I read most of Dharma Gaia while stuck in a hotel room in greater Los Angeles, which seemed somehow appropriate. What American city better represents the isolation of humans from each other and from nonhumans? When I flew in, L.A. seemed more intimate and softer than I had remembered from a smoggy previous trip. Now, the morning light revealed concrete, steel and asphalt stretching on and on, seemingly forever—covering almost everything that existed before the city was there. Only the baking, chaparral-covered hills thrusting up at the valley’s edge gave a reminder of the semi-desert biosphere which had once flourished.
As I looked at those near-vertical hills and the city stretching right to their feet, I had the sense that they were the visible features of that place which endures beneath the pavement. I have read that the traditional Navajos believe that when a person dies, after the spirit travels to the other vale, all the disharmonious, dark-side elements of their being distill into a ghost which may trouble the living. Los Angeles seemed, at that moment, to be a kind of ghost of disharmony distressing the Earth.
As I sat in my hotel room reading Doug Codiga’s essay, “Zen Practice and a Sense of Place,” a wonderful sense of the arid world beneath grew powerfully in my mind. The many beings—tumbleweed, tortoise, rattlesnake, fox, vulture, rock, sand and freshwater pool—came forward to confirm my place in relation to them.
To carry the self forward and confirm the myriad things is called delusion.
That the myriad things come forth and confirm the self is enlightenment.
—Zen Master Eihei Dogen
Doug Codiga, “Zen Practice and a Sense of Place”
I went on to read in Deena Metzger’s “Four Meditations”:
Whatever happens in these times that are coming, keep your eye on what you know once existed. If you can remember, if you have the practice of remembering, you can keep your faith in the areas that matter to you. Even as it appears as if everything is going to be swallowed up, you will know that it will continue to exist.
In Codiga’s essay he says that having a sense of place and knowledge of the inhabitants is important, but we don’t need to replicate the ways of the traditional native people. Rather, “we must see our surroundings with the same timeless eyes.” In experiencing the spiritual identity of this place, I felt great compassion for its suffering and the suffering of the beings who inhabit it. The sickness of the city wounds those who live there as well as those who are displaced. Yet, it is only a sickness, and we have the power to heal it.
The sickness of disharmony seems to be the “failure to accept” things as they are. Over the years people have “failed to accept” in failing to recognize the semi-desert character of Southern California and its limited capacity for population. I find myself “failing to accept” my complicity with other human beings in creating cities out of balance with nature.
It hasn’t become instantly clear to me what we humans must do to heal a place like Los Angeles. But it has become clear that to find the path to recovery we need to embrace the sorrow of our present imbalance with an awareness of place through “timeless eyes.”
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RECYCLING TRASH INTO HAIKU by Patrick McMahon
Dharma Gaia Review by Patrick McMahon & Reed Hamilton