Mahayana Buddhist
Views of Nature

1 of 10

As Buddhist philosophies and practices diversified, first in India and then in China, Korea and Japan, the philosophies and practices of the many threads of Buddhism reflected environmental attitudes and philosophies in many different ways.

In this lesson we explore some of the core teachings of the Mahayana traditions and their relevance to Buddhist ecology.


Everything depends on others for survival and nothing really exists apart from everything else. Therefore there is no permanent self or entity independent of others. Not only are we interdependent but we are an interrelated whole.  As trees, rocks, clouds, insects, humans and animals, we are all equals and part of our universe

Korean Zen Master Samu Sunim

As Indian Buddhism developed into many strands of philosophy and practice, teachings were carried north to China. Each sect emphasized particular texts, principles, and practices, each with varying degrees of application to environmental concerns. Ecological understanding of natural systems fits very well within the Buddhist description of interdependence. Throughout many cultural forms of Buddhism, nature is perceived as relational, each phenomenon dependent on a multitude of causes and conditions. These causes include not only physical and biological factors but also historical and cultural factors, in other words human values and forms of thought.

Environmental aspects

At the heart of the Buddha’s path is reflective inquiry into the nature of reality. Some experience interdependence in its more ecstatic forms of communion with plants and animals or sacred places. But engaging interdependence in today's environmental context also means undertaking rigorous examination of conditioned beliefs and thought patterns regarding the natural world. This may include such challenges as objectification of plants and animals, stereotyping of environmentalists, dualistic thinking of enemyism, the impacts of materialism, and environmental racism.

The law of interdependence is based on an understanding of the nature of the many relations at play in a situation. This may mean, for example, assessing who's who in an environmental, conflict from a context of historical and geographical causes and conditions. Such investigation includes learning about ecological relationships under siege as well as observing the distribution of power across the human political relationships.

Jewel Net of Indra

The Hua-Yen school of Buddhism which developed in seventh-century China, placed particular emphasis on the law of interdependence or mutual causality. The Hua Yen Avatamsaka Sutra developed a teaching metaphor—the Jewel Net of Indra—to communicate the infinite complexity of the multicausal universe. This cosmic net contains a multifaceted jewel at each of its nodes, with each jewel reflecting all the others. If any of the jewels become cloudy (toxic or polluted), they reflect the other's less clearly. To extend the metaphor, tugs on any of the net lines, e.g. through loss of species or habitat, affect all the other lines. Likewise, if clouded jewels are cleared up (rivers cleaned, wetlands restored), life across the net is enhanced. Because the net of interdependence includes not only the actions of all beings but also their thoughts, the intention of the actor becomes a critical factor in determining what happens. This, then, provides both a principle of explanation for the way things are, and a path for positive action.

Environmental aspects

Ken Jones writes:

The metaphor of Indra's Net is an excellent example of an expression of root Dharma of great ecological and social potential. At each intersection of Indra's Net is a light-reflecting jewel (that is, a phenomenon, entity, thing), and each jewel contains another net, ad infinitum. The jewel at each intersection exists only as a reflection of all the others and therefore has no self-nature. Yet it also exists as a separate entity to sustain the others. Each and all exist only in their mutuality. In other words, all phenomena are identifiable with the whole, just as the phenomena that constitute a particular phenomenon are identifiable with it.

Indra's Net is a fruitful metaphor for exploring topics as varied as deep ecology, organizational networking, constitutional confederation, permaculture, and bioregionalism as well as for a fundamental understanding of Gaia. At the coarsest intellectual level it can help to wean us from logical (either this or that) thinking to dialectical (both this and that) thinking.

Daido Loori writes:

The Diamond Net of Indra is a description of the universe in which all things have a mutual identity, an interdependent origination. When one thing arises, all things arise simultaneously. Everything in this net has a mutual causality—what happens to one thing, happens to the entire universe. It’s a self-creating, self-maintaining, and a self-defining organism—a universe in which all of its parts and the totality are a single entity.

This is not some kind of holistic hypothesis or an idealistic dream. It’s your life. It’s my life, the life of the mountain, the river, a blade of grass. These things are not related to each other. They’re not part of the same thing. They’re not similar. They’re identical. What kind of world would this be if our appreciation and activity were based on this kind of non-duality?