Homeostasis

 

 The Catholic theologian Thomas Berry proposed that we need a "new story" to account for our place on the planet, a story that would replace the old Judaeo-Christian story of who we are and why we are here.  He proposed that the scientific story of evolution could meet this need.  Though, I believe, with some small modifications. Anyway, his idea was that evolution was part of an "earth process" which had its own wisdom and which, perhaps, was going somewhere, was not just a form of circumstantial or even random development.

 I first came across Berry in the 1980s and in my own thinking immediately began to graft together his idea of the need for a new story with the Buddhist story of the bodhisattva.  I thought that perhaps grafting the two stories together could point toward a way forward for humans, point toward a fundamental meaningfulness for humans as part of the earth process. At the same time I began to consider how the looming eco-crisis could fit into that new story.

 The picture which began to emerge in my thinking was not entirely pretty, but I thought I would share it with others anyway, and being scholarly minded, wrote several articles on the subject and did some conference presentations. My work generally was received with a resounding lack of interest.  That was not a huge surprise because I wrote about a time upcoming of great tribulations.  Yet, having faith in both the wisdom of the earth process and the wisdom of the Bodhisattva path, I imagined that the tribulations could be followed by a sort of human "reset" to more sustainable and humane societies.

 There is a perhaps apocryphal tale about the frog in the boiling water. Drop a frog into boiling water and it will hop out. But place a frog in water and gradually heat the water and you can boil the frog to death. This tale is relevant to our recent history of gradual climatic heating.

 Now the climate crisis is upon us, as we all know. Gigafires in California, drought in the Southwest, intensifying hurricanes, etc, etc. Hundreds of thousands of migrating birds have been falling from the skies in New Mexico as they flee the west coast fires before they have the body fat to sustain their flights south. And of course the global pandemic. In the light of such suffering it is hard to imagine that there is any wisdom in the earth process.  But humans are not the center of life in that process and it is pretty easy to argue that our ignorant arrogance of putting ourselves at the center has a lot to do with the crisis now upon us. Lynn White's famous 1967 article "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" makes just that argument. 

 So the earth may care about us, but only as it cares about everything, and perhaps there is something larger going on, something that is hard for us to see with our anthropocentric perspective. Let me turn to that larger view, and again the implications are not exactly pretty, but they may be hopeful if one takes the long view.

 Two years ago [October 2018], scientists with the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a landmark study, Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees, which found that humanity had to cut heat-trapping emissions roughly by half by 2030 to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown. Headlines warned we had "12 years to save the planet." Those 12 years are now 10.

 Except more than two years have been lost, because in that time, the Trump administration has prevented the world's biggest economy from making "the dramatic reductions that were necessary to keep us on that path" of halving emissions by 2030, [the climate scientist Michael] Mann says. "So now the incline is steeper. It's no longer 5% [reductions] a year for the next 10 years. It's more like seven and a half percent." (As a comparison, 7% is how much global carbon emissions are projected to fall in 2020 due to the Covid-19 economic lock downs that shrank driving, flying and other carbon-intensive activities.) 

 Source https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/10/02/second-trump-term-would-be-game-over-climate-says-top-scientist

 Consider the final line in this quotation. The pandemic has accomplished what no government has been able to accomplish. In its own destructive way it is of benefit.  This is hard to imagine; it is pretty tough. Is it possible, could it be true? What would it mean for humanity if it were true?

 Homeostasis is the term for the process in which living things keep their systems functioning by keeping them in balance. I have to wonder if the pandemic is earth process homeostatic wisdom at work. Will we humans get this message from the earth, back off from our unbalanced petroleum madness, be smarter than frogs and jump out of the heating water? Perhaps I am a fool to have faith in the Bodhisattva path, to have faith that we humans can jump out of the pot of heating water and reset. Yet this is what sustains me in these dark times.

Master and Mastery

  Zachoeje Rinpoche usually refers to a spiritual teacher by the English term "master." I've been thinking about this word for a while without any particular seriousness, but rather as something somewhat unique to him.  That is, until I had a conversation with a friend and we got to discussing his difficulty in committing to a meditation practice.

 I am not sure exactly what Rinpoche would be referring to in Tibetan when he says "master." The usual term is "lama," which is the Tibetan version of "guru." But he does not use the term lama. Anyway, out of curiosity I took a trip to the dictionary. It tells me a master is someone who has control over others, or is in charge of a group.  But a master is also a person who is skilled at some activity, who has mastered something. I think that both these ideas might be in Rinpoche's mind, and they suggest why some Americans have difficulty with deeply learning or adopting a spiritual practice. Of course some of us do want to learn how to practice meditation or whatever activity will put us in touch with the spiritual part of ourselves.  Learning from a master meditator obviously would be desirable.  But what about the other meaning of master? The master may have control over the essentials of meditation practice, but will we give her/him control over us?  Will we surrender to a master?  Do we need to? That, I think, is the rub for Americans.  Our individuality, our sense of independence (even as mythically enshrined as our "declaration of independence") stands in the way.

 These days of pandemic we are aware of the dangers of excessive individuality. "Wear a face mask? It is my constitutional right not to have to" is a line we all have heard. So some of us exercise our right to independence and sicken (or kill) others in the process. The critical conundrum for Americans seems to be "can I be independent and surrender to a master (or the common good) at the same time?"

 The dictionary offers other meanings of master which might help with this conundrum. As an adjective master also means main or principal; as in "master bedroom." And as a noun it also means "an original from which copies can be made." How do these ideas help? In the Vajrayana (ie, tantric) path it is said that the disciple's relationship with the lama is the key to progress.  In guru-yoga, which is foundational for this path, one practices the experience that the guru/lama, the disciple and the meditational image (of a buddha) are all one, all the same.  Or as the Tibetans say, "all of the same taste," which adds an important element to the idea of oneness.  Obviously this practice does not suggest that the personality of the teacher and the student are the same.  Rather, the fundamental consciousness of the teacher (that is, the actual emptiness -- shunyata -- aspect of consciousness) and that of the student are practiced as being the same, as being one.  In this way the empty aspect of the student's consciousness is understood as a copy (or perhaps reflection) of the empty aspect of the master's consciousness. The master's realization of this empty aspect of his/her own consciousness is also the main feature or principal feature of the master that matters in spiritual life.  Not the master's personality, which may be quirky, or flawed, or noble and is a transitory aspect of the master, but the quality of consciousness of the master.  That is what matters and that is what the disciple wishes to copy, to become. 

 One surrenders to this aspect of the consciousness of the master, which actually means surrendering to that aspect of oneself because this consciousness cannot be created.  It already is buried within, it is eternal, so it "neither arises (is created) nor ceases", as the Heart Sutra puts it.  In this sense the master's realization of the emptiness aspect of her/his consciousness actually can not be copied but is held out as something we can see in the master though we do not yet see it in ourselves. A light which shows us our own obscured light. 

 That mutual light is what we really surrender to. Or not. Actually that is our choice.

 And if we surrender, the problem remains of disentangling the master's personality from the empty aspect of her/his consciousness. Why would I want to surrender to a flawed personality? We all have read stories of teachers who abused their students. No teacher is perfect, but is a work in progress, perhaps a bodhisattva on the path to buddha-hood. So surrender needs to be wise, needs to avoid magical thinking, needs to see clearly and needs to avoid shirking personal responsibility for choices.  This is a real difficulty if one is devoted to the teacher, but at the same time this difficult work requires us to mature our own characters in our relationship to the teacher.

 Suzuki Roshi, the founding teacher of San Francisco Zen Center, once said that living in community could rub away many quirks of personality in the same way as one can clean potatoes in water by rubbing them together. While he was probably only referring to students' relationships to each other, I think his wisdom might be applied to the relation of master and disciple as well.  And even if the master does not change in the relationship with the student, the student can change and grow as they get bounced about by the master.

 Perhaps this type of personal growth is a secondary benefit of the relationship of master and disciple.  Or perhaps it is an essential part of the relationship, an essential part of becoming a true individual who can both surrender and be independent as circumstances dictate.

Stories


 An anthropologist I knew once told me that humans make sense of things by telling stories. That was sort of a revelation to me.  The importance of stories later was reinforced when I read the eco-philosopher Thomas Berry who asserted that 

It's all a question of story.  We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story.  We are in between stories.  The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective.  Yet we have not learned the new story.

 By old story he meant the Christian creation story. You know -- 6 days and then God rested. For a new story he proposed a spiritualized version of scientific evolution. He died in 2009 and I don't know if he had come to think that the scientific story of the earth's genesis had morphed into a futuristic environmental nightmare. 

 We don't tend to think of scientists as story tellers.  We think that they offer truth and facts. But really, when you connect the big-data-point-dots you get a story.  The resulting environmental story looks pretty apocalyptic right now. But it is just a story.

 I am not denying the science.  I accept it.  But the story is another matter. There could be a different story.  The magma lake under Yellowstone could blow taking a chunk of the USA with it and spreading a cloud of dust and ash through the atmosphere which brought on a new ice age. No global warming. Temperate places like Africa could be the new centers of human civilization. This is another scientific story.

 Zachoeje Rinpoche cautions his students about stories.  Of course he means the stories we tell ourselves about our personal realities. "If only I had this or that, then I would be happy." "That SOB at work is making my life miserable." Rinpoche asserts that 95% of the stories we tell ourselves have nothing to do with reality. I've seen the truth of this in my own life. As the Dalai Lama says, happiness and misery come from within, not without.  So the happiness our stories promise us probably is a phantom.  

 What about the apocalyptic stories scientists are telling us, or even our Christian friends' end-of-days story of the Rapture?  There were apocalyptic stories in the past.  Christians were sure that the year 1000 AD would be the last. They didn't expect the next thousand years, but here we are.

 In good Buddhist fashion Rinpoche suggested that since we cannot avoid making up stories, why not make up pleasant stories?

 Here is a story that is entertaining me these days. Five miles from my home there is a basaltic ridge whose crest is covered with hundreds of petroglyphs.  No one is sure about why they are there, other than that the patina on the basalt can be pecked away to leave images whose meanings elude us. Just below the ridge crest there is a cave which is high enough to stand in and perhaps 15 feet deep.  It has a wonderful view across the Santa Fe mesa to the Sangre de Christo Mountains. In my story ancient people came to the cave to fast, pray and seek a vision.  They each left a record of their vision by pecking away at a basaltic surface. Hundreds of petroglyphs; hundreds of holy visions.  Surely the ridge is a sacred place, though not to the teenagers who scamper over the rocks like gazelles. They have different stories than mine.  

 But I like my story.  My home now is oriented toward this cave. The basaltic rocks on all sides of it are full of presence.  They are a living earth which has embraced humans for millennia. In my story there is a future with people who once again come to the cave for visions. Their ancestors probably will have endured many tribulations.  But the cave will be waiting.  They will know that this ground is sacred, and they will come.


Growth and Decay (Part 1)



 Growth and decay are natural cycles in our world. Unfortunately, most of us in this country don't live in a "natural world". We live in human-made worlds.  Especially those of us who live in cities. It is fairly hard to see natural cycles if you live in a world of concrete, brick and glass. Some of us live in the suburbs, surrounded by trees; perhaps grass and flowers. Perhaps we have easy access to the countryside. So you would think that natural cycles would be apparent to us. But for some reason they are not.

 As I write this I am 74 years old.  It appears that old people like myself spend a bit of time looking back on their lives, which perspective certainly offers a different vista than looking forward. Looking into the future it seems like there will be a lot of winding down.  In fact, the recent past looks the same.  Why is this troubling? It seems like the natural order is to grow and then decay. So why do I feel distressed that I am in this phase of life?  It is not that all my life is winding down.  Certainly my body and finances are winding down and there does not seem to be any way to resist that.  For that matter, my mind seems to be headed in the same direction.  Yet another part of me seems to become clarified in this process, seems to be flourishing -- though growing might not be quite the right term for what I experience.

 It seems that many things are being pruned away by time.  I do not much mind having worn out cloths that sometimes are sewn together by my not-too-competent darning.  At one time I would have simply replaced the worn out sweater. It might have made a bad impression at work.  But when I work I do so from home now. What would my friends or neighbors think about my looking shabby?  I no longer care too much, though I do try to keep up some appearances.  I shave when I am going out.

 I've never been successful with money. Never could grow it or invest wisely.  I spent it on foolishness, or perhaps more wisely on meditation retreats. I invested in my inner life rather than my outer.  So has my inner investment grown while my finances decayed?  This is a critical question at this point in my life.

 I expect that it is a critical question for many in my generation. Many folks my age of course invested in family, real estate, stocks and so forth. My early life was composed of wandering through bohemia and I didn't own a house until I was 50. Children were not on my agenda. Meditating with my lama Tara Tulku in Bodhgaya was more my style, and somehow I experienced a conflict between being bourgeois and bohemian, and though I tried to reconcile that conflict in the life I now look back on, I never succeeded.  

 Yet I never entirely failed either. I own the house I am sitting in (jointly with the mortgage company). And when I sit to meditate, broad mental vistas open before me. Lifelong assurances as well as uncertainties are part of that vista; some trivial and some important. I've written about these things.

 If I am going to ponder death, then it seems that I will be pondering what that really is.  Not just physically, because I have a sense of that.  What about the non-material parts of me? That is where the questions arise. I don't have the cultural assurance about rebirth that a Tibetan might have. Nor even the assurances of a Christian who expects heaven (or worse).  I grew up with a mother who never discussed such matters as life after death and a father who bluntly considered death "the big sleep."  I am psychologist enough to know that their minds are merged with mine in some aspect of me because they raised me and I imprinted on them.  But my life of inner journeys also inclines me to a broader vista. And what is in that vista? Ambiguity seems to best describe it.

 It is clear that my rational mind can only understand so much, though it never ceases to define and box in everything. Like a hand that cannot grasp itself, my mind cannot know its source in any conventional way of understanding. This is almost axiomatic both from the perspective of modern psychology and Buddhism. But what cannot be comprehended seems to be something I can experience at times.

 Like a lotus flower, the waking world seems to emerge from something fundamental to me.  I touch it when I settle deeply into meditation.  At night when I surrender to sleep and the lotus flower world is enfolded within, I rest there. Maybe that is why my father called death "the big sleep." Maybe he, like all of us, intuited what we can only vaguely comprehend, that the part of us that exists when we sleep deeply is the root and stalk of that lotus world.

 So this brings me back to the mystery of sleep. And its partners, dream and wakefulness.  I've written about this before, and will do so again because the winding down of my life has forced this upon me.

Blood on the Rocks


  Across the valley the Sangre de Christo Mountains stretch quietly. The Blood of Christ: salvation, in the Spanish mind. For an immigrant me, they also are a refuge, wedged between the fires and smoke-filled skies of the west and the hurricanes and floods of the east. 

 The rocks beside me once flowed molten hot.  After eons their patina became a canvas for Tewa people. Their glyphs remain a mystery. What did they feel as their world wound down? They already had known drought and famine. In the end, did their eyes see demons in metal clothing, those ancestors of the enchanting Spanish accent of Santa Fe? 

 How did the Tewa face the end of their world? Did apocalypse figure in their stories?

 My friends flee fire that incinerates places I know so well. Family returns to a devastated home. Here it is peaceful before my eyes but my heart is rent as deeply as the gorge of the river that has given life to this land from a time even before humans.  It has meandered through the ages and though it will shrink and it will grow, it will not stop flowing.

 And the mountains and rocks of the mother we have treated so shamelessly? Will they remember us, as they do the Tewa who respectfully left their marks upon her? Or will they think of us as but a passing dream?

 Like the ancients, I am compelled to open my heart and inscribe my thought-images upon a canvas, but one much more fleeting than theirs.