Zen and Earth Spirit at the City Walls

December 4, 2012

“Does it make you feel safe?” Earth Spirit asks Zen, as they sit staring at the wall that marks the limit of the city.

“From what?” asks Zen.

“From the rest of nature. From the marauding hordes.”

“What I see is a division of space, between here and the other side of the wall.”

“But this side is within the city, that side without. Do you not recognize the political significance of this division upon your body and mind?”

Zen was unusually loquacious I response to Earth Spirit’s inquisitiveness. “I can. But it makes no significant difference to me. Sure, within I may enjoy certain privileges, or protections, as you intimate. But without, I may forego them without necessarily losing anything. The advantage of being inside the city walls is accompanied, surely, by a set of obligations – to be a part of the maintenance of order, to pay tax – which makes the outside relatively free.”

“Indeed,” responded Earth Spirit, “you strike to the heart of the matter. In political terms, and where inclusion or exclusion does not connote some form of punishment or structural inequity as it sometimes does, you may balance the ledger thus. But what of the rest of nature? What of the world outside of the human?”

Zen wasn’t sure what point was being made here and hummed politely.

“Have you been to the supermarket lately, Zen?” asked Earth Spirit rhetorically, before going on. “Inside the city walls, we feast on seemingly endless streams of produce. The shelves are always full of a startling array, no matter what the season. And at home? Fresh water always on tap, literally, even in the driest summer drought. On the streets, the lights are always on, even if nobody is around and even when we know we’re burning coal to banish the night and pumping carbon into the air as a result. The economy of perpetual growth continues unabated, even though we know we’ve already overshot the earth’s carrying capacity. The cities grow at three times the rate of population growth, draining evermore of the planet’s resources, while the cumulative effects of this catastrophe are soaked up in the 24/7 white noise of throwaway mass media pop culture and news cycles. Most members of advanced economies enjoy an unearned sense of entitlement in regards to all of this, while the laws of consumption and profit continue to sponsor clearfelling of forests, strip mining, crops drenched in poison and the devastation of every biosystem we find outside the city walls where profit can be made.”

Zen was silent. Earth Spirit looked excited and exasperated, deflated by his effort to compact the entire Big Problem into a few concentrated images. The glint in his eye, which almost always accompanied his cynical, almost sardonic destruction of the ills and seeming advantages of civilization, was suppressed by his realization at how desperate things had become.

The wall remained silent as its shadow inched closer to their feet and the afternoon wore away. A fly buzzed by.

Zen composed himself. This being a habit of his, it didn’t tax his resources very much. It was being true to his emotional life he found trying. But years of practice had taught him that being any state at all held exactly the same amount of reality as any other – that they all pass, as the rule of impermanence states – and this knowledge seemed enhanced by the very wall they faced now, both physically and symbolically. “If this walls divides one truth from another,” he began, “it is illusory and its seeming concreteness can be easily dissolved. If it guarantees plenty within at the cost of unnecessary suffering without it is a symbol of selfish greed, a testament to unrestrained desire, an emblem of attachment that distracts from the greater truth – and therefore it must be dissolved, in terms of an inherently unequal system at least.”

“I thought there was no greater truth?” asked Earth Spirit, wanting to embrace Zen’s seeming endorsement of his embodied politics but not at the cost of hypocrisy or ideological contradiction.

“There is a greater self, that is everywhere,” said Zen. “The truth of my life here in this body and time – which is itself a compact with the endless eons of cosmic expanse and genetic inheritance that have led to this point, a dance between all that has happened on this earth and all the possibilities inherent in my present and future – is connected, through my food, water, fuel and other goods and services, to the places they come from and go to after I have benefitted from them. My health and life are owed to those places. I would not want to harm them, or know that harm would come to them, simply for the benefit of this mind and body I identify as the me that is speaking. That would be short-sighted and selfish and so, ultimately, self-defeating. I repeat: if the wall is illusory and damaging to all concerned, it must be dissolved so that a new arrangement can be made between the partners of life on this earth.”

Earth Spirit was touched by this level of accord between the two of them. He reached out and patted Zen’s shoulder. “Well done old fella,” he said. They walked away from the shadows of the wall towards their respective homes, to a greater truth of fresh water and food, clean air and cooperative agreements amongst all beings. But as they parted, Earth Spirit added an invitation, almost ominously, to Zen: “We’ve got to go and see Eve…”



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