Buddhism in Action: Promoting Ecological Sustainability

by Joan Anderson



In these edited excerpts from her paper “Buddhist Values, Action for Sustainability and the Earth Charter,” Joan Anderson of the Soka Gakkai International Office of Public Information draws on the comments of SGI members who are engaged in environmental activism, showing how their involvement is shaped by their Buddhist values, beliefs and practices. The paper was presented at a symposium on Buddhist Environmentalism jointly organized by the Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California and the Tokyo-based Institute of Oriental Philosophy in September 2013.

[Photo by jacinta lluch valero/CC BY-SA]

Buddhism stresses three kinds of relationships—those between humans and nature, those between human beings and the relationship with oneself. As Nichiren Buddhists, SGI members consider human beings and the environment to be interconnected at the deepest level, inextricably linked and interdependent.

Thirteenth-century Japanese priest Nichiren, the founder of Nichiren Buddhism, wrote: “If the minds of living beings are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure and impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds.” Changing one’s “mind” then becomes the key challenge for Buddhist practitioners.

Aurélie Neame Koueli

To quote Aurélie Neame Koueli, a young woman SGI member in Côte d’Ivoire, Africa, working at the Ivorian Antipollution Center (CIAPOL): “Buddhism teaches the concept of oneness of self and environment, the process whereby the mutually interrelated human life and its environment operate together in a creative way. This made me realize that the health of the environment depends upon a change in the awareness of each individual.”

The transformation SGI members are aiming for is the development of what we call the “greater self,” emulating the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva, continually strengthening their compassion and taking action to alleviate the sufferings of others. In today’s world, the bodhisattva’s embrace needs to widen to be big enough to include not just other human beings but the entire planet.

Shin Won-suk

Shin Won-suk, a member of SGI-Korea engaged in an effort to clean up a local river reflects: “As I chant every night upon returning home from a day of volunteer work, I feel a deep sense of fulfillment, which in turn becomes a source of energy to continue my efforts. As Nichiren Daishonin states in his writings, ‘If one lights a fire for others, one will brighten one’s own way’ . . . It is deeply rewarding to know that the small step of deciding to do something positive, and my efforts to convey to others the spirit of coexisting with nature, have led to a revival of the environment and the lives of those around me.”

SGI members describe this process of inner change as “human revolution.” In the words of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”

Amy Yomiko Vittor

Amy Yomiko Vittor, a young woman member of SGI-USA working at the interface of public health and ecology, with experience in Africa and Latin America comments: “As challenges arose, my parents taught me about the Buddhist concept of the oneness of life and its environment, which explains how our lives and our environment are inextricably connected. At times when I am struggling, it is always easier to blame external circumstances; however, the empowering aspect of this teaching is that a profound change in ourselves gives rise to a change in our environment.”


The interconnectedness of all life, described in Nichiren Buddhism as “engi” (Jpn.) or dependent origination, is starkly visible in global problems such as climate change and deforestation.

SGI members strive to bring such Buddhist perspective and value directly into their approach to their work.

Fung Ling

To quote Fung Ling, an SGI member working as a city planner in Hong Kong: “Buddhist philosophy, based on respect and concern for all life, accords closely with the concept of sustainable development . . . It means creating social harmony and equality, protecting the environment and ensuring economic prosperity. Buddhism itself is essentially about bringing all these elements of life into balance, whether on a personal level or a community or global level . . . What this means fundamentally is that we cannot build happiness or prosperity upon the destruction or disregard of other life, including the natural environment, for ultimately we ourselves will suffer the consequences.”

related article SGI Attends Earth Charter 15th Anniversary Forum in Costa Rica SGI Attends Earth Charter 15th Anniversary Forum in Costa Rica On March 21, an international forum was held at the United Nations-mandated University for Peace (UPEACE) in San José, Costa Rica, to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the launch of the Earth Charter. The Earth Charter is an ethical framework for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the twenty-first century. If we examine how the SGI engages in sustainability in today’s world, the writings of SGI President Ikeda are a key influence.

Every year since 1983, he has written a peace proposal that offers Buddhist-inspired ways of looking at current problems and concrete suggestions for ways forward in dealing with them.

In these and other proposals, environmental themes have been a major focus, starting with a proposal he authored in 1978. In a paper on “The Environmental Problem and Buddhism” published by the Institute of Oriental Philosophy in 1990, he states: “External desertification of the planet corresponds precisely with spiritual desertification of the force of life. Human relations with nature are intimately bound up in interpersonal relations and with the relationship of the self and its inner life. The egoism of human beings whose internal environments are polluted and desolate invariably manifests itself in domination, deprivation and destruction in the external environment.”

Mr. Ikeda consistently stresses the importance of education and, in particular, education aimed at empowerment. In a proposal authored at the time of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, he called for the establishment of a UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development and commented: “In the case of environmental issues, which can be so vast and complex . . . information and knowledge alone can leave people wondering what this all means to them, and without a clear sense of what concrete steps they can take. To counter such feelings of powerlessness and disconnection, education should encourage understanding of the ways that environmental problems intimately connect to our daily lives. Education must also inspire the faith that each of us has both the power and the responsibility to effect positive change on a global scale.”

While in some more extreme approaches to ecology, human beings are perceived as unwelcome parasites causing nothing but damage to the Earth and other forms of life, the SGI’s outlook is that responsible and awakened human beings committed to creating positive value can be the most promising protagonists of change.

Barbara Paterson (right)

This positive perspective was reiterated in the proposal Mr. Ikeda authored in 2012 on the occasion of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, the Rio+20 Conference: “Although physical resources are finite, human potential is infinite, as is our capacity to create value. The real significance of sustainability is . . . as a dynamic concept in which there is a striving or competition to generate positive value and share it with the world and with the future.”

Barbara Paterson, a German SGI member working in Namibia in fisheries management echoes this perspective in her comments on how becoming a Buddhist has directly influenced her approach to her work: “Western thought tends to regard human beings and nature as separate—to the extent that some believe that human beings are bad for nature. In contrast, Buddhism regards life and its environment as deeply interconnected . . . For me, the Buddhist concept of the oneness of self and the environment and the notion that nothing can exist in isolation provide the philosophical basis for my research toward a holistic approach to fisheries management that can help bring human society back into harmony with nature.”

Education for Sustainable Development

[Photo by USFS Region 5/CC BY]

As well as its activities based on promoting the practical application of Buddhist philosophy, the SGI has consistently carried out public education and awareness-raising activities that are often centered around exhibitions. In the field of sustainability, the stress is always on the positive impact that one individual’s actions can have. This is true of the “Seeds of Hope” exhibition created in 2010.

The SGI is active at several different levels in contributing to sustainability. The SGI has UN liaison offices where its representatives contribute to global discussions and debates. There are also national level initiatives in many countries from tree planting to cleaning up parks and so on.

In Brazil, the SGI has very extensive activities related to sustainability. Most visible of these is the Amazon Ecological Conservation Center [renamed the Soka Institute Amazon Environmental Research Center in 2016] near Manaus which was opened in 1993. The center has restored degraded areas of forest, with the emphasis on planting methods that enable the human population and the forest to coexist, and runs extensive programs of environmental education. It also works with local indigenous communities to help them develop their own livelihoods in sustainable ways.

related article The Practice of Dignity The Practice of Dignity by  Mitch Bogen, Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue,  USA Mitch Bogen describes the ethos and activities of the Ikeda Center and explains how the 2015 Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue offers a window into the center’s history. The SGI works with various partners at different local, national and international levels. One partnership that has now been ongoing for nearly 15 years is one with the Earth Charter movement. The Earth Charter provides a universal expression of ethical principles to foster sustainable development, and its values are entirely consonant with those of the SGI.

Overall, however, where I believe the SGI is contributing most to sustainability is through our individual members and their contributions in their communities and their workplaces. This is where the philosophy of the SGI becomes a reality.

These individual efforts directly exemplify “human revolution” in action—the never-ending process of growth and development of the greater self on which SGI members ideally embark through their practice.

Julie Bygraves

Julie Bygraves, an SGI-UK member working to prevent illegal logging describes this process: “I knew that change had to start from me. I began to develop the attitude that my life isn’t just about surviving or solving problems that arise, it’s about taking a proactive approach to life, where I set out to do something and continue come what may, focusing all the time on my long-term aims, seeing setbacks in their longer-term context.”

This approach is described in the book Chanting in the Hillsides: The Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin in Wales and the Borders by Jeaneane and Merv Fowler as follows: “Enlightenment in Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism is not the suspension of desires, but involvement in the world, engaged living—in the true spirit of the bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism.”

Reading accounts by SGI members engaged in the field of sustainability, I have been struck by the way individual practitioners tend to become more engaged in contribution as their Buddhist practice develops.

These are all individual journeys from lack of hope and disempowerment to empowerment and action. They illustrate determination to take responsibility for initiating change and refusal to give up hope in spite of all setbacks.

I believe it is in this personally-felt spirit of contribution that the real legacy of Nichiren and the spirit of the SGI are to be found.

Joan Anderson

Joan Anderson currently works for the Soka Gakkai International Office of Public Information in Tokyo, Japan, where she is responsible for liaison with the international media. She has also been involved in the SGI’s environmental education initiatives.

─── other articles ───

our story

page top