The impact of Buddhism on Sustainability in Thailand – A personal interpretation.

Nowadays almost everyone around the world is familiar with the global warming and climate change and the most common solution given to this is sustainability. For all countries around the world, it is clear they have to change. But not all countries take action in the same way as national culture, values and beliefs are influencing. To better understand the position of Thailand on the sustainable development goals and the influence of the national religion, Buddhism, this blog will tell you all about it.

Buddhism basics

You have probably heard of Buddhism, and maybe about some of the basic values and beliefs. But what exactly is Buddhism and how is it practiced in Thailand? Let’s figure that out!

Without diving too deep in its history here are some basics of Buddhism. Buddhism is a religion that originates from India and that does not belief there is a creator god, it is seen as a non-theistic religion. Buddhism can also be interpreted as a philosophy and moral discipline with a focus upon personal spirituality and development. Familiar aspects from Buddhists are the belief in reincarnation and karma. The basic ideas of Buddhism include the four noble truths: “existence is suffering (dukhka); suffering has a cause, namely craving and attachment (trishna); there is a cessation of suffering, which is nirvana; and there is a path to the cessation of suffering, the “eightfold path” of right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration”.[1]

Buddhism in Thailand

Buddhism is the major and official religion in Thailand as 85 to 95% of the population is Buddhist.[2] The form of Buddhism that is practiced in Thailand is Theravada Buddhism, which claims that it practices the belief as how it was taught originally by Buddha and has a focus upon individual enlightenment.

When I visited Sri Lanka a country that practices the same form of Buddhism as Thailand, I found it remarkable and interesting that people give daily offerings or donations to spirit houses on the side of the roads. They did this with almost every spirit house they passed, within Thailand this is also done. They do this as people belief they will live longer and happier lives.[3]

Hopefully you have a basic understanding of Buddhism now, we will dive into the meaning of sustainability next.

What is sustainability?

The three pillars of sustainability
If you think of sustainability, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Big chance you immediately thought of the environment. But sustainability is much more than only the environment, it is just one of the three pillars of sustainability. The other two pillars that are as important as the environment are the social and economic aspects. Only when all three aspects are in balance people are living in a world that is giving excellent living standards, with good economy welfare, a blooming environment and social fulfilment.[4]

Before diving deep into the three pillars, it is handy to be aware of the aim and origin of sustainability and sustainable development. Knowing this will make it much easier to understand the role of each pilar.

But what do we mean with sustainability?

The term sustainability has been with us for a long time already, more than 30 years. The first time it was mentioned on worldwide level was with the publication of the Brundtland report also called ‘Our Common Future’ in 1987. This report got a lot of attention and is still used many times as reference. But before this popular report was published the term sustainability and sustainable develop were already used commonly. The definition of sustainability and sustainable development that we use since the first occurrence of the term is stated as:

“Create and maintain conditions, under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.”

When reading this citation from the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) you probably recognize the overlapping aspects of social and economic from the three pillars of sustainability. The third aspect, environment, can be found in the last part of the statement, ‘other requirements’.[5]

Now you know the origin of sustainability and the meaning we give to it, we can dive deeper in application of the three pillars of sustainability.

Sustainable Development Goals

As you probably know the United Nations is also concerned with sustainability. In the United Nations General Assembly Resolution sustainability has a big part. As responses to the millennium goals the United Nations has created the Sustainable Development goals and the goals is to have them achieved by 2030. The 17 sustainable development goals are shared all over the world and almost everyone has heard of them once. And you might have noticed in the sustainable development goals that it is not only about the environment. The sustainable development goals have been made according to the three pillars of sustainability. When the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or in short UNSDG’s, were introduced a powerful call-action was used by the UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon:

“We can be the first generation to end extreme poverty, the most determined generation in history to end injustice and inequality and the last generation to be threatened by climate change.”

With this call to action, you can also see that the focus is not only on environmental sustainability but rather upon social sustainability, don’t you think?

Now probably you expected to have the simple and over-used overview of all 17 goals, but that image is not a complete view of the goals as they are presented separately when they are all interconnected just as the three pillars of sustainability. In my opinion the following image is much more showing the three pillars of sustainability as well as the building blocks of sustainability.[6]

As you might see, the 17 goals are interconnected and depend on each other. You can read this image in different ways. I read it as having the biosphere as basis to build the economy and society upon. When the biosphere or environment is not in balance and no able to provide the minimum resources, we need as society we cannot develop. And so, we will never have the optimum economic welfare when the biosphere and the society is not fully sustainable and developed. So yes, environmental sustainability is important and the basis of sustainability, but it is not the only focus point of sustainability.

When we look at Thailand, the country performs quite good on the SDG Global Rank with a 41st place of 166 published in the 2020 report on the UN.[7] If we look deeper into the 17 goals Thailand is increasing its positive impact on almost all of them as the trends are mainly increasing. Thailand has already achieved the ‘no poverty’ goal already, tough challenges for all other goals are still faced.

Know we now the basics of Buddhism and we know the basics and implementation of all three types of sustainability it is time to review the impact of Buddhism on the sustainable development.

So, how does Buddhism influence sustainability in Thailand?

There has been done several extensive research projects about the influence and/or impact of Buddhism on environment and sustainability, but I am not going to use this information in this blog. You can read these research papers online if you have more interest in the relation between Buddhism and sustainability. In this last concluding part of my blog, I want to reflect on what the key principles are of Buddhism and how they can have a positive influence and point of view on the sustainable development goals in Thailand.

As you have read, Buddhist in Thailand belief in Karma and in reincarnation. If we look at today’s world and the fact that being sustainable and doing no harm to the environment is good, the Buddhists may have a higher personal interest in sustainable actions. Also, looking at the reincarnation part, Buddhist may want to reincarnate into a world which is thriving and has harmony in society.

A citation that I found interesting is the following:

“We are the generation with the awareness of a great danger. We are the ones with the responsibility and the ability to take steps of concrete action, before it is too late.”

This citation is from the Dalai Lama, with which is meant that the Buddhistic population have to increase their awareness of the damage they do to the environment and that they have the ability to change it. Other interesting facts that can contribute to the positive impact of Buddhism on sustainability is that Buddhist belief that they should “life simply and respect the cycle and balance in nature so everything can continue for future generations.” Further, we can look at Buddhism as changing the way we look at the world, which is exactly what is needed to achieve the sustainable developments before its deadline in 2030.

Reference list

1: Infoplease. (2021, March 20). Buddhism. Retrieved from Infoplease: https://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/religion/eastern/buddhism/buddhism

2: Office of international religious freedom. (2021, March 21). 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Thailand. Retrieved from US Department of State: https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/thailand/

3: Iverson, K. (2021, March 20). Everything You Need to Know About Buddhism in Thailand. Retrieved from The Culturetrip: https://theculturetrip.com/asia/thailand/articles/everything-you-need-to-know-about-buddhism-in-thailand/

4: Goodland, R. (1995). The concept of environmental sustainability. Annual review of ecology and systematics, 1-24.

5: United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, March 20). Learn About Sustainability. Retrieved from United States Environmental Protection Agency: https://www.epa.gov/sustainability/learn-about-sustainability

6: The Global Academy. (2021, March 21). The UN 2030 SDGs; humanity’s biggest ever project and a framework for research. Retrieved from The Global Academy: https://theglobalacademy.ac/the-un-2030-sdgs-humanitys-biggest-ever-project-and-a-framework-for-research/

7: Sachs, J., Schmidt-Traub, G., Kroll, C., Lafortune, G., Fuller, G., Woelm, F. 2020. The Sustainable Development Goals and COVID-19. Sustainable Development Report 2020. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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