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Ecobuddhism Interview

Susan Murphy Roshi:

Minding the Earth

Part 2:  ‘The whole Earth is medicine. What, then, is the self?’

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The "all-sky composite" photo of the whole Universe, taken from the Planck satellite

Susan Murphy Roshi:  What we have been talking about is the first part of the book. I go on then to discuss some of the foundational stories of our Western material culture, which has now become globalised, and the ways in which they have been aware of the danger and pain of our  exile from the wholeness and whole life of the world—from Nature, the biosphere, the Tao, Buddha nature or God. Aware of this exile, or also creating it?  That’s the deep question. The terms of the Earth are actually demanding but they are also absolutely abundant. They just provide everything. They have provided us with our lives. They hold nothing back, nor do they ask us to hold anything back, even our lives. So I examine the way mortality is treated as a problem in our foundational stories. It festers there as something to be hated, associated with having a bodily, mortal nature. That seems to be a major factor that creates an enmity towards the natural world and its clear insistence that ‘your life is also my life’.  I look at how that enmity appears in a number of mythic stories through human history.

My affinity with the work of Thomas Berry is not commonplace from a Buddhist point of view. But neither, perhaps, is Zen itself. It did take me some years to be really clear that making the Rakusu and taking the Buddhist precepts (Jukai) was not ‘becoming’ something called ‘a Buddhist’.  I draw the Dharma from every place I recognise it standing up in clarity, including indigenous, Sufi, Christian, Taoist and many other sources, including poetry and the worlds of children.  Whatever turns ordinary understanding on its head and reveals the reality right under our own noses.  And at the root, that is always the Earth itself.

EB: Berry’s version of the Universe Story is based on science and it’s also based on his own mystical realization of the numinous aspect of the Universe and of the Earth. Of course we can find the latter in certain songs or poems of realization, where people have given voice to a big spiritual breakthrough. But I haven’t found it in the general rules, regulations, texts or rituals of traditional Buddhism.

SMR: Berry sees the Universe itself as revelation. In the Chinese Mahayana tradition, the Avatamsaka Sutra has extraordinary imagery that allows you to glimpse the Universe like a hologram. This is what I am writing about, but it isn’t appropriate for the mainstream audience of this book.  And as wondrous as the Avatamsaka is, it didn’t have at its disposal the marvelous revelation science has given us.

I have always loved science even though I have never studied it at university.  I have loved it avidly since I was a child. It’s like looking into world upon world upon world and going back in time, and going down into the microscopic and up into the vastness. That kind of perspective has been offered by our Western cosmology. Only in the last century have we begun to have that (relatively) comprehensive understanding of the unfolding of where we are and what this is.  It is a material account, but that materiality dissolves under close scrutiny. Quantum fluctuation – the way things come in and out of existence–is so extraordinary. Science offers us an extraordinary material account that topples over into wonder, time and time again. Look at the vast amazing Universe that the Hubble telescope shows us. These little momentary jellies we call our eyes can receive the light of the Big Bang.

EB: Have you seen the European satellite “all-sky” composite picture of the whole Universe?  It’s like a cosmic egg with the Milky Way spread right through the middle of it. It’s simply mind-blowing. (see top of page)

SMR: For me science is mind-blowing in the best possible way. It takes me to the limit of mind. And from there you take a step of substantial trust off that into contemplation of the unknown. I cannot separate this from practice.  As Robert Aitken said, ‘Our practice is not to clear up the mystery.  It is to make the mystery clear.’ So the Universe Story adds really wonderful things for me. It actually creates a mythic reach of the imagination into which we can place ourselves. We can allow ourselves to step into it and become vast. If we can’t do that, we can’t possibly dream where we are and the value of this all but impossible Earth that so insistently brings forth life, that so clearly wants to live.  It’s all such a wonderfully unlikely event. It’s so dear that it brings us to tears.

The other remarkable thing about the Universe Story and Thomas Berry’s beautiful take on this whole matter, is how it leads into viewing the Earth on a practical legal level—Earth jurisprudence and the whole ethics of this matter. It follows on so naturally from valuing to ethics. That’s what I explore in the middle part of the book, before I come to the question of what the Zen koan can contribute to what I call a healing crisis. I hope this inescapable disaster we are going to be experiencing will be a healing crisis in human consciousness. I spend the last part of the book finishing the main thrusts of the argument, discussing the Zen koan, and offering examples of how the koan can allow us to fall past ourselves into something much bigger, vaster and more intimate. That also means intimate with the Earth because it is the Earth that wakes us up. Every realization experience comes through from the Earth itself. It comes, as I see it, from a mind formed by the Earth.

EB: Indeed. And  the evolutionary biology of the brain does suggest that our ancestors’  relational skills with the Earth, which are an intrinsic part of how and why we are here, have been partitioned into the right cerebral hemisphere—while the left has developed the symbol systems of language and numbers, and of course technology. And as Iain McGilchrist has pointed out there is considerable evidence that competition between the hemispheres is a factor in the Industrial Revolution and all that has happened since. We are now embedded in a culture of extreme left-hemisphere dominance. It seems to me this problem goes right down to an inner neurological conflict.

SMR: It probably does. I can see much evidence for that. I suppose I use some of that evidence myself in the book. I think what you can definitely say is that the left-brain is made tightly defensive by a koan. The great gift of it is to force you to restore or resume also your right-brain-ness. It gives you back the whole. You don’t lose your ability to appreciate the symbolic, the abstracted qualities of the mind at all, but you have the whole back again. It obliges you to move with a non-dual mind. You can’t meet the koan any other way, so it’s a wonderful gift from the Zen tradition.

EB: Zen is one of the paramount examples of the non-dual tradition in Buddhism. How would you compare that non-duality in Buddhism with the indigenous wisdom of your Aboriginal friends? And how do they relate to what we have been discussing, the recovery of the capacities of the right-hemisphere through defeating the symbol system on its own terms.

SMR: Something like that happens indirectly in the presence of people like Uncle Max, when you go “out bush” or “into country” with him, as we say here. “Country” in the Aboriginal sense actually brings with it a whole understanding of a network of  relationships, human and natural. You don’t make a distinction of human versus natural in country. Country is a vast kinship system which includes human kinship and it extends without a blink to all the other life forms and the mountains and rivers. So, country is composed of this network of relationship. You simply cannot approach it as a place with things in it. With that mind, you will never glimpse it.

So when you are out bush with Uncle Max, you move into a strange place where your mind goes helpless. It’s an interesting moment when you realize that you can’t follow what he is saying with left-brain thinking. It just doesn’t work. And you have to drop that and you feel like a person trying to write with their left-hand—very clumsy in your thinking.  Suddenly it clicks into place and you see the way he is talking.

I gave an example in the book where he will talk about “that fella” and “this fella” and “that fella over there”, and you realize that he is talking about a tree, a bird, a creek, they are all fellas. They are fellas that are in intricate relation with each other. Those relationships move through time, as certain moments. The coming together of certain relationships triggers awareness of exactly what place you manifest in the net, what time you are in, where to expect to find or encourage food to be, and what will be happening in the largest sense of everything moving together. You know all the things that will be happening if you see just that bird arrive on that tree—or if those whales are out there now, and they are moving a certain way.

You are inclined to think “What is that fella”? And if you ask for a name, he would just say “It’s that fella.” You cannot move into objectifying. You can only stand inside that field of relationships between subjectivities – points of sentience - and see with those eyes. And suddenly you do. It’s a wonderful shift. It’s not unlike the koan. You  become rather dumb and helpless. Then an essential capacity is restored to you.  At that level it sits beautifully with Zen and everything I have experienced at the deepest level in my three decades or so of Zen practice. It seems to me that wherever Buddhism has travelled, it has tended to talk deeply with the indigenous traditions of that place: in China with Taoism, in Japan with Shinto and in Tibet with Bon. That is just natural to it. I mean the Buddha himself went and sat under a tree like an indigenous person, on the ground. So I don’t see any problem of mismatch or awkwardness at all. It’s a conversation that happens quite naturally.

EB: What would you say about patriarchy, which Berry and others identify as one of the roots of our industrialism, our economics and this ecological crisis?  There is clearly patriarchy in Buddhism, and patriarchy is ensconced in Asia. When we first visited Bhutan, our guide was an educated bilingual Bhutanese woman, who matter-of-factly told us that women had a second-class birth.

SMR: I agree that South Asian Buddhism has been intensely patriarchal. Those cultures continue to be patriarchal. It’s a cultural stain or stigma, I would say, upon the tradition. But it has to be identified quite stringently, and understood actually as an injury to half the human race. I do what I can to talk about this matter without totally getting up people’s noses. There’s an interesting attempt going on in the Zen world at the moment to recover the identities of all the forgotten, unnamed, passed-over women of the tradition—to recover the suppressed or ‘forgotten’ lineages of enlightened women.



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EB: We sent you the picture (above) of an old Tibetan lady practitioner, taken shortly before her remarkable death. Her after-death samadhi lasted a couple of weeks. The cremation phenomena were no less remarkable, like that of a high lama. Yet she accomplished all her practice as a mother and grandmother. And most people will never hear of her.

SMR: That’s right. She will be an unknown woman. We are of course all unknown at the deepest level, but in the human world of valuing and not-valuing, the non-valuing of women has to be named, called out, and refused. It has to change—the extremes of persecution of women right now in the world – in the Muslim world, in India, pretty much everywhere in various ways, including the recent creepy tendency in the U.S. Republican party with its extremist hatred of women, expressed as a drive to subordinate and control women’s lives and bodies. Perhaps even this is an example of a kind of healing crisis. When things get pushed to such extremes they have to produce revulsion and an equally intense reaction of clearer seeing. It might not happen in our lifetime. You can’t force or dictate it.

Something dawned on me more and more about this painful feeling of being unable to do something to help save the world, assuage the sense of shame. As long as you are thinking of doing something, you are missing how evolution actually works. Evolution is a constant experimental process, but the way things evolve is much more subtle than the doing of something.  Ecology doesn’t do something. To learn not doing is the whole purpose of meditation. From this whole field of seeing into not doing comes a special kind of fruitfulness.  It begins in a kind of refraining from doing the self, reconstructing the self endlessly.

EB: Well we could describe the left-hemisphere’s role in human life as the construction and maintenance of an autobiographical self. Iain McGilchrist’s book explores the neurological psychology in great detail. For him, it’s a reversal of priority that’s needed. Because the left hemisphere is just an emissary, one that has become a tyrant. The authentic master-hemisphere is the right, the seat of the intuitive mind.

SMR:  In meditation we cultivate that mind. Meditation is deep listening. Listening is not doing, it’s receiving. And it’s a tuning and an entirely different practice from seeing and grasping. You know how the eyes grasp all the time?

EB:  And the right hand is also controlled by the left hemisphere. Language and grasping are adjacent. Words and grasping are neurological neighbors, intimate associates in function and practice. I would just like to ask you in closing: how do you see the way forward from here?

SMR: That’s a very interesting question. I spent an entire evening the other day exploring this publicly in a book-related event, with an environmental activist who is also a Buddhist. He loved the book but said it left him feeling irate at some level, because he had expected me to reveal the previously unrevealed wonderful things one could do. And instead, it asks us to wean ourselves away from that mind into something more like the mind of the Earth.  So the question is, how do you go forward, how do you lean into the reality we are talking about? Lean into it and even rely upon it to be a constant provider of the next step, the direction that must be taken. There’s that old story, of coming upon a rural type and saying “I need to get to so and so, how do I get there from here?” And the person says, “Oh, you can’t get there from here.” 

You cannot set out the steps from here to there. You have to discover them with every step. All of us have to do that. We have no choice. There is nothing else to rely on except the thing that is happening. I think that is very hard to appreciate at first. Recently, just before I did this Friday night book event, which the audience loved by the way...it was so intense because we really got down deep into this question. Just before that I’d been in Sesshin for a week. Sitting outside I looked from time to time at this paddock of grass, and just as you do with eyes after sitting meditating a lot, instead of seeing individual grass stems, and something that we call ‘grass’ (just as if we knew what that was) I just saw a living field of energy. That field of energy was grass in inter-relation. It was as if the grass shared one mind. Almost like seeing all its many neurons dancing in the light. I could actually see it that way, and then I could switch back to seeing ‘grass’. And then relax back into seeing that field of pure collaborative energy. It’s very simple but hard to describe. It is exactly the case. You can also investigate and admire every single blade of grass in that paddock. Each one is its own marvelous fact, and it’s not a thing. There is no thing in that other, wider way of seeing. 

I think the book is of value if it helps us see that we can’t approach this great evolutionary koan of the Earth that we are inside at this moment with the kind of thinking that has created it, to use the words of Einstein. That thinking won’t work. That thinking has always split self from environment. I deeply dislike the almost meaningless word ‘environment’. It’s a real ‘left-brainer’. As Yunmen asked, in one of the great Zen koans, ‘The whole Earth is medicine. What, then, is the self?’ There is no environment as opposed to self. There is no self except the whole. If the book can keep us from falling back into that mind, even for one unforgettable moment, I will feel that it has done its job in the world and been of a little value.


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Susan Murphy Roshi, the founding teacher of Zen Open Circle, leads Sesshin trainings in Sydney & Melbourne. She is a writer, radio producer & film director who has also taught writing & film for many years. She co-wrote three books on film, directs the annual Sydney Buddhist Film Festival, and teaches embodied dreamwork & imagination for artists, therapists & actors. Her new book is Minding the Earth, Mending the World (2012).




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