Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Deep Down Things - Introduction

The Earth in Celebration and Dismay

Earth: An Introduction

Unfortunately, I have some unavoidably bad news to report regarding the state of the earth. It can’t be helped. It comes with the facts. The truth is we’re poisoning the planet with our industry, bringing uncountable other species to extinction, and heating up the planet with potentially disastrous consequences. It’s enough to break the heart. It’s not new. As long as a century and a half ago the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, residing in the coal-blighted suburbs of London, witnessed conditions much like our own:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Hopkins didn’t flinch from the harsh truth of what he saw, but he saw as well another truth that might easily be overlooked:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things. . . .

I read these words here in a twenty-first century American town, and I take heart from the persistent tufts of grass and that inch their way up through cracks in the asphalt pavement of the street outside, and from the backyard dogwood tree that season after season ripens red berries for flocks of waxwings to feast upon. Everywhere I look, I see evidence of deep down things. I might never have become a Buddhist had I not first encountered Zen Master Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokan or in English “Instructions to the Cook.” It was the first Buddhist text I ever read, and it engaged me in such a way that I entered the path of Zen and never looked back. It’s often said that while the Tenzo Kyokan gives literal instructions on how to cook, it’s actually an analogue for how to live one’s life whatever one happens to be doing. I don’t doubt that Dogen’s instructions can be profitably read that way, but the Tenzo (as the chief cook of a Zen monastery is called) actually spends his hours and days, sometimes years, devoted to the duties of the monastery kitchen and garden. The gardening and cooking of the monastery cook isn’t metaphorical, it’s actual. If I respect, honor, and value the rice and vegetables that come to hand and know how best to prepare them for use by the body, then I know what I most need to know of life. My kitchen work stands as it is without adjunct interpretation. The Tenzo Kyokan is earthy and rich with the growth, care, and use of living things. The work of kitchen and garden is a quintessential human exchange with land.

The nature of that exchange is of great concern to me, and this book was written in an effort to better understand the relationship between society and environment, between the people and land. A wealth of detail regarding specific interactions within an ecosystem is already being compiled through the systematic methods of inquiry utilized by the science of ecology. We humans are involved in that interaction, and what I’m after in this book is not so much the data but the condition of mind essential to a genuine human interaction with earth. What has been lost to us that we no longer know how to speak the language earth speaks? What have we forgotten to think or say or do that, could we but remember, would restore our acquaintance once more?

As both a Buddhist and a student of deep ecology, I’m struck by how much the two have in common, each exacting of the follower a genuine paradigm shift in perception. For the Buddhist the shift is an awakening to earth as an extension of one’s own body wherein the dichotomy of self and other dissolves. For the deep ecologist the shift is a similar awakening wherein earth is realized as one indivisible body comprised of all beings of any sort. In both instances, this awakening is of profound proportions arguing for a shared communal relationship with earth that is unknown in modern industrial society. Of the eight principles of deep ecology as set down by Arne Naess and George Sessions, the seventh principle states the extent of the change required:

The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating quality (dwelling in situations of inherent worth) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

For both the Buddhist and the deep ecologist, quality resides in dwelling itself. Anything that dwells—a stone, leaf, rabbit, the back yard elm tree, my next-door neighbor—has an inherent worth not derivative of its value to others. The quality of dwelling resides in its own stead and can’t be valued on the market. The difference between big and great that Naess and Sessions cite lies in the fact that bigness is a comparative valuation based on quantity, while greatness comes large or small and its valuation exists outside comparison. In America, our higher standard of living is largely a matter of bigness, a standard external to the inherent quality of life itself. The insistence that the worth of a thing inheres in the thing itself and not in its value to others is what weds Buddhism to deep ecology and distinguishes deep ecology from the science of ecology in general. It’s a perception that recognizes the right of all beings to exist simply because they do. Nothing is left out, nothing excluded.

In the pages that follow, I’ve written a great deal about farms and food because it is there in the orchards, fields, ranch lands, and kitchens of a nation that we humans enact an intimate and essential interaction with earth. But I also write a great deal about human culture and society itself. I can’t reason intelligently about the land without including the humans who inhabit the land, particularly since I’m interested in the impact of the exchange between the two. I suppose that what has driven me more than anything else to write Deep Down Things is that in our society, such as it is now, we are often attending to things that are less and less deep down.

Long before I discovered its expression in Buddhism I felt the body of earth as though it were my own, just as you did. Just as we all do when we set aside false distinctions to the contrary. It’s a love affair really, and one we need to take up again while the loved one is still responsive to our need. If such language seems excessively anthropomorphic, it might be that we’ve forgotten how reciprocal our relationship with earth actually is. We’ve forgotten that love of earth is a mutual exchange, a call and response, a giving and receiving from both sides.

I have written as much in celebration as in dismay, for it is my faith that there still lives “the dearest freshness deep down things.” On the east side of town prime orchard land lies buried under Chico’s South Mall, but on the west side of town the fields of a young and thriving organic cooperative are green with new life. My prayer is that to the very last of this planet’s brief tenure in the vast cycle of the universe someone will remain to say “earth” and to say it from the heart’s core.