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.