[This is my ‘formal statement’ about zen and its relation to ecology. I’ll follow it with occassional zen-inspired commentary, as blog posts, as i go. For now, it’s essay format.]

Zen and Ecology: awakening to all in the embodied moment

What does Zen have to say about caring for the earth? Does its monastic history and almost cosmic focus on the here and now render it incapable of having something to say about today’s global ecological crisis? This brief exposition discusses some aspects of the Zen way that point towards humanity’s duty of care with regards to the bodies we inhabit and the planet we live on. At the same time, it does so without turning away from the essential Zen tenet that there is no abiding reality to anything of material form. Part of the point of Zen practice, it will be asserted, is that we must respect all of reality, including the physical aspect, without remaining attached to any separate part of it. Thus, for the Zen practitioner, the material nature of the earth and of our bodies is filled with paradox; neither to be grasped nor denied, the physical world is the place in which we awaken – to our own nature as self-aware conscious beings, to the mysterious nature of the cosmos and the lands we inhabit, and to the nature all of the creatures and features that inhabit it with us. I want to here explore these notions in a little more detail, with reference to some classic Zen texts.

According to Zen mystic thinking, all of the forms we believe we perceive as individuated entities are in fact empty of any essential identity. This insight is composed in the core phrase around which the ‘Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra’ is organised: form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Thus the forms we believe we perceive as a matter of course in our everyday lives – self, world, other objects and beings – are both real, undeniable manifestations of life in the very aspect we perceive them (they may be essentially empty but they still have manifest form right now) and equally and at the same time free of the limiting constraints that are bound up in the way we recognise these forms. Said from the other direction, emptiness and impermanence are the true nature of the self, world and all phenomenal things, yet this ‘buddha nature’ is realised in exactly those things, just as they are. The Zen analysis of this unrelentingly ontological process of individuation – this constant stripping back of everything we might have considered essential to a thing – can be understood with reference to the doctrine of the three bodies of the buddha. Dharmakaya is the vast emptiness within which all things rest, Nirmanakaya is ‘the ‘body of transformation’ or differentiation of each thing into its particular unrepeatable form, and Sambogakaya is ‘the ‘bliss body’ of realisation’ into this ultimately inclusive cosmos (Glossary, Susan Murphy, Upside-Down Zen, 250-53). What we recognise as life in any manifestation or form is not divisible from the highest value ascribable to life itself: all has an equally precious share in the great numinous out of which we arise and to which we return, and as such all things – “birds and trees and stars and we ourselves … come forth in perfect harmony” (Translated by Robert Aitken, Roshi, Diamond Sangha Evening Dedication, originally used at Koko An Zendo, Hawaii, also used by Melbourne Zen Group). As a statement of mystic experience this is almost paradigmatically sound; yet surely in terms of everyday life it is a state encountered only in the most exceptionally rare of circumstances, a shining jewel of spiritual truth held at a vast distance from our lived realities?

If we were to ask this question in words that might draw us closer to a practicable answer, we would need to enquire into what exactly is the nature of the gulf between everyday mind and Zen mind. But of course I beg the question – for Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and one of the strongest influences on the western reception of Zen, the very point is that there is no gulf, or rather that the imagined gulf is exactly that. It is everyday mind that constructs the barriers between self and world, along the process of socialisation, and it is everyday mind that maintains itself at that distance – yet it is also this same everyday mind that is revealed to be at perfect harmony, that is the individuated flowering of the one great Buddha mind. As Paul Reps explains in his introduction to Kakuan’s version of the 10 Bulls (otherwise known as the oxherding pictures), our self-made distance from realisation necessitates spiritual practice: although there is no gap between us right now and ‘the ever instant of enlightenment’, the limits of our human condition require ‘progressive steps of awareness’ such that they may be recognised as ultimately illusory (Paul Reps, compiler, with Nyogen Senzaki, co-transcriber, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones; a collection of Zen and pre-Zen writings, 133). From the outset those who seek the bull – or the mind in need of training – must recognise that it ‘never has been lost.’ Thus, what ‘need is there to search? Only because of separation from my true nature, I fail to find him’ (Kakuan’s commentary, in Reps, 136). Yet if it is immersion in the world of the senses that initiates my confusion in this matter, denying this world its place is no adequate answer, either for the twelfth-century Chinese master or for the ecologically inclined. Although by picture eight in the oxherding sequence the imagined division between self and world is transcended (which according to Reps is the final state of an earlier Taoist version of the teaching), the Zen master takes two further steps to end up in the market place. Upon ‘Reaching the Source’ in picture nine it is realised that ‘From the beginning, truth is clear’ – all forms of self and world integrate and disintegrate such that what is required is insight rather than reform – and finally, in picture ten, the great sage returns to walk amongst the people, with nothing to seek or hoard, no-one to impress, and without even clinging to life or resisting death (Reps, Zen Flesh, 150-55).

The dissolution of duality thus does not need to be imagined as a transcendental state that lies at some distance from the immanence of being right here, right now. The chasm between everyday life and the state in which our ideas and experiences are recognised to be intertwined in the embodied moment is a mental one of our own making and is indistinguishable from exactly who we are and can be. The difference between remaining held away from, and feeling dropped into, this dazzling clarity can be overcome with renewed attention to the way we interpret the world. The western traditions can often be seen to aver that transcendence can only be found in an eternal elsewhere such as the one posited as the Christian heaven or afterlife. One question implicitly put by the 10 Bulls picture series is: why are we looking anywhere other than right here for our transcendence, which is inevitably where we are going to find it? The yearning after a heavenly elsewhere is succinctly destabilised by Ch’an master Yun-Men (d. 949), who asked his students the deceptively simple question: “Right now, what is the matter?” (in Thomas Cleary, The Five Houses of Zen, 105. Ch’an is the original Chinese name for Zen, which was introduced from China to Japan in the 12th century). Grounding such direct analysis in the material world, he elsewhere tied spiritual concerns to our physical welfare in a way that speaks to today’s concerns about the earth’s future. Time waits for no-one’s awakening, he averred: “What other body and mind do you have to employ at leisure somewhere else? You simply must pay attention! Take care” (Cleary, Five Houses, 106-7). Our own lives, our own minds and bodies, are tied to the limits of the earth, and our spiritual thirst requires for its quenching not escape from but a more fully aware immersion in this fact. A short poem and painting by Hakuin Zenji exemplifies this stance:

The monkey is reaching for the moon in the water

Until death overtakes him he’ll never give up.

If he’d let go the branch and disappear in the deep pool,

The whole world would shine with dazzling pureness.

Hakuin's monkey reaching for the moon in the water

There is a difference, however, between attaining transcendence in embodied (or immanent) form and endlessly chasing after the ephemeral satisfactions of consumption. Zen awakening does not deny the body, but neither does it venerate it. Embodiment of this paradoxical sense of immanence is demonstrated in the ‘Hsin Hsin Ming,’ or ‘Sutra of Affirming Faith in Mind.’ Our confusion about the ultimate oneness of all things arises as we make distinctions that “set earth and heaven far apart.” Seeing beyond attachment to either one thing or the other helps us to avoid becoming entangled as a result of striving after material gain or the ultimate emptiness of unity (the emptiness that is exemplified at picture eight of the 10 Bulls). Awakening beyond both emptiness and form in the market place should not inspire the pursuance of appearances at the cost of the primal source; instead we must be careful to fully embrace the world as it is ‘beneath’ our ideas of it:

     If you would walk the highest Way, do not reject the sense domain. For as it is, whole and complete, this sense world is enlightenment.

The true world is indivisible, “with nothing separate or outside”: “Not only here, not only there, truth’s right before your very eyes” (‘Sutra of Affirming Faith in Mind,’ Robert Aitken Roshi translation, used by Melbourne Zen Group).

Zen wisdom teaches us ways to feel satisfied with what we have here on earth without looking beyond it for transcendence, without attempting to replace it with something better, and without becoming addicted to the ephemeral satisfactions of material goods or experiences. The famous ‘Song of Zazen’ attributed to Hakuin reiterates a sentiment close to this in its closing stanza:

     Boundless and free is the sky of Samadhi, bright the full moon of wisdom, truly is anything missing now?

     Nirvana is right here, before our eyes; this very place is the Lotus Land, this very body the Buddha.

This sense of oneness is also not confined to human conscious awareness, just as wisdom is not limited to the state of being human. These ideas may seem controversial in terms of western reason but they would be easily assimilable for the animist, who accepts that we have something to learn from the natural world around (as well as within) us. D. T. Suzuki embraces this affinity between the world of seemingly inanimate things and the human mind with his doctrine of identity (D. T. Suzuki, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, Chapter 4, ‘Living in the Light of Eternity’, 91). This is a world wherein ‘no dichotomy in any sense has yet taken place’ (Suzuki, Mysticism, 91). Here the eternal, itself a negation of the temporality by which we know ourselves and our own minds, negates itself into the moving, changing, sensible forms of time: ‘What is finite must be carrying in it, with it, everything belonging to infinity. We who are becoming in time, therefore, must be able to see that which eternally ‘is’’ (Suzuki, Mysticism, 84). All things in the natural world reveal this depth and it is only through them that we appreciate the unlimited nature of which we partake: the infinite realm of buddhahood turns ‘the Dharma wheel to show the wisdom of the stones and clouds’ (Robert Aitken Roshi, second sutra service dedication, used by Melbourne Zen Group). Discussing early Buddhist scripture the ‘Samyutta Nikaya,’ Japanese Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama relates the way that interdependence is indivisible from the Middle Way in which ‘because this exists, that exists, because this arises, that arises.’ This means, he avers, ‘that all concrete entities occur in accordance with various conditions … never apart from or separate from such factors, and that all abstract entities have meaning because of their mutual relations’ (Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought; approach to Zen, 119-20). While Uchiyama’s point here is to reveal the intrinsic delusion involved in regarding ourself as having any ‘independent substantial’ identity beyond its ‘continually breaking apart and changing moment by moment into a new form’ (Uchiyama, Hand of Thought, 123), contemporary Zen practice also responds, as it must, to its ongoing environmental circumstances.

In this Zen has something to offer any person or kind of philosophy that seeks to attend to the material issues facing human and earthly existence while still holding forth that transcendence is available in this life. As a spiritual practice, it affirms the care for the earth that today’s climate scientists tell us is a fundamental facet of our continued existence. Zen sits well with ecological concerns as it affirms all life without attaching excessive attachment to any of it; rather than leaving us with a sense that nothing in this world is worth fighting for, it places the human individual in a web of life within which it has unique responsibilities. Human self-aware consciousness, as Yun-Men so aptly pointed out, cannot be assumed to exist outside of this incarnate form, in the body, here and now. We need this body, mind and planet to awaken to the contingent nature of the distinctions we make between this and that, you and I, the favoured and the dispossessed. Happily, the sense of this position can be seen without our having enjoyed a full experience of awakening, freeing us to live ethically in regards to our cost to the earth while we work on overcoming the illusions we burden ourselves with as part of our socialization process. As the saying goes, we may choose to live simply so that others – human and nonhuman – may simply live.

This essay was first published in Vast and Ordinary News, the newsletter of the Melbourne Zen Group.


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