Climatologists have begun to discuss more frankly the possibility that carbon emissions will soon reach tipping points that will not only end civilization as we know it, but may cause our own extinction. And global warming is only one example of our collective blindness: eminent scientists such as E. O. Wilson predict that half of all plant and animal species could disappear by the end of this century (or be so weakened that they will die out soon thereafter). That has special resonance for those of us in the Buddhist tradition whose first precept is not to harm living beings, and particularly for those who take bodhisattva vows to save all of them.
Susan Murphy is an Australian writer, filmmaker and Zen teacher. Minding the Earth, Mending the World begins with an event that changed her life when she was twelve years old. One night she stayed up late talking with her siblings about the crises facing the world, and went to bed feeling awed by the challenge. Sitting down to breakfast the next morning, she was suddenly overwhelmed by a “tidal wave.” “It washed through me and left nothing as it had been before. I found myself swimming in a sea of marvelous awareness that all was well and completely at ease.” Her book explores this paradox: the importance of realizing that dimension where there is nothing to gain or lose, and the necessity for us to respond to an eco-crisis that now threatens our very survival.
Murphy keeps returning to a famous koan by the Chinese master Yunmen: “Medicine and sickness heal each other. The whole world is medicine. Where do you find yourself?” Today we can no longer evade the fact that the whole world is sick, and that the healing must start with us.
What would be a whole response to this planetary emergency? Murphy identifies the defective worldview that rationalizes our abuse of the world, and considers how we might break free from it by listening to the earth and getting in touch with older worldviews that indigenous peoples still preserve—stories that also seem to be more consistent with contemporary cosmology and evolutionary theory.
To understand the origins of our present predicament, she goes back to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, which alienated them from the Tree of Life:
Where Genesis leaves human beings “fallen”, the Gospel revises that to “salvageable”; yet both leave the earth as fallen, a mere stage-set dressed for a completely human-centered drama focused on relief from guilt and from death.
She also discusses the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, an overbearing ruler whose fear of death leads to environmental destruction, and the Greek myth of Erysichthon, who desecrates a sacred grove for timber and is punished with a raging hunger that nothing can satisfy. These stories help to illuminate our condition. I think there is a bigger picture that also needs to be emphasized here: all the Axial Age traditions (including the Abrahamic religions and Buddhism) developed a strong duality between a “higher” transcendental dimension (God, nirvana) and this vale of suffering from which we want to escape. Insofar as God, etc., is the source of meaning and value, this world is inevitably devalued. What difference does it make, then, what we do to it? (My favorite response to this is in a Wendell Berry poem: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”)
More pointedly: is Buddhism’s traditional focus on individual salvation (enlightenment) compatible with the social and ecological challenges that we collectively face today?
The most original part of Murphy’s book is the way she connects our planetary crisis with the importance of realizing our own true nature.
To successfully defend this miracle of biodiversity from our own limitless predation, we have to recover personal awareness of the full nature of mind. To fail to make this effort of knowing our own mind is to agree to fail as a species, and to fail the particular call of the earth upon us as individuals and as a species. We alone among the species can catastrophically rip down the weave. And we alone can literally mind—hold in mind and consciously care for—this delicate, animated web of numberless relationships, and discover in its mysterious nature the self-same essential nature of ourselves.
Such a conscious, disciplined, inquiring use of the mind is called a practice.
The practice Murphy offers is “a medicine bundle” of fourteen koans—most traditional, a few not—that directly address our relationship with the earth, each accompanied by her own commentary followed by a Basho haiku. Such koans can liberate us from “the thinking that learns to divide reality in order to handle and manipulate it cleverly, but leaves us painfully locked outside the whole.” This is because “the experience of Zen is that we are literally not what we think. Its path leads insistently away from the abstracting attitude and habit of mind, back to the wholeness of reality and the particularity of each thing.”
So there’s no place for thinking in the Zen experience? That doesn’t sound like wholeness to me, but another way to divide up reality. Is the point to get rid of thinking, or to think more deeply, more nondually? Sometimes Zen non-intellectualism drifts into an anti-intellectualism that, if taken literally, would not allow me to appreciate Murphy’s fine book, which is chock full of wonderful insights and, yes, abstractions that not only describe our predicament, but also point to resources within the Zen tradition that can help us respond to it.