Monday, November 23, 2015

Looking into the Vortex

Dahr Jamail, a freelance investigative journalist with Truthout, is extraordinary in his ability to look unblinkingly into the vortex, reporting back with relentless vividness and moral clarity on global realities that are so horrifying that they would send most of us into a catatonic fit of grief and despair, burying our heads in our pillows.

First he did us the inestimable service of reporting on the ground in Iraq during the Bush/Cheney invasion and occupation, as an "unembedded journalist" who, fluent in Arabic, was able to interview ordinary Iraqis and counter the pernicious lies and hype of the corporate media with soul-scorching accounts of the ghastly suffering endured by the citizens of that doomed and desperate land, racked with invasion, saturation bombing, collapse of infrastructure, insurgency, civil war, chronic mass murder/suicides, and destitution.

Since then he has turned his attention to periodic reports on the rapidly deteriorating state of the planet as a whole, due to what he properly terms "ACD" or Anthropogenic Climate Disruption--a more accurate name to replace the Bush regime's deceptive, self-serving, and dismissive coinage "Climate Change."  Each report makes the previous report look tame by comparison, and gives us a thorough, well-documented, and depressing image of a planet in freefall ecological collapse. His latest article in Truthout is not for the fainthearted--it could ruin your day, for it paints a global picture of ecological collapse so bleak and hopeless that it tempts us to throw up our hands and prepare for the worst

All of which poses a rather sobering question: When there is no hope, and the natural world--Gaia, as we have always known it--is going extinct , due to the greed, ignorance, and denial of humanity (and of large corporations in particular), what's left?

The theistic response is prayer for salvation, but that does not really work for me. The Gesthemane prayer was, perhaps, more apt: "Lord, please take this cup from me--not as I will, but as Thou wilt..."
But even that begs the question posed by Job: What kind of God would be so cruel as to create human self-awareness, only to have it behold its own inexorable self-destruction due to greed and short-sightedness?

I prefer not to speculate about such things. The Buddha, when asked whether there was a God, or what the origins and destiny of humanity were, remained silent.  We don't know and can't know such things, so what is the point in talking about it?

It is better, he said, to focus on the essential problem we all face, which is suffering--that is, wishing things were other than they are. We are of the nature to get sick, grow old, and die. So are our civilizations (for ours here in the good old USA is very sick indeed). And so is Gaia--particularly, that temporary interglacial phase of Gaia that has made possible the evolution of humans and civilization. Impermanence, as the Buddha taught, is absolute and universal.  Gaia may well survive us, albeit at a higher set point with a wholly different suite of flora and fauna, perhaps only microbial as it was prior to the Cambrian period.  Or our carbon and methane spike at this juncture could trigger a runaway feedback loop that will fry Gaia herself, transforming our planet into a lifeless, scalding wasteland like Venus. Perhaps the fragile and beautiful miracle of life itself is just a passing phase of planetary evolution.

In which case--let us breathe, observe, and let go--grounding ourselves once again in the present moment, cultivating compassion with Tonglen practice--and then get to work again, learning, teaching, healing, and creating, for as long as the Earth shall live...

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Three Essential Disciplines

Let us begin with the Gaian Categorical Imperative:
In everything we do, let us strive
To promote the Health, Competence, and Resilience
Of Ourselves, our Communities, and our Planet
If our collective goal as conscious Gaians--spontaneous remission of the Cancer of the Earth from the ground up--is to be realized, we must master and disseminate three essential disciplines that pertain respectively, to promoting the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet. These three disciplines are Tonglen, Satyagraha, and Permaculture. These concepts come, respectively, from Tibetan, Hindu, and Euro-Australian roots. Let us consider each in turn.

Tonglen is an advanced and potent Tibetan meditation practice that can nevertheless be practiced by anyone who ventures to undertake it seriously and wholeheartedly. It can therefore be taught, and adapted, to anyone, from any religious or spiritual background. It begins, of course, with the basics of meditation practice: breathing, observing, and letting go, in order to establish mindfulness, equanimity, and an open, compassionate heart.  These basic disciplines are a prerequisite for Tonglen practice.

The practice itself can be explained quite simply. After first reaching meditative stability (through breathing, observing, and letting go), you "flash Bodhichitta" as Pema Chodron puts it--that is, you propagate a momentary but authentic inner wave of total compassion for all living beings (including yourself). The Dalai Lama recently shared a wonderful mantra for flashing Bodhichitta:

"As you breathe in, cherish yourself.
As you breathe out, cherish all beings."

With practice, this can happen quite naturally, without being forced. When it happens, you find yourself smiling gently like a Buddha--without trying.  Then you settle in to the actual practice:
Breathing in, you visualize and draw upon yourself pain and suffering--first your own, then that of others.
Breathing out, you connect with the Sacred in your heart (however you may formulate or imagine it) and breathe out authentic, selfless love and healing--again, first to yourself and then to others.
That's it in a nutshell. And you can do this anywhere, for anyone, at any time--not just on the meditation cushion. A simple metaphor for this practice might be a spark plug: as you breathe in oxygen, you "compress" your own and others suffering into a flammable mixture--then with a divine spark, it explodes--and is transformed-- not only into CO2, but also into the pure, radiant energy of compassion.

As Pema further explains, as you practice, you make an effort to steadily widening your circle of compassion, as if it were a spiral. That is, you begin by taking in your own personal suffering, and send out healing energy to yourself. Then you expand this process to those closest to you--your spouse, your children, your closest relatives and friends. Then, you go even further, visualizing and imaginatively embracing and healing everyone you know, then everyone on the planet, and finally, all living beings, here and throughout the universe--you discover that your capacity for total love and healing is infinite.

Then comes the difficult part. You then focus on those you don't like--whether an irritating coworker or neighbor or just a rude driver who cut in front of you. And on the in-breath, you visualize, and use your imagination to empathize with, the inner suffering of that person that causes him or her to be such a pain in the neck. You take that all in, and breathe out sincere healing energy to that person, with the ardent wish or prayer that this person be healed of the inner pain that causes him or her to bring pain or annoyance to others.  You continue to widen the circle of healing until you can even do this sincerely for the most evil, hateful people you can imagine--for me, that would even include the likes of Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh; for others, it might be a thug or bully who has victimized them, or a terrorist--or whoever.  As I said, this is not easy to do sincerely; it takes inner work to acknowledge and overcome our deeply ingrained resentments and hatreds, in order to genuinely love our enemies and bless them who curse and despise us. But it can be done. (Tibetan monks, while visiting Hampton every year, even instruct us to practice Tonglen for the Chinese invaders who occupied and destroyed their nation and culture and who continue to murder and oppress their citizens!)

At this point, many people ask a perfectly sound, skeptical question: Will this breathing in of others pain and breathing out of sincere love and healing to them actually make any difference to them? Will they feel it telepathically, somehow, and experience relief from their suffering, or is this idle magical thinking? To be honest, I have no idea if it has any effect at all on others. Tibetans have many stories claiming that it does, but stories are…well, stories. 

But more fundamentally, it does not matter. The important effect of Tonglen is not on others who are the beneficiaries (real or imagined) of your outflow of love and healing energy--it is on you. I have found through my experience that after a sincere Tonglen practice, I feel more open, more patient, and more compassionate toward everyone I meet. And whether they feel anything at all, this has the effect of making me a more benign presence in the world, which then has a subtle ripple effect on everyone else, in keeping with Dr. King's Dharmic insight that "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

So it does not matter if Tonglen "works" to alleviate other suffering or not. If it works for you, it works for everyone else indirectly. And the beauty of this practice is that it simply involves using your own inevitable breath as a vehicle to train your imagination, and hence your disposition, to see beyond yourself, to empathize with others, and thus, as George Harrison once sang, "the time will come when you see we're all One and life flows on within you and without you."

So while Tonglen practice strengthens the inner health, competence, and resilience of ourselves by opening our hearts to others and to all of life, how does it link up to the other two essential disciplines, Satyagraha and Permaculture?

Satyagraha is Mahatma Gandhi's luminous doctrine of mindfulness and compassion as an instrument of political liberation and regeneration, as adopted and adapted by later Gaian Bodhisattvas, such as King, Mandela, Wangari Maathai, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Vandana Shiva, and Aung San Soo Kyi. It consists fundamentally of three basic values, as Gandhi articulated: Ahimsa or resolutely nonviolent noncooperation with evil; Satya, or the willingness to speak truth to power, without malice and without fear; and Swaraj, or self-rule, a broad concept which embraces both personal self-discipline and self-reliance, not only of ourselves, but also of our communities, as symbolized by Gandhi's spinning wheel, which was both a symbol of local economic empowerment and self-sufficiency and of the Wheel of Dharma.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail,  Dr. King breaks down a Satyagraha campaign into four distinct steps: Investigation to ascertain if an injustice exists; Negotiation with those responsible to remediate the injustice; Self-Purification as preparation, if negotiation fails; and finally, Direct Action. The Third step--self-purification--is essential, for without it, any nonviolent direct action campaign will quickly degenerate into violence and repression. Dr. King relied on the network of black churches throughout the South to train those who were undertaking direct action in self-purification within their own religious tradition, through role-playing, prayer, and other practices--and the results were spectacular, as Civil Rights demonstrators discovered, through these practices, the inner strength and resilience to maintain their dignity in the face of vicious and hateful provocation.

I would suggest, therefore, that Tonglen practice could be a marvelous fast-track training process for anyone involved in a nonviolent campaign to stop logging, strip-mining, or any other assaults upon Gaia. It can even be adapted, quite easily, to Christians--All they need to do is, on the In-breath, envision Jesus on the Cross, taking on himself the sins of the world, and on the Out-breath, envision the resurrected Jesus, sending out healing and redemption to the whole world.  I am quite confident that Tonglen can be adapted to other religious traditions as well, with similar exercises of visualization pertaining to the sacred avatars or scriptural teachings of their tradition.
While organized and disciplined Satyagraha is an essential practice for effectively resisting the Glomart juggernaut that is devouring our planet, we also need to be engaged in building a Gaian future, a post-carbon, post-Glomart future from the ground up--restoring the health, competence, and resilience of our communities, our ecosystems, and our biosphere. And for this, the essential discipline is Permaculture, the ecological design system and principles first devised by Australian visionary Bill Mollison and his protegee, David Holmgren, which has since gained adherents and practitioners around the world.  Permaculture is built around three core ethical principles--planet care, people care, and fair share--which are then elaborated into twelve design principles, as elaborated by Holmgren in his superb book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability:
1.       Observe and Interact
2.       Catch and Store Energy
3.       Obtain a Yield
4.       Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
5.       Use and Value Renewable Resources
6.       Produce No Waste
7.       Design from Patterns to Details
8.       Integrate Rather than Segregate
9.       Use Small and Slow Solutions
10.   Use and Value Diversity
11.   Use Edges and Value the Marginal
12.   Creatively Use and Respond to Change.

These Permaculture design principles, then, may be seen as an elaboration of the third principle of Satyagraha that Gandhi set forth--Swaraj or self-reliance.  Similarly, the practice of meditation and Tonglen in particular may be seen as a way of cultivating the first Satyagraha principle: Ahimsa--total nonviolence, rooted in authentic compassion, even for our enemies. Both disciplines--Tonglen as an "inner" discipline and Permaculture as an "outer" discipline--likewise nourish (and are nourished by) Satya, or seeing, speaking, and practicing Truth. As such, all three essential disciplines--Tonglen, Satyagraha, and Permaculture--are deeply interwoven.  If they are sincerely practiced and skillfully disseminated, they can be a powerful tool for spontaneous remission--for restoring the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

"And no religion too..."

The most controversial line by far in John Lennon's world-famous anthem "Imagine"  is his line "and no religion too"--due to the widely perceived implication that in the ideal world he is asking us to share in imagining with him, religion would have no place at all. Needless to say, most devout Christians, Jews, and Muslims--and even many Hindus and Buddhists--take umbrage at this notion--and if Lennon actually meant that people would be banned from practicing their religion or assembling to worship with their fellow believers, as in some repressive dystopia like North Korea--I would take umbrage as well. But I don't think this is what he meant.

If we look at the line in its broader context, it forms the second half of a line, and its referent is thus, arguably, ruled by the syntactical constraints of the first half:

"Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion [to kill or die for] too."

This makes sense in the even larger syntactical context, where the word "nothing" refers to the idea of "countries" in his opening couplet: "Imagine there's no countries." And just as, in actuality, there are both countries and religions in the world, the predicate infinitive "to kill or die for" becomes the essence of Lennon's message here--that neither nationalities nor religions should be anything for us "to kill or die for."

And this view finds confirmation, remarkably, in the latest work of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a book provocatively entitled Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World.  Here he argues that no single religion or wisdom tradition all by itself can any longer provide the ethical and spiritual guidance we need to become truly adaptive global citizens in a deeply interconnected world; we must all therefore rise above any form of parochialism and embrace religious and cultural pluralism if we are to survive. And this entails embracing and promulgating an ethical code based on universal compassion for all life--a code that, in effect, does away entirely with any notion that "believers" or "patriots" have the obligation "to kill or die for" their own national or religious identity.

The book itself delves into both the implications of this trans-religious perspective and the "key inner values" that arise from it--values like patience, contentment, self-discipline, charitable giving and philanthropy, and joy in giving. In articulating these values, he draws quite naturally on the wisdom teachings of diverse religious traditions throughout the world, to illustrate the underlying common themes of these faith traditions. So this religion-transcending ethical perspective is in fact compatible with all authentic faith traditions--it is, in fact, the litmus test of their authenticity. This would exclude all forms of toxic "my way or no way" fundamentalism and zealotry, whether Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other cult--including "secular" cults like extreme nationalism--all those that call upon their believers to kill or die.

I am delighted that the Dalai Lama, late in life, has risen to this new and noble plateau of global spiritual leadership, where he is no longer just the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, but a spiritual leader for all of us Gaians, whether we belong to a religion or not--an exalted role shared only by the likes of Pope Francis or Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And for all the depth and resonance of his ideas, they all boil down to an astoundingly simple mantra he recently shared:

This simple practice can be taught to anyone, anywhere, of any faith, without offense. Yet it is all-inclusive--it is all we really need: the perfect synthesis of Vertical and Horizontal Healing.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

A brief guide to Spontaneous Remission

Let us assume, (and I believe this is a valid assumption), that Permaculture, both as a philosophy and a comprehensive approach to design, from urban backyards to entire landscapes, constitutes a coherent, systematic, and viable approach to the Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth. If so, how do we get there from here?

Once again, this will involve the integration of Vertical (Body-Mind-Spirit) and Horizontal (Self-Community-Planet) healing modalities.  For unless we are vertically healed, our horizontal healing of our communities and planet--whether through political activism, technological innovation, marketing strategies for renewable and sustainable alternatives, or public education efforts--will backfire into rage, despair, and frustration.  We therefore need practices that will sustain us regardless of the outcomes of our efforts. This is the basic discipline that Gandhi describes, drawing on the Baghavad Gita, as "renunciation of the fruits of action." As Elizabeth Roberts concludes in her superb article, "Gaian Buddhism," (from the anthology  Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology , ed. Allen Hunt Badiner, Parallax Press 1990):

"Gaian Buddhism is radical and decisive.  Through it we invert our instinctive Western hierarchy of value wherein contemplation and silence are seen as of lesser value. While our environmental actions may be turned aside from their purpose or taken over by the milieu in which they occur, our practice cannot be taken over. It attains its goal because it is its goal. It brings an end to living in front of things and a beginning to truly living with them."

(This fine article, unfortunately, cannot yet be found on the Web.)

That said, I wish to share with you my own brief guide to Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth, with my Dharma Gaia Mantra as its foundation and plumline:

PRINCIPLE:  Begin by contemplating the Universal Dharma, as expressed in every wisdom tradition on Earth. My own favorite formulation of the Universal Dharma is from Martin Luther King:

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

Never forget this; it is your key to understanding everyone and everything.

PRECEPT: This understanding translates inevitably into a basic ethical precept, again common to all the wisdom traditions on the planet. My favorite formulation is that of Lao Tzu:

"Take care of everyone, and abandon no one; Take care of everything, and abandon nothing."

Revisit this precept often as well, thinking of it as an asymptotic goal for which you continually strive, in your relations to all others ("everyone") and to the Earth ("everything")

PRACTICE: The following ten verb phrases, which I have come to call the "Dharma Gaia Mantra," are simply reminders, intended through mindful repetition to keep us on track from moment to moment and day to day as healing agents for our planet:

I.VERTICAL HEALING: This is our starting point, which we may revisit as often as necessary. If we are to become effective agents of Gaian healing, we must start with ourselves.
  1. Breathe, Observe, Let Go: This basic formula for meditation and mindfulness is always our starting point--something we can do at any time, in any circumstances, to restore the equanimity necessary to make any wise decisions.
  2. Be Well--Renew your vow, each day and moment as necessary, to take care of your own body, mind, and spirit--for your body is a microcosm of Gaia, your mind, Her mind, and your spirit, Her spirit. So eat healthy food, get exercise, relax when stressed, and observe and let go of afflictive emotions such as anger, greed, or lust as they arise. Make Wellness an ongoing practice, as a foundation for everything you do.
II. VERTICAL and HORIZONTAL HEALING: These injunctions are for the points where our personal practice connects with, and manifests in, those around us. They involve, above all, assuming full responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our personal behavior and decisions.

  1. Do Good Work: This discipline refers first to what Buddhists call "Right Livelihood"--to seek a way of making a living that does not contradict, but enhances, our Gaian healing mission. A simple guide is that Good Work normally consists of learning, teaching, healing, and/or creating. It is doing what you are best at, to promote the health, competence, and resilience of yourself, your community, and our planet simultaneously.
  2. Keep in Touch: This is simply another way of saying "Take care of everyone, and abandon no one"--starting with yourself, and radiating outward to those you love, those you know well, complete strangers, and finally those you are inclined to resent or despise. Tibetans have a powerful discipline to practice keeping in touch, called "Tonglen"
III. HORIZONTAL HEALING: This is how we can manifest our personal healing in actions that directly and beneficially affect our communities and planet.

  1. Learn Gaia. To teach anything, we need to learn it first. Therefore, our first efforts should be to learn to think and act like a Gaian. I know of no better approach to this than the discipline of Permaculture--which combines both ethical and practical principles for design, with a firm foundation in ecological and systemic awareness, for healing first our households and backyards, then our neighborhoods, then our communities and farms, and finally our landscapes and bioregions, expanding out to include the entire planet.  The outcome is the restoration of human intelligence to its proper role as an agent of Gaia--of sustaining the conditions that in turn sustain life, both our own and all other species. 
  2. Teach Gaia.  The next step, of course, is to incorporate Gaian understanding--that is, promoting the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and Gaia--into everything we teach. But more specifically, it involves modeling, disseminating, and teaching the principles of Permaculture wherever and however we can to those with whom we have any influence.
  3. Heal Gaia. While all our efforts at practicing and disseminating Permaculture will heal Gaia at the local level, the larger, urgent political problem still remains: Glomart rules, and has already hijacked our democracy, and is doing its best to colonize our minds with corporate-sponsored distractions such as "news" and advertising, and to suppress information about anything (like Permaculture) that would threaten their hegemony. We cannot simply ignore Glomart--we must confront it in every way we can, by practicing the principles of Satyagraha established by Gandhi and practiced by such Gaian Bodhisattvas as King, Mandela, Wangari Maathai, and Vandana Shiva. Those principles, in brief, consist of Ahimsa (doing no harm--total resolute nonviolence, or resistance without hatred), Satya (Speaking truth to power), and Swaraj (Self-reliance, self-rule--and Permaculture is an excellent path to Swaraj). The other important feature of Satyagraha is that, while it may encounter setbacks, it can never actually be defeated, for it is rooted in the Dharma. Satyagraha actions should therefore always be mindful, strategic, and relentless.
  4. Create Gaia.  This refers to any and all of our efforts to model and disseminate a Gaian way of life, through the arts, through educational efforts, through sustainable commerce, and of course, through Permaculture.
So to the exact extent we each, in our own way, and in accord with our own talents and disposition, practice and inhabit these Dharma Gaia injunctions, we can still bring about Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth.  So you can start right now, by focusing on each of these injunctions on ten long breaths. If you are more ambitious,  try thirty breaths: on the first ten, contemplate the importance of each injunction; next simply practice them mindfully in the present moment, and finally for each, vow to continue doing so.

Reclaim the Moment: Breathe, Observe, Let Go.
Reclaim the Day: Be Well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch.
Reclaim our lives, and our unique and irreplaceable planet: Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, and Create Gaia.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Answer (?)

Long ago, when I was in college around 1970, I discovered a poet named Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), with whom, even then, I closely resonated.  He was not by any stretch a great poet, but he was what I would call a "proto-Gaian" poet--that is, he had an intuitive understanding, even in the heyday of global industrial expansion and rising middle-class affluence after World War II, that the major premise of that expansion--that "nature" was nothing more than an infinite resource for the uses of "man"--was fatally flawed, and that an economy based on infinite growth of extraction, production, and consumption on a finite planet was doomed to collapse and extinction. In other words, he knew then what has become only too apparent today--that we are a part of nature, bound by its inexorable rules, and not apart from it, nor "master" over it.  He expressed his profoundly lucid, yet pessimistic philosophy in a poem called, simply, "The Answer:"

Then what is the answer?- Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one's own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history... for contemplation or in fact...
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.

This poem rings far truer today, of course, than when I was written--and is still good advice. But is there a practical way to transform this dark Gaian wisdom into action--into a viral movement that would actually lead to social and cultural transformation, to a Gaian future, even through the encroaching chaos of global overshoot and collapse, and the ensuing violence this will entail?

I will readily admit that my own favorite trope of "spontaneous remission of the Cancer of the Earth" has largely been wishful thinking, a "dream" with which I have likely been "deluded"--rather than facing the stark horrors of the future--overshoot, systemic collapse, social chaos, ubiquitous violence, and extinction--that we currently face.  But then I discovered Geoff Lawton, a folksy Australian practitioner, teacher, and enthusiastic global advocate of Permaculture, the whole-systems philosophy of ecological design originally developed in 1978 by Bill Mollison, a Tasmanian biologist and systems thinker (b. 1928) and his protege and colleague David Holmgren (b. 1955). Who would have thought that "the Answer" would come from Down Under? But I sincerely believe it has. If the Gaian future we all envision is to happen, I am now convinced that the proliferation of Permaculture will be its agent.

Rather than trying to explain Permaculture myself, I refer you to an excellent, well-organized introductory website entitled Permaculture Design Principles that will walk you through the basic principles very systematically. It also provides access to a free, downloadable precis of Holmgren's Permaculture manual. But then, go to Geoff Lawton's website, send him your email, and you will gain free access to a host of instructional videoclips he has prepared introducing Permaculture principles in a variety of different contexts, from urban to rural, and in every conceivable bioregion. These are not just things he theorizes--they are things he has actually done. Begin with his visionary half-hour introductory video, entitled "How to Survive the Coming Crises." Then share it with everyone you know!

So if there is an "answer" to our imminent global collapse, this is it! A systematic, well-thought-out approach to redesigning and transforming our civilization from the ground up, so that human intelligence ceases to parasitize its biological support system, and instead becomes a Gaian agent of life itself, creating and sustaining the conditions that in turn sustain life!  May it only be so...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Apocalypse Now?

I just read yet another gloomy article on Truthout called "Welcome to the Tipping Point," by Quincy Saul, about the multiple, converging tipping points on our planet that make catastrophic global collapse all but inevitable.  As is often the case with Marxists, his diagnosis was sound, but his treatment, a wearisome rehashing of Marxist cliches about the absolute necessity of (somehow) organizing the impoverished masses to storm the Castle on the Hill--"Capitalism" and replace it with "Ecosocialism."  As the hulking, lovable idiot Lennie keeps saying to his protector George in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, "Tell me about the Rabbits, George." In other words, Fat Chance.

Here is the response I posted:

Most of what Quincy Saul says here about our current tipping points is only too true, but his "revolutionary" language is that of the 19th-early 20th Century: "capitalism" as the enemy, mobilizing the masses for revolution etc. etc. Musty, outworn Marxist rhetoric of impoverished "good guys" somehow organizing worldwide to overthrow a handful of super-rich "bad guys." Been there, done that. Failed utterly.
To confront our current, apocalyptic circumstances, we need to dig much deeper than that. We need not only new ideas, but a new language to express them. Let's drop the "isms and schisms" altogether and begin with the simple, luminous recognition that we ARE Gaia's body, and vice versa: Gaia is us. If she has terminal cancer, so do we. By "we" I mean ALL of us, from the poorest, destitute refugee fleeing Syria or Yemen to the corrupt and self-deluded zombies in Congress and their smug, willfully ignorant, but impeccably well-organized billionaire buddies at Monsanto and Exxon and Goldman Sachs.
Cancer has only two possible outcomes: Death, or Spontaneous Remission. The first is, by long odds, the most likely. Deal with it. We are all going to die soon, in all likelihood--sooner than we think. And it is not going to be pretty.
But there is another, less likely, but still medically attested alternative to extinction: Spontaneous Remission, whereby, for reasons unknown, the cancerous, poison-spewing cells that are feeding on our body all wake up at once, and realize that they are actually part of the body they are consuming--and act accordingly, shrinking back into their matrix and assuming adaptive roles yet again in the body they now acknowledge as their own.
Is spontaneous remission on a planetary scale even possible? We don't know. But whether or not it happens, it can happen within each of us--by breathing, observing, and letting go--and then, in expanding circles, reclaiming our bodies and neighborhoods from corporate agriculture by growing gardens; our communities from corporate domination by forming local cooperatives; and as such awareness becomes viral, healing our planet--or at least adapting to the new, dangerous world that will be left after we have passed these irrevocable "tipping points."
May it be so.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Glomart and Gaia

"Welcome, Glomart shoppers!"

About ten (or more) years ago, I thus opened a satiric piece (now lost, somewhere in my chaotic papers in the attic) in which I assumed the persona of a corporate tour guide, cheerfully introducing his customers to their new planet-sized mall called "Glomart" (an obvious sendup of names like "Walmart" or "K-mart"), where everything is for sale, and all unpleasant consequences of this fact (like pollution, extinction, exploitation, and poverty) are skillfully hidden from consumers' view.

The name "Glomart" stuck, however, and through my various internet correspondences and teaching since that time, has gained some currency among my friends and students, as a kind of shorthand for the Global Market Economy, the oligarchic monstrosity based on the zero-sum logic of money, consisting of multinational corporations and their client states (now including the USA) that has just about achieved its goal of turning our entire world into commodities for sale to enrich their stockholders.

I therefore define Glomart as the Order of Money, manifested above all in multinational corporations--a complex adaptive (or maladaptive) system of  acculturation which operates according to four basic rules, which are the unspoken major premises of all deliberations in corporate boardrooms, and of all advertising as well:

  1. More is always Better.  This rule is implicit in the logic of money--since one plus one always equals two.
  2. You Are what you Own. In order to keep making profits, corporations must constantly create new demands in consumers. They do this by conveying this message in all their advertising: that one's possessions are the basis of one's personal identity and value.
  3. Nothing has Value until it has a Price. Therefore nothing--including land, air, or water, biodiversity, or community, can possibly matter to any corporation, unless you can put a boundary around it and can sell it as a commodity for a profit.
  4. The Bottom Line is the Bottom Line.  This is the sole criterion for any decision a corporation makes--by necessity and design according to the intrinsic logic of money. If it makes a profit, it is good; if it does not, it is bad--regardless of what "It" is.

I find this new term "Glomart" more useful than traditional terms such as "capitalism"--which is a misnomer on several accounts.  First, it is not, per se, an "-ism" or consciously embraced ideology; rather, it is a natural and logical consequence of the profit motive, the desire for more that we all share. . It is also the direct manifestation of the inherent zero-sum logic of money: if I have it, you don't.  And money itself is nothing but arithmetic--it is an arithmetical transform of information about the marginal value of commodities on the market.

Secondly, the term "capitalism" fails to distinguish between commerce per se--the process of making, growing, or procuring commodities and selling them to others--and the pathologies of commerce that result from both the scale of the enterprise, its power to suppress the truth about its harmful side-effects, and its lobbying power to prevent regulation in the public interest by elected officials or government agencies. Thus the term implies that the friendly clerk at one's neighborhood mom and pop store somehow falls into the same toxic category as Monsanto Corporation, as a potential planet-wrecking monster.

There is nothing wrong, however, with commerce per se--it does everything its advocates claim, by promoting competition and innovation, by providing employment, and by encouraging creativity, and--of course, by providing the goods and services we want or need at prices we are willing to pay. So we need to distinguish the pathologies of commerce from commerce itself, and the concept of "capitalism" muddles this distinction. (Incidentally, I have borrowed the useful term "Pathologies of Commerce" from a superb documentary that critically analyzes and investigates Glomart, entitled The Corporation, which is available on YouTube).The Corporation

So what are these pathologies? They all derive from the fact that corporate charters have one overriding legal obligation: to make a growing profit for their shareholders. For this reason, and since they are all in competition with one another for profits, they have no intrinsic basis for distinguishing between socially adaptive and socially maladaptive ways of making a profit. The socially adaptive ways I have already mentioned: providing ever-improving commodities at an affordable price, providing employment, encouraging innovation, and so on. We all want new and better products and services, and don't mind paying for them.

The socially maladaptive ways of making a profit, however, are often invisible to us, since making them known is bad for business. That's why we don't see them advertised or discussed on corporate-owned news programs. They consist of the following (as beautifully set forth in The Corporation):

  1. Exploitation of Workers.  For any large corporation, wages and salaries are seen as a cost of doing business, not--as they often are--a benefit to the larger community. Therefore, multinational corporations must compete with one another in a "race to the bottom" to find the cheapest available labor--to bust unions, to ship jobs overseas, to lay off workers as they become superfluous, etc.  High unemployment is destructive to society, but is beneficial to corporations, since those who get jobs are then likely to settle for less without complaint
  2. Externalization of Costs. Glomart has everything to gain, and nothing to lose, from passing on the long-term social and environmental costs of doing business to the public. Hence they have every incentive to oppose regulations on pollution or other destructive practices (such as corporate agriculture with fertilizers and pesticides, or real estate development to blot out forests, fields, waterfronts, and wetlands) and to finance politicians who will do their bidding in defeating any new legislation that promotes the public interest in clean air, water, or topsoil. 
  3. Deception. Corporations spend billion on advertising, through which they influence and intimidate news outlets to prevent them from publicizing any information that puts them in a bad light, even if that information obviously serves the public interest.  
  4. Corruption. Since governments and elected officials are the only available means the larger public has to regulate the behavior of the corporate sector, multinational corporations have collaborated worldwide to corrupt the political process by intensive lobbying and massive campaign contributions, with the result that today, any politician who dares to do his job of protecting the public interest against corporate profiteering will likely lose his job due to massive infusion of corporate money to his opponent.
  5.  The Mandate for Expansion. Since money is nothing but arithmetic, and the number line is infinite, corporations must continue to grow in order to compete--there is no choice, and hence no concept of "enough" in the corporate world.  Hence we currently have a global economy that is utterly dependent on the infinite expansion of production and consumption--in a finite world. This is a recipe for ecological catastrophe, which is already happening--though Glomart is intent to suppress this information as well, since such news as climate change, rising extinction rates, cancer rates from pollution, etc. are all bad for business. Nothing can challenge the major premise of Glomart--that "More is always better"--lest the whole system collapse.
So what is a Gaian to do?  We can first recognize that the basic production rules of Glomart are the polar opposite of the sustaining values of a finite living planet--and act accordingly. So think of it this way:

  1. Whereas Glomart uses advertising, 24/7, to tell us that More is always better, we can begin--today--to act on the assumption that Enough is Enough.  
  2. Whereas Glomart tells us that We are what we own, we can remember the truth: We are what we do. 
  3. Whereas Glomart tells us that Nothing has value until it has a Price, we can embrace the priceless--love, friendship, community, but also protection of birds, wildflowers, forests, rivers, and oceans...knowing that Value is Incalculable, because it is implicit in relatedness.
  4. Whereas Glomart tells itself that The Bottom Line is the Bottom Line,  we can remember that Life itself is what matters--our own, that of others, and of other beings and ecosystems, not only now, but for all future generations.
Only by embracing and disseminating these contrary life-sustaining values as antidotes to Glomart brainwashing can we hope to become agents for the Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth.

So be it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Subduing Mara

Mara is the Buddhist version of the Devil--a mythic personification of all that distracts us from the path of enlightenment, including both desires and fears--Eros and Thanatos. (For an interesting and useful Dharma talk on the symbolism of Mara, check out )

 In this image from Thailand, for example, Mara is represented as an army of demons on our right (the Buddha's left) attacking the Buddha, as he sits in perfect equanimity under the Bodhi tree. In response, the Buddha touches the Earth with his right hand, to call upon the Earth Goddess (the voluptuous deity represented below) to witness his victory over the forces of evil, and she obliges, in this iconography, by rinsing out her long hair, thus causing the demons on our left (the Buddha's right) to drown in the resulting deluge (an image similar to that of the Red Sea inundating the Egyptian army in the Old Testament).

I found this icon interesting this morning, simply because the Earth Goddess figure--the Thai equivalent of Gaia--is represented with such voluptuous beauty.  For many other stories associate sensuality with the Daughters of Mara, likewise sent forth to distract the Buddha from his meditation, and likewise failing. So in this way, Mara represents both fear and aggression (as symbolized by the demon army) and sexual allure (as represented by the daughters). Yet here, the voluptuous Earth Goddess is represented as the ally of the Buddha, effortlessly washing away the demons.

I was reminded of the erotic aspect of Mara yesterday, when a performance of Richard Strauss's operatic rendition of Oscar Wilde's scandalous play Salome came on the radio. Since I find merely listening to opera on the radio rather boring without the visuals, I went onto YouTube, where I found a spectacular production in full, starring Maria Ewing, an exotic and multiethnic opera star, in a scorching performance of this iconic femme fatale--a figure in our cultural history who personifies both the erotic and destructive aspects of Mara.

The opera culminates in the notorious Dance of the Seven Veils, an alluring dance and strip act that Salome performs to tempt her lascivious uncle Herod to grant her non-negotiable demand for John the Baptist's head. In Wilde's (and Strauss's) telling of the story, she wants his head on a platter because he (like the Buddha) has resisted her allure, and spurned her own desire for him as the one man she could not conquer--a desire she culminates by kissing the severed head on the mouth.

In this performance of the dance, moreover, the talented and provocative Ewing goes all the way, beginning enshrouded in multicolored veils, and peeling off each veil in a breathtakingly frenetic and sensuous dance, and ending up completely nude, in a statuesque pose.

Her intensely erotic performance was so alluring and captivating that it set my hormonal juices flowing, so that I have had difficulty erasing this image from my mind. For, old as I am, I am still, at root, an animal--still susceptible to feminine allure--to the Daughters of Mara. Yet a man of my age (65) needs to be especially wary of such erotic feelings, lest he end up a pantaloon, a humiliated dirty old man, like the besotted professor in the classic German film Blue Angel.

All of which brings me back to my original question about the Thai painting, where the sinuous feminine figure, alluring in her own right, is not the tempter, but the ally of the Buddha. To me this suggests that, for men, feminine sexuality is not Mara per se--it only becomes Mara when it distracts us, when we become hung up on it. We can learn, however, like the Buddha in this image, to see beautiful young women not as temptations to be either seduced or resisted, but rather  as images of the sacred, as embodiments (no pun intended) of Gaia, one more reminder, in Blake's words, that "Everything that lives is holy." This is, perhaps, why the Buddha signifies his defeat of Mara by touching the Earth--reconnecting with the source of life.  May we all do likewise.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Of Malas, Mantras, and Meditation

Western Buddhists, like myself, are often a bit perplexed about what aspects of Buddhist practice to adopt as essential, as opposed to mere cultural trappings.  Most western Buddhists, for example, do not wear robes, carry begging bowls, or engage in practices such as repeated prostrations, for the simple reason that such seeming self-abasement, while common in Asian cultures, goes against the grain of the default western concepts of autonomous identity and self-respect with which we have been raised. So what is essential and what is incidental to practice? Everyone has an opinion on this, of course, and we are free to practice what we will.  But one practice I have found useful, while many of my friends are content to do without it, is to use a Mala in my formal meditation practice.

The Mala, the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist "rosary," consists of exactly 108 beads, which the practitioner uses as something like training wheels for meditation--to keep the mind on track, keep it from getting distracted by the ever-present random thoughts that arise unbidden to consciousness. The number 108 has any number of symbolic and numerological meanings, which you may, if you wish, read all about here.  108 is, for example, the product of 9 X 12, both numbers rich in numerological significance in cultures worldwide. Consider, for example, the 9 Dragons in Chinese mythology, as the number of perfection and power, or the 12 signs of the Zodiac--and so on.

There are, of course, many ways to use these beads; one of the most common is to use it for the repetition of a mantra. I confess, however, to a certain residual skepticism about mantra practice: if it is in Sanskrit, and you do not reflect upon the meaning, but simply believe in the magical efficacy of the Sanskrit words, what is the difference between this and other forms of magical thinking, such as the insistence, by the Catholic Church, that the Mass be conducted in Latin, or the Greek Orthodox use of a special form of Katharevousa Greek, used nowhere else, for their masses?

Christian mantras, of course, have their own baggage--whether "Hail Mary" or the Doxology, or "Kyrie Eleison," or the prayer of Jesus (i.e. "The Lord's Prayer, as commonly known). They all commit a person to one belief system, as do Muslim mantras like "Allahu Akbar..." Yet Jesus himself seemed very skeptical of mantras--he heaps scorn on those who "use vain repetitions" and make a public exhibition of their prayer.

That notwithstanding, I have no problem with those who enjoy chanting mantras, whether in Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Tibetan, or whatever...the practice is harmless enough.  My own preference, however, is for my own language--English--simply because these are words I understand, and that therefore have no magical significance attached to them. They simply mean what they say--to me. This also seems more approachable for the vast majority of people who have no interest in appropriating a culture other than their own as an appendage to their identity.

Accordingly, I have come up with a mantra in my own (or anyone else's) native tongue, entirely unrelated to anyone's creed, yet fully compatible with anyone's spiritual practice. And this morning, I discovered a way of integrating this mantra with the magic number 108, so that one could practice it with a mala.  So I start with four basic injunctions--four verb phrases-- one for each full breath (and bead on the mala), which I then repeat three times over three larger, meta-injunctions, for a total of twelve breaths.

Here are the (easily memorized) core injunctions, on each breath:

  1. "Breathe"
  2. "Observe"
  3. "Let Go"
  4.  "Abide."
These reflect, of course, any number of sacred tetrads: the Four Brahmaviharas, or limitless qualities (Benevolence, Compassion, Joy, Equanimity);  the four stages of life (birth/childhood, youth, maturity, and old age/death); the four directions, four classical elements, or four seasons.  But then I repeat this series three times, on the following schema:


Breathe, Observe, Let Go, Abide.


Breathing, Observing, Letting Go, Abiding.


to Breathe, to Observe, to Let Go, to Abide.

Here is how it works.  When we contemplate these injunctions, we simply reflect on their value and importance, based on all we have read and been taught.  For example, we remind ourselves that breathing connects us to the Earth, the Sun, and all other life, and thus promotes benevolence and gratitude; that observing--just looking deeply, with gentleness, receptivity, and insight, at all around us and all the thoughts and feelings that flow through our minds, is a healthy alternative to getting caught up in them, either in attachment or in revulsion. And we remind ourselves that letting go of attachments and aversions will follow our observing them closely and recognizing their inherent emptiness and impermanence--and that this letting go brings a quiet joy; and that abiding--just being here now, without mental perturbations, empty of self-clinging, and at one with all, is the goal of our practice--whether we call this equanimity, alaya, samadhi, nirvana, or "the peace which passeth all understanding."

Having thus contemplated the value of these essential injunctions with each breath, we move to our second cycle, which is to practice them, letting go of all distractions in order to fully inhabit and experience our breathing, observing, letting go, and abiding. (This is why I use the participles--"breathing..." in this phase, after the imperative form--"breathe" which is more appropriate when contemplating the instructions of our teachers.)

Finally, while the first major injunction ("contemplate") connects us with our spiritual heritage and hence with the past--what our teachers have taught us--and the second ("practice") connects us to the present moment, the third major injunction ("vow") encourages us to renew our commitment to the practice in the future as well. We use the infinitive form ("to breathe") to emphasize this forward-looking aspect of a vow.

As with any mantra, if you simply repeat these words by rote, they will be useless.  Therefore, we should not "say" the words "contemplate, practice, vow" but rather embed them in our minds as behind-the-scenes injunctions for each four breaths in turn. And while we may begin by saying (aloud or to ourselves) the various forms of the core verbs "breathe, observe, let go, and abide" we should not get caught up in rote repetition here either. Rather, we can use these words as windows, to look through at what we are actually doing. And once we get the hang of it, we can drop these verbs as well and "just do it." (Training wheels, after all, are not intended to be permanent.)

If we repeat this sequence of 12 full breaths (4 X 3) nine times, we will have used up all the "magical" 108 beads on the mantra (4 X 3 X 9 = 108).  This is, in my experience, a half-hour well spent.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Four Paths to the Sacred

This is an essay I wrote for my (mostly Christian) students in my Humanities class some 20 years ago, while I was still teaching at Hampton University. It was later adopted as the basis for a service at the Williamsburg Unitarian-Universalist Church, to which my wife and I then belonged. But it is one of my best essays on religion, in my own humble opinion, so I am sharing it here, for others to see if they wish.

The Four Paths to the Sacred

"Everything possible to be believed is an image of Truth."--William Blake

Many people who have been raised in western religious traditions such as Christianity do not quite know how to react when they are first exposed to other religious and spiritual traditions from around the world, and particularly indigenous and far-eastern traditions.

In this essay, I would therefore like to propose a model for understanding other religious traditions in a way that allows us to recognize the both the similarities and the differences between others’ traditions and ours, without feeling as if we have to choose between them or decide who’s “right” and who’s “wrong.”  Rather, the model is intended to show how all religious traditions, despite their major differences in style, beliefs, rituals, metaphors, and emphasis, nevertheless point to the same basic, intuitive truths of human experience.

The model takes the form of a Solar Cross (a circle bisected vertically and horizontally by a cross), in which, at the center, is a point we can call, simply, “the sacred.” The four arms of the cross all move from the periphery to the center in accordance with the four directions—north, east, south, and west.  Each arm may be seen to represent one of the four basic paths to the sacred, onto which all the major religious traditions of the world can be mapped.  For the sake of simplicity, I will call these the Path of Learning (S); The Path of Teaching (E); The Path of Healing (W); and the Path of Creating (N). They correspond, roughly, to the subject matter of each volume of Joseph Campbell’s four-part study of the world’s mythic traditions, The Masks of God—“primitive,” oriental, occidental, and creative. Like Campbell, I will describe them in the order in which they historically arose.

1.        The Path of Learning (South): The Sacred in Nature and Tradition

This is the oldest path to the sacred of all, the path of our most ancient ancestors, north, south, east, and west, but since humanity itself evolved in the south—in Africa—and since the tropical areas of the world still retain many surviving instances of this ancient approach to the sacred, we may, for convenience, associate this path with the South.
I call this “the path of learning” because the indigenous cultures that embody this path to the sacred all transmit their knowledge orally, from one generation to the next.  These teachings vary dramatically from one indigenous culture to the next, for they are embedded in the mythologies which reflect each culture’s distinct collective experience with the landscapes within which they had their livelihood. But despite these differences, these indigenous belief systems all share common traits:

      A belief that the sacred is immanent in the natural world, which is indistinguishable from the spiritual world;
      Close ties of kinship;
      Rituals of communion with ancestors and nature spirits or deities;
      A complex mythology that embeds the sustaining ethical values of the culture, communicated through story-telling, music, and ritual performances.
      Shamans, or magician/healer figures, male or female, who mediate between the visible and invisible worlds, and who are regarded with awe and respect by the rest of the community.

This most ancient and venerable path to the sacred, like all others, has both elements of profound wisdom and characteristic pathologies.  The wisdom inherent in this path consists, in my view, in their awareness of all life as sacred, the social and ecological wisdom embedded in the myths, and the primacy of community and sharing. The pathologies include a strong tendency toward superstition or magical thinking, and thus, vulnerability to manipulation by unscrupulous shamans or by opportunists from the outside. The other pathology lies in the fact that these traditions are culture-specific—there is no distinction between “religion” and “culture,” and therefore people who grow up in such cultures often perceive all other cultures as enemies or aliens. This inability to assimilate the “other” has led, historically, to constant warfare or parasitic theft between different indigenous cultures, and a consequent inability to unite effectively against a common threat to their livelihoods.

2.        The Path of Teaching (East): The Sacred as Oneness

This path, associated with the Orient, probably arose at the same time as the beginnings of literacy, around 2000 BCE. It arose separately, in both China and India, from indigenous roots, as Hindu and Taoist wisdom traditions, and then these two paths merged in Buddhism.  I call it the “Path of Teaching” because the common theme of Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist approaches to spiritual understanding lies in the primacy of the teacher-student relationship. The great foundational sages of this Eastern path—such as Patanjali, Lao Tzu, and Gautama the Buddha—all were pre-eminently teachers of the Way to direct realization of Oneness—the basic, liberating, and paradoxical awareness summed up in the Hindu Upanishads as “That art thou.”  Each (along with many others) founded a ramifying lineage of transmission of wisdom from teacher to student, and this accumulated wisdom is recorded and disseminated in written texts—the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Baghavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and the Buddhist Sutras.

Unlike the orally transmitted, culture-specific teachings of the indigenous  Path of Learning, these text-based wisdom traditions could readily be transmitted from one culture to another, as, for example, Bodhidharma did in bringing the Buddhist sutras from India to China. Thus Buddhism was (as far as I am aware) the first spiritual tradition that could be transmitted intact from one culture to another.

One important aspect of the subtle and far-reaching wisdom of this Eastern path can be summed up in the first line of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” That is, the map is not the territory, and the name is not the thing named. Inherent in all these Far-Eastern teachings is this liberating recognition that words are inadequate to describe this liberating apprehension of Oneness which is the common goal of all these paths—it can only be experienced through direct contemplation and practice.  This awareness also makes these traditions remarkably tolerant of one another: there has never been a holy war, for example, between Buddhists and Taoists, even though both sects have coexisted in China for many centuries. Many (or even most) Chinese consider themselves both Buddhist and Taoist—and Confucian as well! Likewise, India has a long and venerable tradition of tolerance for religious diversity.
The pathology inherent in Eastern traditions is a strong tendency toward passivity and withdrawal from the world—all of these traditions rely heavily upon monastic isolation, where seekers can study with their teachers and pursue enlightenment without distractions.  This has historically made adherents to Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions tolerant of, or even complicit in, the social status quo, and reluctant to engage the outer world of political and social injustice, other than, perhaps, to offer food, shelter, and teachings to those who happen to pass by.

3.        The Path of Healing (West): The Sacred as the One God.

This is the path with which most of us, here in the west, are already familiar: the path that begins, historically, with the direct experience of the foundational Hebrew prophet Abraham—the experience of the One True God, creator of Heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen, whom the Hebrews called JHVH, the Muslims call Allah, and whom we routinely refer to, and relate to, as “God.”  Unlike the Eastern traditions, the Western experience of God, starting with Abraham, and passing directly on through Christianity and Islam alike, is an experience not of Oneness, but of Relationship, as recorded both historically and eternally in the Bible (and/or the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, etc.)

I refer to this as the Path of Healing because the common theme of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, despite their considerable differences, is the theme of Redemption, or reconciliation between an erring, sinful, or fallen humanity and the wrathful but loving God who both created and later redeems him. In the Jewish tradition, this redemption is accomplished through their sacred history as God’s Chosen people, and through the promise of a Messiah or deliverer. In Christianity, the redemption is accomplished, of course, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And in Islam, it is accomplished through the prophecy of Muhammed, as embodied in the Qur’an, wherein they believe that God’s will is revealed in its full final form.

The wisdom of these three “religions of the Book” is of course likewise deep and multifaceted. It lies above all, in my view, in the recognition that, as Jesus pointed out, the love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor and from love of self. Each presupposes the others.  This fundamental experience of the Sacred as the love of God and of neighbor alike lies at the root of the vigorous social activism which characterizes all three monotheistic paths—the common urge to heal the human community, and to minister to the needs of others.
The pathology of this path, in my view, lies in the strong tendency of all three traditions toward intolerance, particularly of one another.  All three are built on doctrines that basically divide the world into two categories: God’s people (that is, us) and the others (them). Those who lie outside of the sacramental community are variously viewed as (1) benighted savages awaiting conversion; or (2) enemies of God and/or instruments of the Devil. They all, according to this logic, must therefore be either converted or annihilated. The result of this common tendency in western theistic traditions toward intolerance of others has been all of the horrors which have afflicted our history over the past millenium—holy wars, schisms, crusades, jihads, slavery, genocide, and colonialism.

4.        The Path of Creating (North): The Sacred as the Autonomous Self

This fourth and most recent path is still, by and large, a work in progress. It is the North’s distinctive contribution to enlightenment through free inquiry, experimentation, discovery, and innovation, in both science and the arts. It is rooted in Classical Greece and European Renaissance, but it was codified in the latter years of the Eighteenth Century, with the epochal claim that “all men are created equal,” and that we all have a common “right” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It blossomed in the Nineteenth Century through the Romantic Movement—the recognition of the Sacred as inhering in the unique experience of the autonomous self, irrespective of communal religious traditions, as expressed in Romantic poetry, fiction, and art. This “creative” approach to spiritual discovery continues into the Twentieth Century with the Modernists such as Yeats, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, the Harlem Renaissance, and well into the Sixties and Seventies, with the blossoming of the Counterculture and the so-called “New Age” movement. Because it is still a work in progress, it is difficult to draw generalizations about this multifaceted movement. But its features are becoming clear—it is global in scope, multicultural, vigorously creative and innovative, fast-paced, and exciting to be caught up in.

Its pathologies, of course, are equally apparent and dramatic: alienation; greed and narcissism; cultural fragmentation; breakdown of family, community, and societal bonds; violence and drug addiction; and widespread ignorance of, or indifference to, the greatest common threat of our time—our ongoing destruction of the only living planet we’ll ever know.

Therefore, our collective hope, as I see it, lies in embracing not just one but all of these four paths to the sacred simultaneously, since the strengths of each balance the weaknesses of others. From our indigenous ancestors, we can learn, once again, that the living Earth and all its inhabitants, along with the diverse indigenous cultures and their ways of knowing, are sacred and to be respected, not simply exploited for short-term personal gain. Our Eastern traditions can teach us the elusive, but indispensable techniques of breathing,  observing, and letting go--and all of the allied practices that heal and reintegrate body, mind, and spirit—in order to directly apprehend the Sacred in ourselves, all others, and all life. From our own Western root traditions—Jewish, Christian, and Islamic—we may draw renewed strength and resolve to heal our communities, stepping out of our own self-absorption, our SUVs, our gated communities, to follow the path of Jesus and the prophets in healing the sick and feeding the hungry—and from our own humanistic traditions of free inquiry, bold experimentation, and the inalienable rights of free expression, we may acquire once again the courage to create a just and sustainable future.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Grammatical Creed

"I do not accept creeds. Truth remains truth. It is the colored lenses of the self that reflect it in various colors."--Guru Nanak

According to a hagiography that I once received from the Sikhs, who trace their origin, or at least inspiration, to a 14th Century holy man named Guru Nanak, the above statement was his response when he traveled to Mecca where he was invited by Muslim clerics to declare himself as a Muslim, on account of their shared monotheistic beliefs. His refusal of creeds has always rung true with me.

Christians, who equate "faith" with "belief" and seldom pause to question this identification, generally are required, at the beginning of every service, to recite some form of the Apostles' Creed, the profession of faith first agreed upon by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, convened by the Emperor Constantine to resolve the often vicious ideological disputes among various Christian factions, and thereby establish a mandatory ideology for what soon became the state religion of the Roman empire. The original Nicene Creed was later abbreviated as the Apostles' Creed, which lays out the accepted narrative of Christian beliefs. Here is the version from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholic Church;
The Communion of Saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the Life everlasting.

But why should I--or anyone else, for that matter--believe any of this? Even in this stripped down form, the Creed is full of question-begging claims that make no rational sense.

For example, what do they mean by "only begotten son"--or as the original Nicene Creed insists, "Begotten, not made"? But what living being, from bacteria right up to us, is "made" rather than "begotten"? None that I know. Are we not all "sons (or daughters) of God," since God made both Heaven and Earth, and is our "Father"?

Why must I believe that when Jesus died, he went downstairs to Hell (presumably to release those inmates who happened to be Hebrews with the right belief system but who had the misfortune to have been born and died before he lived) then came back to life, only to "ascend into Heaven"--like what, a rocket? A balloon?  And where is "Heaven" anyway?  Why should any rational person "believe" this mythology?

Other questions are equally baffling and equally silly.  "Sitting on the Right Hand of the Father"--like Charley McCarthy?  And what is meant by "the resurrection of the body" since simple common sense observations tell us that bodies rot and deteriorate and are eventually absorbed into their physical and biological matrix. Where would this "resurrected body" come from, anyway?

But enough said. This creed, repeated mindlessly in various forms by Christians worldwide, is arrant nonsense, which no one with a functioning brain should take seriously. It has no ethical teachings whatsoever; it completely ignores the core teachings of Jesus, acknowledging only that he was born "of a virgin" and died "under Pontius Pilate." The first is mythology; the latter, history, as far as we know.

Buddhism, fortunately, has no creeds whatsoever. Instead, practicing Buddhists often recite the "Three Jewels"--taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha--but even these are broad concepts, subject to multiple interpretations, and there is no requirement to "believe" in them--in fact, the Buddha's last injunction to his disciples was to "be a light unto yourself"--or as Bob Dylan might have put it, "don't follow leaders; watch parking meters."

So just for the fun of it, I've come up with my own Creed, which I call the Grammatical Creed. Here it is:

I am.
Thou art.
He, She, or It is.
We are.
You are.
They are.

Simple, eh? Here is how one might unpack it.

"I am."  This was not only God's response to Moses from the Burning Bush in Exodus. It is also the core of mystery for all of us--our own subjectivity--the fact that there seems to be somebody home, behind my eyes, looking out on the world. Buddhist doctrine ultimately denies the existence of the separate self, but this perspective, even if it is delusional, makes sense to our experience inside this body.

"Thou art."  I deliberately use the archaic Second Person Singular, because of the equally amazing fact that when two people look at each other or talk to each other, they reciprocally acknowledge each other's existence and personhood, as well as their own, yet nobody else knows anything at all about this interaction. Inherent in this is the mystery of communication, of empathy, of compassion.

"He, She, or It is." From my direct experience of "I" and my reciprocal experience of "thou" I can therefore deduce that every living being out there likewise has its own subjectivity. The love we develop for each other can therefore, with some effort, be extended to all other beings--whose existence is no less important to them than ours is to us.  But what about "it," you ask. Does a rock, a river, or a mountain, a lump of coal, or a star have any subjectivity? Maybe, maybe not. But they have properties, which we are bound to respect, for if we do not consider the consequences of our decisions about the material world, we pay for it. When we pump out or dig up and burn fossil fuels, we heat our atmosphere and could destroy ourselves, along with all other complex multicellular life, in which case we will have to get used to being bacteria again… So if compassion comes from acknowledging Thee, Him, and Her, as we acknowledge Me, wisdom comes from taking care of It. Hence the wonderful injunction of Lao Tzu: "Take care of everyone, and abandon no one. Take care of everything, and abandon nothing."

"We are." Now comes the important part. These also happen to be the first two words of Martin Luther King's magnificent summary of the Dharma as a guiding principle: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."  In other words, we all reciprocally depend on each other, both locally and globally, both human and nonhuman.

"You are."  Equally important, any community, which is often in competition with rival communities for resources or otherwise, must ultimately recognize that the "other's" collective claim to identity, value, and respect is as valid as our own. Herein lies an end to all forms of prejudice and bigotry, whether religious, ethnic, nationalistic, or cultural…for communication, respect, and diplomacy are essential to a peaceful and prosperous community, nation, and planet.

"They are." This statement encodes the essential lesson of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: that even those we scorn as "other"--those against whom we define ourselves, the ones we don't talk to, the ones we love to scorn, are still part of the "inescapable network of mutuality" on which we all depend. And for me, that even includes pathological racists, right wing Republicans, born-again Christian ideologues, Muslim fanatics, Jewish hyper-Zionists, Rush Limbaugh-loving rednecks in Hummers with gun racks, and so forth. As Jesus said, "Love your enemies; bless them that curse you…"  This is, of course, the most difficult injunction of all to practice, but it is essential nevertheless. For if our circle of compassion leaves anyone or anything out, it is of no value at all.

It may seem strange that after ridiculing Christian articles of faith, I should end by quoting Jesus. But my disdain for mindless ideological rigidity is entirely consistent with my lifelong reverence for Jesus--not as the "Only Begotten Son of God" (whatever THAT means) but as a Buddha, a fully awakened being, who in that respect could be called an avatar of God, just like Krishna or the Buddha.