Religion and the environment in China

Religion can play an important role in protecting the earth’s natural heritage, says Martin Palmer, who reports on the Buddhists and Daoists committed to conserving China’s sacred mountains and wild animals.

My interest in China stretches back nearly thirty five years to my time working as a volunteer in a children’s home in Hong Kong in the early 1970s. It was then that I fell in love with Chinese language, history, philosophy and tradition and my life has been shaped by this ever since. I am a translator of Chinese classics such as the Yi Jing, the Dao De Jing and of Chinese myths and legends – for example about the Eight Immortals.

My interest in the environment goes back much further, to a mother who was passionate about nature and to the earliest days of what is now the world’s largest environmental organisation, the WWF, which I joined in its first few months as a schoolboy member.

It has been my fortune that I have been able to combine these two great passions and interests along with a third – that of the role of religion in contemporary cultures. I head the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), which is a secular foundation working with all the major religions of the world, helping them develop environmental programmes on their lands, in their forests, on their farms, through their investments, schools, media and as a result of their teachings, beliefs and practices. Founded eleven years ago, we work in more than 60 countries worldwide.

When we established ARC in 1995, one of the first areas where we were asked to work was in China, by the China Daoists Association. When we told people about this most of them looked at us with total incredulity. “You are trying to work with religion in China? Impossible. You want to help them engage with environmental issues in China? Doubly impossible.”

In the mid ‘90s, almost no one from secular groups outside China was working with religion in China and the environment was not an issue except with regards to cuddly pandas and a few other token species.

Today, the situation regarding religion has changed a bit. The World Bank, for example, now has a programme in Kunming with Buddhists, but the environmental situation has totally changed.

In the mid ‘90s, it was considered inappropriate to point out that the incredible growth of China and its consumerism, hunt for energy, building work and industrial expansion was taking place at the cost of the environment. A great deal of nonsense was spoken by those who knew no better about the Confucian world view in which progress was all, questioning authority was inappropriate and dissent unimaginable. Putting it simply, many outside China felt that China could never develop a home-grown environmental culture. For the business world, this was an excuse not to even mention it. For the environmental movement, this allowed them to tread so gently around the Chinese government that they never seriously raised any issues with the authorities. The result was a standoff on these urgent issues which were simply put to one side as culturally insignificant, or inappropriate.

But religions in China, especially Daoism and Buddhism, were engaging with this and in powerful ways.

In 1995, the China Daoist Association (CDA) issued its first ever Statement on the Environment. This led to ARC being able to start work assisting the Daoists in putting into practice the insights, beliefs and values that this astonishingly powerful statement had spelt out.

Aided by ARC, the Daoists undertook a survey of their major sacred mountains. What this study showed was that because of the inherent sacredness of places such as Hua Shan, Tai Shan, Emei Shan or Qingqing Shan, these had survived in a better ecological state than comparable areas which were not considered sacred by the general population. This had proved to be effective, even during the worse excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Temples and shrines, statues and sacred books had been destroyed, but the mountains had still survived in a better environmental state than other areas. This has recently been confirmed by a study undertaken by WWF and ARC.

The joint CDA and ARC project also discovered that where the religious communities were still present on a sacred mountain in significant numbers, the protection of the environment was also better. Putting it simply, most park wardens clock in at 8am and go home around 5pm. The illegal loggers and poachers tend to come when the wardens are not around. On a sacred mountain, it is quite likely that a Daoist monk will be running up the mountainside at 3am or meditating in the middle of the forest at midnight. The active presence of religious people on a mountain helps to protect it.

In 1998, this study helped the management committee of Hua Shan to agree to return most of the temples on the mountain to the CDA in order, in part, to better protect the mountain’s environment.

The success of this work led the Buddhist Association of China to undertake with ARC a similar programme on their sacred mountains and the same conclusions were drawn about the importance of active life on the sacred mountains. 

Today, these developments have gone even further. The CDA and ARC, assisted by the Dutch group EMF, have rebuilt a key temple on the sacred mountain of Taibaishan in Shaanxi, destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, as a Daoist Ecology Education Temple. Here, Daoists are being trained in environmental management of sacred mountains, environmental education for pilgrims and visitors and will develop information and education packs for use throughout China, but especially in urban areas. A set of wall posters on Daoism and Ecology have already been produced. In June this year a new network came into being, the Daoist Temples’ Alliance on Environment and Education, designed to coordinate and develop projects across China through the medium of Daoism.

In Buddhism, a similar movement is under way with plans to develop a Buddhist ecology temple centre in Wutai Shan and to develop Wutai Shan as a model of integrated environmental management.

At the same time, ARC, in collaboration with WWF International, is developing a major programme on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and especially the illegal importing of Asian big cats’ bodies to China for use in TCM. In 2001, Daoism made the use of endangered species in TCM an excommunicable offence. Building on this and on Daoist research into alternative TCM prescriptions which don’t use endangered species, linked to Buddhist prohibitions on using illegal TCM, we hope to make a considerable impact at the popular, folk-medicine level, as well as in curbing demand generally.

But perhaps the biggest development is one that no one, not even ARC could have foreseen eleven years ago. And this is the role that the government is asking the Buddhists and Daoists to play in making people aware and responsible for environmental protection.

China has awoken to the threat of environmental degradation in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. Gone is the blasé notion that growth was all that mattered. The Communist Party now finds itself with a nation, hell bent on growth, on consumerism and with a corresponding loss of a sense of community and responsibility. Concerned with what the party has called “spiritual culture” – meaning higher values and a sense of wider responsibility — the religions have been asked to help reinstate a sense of a purpose beyond just self and consumerism.

Hence, in April this year, the Buddhist Association of China, in conjunction with the Chinese government, held a unique gathering of Buddhists from all over the Chinese world on the theme of social issues, and the environment was one of the key topics. Arising from this is a new range of projects and commitments by Buddhists across China to address issues such as deforestation, urban sprawl, waste, energy and moral values related to the environment. Next year, a similar forum will bring Daoists together, again to address these social issues.

What is going on?

The reason ARC works with the major religions is simple. Dynasties, governments and economic orders come and go. But the Buddhists and Daoists will still be there, just as they always have been. They have been on the sacred mountains for at least two thousand years; they are likely to be there still in two thousand years time. A programme developed with structures and organisations and beliefs such as these can shape the environment for centuries. That is why the Chinese government, having tried to destroy religion during the Cultural Revolution, now seeks religion’s help in restoring some sense of wider values. Buddhism and Daoism have been constants for generations and will be so for generations to come.

Perhaps the best way to capture all this is to quote from the Daoists statement on the environment:

“People should take into full consideration the limits of nature’s sustaining power, so that when they pursue their own development, they have a correct standard of success. If anything runs counter to the harmony and balance of nature, even if it is of great immediate interest and profit, people should restrain themselves from doing it, so as to prevent nature’s punishmentDaoism has a unique sense of value in that it judges affluence by the number of different species. If all things in the universe grow well, then a society is a community of affluence. If not, this kingdom is on the decline.”

The author: Martin Palmer is secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. His translation of the 4th century BC philosopher Zhuang Zi will be published by Penguin Classics this November.

Homepage photo by Elizabeth Thomsen