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What did the great Zen master Dogen say after his own deep enlightenment, when “body and mind fell away”? He said, “I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide Earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.” According to tradition, Shakyamuni awakened when he looked up from his meditations and saw the morning star (Venus). Did he suddenly realize his nonduality with that star?

Every species is an experiment of the biosphere, and biologists tell us that fewer than 1 percent of all species that have ever appeared on Earth still survive today. The super-sized cortex of homo sapiens enables us to be co-experimenters and co-creators. (Is this what “created in the image of God” means?) With us, new types of “species” have become possible: knives and symphonies, poetry and nuclear bombs. But it is also becoming more and more obvious that something has gone wrong with our hyper-rationality. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says that “man is a rope across an abyss.” Are we a transitional species? Must we evolve further in order to survive at all? In Buddhist terms, our delusions of a separate self are haunted by too much dukkha, which motivates us to do too many self-destructive things. Maybe that helps to explain the critical situation we now find ourselves in.

On the other hand, figures like the Buddha might be harbingers of how our species can develop. In that case, the cultural evolutionary step most important today would be spiritual practices that address the fiction of a separate self whose well-being is distinguishable from that of “others.” Perhaps our basic problem is not self-love, but a profound misunderstanding of what one’s self really is. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “We are here to overcome the illusion of our separateness.”

Without the compassion that arises when we realize our nonduality—empathy not only with other humans but with the whole biosphere—it is becoming likely that civilization as we know it will not survive the next few centuries. Nor would it deserve to. We are challenged to grow up or get out of the way. It remains to be seen whether the homo sapiens experiment will be a successful vehicle for the cosmic evolutionary process.

All this suggests that the eco-crisis is not only a technological and economic emergency, but a spiritual challenge to realize our oneness with the Earth. At this point in our evolutionary history, do we really have a choice?


Originally published in the November 2010 issue of the Shambhala Sun magazine.

David Loy’s books include The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution and 2010's The World Is Made of Stories. A Zen practitioner for many years, he is a teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism.






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