Teachings from the Elements
The Manjushri sadhana is done in the spirit of the Mahayana or Great Way teachings. The practice begins as follows, with a pranidhana or wishing prayer.
“I and all else that moves, until Enlightenment, take the guru and the triple gem as refuge. In order to gain perfect Buddhahood for others’ sake, we practice the Manjushri Stuti Sadhana, whereby may sentient beings gain happiness with its causes, be parted from all grief with its causes, not become parted from the happiness wherein no grief is, and dwell in the condition of equanimity’.
The practice is done on behalf of all beings that move– and there are no beings, anywhere, who do not move. Movement is the very essence of being. Inside themselves, even trees and plants move. Even stones do, to stretch the notion of what ‘being’ means. Everything whatsoever, everywhere, is fluid and in flux. Igneous rock spurts out of the earth’s crust like water, there is half molten rock deep down there that never stays still. Nothing anywhere is still, nothing anywhere is really dead. Even decomposition has its own kind of life and movement. Not to mention the movement of growing plants and the multitude of beings that populate every inch of our space. Yet… how alone we all are in all this incredibly vibrant diversity, how frozen we are in our concept of fixed self!
The sadhana continues, after that wishing prayer, with a look into our own unfixed empty nature. This is done with the aid of a magic phrase:
Om svabhava suddha sarvadharma svabhava suddho ‘ham.
You can really pick up on the magic here. Suddha means pure, svabhava means self nature, sarvadharma means everything, aham means me. Well, roughly. Self pure everything me. Me pure everything self nature. Everything pure of self. Everything pure of me. Me pure of everything. Pure of thing. So do you get some of the picture? If you meditate on this for a long time you start to get some real experience of emptiness.
In this way, in the sadhana, you become as it were transparent and you behold Manjughosa, the form of Manjushri who holds the perfection of wisdom volume to his heart. Or rather, what actually happens is that you allow in an impression of him – whatever that is. It can only be an impression based on who you are, now. And that relatively crude impression is purified as you practice. This Manjushri impression becomes a channel for the real Manjushri who communicates in you the deepest awareness of how everything and everybody really is, in their perfect essential nature. Om a ra pa cha na dhih. Om a ra pa cha na dhih.
To really benefit from this kind of magic of course you need to be properly prepared and then introduced to it by someone who’s qualified through their own experience of the dharma. But anyone can pick up some of what’s happening here. On that wish, for example, to benefit all life, to aid all else that moves. Everyone can pick up, in some way, on that acceptance that all life is empty of fixed nature – that our lack of fixity is characteristic of all nature. We can even see a little of something totally outside this world. When Manjushri, whatever that is, just manifests. Maybe you can call it the dharmakaya, ultimate reality. Whatever it is, ultimate reality comes across in a new way that is nonconceptual and ungraspable by the ordinary mind.
My title comes from E.F. Schumacher’s famous book, published many years ago. ‘Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered’. I did read it in the sixties or whenever it was. I can’t remember anything about it; except that subtitle stuck in my mind. I know Schumacher was looking at the global economy from the point of view of people. Economics as though people mattered…so there is the implied question: what is it that matters for people – what is it that gives quality to human life?
That issue arose for me couple of years ago while I was on retreat for eighteen months. The retreat had a profound effect upon me. I don’t really know why any more – I’m no longer so closely in touch with the source of the realisations I had. But I know they had something to do with nature. Something to do with the perfection of wisdom. And the pure awareness practice somehow tied it all together. But there was also the simplification of life that comes from living in nature the same kind of way, day in, day out, for many weeks and months – somehow that simplification also connected nature and the perfection of wisdom. I hope I can explore that connection in this talk as well.
I feel I must continue my retreat soon, it feels like I should go back and if I can, reconnect with that source of realisation – even if that source is nothing particular, it’s just the simplicity of living. Simplicity of living and allowing the mind to be just as it is, with awareness. It is awareness of what arises in the mind – simply that – but when self-aware, our awareness, of even very ordinary mind, becomes something extraordinarily meaningful.
I need to remember that, recollect the quality of that kind of life… I need to recollect it a lot – because by temperament, unfortunately, I am easily drawn into complexities which make that kind of realisation impossible. My mind just has too much to work on, I’m too old, I’ve taken too much in, I’m soaked in information, and my attention is taken up with too many considerations playing themselves out in my mind. I can always meditate of course, or go on retreat – but there is so much else going on in my life that the effect, even of retreats and meditation, is only partial. There is not that total relaxation of wanting to do things, that collapse of ambition to achieve something that I know is sometimes possible. It is so hard, even on a week’s retreat, simply to be aware without ambition or desire-to-do.
That is the advantage of a long solitary – it’s so long that you lose any real sense of time. You give up thinking about what you are going to do afterwards. You give up thinking so much about your ordinary life, and you can then come much more into the present moment. Into simplicity of vision.
Living in nature also helped induce that simplicity. By living in nature, I don’t just mean being in the country. I was living in a way that I depended directly on the nature around me. I was living in a canvas hut, burning wood to keep warm, drawing water straight from the hillside. I was very immediately affected by the sun, the rain, the insects and animals, and the wind. I just had to give up my preferences for dryness or stillness, or even solitude. I had so many visitors – beetles, mice, slugs, bees, frogs, birds, lizards…. Sometimes there was just no peace, because gales shook my hut for days and there was no escape. Or rain lashed the canvas for days, and made it hard for me to keep the fire alight.
When you live on the side of a hill, you often have to go outside – go outside into the weather. To get some more wood, some water. To go to the toilet or clean your teeth, you have to go out there. Often that is quite OK as you can imagine. It is beautiful to be out in nature. Sometimes, though, you feel resistance, and sometimes, if the weather is very cold or very wet – or you are very ill – there is great resistance. But there is simply no choice. Resistance or no resistance, you just have to go out there and do it.
After a few months of this, something shifts. You learn that it doesn’t matter, that it will be OK to go outside in the pouring rain, that it is never as bad as you think. Indeed you start to notice how much of your resistance is actually just your thoughts. That they bear little relation to the actual experience you are afraid of.
Probably people who live in the country understand the connection best. In the country, you have to accept the weather much more than in the city, where in fact it hardly matters what the weather is. In the city, we just feel kind of dull when it rains and kind of euphoric when it’s sunny. Weather hardly ever gets in the way. It hardly exists, it hardly figures at all. In fact, Nature hardly touches us. And this is how it can happen that we start to feel a sense that somehow, we are more powerful than nature.
But this is a very great mistake. To feel superior or separated from nature is a very great hubris or arrogance that must necessarily lead us, individually and collectively, to a fall. A fall into alienation and loss of soul. Potentially, even a fall right out of the human realm. Hubris of that kind is such a negative karma because Nature is us, it is our mother and our father. It is all our teachers and it is even, if we can see it that way, our Sangha.
When I was ten I had a very important experience to do with accepting nature in the form of unwanted weather. I was newly installed at the grammar school and as a first year I had to endure the stigma of short, grey uniform trousers. And in these hated (scratchy, hairy, tweedy) trousers I stood, shivering, at the bus stop. Shivering because it was cold and chucking it down with rain. Yes, it was only a bus stop, not a shelter. And the rain was driving down, I was going to get soaked to the skin. Yes – it was actually happening and I couldn’t do a thing! In fact I wasn’t just shivering, I was rigid with resistance. My whole body was trying to not be present. I was twisting this way and that, and my mind was in knots as well, cursing the bus for not being there. It was so unfair. I felt trapped in this state of total aversion; trapped by the physical reality of my body having to be there, lots of rain also being there, and the bus not being there.
I was also standing there completely on my own. That probably helped. Because there were no witnesses to my confusion, I could experience my confusion more intensely, and I also think more clearly. And all of a sudden I saw clearly that I was in ‘a situation’. And that I might be creating it myself! Eureka! And then…that it wasn’t the rain, or the bus, or even my body… It was my attitude that was causing the suffering. So then I just let everything go. I relaxed, and let the rain soak through my coat and trousers and hair, and let my mind stop and allow other thoughts instead of its fixation on not wanting this ghastly thing to happen.
Not surprisingly, it was a complete transformation. I was amazed at what just stopping could achieve. I felt so liberated. Suddenly I didn’t have to feel trapped by circumstances. It was something I had never experienced so clearly before. And it gave me a new kind of positive doubt. Thereafter it was always possible to ask, “Could there be some other approach to this situation – am I just reacting blindly with tension instead of simply being here in the present and allowing my experience to unfold as it is?”
As I’m sure you can see, that was a crucial realisation. Realisations don’t necessarily come in the form of grand visions and visitations by Bodhisattvas. In essence, insight is devastatingly simple. I’d simply realised – a tiny bit at least – that my perceptions and views of things are not something fixed. If I became aware enough, things could be different.
It also occurred to me that if I wanted more of this understanding, I’d have to try to maintain awareness continuously. I really wanted more, so… I invented a kind of walking meditation. (I didn’t know anything about meditation in those days, so I had to invent it.) At one point on my walk to school there was a long, quiet road, and as soon as I got to this stretch I would start counting my steps. I think I used to get into the thousands. I’d keep counting my steps until I got near the school. I think I was very aware on this walk of being an individual on my own, in a bardo between life at home and life at school. I remember that the practice gave me a kind of clarity, a certain precious space, a kind of isolation that I found nourishing.
It wasn’t until my retreat that I remembered that I used to do all this stuff when I was a child, and I imagine it’s not really that unusual. I was just playing. I’m sure I was finding it confusing belonging to these groups of family and school, and I needed to explore who I was as an individual. But that’s how it always happens, isn’t it? There is an existential situation of disharmony. It’s ongoing. That’s dukkha, the existential nub of unenlightened existence. You play with it. Dharma practice is a kind of play. And suddenly you see, usually in a totally inarticulate way, that you are trapped in this threefold mandala. It’s a three way situation. 1. You are identified with a self, a subject. 2. You are fixed on the idea of an object. 3. You are stuck with the idea that there is some some kind of relationship between these two. But in reality the whole thing is totally transparent and empty. There is no real self, object or relationship. Those are just our ideas, interpretations we’ve imposed. And that trimandala, as it’s called, is operative in every single moment. It’s just at particular rare moments that we are privileged to notice, and can allow the trimandala to collapse; and big or small, that’s the way realisation comes. At least, that’s one useful way of describing it.
My teaching from the water element was that there are always two possible ways of perceiving the world. Either the automatic tight reaction or the open ended, creative response. It was an amazing moment. How amazing that you had these options! How amazing that I hardly ever took the second option. And then, in that case, where did I live, then? What was the world I inhabited?
I was seeing two apparent worlds which in Buddhism are represented by the two truths (satya). There is the relative truth or samvrtisatya and the absolute truth or paramarthasatya. The ultimate reality is what is actually happening all the time. Nothing else ever happens. However, we don’t perceive it, so we don’t live in it. What we perceive are our projections and fantasies and assumptions, all relative to one another, all relating especially to a highly conditioned idea of ‘me’. So what we live in is a world of assumption, life is veiled (avarana) by habitual assumption and the ongoing confusion of our klesa, our emotional highs and lows.
All these years later, I see that what I learned from getting soaked to the skin is that the two truths is the basis of sustainable mindfulness. That the two truths teaching applies in every moment. The Trimandala is always there. I recently discovered this teaching in a Mahamudra text which said that the precious ground of awareness is the Two Truths. The teaching was to view this awareness as extremely valuable, and to try to rest in it all the time, day and night. Just remembering that reality is not our immediate, knee jerk reactions. Remembering that these reactions are quite superficial and, by remembering and regaining that perspective, sitting loose to one’s reactivity and not taking it seriously. Taking seriously only the paramartha satya, the actual reality that is there all the time. Mindfulness is the central dharma practice, and if through it we feel we are making some connection with the nature of reality, or simply with nature, practice becomes interesting and fulfilling rather than something we feel we are supposed to do.
The concept of sustainability is of course found more commonly in ecological discourse. For example, our current use of resources such as electricity and fossil fuels is not sustainable. They will run out, just as our mindfulness runs out if we don’t nourish its roots. We can’t keep our current energy consumption up for much longer and maintain a quality of human life. If we can find a more sustainable level of consumption, life on earth will improve drastically. And quality of human life surely includes some kind of connection with the natural world. Life is inevitably going to become increasingly artificial, unnatural and alienating. It has to, because the natural world itself is the resource we are using up. It is as though we see nature as money we can just spend on sweets. This is not only childish, it is unsustainable. Our pocket money is limited and we can’t keep up this level of spending, even though we twist and turn like a naughty child, pretending that no, we haven’t done anything, insisting that everything is OK, that technology or democracy will soon fix it for us. We seem to view the tools of modern technology and the grand relationship of democracy as though they are father and mother, caring parents with an overarching sense of responsibility. But it is an illusory notion, another indication of our separation from real human nature. Somehow we need to recover our family relationship with the nature we spring from.
I can see very important connections between the dharma and deep ecology. In many ways deep ecology seems to be a form of dharma, one that seems potentially important for us in the west. It certainly is a dharma teaching in the sense that it is an opening to reality. It seems important for us to have a form of dharma that addresses our place in the universe as human beings. Let me try to give a survey of some basic principles of deep ecology. I have only done a little study so I must apologise in advance for any inaccuracies. As I understand it, deep ecology is an exploration rather than a fixed philosophy. And what it explores is man’s relationship to nature. Deep ecology is ‘deep’ rather than ‘shallow’ because the depth of the perspective from which it explores the reality we all live in. The deep ecology perspective includes the needs of all life forms whatsoever, i.e. not just those of humans, but also of trees, plants, insects, animals, micro-organisms. This is similar to the Buddhist cosmic overview – it’s a kind of wheel of life – and Buddhists would include the needs of devas and other non human spirits, just as the Buddha is said to have done so in his own teaching.
The point of deep ecology as opposed to its shallow equivalent is that it is not centred on the needs of mankind alone. Ever since the industrial revolution started causing environmental problems there have been moves towards conservation and preservation of wildlife, but on the whole these have been considered mainly from the human needs point of view. That is shallow thinking from a Mahayana Buddhist perspective; it is also shallow from the perspective of the overall ecological system in which all life forms ultimately depend on each other for their existence. Thus it is shallow, in the end, even from the point of view of human survival and quality of life. Deep ecology applies this non-human-centred perspective to economy, politics, sociology, philosophy and many other aspects of culture. It is a way of seeing that applies to absolutely everything; it is truly revolutionary.
Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher who coined the term, suggested that Deep Ecology has eight primary points.
1. First, life in all its forms has value in itself, independent of its value for human purposes. We tend to think that some life forms are useless, or too frightening or too disgusting. So they don’t matter; so they are expendable. But this is coming very much from our personal ego perspective and so, says deep ecology, we should question it. Buddhism of course goes further and insists that the way we continually look at things from an ego perspective is the primary human problem. Says, in fact, that it is not real, is a fantasy – and is moreover immoral, violent, and damaging.
In real life, our attitude tends to be that whenever nature gets in the way of what we want, it is expendable. But life forms are not expendable. There is a serious cost. No life form contributes nothing to the overall mandala of nature. Everything in nature is in relationship with everything else. Everyone has a place. Everyone is significant.
2. So the second point is that an important part of the value of life is its amazing diversity and richness. This is easy to understand. If it’s springtime and you sit in a field in the English countryside, you share it with hundreds, thousands of species of birds, insects, and plants. Now imagine what it would be like with only, say, twenty. Two kinds of tree, ten kinds of insects, two kinds of plants, and a couple of birds. I know some of us can only recognise two kinds of tree, some kinds of insects, one or two plants, and a couple of birds J but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate richness and diversity. We all feel it’s great to have all these different birds and things around. It’s wonderful, it’s inspiring, uplifting… it is life enhancing.
3. Yet at the present rate, thousands of species are becoming extinct every year, and this rate of extinction has been happening for decades. Life is definitely losing its richness, and an awful lot has already gone. How do we feel about that? Not very good, I suspect. If that is indeed our feeling, we arrive at the thirdpoint: humans have no justification for using their power to reduce this rich diversity. We certainly do have the power. We are certainly using it too, and certainly reducing the richness of the natural world. Many of us might feel we have a right to do what we want; after all, the human race is – we may suppose – in charge. But is that feeling really justifiable; is it ethical? Surely having power entails certain responsibilities. It is surely not responsible, when one is in charge, simply to take what one desires without regard for the consequences for others. Surely it is childish, infantile – monstrous – to do so.
4. Naess’ fourth point is that there are too many humans on this planet anyway, for the life and culture of all beings to flourish. I suppose this could sound a little sinister, a potential justification for some kind of human cull. But it is intended as a statement of fact. For we are over crowded. It is also an invitation to look afresh at the world and consider what could be done if conditions were better. If there were more space, life here would be better in quality for all beings, including humanity and its rich cultures.
5. The fifth point is that present human interference with the natural world is excessive, and the situation is worsening. The point doesn’t need labouring, but we do need to realise it. As soon as possible. The problems are getting urgent. It is actually happening.
6. Then sixth: if there is to be any solution to the crisis, there needs to be radical change in our economy, our technology, and our ideology. Again, this is rather obvious and has been for years. But we don’t want to accept that change is needed. Most of us don’t like even to look at the issues. We don’t like to accept that the environmental problems are severe, or that our actions might have caused them. And in particular, we worry about what we might have to give up if we did admit responsibility. There is, in other words, an issue of guilt.
7. In this context the seventh point is interesting. It is that the ideological shift we need to make is in truly appreciating quality of living. So the emphasis in deep ecology is not, in fact, on giving things up. Change is seen as necessary, but change is seen as arising naturally out of radical reflection. What is important is honest reappraisal of our lives in the light of our human needs. We need more consciously to appreciate “quality of life”; quality of life being, of course, distinct from ‘standard of living’, which is about whether you have a freezer, a good car, and central heating. So called living standards are basically about money. Quality of life is less dependent on such things. It is essentially about human happiness – a value that does partially depend upon material security, but is mainly rooted in spiritual qualities.
8. The final point is simple: if you agree with what’s being said here, you should try to do something about it. Well, I agree with these points. In writing this I am trying to do something myself, and trying also to interest you in doing something.
What strikes me most about the deep ecology platform, as Naess calls it, is a vision of joy in life. The message is that life is inherently joyful. It is beautiful. The most valuable quality of life is our joy in its beauty. This assertion challenges us to ask ourselves where our joy comes from. Does it come from Buddhism? Clearly, deep ecology’s concern for other beings is consonant with Buddhism. Yet isn’t it the case that our Buddhism can be rather joy-less, disconnected from our natural energies? Increasingly less so, hopefully, as our practice gains momentum. Yet I think as a culture we are still largely living in a worldview in which nature is seen as evil, as something to be overcome… as something lower. Even in the FWBO we talk about the lower evolution. Though Sangharakshita never intended his ‘lower evolution’ to be seen as ‘evil’, the notion unfortunately Iinks easily into that exploitive ideology. I think that deep ecology shows us a contemporary way into a more healthy, pagan experience of our world. It can nourish those pagan roots in a way that Bhante once insisted is necessary for Buddhism to flower in the west. Humanity generally really does need a new and beautiful relationship with nature.
There are a lot of people out there who are exploring these kinds of views. It seems to me that there has been a considerable popular shift in that direction – which looks likely to increase. And I see a danger of the FWBO, in this as in other things, being left in a kind of ideological time warp, enclosed in thinking that was useful in the eighties, but is now increasingly irrelevant. While what is emerging from deep ecology offers so many parallels that it even starts looking like a new, western form of Buddhism. As a western Buddhist, I would hate to end up in a situation where the rest of the world became western Buddhists, and I just stayed where I was. Do you know what I mean? On the other hand, I feel I have enough experience of the Dharma to want to play a part in the western Buddhism that is emerging worldwide. I want to engage with all this and I feel we are living in very exciting times. Joanna Macy, a senior western Buddhist teacher, thinks that we are seeing a great turning about in human consciousness, that it is actually possible to reverse the current exploitiveness, and that the Buddhadharma has an important part to play in what she calls the Great Turning. I think she could be right. I think that we in the WBO could all make a significant contribution to this transformation.
There is some very good reading in the field of deep ecology. Aside from Naess, and our own Saramati (whose material you can read on the Western Buddhist Review website), I’d recommend Aldo Leopold on ethical sensibility. In A Sand County Almanac he pointed out how human beings have extended their ethics over the years. Not long ago, people could be disposed of like property. Quite legally, you could give away your son, wife or daughter. It was universally accepted that you could hang your slaves. You could buy a servant. You could execute your workers. I’m sure we’re all glad that we don’t do such things any more. But we do still treat nature as though it were property. You can still do pretty much what you like on the land you own, or with the animals you own. You can still own animals. You can still own land. When you think about it, owning other beings and their worlds comes to seem rather a peculiar idea. Leopold was saying that it is an evolutionary necessity that human beings extend their notion of ethics to the environment, and realise that exploiting nature is unethical. The Mahayana Buddhist angle is that it is unethical to abuse nature because nature is nothing else but living beings. Life is living beings. There is no life outside living beings. So it is wrong to use nature like property because it would be an abuse of our own brothers and sisters.
For land is not just soil. If you look at it, you see it is a community of living beings. The only reason we don’t see this is because we are cut off from our place in that community. It’s seeing our alienation that eventually brings about an ethics of the land, an ecological sensibility. To cultivate this kind of sensitivity we need not only to think through these issues but to spend time in nature. And probably this is the most important thing I can say. In last night’s talk the speaker mentioned something I suppose we’d all readily agree with – that people need to be on their own sometimes. He then recommended going out into the countryside in order to find solitude. But are we really on our own when we’re in the country? I think that the refreshment nature brings may not be simply a consequence of being ‘alone’. Perhaps it is a consequence of being together with vast numbers of non-human beings. Perhaps that is a spiritual need which we only dimly recognise, because of our habitual mode of life and especially our way of thinking of nature. What is nature? What is life? We may not be able to answer these questions, but I think we benefit hugely from asking them.
We need to renew our awareness of natural things. It is beneficial and refreshing to look at plants and other beings, to read about and study them, to try to understand their existence and their point of view. The Buddha spent most of his life out of doors. All spiritual practitioners benefit, like him, from deep contact with nature, and by using that awareness, in the Mahayana spirit, to gain insight into reality. We can use nature’s powerful ‘otherness’ to see beyond conventional ego. We can reflect on the fact that since we depend on other life-forms, our identity cannot be separated from theirs.
In a more obvious way, involvement in nature offers insight into ourselves simply because we ourselves are part of nature. “Nature” is not somewhere else, in a park or a flower pot. Just look at your own body and senses, and you realise how much you don’t understand even that which is closest to you and which governs by far the greatest part of your needs and desires. The alienation from nature, and the reunion we need with nature, is right here inside our clothes. We think of nature as being somewhere else but our own bodies are incredibly mysterious, wild nature. We surely need to become more intensely conscious of the earth, water, and fire of our body and its movement in space. If we became more physical and sensuous, we’d practice more fully that first foundation of mindfulness: awareness of the body, its sensations, its feelings, its immediate tactile reality, its pleasures and its joys. There is a lot here that relates to our social relations, our sexuality, and our sense of community, but which would divert too much from our present topic. I do think, though, that our movement would benefit if some of us developed a new kind of community lifestyle based on ecological principles, and I want to explore that possibility for myself.
If informed by deep ecology we practice mindfulness of the Nature that is our body and that of others, we may go deep into the Dharma. When you go deeply into the Dharma, you arrive at the dharma door: at some kind of ultimate situation where you are exposed to your complete lack of self, and the absolute impermanence of all things. Some kind of situation, something like my getting soaked at the bus stop situation. And right there, the trimandala can collapse. The insights we have may be very simple, as mine was then, or it may be unbelievably profound, and transform many people’s lives over millennia – as did the Buddha’s Enlightenment. But whatever the depth of the resulting insight, it is precipitated by some weird kind of ultimate confrontation. It may be very subtle or it may be very powerful, it may be terrifying, it may be disgusting. Or it may be as gentle as a whisper. But whatever, there is something there that is totally uncompromisingly threatening to the ego. You’ve swallowed the iron ball and it won’t go down and you can’t get it up again. You are very uncomfortably trapped. Your practice, your preparation, your merit even, has brought you to a place where there is no escape. Except the dharma door is right in front of you. And it’s quite easy to go through if you want. (Though then that’s it – you’ll never get back out again!)
Now, no amount of deep ecology, in itself, is going to get you to that place. Just as no amount of dharma study, no amount of right livelihood, ethical practice, or meditation will, in itself, get us to that kind of ultimate confrontation. That moment is not about quantity, it is about a mysterious magic quality which combines our heartfelt wish for truth with solid commitment and relentless engagement with the present. Plus something else as well – something from way beyond this world of ambition and disappointment. There is no way to get to that point that we can design. We can’t make it happen, even by practising the Dharma. All we can do is practice to create the conditions, and to want it to happen. That is because we cannot know what it is that we want to happen. We are spiritual virgins. What will happen is something totally new, something unknowable by our ordinary mind. It cannot be anticipated.
But deep ecology, like the Dharma, can prepare us by introducing the diverse world of other beings that is right under our nose. There is a gentle, humbling, humiliating confrontation that comes from nature. It is subtly threatening; subtly, we withdraw from its light. For nature is so much bigger than us. It is awesomely bigger in its diversity and its devastating power. In this way, Nature transcends the ordinary world – even though, paradoxically, it is the world. It is quite extraordinary, I think, that we talk so much in the FWBO about self and other, and the insight of transcending the distinction… and talk about the Mahayana perspective of connecting with vast numbers of living beings… creating pure lands etc… Yet it seems we tend to think of all these living beings as human. (Or perhaps as angels. Certainly nothing much “below” the human realm gets included!) Our imagination of the world tends to consist of humans and human artefacts: human buildings, human technology, human relations. Animals etc., do of course come under the category of other beings, but when we think of the Bodhisattva going around benefiting others, I reckon we think, mostly, of human others.
The standard answer there is, of course, that human beings are in the best position to benefit from a Bodhisattva’s dharma teachings. Humans are uniquely able to listen, understand and apply the teachings. Animals and insects just don’t have time, leisure and opportunity. Or the intelligence, we like to think. But their receptivity to our profound Instructions is hardly the point. Their lack of what we have is hardly relevant. There is such a thing as compassion, empathy, and friendship. The point is, surely, that they exist. Other beings do have a life, and they have needs. And for most of the time, we don’t even know that they are there – which, for Buddhists, especially Mahayana Buddhists, seems quite crazy. We have a duty towards our fellow beings because they are there; it has nothing to do with their apparent lack of intelligence. And the fact that our society is trying to cover over their existence with concrete and media culture makes that duty even stronger.
Buddhists should surely protect the needs of their fellow beings. They should surely want to be aware of their existence, and not behave as though their world consists only of humans, or that it is appropriate to mistreat non human beings. There is a very telling phrase that, commonly, we still use. If people are very badly treated, we say they were treated like animals. It is a strong thing to say. Yet what a notion that is, to treat someone like an animal. Of course, it means mistreating – but why that assumption, that animals are badly treated? I think phrases like this reveal how little we know or care about other beings in general. If we are prepared to treat any other being badly, even a plants or an animal, we are going to be violent in some respects in all our communication. If violence is in the heart, it’s likely to come out. If we allow ourselves to be violent to any other beings, at all, we are still nurturing it. That’s why it’s important for us as practitioners to acknowledge the attitudes we have towards the natural world. It is there in our relations towards insects and animals, and with the elements as well.
Just now I mentioned Joanna Macy. She is, it seems to me, yet another non-FWBO teacher with whom we share some useful similarities of approach. For example Joanna makes some very interesting use of the notion of evolution in an ecological connection. Until a few years ago, I believe she was the only prominent teacher, apart from Bhante, to promote the idea of ‘positive’, spiral conditionality. I mention this because so called ‘Green Buddhism’ is sometimes characterised narrowly as a teaching of Connectedness. It is sometimes said to reject the model of human development. But that is not so in Joanna’s case. In what I have encountered, the two approaches of immanence and development are well married together. It’s interesting to encounter in her teaching that hierarchical notion of mankind as the high point of evolution, yet endowed with the dharma, but set in a context of transcendental interconnectedness. Her combined perspective looks like one we can easily use, given the dharma background Bhante has endowed us with and the present upsurge of interest in an ‘immanentalist’ approach. This all comes together in an appreciation of the material world as a crucial part of the spiritual path. Joanna Macy quotes Bhante saying, in an essay, that in the Buddhist world view, human beings are not unique in possession of Soul or mind. All beings have soul, and Buddhists do not view the natural world as insignificant. Man and Nature are aspects of the same reality. The material world is as much reality as the mind. Indeed, they are inseparable: the material world is our experience, and what is our experience but mind.
Part of Joanna Macy’s evolutionary teaching is that mankind is currently at a point of evolutionary shift towards a new state of human consciousness. This is not the same as the ‘New Man’ in Bhante’s scheme. No doubt it’s on the way, but I don’t think Joanna Macy believes that we’re all soon going to get enlightened together. In the shift which she calls the Great Turning, we become increasingly able to take collective responsibility and vision. Perhaps there’s a tiny example of this desire mirrored in our current anxiety in the Order about decision making processes. This kind of anxiety is an issue globally; perhaps what will come out of the Great Turning is a new, shared vision of what it means to be human. There is universal frustration with present forms of government. It seems that with our new global communications technologies we have an unprecedented potential to make collective changes whilst retaining individual voices. Unity in diversity now almost seems a realisable goal for mankind. The problems of collective opinion have been a major source of dukkha in recent centuries. If one reflects enough on dukkha, one will break through, and maybe this can even happen collectively.
The process Joanna Macy has in mind, as I understand it, is based upon positive pratityasamutpada. Let me summarise this very briefly as my conclusion.
First of all, our world is alive. Secondly, we human beings, with our developed consciousnesses, are intrinsic to the natural world. We are not somehow separate, as some religions have thought.
Third, there’s a whole mess of conflict. We don’t want to despoil the natural world, because somewhere we strongly feel that we are intrinsic to it. However we know that, in fact, we abuse it. This conflict is very intense. It causes us to deny our abuse, since admittance would entail enormous changes. Indecision then holds us captive in a state of apathy. It’s all too big. We feel we just can’t do anything about the global crisis. So we don’t do anything, and we rationalize our inactivity and continued over consumption in all kinds of devious ways. All this happens both individually and institutionally. People, corporations and nations are all captured in this.
Now crucially, at stage four, we allow ourselves to experience all this. This is where the dharma kicks in. In doctrinal terms, experiencing this is like dukkha on the spiral path.
Then stage five is like sraddha on the spiral path. Having allowed in the experience, our conflict is unblocked, we reconnect with our true selves and with the real world. We are empowered and rejuvenated. And we start to act for the benefit of all beings. As more and more of us do this, the Great Turning takes place.