Vegetal Buddhas

From Buddha-Nature

Vegetal Buddhas

One of the most important questions taken up in East Asian Buddhist doctrines is that of the scope and range of Buddha-nature (Ch. foxing, Jp. busshō), namely, whether it permeates the totality of reality or not. This issue is often presented as the question of the possibility for plants and the components of the environment (including inanimate, material objects) to become buddhas.1 Through this, Buddhism articulated a sophisticated philosophy of objects.
      East Asian Buddhism has developed a series of concepts that refer to the realm of the nonsentients-material objects and entities devoid of a conscious mind-which constitute and furnish the material space where both sentient beings in the Six Destinations (rokudō or rokushu) and buddhas live and operate. In particular, hijō or mujō (nonsentients) and kikai (realm of objects) refer to the milieu of buddhas and sentient beings. They are therefore related to such concepts as ujō (sentient beings), shujō (living beings), shujōkai (realm of sentient beings) and bukkai (realm of the buddhas). On the other hand, ehō, which literally means "karmic support," is the material environment (space and circumstances with the related set of objects) in which sentient beings find themselves as a consequence of karmic retribution. This notion is related to that of shōbō, "karmic retribution proper," the particular body-mind complex that forms the subjectivity of a sentient being as a result of karma.
      In Japan, terms referring to materiality and the environment are considered synonymous with more concrete expressions such as sōmoku kokudo (plants and the territory), sōmoku kasen gareki (plants, rivers, bricks, and stones), or more simply sōmoku (plants). This synonymity is important to recognize because in most medieval doctrinal tracts a term such as sōmoku did not refer literally to "plants" only but rather to the entire realm of the non-sentients. Most often this extended to inanimate objects of any kind, including man-made artifacts.2 Therefore, as we will see in the course of this book, "nature" is not always an accurate rendition of the doctrinal contents of these concepts.
      Japanese authors have usually studied the Buddhist philosophy of objects as a purely doctrinal matter isolated from larger social and ideological issues. Most of them consider it the manifestation in Buddhist terms of an ahistorically understood Shintō animism that is believed to permeate the Japanese cultural tradition. In some cases, this is related to a vague environmental concern supposedly generated by such animism. One of the goals of the present study is to formulate a critique of such interpretations.
      I will address here the Buddhist discourse of the nonsentients from the perspective of an intellectual history open to the field of cultural studies, which I understand as a clearinghouse of tools and approaches useful in comprehending the workings of a culture. Particular emphasis will be placed on the contexts of the source material relating to the inanimate world and the processes of signification they generated. One of the problems with received scholarship on the relationships among Buddhism, plants, and objects is over-specialization and excessive compartmentalization, which prevents it from addressing the discourse from a multidisciplinary perspective. Most studies consist of philological and doctrinal discussions of elite texts almost completely isolated from their shifting contexts of production and interpretation. Other scholars address ideas and practices on a "folk" level, but largely ignore their doctrinal foundations. One notable exception is Taira Masayuki, who has indicated that medieval prohibitions against cutting trees issued by religious institutions were in fact attempts to apply Buddhist ethical precepts to the fields of economy and power relations.3 However, even Taira failed to connect such prohibitions to the Buddhist discourse on nonsentients and related treatments of materiality as part of a larger cultural picture.
      Ecological and environmental concerns are often mentioned in contemporary literature on plants becoming buddhas. In this monograph, Japanese Buddhist ecology is understood as a set of discursive practices related to the definition, interpretation, and uses of the environment (kikai, ehō) of sentient beings and the objects inhabiting it. Thus, whenever I refer to "ecology" I do so with this larger meaning in mind. This meaning is closely related to economy, politics, and ideology, and is not the result of a supposed "love for nature," as most authors suggest. I will show that Buddhist doctrines on plants constitute in fact a discourse on the material environment, its status and its functions. Such a discourse was articulated with respect to three orders of significance, which I define as ecosophia, ecognosis, and ecopietas. Ecosophia refers to standard Buddhist doctrines denying the nonsentients the possibility of becoming buddhas.4 With ecognosis I indicate Tendai and Shingon initiatory doctrines on the absolute and unconditioned nature of the nonsentients. Finally, ecopietas has to do with popular, widespread beliefs and attitudes about the sacredness of the natural world and material objects in general.
       The medieval Japanese discourse on the material environment addresses a number of social concerns, such as the status of the members of the initiatory lineages producing these doctrines, the ontology of social order, the control of the material world of the nonsentients, and the distribution of its wealth. As such, doctrines on the Buddha-nature of plants played an important ideological role in the creation of a vision of order and of power relations in society. We will see that this Buddhist discourse was not a mere doctrinal curiosity or a manifestation of an animistic love for nature. Rather, it went far beyond Buddhological and soteriological issues, with important practical consequences. This was particularly the case in the arenas of social ideology and economics, and influenced the ways in which religious institutions defined themselves and their own properties.
      The three chapters that compose this book address different but related subjects. Chapter One presents the main doctrinal and philosophical aspects of the status of nonsentients and objects in general in Japan. I begin with an excursus on Chinese treatments of the subject, which constituted the background to subsequent Japanese interventions. Then, I introduce the two main forms of Japanese ecognosis, those developed within the Tendai and Shingon traditions, through a discussion of the most significant texts on plants becoming buddhas. Chapter Two discusses "popular" discourses and practices concerning trees as instances of ecopietas. I attempt to show that ecopietas-like attitudes, rather than being a mere manifestation of primordial and Shinto animistic beliefs, were also the result of struggles and negotiations between Buddhist institutions supported by the state and local social structures or life-styles. Chapter Three deals with the ideological effects of the doctrines on plants becoming buddhas. There I criticize received ideas that such doctrines are manifestations of a typically and uniquely Japanese attitude towards nature and the environment, rooted in an essentially ahistorical vision of Shinto. In particular, I discuss a number of cases of prohibitions against cutting trees issued by religious institutions in medieval Japan: their rhetoric as well as their historical and social contexts show that religious institutions were interested in trees not particularly out of environmental concerns (even though those were present), but in their attempt to establish their own social role and influence. In this sense, the theme of plants becoming buddhas becomes a metaphor for larger issues, such as the relations between religious institutions and the state, and ideas of social order and domination. (Rambelli, introduction, 1–4)


1. Throughout the book, "Buddha" (capitalized) will be used as a proper noun to refer to a specific Buddha, whereas "buddha" or "buddhas" (lower case) will indicate a general condition as a result of certain soteriologic practices.
2. The role of plants as objects is particularly evident in the art form known as ikebana, in which vegetal elements are isolated from their contexts to form examples of abstract expressIonism that point to the nature of the vegetal as object. It is also seen in premodern iron sculptures representing trees and branches, known as tetsuju (iron trees).
3. Taira Masayuki, Nihon chūsei no shakai to bukkyō, 1992, pp. 247-249.
4. The term "ecosophia" was first used by Félix Guattari in his Les trois écologies, 1989. I employ it in a different way.

Citation Rambelli, Fabio. Vegetal Buddhas: Ideological Effects of Japanese Buddhist Doctrines on the Salvation of Inanimate Beings. Italian School of East Asian Studies Occasional Papers 9. Kyōto: Scuola Italiana di Studi sull’Asia Orientale, 2001.