Sunday, December 25, 2016

Permaculture and/or the Deluge

I just viewed a very recent (2016) and sobering address by Geoff Lawton, the charismatic, internationally known teacher and proponent of Permaculture, who has traveled the world over the last 25 years, teaching and demonstrating Permaculture design principles and techniques with astounding successes in every imaginable climate and bioregion--even in the parched deserts of Jordan. (See Greening the Desert)

His address was given at this year's International Permaculture Conference in London, and in stark contrast to his usual ebullient enthusiasm, his tone in this latest address is quite melancholy--a clear and sad assessment of the desperate and disintegrative state of our global ecosystems---but it is not hopeless. He clearly sees, as I now do, that Permaculture design has the potential for being our last, best hope for propagating the spontaneous remission of the Cancer of the Earth--the next phase of human evolution, into a symbiotic, rather than parasitic, relationship to the Biosphere. He points out, however, that less than .01% of humanity has ever heard of Permaculture.

Should we therefore be discouraged, and simply give up? Never!  In times of encroaching darkness, such as now, with the global corporate oligarchy on the verge of taking over completely and destroying the last vestiges of real democracy under a neofascist Trump regime, I often contemplate this poem by the pious 17th Century Anglican divine, George Herbert:


Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
                                    For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
                                    And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes,1
                                    And all must die.

Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
                                    Then chiefly lives.

  Herbert was, of course, a devout Christian, whose hope in the face of impermanence lay vested in the Afterlife, beyond even Judgment Day when the "whole world" would "turn to coal"  But the poem has resonance for me nevertheless, even as, in another sense, the world is "turning to coal" due to Trump's renewed and enthusiastic embrace of fossil fuels, climate be damned.

The resonance derives from the image of a "sweet and vertuous soul" as being resilient, like "seasoned timber."  And that, I think, is the key. If all hell breaks loose, whether from accelerating climate catastrophes, tyrannical crackdowns on dissent, global nuclear conflict, economic collapse, swarms of refugees, religious fanaticism, and roving bands of brutal and predatory marauders, those who have quietly mastered the arts of permaculture--growing regenerative gardens, restoring damaged ecosystems, exchanging skills, designing for the long term, and building community--will still be better off than everyone else, still be able to share their abundance with those in need and propagate their skills. Even if we are only .01 per cent of the population, if a handful of seeds survives a forest fire, they can still regenerate the forest.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Diamond in our Minds

After the Catastrophe—that is the election of Donald Trump on November 8—as I joined most of the rest of the (sane) world in paroxysms of dread and despair, I found myself again and again singing a refrain from a song by Tom Waits:

Always keep a Diamond in your mind;
Always keep a Diamond in your mind;
Wherever you may wander, wherever you may roam,
You’ve got to Always keep a Diamond in your mind…

Somehow, I find this refrain very healing, a kind of mantra, whenever the next horrid headline afflicts me with waves of dread about the future. But what is this “Diamond in your mind”?

In Buddhism, the Diamond Sutra is one of the essential Prajnaparamita sutras of the Pali Canon. In his translation and commentary on this sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh refers to it as “the Diamond that cuts through illusion.” It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain what this is “Diamond” is, for it is inherently paradoxical; it refers to the ultimate insight that “this is because that is,” from which we may logically deduce that neither “this” nor “that” has any intrinsic existence. But this paradoxical way of thinking is likely to be too abstruse to be of much comfort to most of us.

Another way of thinking about the Diamond in our minds is to consider the physical characteristics of diamonds themselves.  They are the hardest known substance; they can cut through anything else. This is why this ultimate insight in the Sutra is compared to a diamond (Vajra). In this sense, it is cutting through all the illusions that keep us bound to Samsara, bound to the wheel of suffering that we create when we assume (1) that things have separate existence from each other, and (2) that we ourselves have a separate identity from others.

The first delusion is relatively easy to penetrate intellectually; we can readily understand, for example, that without topsoil, oxygenated air, solar energy, fresh water, and inherited genetic information, we would not have any flowers, trees, insects, or even people. But the second—the delusion of a separate self—is deeply ingrained in both our biology and our consciousness, and hence we are emotionally attached to it as well.

It is a lot harder, therefore, for us to be able to look at Donald Trump and see ourselves in him, and him in us—to see that there is, in reality, no separation between ourselves and everyone else. Yet we affirm this connection every time we take a breath, exchanging CO2 for oxygen, as trees inhale CO2 and yield oxygen again, and that oxygen in turn is breathed by everyone else—even Donald Trump—becoming incorporated into his metabolism in the same way it was in ours. 

And this delusion of separateness that I share with Trump (though not, I hope, to that extreme!) and everyone else is the source of all the suffering on the planet: our shared ignorance gives rise to greed, which gives rise to hatred, denial, and despair.

But again, because it is so hard emotionally to let go of this delusion of separate self, there are other, more palatable ways of conceptualizing the Diamond that could be shared with those, like my students, who know nothing of arcane Buddhist doctrine, and may inhabit a mindset informed by Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, or indeed no religious affiliation at all.

For example, a Christian may wish to conceptualize the Diamond in his or her mind as the Holy Spirit or Grace—the indwelling of the Divine or Christ Within, a Jew will conceptualize it as JHVH, the One True G-d, while a Muslim will naturally conceive it as Allah.  Whatever religious language they wish to use, the important thing is that the Diamond is, as Stephen Gaskin used to say, “the highest and holiest part of ourselves,” however we label it.

                The important thing about the Diamond metaphor, again, is that diamonds are indestructible. If like me you are a Gaian—that is, if you adhere to both science and the insight of William Blake that “Everything that lives is holy,” you also might consider the fact that diamonds are pure carbon—an opaque, pure black element that is the very basis of organic life, which, when concentrated and reorganized into a tight molecular lattice, turns clear and brilliant, capturing and refracting light. That is an apt metaphor as well—that a Diamond is the stuff of life itself, concentrated into its purest form.

So for practical purposes, we may contemplate the Diamond in our minds as the very essence of who we are, the essence we share with all other living things, and with the entire Cosmos. And in times of political oppression and social disintegration, as we are likely to see in the coming years under this egomaniacal despot, it is very healthy to keep in touch with the Diamond in our minds, however we conceive it.  

 If we practice the Buddhist discipline of Tonglen—giving and taking—we can visualize the Diamond in our minds as that which, 
  • on the inbreath, takes in all the darkness--our suffering due to Ignorance, Greed, Hatred, Denial, and Despair--which we feel in ourselves and see all around us, and 
  • on the outbreath. transforms it into the radiant, healing energy of Benevolence, Compassion, Shared Joy, and Equanimity, sent out freely to our suffering selves, our loved ones, our acquaintances, those we don't know, our enemies, all people, all of life...

Saturday, December 3, 2016

A message to my students

Since this is my last year of teaching at TCC before my retirement in May, this seems like a good time to leave a farewell message to all my students, past and present.

Dear Students,

As you all know, our collective future prospects have recently taken a wrenching turn for the worst, with the election to the Presidency of a clownish, boorish, cruel, pathologically narcissistic demagogue--a man whose elevation to this position of unimaginable power and prestige has traumatized the entire world community. This means, of course, that the brighter future for which you are all preparing through your education may never come to pass; instead, we appear headed into a long dark night of neofascist bigotry and violence, especially toward minorities; corporate domination of all branches of government; and the vindictive use of unprecedented surveillance to seek out and punish or brutalize all who resist or speak out against his agenda. The horrific possibilities boggle the imagination, as his daily capricious actions and tweets--and his appointments of thuggish yes-men and corporate cronies to positions of power--bring us wave after wave of dread...

So how will we cope? I first wish to refer you to a superb, though sobering, article by Bill McKibben: "How the Active Many can Overcome the Ruthless Few."

McKibben pulls no punches in laying out the terrifying details of accelerating climate change, and he stresses that our window of opportunity is steadily closing for redirecting our collective course away from global catastrophe.

And yet, in the final paragraphs, he gives us some hope, by paying tribute to the grand 20th Century tradition of Satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi's brilliant principles and techniques for collective nonviolent resistance to evil and oppression.  He then cites many of the Bodhisattvas who have followed in Gandhi's footsteps, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Thich Nhat Hanh, Wangari Maathai,  Aung San Soo Kyi, and Vandana Shiva. His point is that such massive nonviolent resistance techniques are the only sure way to curb the abuses of corporate and state power. They do this, above all, by changing the terms of the debate.

For example, even though the Occupy protesters were crushed by massive police power in the service of corporate interests, they changed the conversation by introducing the concepts of the 1% and 99% into public discourse, and thus brought to light the criminality of the banksters and the obscene gap between the billionaire class and all the rest of us; this widespread awareness of systemic corruption and injustice in turn enabled Bernie Sanders to mobilize massive support, while at the same time, it enabled Trump to exploit the same reservoir of widespread resentment and discontent for his own pseudo-populist agenda, by directing it against scapegoats (i.e. minorities and immigrants) rather than against the super-rich (like himself and his cronies).

I am not saying, of course, that we should all hit the streets, wave protest signs, or get tear-gassed, tasered, or arrested for trespassing. Public protest and voluntary suffering are tools, but to be effective, they must be strategically planned for greatest effect. And as protests increase in frequency, the corporate media pay less and less attention to them (unless they turn violent--only then do they see it as newsworthy). There are many other, subtler ways to practice Satyagraha. In fact, Gandhi divided Satyagraha practices into three categories:

  • Ahimsa (righteous nonviolence--refusing to stoop to the level of our aggressors);
  • Satya (speaking truth to power)
  • Swaraj (cultivating self-rule and self-reliance).
While Ahimsa requires the kind of moral courage and discipline shown by those on the front line, such as the Civil Rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge or today's Native Americans at Standing Rock, most of us lack the inner fortitude to stand our ground in the face of brutality without either running away or lashing out violently in turn. For such people--the majority for the most part--the latter two strategies remain open.

Satya means speaking truth to power, and doing so mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly. This can be done by writing Op Eds or letters to the editor, or by speaking out at city council meetings or public hearings. You have considerably more clout from writing a well-crafted letter to the editor than from being a face in a crowd at a mass demonstration that is likely to be ignored by the media and contained or brutalized by riot police. So this is an acceptable and very effective choice for the great majority of us who have no stomach for martyrdom.

Finally, Swaraj is for everyone, even if you are neither brave nor articulate. Its root meaning in Sanskrit is "self-rule," and it originally referred to the colonized Indians' quest for self-government and freedom from British colonial rule. But Gandhi extended the definition to include both "self-control" and "self-reliance." Its symbol was the Spinning Wheel, so chosen both because it is a symbol for the eightfold Wheel of Dharma (referring, of course, to self-mastery), but also because it was a literal means by which Indian peasants could declare economic independence from the British Empire, simply by spinning cotton cloth to make their own clothing.  In our time, Swaraj can be divided into three broad categories:

  • Good Buy: assuming responsibility for the social and ecological effects of the money you spend. This means, before buying anything, to ask three kinds of questions: (1) Where is the money for this going? (2) What am I getting in return for it? Is it useful or addictive? (3) Does this product constitute a responsible use of the Earth's resources? 
  • Good Work: assuming responsibility for the social and ecological effects of your choice of livelihood. To what extent is it Work (doing what you know best for the best interests of yourself, your community, and your planet--learning, teaching, healing, or creating) or Slavery (serving the interests of your own or others' greed, ignorance, or denial; working for "the man" in return for nothing more than a paycheck).
  • Good Will:  Taking care of everyone and everything, and abandoning no one and nothing. Making this an asymptotic goal in all of your relations with others and with your world. Cultivating benevolence, compassion, selfless joy, and equanimity.
It is in this way that Satyagraha connects to the other two essential disciplines: Tonglen and Permaculture. Let's consider these briefly:

  • Tonglen: in order to achieve Ahimsa, to become truly nonviolent, to root out hatred (which is the enemy within, along with denial and despair), one must learn to cultivate compassion for everyone, perpetrators and victims alike. This is difficult, but the Tibetan practice of Tonglen meditation is a powerful training technique for cultivating Ahimsa. It consists of engaging your imagination on the breath:  breathing in suffering, both the outer suffering for the victims and the inner suffering that gives rise to the violence of the perpetrators, and breathing out healing, relief, and inner peace, both to the victims and the perpetrators--along with a prayer that the latter see the light and abandon their violence (as many sheriffs and other police have already, resigning rather than brutalizing the Native Americans at Standing Rock). It takes practice, of course, but as it becomes habitual, you can use it on yourself (when something fills you with rage and despair, just breath it in to the Diamond in your mind, and breathe out inner peace, firm resolution, and equanimity)--but also do "Tonglen on the spot" with anyone else you see or anyone whose suffering enters into your consciousness. For an excellent discussion of Tonglen,  see this article by Pema Chodron
  • Permaculture: In the same way that Tonglen practice enables us to practice Ahimsa--to confront and resist evil without violence or hatred--so Permaculture is the fruition of Swaraj; it involves creating a whole new, ecologically harmonious culture from the ground up, according to tried and true principles. If you are interested in learning more about Permaculture, there is an excellent short online course at Oregon State University, available on Youtube at this address