Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

How Much is Enough? - Selections

Buddhism, Consumerism, and the Human Environment

Buddhist Environmentalism in Contemporary Japan

"To the Honorable Mitsui Real Estate Company:Plants and Trees Have Buddha Nature"

Duncan Ryuken Williams

Riding Tokyo's Den'entoshi Subway Line due west, one emerges from the underground section of the train line just before Futako Tamagawaen Station. Before reaching the station's platform, one can see a large temple on the hill to the left side. During the mid-1990s, for a period of several years, one would have also noticed a series of massive signboards along the temple hillside that collectively read "Mitsui fudosan dono, somoku bussho ari" (To the Honorable Mitsui Real Estate Company: Plants and Trees Have Buddha Nature).

This prominently displayed message to one of Japan's largest real estate conglomerates had been put up by Shunno Watanabe, the chief priest of Gyozenji Temple. This Jodo sect temple had been established in the 1560s on this hilltop in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward and in the centuries that followed became well known for its view of the plains below. The priest had launched a campaign against the construction by Mitsui Real Estate Company of a massive apartment complex right next to the temple that would not only obstruct the view from the temple, but would involve clear-cutting 130 of 180 ancient trees.

Watanabe not only rallied his temple members, but also over the course of several years organized a major petition drive (eventually collecting over twelve thousand signatures submitted to the ward office) opposing the destruction of one of Tokyo's few remaining wooded sanctuaries. Employing the slogan, "Plants and Trees Have Buddha Nature," the Buddhist priest appealed to the conscience of the residents in the ward (serving as the new head of the "Seta no Kankyo Mamoru Kai," the Association to Protect Seta's Environment), the ward officials, and Mitsui Real Estate Company. Declaring that his group was "not anti-construction, but simply for the preservation of trees," the campaign successfully pressured the company to build the apartment complex with minimal environmental impact.

Today, most of the ancient trees next to Gyozenji Temple still stand and the view from the temple over the region is still panoramic. This case highlights the increasing role of Buddhist priests, temples, and lay associations in environmental activism in Japan. Historically, environmentalism and concern with consumers' rights had been associated with local citizens' groups and environmental organizations that came out of the left and labor movements of the 1960s and 70s.

Buddhist temples have often served as stewards for much of the natural landscape of Japan since the early medieval period. But explicitly linking Buddhist doctrine with environmental protection is relatively recent. Beginning in the late 1970s, a number of Buddhist priests, temples, and lay associations dropped their traditional resistance to what had been perceived as a leftist cause, developing new forms of Buddhist environmentalism that resonated with a more conservative worldview. For example, in the 1980s Shoei Sugawara, a forward-thinking abbot of the Soto Zen Senryuji Temple in Komae, proposed to his parishioners a way to make the temple more ecological.2 Sugawara was appalled to learn of a major development project right next to his temple that would destroy the forest that his temple had protected for over four hundred years. With a keen sense of responsibility as the caretaker of this forest, which was partly on temple land and partly on private land, he was determined that the successive prior abbots of Senryuji Temple who had guarded the forest as a sanctuary would give him strength and guidance so that it would not be destroyed during his tenure as abbot.

During 1981•82, he was one of the leaders in a citizens' movement to promote a vision of the town's future development that would be more "green" (midori no machizukuri). The group collected the signatures of nearly 10% of the entire town's populace (7,800 signatures) on a petition demanding a halt to the project. Their efforts won widespread support--ranging from the most left-wing activists to the most conservative town assembly members--by appealing to both the local citizens' groups and those concerned about preserving the traditional landscape of the Senryuji Temple. Not only was the development severely restricted, the twenty thousand hectare (approximately fifty thousand acres) forest and temple grounds were designated a nature preserve (ryokuchi hozen chiku) by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which bought the section of the forest that had been privately owned. Today, this nature preserve is open to the public only once a month to minimize human impact (unlike a park designation, a nature preserve under Japanese law is much more highly regulated). Roughly one to three hundred people visit the preserve on those days to enjoy nature and educate themselves about the forest ecological system. The August open preserve day draws many more people, since it has been arranged to coincide with the temple's famous O-Segaki, "Hungry Ghost Festival."

Once environmental awareness at Senryuji was raised in the 1980 campaign, the abbot followed up with a proposal to make the temple itself more ecological. Since one of the main characteristics of a Japanese Buddhist temple is the large roof on the main hall (hondo) containing the primary image of worship (honzon), Sugawara thought if that broad space were used for solar paneling, most temples should be energy self-sufficient. He explains that even though Buddhism has traditionally advocated friendly relations between humans and nature, the modern world has disrupted this relationship. His idea for a solar "temple," using energy friendly to both nature and humans, took many years before it would be actualized. In the year 2000, his advocacy of solar temples among those in his sect culminated in a regional meeting of four hundred Soto Zen temples in western Tokyo. The gathering had, as its plenary speaker, Koichi Yasuda (abbot of Eisenji Temple), who spoke on the practical steps to install solar paneling at Buddhist temples.

When Senryuji Temple finally installed the solar panels on top of the abbot's quarters, it produced more than enough energy for the electrical needs of the entire temple complex. The excess energy was sold to Tokyo Electric Power Company at its daytime peak rate, while the temple bought back energy when necessary (cloudy days and nights) at the cheaper off-peak rates. This arrangement proved to be beneficial to the environment (no pollution), the temple (cheaper energy costs), and the power company (which was in power deficit during the peak hours, which is precisely when solar energy produces the most energy). Today, the temple is working with an architectural firm, Taisei Kensetsu, to develop solar roof tiles made in the traditional Japanese Buddhist temple style. This is because many abbots who suggest placing solar paneling on temple roofs face strong resistance from parishioners who prefer the traditional architecture of their temple. With nearly fifteen thousand temples affiliated to his sect, Sugawara sees the solution to this problem as the key to a majority of Buddhist temples, not only of his sect, adopting solar energy in the future.

These two success stories of a Buddhist priest spearheading a local environmental initiative represent a small portion of the many individuals who understand their commitment to Buddhism and the traditions of temple life as requiring engagement in environmental issues. This paper will provide an overview of this type of "Buddhist environmentalism" in Japan and offer some preliminary ideas on how the Japanese case can be understood primarily as a "conservative conservationism."