Only connect

Buddhism and ecology both refuse to separate the human and natural worlds – and demand that we act accordingly

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Vultures at a Tibetan sky burial ritual in Dari county in northwest China's Qinghai province 27 November 2009. Photo by Alex Lee/epa/Corbis

Vultures at a Tibetan sky burial ritual in Dari county in northwest China's Qinghai province 27 November 2009. Photo by Alex Lee/epa/Corbis

David P Barash is an evolutionary biologist, aspiring buddhist, and professor of psychology and biology at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Homo Mysterious.

Once, while waiting for a wilderness permit at a ranger station in North Cascades National Park, Washington state, I overheard the following message, radioed into headquarters by a backcountry ranger: ‘Dead elk in upper Agnes Creek decomposing nicely. Over.’ This ranger was not only a practical and profound ecologist, she also possessed the wisdom of a Buddhist master. The ‘over’ in her communication seemed especially apt. For Buddhists, as for ecologists, all individual lives are eventually ‘over’, but their constituent parts continue ‘living’ pretty much for ever, in a kind of ongoing process of bio-geo-chemical reincarnation.

People who follow ecological thinking (including some of our hardest-headed scientists) might not realise that they are also embracing an ancient spiritual tradition. Many who espouse Buddhism — succumbing, perhaps, to its chic, Hollywood appeal — might not realise that they are also endorsing a world view with political implications that go beyond bumper stickers demanding a free Tibet.

Plenty of us recognise that Buddhist writings and teachings — especially in their Zen manifestation — celebrate the beauty and wisdom in the natural world. A monk asks a master: ‘How may I enter in the Way?’ The master points to a stream and responds: ‘Do you hear that torrent? There you may enter.’ Walking in the mountains, the master asks: ‘Do you smell the flowering laurel?’ The monk says he does. ‘Then,’ declares the master, ‘I have hidden nothing from you.’

Part of this sensitivity to nature is a Buddhist grasp of suffering, whose existence constitutes the first of Buddhism's Four Noble Truths. It is no coincidence that Henry David Thoreau, America's first great environmentalist, was also a student of Indian religion and the first translator of the ‘Lotus Sutra’ into English. In this classic teaching, Shakyamuni Buddha compares the ‘Dharma’ — the true nature of reality — to a soothing rain that nourishes all beings.

The pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote that to have an ecological conscience is to ‘live alone in a world of wounds’. The Buddha urged his followers to be sensitive to the suffering of all sentient beings. His First Precept is to commit oneself to ahimsa, or nonharming. The Mahayana Buddhist ideal is to go further, and to become a bodhisattva, an enlightened individual who vows to relieve the suffering of all beings. In the ‘Metta Sutta’, Theravada monks and lay adherents vow to practise loving kindness: ‘Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.’ And here is the first verse of ‘The Bodhisattva Path’, by Shantideva, a revered eighth-century poet: ‘May I be the doctor and the medicine/And may I be the nurse/For all sick beings in the world/Until everyone is healed.’

For Buddhists and ecologists alike, we are all created from spare parts scavenged from the same cosmic junk-heap

However, for me, as a scientist, there is something much more in the Buddhist tradition than an injunction to care for other living things. This meeting of the minds, Buddhist and ecological, results from similar insights into the nature of reality itself — which is indistinguishable from the reality of nature — and of our place in the whole business.


f you are a poet,’ writes the contemporary Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘you will see that there is a cloud in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper.’ He goes on to include the logger who cut the trees, the logger's mother, and so forth. If you, too, can see the cloud in a sheet of paper, then perhaps you too are a poet, a Zen master — or an ecologist. Regardless of who sees it, there really is a cloud in a sheet of paper, as well as a bark beetle, a handful of soil, a bit of bird poop, even the gasoline that powered the logger’s chain saw. It is similarly possible that if you were to chronicle the history of those atoms that constitute the electronic screen from which you are now reading, you would find that they were once part of Peter the Great, a woolly mammoth, or (and!) a Komodo dragon.

The interconnected and interdependent nature of things is the heart of ecology. It is also remarkably similar to the fundamental insight of Buddhism: ‘dependent co-arising’ or pratītyasamutpāda in Sanskrit; paticcasamuppāda in Pali. Traditional Tibetan Buddhists repeat, over and over, that all things have at some time been our mothers, just as we have at some time been theirs. In both the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism, the key teaching is ‘compassion’, which means something quite different from empathy, sympathy, doing good, being nice, or easy phrases about ‘feeling your pain’.

The touchstone, instead, is a Buddhist idea that is among the most difficult for Westerners to accept: the concept of anatman, or ‘no-self’. Let’s be clear: Buddhists do not claim that people do not exist. When the Dalai Lama flies to a symposium in Geneva or London, he obtains a ticket with the name ‘Tenzin Gyatso’, and his body occupies a seat. However, for Buddhists there is no self in the deeper sense that no one exists as a singular, permanent structure distinct and isolated in any meaningful way from the rest of the world. This is entirely in line with an evolutionary and ecological approach to our origins and our embeddedness in natural processes.

Each of us arises in conjunction with others, dependent on and inseparable from those others. Trying to locate an inviolate particle of selfhood within anyone (or indeed, in any living thing) is not like finding a solid pit inside an apricot. It is more like peeling an onion: we are layers within layers, with nothing at the centre. Or, like an eddy in a river, each of us can be identified and pointed to, but nonetheless, there isn’t any persistent ‘us’: just a constantly moving pattern of flow, with everyone composed entirely of non-self stuff, all of it passing through. For Buddhists and ecologists alike, we are all created from spare parts scavenged from the same cosmic junk-heap, from which ‘our’ component atoms and molecules are on temporary loan, and to which they will eventually be recycled.

So our existence is not a distinct and separable phenomenon. Genuine compassion, in the sense of suffering with, should be easy — in fact it is unavoidable — since no one is distinct from the recipient of his or her concern. The 19th-century conservationist John Muir glimpsed the same principle: ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’ For ecologists, no less than for poets or Buddhists, it is the fundamental rule, whether you call it connectedness, inseparability or, in the language of science, food webs, trophic levels, and community interactions.

At one point in The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin speculated playfully that, by keeping cats, English spinsters made London a more pleasant and flower-full place. Here is his reasoning: cats, as everyone knows, eat mice. Mice, as fewer people realise, occasionally destroy the nests of bumblebees, which are typically dug into the ground. And bumblebees, of course, pollinate flowers. So more cats, fewer mice. Fewer mice, more bumblebees. More bumblebees, more flowers. Therefore: more English spinsters with cats means more flowers. No one has tested Darwin’s proposal. But these surprising interlinked chains of cause and effect are very familiar in ecological science, as they are in Buddhist metaphysics.

In a recent experimental example, a project was conceived to investigate the causes of periodic infestations of gypsy moths, an introduced pest from Europe that, about one year in 10, causes great damage to forests in eastern North America. Researchers at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York suspected that there might be a connection between these periodic gypsy moth outbreaks and the abundance of acorns, because of the intervention of white-footed deer mice, common rodents in eastern forests. Deer mouse numbers skyrocket following a good acorn crop, which happens about every two to five years. And white-footed deer mice don’t eat only acorns. They are also major predators on the pupae of gypsy moths. So, it seemed reasonable that in the immediate aftermath of a heavy acorn production there would be a large mouse population. This, in turn, would keep the gypsy moths in check. Similarly, following poor acorn years, there should be relatively few mice and therefore, relatively more gypsy moths.

The Dalai Lama (a self-proclaimed admirer of Western science) has recently confirmed that he no longer believes all that business about the world being flat with a giant mountain at its centre

During one summer of the study — after a very heavy acorn crop — mice were abundant in the study site, an upstate New York forest. The ecologists removed most of the mice from three patches of forest, each measuring about 2.7 hectares (no small task). They proceeded to compare the numbers of gypsy moth pupae in these experimental areas with similar forest plots from which mice had not been removed. Sure enough, fewer mice yielded more moths; 45 times more, in fact.

The next step was to simulate a bumper acorn year. With the help of a local troop of Girl Scouts, they scattered nearly four tons of acorns over the experimental, mouse-depleted plots — which rapidly refilled with mice. This demonstrated that more acorns do indeed mean more mice. Which is a good thing if we want to prevent gypsy moth outbreaks. But the story isn’t over yet.

White-footed deer mice are not only consumers of acorns and of gypsy moth larvae. They are also a major reservoir for the parasitic organism that causes Lyme disease — a tick that lives on mice in its larval stage, and on deer as an adult. More acorns didn't only mean more mice. There were also higher numbers of deer, attracted by the acorns, which brought along their burden of adult ticks, which bred and bestowed their larvae upon the flourishing mice. Mice occupying acorn-enriched plots had about 40 per cent more tick larvae than did the denizens of normal, control forests.

Even the first set of causations in that 1998 study — more acorns, more mice, and fewer gypsy moths — is complex enough. But the web of interdependent causes is much more subtle when we add the disease vectors. What are the practical implications? Foresters might be tempted to try to distribute additional acorns, inhibiting gypsy moth outbreaks in order to improve lumber yields. But this might bring about Lyme disease epidemics: more mice mean fewer gypsy moths, but also more ticks. Alternatively, public health officials who want to reduce Lyme disease might look into various ways of chemically suppressing mast production, which might in turn bring about gypsy moth infestations. Finally, it’s possible that Lyme disease outbreaks might be correlated, oddly enough, with how many acorns are produced that year by the forest.

Everything, it seems, is connected; the Buddha would understand.

All the same, we shouldn't assume that the parallels between Buddhism and ecology are too exact, with either one mapping readily and completely onto the other. For me — an unrepentantly atheist scientist — there are many aspects of Buddhist tradition that seem downright ridiculous.

High on the list of such absurdities are the phenomena of iddhi, supernatural events that are supposed to be generated by extremely skilful and committed meditation. They appear often in Buddhist texts, and I don’t believe a word of them. Higher meditators are claimed to possess various supernatural abilities, becoming invisible on demand, walking through walls, on water, through the air, hearing people and other beings very far away, mind-reading, recalling past lives, even possessing ‘divine eyes’ that permit them to see the arising and passing away of karma.

The Buddha himself, immediately after he was born, is said to have taken seven steps and announced that this was the last time he would be reborn. When he died, lying on his side between two sal trees, they immediately and miraculously burst into bloom, out of season. The Buddha made it clear that he was not a god and should not be worshipped as one, yet this is violated every day by millions of people who persist in giving his teachings all the trappings of rigidified religion.

Traditional Buddhist cosmology is very complex, and more than a little weird, with the world composed of 31 levels, the lowest being a kind of hell, followed in turn by animals, ghosts, titans, humans, five different tiers of lesser gods, 15 of higher gods, after which one encounters, in turn, ‘infinite space’, ‘infinite consciousness’, ‘nothingness’, and finally ‘neither perception nor non-perception’. The Dalai Lama (a self-proclaimed admirer of Western science) has recently admitted that he no longer believes all that business about the world being flat with a great mountain — Mount Meru — at its centre. I don’t know about the beliefs of other leading Buddhists in this regard.

Neither is ‘Buddhism’ a monolithic whole. Some argue that ‘real’ Buddhism should be based on the early teachings of the Pali canon. But this is quite different from the Buddhism whose vision is so similar to modern ecology. The historical Buddha seems to have been more concerned with ending human suffering and encouraging individual enlightenment than with promoting environmental sensitivity. Instead of revelling in connectedness, early Buddhist thought focused on the downside of being ‘misled’ in maya, the illusory sense of the material world’s importance.

Just as Tibetan Buddhists practise ‘sky burials’, returning the human body to the vultures, so too does ecology celebrate the decomposing elk in the forest

To be sure, the science of ecology is divided as well: ecology has a double meaning, being used to refer both to the quantitative science and to a broad sense of ethical responsibility towards a complex natural world.

Even so, there are many striking and subtle connections between Buddhist metaphysics and ethics on the one hand and an ecological orientation on the other. Modern Buddhism, especially as promoted and practised in the West, has undergone something of an intellectual makeover. It now places more emphasis on social and environmental responsibility than the Buddha or his immediate followers seem to have favoured — perhaps in part due to the influence of Zen.

What of the West’s own spiritual traditions? Dichotomous thinking is basic to Western thought, deriving, perhaps, from the Greek Platonic constructs of ideal versus real and intellect versus emotion. These dualities were a powerful influence on the Judeo-Christian world view: God vs creation, spirit vs flesh, sin vs redemption and — most important for our purposes — humanity vs nature.

Although most spiritual traditions have some sort of ethical responsibility to the natural world built into them (from Christian stewardship to shamanic identification), the unfortunate reality is that, for the Abrahamic religions in particular (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), separateness — of soul from body, individuals from each other, heaven from hell, human beings from the rest of the natural world, and so forth — is the primary operating assumption.

Ecology was traditionally defined as the study of the interrelations between organisms and their environments, which is still somewhat dualistic. Significantly, ecologists now modify this definition to emphasise the fundamental identity of subject and surroundings. We cannot separate the bison from the prairie or the spotted owl from its coniferous forest. Since any such distinction is arbitrary, the ecologist studies the bison-prairie, owl-forest unit. Food webs, such as those connecting mouse, acorn and gipsy moth, are not mere descriptions of who-eats-whom, but outlines of their very being. The Buddhist suggestion that an organism’s skin does not separate it from its environment but, rather, joins the two, could just as well have come from a ‘master’ of physiological ecology.

With dualism overcome and the world seen in its complicated, organic wholeness, it is absurd to consider any natural process as ‘wrong’. It is what it is. ‘A duck’s legs, though short, cannot be lengthened without dismay to the duck, and a crane’s legs, though long, cannot be shortened without misery to the crane.’ Western thinking has generally been more Procrustean, seeking to amputate, stretch, or otherwise deform the natural world to suit our desires: to make it beautiful, picturesque or charming. Just as Tibetan Buddhists practise ‘skyburials’ to return the elements of the human body to the vultures and, eventually, the earth in an unsentimental recognition of our physical reality, so too does ecology celebrate the decomposing elk in the forest. Along the way, ecologists have argued with land managers until they have eventually come to the (Buddhistic) realisation that decomposition, predation, even forest fire, all have a place in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

Even our traditional Western notions of cause-and-effect have been re-evaluated, with systems analysis and complex flow charts representing numerous inputs and a bewildering array of interconnections, a kind of ‘neural net’ writ large. Embedded in an ecological world view is a notion of things in flux (or, in Buddhism, ‘impermanence’ or anitya), which is especially convivial to an evolutionary perspective — the recycling of life, the profound and unexpected consequences of interdependence. In fact, there are elements in Buddhism that seem to prefigure the most recent view of ecological systems as changeable, dynamic and prone to disturbance yet also highly interconnected and resilient.

In reaching for ways to describe such complex systems, Buddhist tradition has created many metaphors and images. Take ‘Indra’s net’, a structure described in the Avatamsaka Sutra. The story goes that the emperor Indra had a net spun, or woven, perhaps for the amusement and entertainment of his daughter. In any event, the net was infinitely large, and contained a pure and perfect jewel at each intersection of threads. If you looked closely at any one of these jewels, you could see, reflected therein, all the other jewels (remember, the net is infinite). On the surface of each jewel, all the others are reflected; when you peer into any one, you see all the others reflecting all the other others, in turn. ‘To see a world in a grain of sand,’ as William Blake put it, ‘and a Heaven in a wild flower’.

Not surprisingly, verbal analysis, with its unavoidable linearity, is inadequate for ecologists just as it has long been disdained by Buddhist masters. Where the Buddhist master plays with poetic imagery, the ecological imagination turns to modelling and metaphors of its own.

Ecology is many things: a science, a world view, a cautionary tale. It can be nearly incomprehensible in its mathematical thickets, downright tedious in its verbal pomposity, theoretically abstruse yet dirty-under-the-fingernails practical, often ignored and derided although desperately needed as a voice for basic planetary hygiene and a practical corrective to human hubris. It has been called the ‘subversive science’, since it subverts our egocentric insistence on separateness, and with it, our inclination to ride roughshod over the rest of the natural world. Buddhism is no less subversive, its ecological implications in particular carrying the serious practitioner far beyond giddy adoration of the Dalai Lama, or a fascination with celebrity Buddhists such as Richard Gere.

To EM Forster’s celebrated injunction, ‘only connect’, Buddhists and ecologists would add that we are already connected. Our job is to recognise this connection, and to act accordingly, paying attention to our breadth and not just our breath. But the ecological implications of Buddhism — or the Buddhist implications of ecology — are not easy. They require stout-hearted action, not mere sentiment. Shortly after the First National Economic Development Plan was drafted in Thailand in 1961, the Bangkok government imprisoned monks for teaching santutthi (contentment with what one has), out of fear that this Buddhist ideal would interfere with short-sighted economic development. And of course it would, and did.

This is the point of spiritual-religious-ethical perspectives: they make demands upon us. Martyrdom is out of fashion these days, but when we think of the murder of 'that low-born cleric' Thomas Becket in the cathedral, or of Burmese monks resisting the junta in 2007, we might remember that toughness in the face of power is part of a principled worldview. When it comes to the interpenetration of Buddhism and ecological wisdom, the consequences of serious ‘practice’ might be less dire, although equally significant. Instead of losing a life, we just might expand ours.

Read the study linking acorns, gypsy moths and Lyme disease.

Read more essays on and


  • Diana

    Well said

  • Donny Duke

    A well-written article both entertaining and informative, but it’s serving the same fare you get anywhere these days, not its content its context, so much a product of its times (though it’s not without its insights deep enough to carry you through the day like the presence of a happy friend): a persuasive ideological statement put somewhere it would do more to reinforce itself than convince non-believers, since magazines in the digital world, and in print for that matter, have an ideology they’re in business to promote and a readership that generally belongs to their camp, and very few publish opposing ideologies as features. We are increasingly entering a world war of ideas, the net being both a major instigator and the major battleground, and the opposing sides are many, but the main oppositions seem to be religion vs. science and profit motivation vs. the earth and its peoples, as you demonstrate here, and it’s also very much in keeping with the spirit of the times that you make your underlying ideological
    statement as a tolerant bridge builder seeking similarities and not differences, and it’s not that you’re insincere; you’re wearing character armor. I know because I’m wearing it
    too. We all are. “Can we get a better basis for intolerance than pretending to be tolerant?” (to quote from a poem of mine) You might be collaborating with the enemy,
    using that term to get my point across faster since a comment can only be so long, but you can’t allow the reader to think you sleep with him in the essential difference of believing in supernatural processes or not and so have to clearly draw that line in your article and distance yourself from such beliefs as well as tell us, like Christians compelled to state that Jesus is their lord or Muslims that there is but one God, and Mohammad is his prophet, that you’re an ‘unrepentanly atheist scientist’ and reveal by those three words emphasized by dashes you think you’re daring by not believing in God, what you do believe in (science), and that somewhere inside you are not what you think you are: convinced of your atheism.

    What I find so interesting is that both the mainstream religious and scientific camps concentrate, in any exposition, as you do here, on the outer life, the former on norms and behaviors and the latter on processes of Nature, and they give very little attention to the considerable range of the inner life of Man. Much is mentioned concerning thoughts of the mind and feelings in the heart, mainly in reference to beliefs and images to hold in one or the other, but such abstractions are usually as deep as a probe goes, and this despite the fact that a religion generally has its origin in inner
    experience and that science has advanced more than a time or two from the clues
    and hints of dream. You talk for example about the Tibetan Buddhist tradition but choose to mention, in your list of supernatural beliefs it holds as possible, ones your audience would be more apt to scoff at, outer experiences such as walking on water, flying in the air, and the like, merely dismiss without explanation inner ones that would supersede gross physical processes, and do not bring upon the table the profound range of the depths it has gone to in dream and other inner exploration, a range that,
    if you would consider the report of inner personal experience that by its very nature the scientific method cannot measure, crosses over into the inner life of others, a curious thing for you to omit seeing how you are talking about that very thing, connection between us. And though you mention the word you don’t expound, other than include insights made by Buddhist masters, on the possibility of their being a higher range of
    consciousness than that of the ego, using these terms because you’ll know what
    I’m talking about easier, one where your thesis of connection between us might have some common ground to stand on. What about enlightenment?

    There’s a supra-natural ability in the Mahayana of inhabiting another person’s body, projecting yourself, whatever that self exactly is, inside someone else. If you were to
    experience this, and you were to be able to validate that you indeed spent some time inside another person (they were indeed at such and such a place at such and such a time, thought, felt, said and did exactly such and such, and there was no way you could have known that other than being inside them), and of course you can sit there and come up with all sorts of objections, but say it happened, verified by facts no instrument could record other than your own mind, though facts nonetheless, would you believe your own eyes, trust your own experience? However much our physical
    elements mingle with the cosmos and world at large, whether or not we have an actual self, would you then be open to the possibility that our personal consciousness is not solely a product of our own brain but perhaps part of a greater whole, connected on the inside to others, or at the very least would you admit the possibility that on the inside between us there might be a great deal of hidden traffic? How concrete our
    unity would be if founded upon inner reality, since we would be known to mingle
    with one another in the very stuff of our identity. It’s quite curios that you don’t even allude to the possibility of an inner connection, and you’re talking precisely about what
    connects us. You don’t have to interpret everything that supersedes gross material processes as ignorant superstition, dismiss it all as nonsense. Maybe we haven't seen all there is of being human.

    I’m submitting an article describing dream inner exploration (and such a boundary crossing experience as inhabiting someone else) to Aeon, since the essay was largely inspired reading this magazine, putting it in the context of how much more range of personal consciousness we may have than we currently see or (in our science) are even trying to discover and what that greater range might mean to the horses of ideas now racing towards world war. It’s called The Epic of Man, and I hope you get the chance to check it out. Aeon has quickly become my favorite magazine, since in my mind and idea of aesthetic it’s approaching the kind of stuff we need online, but it still has a ways to go to be in business more than just to promote a certain worldview, to be objective in a universal sense and scientific in the broadest terms possible – able to
    include all of human experience.

    • Sam Dresser

      Donny, thanks very much for this comment - quite a lot to mull over! I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying the magazine. There's no doubt in my mind that Aeon promotes a certain worldview, unapologetically, and is all the better for it. And you're quite right that all publications do, and I wouldn't believe one if it said otherwise. But what's that old joke? If the Republicans one day shouted from the rooftops that the Earth is flat, the utterly 'unbiased' would report "Curvature of the Earth an Open Question." But I don't think that means Aeon is ideological, in the sense that there's an inherent rigidity to the magazine that seeks to reinterpret things to fit its particular assumptions. There is a certain worldview - that conversation, reflection, debate and description are all positives. In that sense, it seems, the dialogue will go wherever it does, just as long as it goes somewhere. What do you think?

      Also, I quite like your question about the Mahayana. Those near death experiences that folks have - like the one bizarrely featured on Newsweek's "Heaven is Real" cover - are great examples of that ancient tension. I've heard, perhaps apocryphally, of hospitals putting random number generators on the top of tall, out-of-reach surfaces just in case someone does have a NDE, floats towards the pearly gates and looks down. Anecdotal, but an interesting attempt to test just those sensations.

  • donny duke

    Sam, I think it’s not that Aeon ‘seeks to reinterpret things to fit its particular assumptions,’ but that it chooses what to publish based on and to promote its assumptions, its worldview, notwithstanding the fact that the quality of whatever it does publish is literary, using that word in its aesthetic sense and not that it belongs to the school of publishing that is called literary. I think we’re hitting on here one of the most fundamental obstacles to our human advance, what we’ll certainly have to overcome if we hope to solve the enigmas and paradoxes that are beginning to threaten our very survival, problems that by their very nature require for solution not only multiple sets of assumptions but even opposite points of view: our reluctance to let on our team what we don’t believe in, even if it has on our uniform, willing to follow our rules of play, and it’s good at the game. You speak of the ‘the dialogue’ and the need for it to go on wherever, but would if necessary voices are kept out of that dialogue, wherever it’s conducted, and I’m speaking of the more mainstream presentation and discussion of ideas that would reach the public, such as your publication (because it’s precisely this we’re talking about isn’t it, what ideas get before the public eye), voices that would contribute essential ideas to the dialogue, ideas that could serve to broaden our range of existence as individuals, deepen our meaning of being in mass. We are creatures of habit and conditioning, the most open-minded among us, and we are each and every one of us more ignorant than knowledgeable about all there is to know about ourselves and our world. Being as you are a ‘new digital magazine of ideas and culture’ why can’t you, in keeping with the spirit of having a new medium, the net, do things differently and include opposing ideas in your magazine if they do play your game?

    I've submitted to you an essay that describes more than a near-death experience, describes something I doubt you've ever heard before. Of course it all depends on if I'm telling the truth or not, if I exaggerate or mislead, and that's the difficulty with personal experience, in accepting into the human dialogue what we cannot verify by objective means. Aeon is taking the risk and publishing personal experience, but very cautiously I might add, accepting that from people who seem to share your worldview, but are you willing to take the next step, necessary if we're going to come together on our survival, and include that from humanity at large if it's relevant to your discussion and shares your aesthetic?

    • Sam Dresser

      Donny, thanks again for your input - talk about dialogue in action! I for one don't agree with everything on Aeon, but that's the point: we do indeed publish opposing ideas.

      As for your submitted piece, thanks so much for the interest and the effort. Our editors are positively swamped, so there's no telling when it might find its way to the top of the pile. We will get back to you at some point, but I'm afraid there's no way of knowing when.

  • donny duke

    Sam, I mean do something different (than other magazines) in the context of your statement “There's no doubt in my mind that Aeon promotes a certain worldview, unapologetically, and is all the better for it. And you're quite right that all publications do, and I wouldn't believe one if it said otherwise.” I’m talking about publishing material from authors who have opposing ideas in the sense that their set of assumptions, their worldview, doesn’t agree with the one Aeon promotes (and of course a magazine doesn’t ‘hold’ a worldview, is not a person but made up of people who don’t all agree). I’m not talking about being unbiased, which is simply a human impossibility. An essay in Aeon, however, can do a descent job in this department, in the article Return Trip for example. What I’m trying to point out is very slippery but quite important to examine in our mainstream publication of ideas. Look at the BBC on this question for example, or Poetry Magazine for that matter; neither will even admit that they have a set of assumptions, a worldview, they’re promoting, and I’m talking about an ideological one, not only one that says ‘conversation, reflection, debate and description are all positives,’ ideological in the sense of wanting society to go in certain directions, away from or towards more of a nanny state, poetry that is instrumental, belief in God and/or the supernatural, a society that bases itself more upon scientifically established fact or on ‘poetic fact”, away from or towards profit-seeking individualism, democracy or socialism, conservation and sustainability, and the list goes on. Here’s the tricky part: promoting the kind of world you’d like to see, which is not at all wrong, and at the same time letting the guy who in your opinion wants to destroy it, if they’re polite adequately dressed, into your living room, onto your page.

  • Roy Niles

    I've come to similar conclusions, even if for different reasons, in my book.

  • Klaus Rohde


    Schopenhauer was, to my knowledge, the first Western philosopher who arrived at conclusions similar to Hinduism and Buddhism. And he was, again to my knowledge, the first who explicitly argued for the "rights" of animals. See here:

    Schopenhauer also anticipated Darwin's struggle for existence. See here:

    and here:

    Can Buddhist principles be reconciled with those of evolutionary theory based on Darwin?

    • Jerzy Kaltenberg


      • Klaus Rohde

        But is it possible that Darwin's theory, based on an overemphasis om competition, needs modification? See here:The Balance of Nature and Human Impact:

        • Jerzy Kaltenberg

          Is it not more likely you're misunderstanding Darwin? Selection for fitness produces competition. The fossil record is full of examples of species that were simply not good, fast or lucky enough.

          The concept of 'rights' is entirely a man-made construct. Only man, in his hubris, would dream of assigning an imaginary something _not_ his ( rights) to those who can no more appreciate than understand them. In doing this, man is not only self serving and hypocritical, but also illustrative of the fact that what we do is a function of what we are. This interspecies altruism is apparently yet another device for making ourselves feel better. Cui bono? Man.

          It was once said of adherents of Schopenhauer that they though everyone ought to be educated enough to understand him, whereupon they ( the Schopenhauer neophytes) would commit suicide & the sum total of world suffering would decrease...

          Buddhism is, unfortunately, full of religious nonsense.

  • Mike Cope

    Nicely put but hardly new. Think Gary Snyder.

  • Jesse

    The poetry of life shines through in this article in ways that will give pleasure and perspective to hard headed scientists, mystics, and to those who are, like me, merely overwhelmed by the whole business of trying to understand some of it.

    Hard headed scientists like mechanism to describe what they mean and in so doing sometimes destroy the poetry and limit the vision. That we might share a hydrogen atom with a Komodo dragon might be interesting, but since atoms potentially swap electrons (whose extent is smaller than Planck's constant...), it is hard to give precise meaning to the idea of even the individual atoms as having independent existence through time. What are those things that we share? These atoms might be interconnected in ways that are even deeper and harder to fathom. I would not be surprised to learn that the author is aware of this and has contemplated some of the nuances our existence, even at the quantum scale.

    The observations about the interconnections between acorns (oaks, I suppose), mice, gypsy moths, deer mice, deer ticks, and, pathogens that cause Lyme disease in humans is just right in scale and intent. Especially pleasing was the fact that the author did not give a hint as to where preventing Lyme disease stood in the levels of his concerns.

    This was such pleasure to read that I read it twice.

  • prashant sharma

    Buddhism, like Christianity, continues to be different things. The Buddhism portrayed has a strong New Age-y whiff that would be unrecognizable to MAJORITY of Buddhists in the world. Much of this article goes back to Schopenhauer, who in turn borrows it from his Romantic forbears. This kind of "Buddhism" is just a tepid hangover of Western romanticism with a superficial patnia of Buddhistic concepts. If you really want to understand Buddhism, why not, say, travel, see, learn pali, and go native for a lifetime, just as many early Western scholars of India did? You will notice that you will need to abandon many foundational Werstern categories (including "nature:" there is no equivalent to "nature" in Eastern philosophy) in order to understand what these early Indians were after. It might as well be an impossible task to give up so many concepts which come so naturally to westerners but are thoroughly culture-specific. We will need patience and an openness to change the very structure of our thought. What we don't need is a shallow synthesis of one 2000 year tradition with another 2000 year tradition. I would trust William Jones over Schopenhauer any day.

    • Dustin

      Would the majority of Buddhists in the world have the level of understanding you seem to suggest is necessary for... what, exactly? The majority in any religion are lay people without an immensely deep understanding of the finer points of their religion.
      What we need from Buddhism in the west is a Buddhism that is accessible to people in the west. It's going to feel a bit new-agey at times, but that is how things are here. We do need patience, and openness, and maybe we should even change the nature of our thoughts, but what a person in the west should patently not be doing is trekking off halfway around the world in the hopes that immersion in a foreign culture will offer some kind of understanding. Honestly, that is just about the most new-agey thing someone could do.
      If you want to understand Buddhism: read the Diamond Sutra, engage with your local Buddhist community, find a teacher, try to practice and understand in an honest way. When the time is right, go to India and see where it all came from, if you like.
      This article was well thought out and accessible to people who might not have come across these ideas in another forum. And much cheaper than a plane ticket to India (and corresponding time machine).

      • PJ Reece

        Well said, Dustin.

      • prashant sharma

        I have no problem with accessibility, but this article is just TOO accessible. It doesn't really show how Buddhism is different from a certain strand of counter-Enlightenment tradition in the west. Barash is wrong to say that "dichotomous thinking is basic to Western thought." It is basic to just one strand of Western thought, a strand Barash himself belongs as a scientist, and he might be forgiven for ignoring a rich tradition that emerges during Romanticism, which stresses the fundamental unity of nature and humanity. If this is the type of Buddhism you want, I would recommend that you don't even bother learning Pali, but start reading Wordsworth instead. I don't see why you need to filter through Pali what you can find quite easily in your own tradition. To be honest, it feels like you are showing off your oh so open and multicultural mind. It is quite condescending. And I don't trust the profusion of gurus and shamans who have arrived in the US since 1960s, sell the old romantic wine in new Hindu/Buddhistic bottle. Not that Americans have not lapped it up like a bunch of thirsty dogs. Western Buddhism has for a long time been a metaphysic for dopes.

        Now for real Buddhism: that is difficult. You don't need to get halfway round the world, but you do need to be aware that translations can be misleading. By all means read the Diamond Sutra, but try to find a reliable and scholarly, and footnoted editions, not any cheap edition you can find in a used book store at some used bookstore at Reno, Nevada beside Carlos Castanada or whatever. Never, by any means, read something that is prefaced or written by the Dalai Lama--he is a shaman, not a scholar. It is not his job to be historically accurate or give precise translations. It is his job to throw cheap insights at semi-erudite dunces who waste their life groping for some ill-defined "spiritual experience."

        • Charles F.

          Games are fun. Who doesn't like to play? And yet it's always a real letdown when someone takes things too far and loses all sense of proportion in complimenting the ridiculous. Earnestness mistakes the game for reality in the same way certain individuals mistake smarts for intelligence. Seriously, the last time someone talked to me about so-called "real" Buddhism I nearly blew out my sphincter from laughing so hard. It took me months to recover my wits and only after did my sanity slowly returned. You may not realize it, though I think you know only too well, yet you come into this forum for discussion with the air of an authority. Please do not get the wrong idea. I am not here to dispute how knowledgeable you are, you have knowledge a plenty - as somebody familiar not only with Eastern philosophy and religion, you also know a thing or two about Western traditions (that, sir, is a marvelous achievement) - the real issue here is the sense of entitlement and privilege that hovers around your every word like an irritable monk at a banquet. Well, it may be news to you or possibly not, but the human mind has evolved to use language and signs so as to facilitate communication.

          We may not share the exact same concepts and ideas across cultures, no doubt certain among these will remain forever lost in translation, but the basic building blocks are there: the more you play with these symbols in disguise, as a rule, the become you get at grasping their meaning and significance. It's a process similar to passing a novel theory or belief under the human microscope of knowledge and intuition, scrutinizing every angle with the same intensity and penetrating gaze as a master diamond cutter turning a rough stone into a faceted gem. The most important thing to remember is patience and never giving up exploring every facet of that which may seem to go against all that we take for granted in the West, it truly is a radically different take on the nature of things. Therefore one must be thorough, interrogating a wide range of knowledge and sources, ranging from the scientific and tangible solutions offered by scholars across various disciplines to the simple pleasure and hands-on delight of working out the finer details of the I Ching (Book of Changes), and then comparing all that to the beautiful songs and poetry of Taoist philosophers, dancing around riddles and logic, before making the leap to Confucianism. What's the point in discouraging others? What's more, you unwittingly pursue these ends by pulling rank on the rest of us. How absurd! (I'd like to say delightful but I must resist these urges, especially when I'm in the company of someone who sneaks poison into every word). So, who's really the expert? Will the real slim-shaddy please stand up? Well, it's not me and, by the look of your shoddy logic, it surely isn't you, then it must be... Darn tinnitus, I heard a noise and now I realize it was just a signal. Anyway, I found the present article insightful for two reasons, 1. regardless of your suspicious crowing and half-baked complaints, it squares away quite nicely with the world-view of Eastern minds past and present, and not, as you say, "a tepid hangover of Western romanticism with a superficial patnia of Buddhistic concepts" (in the future you would do well to hide your conceit by any other means than so transparent a solution as radical lifelong immersion in a foreign culture; yes yes, we get it, satori is a jealous phenomenon and demands more or less complete commitment to it... how does that change anything?); 2. the writer provides an excellent example of how these two wildly divergent perspectives on life, the universe - you got it - everything coincide. It seems to me that a more fitting role for someone in your position would be to try at least to be of actual help to the rest of us, you know, use your knowledge and power for good - that sort of thing. Because, I assure you, you can either spend the rest of your life feeling special, like your the guardian of some made-up esoteric mystery, or you could act as a bridge and unite us. By the way, your first mistake was using language and the written word to criticize another person's logic and reasoning. Ironically, it is by the same means that you will be able to help others in the future. The choice is yours to make. Do yourself, and the rest of us, a favor: choose wisely.

          • Jason

            what a lucid reply!! Bravo

        • Kyentse Zangmo

          What a pompous, misconstrued and self-congratulatory rant.

      • Saturday Club

        Nicely put. What the 'majority of Buddhists' think is cold comfort to someone living in London or Melbourne, struggling to integrate a spiritual tradition with science and their post-modern, urban life.

        • prashant sharma

          If you are lucky enough to be living in urban metropoles like London and Melbourne, and you still can't stop whining about your "post-modern" soullessness, then my advice would be to SUCK IT UP AND BE A MAN---Not, in any case, to import a faux metaphysic from some imaginary East. Ever heard of the term Orientalism? It is not good to hijack other people's faith in order to soothe your own petty wounds.

          • Katie McLean

            Any attempt to understand the interconnectedness of human beings and act with wisdom and compassion should be embraced. These people you so openly despise are trying to be better human beings; you are trying to beat everyone else down to a level under you. I would rather be a compassionate dope than a cruel scholar.

          • Sei Rin Do On

            there is a Tibetan Buddhist teaching: "One moment of anger and all practise benefit is lost." Why are you so angry, Sharma?

  • Zlogos

    A very nice article on the similar world views of Buddhism and Ecology. (Sorry Mr. Sharma, but ecology in its purest form would likewise not distinguish nature as separate from the rest of the planet.)

    Dr. Barash, I am also an aspiring buddhist and a biologist (actually a botanist). My work involves doing applied research and education on invasive plants as a component to restoring natural habitats ( Your example on deer mice, gypsy moths, and lyme disease clearly shows the complexities of ecological relationships, but your discussion of it does not touch on the practical issue at the heart of the study; which is trying to figure out ways to reduce gypsy moth numbers, an invasive species that has had a devastating impact on native trees in the eastern US.

    Many of the people, and most of the individuals in leadership positions that I work with in the public and private organizations that own or manage natural areas are university trained ecologists. They are not only scientists and dedicated professionals, they are also, importantly for this discussion, environmental activists determined to restore their properties to a functioning natural habitat where indigenous species are dominant. I am not an ecologist, but I know that there is a division in the field of ecology between those that feel we should nature as it is and those that feel that since mankind has messed it up, we should fix it if we can. In other words, environmental activism is not only acceptable within the field of ecology, in some cases it is almost required.

    My take on buddhism is that while it respects and appreciates nature, the concerns of the philosophy and the religion are focused on humans. Am I mistaken? Is there a similar place for environmental activism within buddhism? Are there significant activist or habitat preservation efforts being conducted in countries with majority buddhist populations, like southeast Asia, Taiwan, Japan?

  • Barry Cooper

    I don't understand how anyone can say "science" is at variance with--unable to incorporate--claims such as Remote Viewing, psychokinesis, or telepathy, when in point of fact they have been tested repeatedly under scientific conditions, and validated. It is Scientism, and the materialistic dogmatism that underlies it, which is at variance with empirical reality, and by extension, with professionalism and serious intellectual integrity. I certainly think the incorporation of Buddhist teachings into your worldview is positive, but would submit that an actually critical scrutiny of available data would be of yet more value.

  • cameron

    Barash's article makes me think of the incomparably good book by Occidental College professor Dale Wright called The Six Perfections. Everyone should read it, it expands on everything in this article and really deepens one's appreciation of Buddhism as a changing interconnected worldview.

  • cameron

    I would however point out that Barash shouldn't be completely discounting the supernormal experiences of mankind. Sure, the hyperbolic imagination of Buddhism speaks of saints in ways that are pre-modern and mythic. But for an aspiring practitioner to "not believe a word of it" should not lead that practitioner to conclude that supernormal experiences cannot arise given specific causes and conditions. I would even say that denying such possibility renders Buddhism rather impotent. Phenomena such as the Ja'lus or Rainbow Body are absolutely central to Buddhist metaphysics.

  • Yaggi

    Andrew Hunt
    On Buddhism:

    Overstating the obvious is of no use to mankind, who has myriad problems Buddhism does not address - but that man needs addressed; indeed, Buddhism remarkably and mysteriously ignores several imperative key life issues. One is either insincere or insane to think that your individual life is ever ‘over’ because who knows? There are other religions that have just as much credibility that say there IS eternal life after death….and so on….If a person dies and Buddhism is correct then we all end up about the same; however, if we die and there just so happens to be a God that we rejected….then what?

    Buddhism accepts that while our individual lives are ‘over’ at our death we still ‘continue living pretty much forever in a kind of on-going process of bio-geo-chemical re-incarnation. Buddhist writings and teachings, particularly in their Zen manifestations, celebrate beauty and wisdom in the natural world….I don’t know about you but all I ...
    see is chaos in the natural world. It’s dog eat dog and survival of the fittest and all that. Man builds shelter to get out of the natural world. It’s not beautiful….the torrent of the river freezes up in winter, my Buddhist friends – you won’t hear a sound out there….what’cha gonna do then?

    Monk asks Master: ‘’How may I enter?’’
    Master to Monk: ‘’Enter what?’’
    Monk: ‘’I’m not sure but, whatever it is, it sounds good.’’
    Master (pointing to stream): ‘’Do you hear that torrent? – there you may enter!’’
    Monk: ‘’Isn’t that open to too many interpretations?’’
    Master: ‘’One must never question what makes one feel good.’’

    That’s how mankind deals with spirituality today. Shakyamuni Buddha compares “dharma’ to ‘a soothing rain that nourishes all beings.’ I don’t know about you but I want a roof and central heat when it starts raining. It may be nourishing to plants and the earth but not me!

    Vowing to practice ‘loving-kindness’ is a ruse, friends. You don’t have it in you. You may say you do but – you don’t. You are a sinner who needs forgiveness from your sins. You’re NOT a sinner because you sin; you sin BECAUSE you’re a sinner! Vowing to practice love ‘even as a mother protects her child’….well, may I say, in this country many mothers hate their babies and throw them away or kill them. If you think you are going to go around being the physician and the prescription healing everyone….well, isn’t that being God?

    My Buddhist friend – it doesn’t work. Try a sincere approach to wisdom and truth. Buddhism does not offer either. Buddhism as a fraud that will land you in hell….

    • Dan

      So the truest religion is the one that invented the most gruesome punishment after death?

      Also, this logic pre-supposes Christianity (and therefore is circular, and therefore illogical). I.e.: you can't have loving-kindness because of original sin? What?

      Lastly, where does the author prove that "Buddhism doesn't work" in any sense? He refers to one metaphor about rain, and a zen ko'an (yes, lets disprove koans. Starting with the sound of one hand clapping). And attacks them in the most rudimentary terms possible. Never once is any actual Buddhist philosophy addressed (anatman, impermanence, the four noble truths, 8-fold path, etc. etc. etc.)

      At no point does the author make any sort of logic justification or anything close to a reasonable argument for his inflammatory claims "Buddhism is a fraud that will land you in hell"!

      THEREFORE, I do declare that this person is a troll. That is all.

  • Donny Duke

    Probably everybody would locate it in a different place, wherever they have the most presence I’d imagine, but I find the net’s pulse in comments after something shown on it. Forums and chats don’t seem to have the classroom focus whatever we’re commenting about has given us, and we’re more likely to go off on tangents and just go off period. Reading comments is teaching me so much about humanity, about myself. (It’s not that the web is unifying us; it’s showing us us, in all our
    discordant glory.) I get humbled a lot, especially with the comments I read in Aeon, because I find whole other fields or facets or knowledge I haven’t even heard about, and because I see someone else can express themselves so much better than I or is so much more intelligent. Reading comments reminds me how many there are of us, and consequently how little value we place upon one another. We tread upon other people’s feelings and opinions a child with muddy feet on a carefully polished
    floor. But then I hear that kind understanding voice that can chide children and at the same time give them the pat on the head they need, that they’re tracking up the floor for to begin with (and really there isn’t a one of us that isn’t looking for that pat even when we comment with clean feet), and I’m reminded our humanity is yet intact, alive
    and strong. And comments have, like whatever’s been “published” that they’re discussing, a relative immortality, which so often for me has been more of a bane than a boon, since many times I wish I hadn’t said that or that I wish I’d said it better.

    Saying all that, I want to say this essay, which I’ve already criticized, has sparked a debate that’s both going for the heart and the throat of Buddhism, and a good part of an article’s worth is in just that, lighting fires in our hearts and minds. But of course I have something to add to the conversation, a bit of fuel for the fire, and however much I might later wish I hadn’t thrown this log on, I’m going to throw it on. It’s not in reading or even in contemplation you find the truth of Buddhism (its truth, not that it’s the Truth) but in silence, the kind of silence synonymous with emptiness, because the silence is absolute, and there is no thought and no one inside to think them, no contents of consciousness whatsoever, only a thin basic raw awareness. It’s a complete reversal of what we call ego consciousness, and if you ever go there, even for a minute, you understand it’s akin to the difference between other animals and humans so much more integrated you are with everything, so much more aware, so much more free (although neither it is the last word in consciousness, not by a long shot). A moment there will change your life, and despite anything you’ll point your life in the direction of realizing that silence, and it doesn’t matter what other people have written or spoken about it, that there’s a philosophy or religion called Buddhism that teaches it or a person called Buddha that taught it. What matters is it’s there and you’ve seen it, whatever people call it, however many people say it isn’t there, however many people claim to be there and aren’t, which as I calculate would be about 99% of the ones claiming to be enlightened today. It also makes you more humane, and I mean by that more compassionate, kind, understanding, forgiving, because, for however long, you saw so very much in that silence, that emptiness, more about existence than any sound or person or thing could tell you, and you just identify if you know what I mean, apart from the fact you’ve been quite humbled because you’ve seen there’s this far superior place to be, and you’re not there and know you’re not. You can only imagine what someone must be like that lives in such a place. We’d imagine about the Buddha, and of course others not of his school, names we might know, but also names that no one has ever heard of, since it’s not in everybody’s path to be a teacher.

    I think we forget that it’s not in validating or tearing apart any particular religion, philosophy, school, or what have you but in discovering for ourselves there is so much more to us than we presently see or even believe. Though most would probably disagree, it appears to me that we’re not yet at the place of maturity where such is even interesting for us. It’s too silent and empty sounding, too hard to figure. On the net we’re more at the beginning stage of investigation into the possibilities or our consciousness where a heightened or extended range of ego consciousness such as the lucid dream, out of body experience, near-death experience, or the “Like Someone is There” feeling described here in Aeon is the subject of study. I had a dream the other night where I was talking to people in a room about the silence, describing it, and they just began talking among themselves as though I wasn’t even there. I understood in the dream we’re not there yet, me neither, since I still have a ways to go to live there. So yes converse, argue, discuss, by all means, but don’t forget that underneath all the names for things is some reality represented, and in the case of Buddhism, we can see
    it for ourselves, with our own eyes, and then we might agree with something if I’m not mistaken the Gita says when it asks what good is a well in a flood, the spirit of the thing, since someone out there would argue about the benefits of getting well water over flood waters. That's just so human.

  • Barry Cooper

    I will add one more thing: I recently did Stan Grof's Holotropic Breathwork and found it quite useful. It is my feeling that many people migrate to "spiritual" paths when what they really need is either emotional maturity, or a coherent COGNITIVE philosophy, one needing no metaphysical anchoring at all.

    Grof's method helps bring out emotional realities that control us without our conscious knowledge, and repeated exposures to his method would constitute in my view a good STARTING point for people who want to talk about deeper realities of any sort.

    As far as a coherent philosophy, my own stab at it is here:

    On my blog, linked there, I have also dealt often with working my way to same truths the Buddha discussed in his time. He said to kill him wherever we met him, and I believe fully he meant it. There are no limits on our creativity, if we do not confuse it with historical realities, or theoretical/ontological stipulations.

  • Guest

    I enjoyed that. If you did to you might find this interesting:

    Science is Great but God is Green

  • EcoHustler

    I enjoyed that. If you did too you might find this interesting:

    Science is Great but God is Green

  • Dina Strange

    Absolutely love the article, and totally agree with the main premise of it. We are one, and if part of it is suffering, the whole suffers as well.

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