Deepwater, ecological disaster and the heart of awakening

David Kennedy of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) is “frightened.” An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day—that’s 210,000 gallons daily, 8,750 an hour, 146 gallons a minute—are spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from a leaking oil well a mile deep in the ocean. Recent NOAA satellite images show the oil slick to be about 125 miles long and 40 miles wide, covering approximately 5,000 square miles. That’s about the size of Connecticut. The Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explosion of last week seriously injured 17 workers. Eleven are missing and are presumed dead. As the first strands of oil begin to reach environmentally sensitive Louisiana wetlands, 100’s of species of birds and countless other forms of marine life are threatened.

Contemplating the effects of this disaster, I am frightened too. And that is only one of myriad feelings. There is deep sadness at the injury and loss of life and the inevitable future destruction to wildlife and environment; anger, confusion, and a knee-jerk desire to place blame somewhere, anywhere; feelings of helplessness; and guilt over my part in creating the insatiable need for oil that led to this event. Like most of us, I am, willing or not, a daily consumer and user of petroleum products. Indeed, it occurs to me that the plastic keyboard I am typing on as I write this is probably derived from oil, as is much of the computer you are using to read this.

Heart aching, almost physically feeling the environmental devastation, and at a complete loss as to what to do, I recall the “slogan” of Atisha, used in the practice of lojong and tonglen, Tibetan contemplative practices to develop nondual compassion:

“When the world is filled with evil,
Transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi.”

That ache we feel when we contemplate the harm happening to the Earth can become the seed of bodhi, the beginning of awakening and compassion. If  feeling distress over the current environmental destruction, this could be a good time to take a moment from the world of action—even if that action is directed to saving the world—to expand our wisdom and enlarge our hearts to include the whole ocean, even the whole planet, and all of its creatures. Such wisdom and compassion—such a heart of bodhi—can only help us in our response to disaster and our healing of the Earth and ourselves.

You might do this by taking a moment to relax, and then open your heart, and with an open heart practice tonglen, contemplative “taking and sending.”  With a spirit of fearlessness and generosity, take a leap, fearlessly expanding your care and concern. Using the breath as a vehicle, take in the sadness, the fear, the chaos, the injury, even the toxins and the ugliness of the disaster. Open your heart to them, really allowing yourself to feel that this Earth’s creatures—the birds, fish and mammals threatened by the oil spill, even the billions of affected micro-organisms in the ocean, are  not separate from you. They are your family, they are “all my relations,” as the Lakota Sioux say. The Earth itself, including its oceans, are also not apart from you. Indeed you can feel them—you cannot help but feel them—because they are your body. Allow yourself to experience this with your whole being, your body, mind and emotions, if you can. Then, after a little while, breathe out in the form of brilliant golden rays your love, your care and your wishes for healing the planet and all life on it. Do this again and again until peace and love are established within you, and you are ready to walk the path of bodhi, the path of awakening, peace and love.

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Earth touching awakening

Since we recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, this might be a good time to briefly reflect on the relationship between our mother the earth and awakening.

Legend has it that when Lord Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, he was challenged by Mara, the voice of limitation, death and delusion. Mara asked the Buddha by what authority he could claim awakening. In response, Buddha extended his right hand, touched the earth, and said, “The earth is my witness.” These words and this gesture have been immortalized by countless images of Buddha touching the earth, showing the earth-touching mudra.

The meaning of this symbolic story is profound. Many forms of spirituality claim descent from immaterial or “higher” spiritual realms, and set up an opposition between the spiritual and the material. In contrast, Buddha was a human being and he taught that his awakening came from the earth itself. This earthly orientation to awakening permeates the Buddhist teachings. For example, in contrast to the traditional yogic technique of withdrawing the senses—pratyahara, the fifth limb of ashtanga yoga as taught by the father of yoga, Patanjali—Buddhist meditative techniques commonly teach the development of mindfulness and awareness of the senses and their objects.

According to Buddhism, the earth and the objects of the senses are not themselves an obstacle to awakening. It is only a wrong relationship with them, based upon craving and ignorance, that creates our suffering. In the innermost essence of real dharma, the earth and all its forms, when seen without craving or ignorance, perfectly reflect and embody awakening. This wisdom teaching implicitly underlies Buddhism’s many manifestations—from the early Buddhist practice of mindfulness; to the Prajnaparamita teaching that form is emptiness, and emptiness is form; to the Third Turning teaching  that Buddha Nature pervades everywhere; and beyond to the secret teachings of Tantra, Mahamudra and Dzogchen.

Seen with the eye of wisdom, the earth, its forms, all of its beings and we ourselves are embodied awareness, and are all worthy of reverence and love.

Sticking to what I don’t know

As an experiment, I thought I’d see if  I really knew anything with absolute certainty. This might help unmuddy the waters and trim away the fat.

When I look deeply at what I know absolutely, I find precious little. I can’t say for sure if my own ideas about myself are true. In fact, I suspect that they probably aren’t. I also don’t know for sure if what I think about others has any accuracy. Again, I’d put my money on pretty much everything that I think about other people as being biased, untrue and based on my own subjective interests, likes and dislikes.

I don’t really know if others like me or not. And my likes and dislikes for others are so subject to alteration depending on how they treat me, that I can’t really draw an absolute conviction as to how I stand with respect to my affections or disaffections for them.

I’m not sure if anyone really understands anything I say. And I certainly can’t be sure I understand others, even though I often act like I do.

When I really look, I can’t actually find an opinion I have about anything that I know to be true with absolute certainty. I suppose that’s why they are just opinions.

Even on this issue of what I really know, I lack complete certainty. Maybe there are some things I do know with absolute conviction, but I just can’t think of them right now. Then again, maybe not.

If I were forced to put my money on one thing I was certain about, I guess the only thing it would be is that I am a conscious, aware being. But on further examining this proposition, I find that I’m not completely sure what I mean by “I.” Nor am I completely certain exactly what “am” means either.

All right, then. I guess the only thing I can be sure of is awareness itself. Its depth, breath, borders or boundaries, its origin, duration or exact nature escape me. But at least I know that awareness is. If it weren’t, I could not even discuss it. Even if I don’t know what awareness is, it’s the one thing I’ve got for certain, and I’m sticking with it.

Blunt the sharpness, untangle the knots

The way is empty, yet use will not drain it.
Deep, it is like the ancestor of the myriad creatures.

Blunt the sharpness;
Untangle the knots;
Soften the glare;
Let your wheels move only along old ruts.

Darkly visible, it only seems as if it were there.
I know not whose son it is.
It images the forefather of God.

Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching, Ch. 4 ( D.C. Lau, trans.)

(Question: Who is the forefather of God?)

The path and the goal are nirvana

The goal of Buddhism is the attainment of awakening, liberation, or, as it is called in early Buddhism, nirvana. What is nirvana?

Nirvana is the cessation of suffering. Nirvana, the end of suffering, is the third of the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha. As you probably know, the First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha is the truth of duhkha, suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Suffering or the unsatisfactoriness of conditioned existence should be seen. The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering, which is craving. Wherever there is craving, there is suffering. Craving is to be transcended or let go. The Third Noble Truth is the peace of nirvana, which comes from the end of craving. When one lets go of craving, suffering ends. Nirvana is to be experienced and known. The Fourth Noble Truth is the path, which is to be followed.

These four truths, along with dependent origination, can be said to comprise the essence of the Buddha’s teaching. The Four Noble Truths can be applied to any situation, and by doing so, the peace of nirvana can be found anytime and anywhere.

When a difficult, unpleasant, unwanted or uncomfortable situation is encountered, this can be recognized as suffering, dukha. When duhkha—unsatisfactoriness— is accepted for what it is, and is known fully, its origination in craving is naturally seen. The very nature of unsatisfactoriness is seen to be the desire for something else than what is happening.

When craving is seen as the source of suffering, it can be dropped, or transcended. Whatever is occurring can be faced simply and directly without craving or pre-formed ideas of what should or should not be.

When what is occurring is faced simply and directly without craving for it or pushing against it, the natural experience is peace. Peace, or nirvana, is the natural condition when craving is absent.

With peace, or nirvana, a path opens through the ups and downs of life. This is a path of simplicity, awake presence and integrity because it is based on inner peace, and it is directed to peace. From peace and to peace, one walks a path of fearlessness, dignity and joy, a noble path, the path of the Buddha.

Why enlightenment?

Sakyamuni Buddha initially felt no one would comprehend what he had realized under the Bodhi tree. According to legend, he did not want to teach until the god Brahma convinced him that there are beings whose eyes had little dust and who would understand.

Enlightenment is not hard to get because it is foreign or complex. It is hard to understand only because it is so simple yet profound. It is like convincing a fish that it is in the water and it is mostly made of water. It is hard to see because it is so close and so present.

Because of its subtlety, some might even ask, what good is enlightenment anyway? Why should one try to realize enlightenment at all?

I think that Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths is an elegant, simple, and profound solution to this question. Buddha taught that there is suffering; there is a cause of suffering; there is an end to suffering; and there is a path. If you are dissatisfied, do not seek to end your dissatisfaction with a temporary patch. Liberate yourself from its inner root. Seek enlightenment.

Buddha identified a problem—dissatisfaction or suffering—and offered a solution. In that way, out of his great compassion, he made the purpose of liberation and the path to liberation accessible.

But—dare I say this?!—liberation has another meaning, beyond the end of dissatisfaction alone. Or perhaps I should say, calling it the end of dissatisfaction does not seem to do it complete justice, does not by itself give a sense of liberation’s fullness, and might even mislead one into thinking it is a state that is placid or numb.

Beyond the end of suffering, there is an ecstatic quality to liberation. It gives fullness, meaning and joy. It brings gratitude and love. It reveals the beauty and magic of the ordinary. It grants overwhelming wonder that there is anything rather than nothing at all. It shows the whole universe to be an amazing magic trick. In its wake comes immense satisfaction and well-being. It is like putting down a burden one has carried for a million years. Attaining it might even make one want to sing, shout and dance like a madman or a fool.

In the realm of liberation, the evocation of bliss found in the secret Tantra, or the love and ecstasy found in the poetry and song of a Hafiz or Rumi, might be closest to the truth.