- The Farm
- The Alliance
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
Mary Oliver’s words in “Wild Geese” came to me, surprising in this time of violence and burning. The world offers itself to your imagination. The world announces your place in the family of things. Even if it’s not the world we would choose, even if it’s frightening, the world calls to us and offers a place.
People are finding their place, right now, gradually or quickly. Some are offering kindness, some are creating community in the midst of the flames. Some are speaking, analyzing, inspiring. Some see themselves as building a new world, others see themselves as destroying the evils of the old. And I will not deny that the force called wetiko, the cannibal monster that consumes everything, is present and visible.
It was in my old neighborhood that George Floyd was killed. I followed events intensely. I wanted to analyze and write, wanted to offer a total understanding of what is happening here. Finally, after many hours and many pages, I let it go. It’s too soon to say. And others are doing well on offering the bits and pieces of understanding. I’ve assembled as much as possible on my Facebook page. What is being asked of me in these days is to teach Zen, to hold a calm place, and to care for the land. At this moment, the wind blows through the window and disrupts my many pages of notes and writings. I let them go.
Online there is a Zen study group Wednesday evenings, a discussion group Sunday afternoons, and zazen (meditation) Monday mornings. To get current information, email me to join the email announcement group.
Meanwhile, birds call, sun is shining, bean plants are up, strawberries flower, wind moves in the trees. Aware that it is a privilege to live in such a place, I also assert that this is the natural way of being human, to belong to the world. To refuse it would be a crime. To share it is imperative.
While the pandemic is still rising, and the future unknown, I extend some invitations.
And I ask you to do your meditative practices, walk outdoors, practice compassion, be a resource for those around you as the world shifts. The more intense things become, the more we need calm minds and hearts. As we each find our place in the family of things.
P.S. In 2017, I wrote an essay in response to the first summer of wildfires everywhere. I’m including it here, still relevant in the time of these other fires.
The world is literally burning. Flooding. Shaking. Melting. Erupting. The news of summer and fall 2017 has included one disaster after another, in everyone’s back yard, leaving our confidence in normalcy badly shaken.
The climate-caused weather events have put many of us into the state well-known by others for years – decades – centuries. Uncertainty is a way of life; sickness, starvation, and cold or heat threaten. Which reminds me that there have been whole peoples who were at ease with uncertainty. We call them hunter-gatherers, and they have been able to live at ease in places most of us find inhospitable – the Kalahari Desert, the Arctic. (1) The ease comes from not expecting certainty, not demanding even personal survival.
Daniel Quinn (2) writes about peoples who “live in the hands of the gods” versus those who attempt to take control of their surroundings. We live in the latter, even though as Buddhists we are taught impermanence. Impermanence is not not just an idea.
Taking refuge is not an idea either – it has become a vivid reality, especially for those evicted from their homes by wildfires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, or wars. What’s new for me is that people I know personally are now among the refugees. Most of them will be okay, at some level, mostly because we live in a rich country and it will spend its resources on them – particularly if they are white and middle-class. Because our country (and others) keep out desperate refugees in order to protect our own people from having to share. Because those who make decisions on our behalf operate from the mind of separation. Eventually the riches will be used up, and we will have to rely on our neighbors.
The choice of Euro-American culture is still what it has been for a long time: to place our faith in our own ability to control nature. We replaced serfs with slaves, then with machines and chemicals – and have poisoned our food and depleted our soils, water, and air, which we regard as lifeless, as resources for human use. To live in this way, disconnected from everything around us, is a tragedy.
Thomas Berry puts it this way: “We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking that conversation we have shattered the universe. All the disasters that are happening now are a result of that spiritual autism.” (3)
“We have shattered the universe.” That is a strong statement. But the universe that consists of wholeness, of inter-relation, of mutual co-creation – we shatter our experience of that universe, so it becomes ultimate reality but not lived reality.
The broken conversation includes breaking the conversation with each other. We blame each other, which escalates mutual blame makes it impossible to work together. It’s easy enough to notice white supremacists blaming Muslims and calling violence on peaceful African-American protesters. Yet environmentalists too have been separating into camps, accusing each other of being either complicit with the destruction or too aggressive. Those who agree on the situation but have different solutions (veganism versus holistic animal farming, for instance) seem to hate each other worst of all.
We find ourselves divided, alone. It’s the disease of the time. While the human assault on the natural world escalates. While almost none of us are talking with the rivers, trees, and mountains, or listening to them.
I’m learning, or trying to learn, to talk with them again. After two years of persistent effort, my habits have started to include asking for help from the hill. Noticing when I am out of communication. Making offerings to a certain old tree stump at the north gate of the land and to the water spirits of the river, building an altar at the east gate where the creeks come together.
In the spring of 2015 I was pulling up weeds in the orchard, working with Justin Rowland, a Lakota person with a traditional upbringing. He suddenly said “Those plants are very strong over here.” Then he added, “They communicate with each other.” Was my attempt to remove the weeds making them stronger?
I had assumed that if I worked hard enough I could eradicate the problem plants. It never occurred to me that, just as humans form defenses against outside assaults, the plant groups were strengthening themselves against my assault. To think of them as conscious – it changed everything. The question becomes: Can I pull up weeds and also be in conversation with them? If being in conversation comes first, how can I take care of this land – my accepted responsibility – and its many “invasive” plants and animals? How can I not be a victim of plant, animal, and insect bullies?
I had a dream in which there were a hundred people living at my seventeen-acre farm. Although we could possibly feed ourselves by intensive farming plus foraging the woods, there wasn’t enough food to carry us through the winter and spring until harvest. (Nor were there enough deer, squirrels, and rabbits.) It was completely obvious that it would be unfair to favor my own family – four of them were in the dream – and that the only fair thing would be to draw lots for who got the food – who survived. There was no question of my drawing those lots; the hard physical work would require strength I don’t have (said the dream).
I woke shaking. The dream has stayed with me for over a year now. About the children, and one daughter and her husband, there was only grief and faint hope. And yes, in waking life I did bargain with myself about whether I had skills that would be needed, that would get me into the survival lottery. My other daughter’s family, my niece and nephew, and others I loved – they were simply absent from the dream, with no idea whether they were alive or dead.
In the dream, people were thoughtful and respectful, a community working together to find a way to survive. No preference was given for wealth (my ownership of the farm) or status.
I actually think something like this will happen, only it will be harder: there will also be bands of hungry people coming from the cities; some will join us, some will have guns and will be willing to kill in order to eat. It might not happen; I don’t know when if it does, and I may never be ready.
The separate self wants to continue. Always. I may as well be kind to that urge in myself and in others.
There are the four seals of Buddhism. Impermanence, suffering, no-self, nirvana. Not accepting impermanence and no-self leads to suffering. Accepting them leads to nirvana. I wonder how this relates to Quinn’s “living in the hands of the gods.” Quinn’s image is from before civilization saved humans from constant uncertainty. In that earlier time, death was not an unusual thing or a disaster. I imagine it did not hurt any less personally, but the sense of outrage or unfairness might have been different. Since the change, humans have sought refuge in our own power, in our structures, in our ability to store grain – instead of in the offerings of the earth, the kindness of the universe. After 8000 years of agriculture, it’s hard to imagine what that would be like.
Where is refuge? Shohaku Okumura said to me once, in the early days when I was still obsessed with enlightenment, “Enlightenment means you have nothing at all that you can rely on.” (4) I take refuge in this teaching: there is nothing to rely on. I take refuge in Buddha, in the body of Buddha which is the whole universe. I take refuge in Sangha, the community of beings in the Way.
I don’t take refuge in money, or in status, or in material possessions, or in structures of civilization, or in economic transactions. No, however hard times may be, the refuge will be in reality and in community – in the hands of the gods.
Practice is more than refuge. Practice includes the four vows:
Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.
Every time we chant a sutra, we offer the energy of that chanting. Sometimes that offering includes these words: “We aspire to turn the Dharma wheel unceasingly and to free the world from every tragedy of war, epidemic, natural disaster and starvation.” I’ve chanted those words so often they’re ingrained in my skull. For a long time I never thought about them. Now they seem penetratingly brilliant. War – Syrian civil war, Israel-Palestine conflict, possible U.S. war with Iraq or with North Korea, genocide against the Rohinga (fall 2017), against Red Nations and other indigenous peoples (for centuries); the low-level wars waged against protesters of many kinds, labeled terrorists and hit with freezing water, rubber bullets, tear gas, arrests, and accusations. Epidemic – after disasters destroy infrastructure, cholera often follows. Natural disaster is in our face as I write: hurricanes and typhoons, floods, earthquakes, mudslides (Sierra Leone, 2017 August, 500 dead and 3000 displaced), drought, wildfires around the world. Starvation – yes, we can numb ourselves to the people starving everywhere, but with droughts there will be more starvation right here. Which is why people are cruel to refugees: they fear their own starvation, and they lack a bigger picture.
We chant “to free the world” but Zen practice has nothing to do with escape. Zen practice understands that there is no escape. It looks straight at the tragedy in the world, and points to freedom – whatever that means. It is not specific, except for not looking away.
At the 2016 Soto Zen priests’ conference, Hogen Bays gave a short talk titled “Nothing is amiss: the foundation for social action.” That names our situation. Nothing is amiss. The world does not need our fixing. Actually the idea of fixing (correcting, healing, saving) is an absurdity based on the mistake that there is something outside of us, or that we are outside of the rest of the universe.
Nothing is wrong. Everything is holy, the entire world is the temple, offered for our practice. And yet there is injustice, murder, disaster, oppression, every kind of horror we can imagine or not. How do we practice in this world as it is?
As a child, I found refuge in the natural world, in the wildest places I could find. My strongest memories from then are of that spring when I found the wild iris, and the years of returning again and again looking for them, until finally I had memorized their location, and knew they bloomed in May. Later there were hours at the local nature preserve: scrambling up a cliff above the creek, not sure how I would get down, very carefully finding each handhold and step. There’s a decade full of discoveries, one after another – a grassy hillside I hadn’t known before, the late afternoon sun reflecting on the creek, waves breaking onto the beach in a storm, the lake’s glassy quiet the morning after.
Those explorations were the life of my childhood years, the holy action that sustained me, the intimacy I knew. In those lonely years, that is how the support of all beings showed itself to me. And I hated people, in general, for every road and every bit of litter intruding on my refuge. As I learned to make my way in the world, for a long time that way included undiagnosed depression. Even though my life was secure in every physical way.
At age 35, I wandered into the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center and found something in zazen. I didn’t even know I was looking. Three years later in my first long sesshin, the world opened up. No longer was it only woods and waters that offered themselves to me. The internal walls started to crumble, and I could imagine meeting other people with the intimacy once reserved for rocks and wildflowers. The next journey of discovery began. Very gradually, sangha became essential. Sangha was the place where the remains of those walls simply were part of me, without shame or horror, and I could allow them to crumble at their own pace. Very gradually I also learned to allow others their own ruins and incompleteness.
Thirty years later I had fully entered the container of Zen, zazen, sangha. There was a ceremony called ordination – literally “homeleaving.” It’s hard to say what that ceremony was, but looking back it seemed to me that I was finally moving in the direction I had always intended. The power of ceremony should not be underestimated. From a home in delusion, I moved into the homeless state, toward a home that might be found in zazen and vow.
Near the end of formal priest training, sitting in practice period, I was inundated with literal visions – mental pictures on the wall during zazen – of myself walking along the Keystone pipeline route. I sought counsel, prepared for a year, and then walked that route through the Great Plains with a few companions. Afterward people asked what we had accomplished, and I had no answer. All I knew was that we were changed. We had brought our human, imperfect presence to a pending tragedy, we allowed the earth and sky to nourish us, and offered back what we could – one part of a vast movement to protect land and peoples. Much later the pipeline was canceled – briefly – and some people gave us credit. But cause and effect is not so literal. What was that about, and why did I have to do it?
The story I told myself about that walk was that it was a ceremony, a three-month, 1700-mile ceremony, honoring and blessing the earth, receiving and giving to that which encompasses our lives. The imagery is not quite Buddhist: regarding earth and waters as sentient beings, conscious and intentional, is to invent a persona for them – as we invent for ourselves. I choose to make this mistake rather than the usual mistake of regarding them as insentient, inert, unwilling or unable to act. We make our own meanings, those of us who don’t yet see clearly, and this meaning helps me, it helps my heart be open. In my story, the earth called, I didn’t say no, and everything unfolded from there.
I live now in a semi-wild place. The hill to the north is a sanctuary, a place that feels like magic, power, sacredness. Once someone was planning to build a house up there – right next to “my” land – ruining its wildness, desecrating its sacredness. After talking with zoning officials proved useless, I went out and walked on the hill, asking it for help, asking to protect itself. It seemed that I could hear the trees saying yes. Even the buckthorn, who must know that I plan to tear them up, seemed to give support. Then I waited. Two years later there is no house. The zoning has changed so that land seems to be protected. Although nothing is certain, my fear is gone.
For a long time – maybe this years – my life has been organized around a vow to stop climate change – without knowing what that can mean. In 2015 I created an organization, named “Mountains and Waters Alliance,” and think of it as an alliance of sentient beings committed to protect and restore the earth. Its members are more trees, bluffs, waterfalls and flowers than they are human beings – because asking humans is still hard for me. I include them in morning service, in the dedication of merit after chanting. I ask them for help, and I long to visit them more often.
This past June, walking on a mountain, talking with new beings, I was offered a teaching: There’s nothing I need to do. The deep powers of the earth have it in their hands. It’s not up to me.
It felt as if a heavy weight lifted off my shoulders. I returned home and was physically sick for a month – which may be a measure of how invested I was in my identity as activist. I’m moving slowly since then. It’s as if every step I take has to be discovered, tested. What is my intention? If I think I’m saving the world, solving a problem, anything like that, it’s a mistake. If I think I can sit idly at home, or even in the zendo, that might well be a mistake too: turning the Dharma wheel does not look like disengagement.
My story now is about making offerings to the earth, both ceremony and physical labor, and asking for help with everything. Absolutely everything, small and large, personal and world-wide.
Cause and effect can’t be known. We throw an action like a pebble into a pond, and watch the ripples. On the KXL there were a thousand pebbles, only one of them mine, cause and effect impossible to discern. Still, life itself impels us to act. We are the ripples, more than the pebbles. We are both.
How do we relate to the world around us? We offer ourselves, as intimately as possible, in whatever situation presents itself. To make an offering is to be alive to the other.
I went to testify at hearings on a pipeline, intended to run through Northern Minnesota, through tribal lands, wild rice beds, and the clearest water in the state. The company building it has a reputation for accidents. My words won’t make the difference. Why did I need to go? I needed to make that offering, to speak this Dharma in this context, with environmental activists and government officials and even pro-pipeline people.
We relate by receiving offerings too.
Once I found an aliveness in the woods. Now I find it in the untamed space called zazen – and in human community, and still also in woods, hills, starry skies, gardens and flowers and small beings. This receiving brings enormous gratitude, and also a desire to protect. I long to see humans relating to the natural world as part of it, as family, and not as something to use, dominate, or conquer. I want to share that this is a joyful and wonderful way to live.
I think that if we created a human society that lives this way, we would take care of the earth and walk back from the brink of climate catastrophe as well as from war, inequality, and oppression of all kinds. But that is to propose that an enlightened society could actually exist in the realm of illusion. Buddhist teaching wouldn’t support focusing on such a society as a concrete goal. This is not quite the same as the way conventional wisdom opposes such a thought, saying human nature is selfish and violent. Those are not inherently Buddhist thoughts, but the ground of our own culture which is destroying a planet where humans lived for a hundred thousand years.
When we stop imagining that we are alone, life becomes possible. I am going to go out on a limb and say that to practice is to join the conversation, to live in the conversation with all beings – with wind and stars, rivers and mountains, prairies and woodlands. There we are never alone, never responsible for the whole outcome of any endeavor, never victim or even perpetrator. Here, we are simply and intimately part of the whole of life. Everything we meet breathes life into us and is, in turn, created by us. We become soft and fluid, our hearts open and alive. And our guidance in practice emerges of its own accord.
(1) Suzman, James. Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen. Bloomsbury, 2017. The book is a description of lifestyle of Kalahari Bushmen (San) including their adaptation to European invasion. The mention of the Arctic comes from observations and from conversations with Inupiaq elders in the NANA region of Alaska, during the winter of 1990-91.
(2) Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. Bantam, 1992. p. 240ff.
(3) Thomas Berry. http://natcath.org/NCR_Online/archives/081001/081001a.htm – “Diagnosing spiritual sickness,” paragraph 1.
(4) Okumura, Shohaku. personal conversation. At Hokyoji Zen Monastery, 1990’s.
The problems with the online groups have been resolved. The links on the website now work for joining Zoom groups. Briefly, here’s what’s coming up.
Wednesday April 29, 6:30-8 pm – Zen study group. Here is the Zoom link We are currently working with the book Living by Vow; details on the event page. If you would like to come for the first time, please email Shodo. It’s okay to come before you have the book. Please note that we’re skipping a week.
Life has been intense and busy; I’m working from home, offering additional groups, and writing. Here are some thoughts on the pandemic; there will be more.
We’ve reached the 50th anniversary of the original Earth Day. I was there 50 years ago, with my husband and infant daughter, in the college gym. Senator Gaylord Nelson had said “The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment.” Zero Population Growth was pushing for people to have just two children. There was so much enthusiasm, so much hope, so much energy.
It seems lifetimes ago. If I’d even remotely imagined that we would be HERE, now, I would have done something. But I believed that government worked, business leaders were honest, and technology could solve everything.
I wish I could have those simple easy beliefs back, but reality intervened. We are now paying the price for that naivete that we all preferred – and for not saying NO to things that were obviously unworkable.
We are facing life and death. Sure, we always have, but now it’s impossible to ignore. Things are uncertain and unpredictable – they always have been, but the scale is worse. Sooner or later, each of us will die, as will those we love – we cannot rely on anyone or anything. Taking care of our actions is a way to be steady, to be stable, to be calm – as well as to contribute to our world.
The Coronavirus attacks the lungs. Lungs are grief – in Chinese medicine. Grief is frozen sorrow, piercing sadness with a cause. There’s an association with injustice in the history of the word.
I was thinking about our collective grief, our unspoken mourning for the loss of the world we once lived in, for the liveliness that we remember in our daily lives, for the many individuals dying and species ending. Here now, with the virus, here is a mourning, here is a whole people mourning with our bodies. Here is a whole people giving up our entertainments (reluctantly) and contemplating how we might care for each other, how we might collectively survive and heal…. We are mourning with our lungs, with our coughs, with our fevers.
We live in a time of immense grief, and also fear.
Some grief is obvious. Climate change may kill us all, we mourn the loss of a future, or of a beautiful future for our children and grandchildren. I miss drinking water directly from a lake, I miss the woods where I grew up roaming wild, and the safety to do so as a child. So many have much more to grieve: murdered indigenous women; Covid-19 striking African-Americans hardest; chronic illnesses related to environmental factors. Wars. Health problems. Poverty. Violence against immigrants, against people of color, against women, against trans people.
But I want to go back further, and deeper. I want to say,
The core grief is that we don’t trust the world in which we live. We think we have to manage it. Like Adam and Eve, we want to be like God. We have to be God, because we no longer trust the gods – or God, or the spirits, or the plants and animals and mountains and rivers. We are on our own. We are orphans. There is no mystery, no unknowable. And we are not God, or gods. We are humans with powerful technology who deny that anything is still holy.
I don’t mean that you and I deny it. I mean our culture denies it.
This is tragic. We are cut off from most of life.
In this culture, humans are like gods. We have the right to use everything, consume what we want, build, pave, ship, plow, create. We even create new forms of life through genetic engineering. And we are the only ones that matter. If we kill other humans en masse, we call it genocide; if we kill animals en masse we call it food production, and if we kill forests, prairies, ecosystems en masse we call it progress.
Most of the people in the history of the world have lived a different way. We call them hunter-gatherers, or pastoralists, or horticulturalists. The Garden of Eden gives a picture of that way of life. Being thrown out to do agriculture was a curse, but it was the natural result of trying to be gods, refusing the gifts freely offered.
“Living in the hands of the gods” is a term invented by Daniel Quinn to describe these people. In the hands of the gods, you are part of a community that includes more that just human beings. You have a right to exist, and so does everything else. You can compete with the other beings for food and space, but you can’t wage war on them.
Humans lived well in this way for millennia. Like other top predators, they lived by culling the old and sick from the herds of other animals around them, and from gathering the surplus of plants, while carefully maintaining the well-being of the host population. Like other animals and plants, in case of drought, flood, or blizzard some of them would die. They did not expect otherwise.
In a recent example, the Menomonie of Wisconsin have profitably managed a forest for timber products since 1860. The forest is healthier now than when they began. Humans know how to do this. Our culture does not. A few of us do, as a whole we have not a clue. We know how to control, not how to participate. And this is our great sadness.
We live in a culture that does not know how to be part of the family. We are estranged. We are desperate for control, because we can’t trust. The tragedy is that, like a traumatized child grown up, we can’t see that there is kindness and love in the world. And so collectively, for survival, we become the bullies of the world, where personally we would never willingly bully anyone.
(I have a smart phone. I know it’s made unsustainably with rare earths. I know it’s made by child slaves who are poisoned by the elements in it. I know that someone invented a cell phone that was neither of these, and it’s being test marketed in Europe. And my phone is incredibly convenient. It exceeds the most extreme fantasies of the science fiction I read in the 1960’s. The science fiction didn’t usually mention slaves or sustainability. I make excuses for having the phone. My guilt helps no one.)
Deaths of people, animals, and oceans are woven into our daily life so deeply that avoiding them would be a full time job. This is pain. This is the hole in our society, the hole in our hearts, the reason lung problems and heart problems are the major killers in America. This is the hole we have to cover up in order to go on with our lives.
The pandemic is helping us with that. It gives us permission to be sad about dying, sad about the people who are taking risks, and permission to be angry at the injustice of who does and who doesn’t get help, angry at those who profit. And some of us are stuck at home, with our families or alone, with time. Time to read, time to create, and time to give to others. Mask making, mutual aid societies, free concerts and donations of all kinds – something is flowering, in the middle of stress and of death.
It may be that great changes will come, as they did after the Black Death in Europe. May they be changes of more kindness and not of more control. May we act in a way that creates more kindness.
We live this day as well as we can. With kindness for ourselves and others. Taking care of what needs to be done – make food, wash the dishes – who needs attention – our families, our selves – and letting that create our lives. Today’s actions create the self who wakes up the next morning.
Here is where we come back to the Five Remembrances. I am of the nature to grow old, to have ill health, to die. Everything and everyone around me will change and I will lose them. Only my actions are reliable. My deeds are the ground on which I can stand.
That sounds a little solitary. “My deeds are the ground on which I stand.” We might understand that our friends and children and husbands and wives are with us. We might understand that our congregation is with us. We might organize a community mutual aid society, or feel grateful or angry at the actions of the state or the nation. But mostly we don’t think of ourselves as part of a family that includes flies and ground squirrels, deer and maple trees, the Cannon River, the Great Plains, the wheat and the buckthorn and the clouds in the sky. It just doesn’t occur to us.
There have been people – through most of the history of earth, actually – who did experience themselves as part of that family. Some of the relatives were annoying and troublesome, some were kind and generous, some had to be appeased or pacified and then they would be kind or helpful.
I propose that as we take our individual and family and community actions, we understand that we are not acting alone. And I can’t tell you what action is yours. I can only observe. A whole group of people here are checking in with other members every week. A whole group of people are doing heroic work in making services happen online – nine people met yesterday for over an hour to make today happen. Kristin gave us another year so we don’t have to search for a new minister during this time. A lot of people are sewing masks and giving them away. I know someone who recovered from the virus and is going back to work on an ambulance. Doctors, nurses, custodians, bus drivers, grocery workers, shoppers are keeping things going. Farmers are growing food, and organizing to get it to people – they’re building an alternative economy that will be more trustworthy than the centralized one. And so many people are simply changing their lives in very uncomfortable ways, to not endanger people they love.
Organizations and unions are agitating to protect those workers from the risks that wouldn’t be happening if we had decent government – and state governments are stepping up to the challenge. There are quiet conversations everywhere about what to do if martial law is declared, if how to resist the outrages already happening. People are singing in the streets, having dance parties, taking care of each other, staying home to protect each other. People are offering classes and meditation and concerts online free, for donations. Water protectors and land defenders are finding creative ways to continue resisting; Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light continues to work on stopping Line 3 in northern Minnesota. People are gathering online to talk with each other; I’m hosting one of those gatherings every week, and a Zen study group. People are studying and sharing ideas: Barbara’s last blog post was about this, I’m writing about it. We do whatever we do. We’ll never be the same.
Our actions create our selves, and so do the actions of those around us, including people, plants, animals, stars… we’re all creating each other, that’s how the world works. Our deeds – all together – our deeds create the ground on which we stand, and on which our future can be built. Our deeds are building that future – all of us.
I’d like to end with a quotation from David Abram, which says this in very poetic language:
The animate earth around us is far lovelier than any heaven we can dream up. But if we wish to awaken to its richness, we’ll need to give up our detached, spectator perspective, and the illusion of control that it gives us. That is a terrifying move for most over-civilized folks today — since to renounce control means noticing that we really are vulnerable: to loss, to disease, to death. Yet also steadily vulnerable to wonder, and unexpected joy.
For all its mind-shattering beauty, this earth is hardly safe; it is filled with uncertainties, and shadows — with beings that can eat us, and ultimately will. I suppose that’s why contemporary civilization seems so terrified to drop the pretense of the view from outside, the God trick, the odd belief that we can master and manage the earth.
But we can’t master it — never have, never will. What we can do is to participate more deeply, respectfully, and creatively in the manifold life of this breathing mystery we’re a part of.
I’ve updated the links for events “The Gift of Fearlessness” Sunday afternoons, and “Introduction to Zen” Wednesday evenings.
For either, go to https://zoom.us/my/shodo
I strongly encourage an extra 5 minutes to deal with accessing the site. You do NOT have to download Zoom.
One World in Dialogue and Zen Peacemakers invite us to a 24-hour worldwide meditation vigil on December 7 and 8. I will participate for what time I can; I invite you also.
It’s so much easier and more pleasant to just go on as if nothing were different. The weather is a little weird. There are a lot of wildfires, and the storms are fierce. Why on earth did [fill in your choice of country] elect a [crazy, extremist, fascist, narcissist,….] for [president, prime minister]? Oh, I don’t know. People are funny.
I propose that those things in the news are part of something bigger, and it’s most accurately called collapse. That’s a strong word. Here I’m following Professor Jem Bendell, of Positive Deep Adaptation, who says that when the house is burning down, it’s no longer time to work on fire prevention strategies. I recommend his talk about this.
Bendell divides collapse into categories, and thinks some are inevitable while others aren’t. We don’t need unanimous agreement to take useful action. My summary below is an attempt to stay brief while including links for further information.
Social: In the United States, grade schools have “active shooter drills” the way we used to do tornado drills, because there are shooters in schools – unthinkable before the 1999 Columbine massacre. Churches are targets too. Polarization is strong: read the comments on any mildly controversial news article – say, something about indigenous rights in Canada – and see the hate. This is a beginning of social collapse. When it gets worse, people flee. About that, Warsan Shire offers (a fragment of a poem):
Meanwhile indigenous people everywhere point out that this has been their reality for generations. To some of us, it’s collapse. To others, normal life since the arrival of the colonizers.
Political: Right now, United States people are polarized over impeachment, Democrats argue about progressive versus centrist candidates, and the Left argues with itself about nonviolence versus armed struggle. (I wonder what the Right argues about.) People protesting in Hong Kong just to keep their civil liberties have been shot and jailed. Evo Morales stepped down in Bolivia and a right-wing senator took charge, peaceful protestors being shot in the streets. A series of world governments have been been taken over by isolationist or fascist leaders, many through illegal or fraudulent elections, many openly encouraging hate toward some minority and/or openly destroying the environment (United States; Bolivia; Brazil; United Kingdom, and lots of small powerless countries…) The government of my country has been involved in overthrowing smaller governments of all kinds, whenever economic interests suggest it. (No link, over 100 years of stories, ask me.)
Economic: The top three people in the United States, the top eight in the world, hold most of everything, while the poor are desperate. Real wages in the U.S. haven’t risen in years, though the economy is considered strong and expenses have gone up considerably.
Climate and environmental collapse: Fires and floods are dramatic and visible. Droughts, the warming of the ocean, the death of species, the loss of nutrients in everyday foods are less obvious but very real. This is why we have refugees, and why more people are sick, and it contributes to violence at many levels. Finally people are talking about it. Greta Thunberg is a heroine to the same people who have ridiculed and denied climate change for decades now, but people who take action are still tear gassed, imprisoned, labeled terrorists – and in much of the world simply murdered. Big Oil and Big Coal have been caught covering up advance knowledge decades ago – just like Big Tobacco.
I don’t like writing about this. Usually I write about the dream, the vision, the cultural and spiritual change that we need to become whole again. I just feel the need to mention the problem; the spiritual change is not just for fun, not entertainment, it’s necessary. Today I’m particularly excited after a conversation with Courtney Work, an anthropologist who studies indigenous people in Southeast Asia, whose stories have given me a feeling for a life full of the sacred, embraced by mountains and forests and all living beings, a way that people have actually lived. Because she too sees that way of life as a the way of healing, we can talk.
The schedule will be much simpler this year, because I’m taking time off to write a book. I can’t leave my paid work, but I can cut back on making flyers and sending out notices. On the other hand, giving talks or having deep conversations will be helpful. So here are planned events, and below are some informal ways to connect. (Most are not posted on the website yet. Feel free to email Shodo for information.) And partial participation is nearly always possible.
January 4, Atlanta: One-day retreat with Red Clay Sangha, Saturday noon to 8 pm, and Sunday morning talk.
January 10-11, Atlanta: Two-day sesshin with Midtown Atlanta Zen, Friday and Saturday.
March or April: Introduction to Zen, a 2-day retreat with a Saturday morning option. Will be scheduled based on the first three inquiries; please email Shodo to help mobilize this.
June 25-30, sesshin at Hokyoji (SE Minnesota), co-led with two other teachers. Very beautiful place, great food, and the increased cost supports the oldest Zen retreat center in the Midwest.
July or August, Land Care Retreat will be scheduled later. A weekend.
September 25-29, sesshin at the farm.
November 30-December 8, Rohatsu sesshin, at the farm. The traditional week-long sesshin honoring Buddha’s enlightenment, deep in winter and snow with fire heat.
The farm events will be posted on the website later.
There will still be potlucks, mostly the 3rd Sunday evening. They’ll be organized by email, so let me know if you want to get reminders. In addition, if you are interested in hosting a potluck at your house, talk with me. I’m happy to support you, including sharing the planned talk or video. The next three: talk by Courtney Work at Northfield Buddhist Center, talk by Beth Goldring at Northfield Buddhist Center, and interview of Joanna Macy by Jem Bendell.
If you’d like to come to work days, email me to get on the list (for instance maple syrup in late winter) and I’ll let you know – or contact me and set up a time. If you want an email when there’s a project, tell me now and I’ll put you on the list.
A tiny fundraiser: We were given some quilts from Sanshinji – my teacher’s temple – and they have become mats
in the meditation hall. Now we could use some more cushions. Want to donate? We can buy 8 zafu covers for $240 from these people, and stuff them with old socks as I always do. If donations are more, we can buy whole cushions at a discounted rate. (You can also donate an actual zafu, if you have extra.) We chose the supplier because of environmental and labor standards.
What else can I say? Winter is here. It took me only 2 hours to shovel the driveway and walk, clean the wood stove, throw ashes on the hilly part of the drive, and and start the next fire.
Please be safe and well as the seasons change. Please hold your heart open to the whole world.
Love to you all,
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.
I should mention first that this conversation is going to move from WordPress to Wheedu. The place you can find it will be http://www.wheedu.com/groups/vairochana-farm#/. You can join there, and get regular updates and have conversations. Once everybody has switched, I’ll discontinue the WordPress blog. It will be better on spam and several other matters. (If you have trouble, please message me here or somehow.)
Even though the goats sort of captured my attention, there’s lots else going on. The first harvest from the garden has had me freezing, cooking, and pickling, and I’d be drying but the drying rack isn’t built yet. Pulling and whacking down weeds is more fun than building and moving fences – and they have to be moved every few days. Fixing the mower myself felt good, though I’d rather have my hands in the dirt. There’s excitement in the first tomatoes, first zucchini, and so forth. (I started really late so I still have firsts – nobody else still has peas.)
There are so many things to do – each one exciting, each one leading to many hours more than I thought. There’s a hillside by the driveway, where we first pulled out invasives and planted mulberry, hazelnuts, aronia, and a few flowers. I went back and pulled out more invasives. I want to cut down some extra trees, use downed trees and manure to turn it into a hugelkultur terraced garden, and plant a full complement of edible, nitrogen-fixing, 7-layered plants. I did water, and will come back to see when the grapes are ready. But building the goat house comes before that, and so does helping the potatoes (I did something wrong) and harvesting more nettles for the freezer. And I’d rather not use the chainsaw alone, though I do. (A chainsaw may be the best use of fossil fuels ever invented.)
I met with the architects today. The plan (just for the house, not the greenhouse/work building) will cost twice what I have. But I can afford to switch to a wood masonry stove and create a couple of extra bedrooms so people can come here. This is tricky: on the one hand, I need to be patient and take time to create what this place is, so people know what they’re coming to and we can work on that together. On the other hand, I’m paying people to do things that would naturally be done by residents – and things like cleaning the shop (and erosion control, cutting firewood, canning, most garden work, the long term design, the grant for buckthorn removal, and, and…) are just not happening. And people who were paying rent somewhere else are likely to bring some money. So I balance the two, and intend to get the house ready for more people for when the time is right.
Meanwhile, out in the world – there’s Palestine, Israel, Gaza, bombings, anguish, and over here just people shouting at each other about who’s right and what to do. There are little news items like an Ontario blockade of a pipeline, another pipeline failing for loss of investors, people being arrested for this and that, the Climate March. If I weren’t here I could be out there with them, and that thought brings a rush of nostalgia for last year when I was out there with the Compassionate Earth Walk. But it feels like my job now is to establish this space, really get it going, and maybe later there will be something else to do. Or maybe later the task will be simply to take care of whoever comes our way. I do not have confidence that there will be propane next year to heat the house. So I plan not to need it, to be one of those not thrown into panic if things fall apart, one of those available to help.
That seems like a gloomy note. I want to add that living this close to the earth is incredibly joyful, and I expect that others will find it so too when/if the time comes. And I still have trouble finding words. The sun is down and it will wake me early; good night.