Buddhist Environmentalisms

Rachel DeMotts
Environmental Policy and Decision Making, University of Puget Sound


This course examines the intersections of a Buddhist worldview with environmentalism, broadly understood. It asks what affinities exist between the two, and what the implications of such affinities might be for engendering a sense of both place and engagement in environmental context. The course explores these intersections both philosophically and experientially, engaging with local nature and Buddhist practice, to deepen the possibilities of understanding shared ground between the two.

Course Size:
fewer than 15

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an upper-division course with an experiential focus that allows Environmental Policy students to fulfill their diversity requirement with a course that also counts as an elective in the major or minor. It is generally taken by students majoring or minoring in Environmental Policy and Decision Making but from a wide range of primary majors.

Course Content:

In order to provide background for meaningful exploration, the course begins by engaging students in study and discussion around what is meant by Buddhism, and then what is meant by environmentalism. As these two terms are complex and multiple, some unpacking helps students to form a shared foundation to help bring the two into conversation and consider ways in which they may or may not intersect. Course material also considers the comparatively recent migration of Buddhism to the West, and elucidates the tensions between new affinities for Buddhist perspectives and the potential for cultural expropriation of traditions and practices extracted from non-Western contexts.

In particular, the cultural differences in the approach of Buddhist communities to the human-nature relationship sheds light on different value systems, problematizing the ways in which environmental resources are exploited in the global North alongside the growing pressures for development in the global South. Buddhism's emphasis on generosity, holistic views of place, compassion, and commitment to the welfare of others (both human and animal) also offers alternative lenses with which to view and understand poverty and inequality, offering us the chance to rethink our own positionality and the possibilities we might have to choose and act differently.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to articulate their own complex understanding of Buddhism and environmentalism as well as articulate specific ways in which Buddhism may or may not reflect environmental values. They will practice meditation in a number of ways, some explicitly Buddhist in approach and others not, both indoors and in nature, to enhance their experiential understanding of their own views and the places in which they live. Students will also gain an understanding of ways in which Buddhist thought is currently engaged to address environmental problems, both in philosophical argument as well as practice through meditation and the cultivation of a sense of place. These intersections of some of the foundational ideas of both Buddhism and environmentalism will help students cultivate intellectual and experiential space in which they can reflect upon their own understandings of how to engage environmental issues both personally and socially.

Course Features:

In addition to leading an experiential exercise of their own choosing/design, students write three reflective essays, keep a meditation practice journal, and are invited to create and share a final project that demonstrates a link between a current environmental issue and what Buddhist thought may have to offer that issue.

Course Philosophy:

In this course, we are working to engage both the conceptual and the experiential by examining our understandings of Buddhism and environmentalism in comparative context. This allows us to examine ways in which environmental justice – the marginalization of ethnically diverse communities faced with especially significant environmental problems – is reflected in the intersections of Buddhist theory and environmental context. There is a small, but growing, number of Buddhist practitioners in the United States, and it is a diverse one – from displaced communities such as Tibetans to second generation American practitioners. This diversity, especially in the context of thinking about environmental problems, highlights the need of understanding both Buddhism and environmentalism as multiple rather than singular, whose complexities intersect in ways that have a great deal to offer inclusive notions of justice in both spiritual and environmental contexts.

This course also counts for the KNOW – Knowledge, Identity, and Power – core overlay requirement, which is required of all University of Puget Sound graduates as a way to explore issue of identity, diversity, and cultural positionality as part of their educational experience. The course meets the requirement in part because its approach reflects a commitment to both a conceptual and experiential approach to understanding environmental inequalities in social and cultural context. For example, we consider different manifestations of Buddhism in different cultures, including India, Tibet, Thailand, Japan, and the United States. Considering the ways in which the "same" belief system articulates in different places can help uncover and unpack assumptions that might otherwise remain intact.

A foundational aspect of the experiential engagements of this course will be asking students to participate in meditation and contemplation practices, some of which will reflect Buddhist roots and others of which will be broader. Meditation practice in particular will help students to see their own minds more clearly, offering them a chance to learn to be more fully present to their own fluctuating thoughts and emotions. In so doing, they are able to see their own attitudes and convictions more prominently, which offers the space in which to articulate what matters to them while seeing ways in which they might grow or change. In addition to this, students will engage in contemplation practices that use specific environmental and social problems to unpack the complexity of real world problems in a direct and personal way. In this vein, Buddhism in particular has a great deal to offer our understandings of social and environmental suffering that may provide ways in which to more deeply understand it, as well as to consider how we might be useful in alleviating it. Talking about issues of inequality and the practical consequences of poverty, for example, can feel disempowering. But connecting environmental problems to the social contexts in which they occur can help open up access points which we feel more able to engage, both individually and collectively.

What this approach means is that students must, if they choose to take this course, be willing to participate fully not just in the intellectual exercise of learning about Buddhism, environmentalism, and where they intersect, but also be committed to working with meditation and contemplation practices with a sense of curiosity and openness. This openness means that each student's relationship to the variety of contemplative practices explored in the course will develop differently, and some may reflect more Buddhist influence than others. This variety is encouraged, and an important part of the engagement of this course.


In addition to grading assignments, students' reflective writing and discussion are important. Much of this reflection in the early parts of the course in particular revolve around students establishing a meditation practice and the questions that emerge in working with various techniques of slowing down and observing the mind and the place in which one is sitting. As students gain confidence, it has been my experience that they begin to develop deep curiosity about expanding the ways in which understand what it means to meditate, to the point that many of them have asked to share and lead contemplative practices of their own in class. This in turn has led to the development of projects beyond papers, including community cleanups, recycled artwork, and the creative application of Buddhist principles to social problems in essays and papers. Personal reflections have led students to assert that they learned a great deal not only about the academic subject matter engaged, but about themselves as human beings.

The biggest challenge of this course is to allow the space for students to influence the way in which the course unfolds by making changes as it progresses, and by working to create a a classroom environment that reflects in creative and dynamic ways the spirit of the material with which we are engaged. Frequently, I throw out my idea of how I planned to approach a subject when students challenged it from another direction entirely. This makes assessment challenging, but when, for example, students collaborated on a project rubric to guide them, we were able to embody a collaborative approach to recreating the idea of a final project. I expect that as I teach this course more frequently I will become more familiar with the range of likely outcomes.


Buddhist Environmentalisms Syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 181kB Apr20 17)

References and Notes:

Kaza, Stephanie, and Kenneth Kraft, eds. Dharma rain: Sources of Buddhist environmentalism. Shambhala Publications, 2000.

Lion's Roar https://www.lionsroar.com/

Tricycle https://tricycle.org/