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.