Welcome, everybody. I’m not sure I need to give a talk today because we heard members of the bird family preaching the Dharma quite clearly. They sang it all. That’s all there is. We can go home (laughs). I’m not kidding.
Michael Moore executive produced a film called Planet of the Humans. There's been a great brouhaha about it because in the film, Moore challenged some well-known pioneers and fighters in the environmental movement. There was a review of Planet of the Humans by Richard Heinberg that I learned a lot from. Even if we were to convert to renewables soon, it wouldn't be enough to support our current energy needs, that is to say our current lifestyle, on this planet, without using fossil fuels as a backup. It follows that, if we continue using fossil fuels, even as a backup, we are going backward not forward.
In the best of all worlds then, the question the reviewer asks is: What kind of society can that support? If we’re able to triage (which I take to mean pare down) and face the problems of overpopulation and overconsumption, it may be possible to survive with significantly less institutional structures and services. What stood out for me was the factor of overconsumption.
Overconsumption is a big question, isn’t it? It’s a question about demand. As long as there is demand, there’s going to be provision for those demands, which reflect the appetites we have. I want to talk about demand and desire from a Buddhist perspective, and weave in a bit from psychological and ecological perspectives.
Let's begin with the renown lay teacher Layman P'ang,
One day Shih T'ou said to the Layman, “Since seeing me, what have your daily activities been?”
“When you ask me about my daily activities, I can’t open my mouth,” the Layman replied.
“Just because I know you are like that, I still ask you.” Whereupon the Layman offered this verse: “My daily activities are not unusual. I’m just in harmony with them. Grasping nothing, discarding nothing, in every place there’s no hindrance. Who assigns the ranks of vermillion and purple? My supernatural power and marvelous activity— Drawing water and carrying firewood.”
Shih T'ou gave his assent, then he asked, “Will you put on the black robes or will you continue wearing white?” [White is what laypeople wore]
And the Layman said, “I want to do what I like.” So he didn’t shave his head or dye his clothing.
“I want to do what I like.” What is that? Demandingness? Rebelliousness? Grandiosity? I don’t think the Layman meant he wants to wear white because it’s his identity. I also don't think it's a matter of not wanting to kowtow to the priestly class, who wore black. This “I like to do what I want” — can we bring what we want and what we do into accord with the way things actually are in life? Drawing water and carrying wood; washing dishes and sweeping the kitchen; staying home and wearing a mask when we go shopping—do you want it? If so, how does that wanting reflect in our conduct?
Once I was giving a workshop on desire with a Lacanian Zen teacher friend. As I was concluding, I found myself saying, "Can we love..." and I paused, not knowing. What came out surprised me: "Can we love what is?"
Let's look at motivation. You'll remember the Four Noble Truths, one of the earliest teachings of the Buddha, and usually associated with Theravada Buddhism, sometimes in the past called by Mahayana Buddhists “The Small Vehicle.” Small vehicle, great vehicle—all vehicles shall be towed. If it helps us understand life and death and spring free, then I'm curious.
The first noble truth is “There is suffering,” often mistranslated as “Life is suffering.” Second is “The cause of suffering,” Tanhā, craving. Tanhā is a kind of chronic unsatisfactoriness, an irritable searching after certainty, or what Meister Eckhart called "chasing out through the five senses.” We are unable to settle in and accept things as they are. We get caught up in pushing away (aversion) or mental entanglement (attachment). The Third Noble Truth is that there is a path to transform suffering—not eliminating it. And that road, the Fourth Truth, is the Eightfold Noble Path. The eight elements of the path are divided into three categories: wisdom, ethics, and samadhi or meditation. And the two elements of wisdom are Right Understanding or View, and Right Intention.
I’ve been thinking about motivation and intention for a long time. I recently put two and two together and realized that it’s right there in the Eightfold Noble Path. In Buddhism, benefit or harm inheres not just in some codified assessment of a good deed or a bad deed. It's a function of the intention underlying that particular deed—the quality of our conduct, speech, and thought.
Now this makes sense as far as it goes. The rub is that the road to hell is lined with good intentions. There are often multiple motivations underlying a particular action—and we don't know them. The United States invading Iraq is a clear example. Our leaders convinced enough of us that this action was benevolently motivated; we would be greeted as liberators. Freeing beings from suffering! It turned out the invasion and war was actually founded on lies and motivated by greed and territorial power. It wreaked havoc. This is a clear example of how intention is complex and requires a kind of discernment not explicitly trained in Buddhist practice.
Now when we think about motivation, we often think it means "Why are we doing this? What are the reasons?” Or we might think it refers to what we want to get out of it, to what end are we doing it? But that’s not how I’ve come to understand motivation or intention. I have a different perspective. I’m going to read something I wrote 15 years ago,
In psychoanalysis there is the idea of drives. And drives have aims and objects, like with motivation. Fifteen years ago I wrote,
The word ‘treib’ has been translated as ‘instinct,’ although many think ‘drive’ better fits the original German. Freudian drive theory has fallen out of repute these days. People see it as kind of mechanistic, but the French translation of ‘treib’ as ‘pulsion’ may reveal another dimension. While ‘pulsion’ may be translated as impulse, there is a live pulse in impulse. As helpers, as healers, we wonder, “What is going on here? What is driving the communication?” In ordinary speech we may say, “Where is he coming from?” From an energic point of view, we might ask, what is the psychic fuel operating? What’s pulsing through our psychic veins, so to speak, in this moment together? It is in the reverberations that we may put our finger on the pulse.
I've come to think about motivation as a psychic fuel. My son and I FaceTimed a while back. He was calling from his new truck, an old classic. I said, “Cool ride.” If our conduct, our very presence is our ride, what are we expressing as we go about our business? What is fueling our ride? What are we burning? What psychic fuel are we conveying? What is animating our conduct? It is hard to accept that we are often the last ones to know this. We tend to think our stuff doesn’t smell, but the outcome of a particular action, if we’re open to feedback, might reveal something very different.
Let's look at the three kleshas. There are more than three, but the usual suspects are greed, hatred, and ignorance or delusion. Sometimes called poisons, the kleshas are obstructions to awakened living. We could say they’re afflictive or corrosive or damaging fuels. I think the economic system of vulture capitalism depends on the first of those fuels, greed. There's a constant need for more—more growth, more expansion, more stuff. We need more and more resources and must show that the bottom line is increasing. What's driving this is the profit motive. What’s fueling our economy is profit as a prime mover, a motive force, overshadowing almost everything else. Rapacious greed, whether we know it, see it, understand it, or not. The impacts of this motive force are hidden in plain sight as we connect the dots: systemic inequality, the social, economic, racial and environmental injustice, damage to our planet, our collective health and well-being.
Another destructive driving force is our own sense of privilege as human beings. We hear about American exceptionalism. But what about human exceptionalism? Isn't this also a factor? David Abram wrote a beautiful essay, In the Forest of Unknowing, in which he introduced me to the term 'more-than-human'—the more-than-human world. There’s a profound web of interconnection that includes and undergirds our existence. Misperceiving our motivations, unable and unwilling to see what's driving us, and what havoc we're causing, we’ve become deluded, and in our ignorance and rapaciousness, we are destroying that delicately interconnected yet robust web.
Let's shift gears for a moment to talk about the pandemic. How do we remain steady in the storm, and available to others? How do we navigate the powerful emotional currents of life amid disaster? There's a fair amount of emphasis these days on these concerns. But what kind of society we will have, even if things go well. I want to use this catastrophe to examine the root question, the one Richard Heinberg, in his review of Planet of the Humans, raises. Will we be able, individually and collectively, to 'triage' our needs, pare down our appetites, our demands? Will we be able to uncover and refine our intentions? Track the impacts of our intentions? Make course corrections? Learn from experience?
The first thing we need in order to track the impact of our intentions is to have our eyes open. The links between burning fossil fuels and the health of the environment are clear, but if our eyes are closed, or if we’re unwilling, we don’t see the truth. So the first thing is to not turn away, to face things as they are. Now if I say a mean word, I may not know it’s mean, but later somebody may say to me, “You really hurt my feelings.” Can I open to the feedback, that I hurt their feelings? So much intention is unconscious. Did I not know the fuel I was burning, what I was actually conveying—how I was "rolling in my ride"— was harmful? Can I apologize even if it wasn’t my conscious intention? You know those famous words, “I really didn’t mean to” and "I didn't intend to." These words often ring hollow because what I'm not acknowledging is that I really did hurt the person’s feelings. In taking responsibility, can it be a full-throated apology? And of course, do I learn anything new about what hurts and what opens, connects and heals?
There’s a sphere of Zen practice that has gone neglected. It cannot be accomplished in solitude on the cushion. It requires the presence of other beings and their direct feedback. We are all a bit like natural rough rocks. When placed into a rock tumbler, the rough-edged stone becomes smoothed and polished. That’s the impact of the Sangha jewel. When we live together in a training center or are an active part of a healthy sangha, we bump up against each other and our rough spots smooth out a bit through the interaction, through heartfelt listening and learning from one another. This is work on what Yamada Koun Roshi called the perfection of character.
But the world is teaching too, the vast Mahasangha is providing feedback as well, isn’t it? Information about the impacts of "our ride and its fuels." After an oil spill we see the birds who can’t move, can't fly. In the Arctic, we look at emaciated polar bears, unable to find food. Glaciers melting, forests clear cut, mountain tops blasted off for mining, species vanishing. Renting the interconnected web. What moves you? Which impact of an ignorantly motivated action, rooted in a misperception about the way things work, founded on delusional thinking, kindles something in you?
One stealth characteristic of delusion is that we are exceptional as human beings. Our stuff doesn’t smell. Blind spots are... well, they're blind to us. Often our ignorance is willful. Sometimes though, it's not. We're just unaware, truly not conscious. We don't put two and two together. We think we are somehow disconnected, isolated from one another, separable.
Are we open to the teachings that the many beings provide us, the "others," especially the more-than-human world? Can we face the delusional unconscious belief that we’re isolated, special, insulated? That we are somehow separable from the great interconnected web.
This great symbiotic web takes many forms. It operates for example as the mycelium, as rhizomes, as the epigenome, or what a psychoanalst has called the "hidden black market" of unconscious emotional communication and it's impacts.
In an integrated view of Buddhist practice we have dyana, prajna, and sila. Dhyana is practice, attentiveness, awareness. Not the attentiveness of someone looking through a microscope, but a participant-observer attentiveness where we are immersed in our object of attention. When we practice awareness of breathing, we become finely attuned to the quality of our breathing; eventually the sense of me-observing-my-breathing gives way, and there’s just that inhale, just that exhale, complete in itself.
As we do this, we forget preoccupations—not forever, because residues of traumas and the afflictive emotions they generate continue to surface. But in moments when absorption gives way to direct experience, we discover the vast mystery of life in the particulars of living. It may be that bird who speaks to us. We hear that bird for the first time and that song just fills the universe, fills our heart. Falling flowers twirling on their path to the grass once spoke to me. All of a sudden those views of ourselves as isolated, as isolates, able to separate ourselves from life as it is, the many dualities, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, all of that breaks apart. And we realize, as the Buddha under the tree, that all beings by nature are awakened. It’s only our mental attachments and delusions that prevent us from bearing witness to that. And when we resonate with the sacredness of the bird, we are also kin with the sacredness of the trees, the worms, the rocks and clouds. We directly perceive the sentience of all of creation—even creation that doesn’t have carbon. And fixed categories of sacred and profane, awakened and deluded, themselves slough off. This is called prajna, wisdom.
I remember sitting up in Haleakalā, on Maui, where the silence is quite permeating. All of a sudden it dawned on me—these cinders, these huge pieces of molten lava that have cooled off, they are completely alive! Who says that, because they don’t have carbon in them, they are not alive? Still, silent, kin by nature, beyond dualistic formulations.
Dhyana and Prajna, focused meditation and wisdom— then there's sila, precepts, what I call awakened, benevolent conduct. As an aside, these three rubrics are also the three categories that order the the Eightfold Noble Path.
In Zen, we put a premium on coming forth spontaneously, in alignment with circumstances, as an agent, a bodhisattva of compassion. But we often forget that our spontaneity needs to be a tutored spontaneity; an ethically infused spontaneity, generating good. I recall a wonderful classical Buddhist teacher friend saying that desire was fine (meaning it was not, by nature, the cause of suffering as in some classical accounts of the second Noble truth). It depends on whether the desires are wholesome or not. Whether they engender liberation, wellbeing, wisdom, and compassion or greed, hatred, delusion, and suffering. We learn this over time, by trial and error, by purifying or refining our practice, insight, and conduct, in concert with relational teachers near and far. By aligning the wheels on "our ride."
I was alluding earlier to how, in personalizing our insight, in living and embodying the teachings, something can get lost in translation. There’s a radical equality in Zen experience. In the vast spaciousness of awakening, all beings are already enlightened; none is more important than the next. Remember the line in the Layman's poem, “Who assigns the rank of vermillion and purple?” Who says that your role as emperor makes you inherently better or worse than a hermit living under a bridge, sleeping with the homeless?
Despite this thoroughgoing equality without loss of particularity something often gets lost in translation as we personalize our practice. We will continue until we die to get caught up in our unconscious emotional baggage, our traumatic residues, our entangling attachments to traumatic loops we can’t immediately get perspective on. We have to deal with this imperfect vessel for the Dharma that we are. If we're lucky, we come to realize again and again that we embody the teachings only imperfectly; despite our implicit assumptions of perfection and the belief that we shall automatically become good as we become wise.
Zen master Keizan wrote, “Though clear waters range to the vast blue empty sky / How can they compare with the hazy moon on a spring night? / Most people want to have pure clarity / But sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind."
Gary Snyder recently said he finally was able to stop editing what may be his last collection of his poems when someone reminded him of a Japanese expression to the effect that the very imperfection was all.
Training paths and teachers are many. Psychotherapy, for instance, can help us become emotionally freer and more open and stable. It can help us develop more capacity and more fully embody the truths of Buddhism, be less caught up in greed, hatred, delusion, and reactivity to traumatic residues. It can help open our hearts, free up our minds a bit, relax our body, so we can more fully become vessels of the Dharma. You may say, “That’s just dealing with the internal stuff." Well, that’s why we need to love somebody, even if it’s our dog, the nearby trees, the ants that come with the rains, or the homeless folk under the bridge right here along the Los Angeles River. We need to open to the interactive world because it’s in that sphere that we also awaken, discover and refine ourselves. It’s in the vast, interactive particularity of the Mahasangha that purification occurs. That’s where we see, “Oh, so the fuel I’ve been burning is actually envy.” And what was that like? Well I deprived myself of reading someone’s book because I was envious that he wrote it before I did.
You know, all of us sometimes are fueled by afflictive emotions; it may be hatred, anger, voracious greed, chronic grievance, or ignorance, where we just want to turn away and close our eyes. Or we completely misunderstand the way things are. The understanding or the view we have integrated has not been informed by an opening or personalizing experience in the relational fields that I’ve been describing. We just get stuck in misperceptions. Or we assume we've got it, or that we've let go and forgotten it, and our practice, realization and conduct are without possible reproach. Then things get lost in translation [and hidden motivations, pulsions, assert their unconscious influence]. Our experience, insight, practice, and conduct do not align. Sexual misconduct by teachers is one example. So our continuing education is not only clarifying old or new koans; it is opening ourselves to the teachings of the many beings, and the wisdom of unconscious experience, itself an informative register.
There’s a funny story about that. Po Chu’i was one of the great, enlightened masters in China. And in his later years, just as Layman Pang retreated with family, Po Chu'i actualized his goal-less desire by living up in a tree. I guess he liked it up there. He made it hard for people to come and ask him any questions. The Emperor, who was just discovering Buddhism, heard that Po Chu’i was a great teacher. So he had his retinue take him out to find him up in the mountains. When he found him he said, “Master, what are you doing up there? It looks very insecure.” Po Chu’i said, “It looks like you’re very insecure down there, Emperor." The Emperor asked, "What is the essence of Buddhism?” “Only do good. Refrain from evil. Protect the many beings,” replied the hermit. The Emperor was offended. “Even a child knows that." Po Chu’i replied, “Oh, a child of six knows it but a man of sixty-five can’t practice it.”
The archetype of compassion Avalokitesvara dwells nowhere, meaning she is not fixed on dualistic formulations, she doesn’t have agendas, her mind is at peace, her heart is open. She’s serene. So she’s open to the sounds of the world, the sounds of anguish. She’s also open to the sounds of joy. In Hakuin's Song of Zazen, which we chant during sesshin, he writes, “Singing and dancing are the voice of the Tao.”
It’s important, as we pare down, as we triage, as we examine demand and desire, as we consider reducing and transforming consumption, that we ask, “What’s really important? What really nourishes me, my loved ones, and the whole planet? What do I want to cultivate, what do I leave to one side? What am I already cultivating and conveying?” Our desire is already showing.
So Kwan-yin, with her thousand hands and arms, responds intuitively because she’s in touch with the situation and can trust her own response. Hers is a tutored spontaneity. Perhaps she can trust it more than somebody who thinks long and hard about it and consults the law, asking, “What’s the best course of action for this particular thing?” Somebody may be functioning very strictly according to a rule and be complying to the letter. Sometimes we need the power of no more than the power of now. “This shall not stand,” Aitken Roshi would say.
But it is better if we've internalized the guidelines, masticated them, checked them out in interactional practice. We become better able to track the impacts of our conduct. Therefore, you need to remain open to the Sangha, and the Mahasangha. We need to be open, as a species, to the feedback and to the ways of the more-than-human world.
You know the lyrics, "the buzzing of the bees in the sycamore trees." We live by a fertile intercourse with all beings. I was hanging out with a butterfly today. The butterfly was promiscuous. It was jumping around going from this flower to that flower, this shrub to that shrub. It was polymorphously perverse, enjoying every stage of her existence. The phrase is from Freud, but I borrowed this sort of usage from David Abram, and I’m using it to describe our true nature. The bees take in the pollen, they fertilize, they feed us. We are intrinsically connected and not only through our unity and equality, but through our difference. I’ve identified four grids of mutual influence, a kind of dance of Shiva, where we’re making one another possible.
One register I just discovered through two films, Treeline and Fantastic Fungi. Something called the mycelium. Who knew that under the ground there was a micro-fungal network that was just as sensitive as any human being, probably much more sensitive, in its own way. And that network, in addition to pheromones in the air, is how trees and other plant life communicate with each other. Astonishingly, there are Mother Trees. Natural Bodhisattvas. You may remember the children’s book The Giving Tree. If memory serves, it ends in a sad way. It's as if the tree gives and gives, is used up, and perishes. That’s not the dream that informs the deep intelligence supporting and embracing us.
The one who gives is thriving, the one who receives is giving. That’s the way of the deep intelligence. Dying the clover gives its nitrogen to all the plants. When a log falls the spores envelop it, break it down to make it useful for something else to feed on. In the act of living and giving, we’re not killing ourselves. We’re killing is our delusions of a zero-sum game.
When my son was young, he was sitting on my lap at my niece’s one year old birthday party. He and I were hugging like we usually did. Then he said, “Why is everyone paying so much attention to Maria?” Of course, I wasn’t only paying attention to baby Maria, but I guess others were. So I said, “Aaron, you’re going to think this is stupid and will forget this, but I’m going to tell it to you anyway; maybe one day you’ll think about it: Love is the one thing where, the more you give the more you have.” And he said, “What is that? Stop it.”
In the activity of this profound native intelligence, this finely coordinated dance of mutual benefit, Mother trees suss out communications from younger trees about how they are and what they need, and they nourish them. The trees communicate with one another about their needs. Talk about "the market;" here's a hidden market. “Hey, I’ve got these goods. What do you need? Okay, I’ll send you some of this.”
This is actually going on. And this is the environment that we’re crushing, bulldozing. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips called the web of unconscious communication that unfolds in the relational field, ‘the hidden black market of emotions.” How we’re transmitting emotions to one another unbeknownst to us, whether we know it or not. That’s how we communicate. The conscious modality is only just a small part of how we communicate. And then,there's epigenome, traits are mysteriously transmitted, skipping generations, and apparently based on our conduct—our conduct in this life, and the elements of our character we cultivate. Our behavior in this life mysteriously influences following generations. We don’t know how that happens.
So there are these wonderful, intelligent ways we all connect. We tend to favor oneness. In the process of waking up we feel at one with everything. It’s not limited to Zen practice of course; there are other ways we can experience at-oneness. But as David Abram points out, it’s the differentness one from the other that really stops us in our tracks, and brings a sense of awe and wonder, a sense of reverence. Here is this miraculous system, here is this intelligent being, sacred beyond words. I’m awestruck. I’m reverent. What are the implications of this for my demands? For the demands I have for what my life should be.
These are questions we do well to ask. This liminal and tumultuous time is the best to inquire deeply. What fuels are we burning? What are our appetites? What are we sharing with the world? What energies are we purveying? Each of us is a cook—what are we cooking up? What are we offering just by our standing up and sitting down, laughing and weeping? Not just by our line of work. Or by other conscious choices we’re making. It is motive forces we're often unaware of that shape our conduct and create anguish or liberation from it.
How full of life we are when we’re full of desire that doesn’t have an object. Desire that has no requirement. That’s kind of like passion, isn’t it? Kind of like life force. Kind of like fertility, and the intercourse of the birds and the bees. The deep communication between trees, among different species. Or something as simple as the response we have to our partner, our lover, or our child, where we intuitively respond in accord with the situation, sometimes surprising ourselves.
I sent my son a link the other day and he texted me right back, “Craze. I was just about to call you.” We’ve always been telepathic, in a sort of natural way. But telepathy is not weird. It’s how people communicate, if we let ourselves. We feel into one another just as the Mother tree feels into her babies and even into the babies of other species. Isn’t that a marvelous thing?
So when we examine and pare down our desires, when we do this hard work of refining our character, of seeing the ways in which we may actually be motivated by greed, hatred, ignorance or delusion, and other afflictive fuels, we pull some of that back, and our heart opens to the next moment in a more free way, less encumbered by ignorance and subtle clinging to hidden and rather fixed identities. That’s how we develop the tutored part of tutored spontaneity.
When we examine demand, and what fuels our ride, as we refine that, it is not just grim work. There is a joy in relinquishing hidden agendas and embracing being part and parcel of the Great Dance of Life. We open not just to the sounds of anguish. We open, as Hakuin writes, to, "Singing and dancing are the voice of the Tao."
Nothing quite feels like the thrill of standing shoulder to shoulder with my brothers and sisters in the struggle for peace, freedom and justice (the collective register of dhyana, prajna and sila). When I watch videos where musicians from all over the world are playing together the same song, on one screen, it is deeply moving. I sometimes weep with joy that this is the family of Man and Woman and the More-Than-Human world. This is how it is. No part greater or lesser than any other part. All radically equal, with boundless space including everybody.
Limitless belonging, a term I first heard Brother David Steindl-Rast use, is a good translation for shunyata. Everybody just as they are, presenting oneness differently. And shocking us, welcoming us, if we're open, into awareness and respect and reverence for one another. Isn’t that some practice? Would you like to practice that together? That’s joyous practice. Even when our hearts are full of sorrow, that’s our joyous practice.
So our desire does not have to be for endless stuff, rooted in the delusion of limitless material, where excitement and wellness is fueled by cruel acquisition. Our desire, like the Layman's "I want to do what I like," is not in some far off place and time. Layman P'ang enjoys the vivid ordinary, chopping wood, carrying water, putting on his white robes. And so can we desire the way it is, standing up, sitting down, strong, achy, laughing, weeping. And the freedom to enjoy to the hilt, and to protect our camaraderie with all beings, to protect all beings, to suffer and struggle with all beings. To be easily contented.
Thank you very much, Boddhisattvas.