relevant environmental ethic. Consequently, the thesis of this essay is that interdependence is a foundational principle of environmental ethics, because not only is interdependence emerging as the principle category within the natural sciences for understanding natural processes, interdependence is also a fundamental category within the world views of humanity's religious traditions, in this essay exemplified by Buddhism and Christianity. Substantiating this thesis requires further reflection on what H. Paul Santmire calls the "ambiguous ecological promise" of Christian theology.(3) Lewis Lancaster also notes the existence of ecological ambiguity in the history of Buddhist teaching and practice as well.(4) Accordingly, some reflection on the ecological promise of Buddhist and Christian tradition is in order.

* * *

Duncan Ryuken Williams writes:

When one reviews the history of the interface of Buddhism and environmentalism, the overwhelming tendency has been to define the Buddhist contribution to environmentalism in terms of the most idealized notion of what Buddhism is. . . What is troubling, however, is the tendency to define Buddhist ecological worldviews in contradistinction to other religious traditions, such that the worst actual practices of Christianity and other traditions are contrasted with the best, most ideal components of Buddhism.(5)

Lancaster agrees and specifically asks whether Buddhism can help us find relevant principles for developing a contemporary environmental ethic.(6) For Christians engaged in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, the issue to which Sullivan points also involves: (1) whether there are resources within classical Christian thought that can be used as an entry point for ecological discussion with Buddhist thought and practice, and (2) if so, what these resources are. There is also a methodological issue: how can Buddhists and Christians avoid the inclination to use contemporary perceptions and cultural backgrounds as a filter through which we interpret Buddhist and Christian history for ecologically relevant ideas and practices? Unless we understand the historical contexts of our contemporary collective perceptions, we risk uncritically ripping supportive fragments of Buddhist and Christian texts from their historical contexts as we import them into our own. The end result will be that the full force and power of useful Buddhist and Christian ecological teachings and practices may be deflected by our collective unawareness of our perceptions and cultural history.

To cite but one current Buddhist example, Lancaster notes that one of the important elements of ecological discussion is the role of industry, transnational corporations, and commerce in all its forms. After all, it is not possible to discuss the cutting of old growth forests, the pollution of waterways, or toxic emissions into the atmosphere without discussing capital and mercantile activity. Yet in much of the discussion occurring among environmentalists, contemporary perceptions of bankers, merchants, and money changers are summoned forth, and business people and corporate executives are then seen as greedy and uncaring sources of our contemporary ecological problems. Indeed, much contemporary ecological discourse takes just this form of attack against business persons.

Lancaster points to a quite different picture in Buddhist history and texts. From its origins, Buddhist tradition has been a religion of merchants, and the spread of Buddhism was primarily accomplished by merchants. The Buddha taught kings and secured economic support for the Samgha from merchant disciples. One of his most important lay-disciples was the money changer Anathapindika, who gave financial support to the Buddha's monastic disciples who needed it. Thus Buddhist tradition has a much more positive perception of merchants than we do in Anglo-American cultural history. Buddhists depended on merchants and held them in high esteem and directed much of their teaching efforts toward this lay group. Furthermore, some merchants developed their understanding of the Dharma sufficiently to allow them to teach and convert. The positive role of the merchant-layperson in the transmission of Buddhist tradition today is as important as it was in ancient India. So if contemporary ecological discourse assumes a rejection of this group, one of the pillars of the Buddhist community will be uncritically excluded from ecological conversation.

Furthermore, as primarily an urban movement in India, early Buddhist teaching about nature is ambiguous. This ambiguity can be illustrated by the transmission of the Buddhist movement from India to China, which promoted opposing Buddhist perceptions of nature. In the Ganges Valley, Buddhists experienced the forest and its life forms negatively as a source of pain, danger, and struggle. When Buddhism was transmitted to China, a quite different, more positive evaluation of nature evolved.

India during the time of the Buddha was essentially composed of "urban islands in the sea of the forest."(7) In India, the forests were dark places of suffering and pain (duhkha), a natural environment for ascetic practices meant to force the monks to confront suffering realistically. This means that the forest was regarded as a place of training for monks seeking release from rebirth in the realm of samsaric suffering, the forces of which are so graphically encountered in the forest, where life must eat other life to survive. In this view, nature and its life forms are threatening and terrifying. Nature is merely a pedagogical device for exposing the seeker to the facts of universal suffering and is not, in itself, salvific. Nor did the forest's life forms -- mammals, birds, insects -- possess intrinsic value in themselves, but only extrinsic value as they became occasions for the monk's advancement toward awakening.

By the time Buddhism arrived in China, nature "was beginning to consist of islands of mountains in a sea of cultivated fields."(8) Mostly because of Taoist tradition, the sages of China left their cultivated fields for mountains and forests as a means of renewing their humanity. With the arrival of Buddhism, the Chinese found an additional way of explaining this close relationship between humanity and nature. Thus one of the great contributions of Chinese Buddhism was the concept of Buddha nature. The doctrine that everything embodies the Buddha nature was a revolutionary development in China. Not only do all persons embody the Buddha nature, but all sentient and non-sentient things as well -- rocks, streams, lotuses, animals, insects, plants, stars, the moon, the sun. Accordingly, a person's mind -- as constituted by Buddha nature -- is in interdependent, non-dual relationship with every part of sentient and insentient nature, which also possesses the same Buddha nature. Or as Lancaster writes: "With this introduction of the idea that the mind and natural objects had the same Buddha-nature, the Chinese had at last an explanation for the power of nature."(9)

The perception that everything embodies the Buddha nature resonates with North American and European environmental writers. But we need to be mindful that Buddhist teaching regarding nature is ambiguous because nature is both negatively and positively evaluated. In looking to Buddhism for support of our ecological views, it is probably to East Asian Buddhism -- primarily the Buddhism of China, Korea, and Japan -- to which we should look. In other words, the challenge of Buddhist-Christian dialogue in reflecting on ecological issues is finding what aspect of Buddhist teaching -- and, as I shall argue, Christian teaching -- can provide the greatest aid.

This may not be as easy as it sounds. David Eckel and Ian Harris question facile assumptions that Asian, and particularly Buddhist, world views are environmentally friendly.(10) They wonder where and why Buddhism came to be seen as ecofriendly in the West, arguing that this notion is relatively recent and that the term "nature" is itself a complex and somewhat problematic term in the history of Buddhist philosophy. Alan Sponberg also observes that there are limits to what he calls "green Buddhism."(11) In particular, he questions the view that Buddhism advocates a notion of interdependence that is entirely non-hierarchical and egalitarian, and insists that there is a need to assess Buddhist tradition more accurately. According to his analysis, classical Buddhist texts often advocated a hierarchical conception of the human and the natural worlds, which means that the question is what kind of hierarchical view of natural process is ecologically appropriate, not the absence of hierarchy in ecologically sound thought.

Buddhist tradition has important ecological motifs that can contribute to the construction of a contemporary environmental ethic, particularly the principle of interdependence. Yet classical Buddhist thought may not be as replete with ecofriendly teachings as is commonly assumed by both Buddhist and non-Buddhist interpreters. Nor, as H. Paul Santmire argues, is Christian theological tradition ecologically bankrupt, as portrayed by such writers as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Thomas Sieger Derr, Sallie McFague, and Gordon Kaufman.(12) The arguments of these writers can be summarized in one generalization: Christian theology is concerned primarily with human history -- with the unfolding of the providential story of God and humanity, with God and history -- not with nature, and therefore is of necessity anthropomorphic in character and environmentally irrelevant.

That there is truth in this generalization cannot be denied. But as Santmire convincingly argues, things are not always as they seem in the history of Christian reflection on nature. He points to the presence of rich resources within Christian theological tradition which can be identified and appropriated by contemporary environmentalists. But, he warns, such resources must not only be carefully identified, they must be separated from the less promising traditions of nature that have dominated Christian theological history.

Santmire's thesis is that the ambiguity toward nature that runs throughout the history of Christian thought appears in two intermingling theological motifs, each one of which originates in Hebraic and New Testament biblical texts.(13) The first, a "spiritual motif," is predicated on the notion that the human soul rises above nature in order to ascend to communion and union with God as the soul transforms its original image of God, damaged at the Fall, into the "likeness" of God.(14) In theologies shaped by this motif, nature tends to be interpreted or evaluated dualistically in terms of "spirit" against "nature." Accordingly, the human soul must ascend toward God by rising above the physicality of nature in order to enter into union or communion with God, who is thought to be pure spirit. The second "ecological motif" is predicated on a vision of humanity's rootedness in nature and on the desire of self-consciously embodied selves to celebrate God's presence in, with, and under the whole biophysical order as the context in which human life in obedience to God is to be pursued. In this context, "ecological" points to a system of interdependent interrelationships between God, humanity, and nature, in which God's plan of redemption includes both human creatures and the creatures of nature plus the biophysical foundations of human, animal, and plant life.(15)

Three "root metaphors" cluster around the spiritual and ecological motifs, according to Santmire, which exercise formative influence on Christian theological reflection on nature: "ascent," "migration to a good land," and "fecundity." All three metaphors are mixed throughout Hebraic and New Testament texts. Furthermore, all three root metaphors occur in theological reflection on nature throughout Christian history. Whenever theological reflection on nature is guided primarily by the metaphor of ascent, the spiritual motif emerges. Whenever the metaphor of fecundity is primary, the ecological motif emerges. The metaphor of migration to a good land is a "bridge" metaphor that can be mixed with the metaphor of ascent or the metaphor of fecundity.(16) Accordingly, much depends on the root metaphors that shape any given theological system.

Santmire illustrates his thesis with an analysis of the history of the spiritual and ecological motifs in the classical tradition of Christian thought. He begins with Irenaeus, who thought chiefly in terms of the metaphor of migration to a good land. There are also signs that the metaphor of fecundity was at work in his thought, especially in his eschatological visions. Consequently, Irenaeus consistently affirmed the goodness of nature. For him, nature is tangibly good and ultimately significant, and his thought celebrates the world, both now and in the age to come. That is, his vision of God's design begins with creation and concludes with the renewal of all things -- not just human beings.

In contrast to Irenaeus, Origen's theology is dominated by the nature-denying metaphor of ascent. His theology of nature assumes a "hierarchy of being" and its consequent asymmetrical dialect of creation and redemption. Thus for Origen, all things in the natural order are created good, but nothing in the natural order below the human in the hierarchy of being is "saved" when God brings the universe to its final consummation. Nature is nothing but a stage for humanity's ascent back to God, which then collapses into nothingness once the drama of salvation is completed.(17)

Augustine's thought covers the spectrum of the spiritual and ecological motifs in Christian reflection on nature. His early thought begins with a Manichaean vision of the world that is thoroughly dominated by the metaphor of ascent and its subsequent spiritual motif: nature is degraded as something to be left behind as elected human beings ascend, by grace accompanied by ascetic self-discipline, upward through the hierarchy of beings toward "reunion" with God. But as his later thought shifts from the influences of Manichaeism, the metaphors of fecundity and migration to a good land direct his reflection, so that his theology of nature becomes thoroughly ecological. Consequently, Augustine's mature theology winds up celebrating nature more fully than Irenaeus'. Augustine celebrated the world of the flesh and, under the metaphor of fecundity, tried to show that all things -- the creatures of nature as well as human beings -- have their own intrinsic value and necessary place in the created order and are included in God's plans for redemption.(18) This indicates, to Santmire, that "Augustine's thought represents the flowering of the ecological promise of classical Christian theology."(19)

This classical "flowering" of the "ecological promise" of Christian theology was carried on in the life St. Francis of Assisi. As Santmire summarizes:

Francis' life story represents the flowering of the ecological promise of the classical Christian ethos. The mind and life of St. Francis are shaped, as Augustine's vision was, by the metaphor of migration to a good land and the metaphor of fecundity. Francis climbs the mountain of God's creation in order to stand in universal solidarity with all God's creatures, both in this world and in the world to come, for which he so passionately yearns. Then he descends, as he perceived God's love always to be overflowing, in order to embrace all creatures of God, not only the specially elected and specifically blessed human creatures. . . And he evidently awaits an eschatological world which he believes will also be blessed with the fullness of the glory of all God's transfigured creatures, material and spiritual.(20)

Francis is an isolated figure in medieval theological reflection on nature, where the dominating metaphor is ascent, as illustrated by the natural theologies of Bonaventure, Aquinas, and Dante.(21) In the middle ages, an eschatological vision of God, angels, and the body of redeemed human beings transfixed in eternal glory are the dominant themes of Christian theological reflection. Once more, we meet the spiritual motif anchored securely to the metaphor of ascent. Consequently, there are few signs of the vision of an abundant new earth and new heaven, visions that inspired the minds of Irenaeus, Augustine, and Francis. Nature and its creatures are left behind as human souls ascend the hierarchy of being to a union with God that excludes the material world and nature's creatures.

With Luther and Calvin, a shift occurs from the medieval view of nature. Both rejected the metaphor of ascent that dominated medieval theology. Both theologies focused on God's "descent" to God's creation, so that Luther and Calvin found it congenial to think of nature as "the mask of God" or as "the theater of God's glory." Accordingly, Luther and Calvin stressed the immanence of the descent of God's grace throughout nature. As with Irenaeus, Augustine, and Francis, the metaphor of fecundity is central in the Reformers' thought, especially in Luther's theology. He envisioned God "creatively pouring himself in, with, and under all things."(22) Luther, more than Calvin, also had a strong sense of solidarity between human beings and other creatures, both in this life and in redeemed life with God. In addition, both Luther and Calvin evince a strong sense of wonder before the mysteries of nature and the conviction that one day all things will be made new.

But by the time of Kant, Santmire continues, ". . . the anthropocentric-soteriological center of the Reformers' thought would become, more or less, the singular point of theological reflection." This means that Luther's theology of creation in particular was de-emphasized and stripped away by post-Kantian theologians in favor of "what must be viewed as a more narrow theanthropology."(23) Thus in the thought of Ritschl the metaphor of ascent asserts itself again as the dominant metaphor in his notion of "man rising above nature" to commune with God -- the central notion of his theology. From Ritschl, the metaphor of ascent is inherited by Karl Barth and Teilhard de Chardin, as well as by Rudolf Bultmann and Emil Brunner.(24)

Barth's theology emphasized the overflowing goodness of God. In this sense, the metaphor of fecundity is evident in his theology. But Barth also overwhelmed the metaphor of fecundity with the metaphor of ascent, since his dialect of creation and redemption portrays the chief end of all things as human salvation.

Likewise for Teilhard, who wrote of spirit rising and unifying itself beyond the material order through the processes of evolution. For him, the whole process of evolution, as directed by God's overflowing goodness, is one universal ascent of spirit. Thus the vast biophysical world is a colossal kind of stage -- or constellation of evolutionary stages, teleologically ordered -- whose purpose is to produce a final unified world of pure spirit when creation reaches its final evolutionary stage at what he called the "Omega point." In his vision of salvation, then, the material order is left behind in the evolutionary ascent of the spiritual. Thus like Barth, Teilhard interprets humanity's relation to nature domination.(25)

On the basis of the preceding summary, as well as Santmire's analysis of the functions of the metaphors of fecundity, migration to a good land, and ascent in biblical images of nature, it is reasonable to conclude that there exists a two-thousand-year struggle in Christian theological reflection on nature. Whenever the metaphor of ascent is dominant, the metaphor of fecundity will be subordinated. Then the overflowing goodness of God will be viewed as the first stage of God's plan of redemption, whose final goal is the ascent of spiritual creatures alone to union with God. If, however, the metaphor of migration to a good land is dominant, the metaphor of fecundity is joined to it and has the effect of expanding and developing the theme of the earth as a place of blessing for all of earth's creatures. The presence of both trends in Christian imagination generates either the spiritual or the ecological motif accordingly. The historical struggle in the history of Christian theological reflection on nature has been, and still is, the struggle between the spiritual and the ecological motifs.(26) Yet if contemporary Christian reflection on nature assumes an ecological reading of the Bible -- as exemplified by Irenaeus, Augustine, Francis, Luther, and, in the first half of the twentieth century by Paul Tillich -- new ecological trends of Christian thought will emerge. In fact, Christian process thought has already emerged as a fully ecological theology of nature.

The Principle of Interdependence in Buddhism and Christianity

Both Buddhist and Christian tradition preserve resources for confronting the ideological issues of our time "in, with, and under" non-ecologically relevant traditions. The principle of interdependence is one such resource. While not as fully emphasized and developed in Christian theological reflection as it is in Buddhist teaching, the principle of interdependence has played an important role in Christian traditions. Thus in ecological forms of Christian theology, nature and all sentient and insentient entities are embodied forms of God's creative power and care. This implies that as creatures all things in nature are interdependent. Thus the suffering of any creature is the suffering of all, and salvation, however this is envisioned, involves the salvation of all entities in nature. Sentient and insentient beings, in other words, were created in interdependent interrelation with each other and with God. God's reality as creator is constituted by God's interrelationships with all sentient and insentient beings at every moment of space-time; the reality of every sentient and insentient being is constituted by its interdependent relationship with God and with every other sentient and insentient being in the universe at every moment of space-time.

In previous publications,(27) I noted that new ecological models and theoretical explanations of the interdependency of humanity with nature are not only emerging within the natural sciences,(28) but also in contemporary feminist theology and process theology in dialogue with Buddhist tradition.(29) A common theme of these models is that nature is best thought of as an organic, non-dual, "aesthetic order," wherein life is characterized as an open-ended system of interdependent relationships expressing itself as process, novelty, and mystery. Living things do not "enter" into relationship with other entities external to themselves; living things "find" themselves in interrelationships as the most fundamental givens of existence. These processes of mutual interrelatedness constitute what things are and become, from electrons to mountains, from plants to animals to human beings, and, if one is inspired by Whiteheadian process philosophy, to God. Buddhists refer to this interdependent net of relationships as pratitya-samuptpada or "dependent co-origination."

Whitehead's definition of "living body" gives some precision to the idea of universal interdependent causation. The living body, he writes, "is a region of nature which is itself the primary field of expression issuing from each of its parts." This means that those entities that are centers of expression and feeling are alive, and Whitehead clearly applied this description to both animal and vegetable bodies. Furthermore, since Whitehead's definition of a living body is an expansion of his definition of the human and animal body, the distinction between animals and plants is not a sharp one in his philosophy.(30) Whitehead also contended that precise definition of the differences between organic and inorganic nature is not possible. In Modes of Thought, he noted how scientific classifications often obscure the fact that "different modes of natural existence often shade off into each other."(31) He made the same point in Process and Reality: there are no distinct boundaries in the continuum of nature, and thus no distinct boundaries between living organisms and inorganic entities.(32)

This point is central to Whiteheadian biologist Charles Birch's and process theologian John Cobb's definition of "life." They raise the issue of the boundaries between animate and inanimate in light of the ambiguity of "life" on hypothetical boundaries.(33) Viruses are particularly good examples of entities possessing the properties of life and non-life. Another example is cellular organelles, which reproduce but are incapable of life independent of the cell that is their environment. The significance of these examples for the ecological model proposed by Birch and Cobb is that every entity is internally related to its environment. Human beings are not exceptions to this model, nor, in Cobb's opinion, is God, who is the chief example of what constitutes life.(34) Buddhist views in this regard are structurally similar: every entity in nature is internally related to every item in its environment. While there is no reality in Buddhist thought that corresponds to what Christian theology names "God," the Buddhist doctrine of interdependent co-arising and Christian process theology agree that the internal relationships each "thing" in the universe has with all "things" in the universe mutually constitute the life of that thing and the life of the universe.(35)

Furthermore, as there is continuity between organic and inorganic in Whiteheadian and Buddhist thought, so too there is continuity between human and non-human. Whitehead underscored this continuity by including "higher animals" in his definition of "living person." Both human beings and animals are living persons characterized by a dominant occasion of experience which coordinates and unifies the activities of the plurality of occasions and enduring objects which ceaselessly form persons. Personal order is linear, serial, object-to-subject inheritance of the past in the present. Personal order in human beings and in nature is one component of what Whitehead called "the doctrine of the immanence of the past energizing the present."(36) This linear, one-dimensional character of personal inheritance from the past is the "vector-structure" of nature.(37)

A similar picture of nature emerges in Hui-yin (Japanese, Kegon) Buddhist interpretation of interdependent co-origination symbolized by Indra's jeweled net. In the heavenly abode of the great Indian god, Indra, there is hung a wonderful net that stretches out in all directions. The net's clever weaver has strung a single jewel in each eye, and since the net is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. If we look at a single jewel, we discover that its polished surface reflects every other jewel. Not only that, the infinity of jewels reflected in the one we are looking at simultaneously reflects all the other jewels, so that there occurs an infinite reflecting process. Contemporary Buddhist ecological reflection is especially fond of this image for the way it characterizes nature as an infinitely repeating series of dependent co-originating interrelationships simultaneously occurring among all particular entities.(38) Experiential apprehension of dependent co-origination arises by means of the practice of meditation and is part of the content of the intense interior experience of the non-dual structure of reality that Buddhists name "awakening" (nirvana).

Buddhist meditational experience of nature's interdependent non-duality has parallels in mystical experiences of "unity" in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.(39) But while such states are undoubtedly blissful, dwelling in their powerful intensity is also dangerous. Egoism and subjectivism too often deafen those who have such experiences to the natural world around them. Imagination too easily spins out ignorant tales and orthodoxies, too uncritically fancies that the world's winds blow on the self, that leaves fall at the self's feet for a reason, that people are watching. A mind risks real ignorance for the sometimes paltry prize of an imagination enriched by such mystical experience cut off from the particularities of the world. This is why reason must come to the aid of mystics who experience non-duality to help them avoid what Whitehead called "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness."(40)

The trick of reason is to get such mystically transformed consciousness to seize the actual world of particulars, to apprehend them as they are, if only from time to time, as objectively as possible because nature's particulars are as hard as they are harmonious. Nature's non-dual interdependence is also an impersonally operating aesthetic system wherein all life forms eat other life forms to be alive, wherein human beings are the most efficient killers that have evolved on this planet. Indeed, life is as painful, deadly, and impersonally terminal for all living things as it is beautiful and nurturing. The Blue Heron that visited the creek running in front of my house was a presence that revealed nature's non-dual harmony to me. But from the Blue Heron's perspective, I was a potential predator, and the fish in the creek certainly didn't find its presence especially uplifting. Furthermore, one of the primary characteristics of human interaction with nature is the untold suffering our species imposes on other life forms over and beyond our need for survival. It's rough out there. Living things are food for other living things, and there are no exceptions. Or as Buddhists tell it, existence is as sorrowful as it is beautiful; or as Christians tell it, existence is as fallen into sin as it is good. It's all very confusing. Like Annie Dillard, "I alternate between thinking of planet Earth as a home and a garden and as a hard wilderness of exile in which we are all sojourners, a place of silence and mirages, where even the Earth itself seems a sojourner in airless space, a wet ball flung by no one across nowhere."(41)

Given the reality of the organic harmonies of nature that are interdependent with the hard particular facts of nature, how then should we live? By what ethical principles should human beings interact with the environment that is the context of all life? What is the character of a life-centered environmental ethic conceived in awareness of the mutual relatedness and interdependency of all things and events at every moment of space-time? How does living in accord with such principles contribute to what John Cobb calls "the liberation of life"? Norman Myers, who is a consultant to the World Council of Churches and a conservation biologist, notes a frightening fact: of the million species that share this planet, the Earth is likely to lose at least one-quarter, and possibly one-third to one-half within the next century. Such a loss "will represent the biggest setback to the planetary complement of species since the first flickering of life almost four billion years ago."(42) Furthermore, this loss will not be caused by natural climatic or geophysical disasters, but by a single species, Homo sapiens -- us, the species that, as far as anyone knows, is this universe looking at itself.

If humanity does have the power to destroy itself and other life forms, is it possible to think that humanity possesses sufficient power to prevent world-wide destruction of itself and other life forms? We have the power to destroy life; do we have the power to creatively sustain life? Much depends on the meaning of "power." Power understood as sovereignty over the earth, given to humanity by a transcendent deity possessing absolute sovereignty, has proven counter-productive. Traditionally assuming the metaphor of ascent, mainline Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought grant such power only to God, with human beings exercising derived power over nature given by God. But this "monarchical" model, as Sallie McFague calls it, has three flaws.(43)

First, God is portrayed as worldless and the world as godless; the world is empty of God's presence because it is too lowly to be the abode of God. Time and space are a yawning void empty of God's presence; the places we love on the earth as well as the limitless space of the universe are without God, for God is a totally other creator-king upon whose power everything is dependent. God's power as creator extends over everything in the universe at every moment of space-tine, of course, but God's being does not. God relates to the universe externally, not internally; God is not part of the universe, but essentially different and apart, since, according to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, there is nothing in nature to which we can liken God.

Second, while it is true that traditional Jewish, Christian, and Islamic models of God portray God as a benevolent ruler of the universe, God's benevolence usually extends only to human beings. In this model, God has very little concern for the cosmos, for the non-human world. Nature is simply blank in terms of what lies beyond the human sphere.

Third, in this model God is not only distant from the world and relates primarily to human beings, God also controls the universe through a combination of domination and benevolence. God's action is on the world, not in the world. Thus while it is simplistic, for example, to blame the Christian tradition for the current ecological crisis, this model nevertheless supports attitudes of external control over the natural world in imitation of God's external relation to nature.(44) In cruder popular Christian views of God's power as dominance, for example, God is a king who fights on the side of "his" chosen ones to bring their enemies down; nature is one of these enemies. In more refined views of the same model, God is the father who will not let his children suffer; nature is created under God's control. From the vantage point of environmental ethics, the first view supports exploitation of nature as an instrumental means created to serve humanity's and God's purposes. The second view supports escapism; nature is good, but now exists in a state of sin; whatever liberation nature might experience must be created by God and is of secondary importance to the liberation God has planned for some of humanity.

An ecological world-view contradicts models of power as dominance because it presupposes the metaphor of fecundity. Furthermore, if the human species is now directing the course of its own evolution along with the non-human species inhabiting this planet -- because we are so intrinsically and extrinsically interdependent -- our choice is to accept this power, but not as dominance and control. Accordingly, the environmental ethical principles for which I will argue rest on notions of power that are relational. In Christian process thought and Christian feminist theologies of nature, for example, God's power is understood through the metaphor of "loving" persuasion that recognizes and empowers the freedom of all things and events in space-time as God "lures" all individuals, human and non-human, to realize their own creative potential. The guiding metaphor here is the earth's fecundity as the created intention of God.

Likewise, Buddhist metaphors of power stress the power of cooperative co-origination and mutual co-creation in the becoming of all things and events in space time. Consequently, "enlightened compassion" -- intense, interior awareness of the interdependency of all things and events to such a degree that the suffering of any "sentient being" is experienced as one's own suffering -- ideally guides Buddhist interaction with nature.

Ecological traditions of Christian theology -- as described by Santmire -- and contemporary process thought, in dialogue with Buddhist tradition in conjunction with current scientific-ecological notions, provide resources for revisioning a life-centered environmental ethic as the practice of "loving/compassionate wisdom." By "love" I mean affective, passionate concern for the welfare of all living beings, while "compassion" refers to the interior experience of conscious empathy for the suffering of all living things that accompanies the "wisdom" of non-duality that reveals that we are mutually interrelated and interdependent with everything that exists. Thus love as "concern and action on behalf of the welfare of all living beings" is grounded in the active practice of compassionate wisdom, while compassionate wisdom is the motivating force energizing the practice of love toward all living beings. Loving/compassionate wisdom are interdependent.

The first question for an ethic based on the principle of loving/compassionate wisdom is: why should we work to save species now in danger of extinction and work to preserve as much biological diversity as possible? Because, among other reasons, it is in our and their self-interest to do so, since we are as mutually implicated in their lives as they are in ours. Through their genetic constituents, species of animals and plants are natural resources. For example, in the interests of agriculture, medicine, and industry, human beings may need to draw upon a variety of species for support, just as we have in the past. We may rely on genetic diversity for our survival in ways that are uniquely human, but such reliance mirrors the fact that all species of life survive because of genetic diversity in the plurality of life forms. However, self-interest is not the only reason for spending time on preserving biological diversity. In addition to the instrumental value plants and animals have for our species, all species of life have their own intrinsic value -- for themselves. In a mutually interdependent world, all life forms have intrinsic value.

An environmental ethic of loving/compassionate wisdom thus requires respect and affirmation of the intrinsic value of all living things: the value that each and every living thing has in and for itself. There is nothing new in this affirmation. The intention of every life-centered ethic is to revere life. So while the application of an ethic of loving/compassionate wisdom will recognize the need to balance considerations of the intrinsic value all life forms have for themselves with their extrinsic value for us, the practice of loving/compassionate wisdom starts with recognizing that all things have value in their own right.(45)

Accordingly, if all life, human and non-human, has both intrinsic and extrinsic value in a universe of dynamic, processive, mutual interdependency and interrelationships, then the pain of one species is the pain of all; the welfare of one species is the welfare of all; and the life of all species is the life of each. Or as Jesus is reported to have said, God's compassionate care extends even to sparrows; or as Mahayana Buddhists say, there are no fully enlightened Buddhas until every blade of grass is enlightened. We are all in this together.

If and when we experientially apprehend, by whatever means, the organic interdependency of nature, our relation to the natural order suddenly changes. We become, in Buddhist language, "compassionate," not from altruism that sees the suffering of another life form as different from one's own, but through recognition that the suffering of others, in part, is one's own since, in part, the other is an element of one's own selfhood. But, in Christian language, as faith without works is dead, so too is compassionate wisdom without love -- the active affirmation of the right to life of all forms expressed through caring application of compassionate wisdom in daily interaction with all life forms, including those life forms upon whom we rely for food.

Interacting with nature in accordance with the principle of loving/compassionate wisdom will not be easy. For example, how should the economic needs of loggers and other forestry-related industries in the Pacific Northwest be balanced against environmentalist concerns to maintain remaining old growth forests and endangered animals like the Northern Spotted Owl and plants like the Pacific Ewe? Since the corporate greed of the timber interests in this region of the United States has for over a hundred years depleted both old and second growth forests through unwise environmental practices and greedy economic policies, the needs of forest ecosystems must be preserved even if this means the loss of timber-related jobs. No logging in old growth forests should be permitted, not only to preserve endangered species, but the forest ecosystem that nourishes all forest life forms -- deer, elk, salmon, eagles, great blue herons, Douglas firs, Western Hemlocks, Pacific Ewe (whose bark may provide medicine for the treatment of some forms of cancer), and human beings. This decision will cause suffering to those whose economic livelihood lies in timber related occupations, but human suffering in this instance is short-term. Human beings are the most adaptable species inhibiting this planet; we can learn other trades, find other ways to make a living. But over-harvesting forest lands kills the life of forest ecosystems. This is long-term damage and suffering that also damages human life.

The pollution of the Earth's atmosphere provides another example. Air quality must be protected at all costs. In part, this means overcoming our collective addiction to the automobile. Until we do so, we must force automobile manufactures to maintain high emission-control standards and build more efficient engines that consume less gasoline. In part, this means forbidding the emission of industrial waste into the atmosphere and the earth's waterways. In part, this means finding alternative sources of energy to replace fossil fuels and nuclear-generated power. In part, this means placing and enforcing strict controls on urban development by insisting that all development plans, road building, industrial expansion, mass transportation construction, and technological expansion cause minimal environmental damage. The burden of proof must rest on our species to demonstrate that our needs and the needs of the environment and other life forms the environment supports are in harmony.

Living by loving/compassionate wisdom will require harsh medicine. Sometimes, successful treatment of a disease is necessarily painful. Willingness to swallow our collective medicine will require some profound consciousness raising, but we have the resources. Luckily for us, some scientists, poets, artists, philosophers, and theologians have a habit of waking us up, grabbing us by the collar and saying, "Will you please pay attention! You wouldn't think something so completely there, so completely busy, as life would be so easy to overlook." Diane Ackerman has a suggestion about how to raise our collective environmental consciousness in a way that might energize the practice of loving/compassionate wisdom. Over twenty years ago, American lunar astronauts saw an earthrise from the surface of the moon. It knocked them senseless.

We should send regularly scheduled shuttles to the moon filled with artists and naturalists, photographers and painters, to see what they saw, "who will then turn their mirrors upon ourselves and show us Earth as a single planet, a single organism that's buoyant, fragile, blooming, buzzing, full of spectacle, full of fascinating human beings, something to cherish. Learning our full address may not end all wars or solve all problems, but it will enrich our sense of wonder." It will remind us that the human context is not tight as a noose, but as large as the universe we have the privilege to inhabit. It will change our sense of what a neighbor is. It will persuade us that we are citizens of the planet, earth's "joy riders and caretakers," who would do well to work on the planet's problems together.(46)

Seeing the earth this way, we would also understand how empty the world would be without animal sounds and without us: horses galloping across meadows; ravens sounding like they're choking on tree bark; bull elk bugling in the mating season; the ping of night hawks; the music of crickets; the electric whine of female mosquitoes; the Morse code of red-headed wood peckers; the joyful laughter of human beings.


1. [Back to text]  Lawrence E. Sullivan, "Preface," in Buddhism and Ecology, ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryuken Williams (Cambridge: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 1997), xi.

2. [Back to text]  Ibid., xii

3. [Back to text]  H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 8.

4. [Back to text]  Lewis Lancaster, "Buddhism and Ecology: Collective Cultural Perceptions," in Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds, ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryuken Williams, (Cambridge: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 1997), 3-18.

5. [Back to text]  Duncan Ryuken Williams, "Animal Liberation, Death, and the State," in ibid., 156-57.

6. [Back to text]  Lancaster, "Buddhism and Ecology: Collective Cultural Perceptions," in ibid., 5-6.

7. [Back to text]  Ibid., 9-11, 12.

8. [Back to text]  Ibid.

9. [Back to text]  Ibid., 13.

10. [Back to text]  See David Eckel, "Is There a Buddhist Philosophy of Nature?" in ibid., 327-49, and Ian Harris, "Buddhism and the Discourse of Environmental Concern: Some Methodological Problems Considered," in ibid., 377-402.

11. [Back to text]  Alan Sponburg, "Green Buddhism and the Hierarchy of Compassion," in ibid., 351-76.

12. [Back to text]  See Rosemary Radford Ruether, Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power (New York: Paulist Press, 1972), 115-22; Thomas Sieger Derr, "Religion's Responsibility for the Ecological Crisis: An Argument Run Amok," Worldview 18 (January 1975): 39-45; Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), chapters 1-3; and Gordon Kaufman, "The Concept of Nature: A Problem for Theology," Harvard Theological Review 65 (1972): 337-66.

13. [Back to text]  Santmire, The Travail of Nature, 8-9.

14. [Back to text]  The theological source for this idea in Christian mystical theology is Augustine. See Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism (New York: Crossroads, 1972), 243-44. The goal of Christian mystical practice is to transform the soul's "image" of God into the "likeness" of God." At creation, God endowed all human beings with God's image and likeness. But God's likeness and image were separated at the Fall by Adam and Eve's original sin. So the mystical path was understood as a kind of ascent to reunite the image of God and the likeness of God separated at the Fall. Being "like" God means experiencing the world as God experiences the world and loving the world accordingly the way God love it.

15. [Back to text]  Santmire, The Travail of Nature, chapter 10.

16. [Back to text]  Ibid., 14-29

17. [Back to text]  Ibid., 35-53.

18. [Back to text]  Ibid., chapter 4.

19. [Back to text]  Ibid., 178.

20. [Back to text]  Ibid.

21. [Back to text]  Ibid., 75-119.

22. [Back to text]  Ibid., 121-33.

23. [Back to text]  Ibid., 180.

24. [Back to text]  Ibid., 139-40, 187-88.

25. [Back to text]  Ibid., 180-81.

26. [Back to text]  Ibid., 182.

27. [Back to text]  See my Wrestling With the Ox: A Theology of Religious Experience (New York: Continuum, 1997), chapter 5 and "The Jeweled Net of Nature," Process Studies 22 (Fall 1993): 134-48.

28. [Back to text]  See E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1954); Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971); and two recent studies by Kenneth Boulding, The World as A Total System (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1981) and Ecodynamics (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1982).

29. [Back to text]  See Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age; Charles Burch and John B. Cobb, Jr., The Liberation of Life (Denton, Tex.: Environmental Ethics Books, 1990); and two studies by Jay B. McDaniel, Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989) and Earth, Sky, Gods, and Mortals: Developing an Ecological Spirituality (Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1990).

30. [Back to text]  Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1938), 31-34.

31. [Back to text]  Ibid., 25.

32. [Back to text]  Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected edition (New York: Free Press, 1978), 32.

33. [Back to text]  Birch and Cobb, The Liberation of Life, chapter 3.

34. [Back to text]  Ibid., 92.

35. [Back to text]  For a thorough study of the worldviews underlying Buddhist, Taoist, Indian, and Japanese concepts of nature, see Callicott and Ames, eds., Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989).

36. [Back to text]  Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1933), 188.

37. [Back to text]  Stephanie Kaza thinks that "the vector structure of nature" of Whitehead's philosophy might correspond to the Buddhist doctrine of the Law of Karma. See her "A Response to Paul Ingram," Process Studies 22 (Fall 1993): 147.

38. [Back to text]  See Francis H. Cook, "The Jewel Net of Indra," in Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, ed. Callicott and Ames, 213-29.

39. [Back to text]  Moshe Idel and Bernard McGinn, eds., Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: An Ecumenical Dialogue (New York: Continuum, 1996); and Paul Mommaers and Jan van Bragt, eds., Mysticism: Buddhist and Christian (New York: Crossroad, 1995).

40. [Back to text]  Whitehead, Process and Reality, 7-8, 93-94.

41. [Back to text]  Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harpers and Row, 1982), 150.

42. [Back to text]  Norman Myers, "The Environmental Crisis: How Big, How Important?" Report and Back Papers of the Working Group, GDR (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1986), 101, cited by McDaniel, Of God and Pelicans, 5.

43. [Back to text]  McFague, Models of God, 63-69.

44. [Back to text]  See Paul O. Ingram, "The Jeweled Net of Nature," Process Studies 22: (Fall 1993): 134-35.

45. [Back to text]  Jay McDaniel makes this point eloquently from the perspective of Christian process theology in Of Gods and Pelicans, 52-53.

46. [Back to text]  Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Random House, 1990), 285.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1999, Vol. 49 Issue 2.