Buddhists, Christians, and Godly Prosperity

Print More

The Buddhist magazine Tricycle sometimes offers really fine writing, and the past Spring issue included an outstanding example that raises all sorts of questions and parallels for historians of Christianity.
The piece in question was “The Buddha’s Footprint,” by Johan Elverskog of SMU (subscription needed for full access). It’s a substantial article, and not surprisingly it will be the core of a forthcoming book. Elverskog looks at Buddhist attitudes to the environment, and he shows that by no means have they always involved the kind of militant environmentalism and tree-hugging that we might expect of American practitioners today. Contrary to myth, early Buddhists were not necessarily in tune with the natural world, dreamy lovers of untamed wilderness.
Instead, he shows that early Buddhism was very clearly an urban movement: “Of the 4,257 teaching locales found in the early Buddhist canon, for example, fully 96 percent are in urban settings. Similarly, of the nearly 1,400 people identified in these texts, 94 percent are described as residing in cities.” Not surprisingly, then, the faith’s earliest texts showed a definite preference for human domination over the environment. A landscape was good if it was controlled, fertile and working for the human good.
Untamed “Nature” was at best suspicious. “If nature is ever employed in early Buddhist texts, it is almost always in terms of impermanence, decay, and as something to be avoided.” Elverskog reports one tale of the Buddha and one of his disciples:

when they looked out upon the surrounding countryside, the Buddha was enchanted by the acres upon acres of irrigated farmland. He was especially moved by the “level fields and level environs adorned with rows,” which were “particularly lovely in their divisions in arrangement.” The Buddha was so taken by this enticing vision of subjugated nature, in fact, that he decreed that henceforth monastic robes should contain this pattern, which they do to this day.

Also surprising to non-experts is the “Prosperity Theology” aspects of early Buddhism. Texts ascribe to the Buddha quite startling views about the material prosperity that will follow believers, ideas thoroughly appropriate to the booming urban and commercial Indian world of the centuries around the start of the Common Era.
Not only did Buddhists believe these ideas, they practiced them, making early monasteries centers of agricultural and commercial development. It is at this point that historians of the Christian West perk up and take notice, as we note so many resemblances to the role of monasteries in Europe and the Mediterranean world, from Late Antiquity through the Early Modern era. The parallels are really striking.

The introduction of irrigation was actually an important element in the propagation of the dharma… As Buddhists pushed into new areas, they not only built irrigation systems to sustain their particular moral economy but also introduced rice growing into areas where it had previously not existed.

Read sheep for rice, and this could be describing Europe’s medieval Cistercians.
Such aggressive development policy then thoroughly reshaped the Buddhist world, and transformed landscapes and cityscapes:

Because rice could produce more abundant yields than any other crop then available in India, the Buddhist promotion of irrigated rice farming certainly played a role in doubling the rate of population growth during India’s early historical period. …. It is precisely such explosive population growth that enabled urbanization and the growth of a trading culture in which Buddhism has historically thrived.

East and South-East Asia look like they do today because of Buddhism.
I am really looking forward to Elverskog’s further development of his argument. The main point, perhaps, is that we should not see the European Christian experience with economic exploitation as anything like unique, and that has huge implications for the enduring question of why Europe was first to reach the industrial/economic takeoff that allowed it to dominate the world. It certainly makes us rethink those ancient Christian-centered debates about “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.”
Elverskog, in other words, is making a potent contribution to global history, but also to comparative religious history.

Crossposted from The Anxious Bench at Patheos.com.
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, and is based there in the Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (HarperOne, 2011).