When the world is on fire: reflections on these times

Introduction: Not a metaphor

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?

A dream

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.

Refuge and impermanence

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.

Vowing to free all beings

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?

A personal story

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.

Making offerings

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.
Receiving what’s offered
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.

Closing words

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.