From eighth-century China
In the great Assembly of the Lotus all are present—without divisions. Grass, trees, the soil on which these grow—all have the same kinds of atoms. Some are barely in motion while others make haste along the Path, but they will all in time reach the Precious Island of Nirvana. . . . Who can really maintain that things inanimate lack buddhahood?
From Inquiring Mind interview, Volume 4, Number 2
There are many ways to be in nature, and it’s fascinating to me to see how many levels there are. The most common way that people approach it is to become to some degree “nature literate,” which is to say, to become amateur naturalists. So you begin to try to learn some plant names and some bird names. There are wonderful areas of information that take you into more and more refined levels of understanding of the actual ecological processes that are going on. But we are still on the level of an assumed distinction between the see-er and the seen. Nature is still being seen as an object. But there’s a very interesting shift that takes place when you understand yourself, and feel yourself, as an animal. People know that theoretically, in Darwinian organic evolution, we are animals, but most people don’t really feel it as an actual fact in themselves. And if they do, they feel it’s kind of a transitory thing. “Well, that was just the animal in me.”
I think the next layer of feeling for me at some point was when it just hit me that I really was an animal and that all of the things that we call “human” are simply part of that, even our spiritual capacity—it’s just another thing that animals can do. When I began to feel myself in that way, I saw many new things. I saw my mammalness, my mammality, and I saw that reflected throughout all mammals. I started looking at little mice that I live-trapped, and I could see their teats and their genitals, and I could understand that the female nursed her infants just like humans do.
And then when you butcher animals, you see the absolute parallel of anatomy in the vertebrae. We all have the same parts, arranged in almost an identical way. You watch animals mate and you understand that they are experiencing an ecstatic state of release in their relationship with each other too, and that their fear and pain is as intense as human fear and pain.
So I’ve begun to feel more connected to mammals and vertebrates, and that sense of connection can spread into broader and broader appreciations of cellular life, and all the energies that are at work. So, it’s no longer a matter of learning to be in nature, but understanding that you are nature. And all of what I said is comprehensible through a biology class, but internalizing it, feeling it as your reality, is another step.
It’s really the Taoist view of organic process and the understanding that we can never be in a struggle with it, because we are too much a part of it. Taoism is a kind of folk religion. What we just described is actually post-science, post-biology Taoism, internalizing the complete sense and actual fact of interrelatedness and interconnectedness of the universe and certainly of our planet. That’s Taoism.
Theoretically, you could say the folk religion of the United States might be a combination of Native American spiritual vision and seeing our national parks and wilderness areas as temples. There’s a wonderful book out called The American Conservation Movement and the Legacy of John Muir, written by Steve Fox. It’s a chronicle of the rise of conservation and ecological thought and practice in the United States. Fox says that the ecology movement in the United States is far more than a pragmatic self-interest movement—”If we don’t do this, we endanger ourselves.” Instead of being a human survivalist mentality, it’s a mentality that embraces nature, and in that sense it is not practical and not immediately rational. It draws on a deeper place. He says in that sense it is an unacknowledged religion which is amazingly free of any of the Judeo-Christian traditions that surround it. Consequently, it seems to come out of nowhere. And the immediate progenitors are people like Muir and Thoreau and Emerson and American Transcendentalism. I’ve been reading and teaching a lot of Muir and Thoreau in the last couple of years, and right there in our American tradition is a very interesting spiritual ecological line that is entirely ours, and it will probably come to be understood more and more so as truly American. You would never find an Emerson or Thoreau on the European continent. Even though the transcendentalists were educated initially in the European Occidental tradition, they made another step, and I think the step they made, in part, was a deep psychic response to the vast wilderness of this continent. They responded to a big space opening up.
I’m just thinking this stuff out. It hadn’t really occurred to me before that this really is our American folk religion. Even though we don’t call it a religion. Shinto didn’t call it a religion either. It’s called “the way normal people see things.” Everybody normal, all the way through human prehistory assumes that everything is alive. It’s not a theory.
From a dialogue with the Editors for this issue of Inquiring Mind
I believe our ecological crisis has a lot to do with the dimensions of timing and integrity. Our intellect has seen a problem, but we haven’t yet adapted our behavior in a functional way. For example, I was talking to the head of an ecology foundation and I said to him, “Tell me, what is your life like? Do you fly in airplanes? Do you drive in cars? Do you recycle your paper? How are you busy helping ecology? Is your life consistent with your ideology?” I know mine isn’t, but I work at it. I keep examining it. I have this image I remember from the ’60s, when I was speaking at the Berkeley Community Theater, and leaving the evening, a very joyous evening, and everybody was so beautiful and they were all flower children. There was a Volkswagen Microbus in front of me with “Peace and Love” and “God is Good” and all those lovely bumper stickers on the back of it. I was in my car at a red light, and that car was in front of me, and I was thinking, “Aren’t we beautiful, and isn’t it lovely?” and at that moment I became aware that out of the driver’s window had come a paper cup that he just threw out on the street. And that paper cup represented to me the lack of consciousness which characterized a lot of the ’60s, the lack of consciousness about the cause and effect relationship between the acts you do from moment to moment and the larger issues. Personally, I’ve been very busy spreading around those little books that you take into the grocery store that tell you where each product comes from, what the companies’ philosophies are, how they deal with timber, things like that. Because that, to me, is the way you bring it home, and the way you start to have power through your own individual actions.
I think we tend to intellectually see a problem and then want to solve it “out there.” We think of ecology as out there. But I think it’s got to come in and in, in increasingly close concentric circles. So the issue is one of integrity, a correspondence between the intellect and the actions.
On another level, I think of a Thomas Berry line about dysfunctional cosmology, that we don’t have mythic structures or role models in our society that make us build our motivational systems around ecologically conscious behavior. There are cultures whose worldview places human under nature, and others that put human in nature, but we belong to a culture that has always placed human over nature, and our science and technology have fed that. The American Indians, whom we committed genocide against, were a culture that saw human in nature. Their wisdom, which we’ve practically wiped off the earth, is exactly the wisdom we need now for our survival. That’s an ironic moment of truth.
I think the philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism are also very relevant now to our predicament. I see the wisdom of interdependency emerging out of the ecological dilemmas we’re facing.
Sometimes, when I get into my theological games, I look at it all and I say, “Isn’t God brilliant to use technology to beat itself?” It’s so Zen, you know, to use the horror as a way to increase consciousness. And from the point of view of Hinduism, this environmental destruction is right on schedule, since we are living in the Kali Yuga, the time of disintegration. Then, when this is over, according to some Hindu timetables, it’ll all start again, microbe by microbe, amoeba by amoeba. Having that kind of time perspective as a template to put on the rest of it both reduces your anxiety about the course of things now, and also gives you enough quietness of mind to see the inconsistencies of your own behavior, because your investment in the game is not so great that you can’t afford to see it. The investment most people have in their lives makes them unable to see the ways in which they’re being inconsistent. I mean, when George Bush would not stop using his gas-guzzling speedboat at the very moment when we were in an oil and war crisis, and he wouldn’t even acknowledge it, that was the end point to me of a system that is built totally on defense and denial. All I can see is the poignancy of the human condition that gets so addicted that the addiction doesn’t allow it to see an escape route from its own addiction. And then the question remains, how traumatic does the trauma have to be for the changes to occur?
From a radio interview with Wes Nisker, 1978
The Buddhist philosophical approach, as I understand it, is that any gesture taken in anxiety creates more anxiety, any gesture taken in fear creates more fear, any gesture in which you are hungry and grasping after the fruit of your own action, just complicates the matter more. Even protesting plutonium or the destruction of the earth—if you are really attached to the existence of the earth, you are only making the situation worse. You’ve got to have some detachment—not in the sense of crazy alienation—but a maturity of view, one which says that, “Okay, the universe is the universe,” or as my father said before he died, “What can you do?” That much humor and perspective you’ve got to have—”what can you do”—because if you think it’s up to you to save the universe, you are a hysterical case and maybe you need some chicken soup. [Laughs] But people have always had a very hard time being liberated from hope. [Pause]
Anyway, who knows anything about anything? And that’s another dharma axiom. “Who knows anything about anything?” Really. Certainly the people who make plutonium, for example, they don’t know anything. They just say, “Give us more weapons and energy, and let us make a lot of money while we’re at it.” That’s all they know, and nothing else gets in. And then on the other side you have all these people saying, “Oh, they’re going to destroy the earth, it’s absolutely terrible, stop everything, close down the plant!” But it’s totally impractical to close down the plant because there’s all that plutonium inside. So we’ve already got the problem, we’ve already swallowed the poison, and it’s a situation where there are no polar, black-and-white solutions. As Chogyam Trungpa says, “There is no Boy Scout solution.” Maybe the only way to get out of the mess is to make more of an investment in plutonium in order to figure out how to get rid of it. Really, who knows?
And another dharma perspective—since we’ve already swallowed the poison, and since the earth may be headed toward destruction anyway—is that there’s absolutely no excuse for going around blaming people. Instead, there’s the Mahayana Buddhist slogan of “drive all blames into one.” It means, collect all the blames into one big stinky ball, which nobody owns, and is in fact empty. “Drive all blames into one.”
From a dialogue with the Editors for this issue of Inquiring Mind
It is interesting to note that in the texts, the Buddha says that when there is a high level of morality in a society, or in the world, environmental conditions will be beneficial, and when people start to act in unethical ways then there will be more natural disasters, such as floods and famines and different kinds of ecological problems. So perhaps the mind has greater influence on things than we normally think. There is interdependence on a lot of different levels, the mental and physical, affecting the state of the planet itself. More specifically, when you analyze the practical reasons why there are ecological disasters, it also comes down to ethical behavior, or sila. When actions are undertaken out of greed, hatred or fear, whether it’s by individuals or corporations or governments, then there are usually disastrous effects on the planet.
Where does meditation fit into all of this? Specifically, if there is no awareness of what’s going on in the mind, then we are just acting out our conditioning, so much of which is based on greed and fear. In order to break those deeply ingrained habits of reactive behavior requires great awareness of those forces as they arise in the mind.
There’s also an understanding of nonduality that comes with deep meditation, a sense of interconnectedness. There’s a danger of either romanticizing or sentimentalizing this feeling of oneness. For example, I think about how we feel about our arms or our legs. We’re not sentimental about them, and we take care of them because we think of them as part of ourselves. It happens in a very natural way. In that same sense I think that taking care of the things around us can be done very simply. It’s just basic ordinary consciousness, if we’re paying attention. We don’t have to wait until we’re fully enlightened and cosmically at one. It’s much simpler than that.
I also think we all need to practice looking at consequences, to see that our actions are not happening in a vacuum. Each of us is attuned to looking at different kinds of actions. So, some people might have great mindfulness with regards to the products they buy, and other people might be more aware of what speech they use. Our practice can be to just expand the areas where we look at the consequences of our actions.
I think meditation can also help develop a real openness to the suffering that exists, whether it’s ecological or political or personal, so that there’s a compassionate response to it. At the same time meditation enables the mind to maintain a deep equanimity with regard to the whole unfolding show, knowing that it’s all a process and that it involves enormous cycles of time and universes, and that suffering is not going to come to an end except through the purification of the mind.
From The Practice of the Wild, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1990
Our immediate business, and our quarrel, is with ourselves. It would be presumptuous to think that Gaia much needs our prayers or healing vibes. Human beings themselves are at risk—not just on some survival-of-civilization level but more basically on the level of heart and soul. We are in danger of losing our souls. We are ignorant of our own nature and confused about what it means to be a human being.
It is this present time, the twelve thousand or so years since the ice age and the twelve thousand or so years yet to come, that is our little territory. We will be judged or judge ourselves by how we have lived with each other and the world during these two decamillennia. If we are here for any good purpose at all (other than collating texts, running rivers and learning the stars), I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature. A gang of sexy primate clowns. All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.