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Practicing with the land

What responsibility does our relationship with the natural world place upon us? What does buddishm have to say?
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Hello again, welcome back to the Forest. You may remember that in the last session of this module, we talked a bit about mindfulness of the elements from the sativa Tana suta. Exploring how that practice might encourage us to feel a greater sense of connection or even identity with the natural world around us. In this session today we’re going to consider some of the forms of responsibility that our relationship with the natural world might place upon us. One way to start this discussion is to start with a reflection.
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If your practice of mindfulness revealed to you a sense of your inextricable and intimate relationship with the more than human world around you, would that change the way you behave within or towards it? And if so how?
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So you’re answer to those questions will be your own and I would really invite you to sit with them for a little while especially if you’re experimenting with the elements practice. For some people the transformation can be quite profound.
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In terms of answers that other people have offered in the past. I’m going to spend the rest of this session and the next on two different but perhaps compatible approaches. The first perspective I’d like to consider emerges from our last session about the sativa Tana. What does buddhism have to say about our relationship with the natural world, our obligations to it? Well, as with many things in buddhism, the answer to this question is not at all simple. The historical record seems to suggest that early Buddhists maintained an ethical distinction between sentient and non sentient entities, suggesting a clear hierarchy in the natural world.
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Only sentient beings which might be restricted as tightly as only human beings that could involve some animals. Only those beings could cultivate buddha nature. Non sentient beings, which might be restricted as tightly as plants or rocks or streams the earth itself, but might also include some animals were outside and separate from this cycle of life. So human beings owed greatest responsibilities to the sentient beings and this will, if any to the non sentient. However, by the time Buddhism started interacting with the naturalistic and sometimes animistic philosophy of Daoism in china, the situation changed quite dramatically.
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Hence the 8th Century Patriarch of TNT Buddhism in China, known as the 9th Patriarch was reputed to have proclaimed that a plant, a tree, a pebble, a speck of dust. Each is endowed with the buddha nature in the case of grass and trees and the soil from which they grow. What difference is there between their expression of the four elements and the expression that we find in animals and human beings? That is, the ninth patriarch accepted no substantive difference between the sentient and non sentient worlds.
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This line of thought reached its climax and the work of the 13th century Japanese monk, founder of sort or zen dogen zenshe who made the radical argument that the universe itself for what he called the whole being is buddha nature. And hence that all expressions and properties of the working of that universe were equally buddha nature. So, for example, impermanence characterizes all things, be they sentient, non sentient, animate or inanimate. Hence in permanence is an expression of the buddha nature where so ever it emerges. With this kind of reasoning dog and sidesteps the question of whether different individual entities are each worthy of respect.
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And instead suggests that all of reality is infused by the properties and qualities of the buddha nature it flows through everything, giving everything it’s temporary form and movement. In permanence is no less present in the grass and trees, in the mountains and rivers than in a human’s body or thoughts. So, if you’ve been experimenting with the elements, practice in this module, you might already have a sense of what the experience that dog and evokes might feel like. The fluidity of identity moving between you and the environment around and within you, unified by various elemental qualities which themselves are subject to change. Perhaps this feels like your own permeability with the world around you.
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Perhaps your boundaries don’t feel quite so very crisp or clear cut. Many interpreters and commentators have made use of Dorgan’s copious writings to argue that Mariana Buddhism has an inherently environmentalist agenda. Suggesting that he calls on us to treat the grasses and trees, the mountains and rivers as though they are our cells because for him, they are foundationally non dual with us. And vitally he asserts that we can experience our unity with the natural world in our meditation practice. So we know it’s true, we can test it for ourselves, we don’t have to take his word for it. Some of the more quirky figures in the Japanese Buddhist traditions Have taken this kind of insight in a slightly different direction.
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One of my favorites is the 13th century pure land monk Muir who famously wrote a letter to an island. In fact, he had a messenger travel to the island with the letter in his hand, stand in the center of the island and shout. This is a letter from Muir before placing the letter on the ground and then leaving. The island in question was the wonderfully named karma island, which is in us obey in today’s Wakayama Prefecture. The letter begins and I quote, Dear Mr Island, How have you been since the last time I saw you after I returned from visiting you? I have neither received any message from you and nor have I sent any greetings to you.
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So evidently Muir is playing with the Mariana idea that all things are of the same nature. So he addresses the island as a friend worthy of being in a relationship. Indeed towards the end of the letter, he even remarks, I am firmly convinced that you, more than any wonderful person I’ve met are truly an interesting and enjoyable friend. The letters full of affection, fond memories of the last time they were together at one point Muir remembers a large cherry tree and remarks quotes.
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There are times when I so want to send a letter to that tree and to ask him how he’s doing, but I’m afraid that people will say, I’m crazy if I send a letter to a tree that cannot speak. So, even though he has engaged in ardent meditation practice and can apparently see through the indivisibility of self in the natural world. Muir is also very much aware that many of the people around him do not see the world in this way. They do not see islands or cherry trees as suitable partners in friendship. On his account, they are still deluded by what he calls the customs of an irrational world.
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So while he wants to write a letter to that tree, he declines to do so because he doesn’t want to be ridiculed by those people who can’t see the life of the world around them. So in contrast to the island and the tree who are each perfectly themselves, whom he sees as great friends, Muir laments that I quote really, those people who think that a letter to a tree is crazy are not our friends. The point here, I think is that this idea of our identity or our unity with the natural world around us, into which we might gain some insight through mindfulness exercises like the elements practice in this module.
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Opens the door to a new ethical approach to nature, rather than being merely the background or the setting of human action. Nature emerges as essentially non dual with us as deserving of treatment from us that we would want to receive from it as a friend or a partner, not as a tool or a commodity from your. Even further in a gently political swipe, those people who do not treat nature in this way are less worthy of being our friends than the trees themselves.
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Okay, in our next session, Which is really part two of this session, we’re going to consider a second possible response to the question of how our mindfulness practice might alter our conduct on the land where we practice. I’ll see you then.

In this video I reflect on what responsibility our relationship with the natural world place upon us.

If your practice of mindfulness revealed to you an intricate and intimate relationship with the more than human world around you, would that change the way you behave in and towards it?

Leiden University

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