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Would a Buddhist Freeze a Cane Toad?

This essay explores the modern phenomena of Environmental Buddhism, in particular the ethical issues around the precept of (ahimsa) non-harming.

RELN7301 Major Essay - s4090718 by Cathy Byrne

Buddhism is adaptive. Being both religion, and philosophical/ethical code, it travels without dogma across political and cultural boundaries. The modern vision of the Buddha, which “presupposed the individual and his capacity for reason and reflection, proved extremely portable”. Buddhism does not stipulate social or religious rules. Nor does it demand a particular creed. It simply offers a ‘way’ for individuals to perceive, understand and take responsibility for themselves, and ultimately for others. Given this internal freedom, Buddhism’s move from East to West (and into the 21st Century) has been accompanied by a variety of changes - some subtle, some stark. Western paradigms such as feminism, democracy, pragmatic individualism, moral pluralism and social activism have helped shaped a modern, distinctly Western Buddhism. Such adaptation may have changed the emphasis of some doctrinal interpretations.

Buddhist philosophy and practice is “at the forefront of modern environmental movements”. While stressing the personal nature of an age-old spiritual path, Buddhism also contains “practical guidelines in devising a social ethic capable of addressing the problems peculiar to the present age”. A Buddhist ecological perspective is grounded in the first prescription of the Noble Eightfold Path - that of ‘right view’. This view contains the doctrine of paticcasamuppada (dependent co-origination), where things exist not in their own right, only interdependently. The image of the ‘jewelled net of Indra’: infinite in dimension, with each jewel reflecting each other jewel in an endless process “symbolizes a cosmos in which there is an infinitely repeated interrelationship… of simultaneous mutual identity and intercausality”. The environmental idea of Gaia – earth as a living being, is similar. This holistic model “undermines the sovereignty (and presumed autonomy) of the self over other”, challenging humanity’s hubris regarding its traditional role as nature’s conqueror. The Buddhist argument that “the destruction of the environment is caused by people who are motivated by economic and material benefits”, has gained ground. Buddhist activism promoting environmental concerns has grown into a significant socio-political force.

To some, Buddhism and environmentalism forms a natural partnership. However, while Buddhism accommodates much innovation, it also holds fast to core principles. Complex choices arise regarding the moral boundaries of these stabilising principles. Many of the ethical problems encountered today arise in a context “unfamiliar to traditional Buddhism”. There is much disagreement about “what elements should be removed and what cannot be changed”. These difficulties are even more pronounced when viewed in light of the fact that Buddhism “originated as a movement whose purpose was to renounce social life, not to become enmeshed in its problems”.

Countering this perspective, the inter-causal view puts the spotlight on ‘appropriate’ action when humanity takes the role of ‘steward’ or protector. Although the precepts take the form of restraint from actions (to not kill, not lie, etc), Buddhist ethics are not entirely passive. “A bodhisattva was expected not only to refrain from harming others, but also to protect beings from harm ”. This is reflected in the practice of ‘releasing life’ – purchasing captured animals and releasing them to the wild or to sanctuaries . Despite severing social ties, “monastics are duty-bound to engage in activities designed for the betterment of society ”. This engaged aspect of Buddhism is perplexing when individual interpretation runs counter to the core precepts.

Buddhism is the home of relativism, since in a Buddhist view, there is no absolute. Buddhist reality arises co-dependently. Everything then, is relative. Or is it? Keown argues that “Buddhism holds certain acts (as) intrinsically wrong (undesirable), regardless of their consequences”. Absolute moral positions do appear to exist. While there are no ‘commandments’ per se, the virtues in Buddhism are embodied in the ‘way’ (guidelines) of the eightfold path, which includes adherence to the ‘Five Precepts’. These precepts forbid: taking life; stealing; sexual misconduct; lying and taking intoxicants.

As the first precept indicates, Buddhism has a “profound respect for life”. One text claims that ahimsa, (non harming) is the distinguishing mark of Dhamma . “Non injury is a non-negotiable, universal prescription.” In other words, it’s wrong to kill. The precepts protect the integrity of the essential qualities of a Buddhist. “In spite of the considerable diversity in Buddhism, there is a relative unity and stability in the moral code”. This consistency is supported by Thich Nhat Hanh who says: “The forms of Buddhism must change so that the essence of Buddhism remains unchanged. This essence consists of living principles .” The Buddha clearly differentiated himself from the Brahmin practice of blood sacrifice: “It is not permissible to go on killing sentient beings and still call oneself a disciple of the Buddha”. Monks used water filters “so that microbes may not be swallowed while drinking water… moreover it (was) forbidden to “throw the remains of food on green grass, because it may destroy the life of grass.” Although the Buddha rejected the extreme practices of the Jains in their efforts to protect life, it is clear that high regard for life is a central pillar of Buddhism. Through Buddhism, “people learnt how to be in touch with the life running through all objects.”

When Engaged Environmentalism Requires Killing.

“A fundamental principle of environmental protection is widely recognised today to be a variation of the theme of ahimsa (non-violence)… where this concerns the prevention of environmental harms such as the elimination of endangered species”. However, this noble notion gets inverted when the action required to protect one species involves killing another. In effect, the precept of non-harming competes with the equally Buddhist characteristics of interdependence and compassion. In a world of increasing climatic and social cataclysm, Buddhists may find it difficult to find a defensible position on the spectrum between peaceful world denial and pragmatic (but ethically challenging) engagement.

Humanity has done irreparable harm to the environment. Scientists say Earth is experiencing the largest mass extinction in 65 million years, “losing 50 species a day”. This rate is 100 times what biologists consider normal”. Professor Norman Myers says the loss of species is more severe than the five mass extinctions of the geological past and that our lifetime could see the loss of half of the known 10 million species in the world. Given our long-overdue and slow awakening in this regard, neither action, non-action, nor justification is a simple matter. The individual’s perception of the value of ‘non-harming’ is stacked against concepts of responsibility to fix up previous errors, compassion for the whole organism that is life on earth, and indeed, concern for the survival of humanity itself. It is in this ethical dilemma (when individualism meets absolutism) where the tricky questions arise: Should feral possums damaging New Zealand forests be culled? Should feral cats killing native lizards and birds in Australia be “eradicated ”? Should an entire herd of goats on a remote island in North America be removed to save three species of rare plant ? Do we kill off an over-population of sea-lions in California to protect fish species and the commercial fishing that supports the surrounding communities of animals and humans?

In Australia, cane toads (a species with few predators) were introduced from America to control sugar cane beetles. Not only was it unsuccessful at this task, the toad now threatens the survival of a variety of native reptiles, amphibians and mammals . Where human hygiene is poor, they are known to transmit salmonella. They are commonly referred to as ‘toxic pests’. Byron Bay, home to Australia’s famously ‘environmentally active’ local government, has more Buddhist iconography than anywhere else in Australia. The Byron Council recently ran a cane toad muster, rounding up nearly 6000 cane toads. These were put in fridges then freezers for ‘humane killing’ and used in landfill . A relativist, individualist position allows for the existence of such irony. ‘Environmental Buddhism’ is a modern phenomenon that is yet to address its inconsistencies. However, to extend the ‘cane-toad-is-a-nasty-species’ logic is to arrive at a murderous position indeed. After all, humans are the most environmentally reprehensible species on the planet. Should ugly ones be removed? As the modern western religion of ‘Individualism’ struggles to find its ethical rudder by adapting Buddhist or other moral frameworks, the precept of non-harming sits uneasily in a program of engaged environmental action.

Other Buddhist concepts also impact the ethical decision making process. To research this essay, a survey was sent to a range of Buddhist individuals and organisations in Australia, asking the central question: “Would a Buddhist freeze a cane toad? Why? Why not?” Although not statistically reliable, about 50% of respondents said ‘yes’ and 50% ‘no’. Interestingly, female respondents from the Tibetan Mahayana tradition were less likely to kill the toad than male and female respondents from other schools. This may reflect a growing ecological feminism and Mahayana’s more universal bodhicitta philosophy - as opposed to the more individualist traditions of some Theravadan schools. Certainly no conclusions can be drawn. Any claim to trends would need more research. What the survey did highlight was the diversity of opinion and the significance of individual choice and justification in the moral dilemma. Rationale for the responses covered a range of issues.

Value in Biodiversity

The idea of value-in-biodiversity has been strongly put by environmental groups - richness and diversity contributes to the flourishing of all life – the ‘Principle of Plenitude. Those who agree have an “obligation to protect such diversity”. Humanities past actions (introducing the toad) dictate a current “duty to act ”. Environmental ethicist, Aldo Leopold, argues that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”. Taking this idea further, and defending a flexible view of the precepts, ‘Engaged Buddhism’ activist and ethical holist, Joanna Macy, recognises the difficulty in the application of ahimsa. She claims an overriding respect for the whole organism of life on earth: “When there are malignancies that affect the larger body, you remove them, both in the organic, and the social body. The life of the larger system needs to be protected, since reverence for life depends on the viability of the whole”.

In this utilitarian/consequentialist view, the end justifies the means because it results in less suffering in a holistic sense and the precepts are relative. On the other hand, Aristotle (and some would argue the Buddha also) posited that the end goal (nirvana) is not different to the means -‘eudaimonia’ - Aristotle’s virtuous life . In this deontological view, the virtues are integral to the end, and constitute the flavour of the end – thus, the precepts are absolute .

The holistic-biodiversity argument is common sense. We eradicate destructive viruses. We weed our gardens. However, problems arise in the idea that buddha-nature is contained in all creatures. Dogen’s philosophy that “the entire world is contained in one tiny speck of dust ” sees intrinsic value in individuals and does not (like ethical holism) argue that the “good of the whole must always trump the good of the individual . The paradox is compounded in the doctrines of impermanence and emptiness (sunyata): not only do individuals have no intrinsic value, neither do environmental wholes. To argue (against this) that all things have intrinsic value, can lead to a “morally vacuous irrelevance ” wherein even destructive elements are worth protecting. Others argue that biodiversity itself has no inherent value and the interests of a species must be balanced against the interest of individual members of another species. To lose a whole species or a few thousand of another is difficult to evaluate .

The Dalai Lama acknowledges the complex nature of modern reality, saying that “it is difficult to say that a particular act or type of act is right or wrong in itself… ethical practice cannot be reduced to simple rule-following and the ethical character of a given action is dependent on many factors”. He suggests that within the context of a dilemma, individuals must use a combination of skilful means and insight. Considerations include: being broad-minded or narrow-minded; whether the goals are short or long term; and whether or not the compassionate motivation genuinely relates to all beings. He views the precepts not as “moral legislation”, but as reminders to keep open to multi-causality. “The moral value given to an act is to be judged in relation to time, place and circumstance and to the interests of the totality of all others in the future as well as now”.

The Importance of Intent (cetana)

Within the doctrine of karma, of great importance is the motive and the individual’s spiritual state in the moment of acting. As to whether intent is as important as the act itself, there is much debate. Keown claims: “The Buddha allowed motivational factors a privileged status in moral judgments”. Killing with glee, torture, or lack of remorse for example would be more karmically harmful than killing whilst motivated by compassion to protect another species and whilst acknowledging the sacrifice and gravity of taking life. Even worse, according to Harvey, would be killing whilst ignorant of the notion of karma. “It is worse to do an act if one does not regard it as wrong, since this is deluded thinking”.

There is a memorial service conducted by Japanese restaurant owners and customers that atones for the taking the life of eels. The service is not about stopping the killing of eels, simply acknowledging that the eater exists in relation to the eel, and that taking of life is “an act of moral gravity”. In a valley in Kashmir, monks kill predatory wolves. After luring them into traps, large stones are thrown over the wall by groups so that no single person is responsible for killing. Despite the fact that they hold rites for the dead animals, there is no easy answer or simple solution to taking responsibility for killing.

Even when Chinese Communists invaded Tibet and brutally tortured monks and nuns, or when Vietnam was ravaged by Marx-inspired nationalists, the Dalai Lama and monk Thich Nhat Hanh urged the upholding of non-violent methods . However, this absolute stance may stem from the distinctly preferred status of humans in the Buddhist cosmology. When it comes to other ‘lower order’ species, their views may not be so clear cut. What does seem clear from scripture, from history, and from the internal logic of the Buddhist idea of karma, is that the individual is encouraged to find their own position, rather than rely on blind faith in the precepts. The individual is the final arbiter on right and wrong, since it is only he or she who can take responsibility and accept the karma of an action.

The Relativity of Time, and Human Intervention

A species imported by humans is clearly an interloper. A species occurring naturally is native. “This distinction is fraught with difficulties, not least of which is its implicit assumption that whatever humans do is ipso facto not natural”. Is human agency inherently ‘bad’? The initial intent for the cane toad was not necessarily based on greed or delusion – but to support the production of food. However, neither is ignorance an excuse for blindness to consequence. It is interesting to note that Aboriginals refer to feral cats as ‘newcomers’. Biodiversity can only be measured at a point in time – it does not accommodate changes that have occurred and will continue to occur on the earth. If we have a moral obligation to undo our damage, how far back does that extend?

Utility - the most good for the most benefit. A focus on Results (vipaka)

Welch points out that commitment-to-act assumes that a particular result will entail. History shows that humanity is rarely in touch with the full implications of an action. “In Buddhism, interdependence means that individuals can never guarantee the results of their actions”. The problem is knowing whether, on balance, the effect of killing will be ultimately beneficial or harmful (utilitarian). Certainly killing will cause karmic pain and suffering for those who killed. On the surface, while many cane toads have already been killed, it appears that little has been gained environmentally. Given the speed at which humanity arrives at decisions for invasive action in the environment, the usual arrogance of assuming correct knowledge and the actual limited understanding of the risks involved, a Buddhist approach would tend to err on the conservative, least dramatic action.

We do not know if the presence of cane toads would ultimately force the evolution of tougher native animals. Often humanity does not have the far-reaching wisdom to make the best decision. If this was not the case, the ineffective and harmful cane toad solution would never have been used in the first place. In fact, according to recent scientific information, the cane toads are having less impact than originally expected on the native frog population . We are yet to discover whether culling is truly necessary in the long term. If a discovery that cane toad toxin was able to be used to benefit humanity in an AIDS virus medicine, would this make the culling less right? Other consequences may also be important. When children see society killing, without understanding the context, psychological moral judgments about righteous action may form. What long-term impact may this cause?

Aldo Leopold points out that the ‘conqueror’ mentality, (assumed by humanity in such matters) is flawed, since the conqueror does not know “just what makes the community clock tick… nor what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless ”. Some Australian Buddhist Activists focus on “right motivation, acceptance of inter-being, embracing humility and holding the view that we may be wrong and our understanding may be limited ”. The Dalai Lama urges caution, saying “it is very difficult, if not impossible, to predict the outcome of violence. Nor can we be sure of its justness at the outset”.

In the ‘Tract against Taking Life’ as translated by Stevenson from Ciyun Zunshi the role of custom is highlighted. It explores the idea that eating meat, although common, may still be ethically ‘wrong’. Just as bad habits become norms for an individual, the role of custom may dangerously extend (for example in societies where honour killing is practiced). The result of unchecked killing of humans could become an ordinary event. Extending the logic leads to the horrifying idea that “If murder is not prohibited, (the world may see) kitchens stocked with human flesh”. “When the whole world kills by custom and does not awaken to the error of it, (it is) something so painful that one weeps and wails endlessly with grief ”.

The Hierarchy of Transmigrating Beings

Some environmentalists claim that our status at the top of the evolutionary ladder is simply anthropocentric chauvinism. While Buddhism places great value on human rebirth and acknowledges a hierarchical ‘chain of being’: (“A man and only a man can become a Buddha”), this contradicts the idea that all sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature. Some schools refer to the Buddha entities of “mountains and rivers”, “insects and microbes”, “seeds and plants”. Scriptures note that it is worse to kill a large animal than a small one, since this involves more sustained effort, and it is generally understood that fish are a low form of life. Toads presumably sit lower than the native quoll, but on what grounds do we kill off one amphibian to protect another (native frogs)? Why should they be protected over the superior adaptive skills of Bufo Marinus - the remarkable toad?

“An important implication of the doctrine of karma is that forms of life are interchangeable ”. The idea that we ourselves may fall to the realm of toads is a selfish yet effective deterrent to culling. The Lankavatara Sutra claims “there is not one living being that has not been your mother, or father, or brother or sister or son or daughter”. “The Buddha eschewed any hierarchical dominance of one order over another (and) urged disciples to strive instead for the “welfare of the many”. The modern Buddhist faces an interpretation dilemma - did he mean quantifiable numbers of individual beings, species or whole biospheres?

Like any animal, humans kill in order to eat. This is true for vegetarians as well since the sowing, harvesting and transport of vegetables involves killing myriads of small creatures. Every time we eat, build, make cloth etc, we favour the ‘higher’ being over many ‘lower’ beings. Buddhism acknowledges our interdependence on all creatures and our collective karma in creating this planet as it is.

Individual Autonomy

Buddhism teaches that “we shall be responsible for the sin we commit, we shall reap the crop of what we ourselves have sown in this life or in one of the coming lives”. There is no possibility of release from any sin by means of divine intervention. Individual free will and choice of action alone determines our quality of rebirth and speed to enlightenment. Therefore, there is no Buddhist position per say on ‘killing’, only a guideline in the form of the precept. Each individual must determine the rightness for him or her self: “look not for refuge to anyone but yourselves ” … “the Bodhisattva violates the precepts if, and only if, he believes that such violation will be justified by the suffering it alleviates”. An early Dalai Lama taught that when faced with an intractable world, “start by repairing your own shoes, do not demand that the planet be covered in leather ”.


The ethical implications of environmental Buddhism drip with ambiguity. While multi-causality offers insight and guidance for modern Buddhists, many factors and consequences are involved in the precept of non-harming. It can be applied and understood in great depth and variety. While the Buddha was critical of extreme moral relativism, he did not uphold absolute or abstract theory in these matters. Modern Buddhism (East and West) maintains this pragmatic regard for the context of ethical judgement and “takes into account the psychology of the actor, the nature of the act, and the consequences which flow from it”. Moreover, time, place, circumstance and the level of understanding is duly recognised.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the fusion of Buddhism and environmentalism is the clear necessity for change. “Nature… involves risks and uncertainties. Our judgments of our own actions must be made against this moving image”. The teachings of ‘Non dualism’ and ‘impermanence’ also reinforce this. None of our opinions in this matter should be held onto too tightly. And yet, we still need to act. There are far too many variables to assume a position of righteousness. If reality is a reflection of what is occurring in our minds, we may have some way to go before we understand what the cane toad symbolises in ourselves.


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