Ecology, Place & the
Awakening of Compassion
by Gary Snyder
View of the Likir valley, Ladakh, from the local monastery rooftop
Oecology, as it used to be spelled, is a scientific study of relationships, energy-transfers, mutualities, connections, and cause-and-effect networks within natural systems. By virtue of its finding, it has become a discipline that informs the world about the danger of the breakdown of the biological world. In a way, it is to Euro-American global economic development as anthropology used to be to colonialism. That is to say, it is a kind of counter-science, generated by the abuses of the development culture (and capable of being misused by unscrupulous science mercenaries in the service of the development culture). The word “ecological” has also come to be used to mean something like “environmentally conscious.”
The scientist, we are told, seeks to be objective. Objectivity is a semi-subjective affair, and although one would aspire to see with the distant and detached eye of a pure observer, when looking at natural systems the observer is not only affecting the system, he or she is inevitably part of it. The biological world with its ecological interactions is this world, our very own world. Thus, ecology (with its root meaning of “household science”) is very close to economics, with its root meaning of “household management.” Human beings, biology and ecology tell us, are located completely within the sphere of nature. Social organization, language, cultural practices, and other features that we take to be distinguishing characteristics of the human species are also within the larger sphere of nature.
To thus locate the human species as being so completely within “nature” is an upsetting step in terms of the long traditions of Euro-American thought. Darwin proposed evolutionary and genetic kinship with other species. This is an idea that has been accepted intellectually, but not personally and emotionally, by most people. Social Darwinism flourished for a while as a popular ideology justifying nineteenth-century imperialism and capitalism, with an admiring emphasis on competition. The science of ecology corrects that emphasis and goes a step further. It acknowledges the competitive side of the process, but also brings forward the co-evolutionary, cooperative side of interactions in living systems. Ecological science shows us that nature is not just an assembly of separate species all competing with each other for survival (an urban interpretation of the world?)—but that the organic world is made up of many communities of diverse beings in which the species all play different but essential roles. It could be seen as a village model of the world.
An ecosystem is a kind of mandala in which there are multiple relations that are all powerful and instructive. Each figure in the mandala—a little mouse or bird (or little god or demon figure)—has an important position and a role to play. Although an ecosystem can be described as hierarchical in terms of energy flow, from the standpoint of the whole all of its members are equal.
But we must not sentimentalize this. A key transaction in natural systems is energy-exchange, which means the food-chains and the food-webs, which means that many living beings live by eating other beings. Our bodies—or the energy they represent—are thus continually being passed around. We are all guests at the feast, and we are also the meal! All of biological nature can be seen as an enormous puja, a ceremony of offering and sharing.
The intimate perception of interconnection, frailty, inevitable impermanence and pain (and the continuity of grand process and its ultimate emptiness) is an experience that awakens the heart of compassion. It is the insight of bodhicitta that Shantideva wrote of so eloquently. It is the simultaneous awakening of a personal aspiration for enlightenment and a profound concern for others.
Ecological science clearly throws considerable light on the fundamental questions of who we are, how we exist, and where we belong. It suggests a leap into a larger sense of self and family. It seems clear enough that a consequence of our human interdependence should be a social ethic of mutual respect, and a commitment to solving conflict as peacefully as possible. As we know, history tells a different story. Nonetheless, we must forge onto ask the next question: How do we encourage and develop an ethic that goes beyond intra-human obligations and includes non-human nature? The last 200 years of scientific and social materialism, with some exceptions, has declared our universe to be without soul and without value except as given value by human activities. The ideology of development is solidly founded on this assumption. Although there is a tentative effort among Christians and Jews of goodwill to enlarge their sense of ethics to include nature (and there have been a few conferences on “eco-Christianity”), the mainstream of Euro-American spirituality is decidedly human-centred.
Asian thought-systems (although not ideal) serve the natural world a little better. Chinese Daoism, the Sanatana (“eternal”) Dharma of India, and the Buddhadharma of much of the rest of Asia all see humanity as part of nature. All living creatures are equal actors in the diving drama of Awakening. As Tashi Rapges said, the spontaneous awakening of compassion for others instantly starts one on the path toward enlightenment. They are not two. In our contemporary world, an ethic of concern for the non-human arrives not a moment too soon. The biological health of the planet is in trouble. Many larger animals are in danger of becoming extinct, and whole ecosystems with their lakhs of little living creatures are being eliminated. Scientific ecology, in witness to this, has brought forth the crisis-discipline of Conservation Biology, with its focus on preserving biodiversity. Biodiversity issues now bring local people, industries, and governments into direct and passionate dialogue over issues involving fisheries, marine mammals, large rare vertebrates, obscure species of owls, the building of huge dams or road systems—as never before.
The awakening of the Mind of Compassion is a universally known human experience, and is not created by Buddhism or any other particular tradition. It is an immediate experience of great impact, and Christians, Jews, Muslims, Communists, and Capitalists will often arrive at it directly—in spite of the silence of their own religions or teaching on such matters. The experience may often be completely without obvious ethical content, a moment of leaving hard ego self behind while just seeing, just being, at one with some other.
Much of India and the Far East subscribes in theory at least to the basic precept of non-harming. Ahimsa, nonviolence, harmlessness, is described as meaning “Cause the least possible harm in every situation.” Even as we acknowledge the basic truth that every one of us lives by causing some harm, we can consciously amend our behaviour to practically reduce the amount of damage we might do, without being drawn into needless feelings of guilt.
Keeping nature and culture healthy in this complicated world calls us to a kind of political and social activism. We must study the ways to influence public policy. In the western hemisphere we have some large and well-organized national and international environmental organizations. They do needed work, but are inevitably living close to the centres of power, where they lobby politicians and negotiate with corporations. In consequence, they do not always understand and sympathize with the situations of local people, village economics, tribal territories, or impoverished wage-workers. Many scientists and environmental workers lose track of that heart of compassion, and their memory of wild nature.
The actualization of the spiritual and political implications of ecology—that it be more than rhetoric or ideas—must take place, place by place. Nature happens, culture happens, somewhere. This grounding is the source of bioregional community politics Joanna Macy ad John Seed have worked with the image of a “Council of All Beings.” The idea of a Village Council of All Beings suggests that we can get specific. Think of a village that includes the trees and birds the sheep, goats, cows, and yaks and the wild animals of the high pastures (ibex, argali, antelope, wild yak) as members of the community. And whose councils, in some sense, give them voice.
Then to provide space. For example in Ladakh and Tibet, village territories certainly should include the distant communal pastures (p’u) and the sub-watersheds as well as the cultivated fields and households. In the case of Ladakh, and indeed all of India, when a village is dealing with government or corporation representatives it should insist that the “locally used territory” embraces the whole local watershed. Otherwise, as we have too often seen, the government agencies or business forces manage to co-opt the local hinterland as private or “national” property, and relentlessly develop it according to an industrial model.
We need an education for the young people that gives them pride in their culture and their place, even while showing them the way into modern information pathways and introducing them to the complicated dynamics of world markets. They must become well informed about the workings of governments, banking, and economics, those despised, but essential mysteries. We need an education that places them firmly within biology, but also gives a picture of human cultural affairs and accomplishments over the millennia. (There is scarcely a tribal or village culture that doesn’t have some sort of music, drama, craft, and story that it can be proud of when measured against the rest of the world.) We must further a spiritual education that helps children appreciate the full interconnectedness of life and encourages a biologically informed ethic of non-harming.
All of us can be as placed and grounded as a willow tree among the streams—and also as free and fluid in the life of the whole planet as the water in the water cycle that passes through all forms and positions roughly every two million years. Our finite bodies and inevitable membership in cultures and regions must be taken as a valuable and positive condition of existence. Mind is fluid, nature is porous, and both biologically and culturally we are always fully part of the whole.
Gary Snyder (b.1930) is an American poet, essayist, lecturer & environmental activist (described as the "poet laureate of Deep Ecology"). He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975, Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1997 & Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2008. His work reflects his lifelong immersion in Buddhist spirituality (primarily Zen) & in Nature.