Minding the Earth
When asked in a recent interview what moved her to write her book on Zen and the climate crisis Minding the Earth Mending the World Roshi Susan Murphy replied that she could not, not write it:
“The simplest thing I can say is that I had no choice,” she said.
“It felt like a kind of pressure building in me over many years. It came from my whole life in many ways. I’ve been feeling, for at least a couple of decades, that there’s a kind of low-grade haunting going on—inside of me and other people as well. A sense of something that was almost impossible to turn to and address, yet we all knew what it was. And it was so big it just made you shrink away or feel numb. Your heart sinks when you think “What can I do?””
But Minding the Earth Mending the World isn’t a how to manual for Eco Buddhists, it is a deep meditation on the wisdom we need in order to come to terms with that feeling of “impossibility”. Roshi Susan asks us to consider the many deeply entrenched stories, or cultural myths, that “frame” our everyday response to the earth and our being in the world. She looks back at the Western tradition deeply influenced by the Judeo Christian Bible’s Book of Genesis story that tells us that we are at once deeply flawed, that our world is flawed but that as humans we are exceptional among species.
“The upshot of all that,” she writes, “is that we may have ushered in a new human ‘order’ on earth not by a godlike capacity to create and tend so much as a fearful desire to dominate and devour; and in so doing, irreparably altered our environment to settings decidedly hostile to human life.”
Instead of this old story she asks us to entertain a new story which is a Zen story of the interconnectedness of all things. This is also a story that is being told by scientists like Physicist Brian Swimme and Jesuit “geologian” Thomas Berry, a story they dub, “The Universe Story”. As Roshi Susan reminds us, unlike Genesis this is “a seamless story of becoming in an emergent universe [and is] a way of recovering the grace of trusting the earth.” It is a story that encourages both astonishment and compassion.
Roshi Susan begins and ends with the koan of Zen Master Yunmen:
Medicine and Sickness heal each other. The whole world is medicine.
Where do you find yourself?
This koan invites us to see the indistinguishability of world and self. We are the world’s medicine and it is our cure.
“It is a sick world right now. And yet, though you search to the end of time, you cannot find a better one: the rain from a brief shower drips from the roof gutter in twos and threes, the cat stretches by the fire, a cow bellows in the distance, and the moon appears pale in the late afternoon sky. When you glimpse its seamless whole in any single one of its marvelous details, does it not begin to make plain that the medicine we seek to cure this sickness is the nature of this earth itself?
“The whole world is medicine reveal the true nature of the self to likewise be a field of relationships, an ecology, a self-correcting, self healing system of meaning and energy, a richly distinctive being that is mysteriously more than the sum of its past experience and its ceaseless flow of ideas and emotions. There is no person without such a world as this, and indeed no whole world without such a self-aware and unselfconscious person.
She ends with a “medicine bundle” of 13 koans drawn from the Zen tradition and various places. She writes:
“Every koan yields not so much answers to a question as responses from some deep part of you that resolves the tension the koan created. Trust every honest response that has a little bit of a shock of something new about it….Each of these koans can call you back into what it is to be fully human and how that might serve the great work of minding the earth.”
From the Zen tradition comes a unique way of easing this gnawing sense of displacement or loss. It’s called a koan. The word means ‘public case’, because while we seem remarkably able to hide it from ourselves, the boundless reality a koan reveals is in fact in plain view for all from the beginning…..The crisis facing us all right now is a tremendous koan set for us by the earth, speaking to us plainly but in words we cannot yet fully comprehend, caught as we are in the frame of the past that cannot conceive of this emergency. To respond we need to free ourselves from a too narrow sense of self and an unquestioned assumption or self-entitled priority as a species.Roshi Susan Murphy