The Case of the Snow-Leopard-Skin Backpacks

a new year review-article

Johan Elverskog, The Buddha’s Footprint: An Environmental History of Asia, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, hb, 177pp.

Johan Elverskog, a Professor of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University, Texas, begins his book with the story of how, while travelling in Bhutan after graduating from Berkeley, and while full of enthusiasm for the pro-environmental message of Buddhism, came across a matching pair of backpacks made of snow-leopard skins. Peter Mathiessens’s 1978 travel book, The Snow Leopard, had long highlighted the beauty and rarity of this living symbol of the Himalayan region. The encounter threw up lingering doubts in Elverskog about whether Asian Buddhism was really as ecologically sensitive as books such as Allan Badiner’s Dharma Gaia had made it out to be.[i] These doubts led, over time, to the project of doing some research into the contribution of Buddhism to the environmental history of Asia, and the book reviewed here is the result of this work. Elverskog’s conclusion is that, far from being especially eco-friendly, Buddhism has always – from its origin in northern India to its flourishing in China, Tibet, Korea and Japan – encouraged wealth-creation through the exploitation of natural resources. He helpfully sums up his conclusion in the form of a 140-character tweet: ‘Elverskog overturns eco-Buddhism narrative by showing how Buddhists across Asia transformed the environment by commodification, agro-expansion, and urbanization’ (p.119).

The natural response of the average western Buddhist to Elverskog’s conclusions might be incredulity. How could the Buddhists of Asia possibly be just as bad as capitalist Protestant westerners? Didn’t the Buddha clearly teach non-harming and respect for nature? Don’t Buddhists believe in the interconnectedness of humans and nature? Such questions reveal the eco-Buddhist assumptions of the average western Buddhist, and Elverskog wants to disabuse such Buddhists of those assumptions. Does he succeed? This review will be divided into three parts. In the first part, I will summarise Elverskog’s arguments and disoveries, which do indeed upset our usual preconceptions about Buddhism. But in the second part, I will draw attention to some alarming gaps in Elverskog’s arguments. In the third part, I will salvage what I can from Elverskog’s conclusions, while defending eco-Buddhism.


Elverskog briefly alludes to how what can be called ‘eco-Buddhism’ is a modern western construct, and not a historical reality. While this idea might make sense to scholars, it is probably news to the average western Buddhist. To spell out the claim, the scholar of Buddhist modernism might say that the idea that Buddhism is in some sense deeply environmentally friendly and ecologically sensitive, together with the image of Asian Buddhists living in harmony with nature, is a historical fantasy. But this does not mean it is false. Rather, it is a very specific interpretation of Asian Buddhism, by westerners, under the conditions of our own beliefs and needs, an interpretation which is only partially connected to Buddhist tradition. Unfortunately, Elverskog does not review the characteristics of eco-Buddhism (also called Green Buddhism and Buddhist environmentalism) in his book, preferring instead merely to gesture towards some of its stereotypes and exemplars. For instance, he quotes from Gary Snyder, the Buddhist Beat poet, and long-term environmentalist:

            And Japan quibbles for words on

                        What kind of whales they can kill?

            A once-great Buddhist nation

                        dribbles methyl mercury

                        like gonorrhea

                                    in the sea.[ii]

While agreeing that Japan is a peculiarly un-environmentally-conscious nation, Elverskog asks, contra Snyder, whether Japan was in fact ever an environmentally-aware nation, and whether Buddhism ever made any difference, and concludes that that Japan wasn’t and Buddhist didn’t. The idea of eco-Buddhism, according to Elverskog, drawing on existing scholarship, is a mélange of Romanticism, Deep Ecology, and some de-historicised interpretations of particular Buddhist teachings. Elverskog doesn’t mean to undermine or discredit modern western Buddhist, only to refute the false idea that eco-Buddhism is the same as original, traditional Buddhism. I think there is every reason to think this analysis is correct. Buddhism, like all pre-modern religious traditions, developed in Asian cultural contexts with no awareness of an environmental crisis. The idea that Buddhism is capable of addressing climate change and habitat destruction is by necessity a contemporary re-interpretation of an ancient religious tradition.

Elverskog goes on to review the early history of Buddhism, starting with what we know about the Buddha and the early Sangha. Elverskog emphasises how the Buddha did not condemn the amassing of wealth, but rather encouraged his lay followers to make money in order to support the monastic sangha. Although there is certainly a great deal of scriptural evidence in the Pāli canon to support this view, Elverskog draws out its implications more fully than usual. He describes the Dharma as a kind of ‘prosperity theology’, taking certain Protestant Christian beliefs about the holiness of weath and applying the label to early Buddhism. ‘With this term, I refer to the Buddhist conviction that wealth is good. The Buddha instructed his lay followers and the monastics to acquire wealth. Wealth indicates moral standing and good karma, and poverty indicates moral failure and bad karma’ (p.41). In this way, Buddhism resonates with merchants and metropolitan elites even today. Based on a metaphor of money, the Buddhist teaching of karma encouraged social mobility and trade. Images of jewels and wealth illustrate ideals of both worldly prosperity and spiritual realization. 

A discussion of vegetarianism in the Buddhist tradition (ch.3) gives Elverskog the chance to rehearse a distinction between the high monastic ideals of Buddhism, based on the ethical principle of non-harming (ahiṃsa), and the historical facts about what Buddhists (monastic and lay) actually eat, namely, animals. Elverskog relies on similar arguments to show the importance of wealth in Buddhism, drawing on studies of monastic discipline (vinaya) to demonstrate the pervasive role of money in Buddhist culture. He goes on to make the unusual argument that the Buddhist teaching of anātman, or no-self, was instrumental in encouraging a pro-attitude towards wealth creation: ‘the Buddhist idea of anatman or no-self promoted the possibility of everyone acting as free agents in the new market economy’ (p.47) – hence, through the anatman teaching, the Buddha ‘embraced the social transformations of the time’, such as urbanization, trade, and a free-market economy.

Because of the importance of wealth and trade, Buddhism supports an economic order that allows wealth-creation. Elverskog draws the logical conclusion: ‘contrary to popular notions, the Dharma did not enshrine or promote the protection of nature. Instead, it specifically promoted the exploitation of nature for economic and societal ends’ (p.59). With this theoretical conclusion in hand, Elverskog goes on to discuss themes that exemplify it, drawn from from the history of the pan-Asian spread of Buddhism. As the pro-market, pro-wealth Dharma spread to new lands, ‘the protocapitalist drive at the heart of the Buddhist tradition’ (p.75) was constantly engaged in the exploitation of natural resources at the commodity frontier. The extraction of timber, metals, gems and so on created trade networks with Buddhist monasteries at their centres. 

Buddhists, and especially Buddhist monks, expanded agriculture, often using slave labour, and engaged in the systematic development of irrigation. Historians have previously thought that state organisation was necessary for large-scale irrigation systems, but it seems that Buddhist monasteries were just as capable. The dependence of Buddhist monastics on food grown by lay followers partly explains this interaction of monasteries and food production. But Buddhism is also implicated in the growth of cities, and the enormous depletion of resources from the surrounding areas implied by urbanization, quite beyond the direct perception of city-dwellers themselves. Elverskog sees urban Asian Buddhists as no different from modern people who consume resources with little idea of where it comes from or of the effects of procuring it. In this way, Buddhists played a significant part in shaping the landscapes of Asia, turning forests and all kinds of natural resources into wealth, according to the free-market logic of the Dharma.


Elverskog’s bold thesis is stimulating, but embodies a failure to make two important distinctions in relation to Buddhism. First, it fails to distinguish between facts about Buddhist history and the values at the heart of Buddhism as an ethics and soteriology. As a historian, Elverskog has drawn out a number of themes from his studies of Asian Buddhism that not only run contrary to the eco-Buddhist narrative about the environmental credentials of Buddhism, but which also put Buddhists in the position of being key players in the environmental destruction of Asia. This is striking, and leads to questions about the Buddhist beliefs and practices that justify the exploitation of natural resources; that is to say, given the facts about Asian history (exploitation, urbanization, agriculture expansion), how are Buddhist values implicated? By not making the fact/value distinction, Elverskog comes up with some unsatisfactory explanations.

Let us consider a large-scale parallel. A scholar of religious studies might observe that some modern Christians, such as Quakers, understand Jesus’ teaching to imply non-violence. The scholar might then look at European Christian history. Look at the Crusades, the scholar might say. They show that European Christians were violent, in the name of Christ. Scholar overturns non-violent Christian narrative by showing how Christians across Europe persecuted Muslims and Jews in the name of Christ and Church. It would be not hard for a Quaker or anyone knowledgeable about Christianity to point out that this tweet simply fails to distinguish between facts about European history and Christian values. Clearly, the Crusaders hadn’t taken Jesus’ teaching about non-violence to heart, and this requires historical explanation, but it doesn’t undermine the importance of non-violence in Christian belief and practice, for those who value it.

Elverskog’s failure to distinguish facts and values leads him to some erroneous interpretations. For instance, he discusses Buddhism and vegetarianism to illustrate the persistent western mistake of thinking Buddhism is eco-friendly. Elverskog reports that, while westerners think that Buddhists are vegetarian, the fact is that the Dalai Lama was disappointed when in 1998 François Miterrand didn’t offer him a meaty meal (p.32). Elverskog traces this appetite for meat back to the Buddha: ‘The Buddha allows monks to eat meat as long as they have not killed the fish or animals themselves. If others kill and prepare an animal for consumption, a monk is allowed to receive it in his begging bowl and to eat it’ (p.33). Elverskog explains this attitude in terms of the Buddha’s emphasis on the ethics of intentionality: ‘if you have not killed the animal, no karma is generated by eating its flesh’ (p.34). But all this is factually incorrect.[iii]According to well-known Buddhist teachings, attributed to the Buddha, a monastic may receive meat in his or her begging bowl only if he or she has not (1) seen (2) heard or (3) suspected that the animal was killed specially for them.[iv] This was later called the ‘threefold purity’ of almsfood. Hence, the Buddha allowed his monks to eat meat, but not (as Elverskog writes) when they themselves had not killed the animal, but in fact only when they were sure that the animal’s death was not for their sake. To eat meat that one knew had been killed for oneself would certainly involve an unwholesome intention, an unskilful karma, that would implicate one in harm to an animal. In short, the Buddha taught that while it was not unacceptable to eat meat, Buddhist practitioners should not cause harm to animals. Non-harming (ahiṃsa) is the most important Buddhist ethical value. But in fact Buddhists down the centuries have found it hard to be vegetarian, presumably because of their desire to eat meat, and not because the Buddha allowed it.[v]

Following the same logic, though Buddhists in Asian have exploited natural resources, this fact does not necessarily imply that Buddhist values do not include care for the environment. Without discussing the fact/value distinction, Elverskog cannot ‘overturn [the] eco-Buddhism narrative’, which is a contemporary narrative about Buddhist values, not a narrative about the facts of Asian history.

The second distinction that Elverskog fails to make is between what anthropologists of Buddhism have described as two religious systems within Buddhism: ‘nibbanic Buddhism’, the form of Buddhism practised by (some) monastics, aiming at nirvāṇa or salvation through the practice of meditation, and ‘kammatic Buddhism’, the Buddhism practised by lay followers (and some monastics), aiming at a good rebirth through the generation of merit and good karma. While the distinction was first formulated by Melford Spiro in relation to Theravāda Buddhism (in Burma),[vi] some version of it can be formulated both for the Buddhism of the Pāli canon, and for the forms of Buddhism practised across Asia. The goal of nirvāṇa or complete Awakening depends on renunciation and meditation, and not many Buddhists take it up. But Asian Buddhists have always formulated some version of a more accessible yet nevertheless valuable proximate goal for ordinary people living household lives, whether that goal is a favourable human rebirth or rebirth in Amitābha’s Pure Land.

With this distinction in mind, two points become clearer. First, Elverskog’s argument that the anātman teaching played a role in promoting a free market economy looks unlikely, or at least looks to be unsupported by any evidence. The anātman teaching is only ever discussed in relation to forms of meditative reflection aiming at insight (vipaśyanā). For Buddhists aiming at a good rebirth, it is necessary to emphasise the existence of a self as agent, who can act and who will reap the harvest of their actions. Elverskog, however, goes on to link his interpretation of the anātman teaching with his interpretation of Buddhism as a form of prosperity theology: ‘As Christian prosperity theology today legitimates the neoliberal order, the Dharma legitimated the marketization of society in ancient India through the concept of anatman’ (p.48). Not only is it unlikely that the Dharma does anything of this sort, but Elverskog makes no effort whatever to define or analyse Prosperity Theology or to say in what way Buddhism resembles it. It seems to me unlikely that Buddhism as a whole can be interpreted as being much like Prosperity Theology, since renunciation is so central to nibbanic Buddhism.

The second point is that modern western Buddhists tend to be interested in ‘nibbanic Buddhism’ rather than ‘kammatic Buddhism’. They tend to be less interested in the teachings about giving to monastics and generating merit for a future good rebirth, and more interested in learning about meditation, going on retreat, and developing liberating insight. Indeed, this is a distinctive feature of modernist Buddhism, distinguishing it from tradition Asian Buddhism, in which lay people typically do not meditate.[vii] Even if, as a matter of historical fact, Asian Buddhists have exploited natural resources and not been environmentally friendly, this would probably not matter to Buddhist modernists, since they look to Buddhist teachings about meditation and nirvānạ for inspiration. In this way, the nibbanic/kammic Buddhism distinction intersects with the fact/value distinction. The ‘eco-Buddhism narrative’ is a narrative about the values of nibbanic Buddhism, not the facts about the environmental activities of kammatic Buddhists. Elverskog fails to overturn eco-Buddhism narrative by not distinguishing facts from values, nor nibbanic from kammic Buddhism.


In his Preface and Introduction, Elverskog cites scholars who are critical of eco-Buddhism. These scholars are only named in the notes, and their views are hardly discussed. The reason for this apparent omission may be that their criticisms of eco-Buddhism revolve around Buddhist values, not facts about Buddhist history. The critics of eco-Buddhism argue, for instance, that early Buddhist texts do not show a positive evaluation of nature, but instead teach that conditioned existence in this world, in fact in the entire round of rebirth, is unsatisfactory. Elverskog claims that ‘a more trenchant critique of eco-Buddhism is that it ignores what Buddhists actually did’ (p.3), but this is implausible, since facts about Buddhist history do not necessary tell us much about Buddhist values. A proper review and evaluation of scholarly critiques of eco-Buddhism would be desirable, but Elverskog doesn’t attempt anything like it.

However, Elverskog’s presentation of Asian history does offer much food for thought. His analysis of the Buddhist contribution to agricultural expansion, urbanisation, and market-driven exploitation of natural resources, raises big questions about how Asian Buddhists thought about humanity’s relationship to nature and the environment. His historical perspective certainly explodes any possible fantasy about a Buddhist paradise somewhere in Asia. However, this is hardly news. The deforestation of Thailand, a 90% Buddhist country, in the 1960s and 70s, is obvious to any visitor, and shows how Thai Buddhists were more interested in exploiting their country’s natural resources for money than preserving its forests.[viii] The value of Elverskog’s narrative is perhaps that it shows how the deforestation of Thailand is consistent with Buddhist attitudes across Asia and throughout history. Indeed, Elverskog is thoroughly successful in showing how Buddhists have been just as good as other human beings across the globe at exploiting the natural world for their own ends.

Given this sobering conclusion, it is in fact quite appropriate to puncture any balloon of Buddhist exceptionalism about the environment. Elverskog’s book is a success inasmuch as it shows how the tendency amongst Buddhist modernists to regard Buddhism as special and superior to, for instance, Christianity, in relation to attitudes to the modern world, is not just complacent but irresponsible.[ix]

Elverskog’s conclusion presents what he calls ‘a ray of hope’ (p.119). He argues that the study of Buddhist history shows that Buddhists can change. Modern Buddhist environmentalism, both in Asia and the west, leaves behind the resource exploitation of the past and ‘is having a positive environmental impact in the world today’ (p.119). Given his arguments about the exploitative nature of Buddhism, you would think that Elverskog should try to account for the kind of change he sees as hopeful, but he does not. However, I think it is arguable that Buddhist values such as non-harming (ahimṣa) have always been implicitly pro-environmental, that Buddhist meditation has always sought to overcome the ego’s separation from nature, and that Buddhist aesthetics have always valued experiences of beauty. It has been central to the work of many modern Buddhist teachers across the world to draw out these Buddhist values against the background of our worsening global environmental crisis. By contrast, I am not entirely convinced that Elverskog’s book is actually going to help this effort, although I would be pleased to be wrong about this.

But let me end by solving the case of the snow-leopard-skin backpacks.[x] It would seem that the use of animal skins for clothing and household use has long been popular, even fashionable, among Tibetan peoples, such as those living in Bhutan, where Elverskog had his fateful encounter with those backpacks in the early 1990s. But in 2006, the Dalai Lama, while conducting a Kalachakra ceremony in India, took the opportunity to call on Tibetans to stop using animal skins such as those of tigers and leopards, for the obvious reason that the Tibetans should preserve their natural environment and not harm animals. Videos smuggled out of Tibet showed bonfires of animal skins, as Tibetans took their spiritual leader’s words to heart, and gave up their fashionable furs. Let us hope that those snow-leopard-skin backpacks in Bhutan have likewise gone up in smoke, and their wearers have become as eco-Buddhist as the Dalai Lama has.[xi]

[i] Allan Hunt Badiner (ed.) (1990), Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, Berkeley: Parallax. 

[ii] Gary Snyder (1974), “Mother Earth: Her Whales”, from Turtle Island, New York: New Directions, p.47. Snyder is also the author of The Practice of the Wild (1990), a kind of manifesto for a Buddhist environmentalism.

[iii] I take this opportunity to note that Elverskog’s book contains a number of factual inaccuracies, suggesting a lack of familiarity with the Buddhist tradition: (p.23) the demon holding the Wheel of Life is Yama, not Māra; (p.25) nirvana does not mean ‘extinction’ but the ‘going out’ or ‘quenching’ (as of a flame); (p.27) Elverskog characterises the Mahāyāna monk as trying to ‘transcend conventional reality’, which is a complete misunderstanding of the distinction of ultimate and conventional reality; (p.54) Elverskog claims that ‘the Buddhist canon never extols poverty as a virtue, only wealth’ – he has perhaps not read the Dhammapada very thoroughly, or at least has not distinguished voluntary from involuntary poverty. The book also includes Pāli and Sanskrit words, sometimes with diacritics, sometimes not. There are also a number of maps with tenuous or unstated relationships to the book’s narrative, as well as some mistaken words and references. All this would suggest that the book did not go through a final editing process.

[iv] See the Jīvika Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 55 and elsewhere. Elverskog (p.135 n.3) actually quotes this very teaching, from the Pāli Vinaya, but appears not to have understood it. 

[v] The Dalai Lama now recognises that Buddhists ought to be vegetarian, even though he himself eats some meat for health reasons (

[vi] Melford E. Spiro (1982 [1970]), Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes, 2nd ed., Berkeley: University of California Press. Winston King had already made a comparable distinction in relation to Theravāda in Sri Lanka.

[vii] This topic is explored in David McMahan (2008), The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford University Press, e.g. p.40.

[viii] Described in Kerry Brown (1992), ‘In the Water There Were Fish and the Fields Were Full of Rice: Reawakening the Lost Harmony of Thailand’, Buddhism and Ecology, ed. Martine Batchelor and Kerry Brown, London: Cassell, pp.87–99. 

[ix] The ‘myth of Buddhist exceptionalism’ is exploded by Evan Thompson (2020), Why I am not a Buddhist, New Haven: Yale University Press, Introduction, and ch.1.

[x] See for a fuller account.

[xi] See, for instance, His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Franz Alt (2020), Our Only Home: A Climate Appeal to the World, London: Bloomsbury. 

Rooted in this very earth

An unintended consequence of the viral pandemic is that, rather than walking to my office at the university, I walk for exercise each day in the local woods. And I am not alone: lots of us seem to be taking the unexpected opportunity to find pleasure in springtime woodland. As I’ve been walking in the woods, I’ve been thinking more about Buddhist environmental ethics (see also Mettā for Plants). It’s often thought that Buddhism is eco-friendly because of its ethical principle of non-violence and because of the doctrine of interconnectedness. Well, yes, it would greatly help the environment if people were to stop eating animals. But what about interconnectedness?

Scholars have pointed out that saying that everything is interconnected doesn’t necessarily help formulate an ethics, as it could mean that pollution is connected with smiling and meditation is connected with open-cast mining, somehow or other. It’s all one. But for environmental ethics we need conceptions of value and judgements about what to do.[i] Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is surely some significance in the experience of being inseparable from nature and the earth for changing how we live. But what exactly is the experience? Is it of interconnectedness?

Walking in the woods, I find myself attending more to my footsteps and less to my thoughts. The feel of the earth, especially the mulch of humus, all those layers of old leaves, is more enjoyable than mental preoccupation. I am inside the world of birdsong. The chiffchaffs started two weeks ago, and now the blackcaps are singing too. I pass two men sitting on a bench, and we all turn to listen to a woodpecker hammering. I want to say to them, Dendrocopos major, though I don’t. 

(wood anemone, celandine, sycamore, small-leaved lime)

I walk on, and realise that I am saying the names of flowers to myself. Look – celandine, and campion, and wood anemone. These old names root my tongue in generations of speakers of our shared language, fellow wanderers in spring woods. And I realise that the feeling of connectedness with nature is not something vague and mystical, but quite precise – it consists in my attention, now, to this living being with this specific name – ­­sycamore. I remember reading, in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, how ‘sycamore’ was her favourite word. It’s not my favourite, but I have had a different, more appreciative, relationship with that tree since I read that book. I am more enamoured of hornbeam, its scaley bark plated, like a rhinoceros, like an ent.


A true appreciation of nature is mediated by words, or else it remains silent. But that is not to deny the complete indifference of nature itself to our language. Rather, our words, these ancient labels of consensus reality, are the acts of homage that we pay to what we recognise as as other beings. The concept signified by oak is in my mind and in our culture but has an open edge bordering the wordless. It’s when we abide in that boundary, that liminal zone of leaf litter and lichens, that we touch on the vast, pulsing mystery of life. This happens through words and concepts, not without them. And where I find something living that don’t know the name of, some fungus on an old relic of oak, it remains alien, its being beyond me.

(unknown fungus)

Abiding in that borderland, the word ‘interconnected’ shows up a laughable anthropocentrism. I may be dependent on nature for my life, but in no way whatever is life dependent on me. This beech, this bluebell, this bumble bee, does not need me. We humans are the new species here, a mere few hundred thousands years old. None of the other species in this woodland need us. Should Homo sapiens disappear, through virus or war, life would continue without faltering. Preoccupied with my own thinking and wanting, I might think that I am important to the unfolding of things. Seduced by the beauty of woodland, I realise that I am the least of the things passing through.

In this humility, what am I? Not separate and alone, not a mere mind; but a body that is the child of, and dependent on, the earth. But not one with nature either, but something more complex, beyond words. Like a tree, which is rooted in the earth, so that where earth ends and tree begins is anybody’s guess, and no-one knows; yet a tree still stands in its own presence, and endures. Likewise, I am something that thinks, on its own; yet the million-fold roots of a human being interweave with indescribable sensitive complexity into earth, into life, into the cosmos. I look at the swelling trunk of an oak where it plunges and emerges on the edge of its world. I feel into the inconceivability of its connection. An inchoate bliss arises and I relax into the collar of moss.

(oak, campion, moss)

[i] The supposed environmental relevance of interconnectedness is especially clearly critiqued in Lambert Schmithausen (1997), ‘The Early Buddhist Tradition and Ecological Ethics’, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 4, pp.1–74, and Charles Ives (2009), ‘In Search of a Green Dharma: Philosophical Issues in Buddhist Environmental Ethics’, in John Powers & Charles Prebish (eds.), Destroying Māra Forever: Buddhist Ethics Essays in Honour of Damian Keown, Ithaca NY: Snow Lion, pp.165–85.

Mettā for Plants

sweet love gerbera

Some years ago, while learning Pāli, I made a translation of the Mettasutta, or ‘Discourse on Kindness’, one of the best-known early Buddhist discourses.[i] The verses of this discourse describe how a practitioner should develop the quality of mettā, or ‘kindness’.[ii] Having established oneself in an ethical lifestyle, one develops, imaginatively and emotionally, the quality of kindness to all beings, as part of the training of mind and heart that culminates in liberation and awakening. Among the verses that describe the development of mettā are these:[iii]

ye keci pāṇabhūt’atthi
tasā vā thāvarā vā anavasesā
dīghā vā ye mahantā vā
majjhimā rassakā aṇukathūlā

diṭṭhā vā ye vā addiṭṭhā
ye ca dūre vasanti avidūre
bhūtā vā sambhavesī vā
sabbe sattā bhavantu sukhitattā

Which I translated like this:

Whatever living beings there are,
whether plant or animal, without exception,
whether they are very long or large,
or middling in size, or short, great or small,

whether they are visible or unseen,
whether living nearby or far away,
whether they are born, or not yet come to be:
may all living beings have happiness.

When I translated these verses, it seemed to me obvious and uncontroversial that the class of ‘living beings’ (pāṇābhūta) should include living beings that are both ‘moving’ (tasa) and ‘still’ (thāvara), and that these Pāli words referred to animals and plants. However, last year, in conversation with Buddhist friends, I discovered that in fact almost all other translators of the Mettasutta translate the words tasa and thāvara as ‘weak or strong’, or words to that effect, with the implication that plants are not included.[iv]

This discovery surprised me. Surely, I thought, the class of living beings towards which Buddhists should develop mettā, or kindness, should include plants as well as animals. But in fact, as I found out, the Theravādin Buddhist tradition excludes plants from the category of sentient beings; it takes the Mettasutta to teach that one should develop kindness towards sentient beings, hence not towards plants. In this post I will argue two things: first, that the original intention of the Mettasutta was to recommend the development of mettā towards all living beings, including plants; and second, that the development of mettā towards plants ought to be an important part of the practice of developing mettā. But before that, some background on the traditional interpretation.

In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s recent translation of the Sutta-nipāta, the verses of the Mettasutta in question are translated like this:[v]

Whatever living beings there are
whether frail or firm, without omission,
those that are long, or those that are large
middling, short, fine, or gross.

Bhikkhu Bodhi also translates the traditional commentary on the Suttanipāta, giving the contemporary reader easy access to the way the Theravadin tradition understood the discourses. The section discussing ‘frail or firm’ reads like this:[vi]

In this way, with the expression “whatever living beings there are” having shown all beings collectively, classified into pairs and triads, now, with the expression “whether frail [tasa] or firm [thāvara], without omission,” he [i.e., the Buddha] shows all these classified by way of this pair. Here the frail [tasa] are “those that tremble (or thirst)”; this is a designation for those with craving and with fear. The firm [thāvara] are those that stand firm; this is a designation for arahants, who have abandoned craving and fear.

In an interesting long note, Bodhi explains how the commentary invokes a word-play on the two meanings of tasa, ‘trembling’ and ‘thirsty’.[vii] The commentary evidently connects ‘trembling/thirsty’ (which Bhikkhu Bodhi and others render into English as ‘frail’, ‘weak’) with living beings that are unawakened and experience craving and fear. By contrast, the commentary connects living beings who are ‘still’ or ‘firm’ with awakened beings who no longer experience craving and fear. Bhikkhu Bodhi admits that this commentarial interpretation feels forced. Not only that, one might add, but the English rendering ‘frail or firm’ does not even get across the forced commentarial explanation. In English, to speak of ‘frail or firm’ living beings tells the reader nothing at all about their craving or awakening. It tells the reader only about their physical and mental strength. In his long note, Bodhi continues:[viii]

Norman 2004, 81, takes the expression [tasā vā thāvarā vā] in its original sense [of ‘moving or still’]…, but since, on this interpretation, thāvara signifies vegetation or inanimate objects, this would mean that mettā would be developed towards non-sentient objects, which is contrary to the intent of the practice [my italics]. While the commentarial explanation may be forced, I would surmise that even during the Buddha’s time tasathāvara had lost its original sense and had come to serve as a conventional expression applicable solely to the domain of sentient beings.

We see, therefore, that Bhikkhu Bodhi translates the verses,  ye keci pāṇabhūt’atthi |tasā vā thāvarā vā anavasesā, as ‘Whatever living beings there are / whether frail or firm, without omission’, following the commentary, and with the surmise that even in the Buddha’s time, the phrase tasathāvara already meant ‘sentient beings’, excluding plants. Without implying any criticism of Bhikkhu Bodhi, since he has translated the Sutta-nipāta as it is understood in the Theravādin tradition, I would like to offer an alternative interpretation of the original meaning of tasathāvara. This is based on the remarkable in-depth scholarship of Lambert Schmithausen. In his unlikely-sounding book, The Problem of the Sentience of Plants in Earlier Buddhism,[ix] Schmithausen addresses the question of whether tasathāvara includes plants in early Buddhism. This phrase, meaning ‘moving or still’, is a common expression in ancient Hindu and Jain texts from the time of the Buddha for the class of living beings. The Jains, indeed, have not at all changed their conception of what counts as a living being, or jīva. As Paul Dundas puts it, according to Jain belief:[x]

Embodied jīvas are divided into two types, those which are stationary (sthāvara) such as plants, and those which are moving (trasa) such as insects, gods, hellbeings, animals and human beings.

For Jains, the practice of non-harming (ahiṃsa) extends to stationary (sthāvara) beings like plants as well as to moving ones like animals. In Schmithausen’s view, the Buddhists, like the Jains, used the word pāṇa (‘living being’) in a comprehensive sense, to include both tasa and thāvara, animals and plants. Schmithausen reviews early Buddhist literature and concludes that we should infer that the Buddhists used the phrase tasathāvara in just the same way as the Jains; practitioners should not harm or kill living beings, whether moving or still, but should protect them and suffuse them with mettā. The evidence that Schmithausen presents, despite being inferential rather than direct, very much undermines Bhikkhu Bodhi’s surmise that the meaning of tasathāvara had already in the Buddha’s time come to refer only to sentient beings.[xi]

However, Schmithausen also traces the way in which later Buddhists (such as the Pāli commentators) came to exclude plants from the category of sentient beings. He also ventures an opinion on how this change could have come about. Even in the Buddha’s day, plants were regarded by the Buddhists as borderline cases of sentient life; after all, harming plants was a necessity for obtaining food, without which no ascetic could eat and gain liberation. While wanton destruction of plants, based on an attitude of greed or hatred, was wrong, the careful use of plants for food did not incur any bad karma.[xii] This pragmatic attitude, so typical of Buddhists, was quite different to that of the more literalist Jains. In later times, the Buddhist attitude to plants shifted to exclude them altogether from the class of sentient beings, in a doctrinal shift that sorts out the ambiguities of Buddhist pragmatism.

Therefore, we should understand the original meaning of tasathāvara in the Mettasutta as ‘moving and still’, that is, ‘animals and plants’. I now turn to the idea that the intention of the mettā practice is to develop kindness only towards sentient beings (not plants). Bhikkhu Bodhi’s understanding of the mettā practice here no doubt reflects the practice as explained in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga.[xiii] Here, one is instructed to develop mettā towards human beings, in stages, beginning with oneself, then a good friend, a neutral person and a difficult person, and culminating in extending mettā to all sentient beings. But this constitutes, for practical purposes, a relatively narrow method of practising mettā. The early discourses, by contrast, teach the practice of mettā in terms of radiating boundless kindness in all directions, to all living beings, not specifically to human or sentient beings.[xiv] Again, this suggests that mettā should be developed towards plants.

Indeed, some contemporary meditation teachers recommend the development of mettā towards plants. Sharon Salzbergdraws on research that shows how elderly people in a care home who had been given a pot plant to care for became healthier and better connected to the world. Ajahn Brahm describes how one of his students began to develop the quality of mettā by bringing to mind the plants she had recently re-potted: she developed an attitude of appreciation, kindness and concern to those plants, and was subsequently able to extend this development of mettā towards humans and all beings. Such meditation teachers still teach the traditional five-stage practice of mettā-bhāvanā, but take a broad and creative approach to contacting the quality of mettā to start with.

Perhaps we should go further than this. In the modern world, many people are disconnected from nature and lack a sense of emotional appreciation of the living environment, upon which we depend for food, air, beauty, and more. As the mostly urban-dwelling humanity of the 21st c. heads towards the growing challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, and over-population, the deliberate and systematic development of mettā for plants, trees and forests, in addition to animals, including humans, might be particularly valuable. An appreciation of our place in the wider world of life may awaken the heart to kindness, and then help us to formulate new attitudes and relationships to plants and insects, and to all the hidden interconnections between our lives, that we have for so long been able to take for granted, but which there is still time to learn to love. 

With this in mind, I propose that we should interpret the Mettasutta for our own times. We should translate tasā vā thāvarā vā as ‘whether plant or animal’, but we should understood these two kinds of living beings as representative of the whole world of life, including bacteria, plants, fungi and animals, and whatever other living beings are yet to be identified. And in our practice of mettā we should extend the quality of kindness towards the whole borderline-sentient world of plants, trees, forests, now at risk from human beings. Hence:

Whatever living beings there are,
whether plant or animal, without exception,
whether they are very long or large,
or middling in size, or short, great or small,

whether they are visible or unseen,
whether living nearby or far away,
whether they are born, or not yet come to be:
may all living beings have happiness.

[i] The Mettasutta can be found in the Suttanipāta, 1: 8; see for editions and translations. My translation can be found here

[ii] The Pāli word mettā is derived from the word mitta, ‘friend’, which suggests the meaning ‘friendliness’ (the Sanskrit equivalent maitrī is similarly derived from mitra). The word mettā can also be translated as ‘love’, ‘loving-kindess’ and ‘benevolence’. But I like the one-word translation ‘kindness’, as the English word ‘kindness’ means the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate, which is more specific than ‘love’, and suggests emotional open-heartedness. 

[iii] Suttanipāta, vv.146–7, taken here from the PTS edition.

[iv] For instance, H. Saddhatissa (The Sutta-Nipāta, London: Curzon, 1985, p.16) translates, ‘Whatever living beings there be: feeble or strong…’; Laurence Khantipalo Mills: ‘whether they be frail or strong’.The exception is K.R. Norman (The Group of Discourses, PTS, Oxford, 2001, p.19), who translates ‘Whatever living creatures there are, moving or still without exception…’.

[v] Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2017, The Suttanipāta: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses, Boston: Wisdom, p.179.

[vi] The Suttanipāta, p.577. I have included some of the Pāli in [square brackets]. Text in bold is quotation from the Mettasutta, the ‘lemma’, or text which the commentary comments on.

[vii] Bodhi, n.696, p.1407.

[viii] The reference to Norman is to K.R. Norman, ‘On Translating the Sutta-nipāta’, Buddhist Studies Review, 2004, 21: 1, pp.69–84. Bodhi’s reference should be to p.82 rather than p.81.

[ix] Lambert Schmithausen, The Problem of the Sentience of Plants in Earliest Buddhism, Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1991. This book is an accompaniment to Schmithausen, Buddhism and Nature, Tokyo: The Internation Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1991. Neither work is easy to get hold of, but I have created links here to downloadable versions.

[x] Paul Dundas, The Jains, Abingdon: Routledge, 1992, p.95

[xi] Here I summarise the detailed discussion in Schmithausen, Sentience, §§19–21, pp.58–65.

[xii] Schmithausen makes this argument in Sentience, §§22–7, pp.66–78.

[xiii] Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga, PTS: London, 1920, p.295ff; trans. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, The Path of Purification, Kandy: BPS, 5th ed., 1991, p.288f.

[xiv] Discussed in Anālayo, Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, Cambridge: Windhorse, 2015, pp.20–6.