Satya is the founder and vision coordinator for Touching Earth Sangha 3. Originally inspired in a spiritual direction from early experiences in the wilderness, Satya began a daily sitting practice while studying Asian religion at college. He practiced at various American Zen centers before heading to Asia for retreat and pilgrimage, including traversing the Himalayas on foot from Dharamsala to Leh, Ladakh. He studied with Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi for a number of years, as well as with the Japanese Zen Master Harada Tangen Roshi of Bukkokuji Temple, where he underwent five years of monastic training. He has also practiced with the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, and learned from Tibetan Dzogchen masters, Sufi musicians, Indian raga artists, and taiji teachers. Satya does not maintain any lineage affiliation, and encourages the questioning of the institution of sectarian lineage, as to whether it helps or hinders our practice of awakening.
Committed to remaining primarily money-free, Satya settled in Portland, Oregon, where he has been leading a Sunday sitting group for many years, and has been helping Food Not Bombs bring free vegetarian feasts to public parks.
Here’s a video interview with Satya: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwPclOWimOc&t=1836s
and another: https://simplicityzen.com/simplicity-zen-podcast-episode-39-an-interview-with-satya-vayu/
Video and audio recordings of the Sunday talks are available on Youtube under the Touching Earth Sangha channel.
Some of Satya’s brush calligraphy: https://photos.app.goo.gl/BBEKeMPhYcti1ssn7
Treasury of the Forest of Ancestors
Click here to download this 135-page new collection of traditional Zen teaching dialogues.
This is the latest piece – Using a Daoist theme to understand our best response to the current world predicament: Wu Wei and the Ecological Crisis
Another recent one: The Bodhisattva Vow in the Time of Climate Crisis
Here’s a thorough exploration of spiritual ethics and their application in our contemporary world. It includes reflections on the ten basic Buddhist precepts, as well as a report on practicing radical simplicity today: How, Then, Shall We Live?
A short, practical essay about simple living: The Simple Solution to the Environmental Crisis
The basics of how spiritual practice relates to a revolutionary daily life: What is Spiritual Practice For?
Similar theme to the one above, but more aimed at already committed meditation practitioners: Renounce and Enjoy!: Toward Communities of Ahimsa
Archive of Older Writings
This next essay was written as part of a correspondence on an online environmental activist discussion group. The group had formed in 2009 to support the Climate Justice Fast, a publicized forty-day fast to bring attention to the urgency of climate change. This particular piece was a response to the idea expressed in the discussion group that personal lifestyle change was an inconsequential or only marginally important aspect of what we need to endorse in our efforts to respond to the environmental crises of our time. The latest post that I was directly responding to, by Paul Connor, (one of the founders of the Climate Justice Fast), had basically expressed that lifestyle change was important if it was publicly and widely advocated, but ineffective if kept quiet, and that no one could say which of the two approaches – protest activism or lifestyle change advocacy – would be more effective to bring about change. Which strategy to adopt was therefore simply a matter of personal preference.
Thanks, Paul, for your thoughtful and helpful response to my post. I appreciate your viewpoint, and also your effort to reconcile and embrace the differences in activist styles. We have to be careful that those of us deeply moved by this issue continue to work together with mutual respect, despite our differences, in order for any widespread movement to take effective shape.
That said, after reflecting on your comments, I feel it might be helpful to further clarify some points about my view of lifestyle change for anyone interested.
First, there’s this issue of whether we aim to change our own “footprint” exclusively, or try to influence others. I, personally, am quite open about trying to influence others, and I suppose I would find it quite sad if I met someone who tried to live responsibly, but honestly didn’t care what others did. But I don’t know anyone who I really think feels that way, despite what they might say. When I talk with people who say they don’t want to tell other people what to do, I think they’re just saying they’d rather teach by example then by “preaching”. I personally think it would benefit society and the earth greatly if we all got more comfortable expressing ourselves honestly to each other, and learning to listen to each other, so I don’t have a problem with good-intentioned efforts at “preaching.” (and I do it). But I also recognize that an individual’s personal lifestyle changes do have an important, and often profound, effect on those around them, without any obvious attempts to convert others by that person. Although my words have probably made an impact on some, I imagine my lifestyle example has a deeper effect on those who actually encounter me, or maybe even those who’ve heard about me (not that there’s many who have!) Actually I can’t really separate the two, but for those who are less comfortable with words, or less comfortable with social confrontation, I respect the decision to rely more on the teaching of example.
The next point concerns the question of which is more “effective” at producing real, lasting change – lifestyle change or “political” action. To me, however, these are not two different options or strategies to choose from. Lifestyle change must happen, as I see it, with or without other political actions, if the planet is to survive in a form that we all would like. Political protest and campaigns are meaningful to me, therefore, as a strategy to spread lifestyle change throughout the population, using government regulation (as opposed to spreading a new cultural paradigm directly to society). I would agree with Paul that it remains an open question which of these two strategies – using the channels of government, or appealing directly to the grassroots – is the more effective strategy to spread a different way of living to the “masses”. But that different way of living is not just an option. So how is it that many advocating political action excuse themselves from lifestyle change, (and belittle it to others), by claiming they’re covering their responsibility with political action? What kind of example is this? Political action focused on government and corporations has to be in addition to, not instead of, lifestyle change (just as advocating for cultural change directly to the public has to accompany your own changes). A multinational oil company is not going to care too much about people protesting against them, as long as people keep supporting them financially at the gas pump. As long as their profits stay high, their power will remain high (at least in terms of conventional political power), and they can spin protests, and their image, any way they like. Activists who continue to financially support corporate, non-local, and environmentally damaging industries not only still make a personal contribution to the problem, but, as we all influence those around us, they encourage others to excuse compromised behavior. This reinforces the sense that we are somehow chained to a lifestyle that depends on corporate services, and we are powerless to do anything personally about it (except perhaps to convince government to turn against their own patrons and fix them for us). But corporations are not independent monstrosities separate from us – their existence is dependent on our cooperation with them (as is the government).
Once we agree that we all must organize our personal lives around behavior that supports local, sustainable communities and not corporate power, then we can reasonably discuss how to spread this effort around the world. And it’s true – no one really knows for sure what methods will work best to do this, and each time and place, each local situation, will call on different approaches. I certainly accept that petitioning government has it’s place (I’m much more optimistic about local government then national, but I admit even national and international bodies have a potential role to play in positive change, I just see it as much more likely to be responding (being dragged along) to already developed cultural change).
As we examine what approaches to take, I think it will serve us to keep a few points in mind: One is that we (in the industrialized world) have all been deeply conditioned to accept that a distant government is the proper and realistic realm through which to work on change. I feel this is a very disempowering assumption, that has blinded us to our individual – and perhaps more importantly – to our collective local community power. A related point is that we have been mostly raised (in modern times) in substantial ignorance of how local community works, how we can create and nurture it, and what it even is. Our unfamiliarity with how to support and rely on a local community (the basic function of traditional, older societies) leads us to be suspicious, lonely, and even fearful of those around us – and thus look to official abstract bodies to solve our problems. (But community can be relearned – there are many examples going on now that you are all probably part of). A third point is that the representatives of the official bodies will rarely have our interests in mind, as the very mechanism of rising in power in institutional bureaucracies requires a primary interest in securing financial assets and social status – those more “idealistic” are eventually weeded out or marginalized. Is it wise to keep recognizing these people as our leaders?
The example that Paul brings up to show the potential ineffectiveness of advocating for personal lifestyle change is interesting, because to me it shows the opposite. Jimmy Carter telling the public that we all should live with less impact and more in harmony with nature was an unusual thing for a politician to say, but it didn’t occur because he was such a personal visionary who came up with this as a new idea. This sentiment had entered the public domain in America as a phenomena over ten years earlier – in the cultural transformations of the mid-sixties. (a movement that grew very quickly, by the way). This was a movement definitely not advocated by the government (which was quite conservative at the time) but arose through a cultural current of personal exploration, and empowered by an upswelling of local community creation. That it took ten years for a president to acknowledge some value in it, shows how much the government lags behind the contributions of the grassroots. And that Carter’s statements made little impact just shows the inadequacy of political power to effect moral inspiration.
So why did those cultural trends of the sixties toward a simpler life die off? I don’t think they did – they just left the public eye and struggled through a long backlash from other segments of society. The limitations of the movement that caused it to lose its steam, I think, can be found in two main causes. One is that personal transformation was not tied close enough to community involvement – without the social and material support of a functioning local community based on transformed values, people’s personal inspirations eventually burn out. The second is that not enough effort was made to expand the new paradigm to a diverse cross-section of society – so eventually those that had been left out of the new cultural developments took out their usual frustrations about industrial life on those “others” whose unusual ideas they didn’t understand, and thus there was a conservative backlash (at least in public discourse and policy). But the legacy of that movement is with us still, and now, with more urgent stakes, we had better repair the mistakes.
Perhaps the issue of recognizing and developing local community power can be the central link that might unify the two activist camps – those for advocating lifestyle change, and those for “political action”. Lifestyle change is substantially limited when not accompanied by community development and empowerment, and political action is also substantially limited when local forms of decision making and creativity are not recognized for the power that they are. Local community, to me, is the key for both approaches. Last night I happen to bring up this same discussion about activism and lifestyle in a public discussion with the author and filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge, after the showing of her new movie, The Economics of Happiness. The movie had mentioned the limitations of personal lifestyle change in a disparaging way, and so I questioned her about it. She immediately acknowledged the misleading potential of that passage, and clarified that what she had intended was not to dismiss the urgency of lifestyle change, but to emphasize that it needs to occur in the context of developing community, and with open sharing and learning between communities. This, I think, is crucial.( By the way, I strongly recommend this movie to everyone!)
To belong to community, I feel, is an essential human need. We all yearn to feel accepted and at home in our surrounding environment, both social and natural. When we can experience being part of a healthy community, we can feel a deep sense of contentment, relaxation, a grounded appreciation for our life and gratitude for all that support it. And when we are deprived of that experience, as so many of us are in modern industrial life, (knowing dependence only on impersonal corporate forces, not on our living neighbors and natural environment), there is a growing loneliness, restlessness, frustration, and often depression. Usually we say “stress”. One of the great potentials of community growing as a way of social and environmental change, is that it is inherently attractive and satisfying to all kinds of people across the political spectrum. By focusing on growing local communities of real mutual dependence (for food, housing, transportation, and social bonding) we can create personal fulfillment at the same time as making lifestyle change more practical and less daunting, and making political action more effective and enduring. There is no reason this has to be a particularly slow process, but it requires our devotion immediately – until we return our power to our own lives and our community, we will remain at the mercy of a world political and economic system gone completely mad in its insatiable fixation on growth, and beyond the reach of our understanding in scale.
It might be helpful to reflect on the perspective of one of the inspiring lights of the Climate Justice Fast campaign – Gandhi. His incredible power to inspire, and his effectiveness at reaching so many so deeply, was certainly related to his insistence that personal lifestyle change and integrity be at the center of his movement. When political events went in unwholesome directions, he was known to look at his own lifestyle and question what mistakes he was still making that limited his persuasiveness and effectiveness as an example. But just as important as walking his talk, was his understanding that personal integrity was a public affair, that the individual is intrinsically a social being, and that one’s personal transformation needs to be embedded in community to be real and complete. He didn’t always preach (although he was good at it), but he was always ready to be an example. This was true in the smaller, local movements early in his career, in the ashrams he lived in and drew sustenance from, in the cooperative networks he helped create across the country, and eventually on the national stage. Always he understood that the true venue of his personal spiritual path was deep and compassionate engagement with his surrounding community (of all species).
I hope this is useful to someone, and I’m sorry if it’s length has bothered anyone. I don’t expect to write any more long pieces on this subject, but if you have any comment or question I’d love to hear it, and I’ll try to keep future responses brief.
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The following essay appears in abbreviated form in the Winter 2010/2011 issue of The Turning Wheel, the magazine of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship:
The Forgotten Art of Renunciation—Voluntary Simplicity and a Sustainable Society
Heaven and Earth give themselves. Air, water, plants, animals, and humans give themselves to each other. It is in this giving-themselves-to-each-other that we actually live. Whether you appreciate it or not, it is true… Samadhi is to work constantly for all beings at every moment, living as the whole universe.
– Kodo Sawaki
I woke before dawn with a view of the stars, and the sound of the wind in the dark fir trees. Venturing my arm out of the warmth of my sleeping bag, I felt around for the antique cell phone that now served as a useful alarm clock. It read, as usual, a few minutes before the alarm at five. At this hour it was so quiet you’d never know you were in the city. Only a moaning alley cat, or an occasional siren in the distance. Nothing else disturbed the sound of wind breathing through the evergreen branches.
I pulled myself out of the bag and into the exuberance of the cold. After peeing at a nearby bush, I grabbed the Korean wooden block waiting beside the door and visited the several sleeping bodies with a gentle “tok-tok-tok” wake-up. Ten minutes later we were assembled up in the bare loft, each of us a bundle of woolen blankets and vaporous breath, ready for sitting.
So began a typical winter day at Flourishing Clouds Hermitage, a formerly abandoned, empty shell of a house tucked away in a quiet, dirt-road neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. It was one of a number of recent homes of a loosely knit band of rag-tag Zen practitioners called Touching Earth Sangha – a group devoted to re-awakening the art of renunciation, or simple living, that had characterized most earlier Buddhist communities.
Originally we were a group that just met on Sunday afternoons in a city park for zazen, a talk, and dinner. Over the past few years we’ve occasionally had a base for full-time meditation practice at one location or another. The latest incarnation featured a large yard for growing food, an essential part of Touching Earth’s vision. There was a Cypress tree in the yard under whose shady branches we sat when the weather was warm. Across the street were fig, almond and black walnut trees.
Each morning we sat for two periods either outside, or, when raining, on the tin-can-patched wooden floor of the loft. Then, after some Sanskrit chanting, we’d disperse over the grounds for individual yoga or taiji practice, or maybe a walk or run. Whoever was cooking would build a fire in our “rocket stove” made from discarded cans, and with a few twigs some hot oatmeal was ready, maybe served with homemade sunflower seed yogurt, or Asian-style rice congee with miso paste.
Touching Earth Sangha is an open community welcoming anyone to join our practice, and many curious folks have joined our events over the last few years. My friend Sara and myself, who’ve been organizing the activities, try to live a lifestyle devoted to the art of simplicity. We make no income and we use little money. We never charge for retreats, or even residency, but accept donations. We bike or walk for transportation, and prefer to live without heat, and mostly out-of-doors. Without washers, dryers, or daily showers, we use only a negligible amount of industrial energy. We mostly wash clothes by hand and dry in the sun. Using an insulating “hay-box” for general cooking and a homemade solar oven in the summer, we drastically cut down our fuel needs. We grow vegetables, help local farmers, and gather most of the rest of our food from various businesses that would otherwise throw it out. Any food we can’t gather for free, or grow ourselves, we purchase unpackaged from local organic sources, maintaining a vegan diet for both ethical and ecological reasons. And we complete the nutrient cycle by composting our own “humanure.” We sometimes experiment with hand-sewing our own robes and dyeing with local plants. And in all these endeavors we are joined by those who do retreat with us, or live with us in one of our longer-term sanctuaries.
To many people this life might appear austere. In our experience it’s abundant and freeing. Spending our daily hours on activities that we’re directly and personally invested in, rather than for a paycheck, the joy of work becomes more easy to appreciate. Doing things by hand slows us down, and gives more room for mindfulness to arise. We find that doing without many of the usual conveniences of mechanized life doesn’t actually lead to any real physical deprivation – we eat delicious food that we feel personally connected with, and maintain good health. But by letting go of some habits and conditioning, we find ourselves free of the stress of money worries. We also find a way to address a more modern, and perhaps even deeper stress now growing in our culture – the emerging awareness that our society’s daily lifestyle is not in balance with the needs of a healthy planet and human community.
None of our group’s lifestyle choices are particularly new or innovative—they have all been traditional practices in spiritual communities for centuries, and still can be found in some temples in Asia. It’s a “perennial” way of life rising directly from an awareness of what is really called for in the present moment, and not seeking more. Its history goes back to the Buddha, and even to the forest yogins before him. What’s new, perhaps, is to try to live this way in today’s world – to try to embody the spirit of the renunciant lifestyle as spiritual practice here in the modern West.
Without feeling the need to follow orthodox rules created in the context of an ancient world, and without getting too involved with the theoretical constructs of modern movements like permaculture, our sangha simply tries to step back from realms of activity that feel unwholesome or excessive. Letting go of the notions of pure and impure, we’re making our best effort to explore how we might return to a simple, ecologically based lifestyle right in the midst of our urban, industrialized, energy intensive society.
On observing the transmission of the Buddha Way to the West, there seems to me to be a crucial imbalance in the three traditional branches of a practice life—ethics, awareness practice, and wisdom (sila, samadhi, and prajña). I’ve found that there’s abundant access to meditational instruction and practice, as well as sophisticated philosophical discussions about liberating wisdom. But there seems much less appreciation of the simple, ethical lifestyle that was the foundation for these practices and understandings in their traditional contexts. This lifestyle of simplicity encouraged an intuitive compassionate worldview of frugality and balance that is rare in our culture. The lay precepts familiar to many Buddhists are sufficiently general, and open enough to interpretation, that they rarely challenge the middle class consumerist mindset of our wider society. The vision of an ethically directed lifestyle of radical simplicity, such as that lived and taught by the Buddha, has yet to visibly take root in the West. My feeling for this need to move toward less consumption in contemporary western spirituality is what led me to the work of Touching Earth Sangha.
When we look at the stories of the great saints of the various Buddhist traditions, we find a consistent veneration of simplicity, frugality, and a deep appreciation of the inherent gifts of nature. There’s Han Shan in his mountain wilderness and Milarepa in his cave; Layman Pang sinking his possessions in a lake, and Zen Master Daito living homeless under a bridge. Even in recent times we have verifiable accounts of numerous Tibetan yogins, Chinese hermits, and Theravadin forest masters carrying on this spirit.
But what is the role of the renunciant tradition in our modern practice? Is it only a scenic backdrop appropriate for a bygone time and now to be discarded, or is something more essential at stake? We must seriously consider whether practice can fully blossom when we spend so many of our waking hours working in a system focused on the accumulation of money, or prestige, or increasing desires, and then spending one or two hours in meditation practice letting go of that. If our purchasing and traveling habits based on comfort and convenience go unquestioned, how can we expect to unravel the effects of this behavior in short bursts of retreat? If we examine the perennially instructive legend of the Buddha’s life, we learn that his “great renunciation” was the key turning point – it was the foundation that opened the way for his following practice of meditation, and for the fruition of his awakening to wisdom. The challenge of this legacy is clear – the surrendering of the daily-reinforced concerns of the ego is what releases the energy necessary for mediation to fill us more completely and deeply, and for wisdom to be revealed in its essential clarity.
At the same time, many meditation masters through the centuries in Asia have served as models of how little we need materially to be joyful and fully receptive to life’s natural richness. Their simplicity was understood, I believe, as an expression of harmlessness toward all beings—by not taking more than truly necessary, they left enough for all others. And by not occupying themselves with a mind of acquisitiveness, they could be fully awake to compassion and beneficial action.
These contemplatives were honored by their communities as exemplars of the highest ideals of the culture—generosity, frugality, selflessness, non-harm, and compassion. This tradition, of course, goes far beyond the Buddhist world. From Christian friars to wandering Sufis, from Indian sadhus to Taoist hermits, those who chose voluntary poverty, using just what they needed in harmony with nature, were held in the highest esteem, and served as reminders to the culture that there are more important values than material comfort and acquisitiveness.
Today, with the growing crisis of climate change and habitat destruction threatening the ability of our planet to sustain and nourish life, the need for exemplars of simple living is stronger than ever before in history. The cause of environmental degradation, and the weather disasters, drought, disease, warfare, and extinctions that are its growing expressions, is clearly greed, over-consumption, and wasteful habit. Where are the models of a fundamentally simpler lifestyle for us?
In modern industrialized cultures the only visible people living in radical simplicity are the urban homeless, who are not generally following a voluntary calling, but are suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, or personal tragedy. The usual response of the public is pity, or maybe disgust. But if a movement of contemplatives voluntarily choose to be homeless, to reawaken the spirit of renunciation and speak openly about it, this reception might be transformed. If expressed as a calling, and a joy, perhaps simplicity—living with just what’s needed—could become, again, an honored value, and recognized as the essential foundation to a life of freedom, contentment, and true wealth. This is the vision of Touching Earth Sangha.
Our particular focus of practice is to apply our meditation-awareness to our usual daily habits, and meet the challenging perspectives that emerge. Getting back in touch with the full weight of a car, and with its speed, in relation to our own bodies and natural movements, we can more fully appreciate the power of the fuel consumed, reflect on it’s cost to all beings, and question more deeply the assumption that we need to move so fast and so far. When shopping, extending our awareness to the plastic package covering our desired food, we might remember the chemicals involved, and the distances our food has travelled to reach us. Mindfulness applied in this way can guide us to new lifestyle possibilities, a new vinaya for our time, one that can help awaken us from the consumerist daze that dominates our society and is leading to environmental peril. Reconnecting with the inherent richness and fullness of the present moment in its stillness and simplicity, our “needs” dissipate, and the path of renunciation becomes a celebration of all the gifts that are freely and naturally already here.
The potential of such a lifestyle change, if made visible and palpable to the larger society, is nothing less than a way out of the current crisis of the global environment. Ignoring this revolutionary potential, our practice may only become a way to cope a little better with a collapsing world,
while continuing to participate in the mechanism of it’s collapse. Facing the challenge of a turn toward simplicity need not be a moral burden, however, it can actually be a creative and joyful adventure, bringing relief, freedom, and a clearer awareness of the compassion and beauty at the core of our own hearts.
For my own work practice, I spend most afternoons engaged in urban foraging. In some seasons, especially late summer and early fall, this involves picking straight from the source: plums, figs, apples, walnuts, and chestnuts are abundant and easy to find here in Portland. In the spring there are nettles and cherries, and during the summer an endless variety of berries. But mostly urban foraging means collecting food that would otherwise go to waste. Since up to 40 percent of all food marketed in the United States ends up in the garbage unused, the first job of any kind of modern mendicant is to tap into this over-looked wealth.
Riding around the city with my bike cart, I stop in at farmer’s markets, urban gardens, food co-ops, bakeries, and any friendly food business. In the last twenty years of my own homeless, income-free living, I’ve never had difficulty finding adequate food, even when limiting myself to vegan, organic fare. Sometimes I’ve relied on the abundant resources of the surprisingly unblemished and still fresh food overflowing from dumpsters around the country, but recently I don’t even need to check them.
There is much more to be had, of course, than what is needed by our small meditation community. And so I collect as part of a worldwide endeavor called Food-Not-Bombs. This movement is made up of volunteers in hundreds of independent chapters who collect free food, prepare it in whatever spaces are offered, and serve the meals to any and all in public places like city parks. The communities that spring up at these meal offerings are often rich sources of social connection—most of the members of Touching Earth Sangha met at the Portland servings.
Although food has proven easy to come by, finding land space on which to live without money is more of a challenge (since public lands in this country are general far from population centers and food sources). After six months at Flourishing Clouds Hermitage, our sangha’s latest sanctuary, an anonymous neighbor reported to the city that she believed we were living without electricity (this is apparently illegal) and the owners, who had generously allowed us to stay, became concerned about fines and asked us to leave. And so we returned to our familiar houseless mode.
I imagine these waves of fortune have always been part of the spiritual renunciant lifestyle, even in cultures that recognize and respect this way of life. And the lessons of flexibility and equanimity are essential. But most important is the experience that we still have what we need, that abundance continues, that we are all, in essence, taken care of. As we trust in community, community reaches out to us, and proves that a gift economy can really work. Our sangha found places to stay, and our Sunday gatherings and longer retreats and wilderness trips continue – always free, and still with abundant food, shelter, and friendship.
The modern Zen master Kodo Sawaki taught that “Heavan and Earth give themselves.” Touching Earth Sangha is one effort of a small group of folks to explore this vision of the world as gift, and how we might live to truly express this understanding. Spiritual practice communities have a particular opportunity, maybe responsibility, to inspire and encourage this movement – a movement to celebrate inherent abundance, and the letting go of the striving for more. Hopefully many other groups will discover their own forms and lifestyles that express the vision of voluntary simplicity so urgently needed in today’s world. Together, our diverse communities can help create a healthy and joyous new society amidst the struggles of the old.
other versions of this article, with more extensive quotes, can be found below, after this next piece
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(after Dogen, written 2009)
Under the Bodhitree, in the forest by the Niranjara River, the world-honored one touched the earth and received great awakening. Without touching the earth, there is no great awakening. Because of touching the earth, the earth trembled, all beings trembled, and the morning star opened its eye and sent forth its light unhindered throughout heaven and earth. We should investigate this touching of the earth.
Before touching the earth, the world-honored one was visited by alluring visions of desire and seduction, and by visions of demonic terrors and violence. By exposing himself to this rain and wind, and upright and aware; sailing through the storms without losing course, he was able to find a clear field out beyond ideas; an empty meadow for a meeting with the most distinguished guest. Mara, with grandmotherly kindness, provided a turning word, an axis point for revolution:
“What right do you have to wake up to freedom when all other beings are drowning in suffering?” Following the imperative, the world-honored one touched the earth, suddenly extinguishing the flame of Siddhartha Gautama and opening the gates of the garden for the ten thousand grasstips to come forward and illuminate awakening.
To understand the earth-touching of the awakened one, we must investigate our own touching. Is it the self that lowers the hand, or the earth that draws it in? We might understand how to touch the earth and receive the earth’s confirmation, but we must also understand that the earth touches us, and we confirm the earth’s awakening.
Do we make touching the earth into a ritual or display? Or is it reaching for refreshing water, or having a cup of tea? Is it reaching for a pillow in the middle of the night? Could it be embracing the beloved, or embracing the gift of Sujata?
Touching is not just with the hand, it is with the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body and mind, it is with the breath and posture, it is with a flower and with a smile, with a pebble striking bamboo, and with the call of a crow. It is with the white clouds passing freely through the vast sky.
When we touch the earth, do we feel the trembling? We feel the trembling of thunder, or of a rushing river; maybe of butterfly wings or aspen leaves. Can we feel the trembling of a hollow tree, a moss covered boulder or withered log under the snow? How about walls, fences, tiles and pebbles?
Are we in touch with the weight and inertia of a car when we get in and drive? Do we touch the heat and roar of the engine, or the breath of the exhaust? Would we choose to drive so easily?
Are we in touch with the plastic package hiding the food we reach for in the market? Do we know its “before and after, complete in this moment”? Do we touch the chemical laboratories, the oil fields, the war zones? Are these considerations brought in from the outside or are they here with us in the intimacy of this moment? Are they flowers in the sky, or are they touching the earth?
How can we touch the earth while on the internet, while talking on a cell phone, while flying in an airplane? It’ s not that it can’t be done, it’s just that there is a great distance between heaven and earth. It’s not that touching the earth can be defiled, it’s just that is comes with practice and realization. The awakened one ascended the ladder to heaven in order to free beings trapped there but he soon returned to earth on the single road.
When we return to earth, to our original home, the empty dawn gives birth to the one bright pearl; its brilliance spills forth into the eyes of all beings. At the moment of touching the earth, there is no hand, no person, no touching, and no earth. At this moment, earth and the awakened one both drop away like golden leaves in autumn. On the bare ground, spring comes, and the grass grows of itself.
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The following are basically earlier versions of the Turning Wheel essay earlier in this collection, with more quotes
DOGEN, HOMELESS KODO, AND A SUSTAINABLE WORLD
Students of the Way, do not worry about food and clothing… The Buddha said to use abandoned rags for clothing and beg for food. In what age will these two things ever be exhausted? ….As long as your dew-like human life lasts, think exclusively of the Buddha-Way and do not be concerned with other things…
This challenging quote of Zen Master Dogen comes from his “Shobogenzo Zuimonki” – a collection of informal talks about the lifestyles and attitudes most conducive to awakened practice. Although many of Dogen’s more philosophical essays are popularly studied in contemporary Zen centers, the Zuimonki gets much less attention. There may be many reasons, but it’s undeniable that the suggestion of changing one’s lifestyle, especially concerning money and associated habits, arouses deeply uncomfortable and defensive responses. More so, perhaps, than even the most mind-bending philosophy or rigorous formal practice. In Zuimonki Dogen directly challenges the lifestyle of “gain” and the concern with financial security that is so dominant in our present society. He continues:
To think of accumulating even a little bit of wealth is a great obstacle. Without thinking of how to gain or store up things, you will naturally receive as much as you need to stay alive for awhile… heaven and earth bestow it on us… these things will naturally be there, but only if you abandon everything and practice the Way… If we run out of food and have nothing to eat, only then should we look for a means (to gain something). We should not think of these things in advance.
Again and again throughout the Zuimonki, Dogen praises a life of simplicity, even poverty, as the most conducive lifestyle for whole-hearted practice. He vigorously criticizes the mainstream Buddhist establishment of his day as far too concerned with comfort, prestige, and material security.
Most people today mistakenly think that constructing Buddha images and building stupas helps the Buddhadharma flourish. Even though we might erect huge temples adorned with polished jewels and gold, we cannot attain the Way by these works… To learn even a single phrase of the Dharma-gate or to practice zazen if only for a single period, while living in a thatched hut or under a tree, shows the true flourishing of the Buddhadharma.
If we remain pure and poor, but practice the Way enduring hardship, beg for food, or eat wild nuts or fruit… a single person hearing about us and coming to practice will be one possessing true bodhi-mind. I think this is the way the buddhadharma can truly flourish.
Some might dismiss Dogen’s attitude as unrealistic, or as a romantic idealization from another age. One modern-day Zen practitioner and teacher, Sawaki Kodo Roshi, took Dogen’s advice to heart, and lived as simply as he could, without concern with establishing a home or temple:
People call me “Homeless” Kodo, but I don’t take it as an insult. They call me that because I have never had a temple or a house. Everyone is homeless. It is a mistake if you think that you have a fixed home.
The connection between a life of simplicity and the opening of awakened awareness begins to become apparent. Sawaki continues to clarify this theme in many of his quotes:
To study the Buddha Way is to study loss. Shakyamuni Buddha is a good example. He left his kingdom… and became a mendicant with bare feet and a shabby robe. All the Buddhas and ancestors suffer loss intentionally. It is a very big mistake if a Buddhist priest wants to rise in the world… to climb up to a place from which sooner or later you have to fall. “No falling” is the life of a monk or nun, one who has left home.
This willingness to not raise oneself up above others, to endure loss and to surrender in order to be free of self-centered desire is, of course, a central tenet of Buddhism and many other religions. To turn away from self-focused accumulation, from competition and striving, is to discover a new world in which to live and act. Sawaki says- “The world in which people give and receive things without saying, ‘Give it to me!’ is the truly beautiful world. It differs from the world of scrambling for things. It is vast and boundless.” This world is the birthplace of connection and belonging, and the end of isolation and loneliness. Sawaki understands this boundless world of open sharing to extend beyond the realm of human interaction:
Heaven and Earth give themselves. Air, water, plants, animals, and humans give themselves to each other. It is in this giving-themselves-to-each-other that we actually live. Whether you appreciate it or not, it is true… Samadhi is to work constantly for all beings at every moment, living as the whole universe.
In “Genjo Koan” Dogen says famously, “To carry yourself forward and experience the myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.” This is the ultimate principle of non-striving. To empty oneself of personal concern and instead be filled by the whole of the vast space of experience is to reach the source of compassion and universal responsibility. Dogen and Sawaki make clear that a life of simplicity, even poverty, is an essential training to reveal this awareness, as well as the natural expression of an awakened mind. Can one who has abandoned self-centered striving still accumulate riches and use resources lavishly? Theoretically perhaps, but in actuality what would be the motive? As we become aware of the suffering for the many caused by the accumulation of the few, this possibility virtually disappears.
In his book of Buddhist ethics, The Mind of Clover, Robert Aitken likens the accumulation and luxury that we take for granted in the industrialized world to a continuous act of stealing:
Stealing is a pervasive element of our lives, and is the nature of our economic system… the natural world is exploited for short term benefit to a “fortunate” minority, while other people, animals, plants, and the earth organism itself suffer.
Aitken then discusses an example from the Sahel in Africa, where a corporation pays its farm workers so little that they can hardly eat, then ships the produce to wealthy Europeans, all on land that once belonged to the workers for their own food. But he could as well have discussed the brutal violence in the Congo and the fueling of that conflict by the demand of wealthy nations for the coltan in cell-phones and wireless computers. Or, of course, the continuing devastation in Iraq and Afghanistan and its connection to the insatiable “need” do drive cars. Aitken warns: “As time goes on, oil and minerals will become scarcer, and the kind of brutality evident in my example from the Sahel may become more commonplace, at home as well as abroad.” His solution is inspired by a quote from Gandhi:
We are not always aware of our real needs, and most of us improperly multiply our wants, and thus unconsciously make thieves of ourselves… One who follows the observance of Non-stealing will bring about a progressive reduction of his own wants.
Aitken concludes: “It is in the social movement to reduce needs that there is hope for political change.” At the end of his chapter he makes a final assessment and call to action:
Today the delusion of greed, hatred, and ignorance fuel industrial and political systems that threaten the very structure of life. Air, water, and food are depleted and poisoned, and the machine of death and destruction accelerates. The dojo has always been a retreat and a training center, but now the emphasis must be upon training ourselves as a danaparamita community to become a new growth within the shell of the old society.
This, then, is the great task, and opportunity, of responsible meditation practice communities in contemporary society: to become examples and leaders in the movement toward simplicity. Many other segments of our society might be focused on technical or political maneuvering in order to lessen the damage from a consumption- driven world, but those of us focusing on the fulfillment of the present moment need to show the way toward doing and needing less. If we are serious about awakening to emptiness- the emptiness of our personal stories and habits swirling around achieving,attaining, controlling- we find that we can be completely filled with the boundless world of the present just as it is. Sharing this revelation is the greatest expression of generosity we can make.
If we take this practice of presence seriously, it should be evident in our day to day lifestyle choices. Many practice communities are taking small steps toward lessening their consumption of energy and resources, but not noticeably more than others in the same middle-class liberal environments with which they generally associate. Where are the pioneers that hear the call of Dogen and Sawaki and dare to explore the wilderness of radical simplicity? If those focused on receiving the contentment and joy of the present moment are unable to let go of the usual conveniences and securities of modern industrial life, who will? Can we feel the tremendous weight of a car when we approach it, understanding the excessive energy it must consume to move us, or can we only think of our future destination and our haste. Do we see the plastic package concealing the food we’re purchasing- the vast distances and polluting industry needed to make it – or just the convenience of our habitual eating choices. Why do we practice meditation if not to free ourselves from the habits and fears that usually dictate our choices, and, cutting through the veneer of comfort and security, courageously take each step toward the wholesome, the beautiful, and the compassionate.
One group setting out on this path is a small community in Portland, Oregon that this author is a part of called “Touching Earth Sangha.” Living together practicing a full-time monastic schedule, we make no income other than donations, and charge no money for others to join for retreats or residency. Renting for as long as savings allow, or else squatting, house-sitting, or entering the mountains for wilderness retreats, we gather most of our food from donations and dumpsters, or urban wild crafting and gardening. We use no cars- only bikes and bike carts for long distance errands. In the winter we keep warm with sweaters from the free-box. By doing our laundry by hand, using an insulating “hay-box” for cooking, and turning off the fridge we use almost no energy. Any food purchased is local, organic, vegan and unpackaged, and we complete the nutrient cycle by composting our humanure. We’ve begun sewing our own robes, and soon we’d like to carve our own bowls. And we’ve begun to experiment with mendicancy. None of this is particularly new or innovative – it was mostly standard in traditional practice communities for centuries, and still can be found in some temples in Asia. It is an organic lifestyle rising directly from the awareness of what is really called for in the present moment. Far from pursuing the theoretical constructs of modern movements like “permaculture”, we simply step back from entanglements in worlds of activity that feel unwholesome or excessive. There is no pure or impure here, only making our best effort.
Perhaps there are a growing number of such small practice communities turning toward a simpler way, each with its own emphasis and style. A new application of “sila”, or ethical guidelines, might emerge for our present world, and a renewed sense of the unity of sila, samadhi, and prajna. With increased communication, we might help and inspire each other to foster the growing of a new movement “within the shell of the old society.” A movement that truly appreciates the reality of “giving-ourselves-to-each-other” – the vast and boundless world right here before us.
Please feel encouraged to make contact and participate in the process!
The Last Transmission: Sila in the Modern World
The practice and realization of the Buddhadharma is sometimes divided into three categories: sila, samadhi, and prajna. Prajna, often understood as the final fruit of practice, is primordial wisdom that lies before knowledge. It’s the revelation of unbounded, selfless reality as the ground and basis of consciousness. Samadhi, the quality of practice necessary for prajna, is concentration, meditative focus, or absorption. It concerns the direct experience of non-conceptual reality in the present moment. Sila, often seen as the necessary ground, or preparation, for the other two qualities, denotes ethical behavior in one’ s lifestyle. It can refer to a mode of living ordered and strengthened by a code of conduct or precepts, or more generally as living in resonance with harmlessness and compassionate action. Sila can be seen as opening the way for the emergence of samadhi and prajna by removing the distracting and imprisoning mind states associated with selfish behavior. But it can also be seen as the final expression of the spiritual path –the actual manifestation of prajna embodied in observable human life. The unburdened sage returning to the marketplace with gift-bestowing hands. Perhaps it is most helpful to view these three categories as mutually supporting and interacting aspects of our constantly unfolding path, all three present throughout each stage of our practice lives.
On observing the transmission of the Buddha Way to the “west”, there seems to be a crucial imbalance in these three branches. There is clearly a widespread and accurate knowledge of the various meditative practices associated with the development of samadhi. There is, perhaps, more access to those forms, and more widespread practice of them, than ever before in history. There is also an impressive array of deeply researched and carefully prepared translations into English, and other western languages, of a wide body of Buddhist philosophical texts dealing with the vision of prajna. Here, too, there might be a wider appreciation of the significance of this insight then ever before – at least intellectually. Sila, however, seems dramatically less developed and appreciated. Although some groupings of basic lay precepts are widely known and discussed, a clearly articulated vision of an ethically directed lifestyle of radical simplicity, such as that lived and taught by the Buddha, has yet to take root in the west.
In the school of Buddhism with, perhaps, the greatest emphasis on sila, the Theravada, this concern is expressed mainly through strict observance of a large number of codified precepts for monks and nuns. The much fewer precepts taken by laypeople are sufficiently general and universally accepted so as to make them very open to interpretation and relatively unspecific in regulating day to day life. The rules for the ordained, on the other hand, are so specific and so particularly applicable to the life of ancient India where they were born, that many westerners interested in the Theravada focus much more on “vipassana” meditation in isolation than on the precepts that seem from an alien context of monastic life.
In the Mahayana there is traditionally less emphasis on strict observance of all the monastic precepts. However, among serious meditation practitioners in these schools in Asia, there is a clear understanding that the appropriate practice lifestyle is one of austere simplicity, frugality, and harmony with the natural environment. As with the Theravada, yogins of the Mahayana, whether monk, nun, or layperson, whether of the Chinese-based or Tibetan-based cultures, generally favor simple dwellings, few possessions, and a natural setting removed from social busy-ness for their practice. Whether or not they can fully meet these criteria, this ideal is clearly articulated. From Han Shan in his mountain wilderness, to Milarapa in his cave; from layman Pang sinking his possessions in a lake, to the legend of Zen Master Daito living homeless under a bridge; this vision runs deep and broad. More recently we have numerous accounts of Tibetan yogins and Chinese hermits. Clearly sila can manifest as the spirit of doing without, of appreciating and relying on the simple and abundant gifts of nature, without necessarily holding fast to the word of particular precepts. But although this tradition is known in the west though story, it’s practice, in any wide sense, has yet to emerge.
What may be the role of the renunciate tradition in our modern practice? Is it only a scenic backdrop, or is something more essential at stake? We must seriously consider whether practice can fully blossom when we spend much of our waking hours working in a system focused on the accumulation of money, or prestige, or increasing desires, and then spend one or two hours in meditation practice letting go of that. If our purchasing and traveling habits based on comfort and convenience go unquestioned, how can we expect to unravel the effects of this behavior in short bursts of retreat? If we examine the perennially instructive legend of the Buddha’s life, we learn that his “great renunciation” was the key turning point, and came clearly before his practice of samadhi and his awakening to prajna. Can it be that this surrendering of the daily reinforced concerns of the ego is what releases the energy necessary for mediation to fill us completely, and for wisdom to be revealed in its essential clarity?
Sila can also be understood as the beneficial, compassionate life that emerges out of, and reflects, the awakening of wisdom in the mature practitioner. For centuries, the masters of the Asian meditative paths have exemplified the possibilities of how little we need materially to be joyful and fully receptive to life’s natural richness. Their austerity was understood, I believe, as an expression of harmlessness toward all beings — by not taking more than truly necessary, they left enough for all others. At the same time, by not occupying themselves with a mind of acquisitiveness, they could be fully awake to compassion and beneficial action.
Today, with the growing crisis of climate change and habitat destruction threatening the ability of our planet to sustain and nourish life, the need for exemplars of simple living is stronger than ever before in human history. The cause of environmental degradation, and the starvation, drought, disease, warfare, and extinctions that are its growing expressions, is clearly greed, over-consumption, and wasteful habit. Where are the models of a radical shift in lifestyle toward simplicity?
For thousands of years in many cultures throughout the world, contemplatives chose to live in voluntary simplicity, and were honored by their communities as exemplars of the highest ideals of the culture –generosity, frugality, selflessness, non-harm, and compassion. This goes far beyond the Buddhist world. From Christian friars to wandering sufis, from Indian sadhus to Taoist hermits, those who chose voluntary poverty, using just what they needed in harmony with nature, were (and sometimes still are) held in the highest esteem — and served as reminders to the culture that there are more important values than material comfort and acquisitiveness.
Today in the west, and other industrialized cultures, the only visible people living in radical simplicity are the homeless, who generally are not voluntarily following a calling, but are suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, or personal tragedy. And the only response of the public is pity, or disgust. What impact on society might be felt if a movement of contemplatives chose to reawaken the spirit of the renunciant lifestyle? To express simplicity as a calling, and a joy. Perhaps living with just what’s needed could become, again, an honored value, and recognized as the essential path to freedom, to contentment, to true wealth.
For the practitioner, then, there seem to be two main reasons to adopt a simplified lifestyle. The first: to clear away obstructions and distractions so that more energy is available for presence practice, allowing prajna to be revealed without the veil of other motives and preoccupations. The second: to live in a way that helps heal the disease of overconsumption and greed now wrecking havoc over the earth, and to be an example to the wider community to take steps in this direction. But these two aspects naturally emerge from one heart-movement: without concern for “inner” or “outer,” we take the step forward that naturally appears when we surrender to the present moment. When alive, awake presence is the source of contentment, other desires fall away. Naturally, personal freedom and benefit for others arise together.
What would a radically simple practice lifestyle look like in today’s world? Certainly, there needs to be a variety of expressions, as each person has their own unique situation and level of challenge that they’re ready for and interested in. However, certain communities or movements might agree on new sets of precepts that respond to today’s challenges — both in the outer and inner environments. Some updated precepts have been circulating, and although these seem sound and helpful for “laypeople” (those who want to continue more or less conventional engagement with the dominant social system while practicing), they are, perhaps, too timid for those who want to be examples of the radical change called for in the present global crisis. The practitioners that want to pioneer these possibilities are those who are often called monks or nuns — those willing to let go of conventional engagement with the dominant system in order to form a new lifestyle paradigm in the shadow of the old. Maybe we need new names for these folks, since monk or nun usually implies celibacy and attachment to a monastery, which are, although useful, perhaps not necessary for this role in the present environment. (Bikkhu, the original name for a Buddhist monk, means alms collector or “beggar.” Fakir, meaning one living in poverty, is a name given to sufis. Aranyaka was a renunciate yogin [Buddhist or not] living in the forest in ancient India).
The guidelines, or precepts, for these pioneers of simplicity might include not having an income, or bank account. Pehaps refraining from buying things altogether, unless necessary food or clothing items (when these aren’t found or given). Maybe not driving a car; at least not owning one. For those comfortable with the next level of challenge there could be further precepts (“dhutaguna” of old tradition) such as not even riding in cars. How about not owning a cell phone, or not even using one? And computers?
When we understand that our culture’s obsession with buying things, and with speedy motorized travel, is the main cause of incredible destruction and suffering in the world (polluting waste, resource depletion, species extinction, warfare), then the direction for change is clear. If we can see the inner harm, too, of a life led in these habits (mental pollution, inner resource depletion) then our resolve for change becomes stronger. A secret can open here that reveals these two aspects to be one and the same. Can we still believe that behavior that’s harmful to the “outer world” could possibly still bring us personal happiness or benefit? Or that something presently harmful might bring about benefit some time in the future. Do we still believe in these inner/outer, or present/future divides? The job of the renunciate sage is to bring these apparent dualities back together — to reveal original wholeness
Ultimately, or course, it is not so important to join or establish a particular order of renunciates — the call for a move towards simplicity goes out to all. Contemplatives, however, have a pronounced opportunity, perhaps responsibility, to inspire and encourage this movement from the jealous god realm of our culture back to the human. This re-awakened vision of sila would help activate the final transmission of Asian wisdom to the west, and fulfill the promise of contemplative religions to help create a saner, more joyous world.
Winter 2009 Solstice
Patched-Robe shack beside the cypress
dives into the dark
night of the solstice
amidst flourishing clouds.
Creaking wood floor with tin patches
brilliantly expounds the Dharma,
while the crackling fire of the cook stove
sings of the place beyond hot and cold.
The bubbling rice gruel
is sufficient, so the practitioners come.
Bundles of blankets, with steaming
breath, they engage in the practice
Late at night, walking out
onto the frozen mud path,
their steps follow a circle
that includes all mountains and rivers
in ten directions.
Revolving through the dark,
we arrive directly at the bodhi tree
beneath a crescent moon
and morning star.
Fall 2009 Equinox
On the Autumnal Equinox
We remember the balance
between light and dark-
the foot before and the foot behind in
in walking meditation.
From sunrise to sunset,
A lonely group of four,
or three, or even just two
sitting under the cyprus in the yard;
eating wild greens
celebrating the flourishing of the Dharma.
with a thousand hands and eyes
actualizes the cooking, the dishes,
like tuning over in our sleeping bags
under a bright half moon.
Even without any teachers of Zen
mysteriously practice is accomplished-
spider webs appear throughout the branches
before the coming rains.
Bird calls at dawn
as the plum petals fall
and cherry blossoms emerge.
Inside our grass hut
We engage the practice
that even all the buddhas
cannot measure. Boundless spring
wind brings a ruby-throated hummingbird
to have a wordless dialogue
with the stone tiles, birch trees,
and spreading weeds.
Letting go of hundreds of years
the sun sets over the small hut.
Above the thick grey clouds
the full moon silently illuminates
the vast sky; its heart emptied
it knows the 10,000 things as its own.
At midnight, moonlight
enters the window
Spring Equinox/New Moon
Spring wind gathers the clouds
and opens the five petals of the plum blossom.
The scent of Daphne, the first bee,
new leaves sprouting from the branch-
all come forward to illuminate the self
as we actualize the practice beyond
stillness and activity.
Leaping clear of abundance and lack,
there is the bell, the distant train whistle,
the candle raised
and blown out.
Honoring the late master Sheng-Yen
we examine the reliable mind:
without picking and choosing
our meal bowls are filled
with nothing but plum blossoms.
No need to finish-
retreat vanishes of itself
as the new moon arrives.
Dark and empty
out if it comes
the ten thousand things:
Shakyamuni’s six years in the forest,
Bodhidharma’s nine years in the cave,
and three days of a seed touching earth,
germinating amidst wind and rain
and gathering clouds.
Gulls squawk, music blares
but even the storm of the mind
can’t deter a person of suchness.
Root hairs and shoots sprout of themselves.
In the dusk sky –
thin bright crescent.
Satya’s response to the question “what is the translation of the mantra we have been chanting today?” (Heart Sutra mantra):
One bright pearl
One bright pearl
Everything is just one bright pearl
What can you say?
Winter 2008 Solstice
On a cold snowy night
seven thieves break in
to an empty house.
Finding nothing to steal,
and nothing to run from,
they just sit
as the snow piles high.
Someone fidgets restlessly,
someone breaks into laughter,
outside the dog is barking.
Ice crystals hiss through bamboo,
snowflakes dance in the streetlight.
Behind dark clouds the sun
shines on the horizon.
Spring 2008 Equinox
Five brave travelers embark on the Way
that even the Buddha
But it’s so easy –
at the sound of the mok-tok*,
wrap yourself in a blanket.
Sitting outside in the cold
for hours, like Huike –
Suddenly, on the Cherry branch,
buds burst into bloom.
Spring has arrived.
Snow falls from the sky.
*Korean wood-block to signal temple events.
* * *
Another reason personal life change is often denigrated is the failure of many of us to recognize that large social forces are made up of many individual elements – distinctive hearts and minds that together combine to create movements. Instead we often see large forces or trends as abstract entities in themselves – and ones that are separate from our own personal, intimate experience. But in reality these abstract forces don’t exist independently of us – they’re simply ideas in our minds functioning to symbolize and generalize elaborately rich and diverse experience. If we recognize reality as fundamentally personal experience, and not abstract conceptual structures, we can free ourselves of the helplessness of feeling like a pawn in the drama of giant institutions and movements. When an individual’s personal life change is passed off as simply “a drop in the bucket” and thus inconsequential, we must respond with the awareness that it is single drops, and only single drops, that make up (the appearance of) full buckets.
Of course, one person’s contribution,though changing one’s life, compared to the transformation of all of humanity’s way of life, seems small. But concluding that personal transformation is therefore ineffective is completely absurd. When we advocate and educate for personal transformation we are obviously speaking to many individuals, not one, and if the power of changing one’s own life catches on – it catches on to many. And once we begin to transform ourselves, our sincere dedication and compassionate intentions naturally lead us to share what we’ve learned with as many others as possible.
The question then becomes how to effectively spread the potential of life transformation, and if it is possible to wake people up from their entranced habits. No one can say for sure what the chances of a certain number of people dramatically changing their lives are – we can only know that it is possible for some people, and that most people (at least in the consumerist countries that most need to change) haven’t yet. Those of us who have made significant changes toward simplicity in our own lives, and have also observed the benefits of personal enrichment that come together with the environmental and social benefits, are naturally more optimistic that others could and will want to make such a change. Those who feel more resistance to making these changes naturally feel less optimistic that others would go beyond their own resistance and make significant change. But regardless of our efforts at prediction, one simple truth remains – if our planet’s health is to be saved we have to simplify our ways of life . Regardless of the fate of political movements or social plans, the resources simply don’t exist for us to continue for long on the trajectory of our present habits, and, more immediately, the ecological balance on which healthy life depends cannot withstand the current rate of destruction that those habits cause. Therefore, in our strategy for survival, we must have life-habit change as center, whether we try to educate people toward voluntary change, or try to use government, or some other institution, to force the change. Personally I prefer to work for the voluntary option, and strategically I have very little faith in the usual motives of government. But what ultimately works will likely include many approaches.
There are a few important elements to keep in mind when considering the potential of widespread voluntary personal transformation. One is that increasing disruptions on our habitual lives are fairly certain to be occurring over the coming years anyway – the results of resource depletion, climate chaos, and the social and economic reverberations that these will cause. In times of more rapid changes of “outer” conditions, there is generally more motive (and less to lose) in opening to new approaches to survival and thriving. So we can expect increasing potential for grassroots cultural change. However to simply wait for outer catastrophes to shake things up before we begin to change is dangerous and unwise – the longer we wait, the more dire the environmental situation. As no one knows how social and environmental changes will unfold, those who are even slightly open to simplifying their lives need to start now and lead the way for cultural transformation.
Another point to consider is the sociologist’s observation that the most common and powerful motive in human decision is not greed, or money, or comfort and convenience, but rather doing what those around you are doing. We are social creatures after all, and we are deeply ingrained with the desire for harmony with, and acceptance from, those around us. This clearly keeps many of us from attempting life changes that we feel would isolate us from our friends and community. On the other hand, if more pioneers emerge encouraging and demonstrating a simpler way of life (and especially if whole communities could exemplify it) it would be much easier for many more to join, and the process could continue exponentially.
For the vast majority of our lives as human beings, we lived in tribal groups where practically everything was shared, selfish accumulation was ostracized, and the support and assurance of one’s community was a central source of personal stability and contentment. These instincts are with us still, and a simpler life of sharing with community is the model that looks most promising for a viable and healthful future society.
So what steps to take? The essential direction we need to follow is clearly to be buying less things – both objects and fuel – in order to stop the rampant consumption that’s depleting and poisoning the planet. But shopping is a deeply entrenched habit for most of us – besides necessities such as basic food and shelter (which most of us don’t know how to obtain without shopping), there are the many toys and entertainment that we buy as the rewards for working forty-hour weeks at jobs we rarely love. And the companies making money off our purchasing habits have learned to invest heavily in advertising to make sure we keep pursuing those habits, and not consider the alternatives. So one of the first steps is to remove the influence of advertising which saturates so much of our lives. Turning off the television, reducing computer time, and giving up commercial magazines is a good beginning. But popular movies and other commercial media, even without specific ads, also reinforce and romanticize our consuming habits. We need to ween ourselves off of our dependency on all commercial forms of media, and instead turn toward the cultivation of community, and the many money-free forms of celebration that naturally arise when our social connections are rediscovered and strengthened.
It is the power of community that provides the real long-term answers to how we can survive, and thrive, without a money-dependent, consumption-based way of life. By trusting in the common humanity of those around us and reaching out with whatever offers we can make – whether food, shelter, tools, educational resources, entertainment, or just fellowship – we begin to cultivate the bonds of sharing and heart-felt reciprocation that have been a central source of satisfaction to our species for millenia. For the vast majority of our human history (the 95% or so of our past as gatherer-hunters, but also the more recent small-scale horticultural societies), sharing was the dominant means of exchange. Living in such a gift-economy fosters cooperation, mutual caring, equality, and a deep sense of belonging – while our monetary, credit- and-debt culture breeds self-centeredness, competition, radical inequality, and fear of being left behind and isolated. So the re-creation of interdependent, self-sustaining communities could provide a needed source of psychological well-being and comfort, while at the same time radically reducing the material and energy we need, as shared resources go much farther than the wastefully redundant system of individual ownership.
Ultimately, we need to replace the temporary and superficial satisfaction we receive from material acquisition and speedy, long-distance travel, with a deeper sense of the joy and belonging that arises from the contemplative appreciation of the gifts we already have, right where we are. This is the job of spiritual practice and contemplative reflection, which has been so marginalized in our culture. There is a clear need to support and develop the practices of mindful awareness and contemplation so we can get back in touch with the simplest pleasures of being alive, and re-awaken to our unity with the miraculous and beautiful display of the natural world. But we must insist that these spiritual traditions are truly effective, and this must be verified by the behavior of those experienced in them. If a spiritual representative is mature in an authentic way, they should be deeply enriched and grounded in their intimate experience of the present, and therefore have very little need for money, material acquisition, extravagant travel, or any other unsustainable practices, even when typical of the larger society. At the same time, their natural sense of compassion for all beings would keep them meticulous in choosing a way of life that causes the least harm to the planet. When teachers fail to display these attributes, as so many do today, we need to recognize the irrelevancy of their tradition, at least as they represent it, in responding sensitively to the present state of the world, and of human society. There is no need for religious traditions that are simply providing another avenue of escape, entertainment, or personal ego identification – we must cultivate practices and communities that facilitate authentic transformation both personal and societal, which is naturally expressed in lives of profound simplicity, environmental sustainability, and ethical awareness. Spiritual exemplars throughout history have always served as models of how little was needed materially for a joyful life, and how beautiful a life of voluntary poverty and open sharing could be. The failure of current spiritual teachers and traditions to exemplify this today, when it’s most needed, is a true spiritual crisis of our time – and it demands creative intervention.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to move beyond theory and discussion and into concrete, direct, and immediate action. Theory has its place, of course, (it’s filled up this essay) but it too easily becomes a comfortable entertainment that we can get hours, or years, of distraction from, without ever taking the more courageous step of actual habit change that the theory should be launching us into. How often have we witnessed profound discussions about the imbalance and wastefulness of our consumer society, and the environmental perils that are its legacy, and then seen the discussion participants, maybe including ourselves, go out and get in a car, maybe go to a restaurant where we have no idea of the origin of the food, buy a new computer or cell phone for the latest features, and then take a plane a few thousand miles at the next vacation time. It might not be possible for all of us to drop these habits cold, but are we noticing them and deeply questioning whether we can? And, when we are able to let go of some unsustainable practices, can we share the challenge to do so with others? Generalized theory is easy to share, but a specific challenge to change behavior, even when presented in the most caring and careful way, will sometimes offend. But perhaps, given the urgency of the environmental destruction at hand, we need to be okay with sometimes offending – the process of transformation is not always easy or comfortable.
With this in mind, here is a list of practical steps to take to start creating more sustainable lives and communities. These are some of the practices that are central to my own life, and others, of course, will have different emphases and ideas. But I feel that most of these habit changes are crucial to address in some way if we are going to be able to create a more healthful world and compassionate society:
– Dramatically reduce driving and car trips. Instead, walk or bike (taking care of your exercise needs), or public transit when walking or biking is not possible. This means choosing an occupation where this is possible. It also requires giving up many long-distance leisure trips – instead we can find nearby treasures to enjoy. Then we might discover how cultivating sensitivity and awareness has more to do with our enjoyment than whether we visit a particular popular site or event. Consider also how driving physically cuts us off from our environment, and how the speed we travel is so radically different from how fast our bodies naturally move – how might that effect our consciousness? Be aware, finally, that at the gas pump we directly, financially support the richest and most destructive corporations in the world.