Sunday, 27 August 2017

Practice notes: Mindfulness of Death


'... mindfulness of death, when developed and cultivated, is of great fruit and benefit, culminating in the Deathless, having the Deathless as its consummation ...' A 8: 74
'May I live just the length of time it takes to breathe out after breathing in, or to breathe in after breathing out, so that I may attend to the Blessed One's teachings.' A 8: 73

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Death is universal; the number of people who recollect it are few.  Death rocks our boat. So it’s experienced as a tragedy that comes as a surprise. However bearing one's death, and that of others in mind, is the entrance to a deep inquiry into life. In the focus of mortality, we’re all equal; status and character disposition fall away and our customary self is powerless, seen as a curious detail whose claims and importance are embarrassing. And so ... some shrug and get on with their lives; some say that we are snuffed out like the flame of a candle; some believe that will be judged according to our deeds by an officer of the inscrutable Other, and those who are judged worthy will be awarded a place in the Deathless.

The Buddha was clearly aware of these views and was motivated to a spiritual quest to find his own resolution, a path to the Deathless. That, not an altruistic mission to relieve the world's suffering, was his avowed aim for Going Forth. What he realized as the first of three great knowledges on the night of his Awakening was a connection to previous states of being. Rebirth was not a universally accepted view at the time (the Vedas are largely concerned with welfare in this life, and four of the six prominent seers of the time held views close to that of the great 'snuffing out'), so this was a revelation whose practical import – the second knowledge – is an understanding of the significance of kamma. That is, how we act now determines how we will be in the future. If this truth is grasped in this life, then, as the Buddha subsequently taught, if there is an aware state after death, you go to a place that fits how you've acted; if there isn't, still you live free of corrupt conduct and associate with the wise – who hold you dear. In which case you've 'made a lucky throw on both counts' (M. 60). His presentation is characteristically pragmatic and empowering: no inscrutable Other, but one's kamma determines one's future in this life and the next.  And this kamma is to be investigated, known, purified and transcended by oneself.

Careful attention: not me but my ‘self’
One of the requirements of this practice is to reflect on the topic of mortality with careful attention. Careful, or deep, attention entails taking dispassionate note of the details and the overall quality of an experience (such as its sight, sound, touch, or mental impact); whether it's agreeable or disagreeable, and what mind-states it triggers. This takes one deeper, into the realm of emotion, assumption and attitude – our subjective bias. This bias – the favoring and phobias, inclinations and addictions that cluster around, nudge and even become my 'self' are residual tendencies; they will direct our actions. And thus ingrain and perpetuate themselves. The nub of this is whether these tendencies have been acquired through our own intentions, or installed via that programming of others, they become material for our kamma, and our future. As Barack Obama recently tweeted: 'No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion ...' But plenty of people pick up the habit: yes, there is kamma that’s based on the beliefs of others. And we can act that out. So kamma, although its transpersonal, certainly creates us – and how we see others.

Hence the imperative is to clear it.  This can't be done through the self mechanism that kammic tendencies have formed.  This is where mindfulness of death can help. Bearing our death as witness, we can attend to acquired tendencies as they are, without struggling or judgement. Beneath their mobile voices and scenarios – ‘Why am I like this?’ ‘What should I do?’ ‘How do people see me?’ ‘Does that means she really likes me a lot?’ ‘What approach is best for my work?' (etc.) – are the instincts for self definition and reclamation. But Death isn't interested in that. So attention settles onto the direct and incontrovertible cause of what's stirring the mind: one is regretful, annoyed, anxious or desirous. Either that, or one is grateful and equanimous – and the stirring subsides. The presence of Death then offers a check-in with one's kamma: ‘if I am to die “on the next out breath” what do I need to do, what am I going to do about that mind-state?’ If it feels agitating, unresolved or nagging, bearing mortality in mind is of great fruit, because in death's doorway, letting go gets easier. Much easier than in the seemingly endless corridor of the future. (You know, that future might not happen. People die at all ages; some don't even make it out of the womb.)

On the other hand, if the mind feels serene and confident, then there can be a rejoicing in that state. Buddhist heaven, here and now. This is a fruition, but not the most complete.

No furniture, and no room
Because, how about the past? Why was the Buddha's awakening triggered by recollecting previous lives? Maybe it's because awareness of the range of personalities that grow around the citta over time reduces the significance of any one of them. For us who don't have that depth of insight, recollecting who one has been in this life is a substitute: the roles, the passions, the struggles, the plans that changed, the life that went through mysterious shifts and caused transformations to occur... who wrote this script? And who am I? With that non-answer, something deep can let go. This has all been a show, a throw of the kammic dice – what do you want to make out of all this?

If you've made peace with all you’ve been, you are released from the burden of having to justify or figure yourself out; you focus instead on the intentions that arise in the present. And if the person and his/her tendencies has been resolved, there need not be any more of them. And 'this is the Deathless, namely, the liberation of citta from the basis of clinging.' (M.106:13).

So don't look in the heavens, or fret over the past. All Dhamma practitioners that I have known who conclude their lives carefully express deep gratitude. Dying has helped them to affirm that dukkha has subsided. It's a natural thing. Carefully attending to what is most obvious, universal and inevitable is then of great fruit. Recollection of death may take the furniture out of our living room; but it can spur the relinquishment of grudges, instigate a review all plans and an assessment of one's state in the here and now. And it offers a way out of the room altogether. What a friend!

A guide for practice
The quotes above are for practitioners who are not in a terminal condition. Consequently such a recollection is for all of us, every day. Here are some suggestions.

  • Find some time and place in the day to spend ten to fifteen minutes for the practice. Obviously, the setting should be quiet and free from intrusion; maybe the optimal time for a sustained focus is in the evening, after the day’s events.Take up a reclining position, feeling the solid support beneath your body. Settle your mind through a suitable means: mindfulness of breathing, or kindness and good will, or recollection of the Buddha are prime options.
  • Be aware of the space around your body; get to feel sheltered and warmly wrapped in it. Relax your awareness of the visual and auditory domains. Let your mental awareness attune to the sheltered space around your body; then dwell in it until that quality wraps around your mind. Get your body to settle more deeply, keeping a straight awake posture with eyes open/half-open to guard against falling asleep.
  • Having settled the present, scroll back through the day. Does anything stick? Is there anything you regret? Does anything cause you to leave your settled space? Taking that aware space around your mind as a foundation, contemplate the daily events: what's worth dwelling on? Can you bring to mind any events to feel grateful for? Or any non-events to feel relieved by?  As for the difficulties: can you let them really be the past of a someone who’s passed? Notice what qualities and values arise as you do that.
  • Let these qualities come to the fore.  You may give then names like ‘compassion’ , ‘patience’ ‘truthfulness’ or just notice them as heart energies that keep you settled and open. As personally verified qualities, these are worth more than a mountain of ideals and theories; they enrich your aware space. Consider your life as fieldwork in cultivating real value.  
  • Consider the mortality of others. Notice what that brings up, with regard to those we admire and feel grateful towards and those we have difficulties with.  Can you imagine that person dissolving into death? What remains with you?Let the review sweep back through time: is there anyone who debases your mind with resentment? Anyone who shines a light? What’s needed to gather your heart into a unified state? What is your practice, your 'Dhamma-body'?
  • Dwell in that aware state, sensing any energies or moods, even if you can't name them. Stay light and open and let things unfold  When there’s only the openness, the values that brought you to it remain as living guide.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Ageing, into true orientation

Ageing; it’s an ongoing reality, not just a Buddhist reflection. Sure, I still have good health, and am I think, quite fit. The week-long walk I recently undertook in southern England was manageable and enjoyable – but about 10-12 miles (16-19 kms.)per day of not very challenging hills was definitely enough. What surprised me was that it took my legs a week or more to get back to the kind of flexibility that best suits sitting meditation. 

But at least I can still do that: at the International Sangha meeting that immediately preceded the walk, the number of elders sitting in chairs is  becoming noticeable. More striking was the physical condition of Luang Por Sumedho, who at eighty-two was the eldest participant, and whose energy levels only allowed for an hour or two of interactive time per day; time carefully stewarded by his bhikkhu attendant. ‘Wait until you reach eighty,’ was Luang Por’s comment. Still, his presence was as much an inspiration as a reflection on mortality: his mind seemed bright, even playful, and whenever he settled after the awkwardness of moving a body whose feet don’t give clear signals of the condition of the ground, and whose sight is impaired, his presence felt serene and quietly joyful. During the gathering and the retreat that preceded it, he gave all he could. And although there’s only so much one can expect of tissues and energy, the results of steering those towards purifying the heart certainly made that direction look like the best option. Tissues and a mind bound up in them stiffens and dies; but the heart can rise and be bright. Preceded by  fifty years of training, and service, eighty looks pretty good.

If you’re not there yet, wait until you reach sixty. That’s when it became obvious to me that bodily energy has limitations. When you’re in your twenties and thirties, there’s tons of it to spare (sometimes too much). In those days, when sangha life seemed to be an endless project in terms of creating physical, managerial and spiritual structures, I could just throw myself into it all with an eagerness that had to be tempered by restraint and patience. Nowadays, it’s more the case of consciously rising up to such concerns as present themselves within my orbit, and managing energy by taking breaks. My last mountain walk, in 2010, made it clear that the ‘just push through and keep going’ strategy was no longer relevant. The body won’t do it: half way up a slope, it slows, stops and sits down. Then one has to wait for the energy to return; it no longer comes at one’s call. Lesson one in the academy of ageing: a realistic preview of an undertaking, with the understanding that a project, task or venture can’t necessarily be undertaken just because it’s useful or interesting. Even emails: unless they’re managed, they multiply into long threads that keep me at a screen for hours each day. So, sorry, but I don’t automatically respond. It feels a bit sad, but if I’m a teacher, then I have to teach and model ageing, and present the field-work. 

Lesson two is to know one’s boundaries and stay within them. Ageing means there are limits. Even with intellectual energy. When I wrote the book Dawn of the Dhamma in 1990, I did so by working ten hours per day, six days a week for five weeks. Now if I take on such a project, maybe three to four hours of focused work per day is the maximum, along with at least one day per week of leaving it in a metaphorical or real drawer. That feels more in accord with Nature; most animals rest at least as much as they run around. So what’s within my boundary of concern, responsibility and energy? The lesson teaches us to get an overview before leaping in.

Lesson three: learning curves get steeper. In fact rather then trying to learn the latest ways to manipulate technology, it's probably a better use of resources to ask some younger monk or savvy lay person for help. With that softening of independence and will power comes the ability to receive more fully the goodwill of others. And to appreciate their skills without having to have them myself or feel inadequate. Mutuality and appreciation come to the fore.

Lesson four is flexibility. It’s not just physical. As a matter of routine, I exercise with yoga āsana as I’ve done for nearly fifty years now, along with Qi Gong (over twenty years), but often for no more than twenty minutes or so. A newer development is that the days have become more flexible in terms of what I do and how much; and nights too – time spent in sleep can vary between four and six hours. But there are also rest states other than sleeping; meditation itself is increasingly about entering a state of alert repose, moderating the energy levels to a steady-state and feeling into the space of awareness. At a quieter level of energy, awareness is flexible (not flaccid): ready to engage, but not aiming at anything. That repose is wakeful, non-directional, expansive and receptive. In this, subtle and more foundational effects and causes can be discerned, opened to and released. Meditation then has become as much a norm that I return to, as a practice; it means entering a mode of awareness that gives energies, thoughts, or other conditions the space to be met and integrated or released.  However when energy is more steady and settled, the mind follows suit and there's less to deal with. The mind isn’t interested in creating anything or directing, deciding, discriminating, judging; it's done plenty of that, thank you. Instead it settles at a level of consciousness that is more primary and even pre-personal. Awareness feels open and liminal; it’s in the territory before conceiving (self, other, future, past etc.) gets going. 

Once this sense is known, it can become a primary orientation. That allows a greater degree of flexibility around function, performance and relationships. One doesn't have to be the best; one doesn't have to be the fulfilment of other people’s expectations. One doesn't need to prove or live up to aims and standards that pull awareness away from the centre; it’s more important to feel the pulls and pressures and stay centred. But that’s not self-centred: the truth of awareness must be lived out with its willingness to be present and receptive to that which arises. Any resistance, or shrinking away, or shrugging off become apparent as defence strategies, and are felt as a constriction, a loss of freedom. So settled awareness doesn’t accord with self-interest; it’s more attuned to a correct relationship with what arises. Getting to that point takes practice, and I’m still a learner at this – but I take note of how the great elders of our international community operate: they seem to know when to act, what to say and when, while remaining free from personal preoccupation. Flexible.

Lesson five (highlighted by a steady stream of friends and supporters passing away) is to get to that point; and let others sort out the details and the extras. So I find myself more and more teaching what seems most essential; to help people (and myself) access intelligent and comfortable awareness. If this awareness is a steady orientation, it’s possible to live and grow in this personal world; here is a sense of safety with its fundamental goodwill. The tricky detail being that it isn’t personal; it’s before the personal conditions arise. And that means that the sources of the programs and attitudes that become a person get revealed: dis-ease, restlessness and having to do something, or feeling guilty and inadequate that one isn’t doing (or in fact being) whatever it is that one should be (while not knowing what that is). Not that any of that is your fault. Essentially this dukkha is not personal, not topical, not specific; and it isn’t resolved by doing anything other than tackling its program. It’s non-specific because its source is the pressurised space of one’s unsettled awareness. That then colours everything that the personality forms out of.

That we get old, sicken and die may seem like a basic fact rather than an occasion for learning. But it’s what years of practice prepare us for. That, as there’s no safe place in the world of me and it and pushing and pulling, we’d better take refuge somewhere else. Check it out. Is the space of my awareness free from intrusion and free from obstruction? Check for anxiety, or craving or holding on. If there can be a letting go of compulsions and a settling in to embodied steady-state, we can be safe from hindrances. There can arise sense of fundamental welcome. That sense has nothing to fear and much to feel blessed by.

Thank you age; with such a teacher, unless one wants the spirit to stiffen and die, one just has to get wise.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Sacred Intelligence: it's nearer than you think

A topic that aroused a good deal of interest at the latest Vipassana Teachers’ Conference  (April at IMS) was 'the sacred’. As in ‘What is it?’ ‘Is it a useful reference?’ ‘How do we teach it?’ The interest centred around the distinction between meditation as a system that one does, and the meditative domain that can, over time, open. There thought and the world of the senses dissolve, and the will to do quietens down – so how to speak about such a ceasing, and of what value is it?  Well, rather than being something way out there, maybe it’s closer than we think.

Witness the dialogue between two arahants, Maha Kotthita and Ven. Sāriputta:

Maha Kotthita: Friend, is there anything which exists after the dispassionate cessation of the six spheres of sense-contact?
 Sāriputta: Do not say that, friend.
M.K:Then, friend, there is nothing which exists after the dispassionate cessation of the six spheres of sense-contact?
S: Do not say that, friend.
M.K: Then there both is and is not ... neither is nor is not ... after the dispassionate cessation of the six spheres of sense-contact?
S: Do not say that, friend.
M.K: ...Then how is this matter of which I speak to be regarded?
 S: Friend, in saying that there is...is not...is and is not...neither is nor is not anything which exists, one is making a conceptual proliferation over that which cannot be conceived. Friend, as long as one operates in terms of the six spheres of sense-contact, there will be conceptual proliferation. But, friend, with the dispassionate cessation of the six spheres of sense-contact, there is a calming down of conceptual proliferation. (A.4,174)

‘Conceptual proliferation’, papañca, is the process whereby an idea, impression or principle arising in our minds, is conceived to be some real thing that occurs, or could occur, ‘out there’. It’s not just an intellectual process: we do it all the time when we project characteristics onto other people based on our biases. As when in the act of seeing another person, we attribute (or remove) value based on their clothes, their skin colour, and so on. And through papañca we create our own personhood and its future out of moods and impressions. Then the mind gets stuck on what it has fabricated and makes an emotional tangle out of what we should, might and shouldn’t, be. In this way an impression gets solidified into a three-dimensional reality that overwhelms awareness and extends into the future. This reflex is something that an Awakened One has terminated:
'Humankind delights in proliferation, the Tathāgata does not proliferate' (Dhp. 254)'... having seen what can be seen, the Tathāgata does not conceive the seen, does not conceive the unseen, does not conceive what can be seen, does not conceive one who sees.' (A.4.24)

However given the message that ‘cessation’ doesn’t mean that there’s nothing, ‘sacred’ might well be an acceptable word to place as a flag on that experience; it conveys a profundity and a depth of value – not ‘out there’, but to be sensed in oneself.

Naturally, there are reservations. If you're looking to resolve issues in terms of our social environment, references to the ‘ceasing of contact’ sounds like a sidetrack. Like it’s about spacing out and not dealing with the realities of everyday life. Then again, quite a few Dhamma practitioners are people who have abandoned conventional religion because of its adherence to ritual, and its obedience to the will of the divine – as administered by a fallible hierarchy of priests. Organised religion does by and large conceptually proliferate on the nature of the world, how it was created, why we’re born and what happens when we die; and holds its images and rituals to be the sacred rather than supports to realise it. Worse still, religion has too often been coopted to support the socio-political status quo. As a consequence then, there can be a reluctance to trust in anything other than the evidence of one’s eyes and the power of reasoning: ‘Think for yourself, don’t just follow a tradition’ is a common paraphrase of the 'Kalāma' sutta (A.3.65).

The authenticity is laudable, but what to be authentic about? Strings of slippery words? The gossamer weave of thought? Disorientation? Well, as was the case with the Kalāmas, what is sure is that we all need some standards and values to orient our minds and actions around in a turbulent world, absence just won’t do. (There’s enough of that already.) So: ‘Be your own authority, figure it out for yourself?’ Not quite. Read more carefully, the Kalāma sutta advises us not to follow blindly: oral tradition, a lineage of teaching, hearsay, a collection of scriptures, logical reasoning, inferential reasoning, reasoned cogitation, or acceptance of a view after pondering it, or by the skill of a speaker, or out of loyalty to one’s teacher. In other words just about everything, including one’s own intellect. On the other hand, the sutta does encourages us to put the need to find meaning to the test of direct personal experience. Then if one senses an action or inclination as blameless and ‘praised by the wise’, it should be followed; otherwise, not. So what is needed doesn't come through blind rejection of guidelines, or compulsively holding on to them. Beautifully, there is an orientation we can trust: the Dhamma of direct personal experience, beyond logic; and experienced by ‘the wise’. Because here’s an intelligence that goes deeper than the tides of debate and theory.

‘This Dhamma that I have discovered is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, not within the sphere of reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise …. that is, the stilling of all sankhāra [activations, mental formations], the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbāna.’ (S.6.1)

What can ‘know’ cessation? And if the wise are made so by their ability to navigate where sankhāra go still, what about clear thinking? Even a cursory glance at the scriptures makes it clear that the Buddha talked a lot; he could extemporize in poetry, narrate fables, come to decisions about training principles, and debate with great skill. Yet the Buddha’s vocation is worthy of honour: it is a dispensation that was selfless, authentic, not seeking praise or gain, and offering both ethical guidance and meditative realisation. A teaching that is something we can practise and check out for ourselves. This Dhamma may go beyond the sphere of reasoning, but it’s highly reasonable and amenable to a verbal transmission. ‘A Tathāgata has arisen in the world who teaches a Dhamma that’s directly ascertained, timeless, encouraging inquiry, relevant, personally realisable, and discerned by the wise’_is the standard recollection. That’s pretty sacred too. But it’s hardly the ceasing of ‘mental’ activity, or mental formations, at least according to how we would understand ‘mind’.

To resolve any apparent contradictions, I would return to that ‘knowing’ and comment that the contemporary definition of mind locates it in our heads as the thought system. But the Pali texts have a different understanding. Thoughts are vacisankhāra (articulations, or ‘verbal formations’) and emotions are cittasankhāra (activations and formations of citta); and they are all learned, acquired and the results of kamma. ‘Citta’  on the other hand is the awareness that such content occurs in. Although it is prone to activation ( for good or bad), and is for the average person often engaged with them, it, and it alone, carries sacred intelligence.

In itself, citta may be difficult to define, but its track is a crucial matter: ‘_ Though one’s (former) body be devoured by crows … when a person’s citta has been strengthened for a long time by faith, virtue, learning, generosity and wisdom – that goes upward, goes to distinction.’ (S.55.21). Citta is able to turn away from the khandhā of constructed experience and be directed to ‘the deathless element, thus: “This is peaceful, this is sublime, that is, the stilling of all sankhāra … nibbāna.”’ (M.64, A.9.36). Although ‘nothing can do you so much harm as an misdirected citta’,(Dhammapada 42) 'This is the Deathless, namely the liberation of citta through not clinging.’ (M 106.13 ) This is because: ‘For a long time this citta has been defiled by lust, hatred, and delusion. Through defilement of citta, beings are defiled; through cleansing citta, beings are purified.’(S.22.100) It can be directed, it shines at moments of realisation, its vibrancy and constrictions can be sensed in our bodies, and although the processes with which it is involved make it sound like a soul or a self, citta can’t be traced as an object – because our presence stands behind the grasp of the conceiving mind. But annihilation of citta isn’t what cessation is about. Liberation of citta from sankhāra is the project. Now that’s a precious orientation, that’s Dhamma, that’s sacred.

It may then be more accurate to say that when the wise still their sankhāra, they still any pre-existing attitudes; then if there’s something that needs to be said, they let speech occur; otherwise, they stay silent.

Another way of highlighting citta is to note that it’s not a thing at all, but this ‘knowing’; it’s our subjective presence, the irreducible basis of our experience. Although all ideas and mind-states are objects that can be subjectively known as agreeable, disagreeable and changeable, the knowing of them is citta. So while constantly experiencing this subjectivity, we can’t discern it as an object – hence it is measured in terms of whatever obscures and mars it, by the love and hate and fear that oppress it, by the radiance that adorns it in meditative absorption, or by sense of release that occurs when hindrances abate or are cleared. Moreover, in fully bringing forth the loving qualities of this citta a person becomes ’brahma’ - divine. (A 3, 67; A 4,198). (For the secular mind-set, this takes some swallowing.) But also Through the development and purification of this relational awareness, one is ‘Buddha’ (M 91.31, 32, 33). From this pure intelligence, void of personal bias, attitudes, and craving, the Tathāgata rightly speaks, without papañca, of course.

 All systems, images and rituals, along with all words, principles, my personality and its known world – are objects created by the mind. The reflex of papañca that solidifies them is based on assuming that the actions of consciousness give, or can give, us the real things of life; hence greed, aversion, gain, loss and dissatisfaction. As well as delusion: because things are a mirage; they will always come and go, and be subject to interpretation, disagreement, comparison and conflict. A deluded citta wrapped up and mesmerised by its own creations, is therefore miserable and restless, wanting this and rejecting that, conceiving truth but realising nothing.

The alternative to this dead-end of objectification sits in the awareness before reasoning occur. The Way to the sacred doesn’t open through attempting to define it but through those attitudes and actions towards others and to oneself that lessen the tangle of suffering. Through wise relationship: citta is revealed and purified through relating to what arises. Such is the teaching of the Buddha: ethics, goodwill, dispassion, and a mindful and fearless honesty about how things are. Without this unshakeable alignment, citta is lost in selfhood, enmeshed in its tangle, in danger, and no refuge. So, in terms of the process of practice, we are encouraged to be more gracious, more clear with regard to what arises; less prone to self-criticism and despair; less fearful, grasping and driven: all this elevates Dhamma beyond the scenario of ‘me’ and ‘trying to get it right.’ Or even being ‘right’. It is a Way that includes body, speech and mind in a temple free from bias, failure or gain. In such a domain we are no longer faulty systems to be set straight, damaged machines to be fixed, or cantankerous creatures to be domesticated and ordered, but a potential for the embodiment of values and for the purification of attitude and response. Right here. Only then there can be the revealing of what is beyond our creation and control. When there are no objects to be known, debated, made sacrosanct, there is an experience of complete inclusion.
He has no notion of 'recluse' or ' brahmin' or ' I am better' or I am equal' or ' I am inferior.' (A.4,185) … when he thinks, he thinks only of his own welfare, the welfare of others … the welfare of the whole world. (A. 4,186)

Can anything be more sacred than that?

Monday, 20 March 2017

Despair is not an option


I'm in the midst of writing a book about Buddhism and the environment. By 'environment', I mean just about everything material and immaterial that we're living in. This is because my sense of what constituted the environment changed as I started reflecting around the original core of the topic, the degradation of the natural world. My conclusion was that the 'environment' that we are involved in is an interconnected reality of internal and external fields, of mind and matter, that co-dependently arise. 

Huh? 

Well, as I researched, I kept wondering: 'Why, when there is so much evidence about our effect on the planet, and about 97%+ scientists agree that our actions are driving planetary life to extinction; why when the temperature rises every year, the Arctic is melting, drought and fires incinerate Australia, and floods, hurricanes are on the increase; why, when we have environmentally-friendly alternatives, do we persist in these destructive ways?' And one answer, or part of the answer has to be that the environment is stitched to the global economy; and that has become structured around directly using or trading in the potential to exploit planetary resources (and coincidentally pollute the air, water and earth); and that this economy exerts a huge influence on government. Money buys power. Moreover, ‘planetary resources’ includes not only everything that we can’t create (and which is in limited supply) but also includes people – as workers and consumers. The economy’s point of view is that it has to keep growing (?) and so it needs to keep people buying stuff (even stuff like water which falls out of the sky) in order to do that; and that it has to give them the wherewithal to do that buying. (In a world of growing inequality, where does that money go?) One tricky bit is that business grows best when it gets higher profits, so ideally it’s better to minimize wages. Hence automation, redundancies and poverty. Handling this set-up of giving people enough to spend while providing desirable objects must be quite an act; except that by privatizing necessities, such as water, and making other stuff necessary but with built-in obsolescence (such as smartphones), people more or less have to keep pumping for money. Hence ‘Jobs!’ becomes a political promise ( even though the economy requires and creates unemployment). Maybe I look at the wrong media, but could it be that this is what’s happening? Could it be that the mix of paranoid fantasy, promises and bellicose rhetoric in the political arena is to keep people distracted, blaming and fearful of ‘others’ – and therefore willing to accept a reduction in personal freedom? Hmmm. I recall seeing how a few wolves could panic a herd of bison so that they split up; then they picked off the most vulnerable member. Divide and rule: the politics of the wedge. 

Not that I’m an expert in these matters. But if I’m teaching people, I have to have some sense of what they’re involved with, and the long-term potential of actions and inactions. So, to put it simply, the inner environment of the human mind has always been prone to greed, hatred and delusion, and now we have the technology to go into mass-production. Thus an internal environment conditioned by fear and greed is bound to affect the systems by which we live – and that affects the biosphere. 

This is hardly news. In fact in his address to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago back in 1993, Ven. Bhikkhu Payutto, the most eminent scholar-monk in Thailand today, outlined the perceptions that he saw as the source of the social and environmental problems that face humanity:

• The perception that humankind is separate from nature, and that it must control, conquer or manipulate nature according to human desires.
• The perception that fellow humans are not our fellows; the tendency to focus on the differences between us rather than the common ground. 
• The perception that happiness is dependent on gaining and keeping an abundance of material possessions.

Such perceptions still seem to dominate the mainstream.

So, why bother to write another treatise on a theme that has been adequately covered already, and whose conclusions find inadequate response in the corridors of power? 

Well, I claim responsibility for one piece of the environment – that is, the ‘inner environment’. At least my mind. And as my mind arises in a context of sharing, virtue and trust, I have a responsibility to inquire into the collective inner environment. And be proved wrong if that’s the case. I agree that there is much that I don't know, and I would not imagine that a few words by a Buddhist monk are going to have much effect in the board rooms of global industry, or in the offices where the subsidies that support agro-business in its conversion of soil and trees into money are worked out.  It's not that I think that people should not protest, claim the power to vote on and veto measures that will affect the air, water and soil that they depend on; I would in fact consider that a realignment of the political status quo is a necessary support for the salvation of the planet. To a degree there is already a momentum in this: Occupy, grass-roots movements, local government initiatives and the creation of alternative currencies all indicate that people are tired of waiting for the centralized state to act.  But my own work has to be based on keeping this mind awake and responsive within the human community.

As for setting down some ideas in print: it was in 2013, after a particularly chilling 'climate change' presentation by Bob Doppler (?)(who was advising the Obama administration on the topic) to the Vipassana Teachers' Conference, the teachers were asked to consider: 'What support can you offer, what positive action can you contribute to the welfare of the planet and those who live on it?' Responses ranged from sending a petition to Barack Obama, to establishing ongoing internet communications, to the generation of a network, the Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (DANCE). (It's still going strong, see www.thedancewebsite.org). Most action centres around freeing the mind from negative reactions (depression, violence) to community support, to creating small grass-roots initiatives in farming, recycling and alternative technology, plus the occasional flash mob demonstration. It's a spreading response; it looks small, but it probably did contribute to the Paris 2015 Climate Change agreement. Which is a significant step – although inadequate unless implemented and steadily upgraded.

There didn't seem to be much else I could do: the monastery is pretty green already, but also resistant to a publicly-engaged response. But I decided that as an elder who sits in on Buddhist gatherings and teaches a few, I would at least say something; that I had that responsibility. Hence the resolution to include the theme in talks and also to write a book.  This has taken over 3.5 years so far, namely because I can only research and write what has now around 60,000 words when I have weeks of uninterrupted time: and then it therefore has to compete with my need for stillness and deep meditation practice.  The research itself also puts me in touch with a mountain of depressing statements and statistics. Here are a few: 'if current rates of degradation continue all of the world's top soil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said on Friday.' 'We are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming,' (Reuters, Dec 5, 2014) 'By 2050, at the current rate of dumping and overfishing, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.' (World Economic Forum, January 2016). (And plenty of that plastic will have travelled up the food-chain into human bodies by then; maybe cancer should appear on the menu.) It is at least comforting to note how mainstream is the platform on which the alarm bells are ringing. Surely something must shift. 

But I'm not pinning my hopes on that. Much of what was fresh, unique and regenerative will disappear; we will, if we work at it, be left with a percentage and a new way of managing it. People at the grass-roots level, and within the fields of science and technology are working on it; even the upper management of society is reckoning that it costs too much to have entire cities wiped out through flood damage, or have the workforce disabled by atmospheric pollution.  An optimist would say that the full picture of the environmental crisis has only received (almost) universal acceptance in the last decade, so maybe we need more time to find solutions and set things straight. Maybe so. In the face of my own mortality and personal impotence, I find only one option: to work on what I can find that is worthy. Frustration, despair and bitterness have always been inadequate responses to suffering.  So I work against the potential for these in a way that is suitable for awakening, and I extend that work wherever I can. 'With the ceasing of ignorance is the ceasing of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.' This practice is always worthy, and nothing need take that away.


It is good to realize the numbers of people who are now inquiring, challenging, discussing and creating new possibilities: the growth of renewables, the movement against plastic bags and bottles, the greening of cities, the emphasis on recycling. The transnationalism of the economy has generated an imbalance of wealth; it must be mediated by a transnational ethic of sharing and compassion. As for political change: things are pretty chaotic, and that might allow new ways of organizing our societies to come forth. There must be a turning point at which collective suicide becomes unsustainable. 

Whatever we're left with, and in whatever way we push back the wave of ignorance, we must sustain and gather round that which is worthy. As I am made aware by the goodwill, honesty and self-sacrifice of others, there’s that in the human mind.  How can such nobility be swamped by ignorance? There is a truth of the spirit to be sustained and dwelt in.

For those of you involved in meeting this world, here's a handy memo that I came across, somewhere in trawling through various sites for statistics and views: 
I will not be angry and violent
I will not be depressed
I will not feel loss of hope
I will not lose my energy
I will not stop listening to others who do not agree with me
I will not make people ‘others’
(Apologies to the author, I don't know where it's from.)

As today I can still walk freely under a blue spring sky into which the birch are poking their eager buds; as today I am supported by the freewill generosity of many people; as today I am given the opportunity to deepen into that awareness and view proclaimed by the Buddha, I am unbelievably blessed. I may perch on one corner of this rocky human raft for a while longer. Who knows where it’s going? But I offer my own road map:
Ignorance is unacceptable. Awaken the mind and respond to community. Despair is not an option.