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.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


In recent months, since I retired from teaching and moved across the country to Oregon, I finally have gained the leisure time I need to pursue my aspiration--to transform my own small, suburban property into a model Permaculture garden, to take the Permaculture Design Certification course offered online by Oregon State University, and to use all my communication skills to help others propagate Permaculture theory and practice throughout my new community of Salem, Oregon, and everywhere else as well, right up until my last breath.

My first discovery, of course, has been that I have a steep learning curve in all of this. Although I had my own modest summer vegetable garden for many years in Virginia, I know little to nothing about gardening, since I spent my professional career as an English professor, doing little with my hands besides typing on a keyboard!  So I decided, before I attempt a Permaculture Design Certification course, to take a crash course in basic gardening knowledge and skills through the OSU Extension Service's Master Gardener program--a rigorous curriculum consisting of 12 weekly all-day classes, followed by a comprehensive exam and some 66 hours of volunteering in various capacities before I can be certified as a Master Gardener.  And this has been well worth the effort: I am learning a vast array of conceptual, procedural, and contextual knowledge of basic botany, orchard pruning, weed control, plant diseases, water management, beneficial insects, and all sorts of other skills necessary to be able to offer others sound, research-based advice when they call into the Master Gardener's hotline. I have also made a lot of new, knowledgeable friends, with lots of good advice.

I have also volunteered, in March, to team-teach a free six-week course offered by the local food bank, called "Seed to Supper"--a basic course in Vegetable Gardening 101 for low-income residents--and I have made friends with the manager of a community garden near my home as well.

But now that I am gaining a footing in serious gardening, I have another practical challenge: in order to achieve my dream of converting my lawn into a full-fledged Permaculture garden, I face a lot of heavy lifting--digging up my lawn, laying out flagstone paths, creating keyhole gardens and raised beds, composting, mulching, building Hugelcultur mounds, etc.  In a Permaculture design, most of the heavy labor comes upfront, in laying in the "hardscape" or infrastructure for the thriving, integrated garden to follow.  And at 68 years old, with declining upper-body strength and a bad back susceptible to painful spasms when overworked, and with little to no experience or manual skills, I face a fearsome uphill battle.

This is where the delightful concept of "Permablitz" comes in.  It is a recent coinage--I don't know who invented it, but etymologically, it is a felicitous oxymoron, meaning, roughly "Permanent Lightning."  And it refers to the Permaculture community's equivalent of a barn raising among the Amish: an event where a large group of "Permies" converge upon one person's garden, to pitch in and help take up their monocultural lawn and lay the more complex infrastructure for the Permaculture garden to follow.  In return for this service, the beneficiary agrees to participate in Permablitzes for others to follow. Here is a delightful videoclip from New Zealand that illustrates a Permablitz in action. Note how they begin by laying out a set of specific tasks, and then the participants learn and teach each other by doing, throughout the day, so that everyone is enriched with new knowledge and skills, even as they help one of their members get off to a running start.

What I love about the Permablitz concept is that it is a vivid illustration of the truth embedded in a slogan I came up with some time ago:

Grow Gardens...
Grow Community...
Grow Awareness...

In short, the minute you undertake, seriously, to grow a garden, you start creating community almost immediately. First, you get into conversations with neighbors and passersby, who are all too willing to share insights and information about local growing conditions--what grows well, what doesn't, etc. And a Permablitz will accelerate this process of community-building enormously, as participants learn and teach one another the skills they are implementing on behalf of one of their members.

Finally, through such bonding and community-building, everyone's awareness is raised of both the guiding ethics of Permaculture (Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share) and of the challenges they share in healing the landscape and community. In effect, a Permablitz is a practical and visionary way of creating a convivial Gaian culture from the ground up, for the fruits of it will be more thriving Permaculture gardens along with greater reciprocity, shared problem-solving, and conviviality throughout the community--taking care of everyone, and abandoning no one.

It is a vivid illustration of the benefits of reciprocity--of sharing knowledge rather than hoarding it, of working with one another rather than for a boss or employer. A Permablitz illustrates the truth embedded in the Chinese concept of Guanxi --their traditional social network of reciprocal gifts and obligations within an ever-expanding community. As a Chinese proverb goes, "Guanxi is better than money."  Likewise, through the expansion of Permaculture, people may yet discover as well that Gaia is better than Glomart--that working together, sharing ideas, and restoring topsoil, ecosystems, and bioregions is far better than competing, exploiting, hoarding, and polluting. As Permaculture guru Geoff Lawton put it, "You can solve all the world's problems in a Garden."

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Renewal--A Fantasy?

Imagine, as Western Industrial Civilization goes into its terminal phase, with corporate oligarchy displacing democracy, workers' rights giving way to corporate slavery, hordes of environmental refugees destabilizing societies, and gangs, militias, and warlords battling it out on the streets in every city, and hateful, vicious demagogues like Trump running rampant, all while climate change wreaks ecological havoc and starvation sets in--as the rich and powerful recede behind walled and gated compounds, fiercely defended by security guards, while swarms of the poor and destitute besiege their walls...

As our earth careens toward ecological, economic, and social collapse...

Imagine a soft-spoken, gentle, but intense young man or woman leading a weekly Dharma Gaia Circle, a meditation/study group whose members work together, practicing the Dharma Gaia Mantra (Breathe-Observe-Let Go-Be Well-Do Good Work-Keep in Touch-Learn-Teach-Heal-Create) and studying the Three Essential Disciplines: Tonglen, Satyagraha, and Permaculture...

And this group catches on and buds off, creating similar Dharma Gaia Circles elsewhere, all of whom stay in touch...

And they manage to pool their money and buy land, creating Dharma Gaia Practice Centers, where other people are invited to learn the Three Essential Disciplines in concert, and train others in them as well...

And as time goes on, Permaculture projects begin to restore devastated communities to flourishing, as Satyagraha practices neutralize aggression and convert antagonists to supporters, one by one...and some form of mindfulness practice becomes embedded in the lifeways of every civilization, coupled with the threefold Permaculture ethos of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.

And in good time, even their most resistant enemies--Republicans, or Christian and Muslim fundamentalists--begin to see the immediate and long term benefits of Gaian practices and adapt them to their own ideological purposes.

Could it happen?  Perhaps something like this could happen, with luck. Similar mass movements have transformed the consciousness of whole civilizations before--e.g. Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam--and even (for a while) Communism. But could this happen without polarization--without "us" vs. "them" arising in any form, with predictable violence and bigotry to follow?

Even the devoutly Buddhist culture of Burma, after all, is currently engaged in an appalling genocide campaign against their own demonized Other--that is, the Rohingya Muslim refugees whom they see as a threat to their culture.

Is it possible for people to call themselves "Gaians" without the tribal instinct arising, in which they pit themselves against, and demonize "Anti-Gaians" (or perhaps they might be called "Glomartians")? Even if we build into a Gaia movement the idea that we are all Gaians, conscious or unconscious, this differs little from the core idea of Buddhism--that everyone has a Buddha nature within--or Christianity (loving our neighbor--whoever he is--as ourselves). Yet this deep spiritual insight of Oneness common to most religious cultures has done little to curb the factionalism, the bigotry, or the violence that these religious cultures inflict on one another. Perhaps, as humans, we are simply not good enough to live up to our own highest ideals, when we feel threatened.

Gandhi, after all, had scarcely succeeded in peacefully throwing off the long, oppressive yoke of British imperialism before a nasty schismogenic split arose between Muslims and Hindus, the former breaking off to form Pakistan, and all involved in bloody, persistent intercommunal violence. And when he tried to make peace between the warring camps by traveling to Pakistan, he was assassinated by one of his own--a Hindu ideologue for whom peace with Muslims was treason.

So perhaps such tribalism is in our genes indelibly. The minute we posit an "us" we simultaneously must create a "them" by which to define ourselves (and of course, vice versa--the "them" would then demonize "us" in turn).

This raises a larger question: if an ideal (such as universal brotherhood, sisterhood, tolerance, and care for all living things) may be impossible to achieve in actuality, does that negate the value of striving for it?

The short answer, for me, is NO.  We all routinely strive for what I like to call asymptotic ideals--that is, ideals which, like an asymptotic curve in mathematics, are an approximation to which we can draw ever closer without actually realizing it in full. I would go even further in saying that ALL ideals, worthy of our striving, are inherently asymptotic. For any one of them, there are likely, and inevitably, to be setbacks--periods in which we backslide from that ideal, rather than drawing closer. An obvious example is the recent regrettable transition from the Obama era, when Dr. King's dream--the image of a nation that had finally abandoned racism--finally became conceivable, to the current, toxic Trump era, when ugly, vicious racism has crept out of the shadows and is cropping up everywhere.

Yet when a nation backslides so grievously from its own highest professed ideals, that is all the more reason for us, as individuals, to recommit ourselves to those ideals, with mindful, strategic, and relentless determination. But real change happens, not from the top down, (as with Obama) but from the ground up. Even if Trump destroys our American democracy, the ideals at the founding of our nation remain inviolable, and always available to us as individuals both to proclaim and practice.

But I would go further than this.  The rise of Trump and similar hateful demagogues throughout the world, and the retreat of liberal democratic values, may also signal that the era of the nation state itself has reached its horizon of efficacy, and that as our nation and its institutions dissolve into corporate-sponsored tyranny, violence, corruption, and chaos, we must plant the seeds of a worldwide Gaian culture close to home--in our own backyards, and in reaching out to the destitute, threatened populations within our own communities-- refugees, immigrants, minorities, and all threatened and demonized "others"--to stand in solidarity with them, to teach them how to garden, and to create communities based on the three core values of Permaculture--Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.  America is (or may well be) dying; long live Gaia!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Beyond Asceticism

In the Judaic and early Christian near east and medieval Europe, as in India and Tibet, asceticism, or radical self-denial in order to cultivate spiritual insight (or Divine Grace--whatever the local term might have been) was widely practiced. The Essenes, the Desert Fathers, the early Christian monastic communities in such barren, remote, and isolated outposts as Skellig Michael off the west coast of Ireland, took very seriously the injunction that "purity of heart requires denial of self" as Meister Eckhart, the Medieval German theologian and mystic, put it. In medieval Europe, anchorite nuns would even lock themselves inside basement chambers and live on charitable handouts from passersby, while spending their entire lives in contemplative prayer. Many of them did this in the devout belief that their own contemplative self-denial would somehow heal the world--that their prayers would lead, by a kind of osmosis, to a more peaceful and just society.

Any evidence for this remains to be seen. From my reading of history, the cultures that honored and encouraged such asceticism were every bit as corrupt, as power-hungry, as brutal, and as greedy as any other cultures.

Today, of course, we have gone to the opposite extreme.  In Glomart culture, both here and worldwide, the ideology of totally self-indulgent consumerism has run rampant: to be is to buy.
We are brainwashed with this consumer ideology all day and night, and most of us, myself included, fall under its spell, simply because of its almost irresistable appeal to our grasping, unconscious, animal selves: "That's cool. How much?" We are dazzled by constantly evolving strategies by merchants and advertisers everywhere, in our communities, on television, and online, to win over our next dollar, so that we seldom pause for a moment to reflect on where the money for this new toy, new snack, or new service is actually going, or what its longer term effect will be on our bodies, our minds, or our planet.  The net effect, inevitably, is the upward concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, coupled with a gnawing, inchoate discontent in the masses, all of whom want even more stuff without even pausing to ask why. Yet we remain perpetually dissatisfied; we always want more or better stuff, and the advertisers spend billions to ensure that we keep buying the latest new product or service--that we are never satisfied.

One deeply disillusioned Vietnam Vet, commenting on an article from Alternet about the online mega-retail giant Amazon.com and its most recent efforts to solicit handouts of taxpayer money from cash-strapped state governments in their bid to win over its new headquarters, wrote of his principled decision to adopt an ascetic lifestyle--to dumpster dive for clothing and shoes (even if mismatched) and to keep the purchase of anything to an absolute minimum, based on his realization of the deep connection between corporations and the government that had led to the horrors he had witnessed in Vietnam.  Here is my response to his comment:

I deeply respect your principled choices. However, self-sacrifice and organizing one's life around personalized resistance to corporate consumerism and militarism may be virtuous, but it is a kind of futile martyrdom--it will never catch on, never even make the slightest dent in Glomart (my shorthand for the Global Market Economy and Consumer Culture, of which the US is now the paradigm, but all other industrialized countries are complicit as well).
What can and will make a dent, then? My own response is a triad, which combines vertical (body-mind-spirit) with horizontal (self-community-planet) healing. That triad is--
(1) Mindfulness practice--to cultivate clear but non-self-flagellatory awareness of one's own mental impulses and gradually transform them from addictive habits of self-indulgence (the basis of consumer culture, nurtured by 24/7 advertising) to attentive, mindful choices to promote the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our community, and our planet simultaneously. I use a simple triad to remember this: Good buy, Good work, Good will.
(2) Satyagraha, or nonviolent refusal to cooperate with evil. Much of what you are doing falls into this category already, for which I commend you. But Gandhi laid out three interrelated aspects of Satyagraha:
--Speaking truth to power (through LTEs, Public Protest, voting, and calls to elected officials and their appointees);
--Acts of strategic nonviolent mass resistance, when appropriate.
--Cultivating self-reliance on behalf of ourselves and our communities.
...and doing all of the above mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly.
(3) Permaculture, an enlightened design methodology based on mindful observation and emulation of natural processes that is rooted in three core ethics:
--Earth Care
--People Care
--Fair Share, or (reinvesting the surplus in the first two).
This is my path. Thank you for sharing yours.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017


Warning to readers: Reading the following linked article may ruin your day. Be forewarned.


When I read this article this evening, I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach. A recent longitudinal study in Germany has revealed that the population of flying insects across the study area, which included wildlife preserves across Germany, has declined by 75% in the past 20 years, due to industrial agriculture and pesticides.  Rachel Carson's terrifying vision of a "silent spring" seems well on its way to reality. Yet this appalling worldwide crisis gets scant attention from the news media (which is wearily preoccupied with the latest grotesque idiocy, posturing, lying, and boorishness of the Orange Man...)

Insects are the cornerstone of our continental ecosystems, and have been ever since they first co-evolved with land-based plants during the Ordovician period, some 400 million years ago. Flying insects form the diet of countless birds, their grubs contribute enormously to the food chain of topsoil and streams, and they pollinate most of our flowering plants--including most of the food we eat. This precipitous loss of the remaining insect population likely spells doom for humanity, as well as most of the other plants and animals we know. Coupled with current alarming trends in anthropogenic climate disruption (mislabeled "climate change" by Bush-era propagandists in order to cloud the minds of the public by their delusional platitude that "climate always changes"), along with topsoil loss, deforestation, desertification, and collapse of fisheries, we may well be looking at Gaiacide--the murder of the only life-supporting planet we will ever know. But this murder is, of course, suicide as well.  Global industrial civilization (or what I call "Glomart"), the Cancer of the Earth, may be in its terminal phase, wherein it consumes and destroys its own support system and perishes, condemning us all to a horrific early death.

Yet as I read this article, my despair increased yet further when I read some of the (perfectly reasonable) policy recommendations at the end, such as "a global treaty to regulate pesticides" and a call for "firm rules" based on environmental assessments, requiring those who use the land to protect and restore ecosystems, and so forth. Perfectly reasonable suggestions--but what is the likelihood that any of these will ever be enacted? Practically zilch--since all the governments and intergovernmental bodies responsible for enacting and enforcing such policies are now totally dominated by powerful corporate interests, who control not only governments, but the global mass media as well, ensuring that the vast majority of the population never suspect that there is anything wrong with pesticides or monocultures, nor that there is any problem with precipitously declining insect populations.

The root of this crisis, which threatens to put an end not only to civilization but to life on Earth as we know it, lie in the money system, for money is just arithmetic, an abstract measure of the marginal value of commodities--the value they have when they are no longer immediately useful to the owner. As a consequence, Glomart--the system we have built based on the global exchange of money--has everything to gain and nothing to lose from turning nature into commodities, as rapidly and efficiently as possible. And those with a vested interest in steadily expanding profits--the global corporations and their stockholders--will never consent to any proposed policy that limits or reduces the profitability of their enterprise or their influence over their consumer base, and will use every means available--corruption of policymakers through intensive lobbying and huge, unregulated campaign contributions; saturating the mass media with pro-corporate propaganda and attack ads aimed at politicians who dare to promote regulation in the public interest; externalization of costs (through pollution); and suppression or falsification of any information from scientists that threatens their profit margins.

Yet the logic of money is diametrically opposed to the inherent logic of healthy ecosystems. While Glomart runs on a logic of maximization--the major premise of the money system that more is always better--all biological systems run on a logic of optimization: enough is enough, for too much or too little of any biological value--from energy input to water supply to population, predator/prey ratio, body temperature, heart rate, or fat content--is toxic to the system.

From this perspective, it is obvious that global industrial society--and especially industrial agriculture, with its dependence on monocultures drenched with topsoil-destroying fertilizers and increasingly toxic pesticides--has become a terminal cancer on the Earth, and that cancer is now going into its final stages, where it is unstoppable even while it clearly destroys its own biological support system. And cancer, as we know, has only two possible outcomes: systemic collapse (death) or spontaneous remission.

All of which leads to the burning question of our time: is spontaneous remission even possible for the cancer of the Earth? 

I don't know. The skeptic in me shakes his head and says "fageddaboudit." The odds against it are simply too vast to warrant any hope, given the intensity of our collective addiction to the money game, and the inherent propensity of the money system to concentrate both money and power in fewer and fewer hands, all of whom have ever more to gain from plundering the planet and commandeering its remaining resources, both physical and biological, to turn into commodities for the market as quickly as possible. Regardless of how horrible things get, they will not voluntarily relinquish either their money or power or influence over the clueless masses. Instead, they are already caught up in a feeding frenzy, competing intensely with one another to loot what remains of our petroleum, natural gas, coal, fisheries, forests, endangered wildlife, agricultural topsoil, and public lands, and turn them all into commodities for quick sale. In this respect, the election of Trump constitutes the death of democracy, the final corporate takeover of the entire planet, and the poisoning of the well of public discourse.

And yet...there is Permaculture. Although the worldwide Permaculture movement is invisible to the mass media, and fewer than 1% of our global population has ever heard of it, I still see it as the only potentially viable means we have for triggering the spontaneous remission of the Cancer of the Earth.

How so? you might ask, with justifiable skepticism. Shortly before he died prematurely of pancreatic cancer,  Toby Hemenway,  renowned Permaculture guru and author of the magnificent books Gaia's Garden and The Permaculture City, gave a podcast called "Liberation Permaculture" in which he sketched out his latest thinking about the revolutionary potential of Permaculture design for subverting the systems of control by which local, state, and federal governments monitor agricultural land in ways that benefit their corporate sponsors. His argument was that controlling a resource requires measuring or counting it, and the practice of Permaculture, with its web of diverse, interacting elements, functions, and needs among plants, animals, topsoil, and humans, makes it extremely difficult to count or measure any output. And since money is nothing but counting and measuring, this fact enables Permaculture practitioners to gradually and inconspicuously emancipate themselves from the oppression and domination of corporate sponsored governments, as they build self-reliant communities from the ground up to replace them.

But can Permaculture spread rapidly enough to make a difference--to halt our ongoing global destruction before we all fall victim to the collapse of our biosphere? Obviously, I don't know. It depends on whether or not we can propagate the idea of Permaculture rapidly enough for it to catch on before the Glomart neofascists get wind of it, and bulldoze every Permaculture-based backyard, farm, or settlement they find to plant chemical-drenched monocultures.

So yes--Permaculture can, in theory, bring about spontaneous remission of the Glomart cancer, but only in conjunction with other forms of nonviolent resistance and public education. (For a perceptive reading on this topic, see Joanna Macy's article, "The Great Turning.")  Permaculture is therefore a discipline and a movement to which I can happily devote the rest of my days as a living being on this planet, in the time remaining before I return to compost and humus for future generations.

Friday, July 28, 2017

No matter what...

As most of us know, our political landscape has turned bizarre, surrealistic, and deeply unnerving since the malignant rise of Donald Trump, that personification of Adharma, and of all that is selfish, greedy, childish, short-sighted, willfully ignorant, and mean-spirited in the collective psyche of America.  His destructive, malevolent craziness continues and accelerates, unabated, day by day, yet our politicians (especially Republicans) daily give new meaning to the familiar couplet from Yeats' "The Second Coming:"

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full/Of passionate intensity."

How do we cope with this "rough beast" that has slouched his way into the White House?

At such unnerving moments, I often turn to two simple injunctions that succinctly summarize the wisdom traditions of both West and East.  By "West" I refer to the Abrahamic religions as a whole--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Even though I do not subscribe to the ideological litmus tests of any of these, I have long believed that every wisdom tradition on the planet--East, West, North, and South--is an admixture of Dharma and Identity Politics. The latter--Identity Politics--takes the form of creeds, and of claims of either primacy or exclusive divine sanction by any of these traditions; Dharma inheres in the perennial wisdom at the core of most of them.  As the great Indian guru Nanak once put it, "I do not accept creeds.  Truth remains truth. It is the colored lenses of the self that reflect it in various colors."

But back to the two injunctions, here they are:

1. The wisdom of the West, in a nutshell: No matter what, trust God.

This slogan, which started cropping up on lawn signs and bumper stickers here in Hampton, and perhaps elsewhere, nicely encapsulates the essential wisdom shared by all Abrahamic traditions.  And it is very good advice, regardless of whether or not one "believes" in God (whatever THAT may mean). One need not adhere to a tradition-sanctioned ideological definition of God, whether by the Torah, the Bible, or the Qu'ran, in order to "trust God." If we understand the concept of "God" as a personification of the Sacred, even if we choose not to commit ourselves to any further definition, the advice is still sound, and in fact, indispensable to a healthy attitude toward life: to accept that that is, and let go of the subjunctive--especially the past subjunctive--altogether. This attitude of trust is nicely summed up in the mantra that Jesus gives us as the centerpiece of his recommended prayer: "Thy will be done."

2. The wisdom of the East, in a nutshell:  No matter what, breathe, observe, and let go.

If "trusting God" is the essence of a healthy spiritual attitude, then the above injunction encapsulates the  essential practice of all the Dharmic religions of the Far East ( including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, etc). It refers to the best, time-tested way to translate a healthy attitude (i.e. trusting God) into actual daily practice--the way we live our lives, moment to moment. It is helpful to remember that the Latin word "spirit" is rooted in the verb spiro, spirare which means "to breathe." So everything we might call "spiritual" is rooted in the simple act of returning to our breath, that ongoing flow of oxygen in, CO2 out, that sustains our lives and mediates our interactions with all other life on our planet.

So the simple practice of breathing, observing and letting go, infused by an abiding attitude of trust in God (or whatever you call the Sacred) is something we can all do to preserve or restore sanity, and thereby become agents of healing (be well, do good work, keep in touch) and regeneration (learn, teach, heal, and create) even if, or as, our social and political order spirals downward into chaos and madness.

No matter what....

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dharma Gaia Manifesto

Dharma Gaia:

Spiritual Practice for a Finite World

Thomas I. Ellis


Dharma is a Sanskrit word, from the Hindu and later Buddhist traditions of India and the Far East, that originally meant “law” or “that to which we adhere.” It is related etymologically, through Indo-European, to the Latin root firm- as in “firmament” or “affirm” or “confirm.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “the ultimate law of all things” and as “individual right conduct in conformity to that law.” In ancient Hindu culture, it came also to mean the sacred duties incumbent upon people in accordance with the caste into which they were born—as priests, soldiers, artisans, merchants, or common laborers. But with the rise of Buddhism, dharma came to be synonymous with the Buddha’s teachings, and hence is sometimes translated (inadequately, in my view) as “doctrine.”  It also refers, usually in the plural, to phenomena, to the things of the world as they appear to us. Hence the dharmakaya, or body of dharma, came to mean simultaneously the phenomenal world as it is and the body of truth embedded in the Buddha’s teachings; in Mahayana Buddhism, it is one of the “three bodies of the Buddha.” In fact the Buddha originally referred to his own teachings not as “Buddhism” (a western coinage) but rather simply as “dharma practice”—the practice of learning to do the right thing, based on a clear understanding of reality.

Gaia (GAIA) is the ancient Greek name for the primordial Earth goddess, and provides the root (gh-) of all the Greek-derived words that refer to the Earth—geology, geometry, geode, and the name George, originally meaning “farmer” or “earth-worker” (gh + ourgos )  In recent years, however, the mythic name Gaia has been brought back from archeological obscurity and given new life by certain renegade scientists. In the late 1960s, at the suggestion of his neighbor, novelist William Golding, British biochemist James Lovelock adopted Gaia as a suitable name for his revolutionary new theory of biogenic global homeostasis.  In a nutshell, Lovelock suggested that, far from being mere passengers on a planet that happened to be suitable for living things, the biota collectively and interactively sustain the far-from-equilibrium thermal, atmospheric, and geochemical conditions that, in turn, sustain life.  Since 1970, when Lovelock published his first book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, the name Gaia has gained widespread currency as a metaphor for our new ecological understanding of life on Earth as a fully integrated, self-sustaining, but perishable system of which we are a part, rather than merely as a “resource” with no value until it is transformed into commodities. It thus has come to refer, not only to an ancient Greek myth and a scientific model named after the myth, but also to a metaphor based on the model, and a worldwide cultural movement based on that metaphor.

Dharma Gaia is thus a bilingual, East-West pun on dharmakaya—the living Earth itself as the body of Dharma—and can be roughly translated in practice as “doing the right thing for the living Earth.”  The term was first used for the title of a 1990 anthology, Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology  edited by Allan Hunt Badiner, who suggested it as the name for “a merging of Buddhism, deep ecology, and feminism”(xvii). In the present work, I hope to follow the path blazed by this anthology and others—by the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, along with ecovisionary Buddhist writers such as Gary Snyder, Joanna Macy, Joan Halifax, Bill Devall, Ralph Abraham, and Elizabeth Roberts—in developing a useful paradigm for the practice of Gaian Buddhism—for engaged Buddhist practice in service to the living Earth, in our time of unprecedented global ecological crisis.

Our Present Reality

Our present generation has an awesome, unprecedented challenge: for the first time in our history, we are obliged to choose, collectively, whether we have a future at all. In the past, no matter how bad things became locally due to war, famine, or pestilence, there always remained the hope that, if we or our children simply moved elsewhere, or started anew where we were, things would be better for future generations. It was this hope, for example, that drove millions of immigrants to the new world, that also sustained the slaves on southern plantations through generations of harsh and bitter oppression, and that burned in the hearts of soldiers in the trenches during the two World Wars. There were always new horizons, fresh possibilities, to beckon us or our children toward a brighter future.

In the present generation, all this has changed. While our present, at least in North America, is characterized by affluence unimaginable to our ancestors—cars, suburban homes, computers, instant access to information and to people all over the world, jet travel anywhere we want to go, 24-hour entertainment, and an endless array of options for virtually everything we choose to buy, eat, or do, our collective global future is looking bleaker and bleaker. Fossil fuels, especially oil, that have been more responsible than anything else for the explosive growth of our global population, technology, and per-capita wealth during the past century and a half, are nearing the peak of their global productive potential in this decade, while demand for these fuels, and the products and services that they provide, continues to soar. After the oil peak passes, there will be a steady, irreversible decline of net energy available from petroleum at 2-3% per year, causing the prices of everything, including food (which relies on fossil fuels for both fertilizer and transportation) to skyrocket.  This will turn the already yawning gap between rich and poor into chasm, creating a grim scenario of shrinking islands of ruthlessly defended wealth in a growing sea of poverty, chaos, violence, terrorism, war, and starvation.

But that’s not all. The carbon emissions from our worldwide dependence on oil, coal, and gas are heating up our global climate at a faster rate than at any time in recorded human history, causing the polar ice caps to melt, spawning an unprecedented spate of destructive hurricanes and tornadoes, turning agricultural areas into deserts, wiping out the flora and fauna of whole bioregions, causing northward migration of ravaging tropical diseases, increasing our reliance on air-conditioning, hence on electricity, hence on fossil or nuclear power—while simultaneously increasing the CFC emissions that are destroying the ozone layer. 

But even that’s not all. Our worldwide supply of fertile topsoil—crucial for growing the crops we eat for food—has been exhausted by the relentless application of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides, and is eroding faster than at any time in history, while worldwide agricultural productivity, having risen steadily since the Industrial Revolution, has peaked and is now declining, despite intensive efforts to boost productivity through fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic engineering. Yet the global population, already over six billion, continues to grow steadily.

Nor is that all. Our freshwater aquifers worldwide are strained to the limit, and are rapidly becoming exhausted, while dams are destroying freshwater and anadromous fisheries, and irrigation is causing increased salinity in soils. At the same time, our ocean fisheries are collapsing worldwide due to overfishing and pollution, and the coral reefs that form the foundation of the marine food chain are dying off due to global warming—all while the demand for fish continues to grow.

And finally, our forests are being chopped down, wetlands filled in, and diverse flora and fauna exterminated at a breakneck pace throughout the world, to accommodate growing human demands for housing, commerce, and industry, and to fill the coffers of greedy global corporations, all in competition with one another to maximize the bottom line—a kind of global feeding frenzy on the web of life itself.

All these interacting trends point toward a grim future indeed, a global die-off, a self-accelerating downward spiral of chaos, repression, random violence, war, and mass starvation on a ruined and ecologically degraded planet growing hotter and less habitable every day.

Unless… What? Do we have any choice? Is this horrific scenario our only remaining prospect for the future? Should we not simply swallow cyanide and get it over with, like Jim Jones and his followers?

We cannot call off the coming apocalypse altogether. We cannot turn back the clock and restore the vast rainforests and biodiversity we have already lost. And even if we drastically curb fossil fuel consumption, we cannot immediately stop global warming trends. And we probably cannot restore the United States of America to anything resembling a real democracy, where the press is truly free, where a cultural consensus enables the two parties to govern effectively, or where public officials serve the public interest, rather than pandering to their corporate backers. Great civilizations, once in decay, normally continue to degenerate into tyranny and plutocracy.

So what can we do?

Reclaiming the Present Moment.

My answer is simple, but as I hope to show, far-reaching in its implications. We can reclaim the present moment. But what good will that do?

The present is all there is. We think and talk incessantly about the past and future, but in actuality, the past is gone irrevocably and the future hasn’t happened yet—both are mental constructs. As Buddhist teachings instruct us, and our own reflection confirms as common sense, the present moment, with all its constraints and possibilities, is the net consequence of interacting causes and conditions extending all the way back to the Big Bang. And the future likewise will be shaped entirely by the choices we make in this moment, even if we take into account the future constraints imposed by the unwise choices we have made in the past. Our choices today will still extend or diminish our range of possibilities for the future. And therein lies the source of our potential empowerment, the seeds of renewed hope.

My Vision: A Worldwide Gaia Movement

What would happen if a popular movement started—call it the Gaia movement, if you will—in which ever-growing numbers of people shifted their loyalties and identification upward, including but transcending their own reference groups--organization, religion, or nationality--and even including but transcending “humanity” as a whole, to embrace Gaia—our precious and unique living planet itself? What if people started calling themselves Gaians, and acted accordingly? This is my dream in a nutshell, for if this were to happen, here are a few possible consequences:

·       People would then habitually assume responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of every dollar they earned, spent, and invested. As a consequence, producers and vendors would be economically rewarded for choosing more sustainably produced goods and services to meet the demand of their customers, while polluters and heedless destroyers would lose business and collapse.
·       Gaian consciousness—awareness of our participation in a finite, wondrous planetary web of life—would pervade our culture and educational system, constantly encouraging people to choose the more life-sustaining option in selecting a career, in building communities, and in buying and selling commodities.
·       Protecting and restoring ecosystems would rise to the top of the social and political agenda, becoming an ongoing collective project of all our communities and societies.
·       International cooperation to promote sustainable agriculture and to address transnational ecological issues (like collapsing ocean fisheries or global warming) would become the rule, rather than the exception.
·       War would be far less likely, since people’s identification with Gaia would come prior to their identification with their nation or religion. Killing people or destroying other life forms would become anathema to most people.
·       The manufacturing sector would be reconfigured into industrial ecologies, where the waste products of any one enterprise were immediately recycled into the raw materials of another, and toxic contaminants were carefully monitored, controlled, recycled where possible, or sequestered.
·       Local economies would diversify, as locally produced energy (solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and the hydrogen produced locally by fuel cells from these sources) displaced the highly centralized delivery grids based on fossil and nuclear fuels. Wealth would be redistributed accordingly.
·       Population would level off and decline, as women had more educational opportunities, and as local, ecologically conscious communities established and enforced carrying capacity limits and land use regulations to protect ecosystems and soil fertility.

Such measures, of course, would not immediately solve all the crises we now face. Global warming would be slowed, but not reversed for at least another generation. The corporate elite would do everything in their power to suppress the Gaia movement as it caught on, but eventually they would see that their own economic interests lay in joining it. Lost topsoil will not be regenerated for millennia, and of course extinct species are gone forever. But the net result would nevertheless be a far more livable world than the one toward which all present trends are headed—a world in the process of healing, not dying. But how can this happen? How can Gaianity catch on and spread?

Sowing the Seed

In his delightful ecological parable The Lorax, Dr. Seuss tells the story of the Onceler, the personification of corporate greed, who discovers a fine meadow full of brightly colored Truffula Trees, and immediately sets up an operation to chop them down and turn them into “Thneeds”—amorphous, but hot-selling consumer goods. As the trees disappear and the factory churns out air and water pollutants, the ecosystem collapses, sending the Koala-like “brown barbaloots” and the “humming fish” away in search of greener pastures. Throughout, the Onceler is confronted by the Lorax, a fuzzy nature spirit who “speaks for the trees” and repeatedly denounces the Onceler’s rapacious enterprises to no avail—until the very last truffula tree falls, and the Thneed business collapses, amid the grim polluted air and water, where nothing grows but “grickle-grass.” In the gloomy, polluted landscape at the end of the story, the boy protagonist comes upon a pedestal with the word “UNLESS” engraved on it. The now-penitent Onceler interprets it as follows:

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot
Nothing is going to get better—it’s not.

After this sobering moral of the story, the Onceler entrusts the boy with the “very last truffula seed of them all,” enjoining him to

            Feed it fresh water, and give it clean air;
            Grow a forest – protect it from axes that hack,
            Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.

I would like to offer the reader my own Truffula Seed—an easily memorized formulation which, if recited and practiced regularly, can serve as the foundation for a life-long Dharma Gaia practice. As it catches on and is disseminated, this practice can serve as a lifeline to a better global future for all of us, by paradoxically returning our attention to the present moment. Before I present it, I would like to acknowledge my debt to all my teachers, past and present, starting with my heart Dharma teacher, the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, and including Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Gregory Bateson, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and myriad others, especially the popular radio host Garrison Keillor (as we shall see).

My Dharma Gaia practice is based on a luminous teaching from Lao Tzu, verse 54 (as adapted from translations by Gia-fu Feng and Man-ho Kwok):

What is firmly established cannot be uprooted.
What is firmly grasped cannot slip away.
It will be honored from generation to generation.

Cultivate Virtue in yourself,
And Virtue will be real.
Cultivate it in the family,
And Virtue will abound.
Cultivate it in the village,
And Virtue will grow.
Cultivate it in the nation,
And Virtue will be abundant.
Cultivate it in the universe,
And Virtue will be everywhere.

Therefore look at someone else as you would yourself;
Look at other families as your own family;
Look at every village as your own village;
Look at all nations as your own nation,
And treasure the world [Gaia] as the round center of everything.

How can I see the world like this?
Because I have eyes.

This wondrous passage is the best recipe I know for anyone who is seriously interested in becoming an agent of global transformation and healing. It emphasizes that real change—the kind that matters—starts from the ground up, not the top down. And that it is rooted in “cultivating Virtue in ourselves” first, so that it is “firmly established” and can spread, by example as well as by precept.  But how can we best “cultivate Virtue in ourselves”?   There are, of course, many techniques for doing this, but here is a brief summary of my own Dharma Gaia formulation, which I offer as a seed of contemplation and practice for anyone who wishes to commit him or herself to healing our precious living planet.

So here it is…

The Principle: We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Precept: Take care of everyone, and abandon no one. Take care of everything, and abandon nothing.” –Lao Tzu.

The Practice:
1.     Breathe, Observe, Let Go.
2.     Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch. –Garrison Keillor
3.     Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, Create Gaia.

Now, let’s unpack it:

The Principle.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
--Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his foundational Sermon at Benares, the Buddha laid down the Four Noble Truths as follows: the truth of inevitable suffering; the recognition of craving or attachment as the cause of suffering; the possibility of letting go of attachments and therefore of release from suffering, and the method (the Eightfold Path) for doing so. And in his Eightfold Path, his first step was Right Understanding—a clear, unobstructed view of reality. The Buddha epitomized Right Understanding in the Three Dharma Seals—the three basic realities of experience, which are litmus tests of authentic Dharma teachings: Impermanence, Interbeing, and Oneness. The first two of these correspond to the Second and First Laws of Thermodynamics—the Law of Entropy (impermanence) and the Law of Conservation of Energy (interbeing). The Third Dharma Seal—oneness or Nirvana—cannot be grasped intellectually, but can best be expressed by the famous refrain from the Upanishads: That Thou Art.

The above luminous quote from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that I have chosen to express the Dharma Gaia Principle encapsulates all three Dharma Seals: the “inescapable network of mutuality” (interbeing); the “single garment of destiny” (impermanence); and “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (oneness). It can therefore be used as a succinct expression and reminder of the Dharma as a whole—as a major premise upon which to ground all of our thoughts and actions.

This quote is true at all levels—it could as easily have been spoken by a quantum physicist, a chemist, a biologist, a sociologist, or an economist as it was by a theologian, as a summation of what we now know about our deeply interrelated world.

Moreover, it is also the clearest expression I know of the insights embedded in Gaia theory—that life on Earth is an “inescapable network of mutuality” where “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Simply committing this quote to memory and periodically reciting it to ourselves and others can do much to remind us gently of the consequences of our actions, individually and collectively, on both other people and the living Earth. Dr. King’s words, a summation of both Dharma and Gaia, are entirely reliable as a touchstone against which to evaluate the merit of any other philosophical or ethical proposition. They are an apt standard for evaluating everything we think, say, and do. Dr. King has given us direct, immediate access to Right Understanding.

The Precept.

Take care of everyone and abandon no one; take care of everything and abandon nothing. –Lao Tzu

After Right Understanding, the next three steps in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path address both ethical intention and behavior: Right Intentions, Right Speech, and Right Action.. All these can be summarized by the parallel precept derived from Lao Tzu, verse 27 (Gia Fu Feng): “Therefore the sage takes care of everyone/And abandons no one. He takes care of everything, and abandons nothing.”

This precept derives logically from an understanding of the Principle: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” It contains within it all of the Five Precepts that form the basis for ethical behavior in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions (and that are reflected in the five ethical commandments of the biblical Ten Commandments). Here they are, as recently reinterpreted by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Ahimsa (nonviolence; doing no harm): Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.

Asteya (nonstealing; freedom from avarice): Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I will practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need.  I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

Brahmacharya (control of sensual pleasure): Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society.  I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.

Satya (truthfulness): Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize and condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division and discord, or that cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

Aparigraha (noncovetousness or moderation): Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, or conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

These five precepts—the essence of Right Intentions, Right Speech, and Right Action—are all implicit in Lao Tzu’s parallel precept: Take care of everyone and abandon no one; take care of everything and abandon nothing. The “everyone” includes ourselves (Fifth Precept) and the “everything” includes our planet (First and Second Precept—“people, animals, plants, and minerals.”)

The Practice.

Noble philosophical principles and ethical precepts are all well and good, and are easy to grasp and recite, but do little if any good unless we consistently translate them into practice. And as Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice laments, “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces…I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.”

Knowing this yawning gap between good counsel and our actual, habituated behavior, the Buddha devised a series of direct, hands-on Dharma practices for his disciples, which are embedded in the last four injunctions of his Eightfold Path—Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. However, He instructed his disciples on these in reverse order, starting with training in Right Concentration. In the injunctions for Dharma Gaia practice, I have endeavored to follow his example:

1. Breathe, Observe, Let Go

In his Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Buddha set out an easily grasped sequence of guided meditations that anyone could practice, any time. The first instruction he gave was remarkably simple: “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Newcomers to Buddhist practice are often baffled by the tautological simplicity of this instruction, but the Buddha knew exactly what he was doing. Simple attention to our breath connects our bodies and minds in the vertical dimension, and thereby prevents us, for a while, from thinking about all the other stuff that habitually plagues our consciousness—our obsessions, hopes, desires, fantasies, fears, and anxieties, as well as our physical aches and pains. At the same time, bringing our consciousness to our breath causes us to breathe more smoothly and deeply, thus calming us down, alleviating our stress.

Naturally, all our habitual distractions worm their way back into our awareness sooner or later, but the Buddha anticipated this as well, by following with breathing exercises that draw attention to, and encourage us to observe, acknowledge, embrace, and let go of, whatever rises to our attention in our bodies, feelings, mental formations, and consciousness. His final instruction sums up the practice: “Breathing in, I observe letting go. Breathing out, I observe letting go.”

The essence of the foundational practice of mindfulness and concentration that the Buddha taught his disciples is contained in this final instruction. We breathe in order to observe—whatever is going on in our body or mind, starting with the breath itself, and moving on to our body, feelings, and thoughts. And we observe in order to let go—not to push thoughts or feelings away, but just to observe the coming and going of thoughts and feelings, rather than becoming attached to them. And we let go in order to breathe. And so on. The net effect of this simple but powerful practice is to restore our equanimity, to bring us back to the present moment, again and again. It grounds us in what is, so that we may let go of all the subjunctives that torment us—all the “if onlys.”

Our breath is our home base—the basis of life and the root of our consciousness—and as long as we are alive, it is always available to us. Simply observing our breath connects our subjectivity (the vertical dimension of body-mind-spirit) with the horizontal “objective” world of our physical sensations in contact with the world outside of our skin. The oxygen in the air we breathe comes directly from Gaia—from the photosynthesis of trees, plants, and phytoplankton all over the world, without which the atmosphere would be 95% carbon dioxide, and we would perish instantly. So in breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide, we are literally dancing with the trees, which are breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen. It is no wonder that the Greek word for “Holy Spirit” was agia pneuma, literally “holy breath,” In fact, the word “spirit” itself derives from the Latin verb spiro, spirare, spiritus, meaning “to breathe.” And as William Blake said, “Everything that lives is holy.”

Furthermore, the triad “breathe, observe, let go” corresponds exactly to what the Dalai Lama described as the three basic forms of religious practice found throughout the world—meditation, contemplation, and prayer. Meditation is breathing; contemplation is observing, and prayer is letting go, as when Jesus instructed his disciples to center their prayers on the mantra “Thy will be done.”

2. Be well, Do good Work, Keep in Touch –Garrison Keillor

After teaching his disciples Right Concentration (breathing, observing, and letting go), the Buddha went on to teach Right Mindfulness, Right Effort, and Right Livelihood. I know of no better summation for all of these practices than Garrison Keillor’s signoff from his morning radio station, Writer’s Almanac: “Be well, do good work, keep in touch.” Let us look at them more deeply.

Be well.

In his “five remembrances,” the Buddha taught his disciples to make friends with impermanence by acknowledging their own:

1.     I am of the nature to get sick. There is no way I can avoid getting sick.
2.     I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way I can avoid growing old.
3.     I am of the nature to die. There is no way I can avoid death.
4.     All that I cherish, I will lose. There is no way I can avoid losing everything I cherish.
5.     My actions are my only possessions. There is no way I can escape the consequences of my actions.

Ironically, the Buddha knew that only by acknowledging our impermanence—our inevitable subjection to sickness, old age, and death—could we truly “be well” in body, mind and spirit. He saw, that is, that “being well” is rooted in mindfulness, in compassionate attentiveness to the present moment, which will inevitably lead us to eat and drink wisely and moderately, to take good care of our bodies, to avoid intoxicants and excess, and thus to live longer, happier lives before our inevitable sickness, old age, and death.

One can “be well” not only in body, however, but in mind and spirit as well. Even if our bodies are racked by disease, (as they all are, sooner or later), we can “be well” in our minds if we continue to breathe, observe, and let go—and we can “be well” in spirit if we can say “Thy will be done” and mean it; that is, in Buddhist terms, if we can accept the current circumstances, whatever they are, as the inevitable consequence of causes and conditions going back to the Big Bang, and let go of our attachment to the subjunctive—to wishing-things-were-other-than-they-are.

Do Good Work

This injunction, the essence of Right Effort and Right Livelihood, has two sides to it, which may be characterized by the Greek words ArĂȘte and Agapé—Doing Well, and Doing Good.

To do well means, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, to address any task mindfully—to “do it in order to do it, not in order to get it done.” This injunction can be applied to any task, no matter how simple or complex, and no matter how arduous. If you wash the dishes in full mindfulness, it can be like “washing the baby Buddha.”  Likewise, even unpleasant but necessary tasks, like cleaning out a kitty box, can be turned into a sacrament if they are done with complete mindful attention. If on the other hand, we do things simply in order to get them done so we can do something else, we are living in the future, not in the present, and the present thus becomes that much more tedious, because we don’t want to be there. The Buddha—and Jesus likewise—understood that hell resides in the subjunctive—in wishing things were other than they are—for this is, in Christian terms, turning our backs on God’s will, and in Buddhist terms, causing Dukkha, or dissatisfaction with that that is and craving for what is not and cannot be.

The objection will naturally arise—“but what if the present situation is simply unbearable, and must change.”  The answer the Buddha might have given would be to (1) breathe, observe, and let go, and then (2) work mindfully and carefully in the present moment to change it, letting go of attachment to outcomes. As Sahara Sunday Spain, an eight-year old child, recently wrote,

If we love,
be love.
If we sing,
be the sacred song.
If we need help,
be the help that you need.
If we are scared,
listen to this:
We have the strength to meditate
and by that,
you frighten everything,
that was frightening you

This poem, “out of the mouths of babes,” is a delightful Gatha for the practice of  doing good work; especially the line, “If we need help,/be the help you need.”

The other side of “doing good work” is, of course, agape—devoting whatever work you do to taking care of all humanity, all living beings. This is what the Buddha meant by “Right Livelihood”—choosing a career path that serves life, that serves, rather than working against, our Bodhisattva vow to “take care of everyone (and everything) and abandon no one (and nothing).” This naturally precludes certain occupations—the design, manufacture, and sale of weapons, for example, or of alcohol and other intoxicants. But Right Livelihood goes deeper than this.

We live in a world today where our global economy is dominated, as never before, by large multinational corporations whose sole aim is to maximize their own bottom line at any social or environmental cost. This means that much of what we buy and how we earn our money is complicit, directly or indirectly, in creating human suffering through poverty, exploitation, or injustice, and in exhausting the Earth’s resources and poisoning or degrading the biosphere. I know of no easy way out of this dilemma—most of us, myself included, have nothing like the skills and resilience to live “off the grid” on organic farms with solar and wind energy, although there is an emergent global movement called Permaculture, devoted precisely to nurturing such autonomous, ecologically sustainable communities.

Nevertheless, if a large number of us make small, persistent changes—driving less, buying more fuel-efficient cars, recycling, bicycling, buying less junk, and assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our purchasing habits and our livelihood, and networking to build community both locally and globally, the net effect will be far greater than if an infinitesimal number of us, with the knowledge, skills, resources, and connections to do so, go off the grid and establish their own ecovillages. The Buddha intended “Right Livelihood,” like the rest of his Eightfold Path, not as an absolute standard, but rather as an asymptotic ideal—one for which we continuously strive (Right Effort) even though we know that we may never fully attain it.

It is best, therefore, in recollecting the second injunction, “Do Good Work,” to focus on arĂȘte—mindful and compassionate attentiveness to the present task--while holding on to agapé--taking good care of everyone and everything, and abandoning no one and nothing—as our ongoing, long-term goal in everything we do.

Keep in Touch.

Whereas “Be Well” brings us back to our own bodies, minds, and spirits, and “Do Good Work” draws mindful attention to our ongoing  daily tasks and long-term goals, the last injunction in Garrison Keillor’s beautiful mantra, “Keep in Touch,” refers us back to the indispensable cultivation of Bodhicitta,  of genuine, practical, and immediate compassion for all beings, predicated on our recognition that the separate “self” which we spend so much time cultivating is in fact an illusion; that in reality, whether we can see it or not, we are one with everyone and everything we encounter: “That thou art.” Or as John Lennon put it, “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” This is the insight, of course, that lay behind Jesus’ core injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

The Buddhist practices of Metta (Loving Kindness) meditation and the (closely allied) Tibetan practice of Tonglen meditation are two powerful tools for cultivating universal compassion through our recognition of oneness with everyone and everything else. There are, of course, many methods for practicing this, but here is one I developed based on Garrison Keillor’s mantra. It is a guided meditation that combines Tonglen and more conventional Metta meditation:

Breathing in, I take in, feel, and acknowledge my own pain and anguish.
Breathing out, I [contact my Buddha/Christ nature and] irradiate my own being with love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
May I be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

Breathing in, I take in, feel, and acknowledge my wife’s own pain and anguish.
Breathing out, I irradiate her being with love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
May she be well, do good work, and keep in touch…

I continue in this vein, beginning with family, then friends, then students, then acquaintances, then all humanity, then all living things on Earth, and finally, all living things in the universe.  But that’s the easy part.

Now comes the hard part—loving our enemies—the most difficult injunction of all to practice, but also the most essential. I save this for last, for I know I will need all the bodhicitta I can muster in order to do it sincerely. Depending on who those are who aggravate you the most, it can take a variety of forms. It might be best to start easy and work up to those who are most difficult for you to love. Here is one example:

Breathing in, I take in, feel, and acknowledge the pain and anguish of [say, a particularly irritating student, or a truckdriver tailgating me on the highway]…

Breathing in, I take in, feel, and acknowledge the pain and anguish of [say, an ex-spouse, a boss, or someone else who chronically aggravates you]…

And finally (for me) “Breathing in, I take in, feel, and acknowledge the pain and anguish of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the rest of their regime.
Breathing out, I [contact my Buddha/Christ nature and] irradiate their beings with love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
May they be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

And in the case of particularly repulsive people (like the above, for me) I may also add, “May they see the light.”

The practice is difficult at first, but the rewards are great. When driving a car, if someone cuts you off or flips you an obscene gesture, or if your boss or spouse or child gets on your nerves, or if you hear a news story that fills you with apoplectic moral outrage, it is good to have this practice available.

The essence of keeping in touch, then, is to build up a reservoir of good will and compassion that is available to us at any time, for anyone you encounter, so that we can be there for them if they need us, and leave them alone if they want to be left alone, and better calm our anger and thus avoid unskillful behavior. Here is another practice for keeping in touch that I developed for my students:

1.     Everyone you see is your teacher, so be ready at all times to learn.
2.     Everyone you see is your student, so be ready at all times to teach.
3.     Everyone you see may be hurting in some way, so be ready at all times to heal.
4.     Everyone you see may need your special gift, so be ready at all times to create.

And this leads us directly to the final phase of my Dharma Gaia mantra:

4.    Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, and Create Gaia.

Whereas the Principle, embodied in Dr. King’s luminous quote, is always a useful intellectual reminder of the Dharma, and the Precept, embedded in Lao Tzu’s quote, is a useful ethical reminder, the Practice thus far, especially Garrison Keillor’s mantra, is intended as an easily recalled way of actualizing the Dharma in our lives on an ongoing basis, moment to moment and day by day.  But what about Gaia? We are still faced with the daunting dilemma of a global market economy based on infinite growth of production and consumption that has already exceeded the carrying capacity of a finite planet, and is on the verge of collapse into chaos and massive, worldwide violence, suffering, starvation, and death. All the personal dharma practice in the world will not do much to change this grim future, though it might help us survive it, both physically and spiritually, longer than others. But in order to embrace the challenge of global healing, we must use Dharma practice as the foundation for a serious and sustained commitment to Gaian healing. Hence I have come up with what I call the “Four Commitments” that can serve as a general guide for consecrating our lives to the task of creating a Gaian future, which is our only alternative to no future at all. While Dharma practice—breathing, observing, letting go, being well, doing good work, and keeping in touch—is the indispensable root and stem of our lives, Gaian healing can be the fruit, if we commit our lives to the following:

Learn Gaia.

Learn all you can about ecology, biodiversity, wetlands, forests, oceans, etc—wherever your interests lead you. Pay close attention to the living world all around you, and make this a lifelong learning project.

Teach Gaia

Use every opportunity you have to teach Gaian consciousness to others, especially children. Teach, by both precept and example, responsible behaviour toward the living world around us. This can be summed up in three themes:
·       Good Buy--assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our spending and investment habits;
·        Good Work--assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our livelihoods and activities;
·       Good Will--finding effective ways to respect, listen to, work with, take care of, set good examples for, negotiate with, and win the respect of others, especially the vast numbers of oblivious people who get all their information from corporate media and are still addicted to short-term, selfish, destructive behavior.

Heal Gaia
Get involved in, or initiate, projects to clean up and restore damaged ecosystems, and in political campaigns to protect our living planet and its biodiversity from the vested interests of greed and ignorance.
Create Gaia
Get involved in, or initiate, projects to create sustainable alternatives to the toxic status quo in food production (local organic farming cooperatives and community-supported agriculture); community design (ecovillages, cohousing, etc.); energy production and use (solar, wind, and biomass); money management (responsible investment), and education (incorporating Gaian consciousness into every aspect of the curriculum).

This, then, is my summation of Dharma Gaia practice, of doing the right thing for the living Earth. As a reminder, the Principle, Precept, and Practice is brief enough to be posted on the refrigerator, but, as I hope I’ve shown, it provides a useful mnemonic device for reminding ourselves, as both Dharma practitioners and Gaian healers, of both our rootedness in the present moment and our commitment to a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren. It can also serve as the focal point for Sanghas devoted to Dharma Gaia practice. A sample protocol for such a Sangha might be as follows:

1.                      Begin by touching base—that is, asking everyone in your circle to give their names, and to share whatever they wish with the rest of the Sangha.
2.                      Begin the formal meditation by inviting a bell, after which the facilitator, a chosen participant, or the group as a whole recites the Dharma Gaia Principle:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly.
With gratitude to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.(Bow)

3.                      The facilitator, chosen participants, or the group as a whole recites the Dharma Gaia Precept:
Let us strive to take care of everyone, and abandon no one. Let us strive to take care of everything, and abandon nothing.
With gratitude to Lao Tzu. (Bow)
4.                      The facilitator leads the following guided meditation:
Breathing in, I am aware of breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware of breathing out.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in, I observe my body, feelings, and mind.
Breathing out, I let go of whatever distracts my body, feelings, and mind.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and out,  I renew my vow to be well in body, mind, and spirit.

(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and out,  I renew my vow to do good work.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and out, I renew my vow to keep in touch.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and out, I renew my vow to Learn Gaia
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and  out, I renew my vow to Teach Gaia.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and out, I renew my vow to Heal Gaia.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and  out, I renew my vow to Create Gaia.
(Pause for practice)
(Silent meditation ensues, for 20-40 minutes, depending on the preferences of the group)

5.                      Following formal meditation, at the discretion of the group, there may be walking meditation, a recorded Dharma Talk, and/or a Gaia presentation/discussion, based, perhaps, on a book that one or more of the group have read. This should be followed by announcements.
6.                      Closure: The group stands, joins hands, and recites the following:

May we all be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

…Feel free, of course, to modify this protocol as it suits you and your group. And may my Dharma Gaia precept, principle, and practice contribute, in some small way, to alleviate the inner and outer suffering of all living beings, and to healing our precious living planet.

Be well.  Do good work. And Keep in Touch.

[1] Sahara Sunday Spain, “Meditate to Love.” Turning Wheel: The Journal of Engaged Buddhism (Summer 2003) 28.