Nature & Spirit

It is in nature that we feel connection. I remember my first spiritual experiences in nature, not in church. Church never had anything of the spirit for me (I was raised Catholic, and went to a Catholic school). But I remember lying on the grass looking at the sky and the sense of wonder at the stars. And I remember the stretch of marsh at the river’s edge, and the mysterious creatures that populate that space.

There is a special quality to the air in such places, and I am reminded that the “spirit” is, in its origin, just this same air, which we draw in, borrow for a time, and let go forth once more.

There is something about nature that escapes the instrumental. We have nothing to do there. Nothing to change or perfect. It is and grows as it always has. We clear it to build our Euclidean structures, but even before they are finished, nature colonizes them: insects and weeds, breaking the formalism of architectural geometry.

Why do we create forest monasteries? I don’t know, unless it has something to do with this connection. We are moved to contemplation, in the face of something so beyond us in time and space.

Yet for all this, we spend much of our lives battling nature. As soon as we see a cockroach, we want to get rid of it. Even the slightest, most harmless intrusion of nature’s apparent chaos prompts a swift response. Nature is an ideal for us, to be approached for a special experience, and otherwise kept at arm’s length.

And it is one of our practical problems that humans live most efficiently apart from nature, in cities. This has been pointed out by James Lovelock: ants solved the problem of high density housing of massive populations long ago. If we care about nature, we would live in massive tower blocks. We don’t need to save nature, just to get out of the way.

But of course, if we do so we cut ourselves off. City living creates alienation from nature. So the practical solution is spiritually deadening.

What to do? I have no answers. I live a twilight life, sometimes in the forest, sometimes in the city, not at home in either. Like the air that sweeps from the city to the forest, from the factory chimney to your lungs, I have no real home. I experience life as a guest, and try not to be intrusive about it.

It takes balance to live in between. To be like the breath, now part of the environment, now part of ourselves. Constantly dissolving the artificial distinctions between “self” and “other”, “artificial” and “natural”, “real” and “fake”.

People are crazy. They still argue about whether this bushfire was due to climate change, or whether that flood was. They monumentally don’t get it: everything is climate change.

Every breath you breathe in has been changed by human activity. It has less oxygen, more carbon dioxide; and it has a cocktail of substances that never existed before humans invented the factory. Every interchange in the vast surface area of your lungs is different because of climate change. Every cell in your body is different because of climate change. Every time you breathe out, you are adding more CO2 to the atmosphere. And when you die, your rotting corpse will add even more. Everything, forever, is different.

We can’t go back, and there may be no forward for us. There remains what is, and that is vanishing even as we watch. Our proud dreams of dominion will become nothing but dust. And the air will howl over the dust, but there will be no-one to listen.

20 thoughts on “Nature & Spirit

  1. Hi Bhante, Glad to see you back!

    This post and the previous one remind us that there are serious problems in the world caused by human greed, hatred and delusion.

    Much of the problem has been caused in the last few hundred years, and it has been caused for the financial benefit of a few who don’t think that it’s in their interest to reverse course.

    Also in the last few hundred years, the human population has increased to unsustainable proportions and continues to grow exponentially.

    We’ve screwed ourselves, but the earth will be fine.

    A few hundred years is nothing in the big picture of the history of the earth.

    • Two planets were having a cup of tea.

      One said, “How’s things?”

      The other replied, “I’ve been feeling a little unwell, actually.”

      “Really, what’s wrong?”

      “I think its homo sapiens.”

      “O, don’t worry. It’ll pass.”

    • Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. The planet has survived over 4.5 billion years of cosmic pounding and we’ve only been polluting it for an insignificant fraction of that time. We will be long gone before the planet is. Not that that’s not a problem. It’s just something that comes to mind when I hear people say “Oh no, the planet is dying! The planet is getting destroyed! We’re killing it!”

      Nibbida (not a monastic, I just like this name)

  2. Every cell in your body is different because of climate change. Every time you breathe out, you are adding more CO2 to the atmosphere. And when you die, your rotting corpse will add even more.

    Speaking of adding carbon to the atmosphere: Study casts doubt on climate benefit of biofuels from corn residue.

    The earth has a good system for burying carbon so that it doesn’t pose problems and, it turns out, the process involved in producing ethanol might disrupt that system.

    Of course, the earth has spent many thousands of years burying substances that in just a couple of hundred years human beings have been going to great lengths to unearth to the great detriment of our own environment.

    The impact of producing ethanol can’t be nearly as detrimental as digging up all the fossil fuels, and yet ethanol clearly isn’t the answer.

    There has to be a better way!

  3. One thing I seriously don’t get is why the Buddha is not here today. Seriously, I mean if the Buddha was still alive would the world be in better shape or worse? I think most people, Buddhist and non-Buddhist would agree the world would be better off, and not just a little bit better, a LOT better. Quite apart from there being more beings who would have attained supra mundane states, issues to do with conflict and the environment would surely also be less prevalent.

    So why is the Buddha not here? Is it true that the Buddha said to Ven. Ananda (three times) words to the effect that if requested, He, the Buddha, could live for some extraordinary length of time? If so, then why, oh why, is he not here today? I meant this is no light matter. Why was something so important as this apparently so mismanaged? If a formal request needed to be made for the Buddha to persist, why did he not gather all the Sangha together, not just once or twice or three times, but as many times as necessary and say something like: “Monks! Nuns! Listen! This is extremely important! I have it in me to live for a length of time that far exceeds any normal human life span. If I continue to live, I can continue to teach suffering, it’s cause, it’s cessation and the path leading to its cessation. For this, a sincere request must be made for me to continue.” Instead we find that the Buddha made three seemingly casual, maybe even slightly cryptic remarks to Ven. Ananda about how He, the Buddha could live a very long time, if only he were asked. Ven. Ananda did not get it. Some commentaries say his mind was affected by Mara on each occasion hence blinding him to what could have been arguably the most important opportunity for the human race in the last 2600 years. Well thanks for that possible explanation, but it doesn’t make me feel any better.

    So what conclusion is a wretched, suffering, unenlightened being like me supposed to draw from this ? Well I think either, one, this is historically inaccurate or incorrect. The Buddha could not live a unnatural length of time. This is simply just a fabrication that somehow found its way into the Suttas. Or, Two, this was seemingly the most mismanaged state of affairs in the last three millennia (potentially more) to have ever graced this world. If the facts are true, that the Buddha could have lived for so much longer, why did He not increase the likelihood of this by advising more people than just Ananda? And why only mention it three times? This seems strange, for if we read the Nikayas we find similar, even identical Suttas repeated over and over and over. again and again. For such an important teaching as this, why only give it three times to solitary audience?

    The fact is, I, like many others feel robbed by the fact that, if the Buddha could have lived for this amazing span if time that he didn’t. Here, an unparalleled opportunity with the potential to bring so much benefit, slipped through our fingers. Now, not only are we enlightened, we are dealing with issues that threaten the planet’s very existence, yet probably would not even have existed had not the whole ‘Buddha’s potential to live for thousands of years’ thing not been better managed. Seriously, if this is true, then this really was an error of grave proportions.

    Institutionalized religions may not be able to save us from global warming, but heck, if Buddhism is in anyway regarded as being an institution, then there is no better example of how let down we have been by an institution that could have potentially saved us from so much misery on such a massive scale.

    Sorry if I am wrong on this issue. This is just the way it appears to be for me and I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong.

    • The Buddha taught the Dhamma that is timeless, though subtle and difficult for beings to see. You have access to it. You can either practice in accordance with the true Dhamma, or not. If you need a Buddha to be present with you in the room while you practice, by a nice statue.

    • Hi Stuart,

      If the Buddha was still around, he would be treated as a divinity, to be worshipped and ignored, and I doubt if even he could prevent that.

    • That maybe true, but we do not really know. This issue came to me in meditation the other day. I was reflecting on the Suttas I am reading at the moment on the 7 Factors of Enlightenment in the Samyutta Nikaya. I was contemplating would the Buddha said in those Sutta and trying to get ‘inside his head’ on some of the finer points he raised in these Suttas. Then the though occurred to me – “wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Buddha was here and we could question him ourself?” Ok. It’s not biggie that he’s not here and I’m not going to lose sleep over it but, hey, there was a chance there and we lost it. Mores the pity. But if all this was of little consequence, then it is curious why the Buddha would have mentioned it. I still think the world might have been better off with him here. Even if only 2%, I would take that.

    • I’m not sure whether this is something the Buddha talked about or how realistic it is. Obviously to extend the life span to some degree through meditation is quite likely; but an aeon? But regardless of that, the passage should, I think, be seen in the context of the whole sutta, which is a meditation on the Buddha in presence and absence. It is meant to provoke exactly these kinds of reflections…

    • Yes, ok, and given your expertise in this area I have to (sort of) agree. But MN16 is (I believe) ‘reliable’. However, the passages about the Buddha extending his lifespan do seem ‘strange’. If they are authentic, then they are very literal the way they are written. There doesn’t seem to be anything metaphorical about them. Therefore, is it right for us to interpret these passages in any other way than the way they have been (apparently) reliably translated. We don’t have a Chinese, Sanskrit, etc parallels for MN16 on SC unfortunately to compare, so the only way of knowing would be to ask the Buddha himself. That leads us back to the same problem: if only he was here so we could ask!

    • MN16 “But venerable Ānanda, despite such a gross hint being made by the Gracious One, such a gross suggestion being made, was unable to penetrate it, and did not beg the Gracious One, saying: “May the Gracious One remain, reverend Sir, for the lifespan, may the Fortunate One remain for the lifespan, for the benefit of many people, for the happiness of many people, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, benefit, and happiness of Divinities and men,” like one whose mind was possessed by Māra.”

    • Yes. DN16. Sorry. But aren’t those translations from same/similar Pali sources, and don’t have say a translation from a Chinese Agama or Sanskrit or Tibetan, etc sorce to compare?

  4. Spirit and Nature is superb. The message here is that the human community and the natural world will go into the future as a single sacred community, or both will perish on the way.

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