Thursday, May 17, 2018

Permaculture and the 'Pure Land'

"If you know what life is worth/You will look for yours on Earth" --Bob Marley

"Pure Land" Buddhism is a popular branch of Mahayana Buddhism which is found throughout East Asia, including Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. It is based on the worship or veneration of Amitabha, which roughly translates as the celestial Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life. And--like Christianity--it is soteriological in emphasis; that is, it focuses on something analogous to the doctrine of salvation in the afterlife--the idea that this world is incorrigibly corrupt, but if we have faith and are well-behaved while here, and devout in our meditation, devotion to Amitabha, and adherence to the Precepts, we will go to the Pure Land after we die and live joyfully forever with Buddha Amitabha in a kind of Buddhist heaven.

--And for this very reason, I have no use for Pure Land Buddhism. It strikes me, like the Christian concept of heaven, as a compensatory myth for those--the vast majority of ordinary people--who are traumatized by, and therefore in deep denial about, the inescapable reality of death, and hence the extinction of the only "self" they have ever known up close.

I am fortunate, I suppose, not to share this consuming anxiety about death and impermanence--at least, not to the degree that affects most people. So I don't need a compensatory myth about Heaven or the "Pure Land" or anything else. One of my favorite moments, for example, in an interview with Permaculture founder Bill Mollison, a few years before his death, was when a young German student asked him what he thought would happen after he died.  With his usual belly-laugh, Mollison replied,

"You die, and somebody lays you down.  Flies come and lay eggs in your orifices...and maggots eat your body, and crawl off and bury you in the soil, and the wind blows, and slowly you disappear into the surrounding country." And it didn't bother him a bit.

While his own quirky and charismatic personality may largely account for this nonchalance, I can't help thinking that his lifetime immersion in Permaculture theory and practice had a lot to do with his ease and comfort with his own impermanence. Living close to nature, and applying the patterns he observed there to his own design principles and practices, Mollison discerned (rightly, I think) that the Earth is already the "Pure Land" and that to reinhabit that land, all we need to do is to observe, study, and apply the regenerative principles by which ecosystems self-organize, grow, and diversify, recycling everything and wasting nothing. Just as he saw through the delusional "Man/Nature" dichotomy that afflicts our dysfunctional civilization, Mollison also, by his immersion in Nature, was able to see through the equally delusional "life/death" and "self/other" dichotomies that go along with it.

And by studying and applying these Permaculture principles ourselves, we too can (re-) inhabit the "Pure Land" while we are alive, and peacefully let go, allowing ourselves to be recycled and re-absorbed into it when we die.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Healing Power of Gardening

From the time I was about 20 years old, (some 48 years ago, back in 1970) I have realized that there is a perfect, and deeply distressing, analogy between the effects of cancer cells in a body and the effects of human civilization on the planet. Once I discovered and was illuminated by James Lovelock's Gaia theory, in my early 30s, this analogy became more of a homology: if the biosphere itself is a self-organizing and self-regulating complex adaptive system resembling a living organism, then it follows that human civilization is, in fact, a cancer upon the Earth, for like cancer cells, we treat our biological support system, the biosphere, as nothing more than a "resource" for our own expansion and proliferation, and thereby undermine the health and viability of the system that sustains us all.

This realization prompted what has become a lifelong quest for me: to analyze the underlying causes of this global cancer, and thereby find, if possible, a cure.

In pursuit of this quest, my first realization (for which I am thankful to Gregory Bateson, above all) was that the root causes of the Cancer of the Earth are not genetic--not somehow endemic to the human species--but rather, epistemological. The cancer originates, that is, in the false perception--dating back to the Agricultural Revolution, but codified by Descartes at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, that "man" and "nature" are separate, antithetical entities, and that the only true purpose of "nature" is to serve as a "resource" for "man."  In his masterful final book, "Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity," Bateson blew this Cartesian dichotomy ("Res Cogitans" vs. "Res Extensa") right out of the water, when he demonstrated that the processes of biological evolution and learning in other living organisms are homologous with all the processes that we label as "mind"--that "mind" and "life" are the same thing.

When Lovelock's Gaia theory first was published and widely disseminated, near the end of Bateson's life, this homology between mind and life got a catchy name and a photo image, and thus went from abstract theory to counter-cultural phenomenon. "Gaia" as myth, model, metaphor, and movement became the only concept we have that dissolves the "man-nature" dichotomy altogether by positing a single system comprising both. Any understanding of Gaia theory makes it irrevocably clear that we are a part of "nature," not apart from it.

This being the case, the question remains: what part of this magnificent Gaian system are we? What is our role? Pessimists, of course, see our role as inherently pathogenic: human civilization is a cancer on the Earth, cancer consumes and destroys its host, and therefore we are doomed. Unfortunately, they may well prove right in the end. But despair is self-validating and therefore self-defeating. If we believe that there is nothing we can do to change our headlong course toward annihilation, then we will do nothing. But what if there is something we can do, before it is far too late?

If our global cancer is based on our shared cultural premises--on erroneous core presuppositions rather than on genetic propensity, as Bateson claims--then the path to healing and regeneration may well start with abandoning those presuppositions and embracing an alternative, systems-based, Gaian worldview. This is exactly what Bill Mollison, the Australian founder of the worldwide Permaculture movement, had in mind. Mollison explicitly cites Gaia theory as the foundation of his vision:

"Lovelock (1979) has perhaps best expressed a philosophy or insight, which links science and tribal beliefs: he sees the earth, and the universe, as a thought process, or as a self-regulating, self-constructed and reactive system, creating and preserving the conditions that make life possible, and actively adjusting to regulate disturbances. Humanity, however, in its present mindlessness, may be the one disturbance that the earth cannot tolerate (Mollison, Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, 2)."

As the founder of the Permaculture movement, Mollison's essential project was to create a Gaian praxis inspired by Gaian theory--to develop an autonomous, self-propagating educational movement that would evolve a human culture based on close observation of, emulation of, and engagement with the natural processes of self-sustaining and self-regenerating ecosystems. Originating in Australia, the Permaculture movement has since spread worldwide, albeit below the radar of Glomart corporate media. As his foremost disciple, world-renowned Permaculture master teacher Geoff Lawton, once said,

"You can solve all the world's problems in a garden."

However exaggerated this claim may seem, there is deep truth to it. Gardening (using permaculture principles), after all, promotes the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our living planet simultaneously:

  • It promotes our physical health by giving us good outdoor exercise and simultaneously growing nutritious fruits and vegetables for ourselves and our families.
  • It promotes our competence by enabling us to learn from our mistakes, and seek out knowledge and skills from others.
  • It promotes our resilience by grounding us and increasing our ability to adapt to change, so we are less likely to panic or despair when (as now) political life turns ugly and vicious, or when unexpected catastrophe hits, whether from violent storms, prolonged drought, or economic collapse.
  • It does likewise for our community, by increasing our collective self-reliance and encouraging us to share our knowledge and skills freely with others.
  • Finally, as more and more people build healthy topsoil, they sequester more and more carbon and reduce the atmospheric excess from fossil fuels, thus enhancing the health, competence, and resilience of our entire planet. 
In short, systemic Gaian thinking and its practical manifestation in the global Permaculture movement have the potential to become what we all need the most--a viable mechanism for the spontaneous remission of the Cancer of the Earth.




Sunday, April 22, 2018

Convenience and Repentance


In one of his narrative ballads, Bob Dylan has the following line:  "Most people don't do what they believe in; they just do what's most convenient--and then they repent."

Earth Day has become, in recent years, something like our annual day of repentance for all the conveniences we take for granted the other 364 days of the year: conveniences like cars, plastics, computers, televisions, and easy year-around access to fresh and prepared foods from all over the world. We know that all of these conveniences have their environmental costs, but it is easier not to think about them--so we set aside Earth Day to be reminded of these costs, and briefly repent--before going back to business as usual.

There is a problem with repentance, however.  "Repent" rhymes with "Resent." And indeed, most of us resent being made to feel guilty for the conveniences we take for granted every day.

President Jimmy Carter found this out to his cost, when he righteously called on Americans to repent their short-term greed and self-indulgent wastefulness and assume greater responsibility for future generations.  The direct result was a wave of public resentment that resulted the landslide election of Ronald Reagan--the joyous Apostle of Greed.

I need not recount the lamentable history that followed: the insidious attacks on environmental regulations, the poisoning of the airwaves by Fox News and the rise of corporate-sponsored vulgarians like Rush Limbaugh, sneering at "environmental wackos," and the gradual corporate takeover of our government, culminating in Donald Trump and his cabal of billionaires and climate-deniers taking a wrecking ball to any and all regulations in the public interest that interfere with corporate profits.

So no--I don't think calling on people to repent, and to amend their profligate ways, will do much to save us.  As we have seen, laying a guilt trip on people can backfire.

 For me, the best alternative to environmental gloom and despair is inspiration. So I would like to share three of my own sources of inspiration.

My first, life-changing inspiration was James Lovelock's Gaia theory,  which fundamentally changed our view of our planet from that of a passive orb that just happened to have the right conditions for life--liquid water, oxygenated air, and so forth--into that of a complex adaptive system in which life itself creates and sustains the atmospheric and geophysical conditions that in turn sustain life--and in which humanity is a part of, and not apart from, nature.

The centerpiece of Lovelock's Gaia model is photosynthesis--that is, plant life. Plants, as we know, are primary producers, which draw on direct solar energy to power a chemical reaction that transforms water and CO2 into complex carbohydrates, which act like batteries to store solar energy for use in growing more plant tissue. So using that "fire," that solar energy, plants transform the other three classical elements--water, earth, and air--into new life, and simultaneously purify the water, oxygenate the air, and turn minerals into topsoil, thus enabling our planet to support all other life--including ourselves. Without plants, there would be little to no free oxygen, no topsoil, and no fresh water on the Earth.

So Gaia is no longer just a myth, but also a model, a metaphor, and a movement for our time. If someone asks me, "What are you?" my short answer is "A Gaian. And so are you. And so is everything else that breathes air, drinks water, and eats food."  We are all Gaians, whether or not we are conscious of this fact. It is the only identity label I know that excludes no one at all.

My second inspiration was the Permaculture movement, initiated by Australian biologist and visionary Bill Mollison, who explicitly cited Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis as his own inspiration. Permaculture is Gaian praxis--that is, it is regenerative design methodology that models human support systems--from backyard gardens to whole communities--on the organization and behavior of natural ecosystems. Three essential characteristics of sound permaculture design are that it is autonomous, energy neutral, and scalable. By "autonomous" I mean that once it has been established, a permaculture design is self-sustaining and self-regenerating. By "energy neutral" I mean that--again, once established, it can run entirely on solar and other renewable forms of energy. And by "scalable," I mean that the Permaculture design principles can be applied at any scale whatsoever--from our own work spaces and back yards all the way to communities, bioregions, nations, and our whole planet.  Permaculture has now become a worldwide movement, and certified practitioners can be found in nearly every nation on Earth.

And my third inspiration is a young 16-year old kid from Holland named Boyan Slat, who, while scuba diving in Greece in 2010, was appalled to see more plastic than fish. But rather than despairing, he researched the huge problem of plastic debris throughout the oceans and came up with a simple, remarkable solution--two floating booms at a wide angle, converging on a central solar-powered collection device in the shape of a manta ray. As it drifts with the ocean currents, the two booms naturally concentrate the plastic debris toward the central collecting unit where the plastic can be  recycled or repurposed.  Autonomous - Energy Neutral - Scalable.  And now, in his early twenties, Boyan Slat is the CEO of a nonprofit corporation called "The Ocean Cleanup" that has hired a full team of engineers who have already developed a working small-scale prototype of his design and are about to go into production in the Pacific.

With examples like Lovelock, Mollison, Boyan Slat, and many others to inspire us, let us all vow, each in our own domain of influence, to become part of the solution; to choose a Gaian Future, rather than No Future.






Sunday, March 25, 2018

Gaia Sermon III: The Two Worlds


What is the difference between a number line and a sphere? (Draw these on a flip chart, or use hand motions in the absence thereof)

That's right: a number line is infinite, while a sphere is finite. (4 Pi R)

Now, what is the greatest single problem facing our world today? (Solicit and acknowledge responses).  Everything you've mentioned so far derives, directly or indirectly,  from one huge problem: the fundamental incompatibility between an economy based on the number line--that is, on the infinite expansion of the production and consumption of commodities--and a home planet in the finite shape of a sphere.

As Edward Abbey once said, "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell."

He was absolutely right--and as a consequence, today, our living planet has terminal cancer. Its manifold symptoms include climate destabilization, depletion of topsoil worldwide, pollution of land, air, and water, collapsing fisheries and ecosystems, and loss of biodiversity worldwide--and of course the tragic human dimension: a growing, yawning gap between the super-rich few and the desperately poor multitudes.

And terminal cancer has only two possible outcomes: death, or spontaneous remission. The first is, unfortunately, the most likely. But the second has happened in many instances, though no one is quite sure how. So today I would like to focus on the latter. I would like to pose the question: How might we become agents in the spontaneous remission of the Cancer of the Earth?

To cure any disease, we must begin with a diagnosis of the underlying cause. There are those who claim that the cause is genetic--that humans are intrinsically self-serving and short-sighted--in which case we are doomed.  But I do not think so. I believe, with Gregory Bateson and many other fine thinkers whom I admire, that the ultimate causes of the Cancer of the Earth are cultural, ontological, and axiological--that is, rooted in our shared assumptions about what is real and what is not, and what is or is not of value.

We live, after all, in two worlds simultaneously--the one we made, and the one that made us. And they operate according to diametrically opposed rules. For the world we made, I have coined the name "Glomart"--short for Global Market Economy. It is the Order of Money, the root cause of the Cancer of the Earth, because money is nothing but arithmetic--an abstract measure of the market value of commodities. And because money is arithmetic, the entire money-based economy is predicated on the logic of the number line: More is always Better. This is the master operating rule of Glomart, purveyed 24/7 through advertising, and assumed without question at every corporate board meeting.

But the world that made us is Gaia, the Order of Nature.  And as a finite system, Gaia operates upon a completely opposite master rule: Enough is Enough. Indeed, everything in nature follows this rule: if we get too hot, we die. If we get too cold, we die.  If we eat too much or too little, we die.  If our population grows too fast or not fast enough, we die. And so on. There is nothing in nature--no living system in the biosphere, from bacteria to organisms and communities--for which more is always better.

Money is, as I said, an abstract transform of information about the value of commodities. And it is a zero-sum game: if one person has it, the other does not. This is why, in finite systems like our planet, wealth constantly concentrates upward to fewer and fewer people. A monopoly game--a simple model of a market economy on a finite surface--has only one possible outcome: one player has everything, while the rest have nothing--and are in debt to the winner for their houses and hotels.  Sound familiar? Yet we are stuck with this money system, whether we like it or not.

So how might we reconcile the diametrically opposed rules of Glomart and Gaia?  For starters, I will turn to Bill Mollison, the wise old Australian founder of the Permaculture movement. One of his favorite sayings was "The problem is the solution." I see this as a kind of Zen koan. So how might money--the root of the problem--also be a solution in disguise?

It all depends on what we choose to value. Imagine what might happen if we started looking at our dollar as a vote. That is, for every dollar we spend, we could start asking two questions: (1) Where is the money for this actually going? (2) What am I actually getting for it? A tool, or an addiction?  This could be translated into a kind of Gaian Categorical Imperative:

In every decision we make, let us strive to promote the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our community, and our planet simultaneously.

To the exact extent we assume responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our decisions--about the money we spend or invest, the products we buy, the decisions we make about livelihood, and the way we treat others and our land, we make it easier and more cost-effective for others to do likewise. 

A simple way of remembering this is the triad "Good Buy, Good Work, and Good Will.

Good Buy (Pun intended) means assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of the money we spend or invest and the goods we buy. It means--whenever possible--buying locally produced, organically grown products. It means buying things sustainably made or grown. But it is only the first step--to vote with our dollars.

Good Work is more complicated, more long-term. It means "Right Livelihood:" assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of way we choose to earn money.  But it also means voluntarily doing the good work, wherever we live, to grow gardens, grow community, and grow awareness--to disconnect from Glomart in whatever ways we can, both individually and collectively.

Good Will is both the starting point and the end point of all of the above. It refers to the discipline of mindfulness--assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our own attitudes and behavior toward others. As Lao Tzu put it succinctly, "Take care of everyone and abandon no one. Take care of everything, and abandon nothing.

By adopting these three interrelated practices--Good Buy, Good Work, and Good Will--we can each become agents of the Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth.





Friday, March 23, 2018

Gaia Sermon II--the Four M's


"We have two choices: a Gaian future--or no future."

So said Norman Myers, an eminent British environmental scientist, back in the 1980s. But what did he mean by a "Gaian future?"

First, what do we mean by "Gaia"?

Gaia can briefly be defined as a Myth, a Model, a Metaphor, and a Movement.

"Gaia" was originally a Myth--the name given to the primordial Mother Goddess in ancient Greek mythology, and the etymological root of all the words we have that begin with "Geo--"such as "geology," "geometry,"  "geophysics" and even the name "George" (which derives from the roots ge + ourgos, meaning "earth worker" or farmer). Hesiod's account of the marriage of Ouranos (heaven) and Gaia (earth) has parallels in most other indigenous mythic traditions in the world, including our own. Shakespeare, for example, begins Friar Laurence's opening sermon with the following words:

"The Earth that's nature's mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave, that is her womb."

This ancient mythic name took on a new life, in the late 70s, when it was adopted by a British biochemist named James Lovelock, in collaboration with his American colleague, microbiologist Lynn Margulis, to refer to their groundbreaking scientific Model of the biogenic roots of our biosphere--that is,  that life itself creates and sustains the atmospheric and geochemical conditions that, in turn, sustain life. While the details of this theory are exceedingly complex, and well beyond my competence, it can be boiled down simply as the interaction of Fire, Air, Earth, and Water, as mediated by life. Very simply:

Fire--Solar energy--powers photosynthesis, which is the energy source, not only of plant life, but of the animals that eat those plants and the fungi and bacteria that break them down. Without solar energy, there would be no life.

Earth--Life depends on a wide array of minerals, which it draws up from the substrate to mix with dead organic matter, broken down by fungi, bacteria, and insects, to form topsoil. Without topsoil we would have no plant life, and without plant life, no topsoil.

Air--Plants take in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.  But without plant life, we would have no free oxygen at all to breathe.

Water--Fresh water is essential for all life, but without life, there would be no fresh water on Earth. The reason is that biomass filters the water in lakes and rivers, preventing it from becoming saline like the oceans, and thereby making it available for more life.

In short, the Gaia model tells us that Life itself transforms the Earth's surface and atmosphere into a life-support system. Without life, the Earth would be uninhabitable.

As this Gaia model entered into public discourse, it became something deeper--a Metaphor for the holistic way of thinking that gave rise to it.  "Gaia" as metaphor refers to a whole new way of thinking that does away with the false "Man/Nature" dichotomy upon which our agricultural and industrial system is based. While we tend to think of "Nature" as something "out there"--a resource which we can exploit at will--Gaian thinking tells us that we and our institutions are a part of, not apart from, the natural world. Gaia is not only "out there" but also, in here.

This metaphor has given rise to a worldwide Movement which currently goes under many names, all predicated on this perception of Nature--or Gaia--as a system of which we are a part, rather than as merely a resource which we exploit for our own purposes. So the Gaia movement includes--but transcends--the Environmental Movement. While the latter calls for reform, Gaian thinking calls for regeneration--for reinventing our culture from the ground up. In short, it calls for Permaculture: a design methodology, applicable to all human systems from our backyard to our global socioeconomic order, based on the three core ethics of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.  So since we all are Gaians, whether we like it or not,  I wish to leave you, today, with a Gaian Categorical Imperative:

In everything you do, strive to promote the health, competence, and resilience of yourself, your community, and your planet simultaneously.

To the exact extent that each of us adopts these Gaian ethics, we still have a chance of becoming agents of the Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth.  We can still have a Gaian Future.

Still worse and worse...


"The worst is not--so long as we can say, 'This is the worst'"
 --Edgar in Shakespeare's King Lear

For more times than I can count, since the Catastrophe--that is, the ill-fated election of Donald Trump as President last year--I have been reminded of this gloomy quote from Edgar, Shakespeare's bellwether figure in King Lear.  With every passing day, we see horrific headlines about yet more unprecedented outrages from the White House, and it has become clear that the morally bankrupt Republicans who control Congress are nothing but callow and shameless enablers who will do nothing to stop Trump's thuggish power grabs and assaults on democracy, on the planet, and on the rule of law. We could well be heading into a new Nazi era, a new Great Terror, instigated by this power-mad psychopathic fascist and his cronies on behalf of the corporate oligarchy and the Military Industrial Complex. All bets are off, and the worst may be yet to come--whether nuclear war, economic collapse, resource wars, runaway climate destabilization and ecocide, and the unraveling of the social order and descent into chaos and violence altogether.  To quote Shakespeare again,

"Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into Will, Will into appetite,
And Appetite, a universal Wolf
So doubly seconded by Will and Power,
Must make perforce a universal prey,
And last eat up itself."

So once again, we ask, plaintively, "What can we do?"

Social activists, young and righteously indignant, will naturally cry "Hit the streets!"  But in truth, what good will that do these days?  While mass demonstrations feel good for the participants, they do precious little to change anything.  The corporate-controlled news media largely ignore them unless they turn violent--and then these few violent incidents then become an ideal tool for Fox Noise and the Republican noise machine to loudly marginalize and condemn all protesters as "terrorists" who should be rounded up en masse--and Trump will be only too happy to oblige. They have all the money, after all, and all the big guns, tanks, and hired thugs they need to wreak bloody mayhem on even the biggest mass demonstrations. China, after all, got away with this at Tienanmen Square, and the memory of this bloodbath has been effaced from the younger generations of Chinese (much as Douglas MacArthur's bloody assault on the peaceful Veterans' Bonus March of 1932 was never mentioned in our history books).  Likewise, who even remembers the mass protests of the Occupy movement--which were likewise squelched by raw force and brutality? So storming the castle on the hill, whether peacefully or violently, is not a viable option these days for confronting tyranny and corporate domination.

What is? More thoughtful people will advocate Satyagraha--nonviolent mass resistance and noncooperation with evil--but this tactic--however effective and morally grounded--calls for charismatic moral leadership (e.g. Gandhi, King, Mandela, Chavez, Havel, Wangari Maathai, and Vandana Shiva) but also systematic grassroots organization and strategic intelligence to target the leverage points of the power elite and to use mass media effectively.  There is much to be said for this, but Satyagraha campaigns also require patience for the long haul; the courage to endure humiliation and abuse without lashing out in rage and hatred (and thereby becoming your own enemy) is a rare human trait, and generally requires extensive inner training and discipline to even attempt.  So while I would never discourage this nonviolent approach--and we may well need to be ready for it, as the Trumpian tyranny becomes more naked and brutal--it is well to remember that any Satyagraha campaign, to succeed, must be mindful, strategic, and relentless.

So what is left for all the rest of us ordinary folks, who may lack the moral courage, the charisma, and the organizational skills to mount an effective Satyagraha campaign? Where can we find refuge from the Trumpian insanity that is destroying our nation and planet simultaneously?

Obviously, our planet being an "inescapable network of mutuality," there is no escape from the ramifications of a dysfunctional mass society or a dying global empire morphing into pervasive corporate tyranny.  But there are useful and healthy things we all can do to cultivate the health, competence, and resilience we will need to become agents of regeneration, no matter what happens in the big world. And these (for me, at least) fall into the three general categories of Tonglen, Satyagraha and Permaculture--the three essential disciplines.

Tonglen--the powerful Tibetan meditation technique for cultivating universal compassion--becomes an even more important starting point as the world becomes more chaotic. It can be done either in formal meditation or "on the spot" (as Pema Chodron puts it). It consists, briefly, of an exercise of the empathetic imagination: taking on the vast suffering of all living beings on the inbreath, owning it and transforming it, and then, breathing out healing, love, and compassion to all beings.  

There are numerous techniques for doing this effectively, but my favorite formal approach is the "expanding circle" approach: begin by taking in--embracing with your inbreath, as it were--your own inner pain and anguish, whether physical, emotional, or mental--and--imaginatively contacting the "diamond in your mind,"--your Buddha nature, Christ nature, Witness, Still Small Voice, Peace of God, or whatever you choose to call it--and then, breathing out healing, comfort, and peace to your own inner afflictions.  Then do likewise, first for those closest to you (significant other, family, close friends), then gradually expand your circle of compassion to include your acquaintances, whole categories of people, all people, all living beings, anyone in particular distress--whoever. Use your imagination to make it vivid and personal.

Finally--and this is most difficult--we breathe in the suffering of our enemies, of the perpetrators of violence and bigotry, from irritating people we know all the way up to Trump and his maligant ilk.  For Buddhist psychology teaches that all hatred, all meanness and cruelty of whatever sort, is ultimately rooted in a deep inner suffering of the perpetrators themselves, which, unless it is alleviated by genuine, selfless compassion, only becomes worse and worse, creating greater and greater harm to others.  (This is why a figure of the Buddha appears in each of the six Samsaric realms in Tibetan iconography).

Extending your circle of compassion to your enemies is very challenging and difficult, for in order to practice with authenticity, we need to acknowledge and cut through our own hatreds--those parts of ourselves that are most Trump-like, which we often do not want to face, in order to generate authetic compassion for Trump. This is what the Buddhist story of Angulimala is all about.

Angulimala is a vicious, thuggish serial murderer--the worst imaginable kind of person--whose name derived from his habit of stringing the fingers (anguli) of his victims around his neck like a necklace (mala). The story goes that when Angulimala encounters the Buddha, he has 999 fingers around his neck and is eagerly looking to score his thousandth. But the Buddha's total lack of fear, his equanimity and boundless compassion, disarms Angulimala, who then hears the teachings, joins the Sangha, and becomes a devout and caring monk. But due to all the bad karma accumulated by his many savage murders, Angulimala must nevertheless endure beatings and abuse wherever he goes.

So by generating compassion (against the odds) even for the likes of Trump, Bannon, Bolton, and all the other craven thugs currently in his orbit, we are paradoxically embracing and healing those aspects of ourselves that we don't want to admit, that are most like those we detest.  But nobody ever said this would be easy. The commandment to "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you..." is always by far the most difficult one to achieve. But it is also the most transformative.

Tonglen--meditating and imaginatively cultivating compassion for ourselves, our friends, all life, and our worst enemies while our nation collapses into tyranny and the world careens toward apocalypse--may seem like a waste of time, a trivial, self-indulgent way of avoiding reality--but in actuality, it is a direct and mindful way of inoculating yourself from despair by embracing the horrors directly, such that whatever the world throws at you, you take it in, embrace it, filter it, transform it, and turn it into loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

The other two essential disciplines, Satyagraha and Permaculture, I have already written about extensively through this blog, so I will leave them alone for now. Suffice to say that a serious Tonglen practice provides a solid foundation for both nonviolent noncooperation with evil, and for sowing the seeds of a Gaian future from the ground up by growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness.








Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Earth Day Sermon


Recently, Rick, the pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem which I have recently joined, invited me to collaborate with my new friend and fellow parishioner Angela, who is in charge of the landscape committee for the church, in preparing an Earth Day service next April. Pursuant to this, here is a draft of a possible sermon I might deliver on that day:

Working Title: "A Gaian Future--or No Future."
-----------------------------
If you saw the title of my sermon this morning, you might reasonably ask, "What do you mean by 'A Gaian Future?'"  Or more briefly,  "Huh??"

"Gaian" is a recently coined adjective or identity label--which is, in fact, the only label with which I am fully comfortable, since it excludes nobody at all.  I am a Gaian, and so are you. And so is every living organism on the planet, from the simplest bacterium to Donald Trump. (Yes--even Donald Trump is a Gaian, whether he knows it or not!)

So what is a Gaian?  The broadest definition I know is the one that includes everything from bacteria to corrupt political leaders. It is a living, breathing being, an inhabitant of Gaia, which is the ancient Greek name for Mother Earth.  This name has more recently been recycled by both scientists and visionaries, starting with British biochemist James Lovelock and American bacteriologist Lynn Margulis, to refer to the theory, now generally accepted among Earth scientists, that life and our planet coevolved--and that the processes of life create and sustain the conditions that, in turn, sustain life. For example, without plants and photosynthesis, there would be no free oxygen available on the planet--it would all be bound up with carbon, as it is on Venus and Mars. Without topsoil, there would be no plants or fungi--and vice versa. And without plants or fungi, animals--including ourselves--could not exist. Gaia--powered by solar energy and interweaving earth, air, and water into a miraculous and self-regenerating web of life--is our biological support system, the condition of our very existence.

So if we are all Gaians, what use is the term?  Quite simply, it is something that we, in our global industrial civilization, have forgotten. We are taught to think of "nature" as either a resource or a refuge--but not as a system of which we also are a part, interacting with every breath. If we think of nature as a resource, we think it has no value at all until we transform it into commodities, whether by mining, clearcutting, or pesticide-soaked monocultures. If we see it as a refuge, it is still "out there"--remote from our daily lives. So I think we need this new name Gaia to refer to what we have forgotten--that we also are a part of, and not apart from, nature. And unless we find a way, not simply to remember this fact, but to incorporate it into every decision we make, we have no future.

So what might a "Gaian future" look like? And how would we get there?

I think of a Gaian future as one in which it is axiomatic, and generally recognized by everyone, that--as Martin Luther King once said, "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."  And that this understanding of our global interconnectedness informs all our institutions, becoming the foundation of our educational system, from Kindergarten to graduate study.  We can't possibly know what a Gaian future would look like--we can only know, today, that it is our only remaining alternative to oblivion, whether through climate change, nuclear war, societal collapse, or whatever. The creature that parasitizes its own biological support system destroys itself.

So how to we get to a Gaian future? I don't pretend to know in any detail, but I am quite sure that it starts in the same way that ecosystems start: by planting seeds, both literal and figurative, from the ground up, not from the top down.  And it starts with each of us, and radiates outward, building upon itself--just as an ecosystem is self-regenerating and self-diversifying. So here is one such seed of thought, which I like to call the "Gaian Categorical Imperative:"

In every decision, we must strive to assume responsibility for the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

Health, competence, and resilience are the three survival conditions of every living organism, from bacteria to blue whales. We all need to eat food, drink water, and breathe oxygen, in order to maintain the internal homeostasis of our bodies. Second, we need to develop and hone skills to survive and prosper within a specific ecological niche, whether that niche is a wetland, an organization, a city, or a nation state.  Finally, we all need the resilience--the flexibility--to adapt to unpredictable changes in our niche--whether from a warmer climate, a threat from others, or a catastrophe.  In short, we all need to eat, survive and reproduce--not only ourselves, but also our communities and our ecosystems.

Since we are part of larger communities, whether families, organizations, or cities and states, we also need to preserve the health, competence, and resilience of these. If a person promotes his own interests at the expense of the community, he will probably end up in jail. But if a corporation promotes their own interests at the expense of the community or the biosphere, they become rich and powerful. Obviously, this is the mark of a dysfunctional civilization, a civilization that is parasitizing Gaia.

To restore the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our community, and our planet, and to create a Gaian future from the ground up, I therefore recommend three essential disciplines, that we can all undertake, starting this moment:

(1) Meditation; (2) Satyagraha; (3) Permaculture.

Meditation, practiced by every authentic spiritual tradition on the planet, takes many forms, but these forms all boil down to three simple injunctions: Breathe, Observe, Let Go.  And repeat as often as necessary. By this means, we recharge and restore the inner equanimity and compassion we need to become healing agents in our community and on our planet.

Satyagraha was Gandhi's term for becoming a healing agent in a dysfunctional culture and society. It consists, he said, of three practices: Ahimsa, Satya, and Swaraj.
    Ahimsa means doing no harm--practicing absolute, unconditional compassion for everyone and everything. In the political realm, it means nonviolence, and a nonviolent disposition in a politically charged environment is best maintained by regular meditation practice.
   Satya means speaking truth to power, mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly. We may recall, for example, the magnificent courage, eloquence, and integrity, under duress, of any of the great Satyagrahis: not only Gandhi, but also King, Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Wangari Maathai. (And of course, most recently, the courageous and articulate students at Parkland High, standing up and speaking truth to the NRA and the politicians in their pocket).
   Swaraj means "self-rule" or "self-reliance," which Gandhi symbolized with his spinning wheel; that is, unplugging from dependence on the forces of greed, oppression, and ecological degradation in every way we can, and creating local self-reliance.

Permaculture, then, is Swaraj in practice: a design methodology and a cultural movement, catching on at the grassroots all over the planet, that is predicated on three interrelated ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. It is a systematic and flexible Gaian approach to design, whether of gardens, farms, or cities, that is based entirely on ecological principles.

By adopting such principles, precepts, and practices, I am confident that we can be the change we seek to make, and co-create a Gaian future for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.