Learning Love from a Tiger: Approaches to Nature in an American Buddhist Monastery

In current debates about Buddhist approaches to the non-human natural world, studies describe Buddhism variously as anthropocentric, bio-centric or eco-centric. These perspectives derive for the most part from examinations of philosophical and normative aspects of the tradition without much attention to moments when embodied practice diverges from religious ideals. Responding to the need for narrative thick descriptions of lived Buddhist attitudes toward nature, I ethnographically explore a Vietnamese monastery in the United States. There I find multifaceted Buddhist approaches to nature which sometimes disclose disunity between theory and practice. Philosophically and normatively, this monastery embraces eco-centrism through notions of interconnectedness, instructions for meditation, environmental lifestyles, and non-violent ideals. In practice, however, the monastery displays a measure of anthropocentrism in terms of rhetoric which values humans more than the rest of the natural world, human-centered motivations for environmental lifestyles, and limits on non-violence which favor human lives.

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