Buddhism spread throughout much of Asia over more than two millennia. In recent centuries, it has spread beyond Asia into much of the rest of the world. In these successive phases of the historical diffusion of Buddhism, its universal themes have been manifested in particular variations in response to regional, historical, cultural, and political contexts. This spread has not necessarily involved conversion of individuals from other religions, although that has happened as well, but often it has involved simply the recognition of the enduring validity and utility of the core principles as well as some of the traditional practices of Buddhism, the latter including meditation. Thus, individuals may embrace aspects of Buddhism while continuing to pursue another religion.

More than any other Buddhist, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet has facilitated the worldwide diffusion of information about Buddhism in recent decades. His best-selling book Ethics for the New Millennium (Riverhead Books, 1999) is obviously influenced by his life and study in Vajrayana Buddhism, but in it he pursues a generic universal ethic independent of any particular religion. Instead, his ethic is grounded in the natural unconditional love of the mother for her child and, accordingly, actively engaging deep empathy, compassion, and loving-kindness toward her child. If that attitude and action were extended to encompass all beings, then harmony, nonviolence, peace, and justice would prevail. The collective consciousness of humanity would be profoundly and enduringly transformed. It is noteworthy that the spread of Buddhism into Tibet eventually transformed the ideal role of the male from warrior to monk, one historical illustration of the potential of Buddhism to generate change.

An organism, population, economy, society, or culture can only be as healthy as its habitat. Consequently, humans suffer when their environment suffers, at least indirectly if not directly. This is inevitable because, as both Buddhism and ecology realize, everything is interconnected and interdependent in some degree and manner. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to this as interbeing. In his recent book The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology (Parallax Press, 2008), he notes how healing one's self involves reconnecting with the wider web of life and contributing to healing nature, as well. That also means dealing effectively with the ultimate sources of suffering -- namely, ignorance, delusion, and craving, one's own and that of others.

The above considerations reflect the inherent and profound ecological and environmental relevance of Buddhism. The tensions between subsistence, a depleted measure of human well-being, and greed, an excessive measure of human satisfaction, fail to make room for the generosity and plenty our world is capable of. As we place a greater importance on the material rather than the spiritual, we further environmental degradation and destruction, and accordingly increase suffering for human beings and for many other kinds of beings in the diverse ecosystems throughout the world's biosphere. While the near future of humanity and planet Earth do not appear to be very bright, that of Buddhism shines, not only in diagnosing the ultimate problem, but also in prescribing the ultimate solution. If you want to know the source of suffering, then look into the mirror.

If you want to know the source for reducing suffering, then look to others; become interbeing. 


L.E. Sponsel is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Ecological Anthropology Program at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, and author of the forthcoming book, Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution, the first major initiative of the Research Institute for Spiritual Ecology (RISE). 

Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, Ed.D., teaches Philosophy, Sociology, and Religion at Chaminade University at Honolulu.