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New Book - The Buddha’s Footprint: An Environmental History of Asia

Hello friends,

I wanted to let whoever is interested know that Johan Elverskog has recently released a monograph entitled The Buddha’s Footprint: An Environmental History of Asia, which has been published by the University of Pennsylvania.

The abstract reads: "In the current popular imagination, Buddhism is often understood to be a religion intrinsically concerned with the environment. The Dharma, the name given to Buddhist teachings by Buddhists, states that all things are interconnected. Therefore, Buddhists are perceived as extending compassion beyond people and animals to include plants and the earth itself out of a concern for the total living environment. In The Buddha’s Footprint , Johan Elverskog contends that only by jettisoning this contemporary image of Buddhism as a purely ascetic and apolitical tradition of contemplation can we see the true nature of the Dharma. According to Elverskog, Buddhism is, in fact, an expansive religious and political system premised on generating wealth through the exploitation of natural resources.

Elverskog surveys the expansion of Buddhism across Asia in the period between 500 BCE and 1500 CE, when Buddhist institutions were built from Iran and Azerbaijan in the west, to Kazakhstan and Siberia in the north, Japan in the east, and Sri Lanka and Indonesia in the south. He examines the prosperity theology at the heart of the Dharma that declared riches to be a sign of good karma and the means by which spritiual status could be elevated through donations bequeathed to Buddhist institutions. He demonstrates how this scriptural tradition propelled Buddhists to seek wealth and power across Asia and to exploit both the people and the environment.

Elverskog shows the ways in which Buddhist expansion not only entailed the displacement of local gods and myths with those of the Dharma—as was the case with Christianity and Islam—but also involved fundamentally transforming earlier social and political structures and networks of economic exchange. The Buddha’s Footprint argues that the institutionalization of the Dharma was intimately connected to agricultural expansion, resource extraction, deforestation, urbanization, and the monumentalization of Buddhism itself."

Curious if anyone has read the book and what they think. It looks really interesting to me and I hope to be able to read it soon.

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Thanks for the post @Brenna :slightly_smiling_face:

In reading through the abstract, what immediately jumps out at me is a complete departure from the Buddhist view on causality. In it’s place a completely different construction of causality is offered.
I suppose as someone who has confidence in the Buddha as a perfectly enlightened being, who saw things as they truly are, the mental constructions just seem like intellectual juggling and re-formatting, in order to present a particular world view.

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Shades of R.W. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism maybe. Whenever did religion not shape the social and economic structures of communities!

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I would not read the book. Although the cover shows SE Asian Theravada monks the author’s experience is in China and none of his previous publications have anything to do with Theravada Buddhism. He would not have any more than a superficial understanding of the importance of balance in the factors of the mental doctrine and applied to lay life. Indeed reading a few paragraphs of what’s available shows it to be simply a document of anti-Buddhist propaganda.

The two countries where Buddhist economic ideas have surfaced in modern times are Bhutan and Thailand. Bhutan is known for its GNH policy (Gross National Happiness), and Thailand for its sufficiency economy. Bikkhu Bodhi has written about the opposition to western GDP of a Buddhist approach to economics.

“Facing the Future,” Bikkhu Bodhi
“A Buddhist Approach to Economic and Social Development,” p 49

"From the centrality of dhamma to social order two subsidiary principles follow, one specially relevant to the economic sphere, the other to the social sphere. The principle that should govern the economic sphere is “the rule of sufficiency,” which means simply knowing that enough is enough. The rule of sufficiency is both a policy of mental hygiene contributing to psychological balance and a policy of ecological wisdom contributing to the preservation of the natural environment. In both respects the rule promotes a sound economy in the literal meaning of the word ‘home management,’ the judicious ordering of our internal home of mind and our external home the natural world.”

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I haven’t read it myself, but just the other day Daigengna Duoer, a Buddhist studies student at UC Santa Barbara, uploaded her very interesting interview with the author. It seems he started out as an eco-Buddhist and Gary Snyder fan, but got mugged by reality when he began studying Buddhist history.

New Books Network

Also, though I expect you’ve already seen it, Elverskog had an article on the same topic in Tricycle five years back.

The Buddha’s Footprint

Do you want to be the Grinch who stole Buddhism?” An elderly gentleman asked me this question after I had given a talk in Berkeley on the environmental history of the dharma. Although the question did strike me as quite odd—albeit humorous—I did understand why it was being asked, since in my lecture I had pointedly argued against the popular image of the dharma as an inherently environmental religion.

[…]

In contrast to virtually every other religion, Buddhism does not have a mythological vision of a pre-urban idyllic past. There is no Buddhist Garden of Eden. Nor does the early dharma have anything remotely resembling the moral condemnation of urban life as epitomized in the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rather, according to the Pali canon, the golden age of the hoary past was actually a time of massive overpopulation and unfathomable worldwide urban density. The Buddha’s prophecy in the Cakkavatti-sihanada Sutta aspires toward precisely such a world where the human population “will be as thick with people as the jungle is thick with reeds and rushes,” and the natural world will have been so obliterated by urban sprawl that the distance between cities is basically nonexistent.

Such paeans to urbanization can readily be explained by the fact that early Buddhism was codified at a time of increasing urbanization. Of the 4,257 teaching locales found in the early Buddhist canon, for example, fully 96 percent are in urban settings. Similarly, of the nearly 1,400 people identified in these texts, 94 percent are described as residing in cities. This pro-urban sentiment continued to shape the Buddhist tradition for centuries to come, as witnessed in a 7th-century commentary on Nagarjuna’s famous Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way, in which the author, Avalokitavrata, proclaims that the dharma should only be taught to those living in cities.

But it’s not all bad news…

Buddhists are no longer by definition the urban elite exploiting both the natural resources and people on the commodity frontier of yore. Of course, some invariably are. But at the same time it cannot be denied that there has also been an intellectual sea change in Buddhist thinking about the environment during the 19th and 20th centuries. This transformation has had real-world impact, as evidenced by Thailand’s tree ordination movement and the Soto Zen “Green Plan” for Japan, which have both done much to not only bring environmental issues to the fore but also actually change people’s practices. There is also the case of the South Korean nun Jiyul Sunim, whose activism has transformed the entire discourse about environmental protection in Korea. In doing so, she has problematized the narrative of “economic development at all costs” that has driven much of Asia’s modern history.

That Buddhism and Buddhists have changed—and are actually having a positive environmental impact in the world—is therefore something that needs to be recognized, especially since the general consensus about our current ecological situation is one of monumental doom.

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Hi Viveka, this is an interesting point, although what jumps out to me more is not so much a departure from causality so much as the way Buddhism as a religion is an economic and political force (whether it intends to be or not). I think we can say (from an insider/outsider perspectie) that on one hand things occur in the world that we can’t control (such is anicca), but on the other there are people who practice the Dhamma who are also contributing to economic and enviornmental destabilization, and I think they are both equal representations of Buddhism.

Hi Paul, while I understand where you’re coming from I don’t think Elverskog’s book is anti-Buddhist. All religions and all societies commit some level of harm, and I think the sooner we realize the impact Buddhism has had (whether positively or negatively) the sooner we can begin to repair things. It is also not mentioned in the abstract at all that Elverskog is focusing on Theravada Buddhism – he seems to be doing a study of Buddhism and the enviornment more generally. :slight_smile:

Ah man, this is how I feel sometimes :laughing: . Thanks, Bhante! I will have a look at the full interview.

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It was this statement that was so problematic for me. He implies that the true nature of the Dhamma has something to do with the religious and cultural developments of ‘Budhdism’ and it’s effects on the world.

The Buddha Dhamma clearly illustrates that these results are caused by the nature of humankind and greed, hatred and delusion, that causes humans to make certain choices - which includes the construction of the ‘religion’ Buddhism and the resultant cultural and socio-economic impacts…

It is his jump from what Dhamma is to

That, IMO, makes his premise unsustainable, even within the abstract. He doesn’t seem to demonstrate an understanding of the Dhamma, at its most basic level of 5 hindrances.

Bhante @sujato does a great job of deconstructing the nature of choices into their component aspects, in his Buddhist Futures talks here
https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/bhante-sujato-buddhist-futures-talks/15795

While they are not 100% geared towards your topic, they do provide some interesting context and also sutta references as back up :slight_smile: Now that is using the Buddha Dhamma to look at the current state of affairs :smiley:

with heaps of metta :slight_smile: :sunflower:

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As one example of what is a consistent trend, I have compared a quote from the book of a verse from the Sigalovada sutta (DN 31) with a translation by Narada of the same verse. It can be seen that the emphasis in the book version is on the growth of the honeycomb distastefully conflated with the ant-hill, whereas in the Narada version the meaning of the bee analogy is that it collects pollen without harming the flower. This same analogy has been used in another place in the suttas to describe how a monk should collect alms without getting involved, both being an example of right livliehood, a link in the noble eightfold path. The line “With wealth acquired this way,” shows that the focus of the verse is on acquiring wealth in harmless ways, this latter line omitted from the book version, totally changing the meaning of the verse.

This manipulation of meaning in the book is done deliberately for an audience not conversant with the suttas, that is why I call it an anti-Buddhist document. This distortion which occurs on every line makes the book unreadable.

The wise man trained and disciplined
Shines out like a beacon fire.
He gathers wealth just as a bee
Gathers honey, and it grows.

Like an ant-hill higher yet.
With wealth so gained the layman can
Devote it to his people’s good.
He should divide his wealth in four.

One part he may enjoy at will,
Two parts he should put to work
The fourth he should set aside
A reserve in times of need.—- “The Buddha’s Footprint: An Environmental History of Asia”


The wise and virtuous shine like a blazing fire.
He who acquires his wealth in harmless ways
like to a bee that honey gathers,
riches mount up for him like ant hill’s rapid growth.

With wealth acquired this way,
a layman fit for household life,
in portions four divides his wealth:
thus will he friendship win.

One portion for his wants he uses,
two portions on his business spends,
the fourth for times of need he keeps. —-DN 31 (Narada)

  1. As a bee gathers honey from the flower without injuring its color or fragrance, even so the sage goes on his alms-round in the village. Dhp. IV, 49
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Elverskog is quoting from Maurice Walshe’s Dīgha translation of these verses, which seems correct to me. In Ven. Nārada’s translation the phrase “in harmless ways” is the translator’s own explanatory insertion. It doesn’t translate any word found in the Pali:

Paṇḍito sīlasampanno, jalaṃ aggīva bhāsati ||

Bhoge saṃharamānassa, bhamarasseva irīyato |
Bhogā sannicayaṃ yanti, vammikovupacīyati ||

Ven. Nārada:

"The wise and virtuous shine like a blazing fire.

“He who acquires his wealth in harmless ways
like to a bee that honey gathers,
riches mount up for him like ant hill’s rapid growth.”

Ven. Sujāto:

"The astute and virtuous
shine like a burning flame.

“They pick up riches as bees
roaming round pick up pollen.
And their riches proceed to grow,
like an ant-hill piling up.”

Kelly et al:

"The wise endowed with virtue
Shine forth like a burning fire,

“Gathering wealth as bees do honey
And heaping it up like an ant hill.”

The difference between Nārada’s rendering and everyone else’s is that the former seems to assume (as you do) that this simile is to be understood in the light of the Dhammapada’s simile of a bhikkhu gathering alms. But why assume this? The contexts are completely different. One has to do with success in the householder’s life, which requires that wealth-acquisition be viewed as a diṭṭhadhammikattha, “a good obtainable in the present life”. The other has to do with the samaṇa’s life in which material wealth isn’t viewed as a good at all, and what is prized are renunciate values like contentment and fewness of wishes. So here it seems to me that Elverskog is reading the Sigalaka Sutta correctly: it’s the bee’s industriousness, not its harmlessness to the flower, that’s the focus.

On every line? But you said in your first post that you weren’t even going to read the book.
:face_with_raised_eyebrow:

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Narada has obviously inserted this to make the meaning clear, and such meaning is spelled out in the Dhammapada verse. With this interpretation of harmlessness the verse links to the noble eightfold path’s right resolve, where harmlessness constitutes one of the bases of right livelihood, and the function of the Sigalovada sutta is to provide a guide to action for young lay people based on the noble eightfold path.

“And what is wrong livelihood? Scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, & pursuing gain with gain. This is wrong livelihood.”—MN 117

“Pursuing gain with gain” fits the Walshe translation, which is not the intention of the Sigalovada sutta.

Piya Tan (Sigalovada sutta p 19) also thinks the allusion to bees is linked to Dhp 49.

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