Spiritual Practice for a Finite World
Thomas I. Ellis
Dharma is a Sanskrit word, from the Hindu and later Buddhist traditions of
Far East, that originally meant “law” or “that to which we adhere.” It is
related etymologically, through Indo-European, to the Latin root firm-
as in “firmament” or “affirm” or “confirm.” The American Heritage Dictionary
defines it as “the ultimate law of all things” and as “individual right conduct
in conformity to that law.” In ancient Hindu culture, it came also to mean the
sacred duties incumbent upon people in accordance with the caste into which
they were born—as priests, soldiers, artisans, merchants, or common laborers.
But with the rise of Buddhism, dharma came to be synonymous with the
Buddha’s teachings, and hence is sometimes translated (inadequately, in my
view) as “doctrine.” It also refers,
usually in the plural, to phenomena, to the things of the world as they appear to
us. Hence the dharmakaya, or body of dharma, came to mean simultaneously
the phenomenal world as it is and the body of truth embedded in the Buddha’s
teachings; in Mahayana Buddhism, it is one of the “three bodies of the Buddha.”
In fact the Buddha originally referred to his own teachings not as “Buddhism”
(a western coinage) but rather simply as “dharma practice”—the practice of
learning to do the right thing, based on a clear understanding of reality. India
Gaia (GAIA) is the ancient Greek name for the primordial Earth goddess, and provides the root (gh-) of all the Greek-derived words that refer to the Earth—geology, geometry, geode, and the name George, originally meaning “farmer” or “earth-worker” (gh + ourgos ) In recent years, however, the mythic name Gaia has been brought back from archeological obscurity and given new life by certain renegade scientists. In the late 1960s, at the suggestion of his neighbor, novelist William Golding, British biochemist James Lovelock adopted Gaia as a suitable name for his revolutionary new theory of biogenic global homeostasis. In a nutshell, Lovelock suggested that, far from being mere passengers on a planet that happened to be suitable for living things, the biota collectively and interactively sustain the far-from-equilibrium thermal, atmospheric, and geochemical conditions that, in turn, sustain life. Since 1970, when Lovelock published his first book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, the name Gaia has gained widespread currency as a metaphor for our new ecological understanding of life on Earth as a fully integrated, self-sustaining, but perishable system of which we are a part, rather than merely as a “resource” with no value until it is transformed into commodities. It thus has come to refer, not only to an ancient Greek myth and a scientific model named after the myth, but also to a metaphor based on the model, and a worldwide cultural movement based on that metaphor.
Dharma Gaia is thus a bilingual, East-West pun on dharmakaya—the living Earth itself as the body of Dharma—and can be roughly translated in practice as “doing the right thing for the living Earth.” The term was first used for the title of a 1990 anthology, Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology edited by Allan Hunt Badiner, who suggested it as the name for “a merging of Buddhism, deep ecology, and feminism”(xvii). In the present work, I hope to follow the path blazed by this anthology and others—by the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, along with ecovisionary Buddhist writers such as Gary Snyder, Joanna Macy, Joan Halifax, Bill Devall, Ralph Abraham, and Elizabeth Roberts—in developing a useful paradigm for the practice of Gaian Buddhism—for engaged Buddhist practice in service to the living Earth, in our time of unprecedented global ecological crisis.
Our Present Reality
Our present generation has an awesome, unprecedented challenge: for the first time in our history, we are obliged to choose, collectively, whether we have a future at all. In the past, no matter how bad things became locally due to war, famine, or pestilence, there always remained the hope that, if we or our children simply moved elsewhere, or started anew where we were, things would be better for future generations. It was this hope, for example, that drove millions of immigrants to the new world, that also sustained the slaves on southern plantations through generations of harsh and bitter oppression, and that burned in the hearts of soldiers in the trenches during the two World Wars. There were always new horizons, fresh possibilities, to beckon us or our children toward a brighter future.
In the present generation, all this has changed. While our present, at least in North America, is characterized by affluence unimaginable to our ancestors—cars, suburban homes, computers, instant access to information and to people all over the world, jet travel anywhere we want to go, 24-hour entertainment, and an endless array of options for virtually everything we choose to buy, eat, or do, our collective global future is looking bleaker and bleaker. Fossil fuels, especially oil, that have been more responsible than anything else for the explosive growth of our global population, technology, and per-capita wealth during the past century and a half, are nearing the peak of their global productive potential in this decade, while demand for these fuels, and the products and services that they provide, continues to soar. After the oil peak passes, there will be a steady, irreversible decline of net energy available from petroleum at 2-3% per year, causing the prices of everything, including food (which relies on fossil fuels for both fertilizer and transportation) to skyrocket. This will turn the already yawning gap between rich and poor into chasm, creating a grim scenario of shrinking islands of ruthlessly defended wealth in a growing sea of poverty, chaos, violence, terrorism, war, and starvation.
But that’s not all. The carbon emissions from our worldwide dependence on oil, coal, and gas are heating up our global climate at a faster rate than at any time in recorded human history, causing the polar ice caps to melt, spawning an unprecedented spate of destructive hurricanes and tornadoes, turning agricultural areas into deserts, wiping out the flora and fauna of whole bioregions, causing northward migration of ravaging tropical diseases, increasing our reliance on air-conditioning, hence on electricity, hence on fossil or nuclear power—while simultaneously increasing the CFC emissions that are destroying the ozone layer.
But even that’s not all. Our worldwide supply of fertile topsoil—crucial for growing the crops we eat for food—has been exhausted by the relentless application of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides, and is eroding faster than at any time in history, while worldwide agricultural productivity, having risen steadily since the Industrial Revolution, has peaked and is now declining, despite intensive efforts to boost productivity through fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic engineering. Yet the global population, already over six billion, continues to grow steadily.
Nor is that all. Our freshwater aquifers worldwide are strained to the limit, and are rapidly becoming exhausted, while dams are destroying freshwater and anadromous fisheries, and irrigation is causing increased salinity in soils. At the same time, our ocean fisheries are collapsing worldwide due to overfishing and pollution, and the coral reefs that form the foundation of the marine food chain are dying off due to global warming—all while the demand for fish continues to grow.
And finally, our forests are being chopped down, wetlands filled in, and diverse flora and fauna exterminated at a breakneck pace throughout the world, to accommodate growing human demands for housing, commerce, and industry, and to fill the coffers of greedy global corporations, all in competition with one another to maximize the bottom line—a kind of global feeding frenzy on the web of life itself.
All these interacting trends point toward a grim future indeed, a global die-off, a self-accelerating downward spiral of chaos, repression, random violence, war, and mass starvation on a ruined and ecologically degraded planet growing hotter and less habitable every day.
Unless… What? Do we have any choice? Is this horrific scenario our only remaining prospect for the future? Should we not simply swallow cyanide and get it over with, like Jim Jones and his followers?
We cannot call off the coming apocalypse altogether. We cannot turn back the clock and restore the vast rainforests and biodiversity we have already lost. And even if we drastically curb fossil fuel consumption, we cannot immediately stop global warming trends. And we probably cannot restore the
resembling a real democracy, where the press is truly free, where a cultural
consensus enables the two parties to govern effectively, or where public
officials serve the public interest, rather than pandering to their corporate
backers. Great civilizations, once in decay, normally continue to degenerate
into tyranny and plutocracy. United States of America
So what can we do?
Reclaiming the Present Moment.
My answer is simple, but as I hope to show, far-reaching in its implications. We can reclaim the present moment. But what good will that do?
The present is all there is. We think and talk incessantly about the past and future, but in actuality, the past is gone irrevocably and the future hasn’t happened yet—both are mental constructs. As Buddhist teachings instruct us, and our own reflection confirms as common sense, the present moment, with all its constraints and possibilities, is the net consequence of interacting causes and conditions extending all the way back to the Big Bang. And the future likewise will be shaped entirely by the choices we make in this moment, even if we take into account the future constraints imposed by the unwise choices we have made in the past. Our choices today will still extend or diminish our range of possibilities for the future. And therein lies the source of our potential empowerment, the seeds of renewed hope.
My Vision: A Worldwide Gaia Movement
What would happen if a popular movement started—call it the Gaia movement, if you will—in which ever-growing numbers of people shifted their loyalties and identification upward, including but transcending their own reference groups--organization, religion, or nationality--and even including but transcending “humanity” as a whole, to embrace Gaia—our precious and unique living planet itself? What if people started calling themselves Gaians, and acted accordingly? This is my dream in a nutshell, for if this were to happen, here are a few possible consequences:
· People would then habitually assume responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of every dollar they earned, spent, and invested. As a consequence, producers and vendors would be economically rewarded for choosing more sustainably produced goods and services to meet the demand of their customers, while polluters and heedless destroyers would lose business and collapse.
· Gaian consciousness—awareness of our participation in a finite, wondrous planetary web of life—would pervade our culture and educational system, constantly encouraging people to choose the more life-sustaining option in selecting a career, in building communities, and in buying and selling commodities.
· Protecting and restoring ecosystems would rise to the top of the social and political agenda, becoming an ongoing collective project of all our communities and societies.
· International cooperation to promote sustainable agriculture and to address transnational ecological issues (like collapsing ocean fisheries or global warming) would become the rule, rather than the exception.
· War would be far less likely, since people’s identification with Gaia would come prior to their identification with their nation or religion. Killing people or destroying other life forms would become anathema to most people.
· The manufacturing sector would be reconfigured into industrial ecologies, where the waste products of any one enterprise were immediately recycled into the raw materials of another, and toxic contaminants were carefully monitored, controlled, recycled where possible, or sequestered.
· Local economies would diversify, as locally produced energy (solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and the hydrogen produced locally by fuel cells from these sources) displaced the highly centralized delivery grids based on fossil and nuclear fuels. Wealth would be redistributed accordingly.
· Population would level off and decline, as women had more educational opportunities, and as local, ecologically conscious communities established and enforced carrying capacity limits and land use regulations to protect ecosystems and soil fertility.
Such measures, of course, would not immediately solve all the crises we now face. Global warming would be slowed, but not reversed for at least another generation. The corporate elite would do everything in their power to suppress the Gaia movement as it caught on, but eventually they would see that their own economic interests lay in joining it. Lost topsoil will not be regenerated for millennia, and of course extinct species are gone forever. But the net result would nevertheless be a far more livable world than the one toward which all present trends are headed—a world in the process of healing, not dying. But how can this happen? How can Gaianity catch on and spread?
Sowing the Seed
In his delightful ecological parable The Lorax, Dr. Seuss tells the story of the Onceler, the personification of corporate greed, who discovers a fine meadow full of brightly colored Truffula Trees, and immediately sets up an operation to chop them down and turn them into “Thneeds”—amorphous, but hot-selling consumer goods. As the trees disappear and the factory churns out air and water pollutants, the ecosystem collapses, sending the Koala-like “brown barbaloots” and the “humming fish” away in search of greener pastures. Throughout, the Onceler is confronted by the Lorax, a fuzzy nature spirit who “speaks for the trees” and repeatedly denounces the Onceler’s rapacious enterprises to no avail—until the very last truffula tree falls, and the Thneed business collapses, amid the grim polluted air and water, where nothing grows but “grickle-grass.” In the gloomy, polluted landscape at the end of the story, the boy protagonist comes upon a pedestal with the word “UNLESS” engraved on it. The now-penitent Onceler interprets it as follows:
UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot
Nothing is going to get better—it’s not.
After this sobering moral of the story, the Onceler entrusts the boy with the “very last truffula seed of them all,” enjoining him to
Feed it fresh water, and give it clean air;
Grow a forest – protect it from axes that hack,
Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.
I would like to offer the reader my own Truffula Seed—an easily memorized formulation which, if recited and practiced regularly, can serve as the foundation for a life-long Dharma Gaia practice. As it catches on and is disseminated, this practice can serve as a lifeline to a better global future for all of us, by paradoxically returning our attention to the present moment. Before I present it, I would like to acknowledge my debt to all my teachers, past and present, starting with my heart Dharma teacher, the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, and including Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Gregory Bateson, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and myriad others, especially the popular radio host Garrison Keillor (as we shall see).
My Dharma Gaia practice is based on a luminous teaching from Lao Tzu, verse 54 (as adapted from translations by Gia-fu Feng and Man-ho Kwok):
What is firmly established cannot be uprooted.
What is firmly grasped cannot slip away.
It will be honored from generation to generation.
Cultivate Virtue in yourself,
And Virtue will be real.
Cultivate it in the family,
And Virtue will abound.
Cultivate it in the village,
And Virtue will grow.
Cultivate it in the nation,
And Virtue will be abundant.
Cultivate it in the universe,
And Virtue will be everywhere.
Therefore look at someone else as you would yourself;
Look at other families as your own family;
Look at every village as your own village;
Look at all nations as your own nation,
And treasure the world [Gaia] as the round center of everything.
How can I see the world like this?
Because I have eyes.
This wondrous passage is the best recipe I know for anyone who is seriously interested in becoming an agent of global transformation and healing. It emphasizes that real change—the kind that matters—starts from the ground up, not the top down. And that it is rooted in “cultivating Virtue in ourselves” first, so that it is “firmly established” and can spread, by example as well as by precept. But how can we best “cultivate Virtue in ourselves”? There are, of course, many techniques for doing this, but here is a brief summary of my own Dharma Gaia formulation, which I offer as a seed of contemplation and practice for anyone who wishes to commit him or herself to healing our precious living planet.
So here it is…
The Principle: We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Precept: Take care of everyone, and abandon no one. Take care of everything, and abandon nothing.” –Lao Tzu.
1. Breathe, Observe, Let Go.
2. Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch. –Garrison Keillor
3. Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, Create Gaia.
Now, let’s unpack it:
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
--Martin Luther King, Jr.
In his foundational Sermon at
Benares, the Buddha laid down the
Four Noble Truths as follows: the truth of inevitable suffering; the
recognition of craving or attachment as the cause of suffering; the possibility
of letting go of attachments and therefore of release from suffering, and the
method (the Eightfold Path) for doing so. And in his Eightfold Path, his first
step was Right Understanding—a clear, unobstructed view of reality. The Buddha
epitomized Right Understanding in the Three Dharma Seals—the three basic realities
of experience, which are litmus tests of authentic Dharma teachings:
Impermanence, Interbeing, and Oneness. The first two of these correspond to the
Second and First Laws of Thermodynamics—the Law of Entropy (impermanence) and
the Law of Conservation of Energy (interbeing). The Third Dharma Seal—oneness
or Nirvana—cannot be grasped intellectually, but can best be expressed by the
famous refrain from the Upanishads: That Thou Art.
The above luminous quote from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that I have chosen to express the Dharma Gaia Principle encapsulates all three Dharma Seals: the “inescapable network of mutuality” (interbeing); the “single garment of destiny” (impermanence); and “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (oneness). It can therefore be used as a succinct expression and reminder of the Dharma as a whole—as a major premise upon which to ground all of our thoughts and actions.
This quote is true at all levels—it could as easily have been spoken by a quantum physicist, a chemist, a biologist, a sociologist, or an economist as it was by a theologian, as a summation of what we now know about our deeply interrelated world.
Moreover, it is also the clearest expression I know of the insights embedded in Gaia theory—that life on Earth is an “inescapable network of mutuality” where “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Simply committing this quote to memory and periodically reciting it to ourselves and others can do much to remind us gently of the consequences of our actions, individually and collectively, on both other people and the living Earth. Dr. King’s words, a summation of both Dharma and Gaia, are entirely reliable as a touchstone against which to evaluate the merit of any other philosophical or ethical proposition. They are an apt standard for evaluating everything we think, say, and do. Dr. King has given us direct, immediate access to Right Understanding.
Take care of everyone and abandon no one; take care of everything and abandon nothing. –Lao Tzu
After Right Understanding, the next three steps in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path address both ethical intention and behavior: Right Intentions, Right Speech, and Right Action.. All these can be summarized by the parallel precept derived from Lao Tzu, verse 27 (Gia Fu Feng): “Therefore the sage takes care of everyone/And abandons no one. He takes care of everything, and abandons nothing.”
This precept derives logically from an understanding of the Principle: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” It contains within it all of the Five Precepts that form the basis for ethical behavior in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions (and that are reflected in the five ethical commandments of the biblical Ten Commandments). Here they are, as recently reinterpreted by Thich Nhat Hanh:
Ahimsa (nonviolence; doing no harm): Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.
Asteya (nonstealing; freedom from avarice): Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I will practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.
Brahmacharya (control of sensual pleasure): Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.
Satya (truthfulness): Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize and condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division and discord, or that cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
Aparigraha (noncovetousness or moderation): Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, or conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.
These five precepts—the essence of Right Intentions, Right Speech, and Right Action—are all implicit in Lao Tzu’s parallel precept: Take care of everyone and abandon no one; take care of everything and abandon nothing. The “everyone” includes ourselves (Fifth Precept) and the “everything” includes our planet (First and Second Precept—“people, animals, plants, and minerals.”)
Noble philosophical principles and ethical precepts are all well and good, and are easy to grasp and recite, but do little if any good unless we consistently translate them into practice. And as Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice laments, “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces…I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.”
Knowing this yawning gap between good counsel and our actual, habituated behavior, the Buddha devised a series of direct, hands-on Dharma practices for his disciples, which are embedded in the last four injunctions of his Eightfold Path—Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. However, He instructed his disciples on these in reverse order, starting with training in Right Concentration. In the injunctions for Dharma Gaia practice, I have endeavored to follow his example:
1. Breathe, Observe, Let Go
In his Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Buddha set out an easily grasped sequence of guided meditations that anyone could practice, any time. The first instruction he gave was remarkably simple: “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Newcomers to Buddhist practice are often baffled by the tautological simplicity of this instruction, but the Buddha knew exactly what he was doing. Simple attention to our breath connects our bodies and minds in the vertical dimension, and thereby prevents us, for a while, from thinking about all the other stuff that habitually plagues our consciousness—our obsessions, hopes, desires, fantasies, fears, and anxieties, as well as our physical aches and pains. At the same time, bringing our consciousness to our breath causes us to breathe more smoothly and deeply, thus calming us down, alleviating our stress.
Naturally, all our habitual distractions worm their way back into our awareness sooner or later, but the Buddha anticipated this as well, by following with breathing exercises that draw attention to, and encourage us to observe, acknowledge, embrace, and let go of, whatever rises to our attention in our bodies, feelings, mental formations, and consciousness. His final instruction sums up the practice: “Breathing in, I observe letting go. Breathing out, I observe letting go.”
The essence of the foundational practice of mindfulness and concentration that the Buddha taught his disciples is contained in this final instruction. We breathe in order to observe—whatever is going on in our body or mind, starting with the breath itself, and moving on to our body, feelings, and thoughts. And we observe in order to let go—not to push thoughts or feelings away, but just to observe the coming and going of thoughts and feelings, rather than becoming attached to them. And we let go in order to breathe. And so on. The net effect of this simple but powerful practice is to restore our equanimity, to bring us back to the present moment, again and again. It grounds us in what is, so that we may let go of all the subjunctives that torment us—all the “if onlys.”
Our breath is our home base—the basis of life and the root of our consciousness—and as long as we are alive, it is always available to us. Simply observing our breath connects our subjectivity (the vertical dimension of body-mind-spirit) with the horizontal “objective” world of our physical sensations in contact with the world outside of our skin. The oxygen in the air we breathe comes directly from Gaia—from the photosynthesis of trees, plants, and phytoplankton all over the world, without which the atmosphere would be 95% carbon dioxide, and we would perish instantly. So in breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide, we are literally dancing with the trees, which are breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen. It is no wonder that the Greek word for “Holy Spirit” was agia pneuma, literally “holy breath,” In fact, the word “spirit” itself derives from the Latin verb spiro, spirare, spiritus, meaning “to breathe.” And as William Blake said, “Everything that lives is holy.”
Furthermore, the triad “breathe, observe, let go” corresponds exactly to what the Dalai Lama described as the three basic forms of religious practice found throughout the world—meditation, contemplation, and prayer. Meditation is breathing; contemplation is observing, and prayer is letting go, as when Jesus instructed his disciples to center their prayers on the mantra “Thy will be done.”
2. Be well, Do good Work, Keep in Touch –Garrison Keillor
After teaching his disciples Right Concentration (breathing, observing, and letting go), the Buddha went on to teach Right Mindfulness, Right Effort, and Right Livelihood. I know of no better summation for all of these practices than Garrison Keillor’s signoff from his morning radio station, Writer’s Almanac: “Be well, do good work, keep in touch.” Let us look at them more deeply.
In his “five remembrances,” the Buddha taught his disciples to make friends with impermanence by acknowledging their own:
1. I am of the nature to get sick. There is no way I can avoid getting sick.
2. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way I can avoid growing old.
3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way I can avoid death.
4. All that I cherish, I will lose. There is no way I can avoid losing everything I cherish.
5. My actions are my only possessions. There is no way I can escape the consequences of my actions.
Ironically, the Buddha knew that only by acknowledging our impermanence—our inevitable subjection to sickness, old age, and death—could we truly “be well” in body, mind and spirit. He saw, that is, that “being well” is rooted in mindfulness, in compassionate attentiveness to the present moment, which will inevitably lead us to eat and drink wisely and moderately, to take good care of our bodies, to avoid intoxicants and excess, and thus to live longer, happier lives before our inevitable sickness, old age, and death.
One can “be well” not only in body, however, but in mind and spirit as well. Even if our bodies are racked by disease, (as they all are, sooner or later), we can “be well” in our minds if we continue to breathe, observe, and let go—and we can “be well” in spirit if we can say “Thy will be done” and mean it; that is, in Buddhist terms, if we can accept the current circumstances, whatever they are, as the inevitable consequence of causes and conditions going back to the Big Bang, and let go of our attachment to the subjunctive—to wishing-things-were-other-than-they-are.
Do Good Work
This injunction, the essence of Right Effort and Right Livelihood, has two sides to it, which may be characterized by the Greek words Arête and Agapé—Doing Well, and Doing Good.
To do well means, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, to address any task mindfully—to “do it in order to do it, not in order to get it done.” This injunction can be applied to any task, no matter how simple or complex, and no matter how arduous. If you wash the dishes in full mindfulness, it can be like “washing the baby Buddha.” Likewise, even unpleasant but necessary tasks, like cleaning out a kitty box, can be turned into a sacrament if they are done with complete mindful attention. If on the other hand, we do things simply in order to get them done so we can do something else, we are living in the future, not in the present, and the present thus becomes that much more tedious, because we don’t want to be there. The Buddha—and Jesus likewise—understood that hell resides in the subjunctive—in wishing things were other than they are—for this is, in Christian terms, turning our backs on God’s will, and in Buddhist terms, causing Dukkha, or dissatisfaction with that that is and craving for what is not and cannot be.
The objection will naturally arise—“but what if the present situation is simply unbearable, and must change.” The answer the Buddha might have given would be to (1) breathe, observe, and let go, and then (2) work mindfully and carefully in the present moment to change it, letting go of attachment to outcomes. As Sahara Sunday Spain, an eight-year old child, recently wrote,
If we love,
If we sing,
be the sacred song.
If we need help,
be the help that you need.
If we are scared,
listen to this:
We have the strength to meditate
and by that,
you frighten everything,
that was frightening you
This poem, “out of the mouths of babes,” is a delightful Gatha for the practice of doing good work; especially the line, “If we need help,/be the help you need.”
The other side of “doing good work” is, of course, agape—devoting whatever work you do to taking care of all humanity, all living beings. This is what the Buddha meant by “Right Livelihood”—choosing a career path that serves life, that serves, rather than working against, our Bodhisattva vow to “take care of everyone (and everything) and abandon no one (and nothing).” This naturally precludes certain occupations—the design, manufacture, and sale of weapons, for example, or of alcohol and other intoxicants. But Right Livelihood goes deeper than this.
We live in a world today where our global economy is dominated, as never before, by large multinational corporations whose sole aim is to maximize their own bottom line at any social or environmental cost. This means that much of what we buy and how we earn our money is complicit, directly or indirectly, in creating human suffering through poverty, exploitation, or injustice, and in exhausting the Earth’s resources and poisoning or degrading the biosphere. I know of no easy way out of this dilemma—most of us, myself included, have nothing like the skills and resilience to live “off the grid” on organic farms with solar and wind energy, although there is an emergent global movement called Permaculture, devoted precisely to nurturing such autonomous, ecologically sustainable communities.
Nevertheless, if a large number of us make small, persistent changes—driving less, buying more fuel-efficient cars, recycling, bicycling, buying less junk, and assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our purchasing habits and our livelihood, and networking to build community both locally and globally, the net effect will be far greater than if an infinitesimal number of us, with the knowledge, skills, resources, and connections to do so, go off the grid and establish their own ecovillages. The Buddha intended “Right Livelihood,” like the rest of his Eightfold Path, not as an absolute standard, but rather as an asymptotic ideal—one for which we continuously strive (Right Effort) even though we know that we may never fully attain it.
It is best, therefore, in recollecting the second injunction, “Do Good Work,” to focus on arête—mindful and compassionate attentiveness to the present task--while holding on to agapé--taking good care of everyone and everything, and abandoning no one and nothing—as our ongoing, long-term goal in everything we do.
Keep in Touch.
Whereas “Be Well” brings us back to our own bodies, minds, and spirits, and “Do Good Work” draws mindful attention to our ongoing daily tasks and long-term goals, the last injunction in Garrison Keillor’s beautiful mantra, “Keep in Touch,” refers us back to the indispensable cultivation of Bodhicitta, of genuine, practical, and immediate compassion for all beings, predicated on our recognition that the separate “self” which we spend so much time cultivating is in fact an illusion; that in reality, whether we can see it or not, we are one with everyone and everything we encounter: “That thou art.” Or as John Lennon put it, “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” This is the insight, of course, that lay behind Jesus’ core injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
The Buddhist practices of Metta (Loving Kindness) meditation and the (closely allied) Tibetan practice of Tonglen meditation are two powerful tools for cultivating universal compassion through our recognition of oneness with everyone and everything else. There are, of course, many methods for practicing this, but here is one I developed based on Garrison Keillor’s mantra. It is a guided meditation that combines Tonglen and more conventional Metta meditation:
Breathing in, I take in, feel, and acknowledge my own pain and anguish.
Breathing out, I [contact my Buddha/Christ nature and] irradiate my own being with love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
May I be well, do good work, and keep in touch.
Breathing in, I take in, feel, and acknowledge my wife’s own pain and anguish.
Breathing out, I irradiate her being with love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
May she be well, do good work, and keep in touch…
I continue in this vein, beginning with family, then friends, then students, then acquaintances, then all humanity, then all living things on Earth, and finally, all living things in the universe. But that’s the easy part.
Now comes the hard part—loving our enemies—the most difficult injunction of all to practice, but also the most essential. I save this for last, for I know I will need all the bodhicitta I can muster in order to do it sincerely. Depending on who those are who aggravate you the most, it can take a variety of forms. It might be best to start easy and work up to those who are most difficult for you to love. Here is one example:
Breathing in, I take in, feel, and acknowledge the pain and anguish of [say, a particularly irritating student, or a truckdriver tailgating me on the highway]…
Breathing in, I take in, feel, and acknowledge the pain and anguish of [say, an ex-spouse, a boss, or someone else who chronically aggravates you]…
And finally (for me) “Breathing in, I take in, feel, and acknowledge the pain and anguish of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the rest of their regime.
Breathing out, I [contact my Buddha/Christ nature and] irradiate their beings with love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
May they be well, do good work, and keep in touch.
And in the case of particularly repulsive people (like the above, for me) I may also add, “May they see the light.”
The practice is difficult at first, but the rewards are great. When driving a car, if someone cuts you off or flips you an obscene gesture, or if your boss or spouse or child gets on your nerves, or if you hear a news story that fills you with apoplectic moral outrage, it is good to have this practice available.
The essence of keeping in touch, then, is to build up a reservoir of good will and compassion that is available to us at any time, for anyone you encounter, so that we can be there for them if they need us, and leave them alone if they want to be left alone, and better calm our anger and thus avoid unskillful behavior. Here is another practice for keeping in touch that I developed for my students:
1. Everyone you see is your teacher, so be ready at all times to learn.
2. Everyone you see is your student, so be ready at all times to teach.
3. Everyone you see may be hurting in some way, so be ready at all times to heal.
4. Everyone you see may need your special gift, so be ready at all times to create.
And this leads us directly to the final phase of my Dharma Gaia mantra:
4. Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, and Create Gaia.
Whereas the Principle, embodied in Dr. King’s luminous quote, is always a useful intellectual reminder of the Dharma, and the Precept, embedded in Lao Tzu’s quote, is a useful ethical reminder, the Practice thus far, especially Garrison Keillor’s mantra, is intended as an easily recalled way of actualizing the Dharma in our lives on an ongoing basis, moment to moment and day by day. But what about Gaia? We are still faced with the daunting dilemma of a global market economy based on infinite growth of production and consumption that has already exceeded the carrying capacity of a finite planet, and is on the verge of collapse into chaos and massive, worldwide violence, suffering, starvation, and death. All the personal dharma practice in the world will not do much to change this grim future, though it might help us survive it, both physically and spiritually, longer than others. But in order to embrace the challenge of global healing, we must use Dharma practice as the foundation for a serious and sustained commitment to Gaian healing. Hence I have come up with what I call the “Four Commitments” that can serve as a general guide for consecrating our lives to the task of creating a Gaian future, which is our only alternative to no future at all. While Dharma practice—breathing, observing, letting go, being well, doing good work, and keeping in touch—is the indispensable root and stem of our lives, Gaian healing can be the fruit, if we commit our lives to the following:
Learn all you can about ecology, biodiversity, wetlands, forests, oceans, etc—wherever your interests lead you. Pay close attention to the living world all around you, and make this a lifelong learning project.
Use every opportunity you have to teach Gaian consciousness to others, especially children. Teach, by both precept and example, responsible behaviour toward the living world around us. This can be summed up in three themes:
· Good Buy--assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our spending and investment habits;
· Good Work--assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our livelihoods and activities;
· Good Will--finding effective ways to respect, listen to, work with, take care of, set good examples for, negotiate with, and win the respect of others, especially the vast numbers of oblivious people who get all their information from corporate media and are still addicted to short-term, selfish, destructive behavior.
Get involved in, or initiate, projects to clean up and restore damaged ecosystems, and in political campaigns to protect our living planet and its biodiversity from the vested interests of greed and ignorance.
Get involved in, or initiate, projects to create sustainable alternatives to the toxic status quo in food production (local organic farming cooperatives and community-supported agriculture); community design (ecovillages, cohousing, etc.); energy production and use (solar, wind, and biomass); money management (responsible investment), and education (incorporating Gaian consciousness into every aspect of the curriculum).
This, then, is my summation of Dharma Gaia practice, of doing the right thing for the living Earth. As a reminder, the Principle, Precept, and Practice is brief enough to be posted on the refrigerator, but, as I hope I’ve shown, it provides a useful mnemonic device for reminding ourselves, as both Dharma practitioners and Gaian healers, of both our rootedness in the present moment and our commitment to a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren. It can also serve as the focal point for Sanghas devoted to Dharma Gaia practice. A sample protocol for such a Sangha might be as follows:
1. Begin by touching base—that is, asking everyone in your circle to give their names, and to share whatever they wish with the rest of the Sangha.
2. Begin the formal meditation by inviting a bell, after which the facilitator, a chosen participant, or the group as a whole recites the Dharma Gaia Principle:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly.
With gratitude to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.(Bow)
3. The facilitator, chosen participants, or the group as a whole recites the Dharma Gaia Precept:
Let us strive to take care of everyone, and abandon no one. Let us strive to take care of everything, and abandon nothing.
With gratitude to Lao Tzu. (Bow)
4. The facilitator leads the following guided meditation:
Breathing in, I am aware of breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware of breathing out.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in, I observe my body, feelings, and mind.
Breathing out, I let go of whatever distracts my body, feelings, and mind.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and out, I renew my vow to be well in body, mind, and spirit.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and out, I renew my vow to do good work.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and out, I renew my vow to keep in touch.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and out, I renew my vow to Learn Gaia
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and out, I renew my vow to Teach Gaia.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and out, I renew my vow to Heal Gaia.
(Pause for practice)
Breathing in and out, I renew my vow to Create Gaia.
(Pause for practice)
(Silent meditation ensues, for 20-40 minutes, depending on the preferences of the group)
5. Following formal meditation, at the discretion of the group, there may be walking meditation, a recorded Dharma Talk, and/or a Gaia presentation/discussion, based, perhaps, on a book that one or more of the group have read. This should be followed by announcements.
6. Closure: The group stands, joins hands, and recites the following:
May we all be well, do good work, and keep in touch.
…Feel free, of course, to modify this protocol as it suits you and your group. And may my Dharma Gaia precept, principle, and practice contribute, in some small way, to alleviate the inner and outer suffering of all living beings, and to healing our precious living planet.
Be well. Do good work. And Keep in Touch.