The Promise of Buddhism in the Nuclear Age: Guardianship of Life on Earth

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy is a Buddhist teacher, writer, and activist engaged in issues of environmental and social justice. Her books and trainings draw on the Buddha Dharma to motivate, sustain, and guide people in acting for the welfare of all beings. Her published works include Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, Dharma and Development, and Coming Back to Life. In 2007, she received an Outstanding Woman in Buddhism Award.

At the core of the Buddha Dharma is the radical interdependence of all things. That every being, life form, and event exists within a web of reciprocities was the central teaching of the Lord Buddha. He said, “Whoever sees the Dharma sees dependent co-arising (pratitya-samutpada) and whoever sees dependent co-arising sees the Dharma.” That insight was the organizing principle of the Order or Sangha he established, expressed in its social equality, economic sharing, and consultative decision-making.

From that understanding of reality comes a basic imperative: Take care of each other. Our mutual belonging requires that we respect one other’s needs. It entails learning to live with generosity and self-restraint. To help us do this, the Buddha gave us practices for steadying the mind and cultivating not only loving-kindness, but grief in each others’ grief, and joy in each other’s joy.

It is impressive, but not surprising, to see how this essential knowledge of our mutual belonging has been brought to the fore by the ongoing catastrophe at the Fukushima #1 Nuclear Complex. The suffering and losses inflicted upon the communities in the region—upon whole towns, families, schools, and farms—is beyond calculation. Yet there has been no hesitation on the part of Buddhist priests and organizations to turn temples into shelters, feed and care for the survivors, pray for the dead, and counsel the bereaved, the sick, and the traumatized. These functions are reminiscent of earlier generations of Buddhist clerics before they were marginalized by the industrial growth economy and relegated to ritual roles in Japan’s “funeral and tourist Buddhism.” Now nuclear disaster summons them back to engage more fully with their people, manifesting once again the meaning and vitality of the Dharma.

Times of great hardship can reveal the depth and relevance of a spiritual tradition. They also call us to think for ourselves and to question government and business policies that fail to serve the people. In the Nuclear Age, this failure is frequent, for the splitting of the atom changes the face of things, and old patterns of command, control, and security no longer work.

The use of atomic fission for military and economic purposes challenges us in ways that are hard to see within the mindset of the industrial growth society. Even when applied to “peaceful” purposes, nuclear fission brings destruction in its wake. Even in the absence of an “accident,” the normal operation of a nuclear reactor releases ionizing radiation into the environment, and no technology yet exists to stop these emissions or safely dispose of the irradiated reactor and its wastes.

As ionizing radiation breaches cell membranes, triggering mutation and disease, no organism is immune, no one is safe. Carried by wind, rain, and ocean currents, hidden in shipments of food and fodder, the contamination knows no borders. Entering the food chains of our planet and the DNA of its life-forms, the poisons extend their reach to the far distant future. In the face of such realities, the competitive individualism of the industrial growth society has little moral or intellectual guidance to offer.

Over the decades of the Nuclear Age, citizens have grown concerned over the amounts of contaminating materials generated at every stage of the fuel cycle—from the hills of uranium mine and mill tailings to the storage pools of irradiated fuel rods, and the dump sites of leaking barrels. People have begun to realize that neither government nor industry knows how to keep the radioactivity they’ve generated out of the biosphere. Learning that no container lasts as long as its radioactive contents, we question the wisdom of geological repositories. The “waste” is buried half a mile deep, out of sight and out of mind—but it doesn’t stay there, for the planet is alive. Through underground waters, the poison fire migrates on and out.

Beginning in the 1980s, a group of us in the United States and then in Germany sought a different approach to the care of radioactive materials. We recognized that there is no way the radioisotopes can be contained without ongoing mindfulness. Human attention is required for continual monitoring and repair of the containments. This involves a commitment informed by the duration of the toxins (millions of years for the irradiated nickel in a containment vessel) and by the realization that our present choices affect thousands of generations to come. A realization, in other words, that our karma—the consequences of our actions—now extend through all time.

We arrived at a logic, or path, called Nuclear Guardianship. It is based on the assumption that we are all responsible for what is made in our name. Government personnel and industry employees are simply too vulnerable to bureaucratic and financial pressures to bear the burden of such responsibility. To convey what this might mean for us all and to guide decision-making in the management of radioactive materials, we of the Nuclear Guardianship Project drew up the following ethic.

Nuclear Guardianship Ethic

1. Each generation shall endeavor to preserve the foundations of life and well-being for those who come after. To produce and abandon substances that damage following generations is morally unacceptable.

2. Given the extreme toxicity and longevity of radioactive materials, their production must cease. The development of safe, renewable energy sources and non-violent means of conflict resolution is essential to the health and survival of life on Earth. Radioactive materials are not to be regarded as an economic or military resource.

3. We accept responsibility for the radioactive materials mined and produced by our society for our presumed benefit.

4. Future generations have the right to know about the nuclear legacy that we are leaving them and to protect themselves from it.

5. Future generations have the right to monitor and repair nuclear waste containers and to apply such technologies as may be developed to protect the biosphere more effectively. Deep burial of radioactive materials precludes these possibilities and risks uncontrollable contamination of all life.

6. Transport of radioactive materials, with its inevitable risks of accidents and spills, should be undertaken only when storage conditions at the site of production pose a greater hazard than transportation.

7. Research and development of technologies for the least hazardous long-term treatment and placement of nuclear materials should receive high priority in public attention and funding.

8. Education of the public about the character, source, and containment of radioactive materials is essential for the health of present and future generations. This education should promote understanding of the interconnectedness of all life forms and a grasp of the extraordinary time spans for which containment is required.

9. The formation of policies for managing radioactive materials requires full participation of the public. For this purpose, the public must have ready access to complete and comprehensible information.

10. The vigilance necessary for ongoing containment of radioactive materials requires a moral commitment. This commitment is within our capacity and can be developed and sustained by drawing on the cultural and spiritual resources of our human heritage.


Sharing it here, I see that the Guardianship Ethic, as a response to the Nuclear Age, has much in common with the response Buddhist priests and temples are making to the cries of Fukushima. Both the Ethic and Japanese priests take our mutual belonging seriously. Both invite us to open our moral imagination to the fundamental reality of our inter-existence—and to take care of each other, both now and in the generations to come.

Like the Buddha Dharma, the Nuclear Age teaches our essential non-separateness from each other and all that is. Both teach the vastness of our mutual responsibility.

The Nuclear Age has brought tremendous suffering. It also brings us realization of our non-separateness: we are one family, one body. We belong to each other in ways we had not glimpsed before.

Even the suffering brought upon us by the Nuclear Age can help us awaken. When it is communicated, when we do not hide it like a secret shame, it attests to the reality of our deep connection. This suffering belongs to us all—and when taken to heart, it can save us all. When acknowledged and received, it can help us—bureaucrats, scientists, parents, and young people alike—take hands and act together for the sake of life.

published November 2013

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