John Seed is an appropriate name for this dharma philosopher, ecopsychologist and political activist: his work is to plant seedlings of awakening, of perspective, giving us new glimpses of who we are and where we are, and reasons why we should love and struggle for the continuance of life on Earth.
In the 1970s John Seed studied Buddhist meditation in India and subsequently helped build a meditation center in Australia near New South Wales. In the late ’70s he became interested in environmental activism and founded the Rainforest Information Centre in Australia. Over the past twenty years he has initiated numerous projects to protect rain forests in South America, Asia and the Pacific Rim. He has written and lectured extensively on deep ecology and traveled throughout the world conducting “Councils of All Beings” and other “re-earthing” rituals. With Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming and Professor Arne Naess, he coauthored Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings (New Society Publishers, 1988), since translated into ten languages. John Seed is also an accomplished bard and has produced five albums of environmental songs. In 1995, the Australian Government awarded John Seed the Order of Australia Medal for his service in the areas of conservation and the environment.
An interview with John Seed published eight years ago in Inquiring Mind remains the most requested piece for reprinting in the history of our journal (see www.forests.org/ric/deep-eco/inqmind.htm). When Inquiring Mind editors Wes Nisker and Barbara Gates caught up with John Seed this past autumn, we found him, as before, provocative and inspiring.
Inquiring Mind: The last time we talked, you described some of the imaginative exercises that you had invented for your “Council of All Beings” workshops—ways to offer people a visceral sense of their coexistence with the rest of nature and the larger cosmos. Considering that most of us these days live in cities, do you have any suggestions for how we as city dwellers can remember our connection to the natural world?
John Seed: One activity I find useful in the city is to look upward at night, because that is the one place where we can see beyond the human constructions all around us and find our way back into the Milky Way itself. As you gaze, you might contemplate the story of our galaxy and the universe as revealed by astronomy and especially by the pictures from the Hubble telescope, which has recently taken us so much further outward.
In particular, I like to look out in the direction of Sagittarius—because it is the center of the Milky Way—and to realize that the Earth and the sun are revolving around that central axis every 200 million years. I reflect on the fact that all of the particles of my body have been involved in this cosmic process since its inception, weaving themselves in and out of all of these different forms for millions of years since they first emerged from the original fireball. And for just a fraction of a second, for this tiny instant, these elements exist in the form that I’m in right now.
As Thomas Berry points out, we have arrived at a moment when these elements are in a form that can contemplate their own story for the first time. Something in the cosmos has become conscious and is able to turn around and look back at the path it has traveled. My jaw drops in amazement as I realize who we really are and how we have come to be here.
IM: That is why the Buddha keeps talking about this “precious human birth.” We can finally see ourselves in context.
JS: Everything that exists has a form of consciousness, it seems, or at least an awareness of its surroundings. But we humans have just exploded with an incredible awareness of the universe, and that is precisely what helps free me from the local and parochial concerns of the self. I can expand outwards and upwards into the universe.
IM: We can tell you’re not really a big-city guy, John, because when we look up from our city, we can barely see any stars at all. We have become so brilliant, we outshine them.
JS: Well, if you can’t look up to find a taste of the larger natural order, then look downward. Check out the little blades of grass that grow between the cracks in the sidewalk. I find them very inspiring. It’s as if they haven’t heard the bad news; it doesn’t matter how many hundreds of miles the concrete stretches, there are always some tiny sprouts bursting their way through, announcing that no matter how much we pave over the earth, they will survive.
IM: It is also somehow gratifying to visit ruins of ancient civilizations, the crumbled edifices of man, and see all the trees and vines reclaiming their turf.
JS: Graveyards are traditionally useful for the same reason.
IM: Can we embrace the city itself as a natural creation?
JS: That question reminds me of a practice I first learned from Joanna Macy, having to do with the “re-sacralization” of the concrete and plastic. It was a workshop like many that we do, where we found ourselves in a sterile, fluorescently lit, air-conditioned room without any windows, yet we were talking about reconnecting with nature. So the first thing Joanna had us do was to look around the room, reflect on the source of the building materials, and try to find anything that wasn’t natural. We saw plastic and realized that it might be made out of the body of dinosaurs and diatoms—that it was laid down in the Carboniferous era 150 million years ago, extracted from the ground as oil, and has now become plastic. And the concrete was made of sand and the ground-up shells of ancient sea creatures.
We have this image of what is natural and what isn’t, but in actuality, there is nothing that is unnatural. Of course, there are some things that are inappropriate, but everything we see is natural. Gary Snyder once wrote a poem about seeing a huge office building with a wall made out of cement embedded with smooth river pebbles. He saw it as a river bed turned vertically. We can see that sort of natural phenomena everywhere.
Speaking of Gary, when he was working with then-Governor Jerry Brown of California, Brown once turned to him, exasperated, and said, “Gary, why is it that whatever we’re talking about, you’re always going against the flow?” Gary replied, “Jerry, what you call the flow is just a 16,000-year eddy. I’m going with the real flow.”
I think that these practices of seeing the underlying nature of things—in the sky, in the plastic, and so on—help us to remember that the actual flow goes on. Then we can realize how our ephemeral 16,000-year eddy has to find some harmonious relationship with the actual flow or else its existence is going to be very short-lived.
IM: What other practices have you added to your repertoire to help reconnect us to the great forces of nature and the cosmos?
JS: One practice I really like is called the Cosmic Walk, developed by a Catholic nun, Sister Miriam Therese McGillis. To do the Cosmic Walk indoors, we lay a piece of rope on the ground, or outside we might create a spiral in the sand or earth. The spiral shape is 100 feet long. In the middle we place one large candle to represent the original flaring forth of existence, the Big Bang, and all along the length of the spiral we place candles at proportional distances to represent different events in the development of the universe. Then we actually walk through that development, using a taper to carry the flame from the central candle and gradually lighting one candle after another as we recount the story of cosmic creation.
It is an extraordinary experience to walk the spiral, to find that in the first ninety-five feet there are just a few candles here and there (partly because we know so few details about the formation of the Milky Way, for example). Then, in the last few feet, we encounter an enormous number of candles, representing more recent events in the story of where we come from and how we got to be who we are. The dinosaurs are only inches from the end of this spiral, and there is barely enough room for the human candle. In fact, we can’t seem to find a candle thin enough to represent ourselves. By walking through this spiral, we get a visceral sense of the extraordinary, fleeting moment of our own individual lives. In the sharings after this process, people are always wondering how we can find more meaning in this tiny moment, and why we waste our lives on petty things given the grandeur of the path that we’ve traveled.
IM: Contemplating the extraordinary circumstances that have gone into our creation should make us even more dedicated to preserving the basis of life on Earth. Yet we are so violent toward the natural environment and other species.
JS: I recently came to an interesting perspective on violence, mostly from watching a series of videos produced by Brian Swimme called Canticle to the Cosmos. By looking at the origins of the universe and the galaxies, the explosive violence inherent in the cosmos stood out in stark relief. For some reason, we currently tend to believe that violence is some kind of aberration, whereas in fact it is at the heart of things. Seeing this doesn’t excuse our own violence but rather places it in a larger perspective. Then our efforts to create islands of nonviolence and compassion in the middle of it all seem even nobler and more precious.
IM: Are you implying that our destruction of the natural environment is somehow part of the inherent violence of the universe?
JS: Let me answer by talking about a change in my own understanding that has been very important for me. Ten years ago I was somewhat desperate about saving the forests and the natural world, driven by an apocalyptic view that saw the end of life on Earth. Lately I’ve started to see our time as a transition period. Thomas Berry says that the apocalypse has already happened, that it doesn’t matter if we come to our senses tomorrow because essentially, the Cenozoic era that began 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs disappeared has now ended, and a new era has begun. The nature of the new era is still in question, but the fact that the old one is over is no longer in doubt.
According to E. O. Wilson, between five and ten percent of all species of plants and animals have become extinct in the last few hundred years. A recent survey of leading biologists around the world found that most expect between one-third and two-thirds of all species now living to be gone within a hundred years from now. So we are living at the end of a vast era; this millennium is truly a watershed. If we divide 65 million years by a thousand, we find there have been 65,000 millennia since the end of the age of the dinosaurs, and now we are at a similar turning point. This is huge! But no one is really acknowledging the magnitude of the change that is taking place.
Meanwhile, it is very instructive to look at the history of extinctions on Earth and to find that the demise of the dinosaurs and the present extinction spasm are only two of at least six such episodes that can be discerned from the fossil record. In one case, at the end of the Permian era, 230 million years ago, 95 percent of all species perished. None of the biologists are predicting anything on that scale.
Looking back, many scientists now believe that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by a large meteor landing somewhere around the Yucatan peninsula and creating a nuclear winter scenario. No animal larger than a cat survived those conditions, but those survivors included some little mammals living under the ground who were our forefathers and foremothers. We should realize that if the dinosaurs had been able to continue, then we would have never had our day in the sun.
In a similar way, as we look back at the fossil record, we see that each great spasm of species extinction has been immediately followed by a huge burst of novelty. It turns out that the evolution of life isn’t just a gradual process of natural selection as previously believed, but happens in spurts called “punctuated equilibrium.” There are long stretches of stasis, and then periods of cataclysmic extinction, followed by a flowering of creativity. If we can identify with that whole process and not just with our 65-million-year moment, then the desperation and tragedy leaks out of our current scenario.
Of course, we can still be passionate about protecting and alleviating the suffering of the beings with whom we share the Cenozoic era. I’m also interested in the possibility that we can somehow pull some miracle out of the hat and change our ways. If we can transform in some fundamental way, we might be able to prevent the tremendous deterioration of our life support systems and get maybe another 65 million years! The dinosaurs had more than 100 million years, and we human beings have had only a couple of million years at the most. I think it would be a great shame to disappear at this particular moment, so early in our history. I feel like we’re only just now figuring out how to have fun!
I spent a few months meditating with Lama Yeshe in Nepal, reflecting a lot on the idea of this precious human birth. I was told the story of the turtle who swims through all the oceans, surfacing only once every 100 years. The chance of that turtle’s head emerging through that life buoy floating freely on the oceans is the same as the chance of getting a human birth. Since the chances of being born a human are so remote, we should make the best use of our time. That also made me realize that the possibility of a human birth might become a thing of the past, at least on this planet, as a result of the foolish actions by the human beings alive today. As Paul Ehrlich says, “We’re sawing off the branch that we’re sitting on.” We are unraveling the biological fabric out of which complex life emerged, creating conditions that are not conducive to the continued existence of large mammals, ourselves included. That’s one good reason that Buddhists ought to be interested in the protection of the life support systems and in ecology generally. If we are serious about the value of the human incarnation, then we need to make sure there are proper conditions for human births to take place.
So my commitment to trying to protect the biological beauty and fecundity of living things remains undiminished, but the level of hysteria that used to accompany my efforts is now gone. In some bizarre sense, I’ve found a tremendous comfort in knowing how natural it all is, all part of the ongoing epic of evolution.
Equally important is the fact that I’ve stopped blaming myself and other humans. I have begun to see a kind of fundamental innocence about us. You know, for the last few thousand years Judeo-Christians have had the arrogance to believe that we are the crown of creation and the measure of all being. Now, in apparent contrast, we have begun to see ourselves as a rampant cancer destroying the Earth. But imagining that it’s all our fault and feeling guilty about it is part of the same arrogance that sees us as completely separate and in charge of the whole shebang. Blaming ourselves or each other does not contribute to anyone’s well-being or the efforts to preserve the life of Earth.
IM: Some activists would argue that seeing environmental destruction as a natural occurrence can only lead to fatalism and a laissez-faire attitude.
JS: I must confess that I worried about that response, even in myself. Why struggle if this is all natural? Maybe it’s the right time for the end of the Cenozoic era. The sun is only halfway through its lifespan, so there will still be time for many more orders of being to exist on the Earth. Why care what happens to humanity?
But I can only report that what happened to me was that those fears were baseless. My motivation to act on behalf of humanity, mammals, vertebrates—all complex life and life as we know it—went undiminished as a result of letting go of the anxiety that everything was going to come to an end. Instead, it helped me to let go of grasping and to gain more focus and energy.
IM: Where are you focusing that energy these days? What projects are you working on?
JS: One project that we are really excited about is the Dharma Gaia Trust. This organization is designed to encourage any ecological activity emerging in the Buddhist sanghas, in particular, projects in which monks and nuns are involved in ecological preservation. At the present time, the Trust is supporting the temple forest project in Sri Lanka, which is trying to join together corridors of the original vegetation of that country. So much of the biodiversity of Sri Lanka has been destroyed that the sacred groves adjacent to many old temples now harbor a surprising proportion of the remaining plant and animal species. In many places all of the original forest has been cut, except for these ancient groves dating back a thousand years or more. By connecting these groves and purchasing strategically placed land around them, we are protecting the many species of plant and animal life that they harbor. In general, I think that Buddhadharma and ecology have a lot in common, and that not enough attention has been paid to their mutual ideals and interests. Remember that the Buddha spent most of his time meditating in the forests, whereas we modern Buddhists tend to sit inside a lot. Maybe we are missing something there.
IM: And how are the efforts going to preserve the great forests of your native land, Australia?
JS: After recently returning from work abroad, I came home to find that the government was about to sign away the local forests right in my very neighborhood. We had succeeded in getting legal protection for parts of two forests—the Whian Whian and the Wollumbin—and had assumed they were safe. When the government gave me the Order of Australia Medal a few years ago for my services on behalf of conservation and the environment, I assumed it was for the direct actions that we did to protect those forests. So I decided to put out a press release saying that this medal would be thrown under the tracks of the first bulldozers that tried to enter either of these forests; it had been given for protecting them earlier and therefore needed to be used to protect them again now. But I expect that the government will sign these forests away, and we’re going to be at the blockades again as we’ve been on so many occasions over the last twenty years.
IM: It seems that there’s no rest for you, even after supposed victories.
JS: Well, I must admit that I’m kind of looking forward to getting back to this struggle again because it means I’ll be spending more time in the bush, out in the forest itself where I really love to be.
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