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Oil Soaked Bird Dharma

With every oil spill, there seems to come pictures of the birds. Oil soaked, with tattered wings. Some dead, but many alive. Struggling to breathe, trying desperately to flap their wings and fly away from it all.  I always think of the Exxon Valdez when these images appear. Pictures in the newspaper, and footage on TV news reports from that spill turned me into an environmentalist. At age 13. A painful awakening to what we are doing to the planet in the name of “progress” and “profit.” One that far too many children (and adults) are coming face to face with every day.

Last year, there were 364 oil pipeline spills in the US alone. One a day, and that’s only the reported ones. Between 2008 and 2012, in any given year, an average of 3.1 million gallons of hazardous liquids are spilled, leaving behind miles of poisoned land, sick animals, and polluted water systems.  Meanwhile, the majority of our plastics continue to be made of petrochemicals. The transformation of transportation systems away from fossil fuels is horribly slow in coming, and deliberately kept at bay around the world by the greed of fossil fuel corporations. The electricity for our homes and businesses mostly comes from coal and nuclear power, both of which have heavy environmental costs associated with them. Being wasteful and laying waste to the planet have been normalized, considered the “price” we need to pay for a small percentage of the world to live in material comfort.

 I am sitting in an air conditioned coffee shop, laptop plugged in, sipping a cup of fresh roasted Columbian as I write this. Fossil fuels lurk behind every element I just listed. Even though I don’t own a car, grow some of my own food, do my best to use everything I own until it’s thoroughly broken or worn out, I’m still complicit.

This is our collective addiction. One so large that even those of us who make every effort to break the cycle mostly end up stuck making half measures. Those who live “off the grid” tend to be isolated and marginalized. Some are able to create joyful lives, while others pine away in resentment and self righteous anger towards the rest of us still “hooked” in. Although I have visions sometimes of a future beyond fossil fuel addiction, and see signs of something like that starting to emerge, often I wonder if it’s possible without a massive breakdown and period of deep misery and chaos.

When I can’t do anything else, I witness.  I witness the lack of butterflies and thinning of the bee population here in Minnesota. See that the water is poisoned to undrinkability in places all over the world, even in large numbers of communities in a supposed “First World” nation like the U.S. Watch the learned helplessness of the majority of people who have been indoctrinated that this way of living is the “most evolved, never mind its flaws,” and who can’t imagine an alternative worth making the effort to build. Recognize that Buddhism itself can be just as much of an “opiate” or escape as any other religion or spiritual program. Feel in my heart that humans are as much an invasive species gobbling up everything in our wake as we are interdependent, loving and compassionate. That some of us place 100 fold the amount of time and energy on fighting for the rights of unborn babies as we do on taking care of the planet that will support those babies.

The fifth precept speaks about intoxicants, but tends to be limited to alcohol, drugs, and other commonly known forms. What about comfort? What about speed? What about seemingly endless desire for material development and growth? What about the ubiquitous idea that the human mind is capable of creating technological fixes to deal with the damage our other technology has wrought?

In my view, Buddha’s teachings point to a certain letting go of all worries and attachments to the planet. While at the same time loving it completely, moment after moment. That seems to be the paradox that he taught, and most of practitioners appear to fall too heavily on one side or the other.

I believe that Buddhas do not let go of their fierce compassion for all things living just because they’ve let go of being attached to all things living, including themselves. That the historical Buddha’s numerous caring actions towards others post-enlightenment weren’t just symbolic gestures on his way out of here forever. That the countless Buddhist poets and artists who have taken the natural world as their central source of inspiration and wisdom throughout the centuries weren’t just using it all to get enlightened and get out. That this path is vitally pagan, earth centric and completely life affirming.  

One way forward might be to reclaim the earth in the dharma. To resist attempts to reduce the dharma to solely a psychological program, or a “rational” system devoid of wild stories, earthy images, and untamable experiences. That just as we stand against pipelines and planetary poisoning, we also advocate for a dharma that lives and breathes like an ecosystem, and isn’t limited to the realm of human relations.

Like the bird above, we are covered in oil, as are the ways we speak of and express Buddhist teachings. Awash in the stickiness of our collective addictions to comfort, speed, and material desires. Only a dharma thoroughly penetrated by the earth will break us free. It’s time to reclaim what’s been lost or minimized, and build whatever hasn’t been there before.

Comments (3)

  • Jeff

    A brilliant and evocative contribution, Nathan. I like your suggestion of a Dharma that embraces the living Earth and all its inhabitants.

    I would propose another intoxicant: mass media, the new opium of the people. Much more potent in distracting us and inducing hypnotic acquiescence than old-time religion, the news “informs” our opinions of local and world events and shapes our responses, usually by making us feel overwhelmed, depressed, cynical, and passive. Entertainment, of course, lustily promotes every narcissistic fantasy and voyeuristic impulse imaginable. You might watch the occasional lone hero “fighting injustice” but it’s rare indeed to see stories about communities of regular folk uniting to overcome unfair conditions or environmental hazards. These tales can be inspiring and joyous, though perhaps not as much of a head-rush as the latest Hollywood blockbuster or as giggle-stimulating as your favorite sit-com.

    I have confidence that we engaged Buddhists will slowly wean ourselves off this deceptive dope by our open-minded investigation of alternative truths in venues like BPF and by collective Right Action.

  • Murray Reiss

    Drenched in oil; penetrated by the earth — powerful images; powerful paradox. I’m hoping to hear more about what a living, breathing ecosystemic dharma penetrated by the earth has to say for itself.

  • Derek

    Brilliantly clear and compassionate Nathan. Thank you.

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