Ultimate and Conventional Ecological Bodhicitta: How a Buddhist Concept Might Contribute to Environmentalism (by Gabriel Yahya Haage)

cropped-cropped-scotland-3171.jpgAn aspect of E4A that is particularly important for me is the demolishing of artificial boundaries between disciplines, not only in the academic setting, but in society at large.

After all, current ecological issues are difficult to grasp by the public because they are hybrids, combining the scientific and social realms, the rational and the emotional. Unfortunately, most solutions and discussions of issues like climate change are narrowly focused, utilizing either a rational or emotional perspective.

In Western rhetoric, these are often considered irreconcilable.  An appeal to the emotional by a scientist may be seen as weakness.  For instance, the claim that environmentalism, due to its appeal to emotions, is just another religion is often pushed by the more anti-environmentalist groups.  In contrast, an appeal to scientific facts can be seen as a sign of heartlessness and a symptom that environmentalists are detached from the day to day lives of the public.  Our society seems to be stuck in this odd dilemma, where environmentalists are criticized for being too rational and too emotional at the same time.

So, what can be done about this?  I feel we can look at other worldviews for a way to solve this false dichotomy of the rational versus the emotional.

Recently, I took a course on Buddhist (Lojong) Mind Training, which allowed me to explore the Buddhist concept of the Conventional and Ultimate Bodhicitta (Awakening Mind) prevalent in this tradition.

Although the course did not really apply this concept to environmentalism, I was struck by how an analogous concept might be useful in shifting society to a healthier perspective, free of the strict rational/emotional dichotomy.

Of course, I am not the first to look at the intersection of Buddhism and environmentalism.  To some, Buddhism may initially seem to be too escapist a worldview to encourage ecological thinking.  After all, if “Life is Suffering,” and the goal is to achieve Liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth (Samsara) in which we all find ourselves, Buddhism might encourage people to separate themselves from the natural world.  However, as one delves into the actual Buddhist worldview, it becomes clear that there is much that can help in creating an ecological ethos, not least of which is its emphasis on compassion.

But let’s return to the specific Buddhist concept I have in mind:  The Conventional and Ultimate Bodhicitta (Awakening Mind).  I’ll offer a brief explanation of the term and then an analogous term I think might be useful for the current ecological crisis.  Keep in mind, of course, that this is a complex topic with many variations and what I am offering here is one, simplified, version.

At its core, the term Bodhicitta refers to an altruistic intention to achieve Liberation for the good of all beings.  Conventional Bodhicitta refers specifically to feeling compassion for all beings.  Ultimate Bodhicitta refers to the realization that all things are Empty of intrinsic reality.

Initially, these two ideas seem quite irreconcilable.  If nothing possesses intrinsic reality, why care about other beings?

However, not only are both necessary to achieve Bodhicitta, but one is a path to the other.  The Emptiness of all things removes barriers between Self and Other, encouraging compassion for other beings.  Conversely, the very process of cultivating compassion for all beings helps destroy the feeling that the Self is more important and distinct from the Other.  To truly feel compassion, a person must understand that all beings are of equal worth.  As the distinction between Self and Other breaks down, Emptiness can be understood.  Emotional altruism can thus lead to a realization of objective equality and Emptiness.

I suggest that a similar concept could be useful in environmentalism.  Perhaps we might call it Ecological Bodhicitta.

Ultimate Ecological Bodhicitta would refer to the scientific/rational aspects of environmentalism.  Buddhist Lojong practitioners cultivate Ultimate Bodhicitta in several ways, including mentally breaking down objects into constituent parts until nothing intrinsic remains.  Similarly, science must break down the perception that humanity is intrinsically different from other beings and objects.  The sciences of thermodynamics and evolutionary biology are important in this regard.

Ultimate Bodhicitta is achieved when there is no distinction between Self and Other.  In my view, Ultimate Ecological Bodhicitta would be achieved when there is no difference, with respect to several issues, between humanity and nature.

Conventional Ecological Bodhicitta would then apply to the emotional realm.  Compassion for those affected by ecological destruction, from species to ecosystems to climate change refugees, is necessary to stimulate change.

Just as in the Buddhist concept of Bodhicitta, the Conventional Ecological and the Ultimate Ecological Bodhicitta require each other in order to succeed.  For instance, it is much easier to care for nature when one can rely on a scientific background (Ultimate Ecological Bodhicitta) that argues humanity is part of nature.  People have always been capable of feeling deep compassion, but a proper understanding of the world can help reveal where this compassion should be directed.

We may also consider the opposite perspective.  Even with the proper scientific understanding of nature, getting people to go that extra step requires something more.  This is the contribution of the emotional realm, that is to say the Conventional Ecological Bodhicitta.  After all, effectively removing humanity’s claimed, yet often unscientific, position of “privilege” towards nature tends to require an emotional connection to the nonhuman.  Throughout history, those who have fought hardest against ecological degradation have done so with a strong emotional connection to the natural world.

An Ecological Bodhicitta (Awakening Mind) would therefore understand the necessity of both the rational and the emotional, as well as how each concept can be used to help support the other.  Of course, these are just my musings and may be considered too radical for some.  My approach is probably not entirely novel, even within Buddhism itself, and I would be interested in learning about analogous concepts and terms.  In the end, I hope this short mental exploration encourages some discussion of how we might address the uses and necessities of the rational and the emotional in environmentalism.



This post is partially based on my abstract submission to the “Loanwords to Live With: An Ecotopian Lexicon Against the Anthropocene” project.

For further reading on the Buddhist Lojong tradition: Thupten, J., ed. 2011. Essential mind training : Tibetan wisdom for daily life. Wisdom Publications: Boston.


Gabriel Yahya Haage is an E4A PhD student at McGill University.

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