Environment and the Middle Path

Like all religions, Buddhism is eco-friendly. But lofty ideals rarely translate into pragmatism

By Manjula Lal
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Earth as Witness: A Dialogue with Buddhism (40 mins), as the name suggests, is too profound a topic to do justice to on film. It may pass the credibility test by the skin of its teeth, but does not manage to rise above philosophical mumbo-jumbo to make sense to environmentalists. At the screening, poet-bureaucrat Ashok Vajpeyi could not resist pointing out that it seems to bring together a number of disparate elements. But he softened the pill by saying that "ideas like void and interconnectedness are put together...for a meaningful cinematic experience".

This is essentially a commemorative film, says its director Amar Kanwar. Last October, Tibet House, New Delhi consecrated and presented a Buddha statue to the capital's Buddha Jayanti Park. Alongside, an international conference was held on Ecological Responsibility: A Dialogue with Buddhism, to which a number of eco-Buddhists were invited. If the film had not attempted to take on a lofty philosophical tone (greatly helped by Barry John's sonorous voiceover), it could have used the same footage for a straightforward report on these events.

As it is, the film presents a confusing melange of the preparation of the Buddha, Buddhist holy sites, and the ceremony itself. In between are interviews with the participants. "Eco-Buddhist" Julia Martin of South Africa points out that under apartheid, the land suffered untold degradation. If she sees Buddhism as an alternative to apartheid, it is because Buddhism starts with the idea that seeing ourselves (human beings) as sacred is part of the problem.

The most relevant remarks come from Christopher Titmus of England's Green Party, who once spent 6 months in monkhood. He would like to see a middle path between the narrowly "managerial" approach of the ecologists and the self-absorption of the Buddhists.

Ramchandra Gandhi, described as an "Indian philosopher", says that the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of revolution had its relevance in its time, the Buddha as a symbol of the Earth has its own relevance now. Sunderlal Bahuguna said that God's compassion is in the tree. A participant recalled that the Buddha had said that "the sapling of the Bodhi tree will be me when I am away".

The film does not really prove that Buddhism is more ecology-minded than others, although this could have been done by playing up the ahimsa angle. "To understand the impermanence of everything is ecological responsibility." Sure. "Material development must combine with spiritual development." Sure again. But how, in the complex world outside Buddhist monasteries?

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