Journal of Sydney Zen Centre

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Zen, Nature and Climate Change

To begin with I would like to introduce myself as I have not been very active in the Sydney Zen Centre for some time. My dharma name, Joshu was given to me in 1991 by the Zen teacher Reverend Hogen Yamahata (a dharma descendant of Daiun Sogaku, through Tangen Harada Roshi) when he was staying with me in Lismore, Northern NSW. I kept this dharma name when I took Jukai Ceremony with Subhana in 1994. I was a foundation practitioner of the Sydney Zen Centre in 1975 at the family home of Leigh Davison at Lindfield in Sydney. I was a high school teacher for 24 years and now teach adult education.

In this issue of Mind Moon Circle we are looking at the relationship of Zen to Nature (now and historically). This is particularly timely as we find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented climate crisis. The long term survival of mankind and other species on earth has now become quite uncertain, as tragically we have not yet found the popular and political will to begin to alleviate, let alone resolve this terrible human-made crisis. The insatiable greed of humankind for energy from fossil fuels has mostly created this situation— 60,000 tons and rising of human-made CO2 are produced every minute.

Traditional religion and culture tended to be more friendly towards nature. The older religions, whether Aboriginal, Druid, Bon, etc tended to be pantheistic and animistic. Humans worshipped nature and enjoyed a sympathetic and friendly relationship to animals, plants, rocks, the Sun, the Moon and the Stars – the “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” of St Francis. A family-like kinship was felt with nature. When Buddhism arrived in China it encountered a Taoist religion that was very grounded in nature. The Tao itself was called the Watercourse Way, often represented as a wild mountain waterfall and stream which tumbled out of the steep Chinese mountains and found its way without obstacle or resistance around boulders and rocks. Likewise, Taoism itself was seen to flow with the nature of things without obstruction or blocking. Here the practice of

we wei or letting be was central. However, even here there was still an “I-Thou”, subject-object relationship. Dualism still existed. The radical Zen of Bodhidharma transcended this split. Instead of identifying with nature, one became nature and so there was ONLY THIS! There was no more need even for a relationship. This went beyond the dual nature of any relationship to a oneness, and then went even beyond oneness! This is well illustrated in the koan dialogue between Layman Pang and Matsu, with Matsu replying to Layman Pang that before he answered his question, he would need to “to swallow the whole of the West River in one gulp”. Can WE do this?

Man-made objects often feature in Zen koans and stories, for example the whisk, the dried shit-stick, the storehouse, the gate, the cart. However the natural objects of the mountain, the river, the cypress tree, etc seem to possess a special feel and energy because they have not been created by human thought. Zen temples and monasteries were often located in isolated, wild, natural and mountainous places, far from thought-created cities.

Given our Zen sense of a transcendent union with nature and the natural world, what is our responsibility to it? And what is our response to dangerous threats to the environment and our survival? In our Zen tradition we have always understood the simple importance of doing the needful, doing the necessary. “When thirsty, I drink, when hungry I eat” (Bankei Zenji). Even after enlightenment, “wondrous activity, chop wood and carry water” (Layman Pang). Joshu’s response to the new young monk when asked about the Way, was to ask him had he finished his porridge. “Yes,” the monk replied. “Then wash your bowl!” Joshu retorted. If a friend is in need or danger, I help or rescue the friend. In Zen the simple response to need or danger is seen as a simple but wondrous activity. What then is our response if the need or threat is much bigger and much greater? In this case the whole planet and indeed our whole survival is under threat. Here of course, the challenge seems to be so great that the first response may be one of complete despair, depression and powerlessness. If the response of everyone is powerlessness this challenge certainly won’t be met. To quote the famous AA prayer, we need the courage “to change the things which can be changed”. What might we do here?

1. We can lessen our own carbon emission footprint, e.g walk, cycle, train, instead of car,

2. we can begin to use solar and wind and other renewable energies,

3. we can grow and / or can donate money for more trees to be grown,

5. we can join environmental and green political groups to campaign for a cleaner, greener world,

6. we can try to educate and inform as many people as we can about the science involved and the huge threat to survival we are facing. The internet is a good place to start e.g. Facebook,

7. we can eat more plant based food to lessen our dependence on animal production which consumes huge amounts of resources and produces vast amounts of methane emissions.

Any of these actions we could call in Zen terms,

Upaya, or skillful means, i.e. doing the needful, doing the necessary. If a person can see no way ahead and no hope, she/he loses all energy. As soon as she/he sees any glimmer of hope the energy comes flooding back. Even one of these skillful actions can begin to empower us and bring some of our creative energy back. Of course, in the end if there is no hope of survival despite our best efforts, in our own Zen way we can become like Master Ganto whose shout could be heard for miles around as he became one with the sword which penetrated his body. WE may need to become one with the rising temperatures.

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