Envisioning a Green Dragon Hall

by Stephanie Kaza

Featured in Mountain Record 26.1, Fall 2007

It is clear that Buddhism is having an impact on popular American culture. Buddhism is definitely “in”—it is no longer just exotic. But is popular consumerism what we want Buddhism to offer in the way of cultural leadership? What about those traditional values of simplicity, moderation, contentment, restraint—are those outdated?



Let’s look for a minute at religion and the environment in a broad sense. What does religion have to offer to environmental concerns? Gary Gardener of the World Watch Institute describes five key contributions. The first is moral authority, as in the time-tested precepts or the Ten Commandments. There is also moral authority vested in religious figures that commands respect when it is applied to moral issues such as war and species loss. The second potential contribution is a large membership base—lists and lists of people who could get involved or care about environmental issues. The third is material, financial, or land resources. This is one I am very interested in; I’d love to see more and more landowners be local examples of good conservation and land stewardship.

The fourth key asset is that religions shape worldviews. If religious speakers stand up and say something, it affects other people. When the Dalai Lama speaks out on global concerns, it affects more than just Buddhists. And fifth, religions are good at building community and social capital. Social capital is all the rage in academia so I want to be sure you know what it means. One of the gurus of ecological economics at University of Vermont, Bob Costanza, has developed the concept of “natural capital”—a dollar value to describe the ecological services of wetlands, rivers, the atmosphere. “Social capital” is a way to highlight the value of social bonds and services such as the volunteer fire department or the people who go out on hospice rounds. Religions are very good at building social capital because they invite people into the community. There is also talk about “built capital,” the investment in infrastructure that supports human society. Also “moral capital.” Our churches and religions carry moral capital for everyone; many of us draw on it without realizing that we have to put something back in order to keep that capital healthy.

Now which of these five is a good fit for Buddhism in America, especially in relation to environmental concerns? People may be interested in what Buddhism has to offer, but, in truth, its moral authority is fairly limited in a Christian country. As for a large membership base, there are a relatively small number of self-identified Buddhists in this country. How about material and land resources? These are growing and this is an exciting time in American Buddhism, but its resources are still relatively minor in comparison to, say, the Catholic land base.

So Buddhism in America is perhaps most effective in the last two modes: shaping worldviews and building community and social capital. For example, imagine a solar fest where there are booths on Buddhism next to booths on sustainable energy. Young people stopping by the booths come to think that Buddhism and good energy practices go together. They may associate whatever is new and progressive with what is thoughtful and interesting to them. Shaping worldviews can happen in a lot of ways. Being available on the web is very important. If you are not on the web, then your church is not in a young person’s universe. Buddhist conversations around environmental concerns can help shape worldviews through gentle suggestion and interfaith collaboration. They might ask: what about simplicity, what are you doing? Have you got any good ideas? Other religions may want to engage Buddhism for some of the traditional values, such as contentment and moderation.