Thoughts on a Terrible Day in America

I have been thinking about the shooting in Las Vegas. Having a chance of getting shot seems like part of American life now, as if we’re just talking about whether or not we’re going to see some rain. You have to wonder if all the killing and stealing of land that founded America and accompanied its growth is not exacting its price. Did American really think things like Wounded Knee and the Trail of Tears would have no consequences on our psyches, would not infect the body politic? We are all inter-connected, joined in interbeing, for good or ill. If one part of the body is ill or infected, the other parts suffer, too, even if they are “innocent” of the infection. That is the problem and the opportunity, isn’t it? We cannot live alone, we cannot live unaffected by our society and physical environment. We cannot really hide from each other. And many of us have gone stone cold mad over guns, possessed with some atavistic vision of primal power and efficacy. If the founders had had any inkling of what that little amendment to the constitution would enable, I think they would have cut off their own hands rather than write it into law.

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Martin Luther King Jr. on Interbeing

mlk and hanhMLK is not, of course, directly addressing the Buddhist idea of paticca samuppada in the sermon this is excerpted from. But when he speaks of the “basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality” the relevance becomes clear. We also know that he met Thich Nhat Hanh in 1966, and later nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. As followers of the buddhadharma like to point out, labels and names are unimportant. All that is important is how the ideas work out in reality. All that ultimately matters is how you live your life.[1]

_____________________________________________________________________________________

“Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.”

“Yes, as nations and individuals, we are interdependent. I have spoken to you before of our visit to India some years ago. It was a marvelous experience; but I say to you this morning that there were those depressing moments. How can one avoid being depressed when one sees with one’s own eyes evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when one sees with ones own eyes thousands of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night? More than a million people sleep on the sidewalks of Bombay every night; more than half a million sleep on the sidewalks of Calcutta every night. They have no houses to go into. They have no beds to sleep in.”

“As I beheld these conditions, something within me cried out: “Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?” And an answer came: “Oh, no!” And I started thinking about the fact that right here in our country we spend millions of dollars every day to store surplus food; and I said to myself: “I know where we can store that food free of charge? in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even in our own nation, who go to bed hungry at night.”

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

“Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world.”

“This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”

[1] Excerpt from “A Christmas Sermon on Peace in 1967.” http://www.ecoflourish.com/Primers/education/Christmas_Sermon.html (accessed August 1, 2017).

What Does it Mean to Think?

Logic seems to be concerned with something humans do called thinking. But what does it mean to think? In the sense we want to investigate, thinking does not mean simply any mental activity, such as daydreaming, introspection, memory, anticipation and so forth. Instead something quite specific is meant that we will refer to with the ancient Greek word logos (the root word for logic). To begin to develop a sense for the meaning I want to establish for this word, consider these quotes from Heraclitus (an ancient Greek philosopher):

Of the logos which is as I describe it men always prove to be uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when once they have heard it. For although all things happen according to this logos men are like people of no experience, even when they experience such words and deeds as I explain, when I distinguish each things according to its constitution and declare how it is; but the rest of the men fail to notice what they do after they wake up just as they forget what they do when asleep.[1]

To those who are awake, there is one ordered universe common to all, whereas in sleep, each turns away from the world to one of his own.[2]

 Therefore it is necessary to follow the common; but although the lo/goj is common, the many live as though they had a private understanding.[3]

Listening not to me, but to the logos, it is wise to agree . . . [4]

Everyone, he says, is like a dreamer in their own private world, not seeing the real world around them. Though his words describe how things are, people instead are lost in their idiosyncratic dreams, limited to their own private perspective. In contrast to these dreamers are those who are awake to the one ordered universe common to all, who have what he calls a public perspective. And this ability to key into the common patterns of the public world—summed up in the word logos—is what he says we should pay attention to if we seek to draw true conclusions about the world around us.[5]

The word idiosyncratic is a combination of two Greek words, idios and synkrasis. It literally meant a private temperament or character.  And one limited to the sphere of  a private perspective would then be called an idiotēs.[6]  An idiotēs is not simply someone who is stupid, but one who is limited to their private perspective on things—one who lacks knowledge of the common patterns of the public world.[7] Take a dermatologist, for example. As the title literally indicated, such a person is one who follows the logos of the dermata, the skin. Such a person has knowledge not just of their private experiences of having skin, their own particular skin—my skin—but instead is able to recognize the patterns of skin in general—anyone’s skin. Such a person the Greeks would have called a sophos—one who knows, who has knowledge. Knowledge is of the universal, and is not limited to the particular. The opposite of being an idiotēs is to be one who pays attention to the pattern or structure common to different realms of experience: someone who, as Heraclitus puts it, listens to the logos.

In ancient Greek logos could mean many things:

word, words; language

a saying or statement

a speech, a conversation

a proposition

thought or reason

an account or reckoning[8]

 And all these things were thought to be the things that made us human—that defined what it meant to be a human being. Perhaps you’ve heard the old definition attributed to Aristotle, that the human being is a rational animal. But this is not what Aristotle said.  In The Politics, what he actually says is that:

Among the animals only the human being has the logos.[9]

He says that we have a capacity, a characteristic, an ability, indicated by the word logos. Here we can find a clue by pushing back the history of the word a little further. Logos is a word derived from the word legein), which originally meant:

 to pick out

to gather, pick up

to count, tell, reckon up

to recount, tell over again

It’s original meaning simply refers to the ability to pick things out and to pick them up.[10]  It was the word used when you went out to gather in the crops—you would pick out what was ripe and pick them up to gather them in as the harvest. What you can distinguish or pick out you can handle and deal with—and to pick things out and pick them up you have to see what is same and what is different in what you are observing. Thinking in the sense we are discussing here begins with being able to distinguish one thing from another and to compare one thing with another—to see that this is different from that, and that this is just like that over there.[11]

So thinking begins with an awareness of sameness and difference—with being able to distinguish one thing from another—to tell them apart. And not just to distinguish them or tell them apart, but to be able to compare them through laying them side by side, so that you can reckon up or count up what you have gathered. With this ability, a new kind of awareness dawns—a  self-awareness that engages the world and tells us something new about it in a very distinctive way. From the many, we begin to distinguish the ones, the unities, by listening to the logos.

And you can then give an account—logos—of what you have gathered, and you can hold it in memory and give that account over and over again—you can recount it to others. And so from many things we can begin to see a common pattern that enables us to see them in a new light. We might see that the fall of the apple is like the fall of the moon around the earth; and that the fall of the moon around the earth is like the fall of the earth around the sun.

moon/earth = earth/sun

Or we can do it with numbers:

4/8 = 2/4

We call this giving the ratio, but the Greeks called it giving the logos (ratio is the Latin translation of the Greek word logos).

Or we might notice patterns within patterns as we speak our logoi (the plural of logos):

If I am human, then I am mortal.

If I am mortal, then I will die.

So, If I am human, then I will die.

 And if H stands for I am human, M for I am mortal, and D for I will die, then we can play with the patterns:

 

1. H ⊃M                           1. p ⊃ q

2. M ⊃ D /H ⊃ D             2.q ⊃ r /p ⊃ r

There is a gathering of thought which can be held together in memory, and something like Newton’s theory of gravitation can become a permanent possession of the human race, which we can tell from one generation to another—giving the account, and then recounting it: giving the logos. Or on a more modest but no less important scale, the same is true of the pattern of argument about being human and dying given above, which has come to be called the hypothetical syllogism.

This ability to recognize sameness and difference is at the heart of what is meant by thinking in the sense of engaging the logos. It is at the heart of what we call the practice of logic. When you have self-awareness like this you key into a world that is common to all who can think. You join those who can move beyond private things, the self-awareness of particularity, to the great common world Heraclitus characterized with the word logos: the world of the mind, the world of reason, which is open to anyone who takes the trouble to cultivate this awareness. And in this world private opinions don’t matter. You may say you think that such and such is true—but in the common world of reason other men and women of reason will be free to question you, and you will then need to give reasons for what you think: Why do you say this? Is this an argument? What are your premises? What is your conclusion? What is the form of your argument? Does it have a valid form? Are your statements consistent? Are they contradictory? Are you THINKING?

 Which is another way to ask: Are you in the common world of knowledge? Are you listening to the logos, or might you be an idiotes, dreaming something to be real when it is not, living as though you had a private understanding? Are you really listening to the logos we hold in common? Are you a man or woman or reason?

And when you operate in this realm, personalities become on one level insignificant:

Listening not to me, Heraclitus says, but to the logos, it is wise to agree . . .

If I can give you reasons that stand up in the broad common world of knowledge, you would be wise to agree with me—even if you don’t like me, my dog, or my politics.

But you would be a fool to listen to me if all I had were opinions offered on my own authority—even  if you loved me, my dog, and my politics. You would be a fool to listen to me if I were an idiotes and a dreamer. In the act of thinking, we wake up from the dreams of particularity to the waking world of the one and the many, the same and the different, and we realize an essential part of our humanity in realizing the logos.

[1] G.S. Kirk and J.E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge: 1975), 187.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 188

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Robert E. Meagher, “Introduction,” Albert Camus: The Essential Writings (New York: 1979), 2-3.

[6] H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: 1977).

[7] Meagher, 2-3.

[8] Liddell and Scott.

[9] Aristotle, Politics 1.1253a: lo&gon de\ mo&non a!nqrwpoj e1xei tw~n zw~|wn

[10] Liddell and Scott.

[11] See Otto Pöggeler, Martin Heidegger’s Path of Thinking (Atlantic Highlands: 1987), 160-161.

What is Goodness?

 

The question is: What is Goodness?

When I ask myself that question, several questions come to mind; preliminary questions that I must get out of the way to pursue the question further; questions that branch me off in different ways depending on how I answer them.

1-Is something [i.e. what is the reality]  (a) good because I like it, or (b) do I like it because it’s good?

2-Is good = (a) power over others to make them do what I want, or is it (b) a kind of harmony involving both myself and something else?

3-What is truth?

In all cases we are asking for the reality involved: How things are.

The first question is crucial, because if 1(a) is what is real, then pleasure becomes the good. This is an old answer: that what is meant by good is whatever gives me pleasure rather than pain. If this is true, also, then whatever advances my pleasure is good, and 2(a) follows from 1(a), because power in this paradigm becomes the ability, the power, to guarantee my pleasure and avoid pain, and I am at the center seeking to order all other things for my ultimate benefit. Power to achieve pleasure and avoid pain then becomes goodness; goodness collapses into this power; and truth becomes whatever will advance my power over others so that I can achieve pleasure and avoid pain.

If 1(b) is what is real–that I like it because it IS good–then pleasure is a response to the goodness, and the pleasure is defined by the good, instead of the good by the pleasure. This means that goodness is independent of my likes and dislikes, and that my likes and dislikes can be right or wrong; for if something IS good and I don’t like it, then my dislike means I am out of tune, not relating properly, to the reality of that goodness. This also means that 2(b) follows from 1(b), for if goodness is not determined by my individual makeup, but involves something outside my personal dimensions of reality, then goodness must involve myself coming into some kind of equilibrium or harmony with whatever goodness is, which I do not determine.

The reality of 1(a) makes the truth of goodness a matter of individual choice governed by desire. It also makes morality relative to the likes and dislikes of the choosing person, and there is no possibility of moral disagreement. For example, suppose I said to you: Wild animal shows in the circus are really good things. You then reply: No, it’s no good! If all I mean by my phrase is that “I like animal shows”, then the disagreement makes no sense, for all the second person has said is that “I don’t like animal shows.” These are just statements of fact, and no disagreement is possible. If I say I like Pepsi, it would make no sense for you to respond, Well, you’re wrong, because I don’t like it! I like Pepsi. No you don’t: I like coke! Huh?

The reality of 1(b), however, makes the truth of goodness independent of individual choice and desire, for my desires could in fact be wrong, not related to the reality of the situation, so that my choice could be wrong as well. Moral disagreement now becomes possible, for it is disconnected from the locus of my likes and dislikes, and the contingency of my subjective preferences. On can now argue about a moral issue, whereas with 1(a) no argument is possible. When I say “animal shows are good” I am making a claim about how things are independent of individual likes and dislikes, and it follows that all right-thinking people should like animal shows; while if I say “animal shows are bad” I am making a counter-claim about how things are independent of an individual’s likes and dislikes, and am claiming that it is wrong to like animal shows: that to be rational and moral, to be right, to be in tune with reality, you must hate them. We can now argue about that, which is the important point I’m making, unlike the people of 1(a) who have no grounds for disagreement.

This can lead us into more serious areas, however, if you don’t think animal shows are serious. Suppose you have an acquaintance who finds that he likes to share every secret you tell him. You confide in him, and he blabs it to everyone without your permission. If you have chosen 1(a) as a premise in your metaphysical system (it is good because a person likes it), then you cannot possibly have a moral disagreement with that person. Suppose you said to him: that’s not a good thing you’re doing! Well, in the universe of 1(a), all you mean by that is that you don’t like what he’s doing. And if he agrees with 1(a), too, he can simply respond that he likes doing what he’s doing, and that’s all there is to it. You like coke, I like Pepsi; you like keeping confidences, and I don’t, because spreading info. around gives me a great deal of pleasure.

Your only possible response at that point is to use power, to make a power move, because in the metaphysics of pleasure/pain, it will all come down to the likes and dislikes of the stronger party. If I am the most powerful, then my likes and dislikes will rule, because I have the power to enforce them, and what is good comes to be defined by the likes and dislikes of the stronger. In fact, if 1(a) is correct about what is real about goodness, then goodness in any society is simply what the powerful like, and bad is whatever the powerful dislike, and there is no room for rational argument or disagreement, but only for power struggles. And education becomes a matter of educating those with less power into the likes and dislikes of the powerful, into what the powerful think is good for their interests (for their interests are all that matter, for fulfilling their interests is what is good). Justice, too, and law, becomes a matter of maintaining the good of the powerful, so justice becomes whatever maintains the interests, the power of the stronger.

But if 1(b) is what is real, then you can give a counter-argument, for it is possible for the gossips pleasure in this activities to be unreal and wrong in terms of the realities of human relationship and goodness in them. You are not locked into the use of force as an only possible response: you can appeal to reason concerning objective realities. In addition, those in power can be wrong, and this just doesn’t mean that they’re wrong because I don’t like what they’re doing, but that I dislike what they’re doing because they are wrong. Education then becomes a process of opening someone up to reality: teaching them to see what is there, and verify it for themselves: education means teaching the recognition of reality! Justice and law, too, then, are in a dependent position; the law can be wrong, even if the powerful like what the law says.

If 1(a) is real, then Beauty, too, vanishes from this world as a real feature of it. It too becomes a matter of likes and dislikes. “Beautiful” then simply means “I like it,” and “Ugly” means I do not. But if 1(b) is real, then beauty does not depend on my likes and dislikes, and I can be educated into having the proper–the right–likes and dislikes. In fact, in all these areas, likes and dislikes can be right or wrong! And truth is not what gives me power, but is that which reveals the reality of goodness. Instead of Goodness, beauty, and truth becoming a function of my likes and dislikes, with all that is left being the play of power, my likes and dislikes become a function of goodness beauty and truth, and the play of power is always the last option. What is beautiful is then not defined through what the powerful like, as as in 1(a) where goodness, beauty, and truth become a human creation, solely dependent on human choice. Instead, human choice is in one sense irrelevant, and goodness, beauty, and truth are a matter of human recognition, not of human creation.

It is important to notice at this point the different criteria for choice:

If 1(a) is correct, then if I ask myself, when faced with a possible choice, is it right to do some possible action, “is it right?”= will it maintain or increase my power, my ability, to achieve pleasure and avoid pain; it is right if it will do that, and it is wrong if it will not. I can then only say that someone is stupid if they make a wrong choice–I cannot accuse them of moral failure, for morality, Quality, is totally absent from such a world.

But if 1(b) is what is real, then when I ask “is this action right?”, what I mean is: is this choice real in the light of a reality independent of me? And the question of my personal power and pleasure become deeply irrelevant in one sense, for what is right could mean doing something that decreases my power to achieve pleasure and pain in a significant way: my pleasure and pain become irrelevant. And I can then say someone is morally wrong is they make a wrong choice; they are not stupid, they are morally wrong, they have made a choice lacking in quality.

Truth now involves a moral dimension, whereas it cannot if 1(a) is correct. And this would mean that to understand reality, I would have to become moral; and to the degree I am moral, to that degree my perception of reality would be clear; and to the degree I am immoral, to that degree I would not be seeing what is real.

But this does not tell us what goodness IS–thought it does now make that question all important. If 1(b) is what is real, then the all important question now becomes: What is goodness?

A Great Victory is a Funeral Ceremony

As I think back on my basic training in the Army, I find myself focusing on two instructors I was fortunate to have in some of classes. The first one was our instructor in firearms (and particular, the .45 calibre pistol which we, as potential Military Policemen, were required to master). I cannot remember his name, but I remember the impression his appearance made on me. He was a huge man, with a big, booming voice—sort of an epitome of an Army Sergeant, tough, bluff, and capable. He walked up to the front of our class (we were seated in bleachers on the firing range), held up a pistol, and said: “Do you see this? It’s an ugly thing, and I hate it. Once I retire I will never touch one again. But it is something that as a soldier we might need to use. And if you need to use it, I want to make sure you use it right, and respect it for what it is.” He then proceeded to begin to introduce us to the basic of marksmanship with the .45 calibre pistol.

The other instructor, while physically very different, still somehow seemed to fit the ideal of the Sergeant. He was thin, short and wiry, and spoke in a calm voice that made you somehow relax. He was waiting for us as we filed into the bleachers on the range, and after we were seated held up a rectangular green object and said: “Today I am going to teach you something terrible. I’m going to teach you how to kill a group of people as quickly and efficiently as you can. You will learn to do this with the M18A1 Claymore mine, a standard-issue directional anti-personnel mine. But I don’t want you to forget what a terrible thing this is. My superiors might not want to hear me say it, but I think you ought to think about how awful it would be to kill other people. But if we have to, we want to do it as carefully as we can.” He then proceeded to show us how to position the mine to set up what is known as the “kill zone”, a cone shaped pattern in which ball bearings would be projected out  by the explosion, essentially cutting into ribbons any living thing in its path. Such skills are useful in setting up ambushes, for example, when you want to position the mines so that all areas where people might be or run to are “covered”.

I thought and thought about what my instructors said, both then and across the years, for they had a amazing resonance with something I had come across in another area of my life. Every since I was about eleven years old I had been reading the classic Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching. And that day on the range, as I listened to these two sergeants talk, I realized something with complete clarity that I had read in the Tao Te Ching, but had not fully grasped. In Chapter 31 we find the following:

Fine weapons are ill-omened tools.

They are hated.

Therefore the old Taoist ignored them.

Weapons are ill-omened tools,

Not proper instruments.

When their use can’t be avoided,

Calm restraint is best.

Don’t think they are beautiful.

Those who think they are beautiful

Rejoice in killing people.

Those who rejoice in killing people

Cannot achieve their purpose in this world.

When many people are killed

We feel sorrow and grief.

A great victory is a funeral ceremony.

 

The words of my instructor in the .45 pistol rang in my mind, and seemed to connect with what Lao Tzu had written: “Do you see this? It’s an ugly thing, and I hate it . . . But it is something that as a soldier we might need to use. And if you need to use it, I want to make sure you use it right, and respect it for what it is.” And the same thing with what my other instructor said: “Today I am going to teach you something terrible. I’m going to teach you how to kill a group of people as quickly and efficiently as you can . . . I don’t want you to forget what a terrible thing this is . . . you ought to think about how awful it would be to kill other people. But if we have to, we want to do it as carefully as we can.”

If we have to. If it’s necessary: “Weapons are ill-omened tools/When their use can’t be avoided,/Calm restraint is best . . .” (Tao Te Ching). Taoists aren’t pacifists, then, but they don’t seem to be very warrior-like either, I mused. But then here are two warriors telling me the same thing! I thought about the .45 pistol and the Claymore mine: “Don’t think they are beautiful./ Those who think they are beautiful/Rejoice in killing people.” My instructor’s words, in his twangy mid-western accent chimed in: “You ought to think how awful it would be to kill other people.” And then the ancient book again: “When many people are killed/We feel sorrow and grief.” Mourning the death of your enemies.

Across the years since then (this would have been in the 1970’s) I have thought and thought about Lao Tzu and my two sergeants in Basic Training. I would spend eighteen years in the National Guard and Army Reserve, and going from the rank of Private (E-1) to a Captain in command of his own detachment, I would have a lot of time to think about it. And I was fortunate to miss any actual combat, though I constantly trained for it and trained others. The use of power—the proper use of violence—was a constant preoccupation.

After the first Gulf War, which I did not participate in through chance (I had left military service a year before to work on my Ph.D. , and they never got far enough down on the Reserve lists to call me up, since it was over so quickly). And I remember thinking about my fellow soldiers (and my friends among them) as I followed the news, and wondering: Is this necessary? Or could it have been avoided? And when I watched “embedded” reporters on television giving one of their “reports from the battlefield” I had a lot to think about, too. There was one reporter I recall, we decided to anchor his report around our tanks, which was one of the primary weapons systems we used in that war. He proceeded to clamber all over it, go down inside it, and they even let him drive it and fire off a round! He was so enthusiastic, so obviously exited and enchanted, and the tankers stood around politely and calmly leading him through their deadly business. “Don’t think they are beautiful.”

And then the so-called “Road of Death,” when the Iraqi troops fled Kuwait and we caught them with our fighter aircraft on the road in their vehicles, trying to get away. If you remember  the news (or look it up), it was a slaughterhouse, full of burned out cars and dead bodies strewn across the landscape. All those dead Iraqis, their corpses charred and twisted by the flames: “When many people are killed/We feel sorrow and grief.”

And then the great Victory Parade when the war was over, once again seen on television. A grand procession down the streets of New York, with the general and select troops marching along, and confetti, and marching bands. But this is not right, I thought, there is something wrong here. I wanted to shout at the screen. I wanted to ask whoever planned that parade, whoever set it up: “Don’t you know? A great victory is a funeral ceremony. War and its weapons should only be used when there is no other choice—and even then, it is a terrible thing, an awful thing, damn it! Awful not just because our soldiers died, but even worse, because they had to kill people!”

I have come to think that the real reason to honor a soldier (or a police officer) is not because they risk their lives, but because they risk something even more precious—their souls. I believe it is a profound truth that to harm someone else is ultimately to end up harming yourself where it counts the most,  in your psyche, your soul. As awful to kill as to be killed. All use of violence and power involves a sort of tragedy, and to use power and commit violence—even for a very good reason—is to inevitably damage yourself. That is why we should honor soldiers, who take up the ugly tools of power “when their use can’t be avoided.” That’s why we don’t think those tools are beautiful or “rejoice in killing people.” That is why we feel saddest of all when we find it necessary to take part in the use of violence; why it is especially true when you are a soldier and participate in power, and so “when many people are killed . . . feel sorrow and grief.” A parade after a great victory in war would then be something very different indeed, something quite striking. We would be in mourning for our enemies as well as our friends. For “a great victory is a funeral ceremony.”

Taking Impermanence Seriously

The ecological crisis has sharpened my understanding of the buddhadharma’s teachings on impermanence. Usually we take this teaching on a mundane, everyday level–such as the inevitable rounds of birth, life, old age, and death. But what about the impermanence of the human species? Johanna Macy, in recent interview, makes some illuminating comments on this.

EB: From where do you derive the psychic resources to bear witness to all this, while keeping in touch with joy?

JM: There’s a lot of joy in it. I find myself very buoyed by the work I do. I call it the work that re-connects. It involves speaking the truth about what we are facing. I think it’s very hard for people to do that alone, so this work thrives and requires groups.

It needs to be done in groups so we can hear it from each other. Then you realize that it gives a lie to the isolation we have been conditioned to experience in recent centuries, and especially by this hyper-individualist consumer society. People can graduate from their sense of isolation, into a realization of their inter-existence with all.

Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure. In all great adventures there comes a time when the little band of heroes feels totally outnumbered and bleak, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. You learn to say “It looks bleak. Big deal, it looks bleak.”

Our little minds think it must be over, but the very fact that we are seeing it is enlivening. And we know we can’t possibly see the whole thing, because we are just one part of a vast interdependent whole–one cell in a larger body. So we don’t take our own perceptions as the ultimate. My world view has been so interwoven between the Buddhist teachings and living systems theory. They inform each other so powerfully.

“Beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them all”. This may be the last gasp of life on Earth, and what a great last gasp, if we realize we have fallen in love with each other. If you are really in the moment of experiencing our reality, you don’t say “Oh I won’t experience this because it’s not going to last forever!” You’ve got this moment. It’s true for now. We can have a reasoned concern about what is down the track, without necessarily getting hooked on something having to endure.

[http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/joanna-macy-on-how-to-prepare-internally-for-whatever-comes-next/]

Thich Nhat Hanh, a few years back, made a similar point that went straight into my heart when I first read it. He said:

If 6C degrees take place, another 95 per cent of species will die out, including Homo sapiens. That is why we have to learn to touch eternity with our in breath and out breath. Extinction of species has happened several times. Mass extinction has already happened five times and this one is the sixth. According to the Buddhist tradition there is no birth and no death. After extinction things will reappear in other forms, so you have to breathe very deeply in order to acknowledge the fact that we humans may disappear in just 100 years on earth. You have to learn how to accept that hard fact. You should not be overwhelmed by despair. The solution is to learn how to touch eternity in the present moment. We have been talking about the environment as if it is something different from us, but we are the environment. The non-human elements are our environment, but we are the environment of non-human elements, so we are one with the environment. We are the environment. We are the earth and the earth has the capacity to restore balance and sometimes many species have to disappear for the balance restored. Maybe the flood, maybe the heat, maybe the air.

[http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/1291786/thich_nhat_hanh_in_100_years_there_may_be_no_more_humans_on_planet_earth.html]

The teachings of the buddhadharma are unflinchingly honest and realistic in ways that stagger my mind. They are reality slapping you in the face–the real sound of one hand clapping.