Catherine McGee, a regular dharma teacher at Gaia House in the UK, offers an earth-dharma perspective on the first foundation of mindfulness and our larger body.
It is here we awaken: knowing body as body, knowing earth as earth.
“In this way she abides contemplating the body as a body internally, externally, and both internally and externally.”
– Satipatthana sutta: The Foundations of Mindfulness
Practicing the first foundation of mindfulness, knowing body internally and externally, we can come to know we are of this earth. When we sit and feel the solidity of our bones, the firmness of the flesh, the density and weightiness of our human presence, we can come to know what it is to sit ‘as earth sitting on earth’. This is part of knowing our basic elemental nature and something we share with everyone and everything. As we come more into body, we gain direct insight that our intimacy with earth is more primary than anything our mind can tell us. This intimacy is breath-takingly immediate; unmediated by anything. It is an undeniable aspect of being human. We are literally ‘in our element’ as embodied creatures. Whether we are happy about this or not is another story. But for now, this earthly body IS home base.
It takes a path of practice for many of us to heal the ways we have lost contact with our body and taken refuge in abstraction. Abstracting ourselves as separate leads to all kinds of dukkha: personal; national; global). When we see a thing as separate we come out of real relationship with it, whether it be our body, other bodies or the great body of this earth. Then we treat it in ways distorted by delusion.
We abstract into separation because it is not always easy to tolerate the sensitivity of our animal body, impinged upon by (6-fold) contact and comfortable only within a narrow range of temperatures and other conditions, and subject to insecurity, sickness and death.
Healing this separation, and coming into a wise relationship with body is imperative for waking up and responding to the reality of the times we live in. And through practice we can realize that this body is not a separate stand alone phenomena. That view is a mind made story.
Through the body we cultivate the stable presence of Samadhi, a ground from which to see deeply and not be unseated by our programming. With body as a firm basis we can begin to heal the duality of being lost in mind made worlds, and come into the profound and sensitive immediacy of the human realm. It is here, not someplace else, that we can sense directly that we are from the earth, the fertile material substance- the humus. This is where our humanness is grounded and where we have the choice to act with appropriate humility. And it is here in this body that we can make our insights real, live them through our actions of body speech and mind. We may have many realizations, but only through action do they become transformative.
And it is here, on this earth, that we take our place as human beings – these marvelous human animals that can respond and act: who can join hands, who can stand up for what is wholesome, who can speak up for those yet to be born, who can say ‘no’ when justice and respect for life is undermined. And it is us, through love and humility, who have the capacity to let go of physical comfort and convenience and psychological security, for the benefit of the whole. It is here, on this earth, not someplace else, that we awaken. Here and now, on this planet, in these conditions, amidst this instability. In this very body, however you define it- your body, our bodies, the vast body of this planet. The wider the definition, the more we expand and can live the ennobling life. Awakening and appropriate response, in this very body, in this very life.
What would it mean for you to live your life as if you really knew, in the depth of your heart and your cells, that you were not separate from this earth and all the earth’s beings?
The Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh was asked what we need to do to save our world. “What we most need to do,” he replied, “is to hear within us the sound of the earth crying.”
Representing a diverse set of spiritual traditions, Spiritual Ecology is a spiritual response to our present ecological crisis. The physical reality of climate change, the biodiversity reality of species loss, the ecological reality of a life systems under siege are not by accident; they are the effects of how we chose to live on this earth. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that
(These are) the bells of mindfulness,” calling us to be attentive, to wake up and listen. The earth needs our attention. It needs us to help heal its body, damaged by our exploitation, and also its soul, wounded by our desecration, our forgetfulness of its sacred nature. We need to act from a place of real awareness, attentive to the outer and inner need of the earth.
This collection of essays implores us to move through the barriers to this recognition and return, as a matter of spiritual and physical survival, to our natural reverence for life.
“There is hope if people will begin to awaken that spiritual part of themselves, that heartfelt knowledge that we are caretakers of this planet.”
— Brooke Medicine Eagle
Of course today every religion is desperately flagging up its green credentials; just like every trans-national corporation is suddenly a friend of the earth. Clearly that is not enough. All religious traditions, including Buddhism, are liable to fall into life denying traps: succumbing to anthropocentric prejudices; fetishizing the spiritual and remaining confused by residual beliefs in an otherworldly salvation, a somewhere else nirvana; failures to resolve the split between the spiritual and the material, between mind and body, humanity and nature. But even a critical and cautious awareness reveals a wealth of inspiration and vision within the Buddhist tradition that supports an ecological awareness.
Many of those involved in the ecology movement have found inspiration and valuable parallels within the Buddhist tradition, and many Buddhists themselves have begun to draw out the ecological implications of their tradition. The fundamental Buddhist teachings around interconnectedness, non-violence, and conditionality all contribute to both a practice and understanding that augments and honours the ecological paradigms now arising.
The Buddhist scholar Donald Swearer writes:
“Many Buddhist practitioners have found in one of the central ideas of Buddhism – the principle of interdependence – an ecological vision that integrates all aspects of the ecosphere—particular individuals and general species—in terms of the principle of mutual co-dependence. Within this cosmological model individual entities are by their very nature relational, thereby undermining the autonomous self over against the “other” be it human, animal, or vegetable.”
The Dharma, as Buddhist’s refer to the Buddhist teachings, states that all things are interconnected. There is nothing in existence which exists as a separate, fixed, isolated entity. Things only exist in relationship and connection with other things. In fact so much so that the boundaries between things are only useful conventions, provisionally true, but by no means absolute.
This view is also found at the heart of the ecological perspective, particularly as influenced by systems theory, which recognises that everything in this world is woven into a subtle and intricate web of relationships.
This idea of the interconnectedness of all things finds its fullest expression in the Hua-yen Schools of Chinese Buddhism. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, an important Buddhist text central to Hua-yen School, we find a symbolic representation of reality in the image of Indra’s Net. Imagine stretching out into infinite space, in every direction, a network of golden threads. A three dimensional net filling the whole of space. At the juncture of every thread is a sparkling, iridescent, multifaceted jewel. Now imagine we take a closer look at one of these infinite jewels. Looking closely we see that in each facet of the jewel there is a reflection of each and every other jewel in the infinite network… as the play of light sparkles and glimmers in one jewel so that slight change is reflected in each and every other jewel, and that change in each jewel is reflected again throughout the entirety of space.
Although presented in mythic cosmic terms, this image of Indra’s net, it is not an image of some far off cosmic sphere, but a symbol for the world we live in moment by moment. It is an attempt to convey the realisation that all phenomenon, all things, all beings, are intimately related to each other, intimately interconnected. We are profoundly connected in a web of life and complex social relationships stretching across the globe.
We know that mankind has failed to take account of the intimate connections within the ecosystem, between himself and the world, arrogantly charging in with new found technological powers, destabilising intricate systems of ecological organisation, the complexity of which we are only just beginning to realise. We know that subtle strands of influence link our shopping habits and the economies of the developing world; that the chemicals we use in our homes and industries have a pervasive effect throughout the oceans and the skies; that our relative affluence and luxury are inextricably bound up with the poverty and toil of others.
If we are to exist in a way which no longer perpetuates the damage done so far, and begins to heal some of the ecological and social wounds we have created, we must appreciate more and more our own interconnectedness and the intimate relations which exist between things in the world around us.
Many Buddhist see their worldview as a rejection of hierarchical dominance of one human over another or humans over nature, and as the basis of an ethic of emphathetic compassion which respects of biodiversity and social justice. The Thai monk, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, “The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the earth. When we realize that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise… then we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish.”
While compassion may follow from an understanding of all life-forms as mutually interdependent, a mere cognitive recognition of interdependence is not enough for an ecological ethic. Buddhists also emphasise the need for training and practice in terms of the threefold path of ethics, meditation and wisdom in order to give rise to a just and sustainable world.
It has been argued that Buddhism serves primarily a salvational or soteriological purpose and that the attempt to ecologize the tradition distorts the historical and philosophical record. But Buddhists influenced by an ecological perspective point to the bodhisattva ideal, which teaches that the highest goals of Buddhism are not personal salvation, but challenge us to embody compassionate awareness and dedicate ourselves to the welfare of all beings from whom we are not essentially separate.
Socially engaged Buddhists have realised that in order to be a force for social transformation the traditional Buddhist emphasis on individual moral and spiritual transformation must be augmented to address more directly the structures of oppression, exploitation, and environmental degradation. They recognise that the traits of greed, hatred and ignorance, which Buddhism identifies as the root cause of suffering in the individual, also need to be challenged where they are found embodied in systemic and institutionalised forms. While adhering to the Buddhist emphasis on the practice of mindful awareness and a lifestyle of simplicity, Buddhist activists are applying their critique and practice to specific social and ecological issues.
Such an approach is found in the networks of engaged Buddhists such as the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, the Network of Engaged Buddhists (UK), and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and championed by individuals such as the Dalai Lama, Thích Nhất Hạnh, Ken Jones, Sulak Sivaraksa, A.T.Ariyaratna, Joanna Macy, and Kenneth Kraft.
The application of Buddhist insights to our current ecological and social ills constitutes one of Buddhisms most creative and dynamic responses to the contemporary context.
For more see:
Network of Engaged Buddhists UK
International Network of Engaged Buddhists
Religion of the Market by David Loy
Buddhism and Ecology by Donald Swearer
The Buddhist Conception of an Ecological Self by Alan Sponberg
This article is gratefully reprinted with permission from Guhyapati, director of EcoDharma Centre, a dharma centre in Spain offering “radical ecology, radical dharma.”
As we shared in a previous post, on June 11th, the gathering of International Vipassana Teachers at Spirit Rock dedicated themselves to a contemplation of climate change. They were spurred and inspired by you with your 2,000 signatures on the Request for Teachings, signed in just a few weeks before the start of their meeting.
In the 6 minute video below, Catherine McGee, a regular teacher at Gaia House in the UK (a sister center of IMS and Spirit Rock) who helped organize the climate discussion, gives her personal account what transpired.
At one point in her account, Catherine describes a map of your signatures, an image of burgeoning sangha pathways lighting up around the globe wanting to be in relationship to this issue where there is so much suffering present and yet to come. Here is that map of your request for teachings and leadership on climate change. Note that each pin represents not just an individual but a sangha whose members signed onto the Request.