The Buddha's Footprint

The Buddha's Footprint demonstrates how the spread of Buddhist teachings, the extension of Buddhist trading networks, and the increase of Buddhist state power were intimately connected to agricultural expansion, resource extraction, deforestation, urbanization, and the radical transformation and exploitation of Asia's environment.

The Buddha's Footprint
An Environmental History of Asia

Johan Elverskog

2020 | 192 pages | Cloth $55.00
Asian Studies / Ecology/Environmental Studies / Religion
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Table of Contents


Part I. What the Buddha Taught
1. The Buddha
2. Buddhism(s)
3. Buddhists
4. Wealth
5. Consumption

Part II. What Buddhists Did
6. The Spread of Buddhism
7. The Commodity Frontier
8. Agricultural Expansion
9. Urbanization
10. The Buddhist Landscape


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Buddhist societies and nations were quite far from being models of ecologically sensitive behavior.
—Francis Brassard, "The Path of the Bodhisattva and the Creation of Oppressive Cultures"

Buddhism is the only religious system that spread over all of Asia in the premodern period, from Sri Lanka to Siberia and from Iran to Japan. It dominated Asia's religious, sociocultural, economic, and political discourses for almost two thousand years. And yet the problem that Donald Lopez identified twenty years ago remains true today: historians of Asia know little about Buddhism, and scholars of Buddhism care little about history. Yet to ignore Buddhism's role in Asian history should be seen as the equivalent of a historian of the Mediterranean ignoring Christianity or Islam.

Historians of Asia, however, are not alone in their neglect of religion. The modern academy—built as it is on an edifice of secularization, modernization, and development theory—has itself struggled to take religion seriously. Persuaded by teleological notions of progress that consign religion to the past, scholars have neglected it. The historical profession has been especially delinquent. Even as recently as 2009 an American Historical Association survey confirmed that only 3 percent of professional historians in North America engage with religion as a component of human history. The profession's history may explain why: it came of age during the nineteenth century and itself helped forge the narrative of the secular nation-state. Whatever the explanation, the neglect of Buddhism by historians of Asia is typical of the profession as a whole.

The other half of the Lopez problem is that scholars of Buddhism have too often regarded the tradition as being outside of history. Many factors have played into this ahistorical approach to Buddhism—such as the philological and philosophical orientation of much early Buddhological scholarship—but, regardless of the reasons, it is a profound problem. As recently as 2012, the noted scholar of Indian Buddhism Gregory Schopen felt compelled to argue publicly that scholars of Buddhism need to take history seriously, otherwise the field of Buddhist Studies will become "an intellectual backwater."

The Buddha's Footprint seeks to resolve Lopez's problem through an environmental history of Buddhism. It addresses the basic concerns of environmental history: the history of human thought about "nature" or "the environment"; the influence of environmental factors on human history; and the effect of human-caused environmental changes on human society. But to these I add the historiographical goal of integrating Buddhism more fully into the study of Asian history, and vice versa. Doing so requires a reconceptualization of the role of religion in history and a move far beyond the stereotype of Buddhism as an ascetic, apolitical tradition of contemplation. More specifically, this book addresses the question of how an eco-Buddhist discourse, which holds that Buddhism is inherently sensitive to environmental concerns, has distorted our understanding of Asian history.

I build on Max Weber's insight in The Protestant Ethic that religious ideas drive human action. The ironic legacy of Weber's revolutionary scholarship is that modern scholars embraced his theory of secularization while also neglecting his fundamental insight that religion is important in shaping human behavior. By bringing the role of the Dharma to the fore in Asian history, I want to show how central religion was in shaping human history in Asia so that we will understand both the Dharma and Asian history better. If we are to understand the remarkable success of the Dharma, we need to explore the ideas behind it, and, most significantly for my purposes, we need to appreciate the centrality of its prosperity theology. Therefore, in place of the popular view of Buddhism as centered on renunciation and antimaterialism, we need to substitute the recognition that Buddhism was in fact centered on wealth.

For Buddhists, wealth was a sign of positive karma, and supporting the Dharma was understood as a means to increase one's material and spiritual wealth. For this reason, wealth promotion formed the architecture of Buddhism. Once we understand this dynamic, we will be much closer to seeing the Dharma as the expansive cultural system that it was—a cultural system premised on a prosperity theology that demanded the generation of wealth. During the period this book considers (500 BCE-1500 CE), that wealth was acquired through the exploitation of natural resources on the commodity frontier. Thus only when we comprehend why Buddhists acted as they did will we begin to understand how they shaped Asia's environmental history.

Unfortunately, questions about how Buddhists in particular transformed Asia's environment have rarely been asked. Most work on Buddhism's relationship with the natural world has focused on how the tradition understands or interprets nature. Some scholars have criticized eco-Buddhism for its ahistorical approach to Buddhist teachings or for cherry-picking passages from late Chinese and Japanese Buddhist texts, but a more trenchant critique of eco-Buddhism is that it ignores what Buddhists actually did. An environmental history investigates how individuals, institutions, and states interacted with and transformed the natural world, and The Buddha's Footprint investigates how monks, the laity, and the Buddhist state did precisely this. Driven by the Dharma's prosperity theology, these three categories of Buddhist actors moved out onto the commodity frontier and there drove the large-scale interlocking processes of agricultural expansion, marketization and commodification of the economy, urbanization, deforestation, landscape transformation, and the transmission of crops and diseases.

I borrow the term "commodity frontier" and its larger historiographical model from recent work on European imperialism and the history of global environmental change. Given its importance to what follows, allow me to quote at length William Beinart and Lotte Hughes's explication of this model from their book Environment and Empire:

Metropolitan countries sought raw materials of all kinds, from timber and furs to rubber and oil. . . . An expanding capitalist economy devoured natural resources and transformed them into commodities. British and other European consumers and manufacturers sucked in resources that were gathered, hunted, fished, mined, and farmed in a great profusion of extractive and agrarian systems. . . . These modes of extraction underpinned deep structures in the architecture of the British Empire. . . . In many ways, such commodity frontiers and commodity chains give the Empire its character and unity. We use the term "commodity frontier" to suggest meanings that are spatial, environmental, and socioeconomic. It refers to the results of expanding European commercial activity, productive enterprises, and sometimes settlement, which targeted raw materials and land in overseas territories.

We need to think about the successful spread of Buddhism across Asia along these same lines. Buddhists also "sucked in resources" and "devoured natural resources and transformed them into commodities" through their "commercial activity, productive enterprises and . . . settlement" on the commodity frontier. These "modes of extraction underpinned deep structures in the architecture" of the Buddhist ecumene, and these "spatial, environmental, and socioeconomic" forces not only made the Buddhist world possible but also transformed Asia's environment in the process.

Some might consider my application of this model to the spread of Buddhism inappropriate, based as it is on European colonialism, but such systems of extraction and expansion have been part of human history for millennia, and the Dharma spread precisely within such systems. Merchants and monks moved into ecological border areas in order to exploit the natives and their resources for metropolitan centers. Moreover, as Buddhism spread, its cities functioned as a spatial projection of market dynamics, somewhat similar to westward expansion in the United States. I therefore contend that we are justified in thinking of Buddhism's historical relation to nature in terms similar to those Max Oelschlaeger has used to describe the environmental history of the United States: "Propelled by a capitalistic political economy, wilderness areas were transformed into civilization. Cities were built, canals dredged, forests cut and burned, grasslands fenced, and the land brought into use for crops and cattle. . . . The Republic was burgeoning demographically and economically, and wilderness was viewed almost exclusively as a natural resource to be exploited." Only after we jettison our long-sedimented orientalist and eco-Buddhist fantasies can we begin to understand the profound role that Buddhism had in transforming not only Asia's history but also its environment.

To those steeped in the rhetoric of eco-Buddhism, such a view of Buddhism may be downright disturbing, if not wholly misguided. To those familiar with environmental history, such a vision of Buddhist environmental history may be yet another declensionist narrative of humans behaving badly. However, this book sets out to do more than overturn misconceptions about the Dharma and to reiterate the narrative and moral refrains of most environmental histories. It also aims to change how we think about Buddhist history and its expansion across Asia. Although there has been much excellent scholarship on Buddhism's spread across Asia—using concepts and models such as assimilation, mandalization, and domestication—much of it ignores the exploitative elements that were essential to the Dharma's success as a missionary religion. Instead, following a presumption that Buddhism is a "good" religion, most accounts of Buddhist expansion across Asia have been framed in generally positive terms. One leading scholar, for example, has boldly claimed: "Why did Buddhism spread so successfully? The major factor has no doubt been the power and beauty of its thought." As a result, much of Buddhological scholarship reads like the work that justified European colonial expansion: Buddhism brought culture, civilization, technology, economic development, writing, and art to benighted people on the periphery.

Just as more recent scholarship has problematized the cultural logic of empire, we need to bring a skeptical eye to such narratives about Buddhism and to develop a new and more sophisticated understanding of its complex history. Peter Schwieger, for example, has recently argued that a better way to conceptualize the spread of Buddhism is as an upheaval akin to a cultural revolution; namely, a massive economic, political, and social rupture. Given how much territory the Dharma came to cover, and how wide-ranging its influence was, you might expect that that there would be a slew of studies exploring the implications and dynamics of its expansion, and yet this is not the case. Buddhism and Buddhists still retain their aura of being benign and well-intentioned.

Nevertheless, we do know that, as with the spread of Christianity or Islam, the spread of Buddhism—its teachings, its trading networks, and eventually the expansion of Buddhist state power—was profoundly disruptive. Buddhist expansion entailed the displacement of local gods and myths with those of the Dharma, and it fundamentally transformed earlier social and political structures as well as networks of economic exchange. Buddhism functioned as a communication network within which "ideas, commodities, and peoples circulated throughout Eurasia." One scholar has described the process of Buddhist expansion as forging a "Buddhist international." Yet, as with any interlinked social world, the Buddhist international was not simply a communication network; it was also an expansive economic system premised on a distinctive prosperity theology that required wealth generation. That wealth came crucially through the exploitation and extraction of natural resources on the commodity frontier.

By reconceptualizing the spread of the Dharma in this way I aim to bring Buddhism—and, by extension, religion—more deeply into discussions of Asian history and environmental history. Doing so also enables me to engage with two other historiographical issues, one spatial and one temporal. Regarding the former, I want my treatment of Buddhism in this book to contribute to a larger conceptual framework of historical interaction, such as that which has developed around the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, in order to better understand the historical relations that shaped Eurasia. To that end, I have attempted to write history beyond conventional modern categories, especially that of the nation-state, which have too often been projected into the past. My analytic focus is not on the actions of "Indians," "Laotians," or "Japanese" but the actions of Buddhists, who, following the Dharma, felt fully justified in exploiting the natural world toward religious ends. By approaching the history of Asia in this manner, I aim to illuminate the complex interactions and processes that linked premodern Asia together. Engseng Ho has made the case for studying a contemporary "inter-Asia" in order to "shed light on the social shapes of societies that are mobile, spatially expansive, and interactive with one another." This book likewise focuses on these same dynamics in premodern inter-Asia through the framework of the Buddhist ecumene.

Exploring this premodern inter-Asia affords me the opportunity to grapple with not only spatial concerns but also temporal ones. The field of environmental history, although global in scope, has until recently remained a largely Euro-American affair. Most of the work has been done in the West and focused on the West, and this Eurocentrism has made European colonialism—the year 1500—the hinge of world history. Although there are valid reasons to make such linkages—most notably, the Columbian Exchange—such temporal restrictions obscure much of Asian history. Scholars have recently been pushing against such conventional Eurocentric temporal paradigms by advocating new, non-Eurocentric models. Kenneth Pomeranz, for example, has argued for a new history of economic development that moves beyond European exceptionalism. Robert Marks similarly wants to move beyond the European model that presumes a universal shift from the "early modern" to "the modern." In the same manner, I want to shift the temporal framing of environmental history by looking at premodern Buddhist Asia.

As Mahesh Rangarajan has outlined, scholars have begun the project of documenting the environmental history of Asia before European colonialism. Nonetheless, much writing on the environmental history of Asia perpetuates the Eurocentric paradigm either by continuing to focus on the colonial encounter and after, or by idealizing the past when studying an earlier period. Only by moving beyond the Eurocentric temporal frameworks that dominate environmental history will we able to properly understand the environmental history of Asia and of the world.

These three historiographical issues—the religious, the spatial, and the temporal—are the theoretical concerns that have driven me to present this book as I have. In order to treat these interrelated issues as coherently as possible, I decided upon a two-part structure and short, focused chapters. Part 1 focuses on Buddhist thought and Part 2 on Buddhist action. Each chapter in Part I, "What the Buddha Taught," discusses one key aspect of Buddhism that will help us to see the history of Buddhism in a new light. Together they show that Buddha's teachings were the intellectual engine that drove Buddhists out across Asia, where their fortunes became intertwined with the exploitation and transformation of the natural world. In making this argument I also try to sort out modern or popular misunderstandings of Buddhist thought as well as the historiographical implications of such distortions. Part II, "What Buddhists Did," then focuses on the specific large-scale processes that Buddhists enacted, including agricultural expansion, resource extraction, deforestation, urbanization, and the monumentalization of Buddhism itself.

Ultimately, my task is to reveal how Buddhists acted in the world and how their actions have shaped the environmental history of Asia. In retelling the history of Buddhist Asia from this perspective, I hope to contribute to the broad conversations that we are so urgently having about the consequences of our interactions with nature. As we reckon with the Anthropocene and with ourselves as a geological force, Buddhist Asia, in its past, present, and future complexity, can no longer be left out of the discussion.