Challenging the popular image of Buddhism as a religion intrinsically concerned with the environment, Dr. John Elverskog
’s new monograph, The Buddha’s Footprint: An Environmental History of Asia
(University of Pennsylvania Press 2020), demonstrates that Buddhist institutions across Asia have actually been intimately connected to the accumulation of wealth, the consumption and exploitation of natural resources, and urbanization. What drives these acts, Dr. Elverskog argues, is a prosperity theology that is central to the Buddha Dharma, which regards wealth as a sign of positive karma. Calling into question the stereotypical understanding of Buddhism as an ascetic, apolitical, and contemplative tradition, this book investigates not only monks but also how the laity and the Buddhist states participated in the generation of wealth for religious merit.
Dr. Elverskog points out that The Buddha’s Footprint
is not “arguing that Buddhism and environmental thought and action are antithetical or that Buddhism cannot be used to promote environmental action.” In fact, many efforts across the contemporary world have shown the opposite. Instead, by reconceptualizing Buddhism as an expansive religious and political system premised on generating wealth through the exploitation of natural resources, Dr. Elverskog contends, it enables us to bring Buddhism and religion “more deeply into discussions of Asian history and environmental history.”
Daigengna Duoer is a PhD student at the Religious Studies Department, University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation researches on transnational/transregional networks of Buddhism centered in twentieth-century Inner Mongolia and Manchuria that were connected to Republican China, Tibet, and imperial Japan.