- The Farm
- The Alliance
“Go ahead, light your candles, burn your incense, ring your bells and call out to the Gods but watch out, because the Gods will come. And they will put you on the anvil and fire up the forge and beat you and beat you until they turn brass into pure gold.” (The quote seems to be adapted from Sant Keshavadas)
Well, I did. I called to the gods and the nature spirits, the waterfalls and bluffs, rocks and soils and plants of all kinds. And here they are.
I’m having a difficult time. Thinking about leaving the land – just when it might be needed. Thinking about how nice it would be to retire from the Alliance – just as more people are showing interest. Let’s not mention writer’s block, thoughts about the worst decisions of my life, and fears of impending fascism right here, soon. The lawn tractor keeps breaking. The people to the north are building a house in what was the buffer zone to “my” private woods, and I see walking paths in the state land, where nobody else went before. When I went up there, I found myself asking permission to leave. They didn’t quite answer. And I don’t see anywhere to go, yet.
So my friend Kate Greenway, who has known me for over 30 years, reminded me of this quotation, and said “They’re beating you.” And that makes it just a little bit easier to be patient. I’m willing to be changed.
I spent a week up north, on the North Shore and then in a yurt on an off-grid farm, surrounded by brilliant red and yellow sugar maples. I visited old-friend waterfalls and rock bluffs. I talked with them, and they promised me. Standing at Middle Falls at Gooseberry – a loved place for half my life – I wept. And I chanted. Offered a Zen blessing chant to the small yellow bushes in the meditation spot outside the yurt, and then to the falls, and finally just before leaving Lake Superior, at Brighton Beach. I need to make that offering in the holy places here too. Today. I promise.
The bluffs, off my napping point at Shovel Point (an old holy place) told me they could carry my grief. It was like a weight lifted.
I came home to two guests for sesshin, Jaime and Sawyer, and Alex just getting ready to leave after a month here. Alex cooked dinner and then breakfast, and we said good-bye and he traveled on to a community in Utah where he will probably stay. Three of us sat in the zendo, 12 hours a day, together, and it was like sesshin has always been – the mind went everywhere and even settled down sometimes, but I felt the holy place of community practice.
And came out of that to feel excruciating pain, thoughts of leaving, not knowing what to do. Thus it was that I came to be talking with Kate, and also with Linne, and Joy, and to Beth and there are a few more promises. Don offered his thoughts and encouragement without being asked. Sawyer, who only met me two weeks ago, is steady and spacious, and his committed and regular practice is making the container for me that in some times I have made for others.
I had another poem, for difficult times, and I can’t find it. What it says, basically, is just take one step forward, and another, and another. But I remember some related words from Chris Hedges, in his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. First he wrote about how in war each side claims victim, each side shouts about the atrocities of the other side, and they get more and more fierce about it, stirring up hatred and fear. I’m participated in that, but now I won’t. I won’t deny the atrocities, and I refuse to be one of the agitators. And he wrote of those few people, in the middle of war, who reached across to a human being on the other side with humanity. A farmer who brought milk for a starving baby, when the whole village said “that family is monsters, let them die.” This, he suggests, is the act of healing, when nothing large can be done. If I have written about this before, forgive me – it is worth saying again.
So I’m doing one step at a time, and taking some rest and allowing kindness in to me. And offering chanting and prayers to bless the nature spirits here.
The next in-person event will be Rohatsu sesshin, November 30 to December 8, seven days of silent sitting facing the wall. If the Covid situation doesn’t change, I feel safe having 5 people in our space – four plus me – and we can share cooking and firewood tasks as we did in September. You can register, or you can email me to ask questions. We’ll have advance conversation about safety and other matters.
Be sure to vote. Whatever is hard now will be affected by the election. Chant or pray for the well-being of this country, our people (particularly indigenous, Black, people of color, poor people, disabled people, and all of us) and the structures that so desperately need healing. I don’t need to mention people all around the world, and peoples who are not human. (The chants I do are here.)
Please take care, take heart, and stay close to love. I’ll see you later.
There’s a tricky thing about letting go of things. At the farm, mostly my attention is focused not on letting go but on things that are here that I don’t want – pocket gophers, Japanese beetles (new this year), buckthorn, black walnuts, quackgrass, honeysuckle…. As I write now, I remember that it’s really about losing things – losing orchard trees and potatoes, losing raspberries and tomatoes, losing flowers and the other native plants displaced by these… yet in my mind it still feels like having to accept that those others are here. And I’m working with it.
Looking at the black walnut trees everywhere, I’m starting to let go. I’d meant to confine them to their present one-acre territory and remove them elsewhere. There are too many; I would be in endless war; there must be a way to coexist. They are, after all, native, medicinal plants, high-quality food, and source of many other things used by humans. This year, I’ve started harvesting nuts and will actually follow through and eat them. Fall or spring, tapping for the sweet sap, alongside the regular tapping of box elder and maple. And tend them as lumber, to grow straight and tall. All this is looking for a way out of hate or victimization – the two modes I know the best. Is this exploitation or co-existence? And how, likewise, do we learn to have relationships with difficult people? Work with them somehow, negotiate, even team with them? I’ve had to do it before in communities and workplaces, when necessary. This with the walnuts and others is also necessary; can I find the heart to do it? (If I can work together with the walnuts, might I possibly work together with difficult humans? Suddenly the walnuts seem easy. I don’t ascribe intention to them.)
On the other side – things have changed, mostly for the better – or let me say, it’s mostly in ways that I like. The land care retreat, which felt like a new beginning at the time, seems to actually have begun some changes. People are coming for sesshin regularly. I had three weeks of house guests who practiced sincerely, worked mindfully and joyfully, and made sangha. “I could live this way,” I thought once near the middle of that time. And toward the end we began a practice of reading together, discussing, and then sitting until bedtime, which meets my needs for sangha in another way. Now I’m alone again, looking toward the weekend and the next sesshin.
We’re harvesting tomatoes, zucchini, herbs, raspberries, and the first walnuts. We planted several small sugar maple trees near the driveway, intending to make a grove for sugaring ten or twenty years in the future. There are more small maples to plant after removing the piles of firewood and weeds in that area. We could add the larger, faster maples that grow here like weeds and do produce some sap; I don’t know yet.
The nine trees I planted this spring – pear, apple, nut pine, and cherry – are all doing well, except one has lost its leaves already. The orchard is in neglect, and I hope to visit and prune while fall weather holds.
And yesterday we cleared an area near the back door, moving, burning, digging, making space for the firewood spaces that Chris is building against the barn. It’s like housecleaning – I can breathe more easily now.
Listening to a Public Radio show about melting ice in the Arctic, I note that more and more I’m hearing climate change in mainstream news. Now that it’s probably too late. I recommend this article: “What if we stopped pretending?” about the realities of climate change. What some of us are thinking about is how to act compassionately, ethically, and for the best possible outcomes, in a time when the bad news is so powerful and the forces destroying the planet are stronger and louder than ever. It feels like a war, and I haven’t figured out what to do except spiritual practice. I’m reading the book Why Civil Resistance Works (Chenoweth and Stephan), heavily researched, showing why nonviolent resistance is generally more successful than violent resistance, with no guarantees either way. Hopefully that will be helpful in some way.
I almost forgot to mention – The Global Climate Strike includes actions around the world. This is one of those “everybody show up” occasions. Look for what’s in your area and find a way to get yourself there.
This morning, instead of sitting in the new zendo, I went to the central altar and sat by the creek and bluff for a while. It was easy in this new-fall weather, yet that reminds me that it won’t be easy long. My practice now is to be present with what is, not dislike the coming cold.
My feeling about winter is perhaps something like my feeling about climate change – about losing the regular movement of the seasons, about possibly being hungry – and that is from my very privileged position in a location where there’s been little change. Here, I prepare for refugees, not for floods and wildfires. Yet our vulnerability is much more clear since last fall’s tornado. “Not to get rid of things, but to accept that they go away.”
I was talking yesterday with a Dharma brother, and the topic of medicine came up. Neither of us normally goes to doctors. But for him it’s a matter of accepting that life moves along, not trying to fight aging. I fight aging like mad, just not with conventional medicine. Listening to him humbles me. Equanimity makes life better. Is it just because I’ve committed to engage with the protection of the world around me, that I attach to my own body? Or is my engagement a reflection of my personal attachment? I’ll watch that question for a while, not expecting an easy answer.
September 14, workday – clearing tangled spaces, moving firewood to make room for sugar maples, and more, depending on weather and number of people. If weather keeps us indoors, we might make comfrey salve, crack walnuts, play with woodworking, or clean the masonry heater and build the first fire. It’s fine to come for part of the day or all, 9-5 total.
And see this page for the next few things. Below are the “special” ones.
October 26-27: Introduction to Zen retreat
November 24, Sunday morning talk at NBMC by Courtney Work, an anthropologist studying Buddhism in rural Cambodia. I can’t say enough how excited I am about this.
November 30-December 5, Rohatsu sesshin (Saturday 7 pm – Thursday 3 pm)
Thank you to donors. You know who you are. This month’s new donation supports transcription of my past talks, which will help me publish a book. All options are here, including the way to support us for free.
It is only by consistently re-grounding ourselves to the Earth, silently in order to listen, that we can allow the grief of these times to wash through us. And then, may we be clear-eyed and able to act with the conviction required by these times. Dahr Jamail, July 2019
In early August, fourteen of us came together to practice with the land, listening to the earth and caring for it, sitting zazen in the new zendo and walking meditation outdoors, working and laughing together. It felt like a new beginning.
Although the point of the work times was to engage with the land, not to accomplish things, things were accomplished.
One of the work groups was asked to make a trail through the woods; last fall’s tornado damage has made it very difficult to walk in the woods, and I’ve been feeling more and more need to reconnect. When I came down the path they’d made, I found myself face to face with the most beautiful part of the bluff at the large creek. I caught my breath. Looked at the faces in the rock cliff, one face and another and another and a whole mass of beings like an audience down below. Felt the space. Stayed for a while, and promised myself to come back every day. To listen, to honor, to be made whole again. It’s nearly at the center of the land we “own.” That feels good to me. There was an altar in each direction: north, east, south, west at the river. Most of these are inaccessible since last September’s tornado took down so many trees. But now I can walk to the central altar and be connected – feel the connection that is always there, actually.
I asked the place for permission to post a photo, but there was no yes. So no picture, I just invite you to come, to make your offering here at this altar, to receive its blessing, to meet directly.
Meanwhile, the work of the summer has been making the zendo, the meditation hall as the heart of the house. And some work with gardens and outdoors, mostly maintenance, but tomatoes are starting to ripen and the zucchinis are already feeding us. Gifts from Eileen, from Karen, Beth, Jaime, Iris and Hosshin and Hoko and so many other volunteers, guests, sincere practitioners. And the steady work of Damien, weeding, mowing, hauling, whatever is needed for several hours a week, helping the land be in better shape than it has for a while.
It feels like things are coming together, after five years here. People are coming more; the house is a workable space for retreats; the beauty of the land is coming forth. The potlucks offer steady space for listening and deepening, the three-hour sits, the workdays, and the weekend sesshins – things are settling. It’s fortunate, because just at this time the emergency in the world is becoming clearer.
Observing the World:
The emergency in the world – I see that I wrote about this last month. Happy not to say more, except to remind you that this is that state recommended for practice: “Practice as if your head is on fire.”
Meanwhile, I’m happy to see so much waking up, so many people learning to follow the lead of indigenous people, so many following spiritual paths.
And here’s a thought: Sometimes you hear of a people who have a ritual that must be done for the world to continue. For instance, “I have to offer this prayer in the morning for the sun to come up.” Colonized mind thinks it’s silly. Very few are doing those rituals any more; colonialism has decimated native religions even worse than native peoples. What if those peoples were right? What if what would save us is not science but prayers and rituals for the earth, for earth spirits? Not proposing that we abandon other actions, but that we look deeply at the nature of our relationship with all beings.
That’s where I’m putting my time, because even though my imagination can’t go there, I’m certain that we need to go beyond the rational mind. What matters is to come home to our family, of the whole earth including humans. That’s more important than survival.
The question is always: What is needed? What can this person and this group offer that will be beneficial to the whole, including every individual. So there will be an “Introduction to Zen” workshop and retreat in October, because people have been asking.
I’d also like to invite you to listen to one of my Dharma talks, where I look more deeply into the matters I discuss here. Two of the talks posted on the website are based on Dogen’s “Body and Mind Study of the Way”: “The whole world is nothing but the true human body” and “A single hand held out freely.” Each is a bit under an hour. On the same page are two very short clips, one on walking meditation and one on work.
I look forward to posting a talk by my teacher, Shohaku Okumura, at the Land Care Retreat, and a talk by Beth Goldring at Northfield Buddhist Meditation Center.
August/September and upcoming events (more detail in August 13 posting):
Thank you to donors. You know who you are. Another person has added an automated monthly donation to MWA. This is easy for you and of enormous benefit to us, allowing a bit of planning and less hunting for money. A few people are also signed up with iGive.com, which creates donations of significant percentages with online shopping – automated if you put a button on your website. All options are here.
Blessings and Love to you all,
One: This is an odd thing: I listened to the Democratic primary debates, in spite of my better judgment. Twenty imperfect but passionate people spoke, and I thought most of them were more alike than different. A week later, it struck me: twenty people are touring around the United States, giving talks to whoever will listen, speaking on behalf of kindness, peace, fairness, and so forth – proposing a return to basic decency. When one says something brilliant (for instance, Julian Castro on decriminalizing undocumented immigration), others pick it up.
This is not a competition. This is a team. They are speaking against greed, racism, sexism, and environmental stupidity, and for returning to being decent ordinary human beings again. I almost don’t care whether any particular one is sincere. The voices are out there, and they are speaking truth – most of them – in varying degrees. This is abundance. (May the few corporate or militaristic shills among them drop out soon.) This is the most positive I’ve felt about elections in a long time.
Two: Looking for a talk to share with the potluck group next week, I noticed that I was considering three men. And more than half of the past talks have been by men. I have been complicit in putting men’s voices first. And yet the mind was blank when wondering about talks by women. So I asked the community – in the form of a facebook page called Permaculture Women.
The responses flooded in. I was reminded of women teachers I’d forgotten: Ursula LeGuin, Starhawk, Terry Tempest Williams, Winona LaDuke…. And women I’d never heard of, and beautiful talks. Now I have a whole page of names, and I want to schedule listening groups every week instead of every month. I’ve started looking them up, listening to talks, being inspired. I want to share them all right now. Some day, they’ll be on that website resource page.
I haven’t been writing much. There’s a kind of leisure that I haven’t had, that allows the mental noise to settle and something else to come forth. When I find it again, it will be to join the chorus of beautiful, creative, brave voices that’s already there – not to say the desperately needed thing that nobody else knows.
This is abundance. Hundreds of voices are speaking. They are saying beautiful, incredible things. They are confronting fascism (with bodies as well as with words), they are speaking the beautiful truth of the world, they are inspiring, healing, creating a vision of the community we could become. In our work, in our alliance with the mountains and waters and myriad beings, we are in the company of thousands. The thought that I should be the first to speak – that comes from loneliness, from broken community, from personal woundedness and from hubris – may it heal.
Three: And then there are the others. The central point of Mountains and Waters Alliance is becoming allies to those who are not human – trees, flowers, insects, birds, animals, rocks and bluffs and creeks and rain – listening to them, learning from them, protecting them, and asking and accepting their support and wisdom. I promise to take the time for this as well. And here too, other humans are already doing this work, have been doing it for decades, centuries, the whole of human existence – and they’ve been writing about it in English for many decades as well. We join a beautiful community.
There are still a few spots left for this retreat. It includes formal and informal Zen practice, meeting the love of all sentient beings in physical expression, walking with and working with the land.
There will be a Saturday evening talk by the respected teacher Shohaku Okumura-roshi. If you’re interested in just coming to that talk, email me. I’ll get back to you when I know how many spaces we have for the talk.
If you are not familiar with Zen practice and want some basic background before coming to the Land Care Retreat, we’ll set something up. Email Shodo if interested, and we will arrange a 2-3 hour time in early August. No charge.
July 20 Saturday work day – we could really use your help, preparing for the Land Care Retreat (tent spots, trails, and whatever’s needed indoors as we get ready to move the zendo into the cool place. 9-5, or 1-5 if you want a half day. Lunch at noon, watermelon for afternoon break. And it’s fine to come for just a couple hours. It helps to know that you’re coming.
July 21 2-5 pm, three-hour sit. Third Sunday.
July 21 5:30-8:30, potluck and discussion. Third Sunday.
July 26-28, weekend sesshin. Last weekend each month, except November/December.
August 9-11, Land Care Retreat. (See above)
August 17, Saturday work day.
August 18, 3-hour sit and potluck
August 23-25, weekend sesshin.
Looking ahead – women’s retreat in Indiana, October 11-13.
July 20, August 17, September 14, October 19, November 16, and maybe December 14. More information at Visitor Information. We really have fun, and it really helps.
Thank you to donors. You know who you are. I’d like to also solicit donations for Sanshinji, which is sending four people here to support the Land Care Retreat, at its own expense. Here.
The vegetable garden is doing well, because of summer guest Eileen Jones (was here for about three weeks, gardening every day) and local worker Damien Williams. We have many potatoes, small tomato plants, and beans, squash, and more. Strawberries are ending and raspberries beginning. The new fruit trees are all alive. And, wonder of wonders, the lawn is mowed!
I’ve started saying “this is what societal collapse looks like” and hearing the same from many directions. A president who is a laughingstock around the world; random official killings of people for various reasons or none, though apparently based on skin color, religion, immigration status, or simply being inconvenient for the corporate state.
There are bits of hope. A court has said no to putting a citizenship question on the census, and the president backed down (sort of) – still thinks he can get the data. Once, creating Social Security, this nation refused to create a national ID card – they were aware then. Now, I won’t be surprised if they soon put religious and ethnic information on our driver’s licenses – check out The Handmaid’s Tale for what comes next. Another court has declared the imprisonment and neglect (and abuse) of immigrant children illegal. Here and there, courts do what they’re supposed to do – limit abuses by the other branches. Some Congress members are speaking up and even taking action on the horrors of the day. And listening to the Democratic primary debates, I suddenly had the imagine of a team, working together with powerful voice, to educate the public, to put forth a vision – because their words are (mostly) beautiful. What if they came to think of themselves as a team, to actually lead away from the corporate state and into something better?
Yet, as someone said, “If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done in Nazi Germany, look at what you’re doing now.” To count on the courts, or on Congress, or on a future president over a year from now, is to abdicate, to choose victimhood over citizenship. I say that to myself as much as to anyone else.
We don’t know how soon actual hunger will come to us right here in the United States. I mean middle-class white people, of course – there are plenty of hungry or malnourished children already, look around. I remember 2008 and the very long lines at the food shelf. That was economic; this year there will be less actual food (and less ethanol for gasoline, so higher travel costs). Though still at the top of the privilege heap, the U.S. joins the world in food insecurity.
Sometimes people don’t like me to talk about this stuff. It’s uncomfortable. Not as uncomfortable as being imprisoned or shot – as is already happening to some people. This is about life, not comfort.
What to say? Plant food, of course. Organize, of course. And this other thing: learn to talk with the food, food plants you grow and those you eat, try to find out about a different kind of relationship with the world of plants and animals that sustain us. The easiest introduction to this would be Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael; the most beautiful – there are so many!
Forget guilt. Ask forgiveness if you need, then act, and let the world of living beings support you as you act.
Blessings and Love to you all,
Newsletters will be monthly! From now on, that is. Last week was supposed to be the monthly newsletter, but I forgot to tell you, and there is news anyway. So here we go.
Zen retreats: Two changes.
Monthly work days are changing slightly to include an optional monthly work retreat. This is a direct result of how much we liked the Land Care Retreat.
Dates: 2nd or 3rd Saturday: June 8, July 20, August 17, September 14, October 19, November 16, and maybe December 14.
Next land care retreat is August 9-11. My teacher, the respected scholar Shohaku Okumura, will give a talk Saturday evening. If the retreat doesn’t fill, there might be some spaces just for the talk. But please read below for what the May retreat was like. It felt much like the Sanshinji “Community-building Retreats” which include silent periods, Dharma talks, sitting, working together, and time to talk.
Thank you to donors. You know who you are.
Reflections on the weekend retreat.
Only three people were registered, and the weather was looking terrible – cold and rain. I nearly canceled; on Thursday I checked to see whether people were still planning to come. They were. And my morel-hunting teacher was up for it, rain or shine. So we met – three of us, Friday night – and planned a schedule that would respond to the weather, going outdoors when it was least likely to rain, scheduling sitting and talks when it looked bad.
We did zazen instruction Friday night, and some words setting a shared intention, and sat together. Saturday morning we
sat at 6 am, walked outside at 7 am down the old road in the woods, and I came back to make breakfast which we ate at 8 am. Instead of the planned sitting and Dharma talk, we did our work practice outdoors in the morning, beginning with some words by Martin Prechtel about how to honor the plants – right relationship, in Buddhist terms. Together we chose where to plant the ferns. We introduced them to the plants that were already there, and asked them to befriend each other (feeling just a little silly, I will admit), and we cooperatively put them in the ground in three chosen places. (There are a few left, and today I found where the others should go – the “island” near the big creek, where the ferns from some years ago are vigorous.
There was time for rest before Perry came (Perry Post, a permaculturist and landscape gardener, who does some projects here) to lead the mushroom expedition.
Me, I can be looking right at a morel and not see it. Angie, she saw them everywhere. Dave did about as badly as me, and Perry guided expertly with just a little personal success. Looking for food in the woods is a spiritual practice of its own. So of course we came back and cooked them for lunch, along with garden walking onions, hostas, and dandelions (and rice and tofu).
It was mid-afternoon, we were tired, and the schedule said Dharma talk plus sitting. So we did – and I don’t even know whether any of that sitting became sleeping or if they were out in the woods again.
Sunday we started again at 6; Doreen just slipped in quietly after driving from Minneapolis; we had more of a schedule because of the rain; I remembered to offer private interviews, and we did cleanup together.
So I had done this crazy thing, scheduling the “Declare Climate Emergency” meeting for 4:00 after closing the retreat at 3. The meeting had five of us, two had been at the retreat. The conversation went deep, and didn’t end on time. We talked of not using internet, phones, email, Skype, electronics to connect with each other, but finding another way. We talked of telepathy and intuition and old ways of connecting. We talked of spiritual working together. And then one of us said, “I do ritual at every new moon and full moon, you can connect with me then.” So it was said. No formal meetings, just a spider-web-like thing of “do this together, without being physically together.”
I’m not accustomed to being with people who understand this way of being. It felt very good. I invite you, too, at the new and full moon, within a day before or after, to offer your own prayer or chanting or ceremony on behalf of whatever moves you. We didn’t even say anything specific, but of course the official subject was climate change.
Something was said then that echoed in something I read today: in ancient cultures, a person with a disability was assumed to be a holy person; their community role was to predict or heal or whatever that might be. How different from this culture, and how different all our lives if we held that understanding.
So the potluck, because of various reasons, had just three of us, who had all been at that meeting. We did listen to a talk, going back to our beginning to Martin Prechtel’s “Grief and Praise,” part 3 but then another one until sleepiness won. Felt like family.
And here I am, not alone any more, with a spiritual community that recognizes mystery, that practices zazen, that is engaged with the world. People are coming here to sit and to engage with the land in a holy way. Mountains and Waters Alliance is.
what do you love?
Not as an abstraction or an ideal
What do you love enough to take action to defend it?
it is under immediate threat
by taking action to defend it, nurture it, grow it
you grow into the person you were meant to be
anger tempered by love becomes purpose
fear tempered by love becomes resolve
why are you here
from the poem “Why are you here?” by Andy Mahler
Forgive my silence. It’s been a time of changes, and writing just didn’t work. Finally, I’m healing from the compulsion to do everything.
Last year my focus was on getting professional work with a stable income. That’s done. I now work 2 days a week in Northfield, in private practice as a psychotherapist, and have enough to invest a little money in the farm. Last year I took a 5-week pilgrimage to sacred spaces and inspiring Buddhist community. This year I’m staying home on the land, this land, caring for it and letting it nourish me. I’m also upgrading the buildings to be more welcoming for retreats and guests, and the hypothetical future residents. Peter Bane, my permaculture teacher, came to do a day-long consult, made a host of recommendations, and left me with a surge of creative energy. The energy is fading a bit, but the vision inspires and I’m taking slow steps. And that workday when four people with a wood splitter put up enough firewood for next year in a shed built by a hired carpenter. 8 hours of heavy work, I was sore for a bit, but happy to have a working body again. Planting small trees now.
And there’s a magic happening at the potlucks, twice now. I don’t even know what made it happen, only remember Jenny asking why I called everybody here, and a series of deep questions from a whole bunch of different people.
I have little to say, it’s too depressing. The likelihood of war with Iran, the increase in authoritarian rulers around the world (including the United States), and a series of increasingly oppressive state laws (Georgia on abortion, South Dakota on criminalizing protest). Yet there is also the growing edge of life, I can’t describe, and the strength of resistance to the death culture.
Climate change is now so obvious it’s mentioned in mainstream news. That’s a fairly random example, I see new ones every day.
And people keep writing wonderful books. The one I want to mention now is not new, though. Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, describes the way ordinary human beings help each other in catastrophe, when not prevented. And a very old movie about nuclear disaster: Threads. Found in several libraries, lead author Barry Hines, originally from the 1970’s. If you’re not adequately worried, take a look and get really scared about how bad things could be. How important it is to take action – whatever that action might be.
What might I recommend?
Always, sitting meditation. Always, get outdoors, walk on the earth, under trees if you can, listen to birds or water or whatever is available.
And then – I just listened to an 80-minute video of Derrick Jensen, maybe 11-12 years ago, discussing the state of civilization and so forth. It was motivating. Also, he was funny. He does use a lot of bad language.
Work days at the farm (a way to support us, while learning, good times, and good food):
We’re getting by, covering the minimal expenses, and I’m committed to support the Alliance financially as long as necessary. Several of you did sign up for the iGive automatic donation thing, thank you. If a few more people would commit $5/month – or $10/year – we’d be able to do more. If that’s you, look here.
Volunteers are also great. At the farm, or maybe internet help. Email me.
I spent the weekend at Winyan Awanyankapi,“Protecting the Lifegivers” – a conference about missing and murdered indigenous women. While there were painful stories, my experience was more about healing and hope – and connecting with people of like heart.
Something important happened for me, that I want to share. I was in a workshop by Phyllis Cole-Dai, author of the new novel about the 1862 U.S.-Dakota war, Beneath the Same Stars, well-researched and highly recommended – and by Darlene Renville-Pipeboy, a Dakota elder who became her advisor on language, history, and culture.
The Dakota people remember a story from the time when women, children, and old people were imprisoned on the river flats below Fort Snelling on the flats along the river. After a forced march to the camp, they had been imprisoned there all winter with little warmth, minimal food, much disease and no medical care, frequent rape and occasional gunshots by the soldiers supposedly protecting them. Once during this time the women went and danced together at the stockade gate, led by an elder with a hand drum. Suddenly the chains fell off the gates, the gates swung open, and they could see the Mdote – the sacred land where the two rivers came together, the land where they had lived and once been free. Everything changed in that moment, even as the soldiers rushed to close the gates again.
Phyllis asked us this question:
“What would it mean to dance at the stockade gates in this time?”
That question stirred up something in my heart. Some others felt it too, we’ll be having an email conversation, and you’re invited to join us.
The answer cannot be given, only lived. Yet I have some thoughts, guesses actually, that might be helpful.
The women, imprisoned and starving, gathered together to do sacred dance and prayer in their tradition. They did it together. They didn’t rush the gates. I don’t think they expected the chains to fall. But the gates opened, they saw Life outside, and Life gave them heart again.
They were all women. I don’t know whether it was a women’s dance they did; there were very few men in the stockades. I’m guessing that a dance including all genders would be equally powerful, perhaps different.
The story reminds me of some actions that are becoming part of the new tradition of protecting water and land – an indigenous-led tradition. Build a healing camp in the path of a pipeline (Unistoten Camp, British Columbia). Meditate and pray outside a prison when an execution will take place. (San Quentin, California). Pray, make offerings, create a community life, in the path of death (Standing Rock, Unistoten, and many more). Do a sacred walk through the land that is slated for destruction (how many now? Sharon Day leads a Water Walk every year. Compassionate Earth Walk was one of dozens or hundreds.) Plant sacred corn in the path of the pipeline (the Ponca tribe and Bold Nebraska). I want to include the valve turners – simply turning off the flow of oil, then staying for the arrest, seems like a sacred act of its own kind.
Do sacred acts in the face of violence. In the place where you may be imprisoned, killed, or worse for doing them. Dance the sacred, pray, return our own humanity to proper relationship with the earth, through the offering of dance and ceremony, and the chains of imprisonment drop away.
Those of us at less risk because of our white skins or other privilege – what possibility opens to us, when we consider dancing at the gates?
At first, this question stopped me from action. I don’t feel imprisoned. Limited, yes, by my early training in how to be a woman, and by the sexist discrimination that still exists – and yet as an older white woman I move pretty freely in the industrial growth society. This society, here in the United States, North America. (One measure of how much I’m not a target is how easy it is to go through airport security. Or to interact with police.) Am I inside the stockade? How dare I claim the right to dance to oppression.
And yet – I face climate change along with everyone, though later than many. And I could become a target easily enough, if I broke more openly with industrial growth society. For me the fantasy of benevolent government and unconditional safety disappeared in the 1970’s, when I started paying attention. Yes, I am inside the stockade along with my red, brown, and black sisters and brothers, along with my queer and trans siblings, along with Muslims and ecoterrorists and refugees. I actually doubt anyone is outside, though some are guarding the gates or profiting – but that’s a different discussion.
What does it mean to dance at the gates? It’s a Zen koan, a question for study, not something that can be answered once. I’m making words to cultivate the ground on which our lives make the answer.
When I “bought” this land, I sought a place of sanctuary, where you can actually feel the sacredness of the earth. It’s not noticeably threatened by pipeline, mining even development – yet could be easily damaged by zoning changes or even the neighbors. It’s both fragile and privileged. Yet it’s a moment of safety, just as an urban church basement or community hall can offer a safe spot for our gatherings. It’s meant to be a place to learn and listen, to discover/remember what the dance of this place is – without copying or stealing. I imagine the women at the stockade gates danced a way known for centuries. I dream that here and now we might open our hearts and bodies to the voice and movement of the earth.
So we learn to dance and pray together, we honor the sacred together, we get very deep in dancing the dance of holy life together, and then we dance in the face of the enemy, the frozen face of unlife, whatever that may be. What walls imprison us, what gates are there?
My wish is to come together first, in a sacred manner. Together we can find out the nature of the dance and where it belongs. We will be told. I believe that.
If this calls you, please let me know.
It’s spring. Things are moving and melting.
We like this, sometimes. I spent half of Friday outside in the garden, and came back happy. And we don’t like it, sometimes. In Mogadishu (Somalia) people are dying in the floods. Nebraska has had such flood damage that food prices will be way higher this fall, if not sooner. There will be more hunger among humans. Vast numbers of other species have died in those floods, plants and animals both, but we don’t think of them the same way.
It makes me think of hubris. “To the Greeks, hubris referred to extreme pride, especially pride and ambition so great that they offend the gods and lead to one’s downfall.” Merriam-Webster. I add, a common characteristic of the Industrial Growth Society, in sincerely believing that all material limits can be conquered by human ingenuity and technology. Hubris leads to ruin. The hubris of industrial agriculture, ignoring the ways water, earth, and wind naturally move, has led to the opposite of resilience in these fields. Chemical toxins and radioactive wastes, assumed safely stored but now flooded, compound the problem.
I also wonder about my own hubris, daring to think I can talk with rocks and rivers and forests. Only I know that millions of people have done this before me. It was called prayer, mostly, and ridiculed by moderns. How dare I go against the teachings of my culture? Can I say, simply, because my culture is so obviously mistaken that it is destroying itself? Would that be enough? (These days, I have plenty of company in my heresy anyway.)
Yesterday this came to my attention: https://www.souland.org/blog/declare-climate-emergency. It’s a Buddhist call to action. Declare that climate emergency is real, and organize to take steps around it. The essay was written mainly by Thanissara Mary Weinberg, and promoted by Joanna Macy. (Because she has name recognition, I’m sure.)
They are proposing we gather at Wesak, a Buddhist festival in May that celebrates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death, all in one day. Gathering to declare climate emergency, and talk with each other, and consider our actions.
This seems to me a good thing. It also happens on a weekend with some other good things already planned. So we will have the Land Care Retreat, May 17-19, then Sunday afternoon gather in council to Declare Climate Emergency and consider moving forward together. The Sunday evening potluck will be a chance to continue the conversation.
I’ll prepare for that by being available at the Northfield Earth Day celebration April 27, hosting a table where talk of climate emergency is welcome, along with all the emotions, and offering lead-ins for this event and other ways of connecting.
If anyone out there wants to talk about promoting Declare Climate Emergency where you are, please get in touch. I’m happy to do what I can.
In my life, it feels like spring. Just like the cold weather, my insides have been frozen too long. I’m happy to be moving.
Love to you all.
At the last potluck group, we listened to this talk by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It prompted deep and intimate talking, and I cannot remember much except how it satisfied some essential need for spiritual community.
Last night I was reading her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, and some of those feelings came up again. But what can I share to offer a taste? In the chapter called “The Honorable Harvest,” she writes about a group of men telling hunting stories. The one elder talks. “He says, ‘I must have seen ten deer that day, but I only took one shot.’ He tips his chair back and looks at the hill, remembering. The young men listen, looking intently at the porch floor. ‘The first one came crunching through the dry leaves, but was shielded by the brush as it wove down the hill. It never saw me sitting there. Then a young buck came moving upwind toward me and then stepped behind a boulder. I could have tracked it…but I knew it wasn’t the one.’ Deer by deer, he recounts the day’s encounters for which he never even raised his rifle: the doe by the water, the three-pointer concealed behind a basswood with only its rump showing. ‘I only take one bullet with me,’ he says.
“The young men in T-shirts lean forward on the bench across from him. ‘And then, without explanation, there’s one who walks right into the clearing and looks you in the eye. He knows full well that you’re there and what you’re doing. He turns his flank right toward you for a clear shot. I know he’s the one, and so does he. There’s a kind of nod exchanged. That’s why I only carry one shot. I wait for the one. He gave himself to me. That’s what I was taught: take only what is given, and then treat it with respect.'”
Kimmerer also writes of a young woman who came to one of her talks, when nobody else was listening, and told about her grandmother in Turkey. “I remember lying with her at night as she made us thank the rafters of her house and the wood blankets we slept in.”
Take only what is given. That is exactly the Second Precept of Buddhism, though the common translation is “not stealing.”
I didn’t grow up with teachings of gratitude for every thing, though we prayed over every meal, and one prayer was a prayer of thanks. I continue to be shocked at the waste everywhere in modern culture. I had thought it was because my parents grew up during the Depression and couldn’t afford to waste, but it’s pleasant to think perhaps they came from a culture that respected the sacred in material things.
That’s the way I want to live. It’s painful for me to be with people who live without respect for those material things – which means nearly everyone in modern America – but how else is it possible to live in closeness to our relatives the plants and animals, the soils and waters?
Sometimes I try to share this with others. The land care retreats are such a time – how can we live knowing everything as holy? There’s one on the May 17 weekend, and another in August. They’re offered in the old tradition of dana, generosity, with a requested fee for expenses and an option for work exchange. You would be welcome.
Last night the potluck group listened to Morris Berman on “Why America Failed.”
Halfway through I was wondering why I did this. By the end I remembered.
But first let me mention this: most of the hour consisted of an overview of what’s wrong. (This talk was pre-Trump, by the way, but you could already see which way we were going.) It wasn’t new to the people in the room last night, but it might be new to you. If you think things are okay (or were until Trump) please listen to this talk and pay close attention.
The smaller of the reasons would be his stark assessment of personal options, during the question period. He outlined three: (1) Change the system – forget that, can’t be done. (2) Leave the country if you can. (3) Within this country, try to make a space that will be more human-friendly during the collapse. Which of course is what is happening here, in the local small-farming community which includes us.
Giving up on the thought of system change is depressing. Recently I listened to my friend Beth about when she gave up on system change in Palestine – and the personal implications of that. She went to work with dying people after that, for many years. I won’t try to share more about it, because listening made me more aware of how hard I cling to hope.
The big reason is the analysis of why we’re like this; why America, of all the world’s nations, persists in cruelty to everyone who is not “us” AND destroying the planet AND let’s not do the long list of outrages – latest being the border wall “emergency” and before that the cruelty to migrants – but this talk was during the Obama presidency.
Why are we like this? It’s about identity, he says. We define ourselves by our enemies. We have defined ourselves against the British oppressors, against the [pick your adjective] indigenous, against the evil Mexicans, against the Communists, against the Fascists, against the Nazis – who are we? Of course that is the “white people” we. It tells us why, these days, the leadership of environmental protection is with indigenous people. They have a community, they have an identity that is not about being against something. Of course many of them have the disease too, but there’s a core that holds. Maybe that’s what attracts so many of us white people, settlers, colonizers – just to feel a wholeness that we haven’t known.
If that sounds like someone else, think again. I’ve had many identities in this lifetime, and the last few decades have defined myself against patriarchy, capitalism, militarism, racism, heterosexism, industrial civilization…. and who am I but a member of all those groups? Stopping climate change – stopping the root causes of climate change – my enemy? My self-definition? Where, then, is peace and wholeness? Who am I?
This is a question, or perhaps a project. First, to notice what’s missing in our own experience of the world. We can realize that we are the hungry ghosts of Buddhism (always hungry, impossible to satisfy), or the wetiko described by Jack Forbes (warped, cannibalistic… ) First, know something is missing, then learn how to find it. That’s the process called “decolonization” for those of us who became colonizers. It’s hard and people usually do it badly.
I’ll say that Zen practice has given me a sense of identity as a part of the universe. And a peace I didn’t have before. I will not say that’s the answer; it helps me a bite. Needing to study this – well, sesshin is next weekend, I’ll place that personal wound on the altar and just be present with it, allow myself to settle down with it.
And that’s what I have to offer this week.
Next month’s potluck will listen to a talk by Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass. Nourishment.
Love to you all.
Here are just a few notes from the middle of snow country, snow season.
I’ve updated the journal entry that remembers last summer’s travels. Since it took five months, I didn’t want to plop it in the middle of other things. The whole thing is here.
Last Sunday I gave a talk “Finding Home in the Vow” at Northfield Buddhist Meditation Center. I’ve been working with this theme for a while, including both retreats in Atlanta. But this talk is recorded, it will be posted on the website but meanwhile you can find it here. (Quality is good once you get past the first minute or two.) People seemed to like it a lot.
Next Dharma talk will be Sunday morning, March 10 at Clouds in Water, St. Paul.
If you’d like to join the potluck group, please contact me (Shodo) at firstname.lastname@example.org We meet Sunday evenings, eat, listen to an interesting talk, and discuss. The plan is a small-ish ongoing group, but you get to check it out first. (Feb 17 and March 17 are our next dates.)
Next sesshin at the farm: Feb 22-24 and March 22-24. Just sitting. And June 28-30, July 26-28, and so forth – on the calendar.
Land care retreat is moved to May 17-19. This is not just a work weekend, but a spiritual retreat focusing on opening ourselves to the beings of the land.
You’re very welcome to do work exchange instead of paying for the retreat. We don’t have scheduled work weekends yet – the weather is challenging – but please contact me if you’re interested. Say a word about your skills, or we can just chat. We’re hoping to do indoor renovation any time; there will be garden and farm work beginning in March with indoor seed starting and going throughout the year; firewood; and many other projects including online, website, and office help.
There is a possibility of a five-day sesshin June 12-17 at Hokyoji, the Zen country practice center near Houston, MN. It would be in my teacher’s style – just sitting – and led by three of four of us. I will post this when it is finalized.
The fall land care retreat may be moved to August to accommodate my teacher and some of my dharma sisters and brothers coming up from Sanshinji – I’ll announce when we know for sure.
We live in difficult times. Like last summer’s wildfires, the deep freeze and heavy snow are responding to climate change, which is a response to human disconnection from the natural world – including each other. There is so much to mourn, so many losses already happening and more apparently coming.
On the encouraging side, a judge somewhere in Australia said no to a coal mine, with climate change as one of the reasons. And on the discouraging side, Canada and British Columbia are flouting laws, treaties, and international law to push pipelines through unceded indigenous territory. More information here.
Meanwhile in Minnesota, the DNR wants a pipeline to happen, the Department of Commerce says it is not needed, and the new governor may be going back on his word to oppose pipelines. There have been demonstrations, and now there are phone calls – the decision will be made Monday. An answering machine will take your message. Be polite. Telephone: 651-201-3400, Toll Free: 800-657-3717 – Extensive background information here. This resistance is being led by indigenous people and supported by many.
There is no such thing as neutrality in a time of oppression. Silence gives consent. So I am speaking here, and invite you to join me.
We came out of the bitter cold into two days above freezing. Today I walked out onto the land and was nourished. Came back two and a half hours later, not cold yet, and very warmed inside. Writing about it now is an invitation for you to do the same, however that may be in your time and place.
I dressed warmly knowing everything would be wet. Brought tobacco for making offerings. Followed intuition about which way to go, and it took me to the river, along a new path not blocked by fallen trees. I sat down in the old place where we always go, and looked and felt. Offered tobacco, but you know that’s not really enough. An offering should be something FROM me, not just bought. I hadn’t grown and dried that tobacco. I offered some song, some chanting. And gave my attention.
It seems to me that there are thousands of spirits in the wild land across the river. I feel them. The name is “water spirits” and the river is utterly alive – but it seems to me that the water spirits live over there in the trees and on the land. I offered wordless song that felt like it came from them. And then, feeling the earth and rocky bluff below me, a deeper chant that felt like that. It was all guessing, all made up, but their presence was very real, I could feel it humming in my body.
I stayed there a long time. Did I ask for anything? I don’t remember. During the last Advisory Council meeting, River suggested asking for help from the nonhuman beings – that asking that I’m always talking about. Then we had weeks of cold and snow, and today was my first real day outside on the land. I think I asked the spirits for help, and also thought of coming back to strengthen this relationship, especially with the rocky bluff which hasn’t been so easy to feel.
From there, following guidance, I left the river and walked toward the North Gate, making my way through fallen trees – all the old paths are changed. But I did reach that place, and felt its warmth, kindness, safety. Stayed there a long time too. Thought about cutting some paths so we can get here more easily.
I found the place where I dreamed of a meditation hut. Fallen trees have changed it, it was hard to recognize, and I imagined that building. Imagined what this forest and earth are asking from us, now.
Walked on to the East Gate, which I knew was covered by broken limbs and fallen trees. It was easy enough to come down from the road, and I found the spot immediately. The creeks were bubbling and lively, but the whole place was fallen limbs. I felt sad. Again, thought about offering care. The energy was so different! This is near two places where I’ve given a lot of energy, planting food trees and making spaces, stairs, paths – to be altered first by floods a couple of hears ago, now by the fallen trees. Perhaps my sadness was for the loss of what I’d done, perhaps the land itself feels broken. Either way, there’s healing work to do here.
Through the orchard, seeking the South Altar – but not sure where it is, and can’t easily get around the many fallen trees. Some were old and it was their time to come down. I just don’t know. Again, the creek was beautiful, bubbling and clear.
I went then to the Elders’ Circle – the Elders being two ancient cottonwood trees, much injured but still standing, and the circle is full of fallen limbs.
Then to the Jizo Garden, formerly an imaginary circle among the red pines by the driveway, now full of downed wood and firewood piles. I spoke with the spirit who lives there, and promised not to take down trees without asking her. Tried to promise to create a space that would be a safe home for her, even while it is offered to others as a place for mourning and remembrance.
Promised myself I wouldn’t wait so long next time.
At the Land Care Retreat we will do this visiting of sacred places. And how wonderful it would be to do healing work with the forests! Whatever actions we do that weekend, it will be about finding intimacy with the land.
So there we are.
That weekend is moved to May 17-19, so I can attend a retreat with my former teacher the following weekend. There’s a limit of ten people, and I’m hoping for a full group.
There may be some work weekends before then – which could be used as work exchange for the Land Care Retreat. Indoor construction; maple sugaring; firewood, fence building, garden preparation… the list goes on. If you’re interested in any of these projects, or are available on a particular date, please let me know.
Also there will be meditation retreats: February and March 22-24; April 26-27, and so forth. And there’s space for a couple more people in the potluck group. Please ask.
May you be safe, and warm enough, during the rest of this winter and spring. Or if you’re in summer, may you be safe from fire and drought.
Here are a few announcements and some thoughts.
February 1, 7 pm: Book reading at Clouds in Water Zen Center, St. Paul. This is for the book Zen Teachings in Challenging Times. Shodo is one of four local authors who will be reading, and books will be offered for sale. Clouds in Water Zen Center is at 445 Farrington Street, St. Paul, Minnesota 55103 USA, 651-222-6968, email@example.com
February 3, Dharma talk at Northfield Buddhist Center, 313½ Division St, Northfield. Come for 9:30 am sitting, talk begins at 10:15. http://northfieldmeditation.org/upcoming-events-2/
March 10, Dharma talk at Clouds in Water (address above). This link will help you figure out what time to arrive – though I suggest being in the zendo by 9 am, the talk will begin at 9:35.
Sesshin (Zen sitting retreat): 3-day sesshin at the farm, February 22-24, March 22-24, April 26-28. Most months have sesshin on the fourth weekend, but sometimes it’s replaced by something (Land Care Retreat, for instance). Registration is always essential. Local people are welcome to come and sit for a few hours, but I need to know so I can be prepared to open the door.
Land Care Retreat May 17-19: Detailed information and registration here. But – registration is required, limit ten people, there is a fee, you can arrange for work exchange in advance. Here are a few words about this: Our intention in this retreat is to open to the natural world around us, learning to be members rather than owners. The meditation and Dharma talk times help us to drop away preconceptions, calm down, and be more available to the real teachers – woods, water, soils, our own bodies, the human community. The afternoon work times are for hands-on practice of listening to the land and responding to it in detail – soils, plants, whatever is requested. That work might be farming or wilderness care; either will involve intimate engagement with the earth and its beings.
Potlucks: We’re still having potlucks on the third Sundays at 5:30-8 pm. They’re not posted here because we’re trying to create an lasting small group. If you want to join one, ask to be added to the emails.
Volunteer work days: There’s no schedule yet, but there will be. Meanwhile, you can let us know if interested in any of these projects – that will help us set dates. .
And many other possibilities. Feel free to offer what you have.
There is now formal membership, and it would be really great if people actually joined, look here for information. Also it would be great if people made a commitment to donate regularly, even a small amount. It eases the work and anxiety of asking. Makes it possible to plan.
There’s so much happening. I have probably spent hours following the matter of the Covington High School boys and Nathan Phillips. I’m now waiting to hear how the school responds to the invitation from Phillips and his people, for a healing ceremony. Otherwise – I’m out. Too much hate coming from too many directions.
But I want to write about the conversation we had at the potluck last night. We’re working with thoughtful speakers who combine spirituality and some kind of engagement with the world. This month was Mushim Patricia Ikeda. Next month Robin Kimmerer.
We found ourselves in a discussion of faith, and of tribes – with examples from the Renaissance Festival community of traveling artists and craftspeople, and people taking care of each other. We don’t know a sustainable example of tribe in this time, though. It’s the dream of what could happen here at the farm, or around the farm.
That’s all for now.
Blessings and love to you all,
“To settle the self upon the self, and let the flower of your life-force bloom.”
In the old tradition, we remember Buddha’s enlightenment by sitting facing the wall for seven days. Together. It’s called Rohatsu sesshin.
We sat Rohatsu here at the farm. Mostly I sat; two people had planned to come and then weren’t able. One person joined me for the last evening, and somehow that made all the difference. Sitting alone can be hard. I move too often, and spend too much time taking care of things like meals – or just avoiding. This time, though, I sat 8-9 hours per day, with energy. I supported the intention by reading a little – first Francis Cook’s Sounds of Valley Streams, then Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva. I needed to hear the teaching in unfamiliar words; both of these helped.
There’s a place in me that’s deeply fed by sitting zazen. That place was hungry; I’ve missed too many retreats these past months, and one hour per day isn’t enough to satisfy. So I began, restless, and it took a few days to settle down.
I found myself studying anger. It goes like this: you sit down in a comfortable posture, take a few breaths, and invite the mind to settle down. During this process, thoughts come up – usually memories or hopes. They say, let them go, don’t dwell on them. Easy enough to say. They come back. And again. This week, a particular object would arise, of anger or complaint. It would keep coming back. I began to notice that I was holding to fixed opinions about the people involved. I began to notice the experience of anger in my body, a tightening here and there. I sat with that experience. It wasn’t generally pleasant.
Looking back, it seems to me that I invited the anger to come forward, to present itself. I noticed its temptation and how it made me unhappy, and how I didn’t like it. For days. I felt aversion toward my judgmental thoughts, toward my envy and resentment, toward the way I sometimes explode or criticize people. And, staying with it, something actually did settle down. My body became more calm. I liked it – this is called attraction.
Sometimes I strayed into hopes – visions of this or that about my life, it doesn’t really matter what. Or appreciation of things as they are right now. The opportunities for diversion are endless. I kept coming back, and the noise settled down gradually.
At the end of each day I did three prostrations, a small ceremony that is part of this big ceremony of remembrance. Sitting sesshin, sitting zazen, these are ceremonies, done for their own sake, not to achieve anything. I suspect that they shape the structure of the universe. I know that, as Katagiri Roshi wrote above, there is a settling down, and a dropping of the structures of habit that interfere with our lives.
That’s all the words I have today.
The next sesshin here will be February 22-24, and the next one March 22-24.
I’ll be teaching in Atlanta in January: a one-day retreat January 5 at Red Clay, a discussion January 6 at Red Clay, and a one-day retreat January 12 at Midtown Atlanta Zen.
February 1, 7 pm, at Clouds in Water in St. Paul there will be a book reading with authors from Zen Teachings in Challenging Times. March 10 I will offer the Sunday morning dharma talk at Clouds.
Paul Kingsnorth‘s essay Dark Ecology begins with a contemplation of the scythe so lovely that I want to run outside right now and grab the scythe. Of course I would have to sharpen it first, and it’s not exactly the season. But, he says, a weed whacker or brush hog isn’t really more efficient than a scythe on the human scale, we’re just conditioned to think it is because it’s noisy and complex. Ivan Illich wrote about what he called “tools for conviviality” – they make us human – the scythe is one of those. The beauty of his words reminded me of why I have those old-fashioned saws and pickaxes and really would rather not use the lawn tractor.
Kingsnorth moves on to reflections on Theodore Kaczynski, whose writings he’s reading, and observes how he became the Unabomber. It was interesting to read his thoughts. LIke him, I was very uncomfortable at the thought of sharing anything at all with the Unabomber. But I do. And perhaps it’s that discomfort that leads him to ask the question of what to do. I find his response very similar to my own, so I’m sharing it here.
I ask myself: what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time? And I arrive at five tentative answers:
One: Withdrawing. If you do this, a lot of people will call you a “defeatist” or a “doomer,” or claim you are “burnt out.” They will tell you that you have an obligation to work for climate justice or world peace or the end of bad things everywhere, and that “fighting” is always better than “quitting.” Ignore them, and take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray. Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance—refusing to tighten the ratchet further—is a deeply moral position. Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction. Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.
Two: Preserving nonhuman life. The revisionists will continue to tell us that wildness is dead, nature is for people, and Progress is God, and they will continue to be wrong. There is still much remaining of the earth’s wild diversity, but it may not remain for much longer. The human empire is the greatest threat to what remains of life on earth, and you are part of it. What can you do—really do, at a practical level—about this? Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place. How can you create or protect a space for nonhuman nature to breathe easier; how can you give something that isn’t us a chance to survive our appetites?
Three: Getting your hands dirty. Root yourself in something: some practical work, some place, some way of doing. Pick up your scythe or your equivalent and get out there and do physical work in clean air surrounded by things you cannot control. Get away from your laptop and throw away your smartphone, if you have one. Ground yourself in things and places, learn or practice human-scale convivial skills. Only by doing that, rather than just talking about it, do you learn what is real and what’s not, and what makes sense and what is so much hot air.
Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone. Remember that you are one life-form among many and understand that everything has intrinsic value. If you want to call this “ecocentrism” or “deep ecology,” do it. If you want to call it something else, do that. If you want to look to tribal societies for your inspiration, do it. If that seems too gooey, just look up into the sky. Sit on the grass, touch a tree trunk, walk into the hills, dig in the garden, look at what you find in the soil, marvel at what the hell this thing called life could possibly be. Value it for what it is, try to understand what it is, and have nothing but pity or contempt for people who tell you that its only value is in what they can extract from it.
Five: Building refuges. The coming decades are likely to challenge much of what we think we know about what progress is, and about who we are in relation to the rest of nature. Advanced technologies will challenge our sense of what it means to be human at the same time as the tide of extinction rolls on. The ongoing collapse of social and economic infrastructures, and of the web of life itself, will kill off much of what we value. In this context, ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? Can you work, with others or alone, to create places or networks that act as refuges from the unfolding storm? Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?
Morris Berman: Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline.
There are two difficult matters here. The first, obviously, is that he says America is already a failure. To me, that’s painful but admitting it is also a kind of relief. I’m more interested, though, in his point about how America had to fail.
America – the United States – was founded by people who defined themselves in opposition to something else. Pilgrims seeking freedom of religion. Etc. Americans rebelling against Britain. Berman says, when you define yourself negatively rather than positively, you need an enemy in order to have a sense of self. Let me repeat that: When you define yourself negatively (as what you are not), in order to have a sense of self you need an enemy.
Is that what we do, as a culture? Does this explain Trump, and the left-wing resistance, and feminism, and so forth and so on? (Distinguish this from movements based on “Do not kill my people” and you get a feeling.
Life must have its own meaning. We, as individuals and as a society, need an identity.
This is what I’m thinking about right now.