Being at home in the world

An illustrated talk given at the third Creative Awakening seminar, Nature, Dao & Buddhism, Institute of Oriental Philosophy, Taplow Court, Maidenhead, UK. June 2011.

For this presentation I assembled a collage of notes and images about human being, identity and the natural world. I’m including here a few of the images that provided a visual counterpoint to the spoken narrative – at times illustrating or supporting what I said, at times suggesting alternative possibilities.

Buddha, Angkor Wat, Cambodia 1130-1150Buddha, Angkor Wat, Cambodia 1130-1150

Being at home in the world: Buddhism, mind & nature.

As a sceptical Buddhist or Buddhist sceptic I ought to mention that the opposite of what I’m about to say may be equally true and useful.

Awakening to living – mindfulness and self-construction

Buddhism can be seen as a body of ideas and practices aimed at enabling anyone to become fully awake – to become aware of what it is to be here, to be alive at this moment. In the Zen tradition to sit in meditation is to treat all phenomena as being of equal importance, to be experienced and observed with equal care, acuity and equanimity. There is no thought, sensation or feeling that is too mundane or too small to be unworthy of mindful attention. Awakening in this context is to notice without commentary everything that arises, to attend to the interwoven streams of sensations, narratives, images and emotions that constitute consciousness – and to let go of these phenomena as they arise, rather than to try to cling on to them. It is this reciprocal process of attending and letting-go which helps develop a new way of being-in-the-world. In doing so we notice that there are no solid and fixed boundaries to our selves. Instead we notice that we are a constantly changing hub of relationships with everything that surrounds us, humming with information-processing and imaginative construction. We make ourselves from moment to moment, fashioning ourselves out of the materials of our experiences.

According to Stephen Batchelor (2010: 152) and the Buddha, the self is “a project to be realised” rather than a transcendent entity with a fixed essence. We revise our selves from moment to moment, much as a jazz singer improvises a song out of the raw materials of vocal sound. The self we make in this way is a functioning responsive imaginative self that participates in the world and is inseparable from it. The Buddha’s teachings are a recipe for action rather than a catalogue of dogmas or rules. He acts as a guide and navigator, helping anyone to enquire into the processes of living in order to re-orientate and revise who, and how, we are in the world. And a crucial starting point for this enquiry and re-visioning is the activity of attending without clinging to the stream of sensations, thoughts and feelings that constitute the fluid materials of our self-making. In this sense we are an open work, a work in progress, never finished, never complete.

This process of attending to what goes on inside, around and through us, with care and precision, includes attending without clinging to suffering in all its aspects (from mild dissatisfaction to severe pain and illness) – attending to, and letting go of, the immediate felt pain and to the responses to that pain, the fear and anxiety that can exacerbate the pain itself. To pay attention and let go of the whole spectrum of dissatisfaction, unease and dis-ease can have a profoundly calming effect on the restlessness and confusion we all feel from time to time, enabling us to experience a more peaceful equilibrium in the face of the difficulties of living. Attending to unease also leads to a growing awareness that there is no clear boundary to the self. Our unease is the product of many forces that flow around and through us. We are inextricably linked to the world around us and to other beings, and our dissatisfactions often arise because we forget that we are not separate from the world, we forget that we are intertwined with myriad currents of being. By paying attention to what seems like our unease and pain, we tend to develop a deeper awareness of the suffering of other beings, which, in turn, gives rise to empathy and compassion, a sense of kinship and connectedness with all beings.

Dogen, (1200-1253) the thirteenth century Japanese Zen teacher, considers the embodied mind to be an integrated whole, denoted by one term, shin-jin (body-mind), but he also recognises no essential separation between shin-jin, and the world. Hence, Dogen’s reference to the ancient Buddhist belief that, “the entire universe is the true human body. The entire universe is the gate of liberation”. (Tanahashi 1995: 163) For Dogen, the world and body-mind are co-dependent and permeable. There is no fixed boundary between them. The body-mind is interwoven with the entire universe. The body-mind is a porous field of interpenetrating forces, a mingling of currents of being and awakening, a boundless site or clearing in which realisation can occur.

Embodied minds always exist in a context, at a point in the relational field. We exist at the confluence of many currents of language, culture, chemistry, genetic coding and evolutionary process. We are always sited somewhere. We inhabit a space, a clearing in the universe. Or, as Nichiren Daishonin puts it: “Environment is like the shadow, and life, the body. Without the body there can be no shadow”. (in Seymour 1996) Self and environment are not separate entities. My skin is also the skin of the world – a shared porous membrane through which flow light, oxygen, food, water, sound (and other microscopic beings). In Nichiren Buddhism this idea of mutuality is encapsulated in the term: esho funi. Esho  is a contraction of the Japanese words, eho and shoho, meaning “environment” or “objective world”, and “living self” or “subjective self”. And funi is a contraction of nini-funi, meaning “two but not two”, and funi-nini, “not two but two”. We might translate esho funi more loosely as “being-in-the-world” or “being-here”.

In a poem entitled, Turtle Head Stupa, Musō Soseki (Rinzai School, 1275-1319) writes:

Now the doors and windows

        are all open

        and nothing inside is hidden

Dharma worlds

        beyond number

        are there for you to see.

(in Davidson 2007: 163)

This verse brings to mind another by Han-shan (translated by Snyder 2000: 525) in which the poet likens himself to a house. Cold Mountain is a translation of Han-shan’s own name:

Cold Mountain is a house

Without beams or walls.

The six doors left and right are open

The hall is blue sky.

The rooms all vacant and vague

The east wall beats on the west wall

At the centre nothing.

Relating Buddhist insights to other schools of thought

I’d like to step sideways for a while and explore some similarities between these Buddhist insights and various strands of thought in science and philosophy. Then I’ll return to Buddhism.


Findings from recent studies in palaeo-anthropology and genetics confirm earlier speculations that the whole of humanity, now exceeding 6.5 billion, evolved from one population of hominids living in East Africa. Based on evidence from more than a quarter of a million samples from around the world, geneticists have traced the migratory routes of these ancestors of ours, leaving Africa around 70,000 years ago and moving through southern Asia and into Australia about 50,000 years ago, into the colder climes of Europe about 40,000 years ago and eventually reaching the Americas. Genetic traces of more localised interactions between different populations are also being discovered. For instance, the genetic trace of 11th-century European crusaders is evident in modern Lebanese men; a similar legacy left by Genghis Khan and his followers can be found in the central Asian regions where they fought; and traces of Viking genes are found in very localised contemporary communities around the coasts of Britain. (see McKie 2008: 16) We are all one extended human family – widely dispersed, often fractious and, at times, divided by beliefs, values and aspirations – but one family nonetheless.

We can add to this picture of kinship another understanding: that the boundaries between humans and other living beings, and between our individual bodies and the surrounding environment, are much less definite and fixed than we often think. Again recent studies, this time in genetics and bacteriology, suggest that we are each of us, in a very precise sense, a community of organisms rather than one organism. For instance, our skin is home to a diversity of microbes distributed in different densities around our bodies. The geneticist, Julia Segre, likens the human skin to the surface of the earth, broadly comprising three ecological habitats: moist, oily and dry – each with a distinctive community of bacteria, feeding off and interacting with their immediate surroundings. (see Connor 2009: 13) Segre likens an armpit to a rainforest, a forearm to a desert and a navel to a rich oasis of life.  As Steven Connor suggests, ‘most skin bacteria do no harm and are likely to keep the skin healthy by preventing infections by more harmful microbes.’ (ibid) Lewis Thomas describes the bacteria that live in the cells that make up our body:

There they are, moving about in my cytoplasm… They are much less closely related to me than to each other and to the free-living bacteria out under the hill. They feel like strangers, but the thought comes that the same creatures, precisely the same, are out there in the cells of seagulls, and whales, and dune grass, and seaweed… and even in that fly on the window. (in Capra, 1990, p.294)

Connor adds that ‘bacterial cells are about 1,000 times smaller than human cells but far more numerous’ – there are probably about ten times more bacterial cells in, and on, the human body than human cells! This may seem alarming but it is also re-assuring. Each of us does not stand alone! Each larger organism is an eco-system – a habitat for myriads of smaller organisms. We are many, not one – a community of interdependent organisms sharing the same body, just as, on a vaster scale, all beings share the same body of the earth.

Given the ways in which organisms and ecosystems are woven into each other, how are we to refer to ourselves. When I say ‘me’ am I really referring to a whole community of organisms of which ‘me’ is the collective title? Am ‘I’ an assembly of immigrants, a place in which many organisms reside? How can I call this body ‘mine’ when it is a gathering-place of creatures, all of whom are tenants, residents, citizens? Aren’t ‘my’ thoughts and feelings as much ‘theirs’? Is the consciousness that arises in this body a collective consciousness? Whose is this mind I treat as if it were mine? Shouldn’t the term ‘I’ be replaced by ‘we’ and ‘mine’ by ‘ours’?

It is important that we absorb these findings and add them to the teachings of many philosophical and religious traditions from around the world. For a sense of kin-ship carries with it a sense of mutuality and shared residency. If we are not only interrelated and porous, communities of cells and microbes, through which genetic codes are transmitted, life is experienced and intentions are articulated, we are also needful of, and necessary to, each other. For if we learn anything from ecological studies it is that the web of life is a web of interdependence and co-habitation – all beings sustained by interwoven natural systems within the atmospheric nest of the earth – complex ecological dynamics condensed in Gary Snyder’s phrase, ‘Earth House Hold’. (Snyder 1969) This ought to lead us, if not to the daily practice of tolerance and compassion, then at least to the aspiration for such tolerance and compassion.

Bacteria around hair follicleBacteria around hair follicle

We are all atomic cousins

We can add to this picture of our biological embodiment understandings gained in physics. In the reductive search for the ultimate ‘substance’, which was once a goal for the ‘hard’ sciences, the atom was posited as the building block out of which the universe was built. But as the atom was ‘mapped’ in the early part of the twentieth century, researchers realised that the atom itself was more like a cloud than a speck of dust, a cloud that was largely empty space – a tiny field of energy bounded by the shifting trajectories of electrons, neutrons, protons and other sub-atomic forces. It is this concrete emptiness which lies at the paradoxical heart of our solid world. The things we bump into, the hammer that hits the nail (or my thumb) and the chair I sit on, are quite literally condensations of space that happen to reflect, refract or transmit light, and thus be visible to one apparatus or another, including the human eye.

The other paradoxical feature of atoms, hardly believable, is that despite their smallness and delicate cloud-like fuzziness, they are remarkably durable. It is almost certainly the case that every atom in my body, or yours, has passed through many stars and been part of millions of other organisms before becoming me or you and passing on to be part of countless other entities. In his inimitable way, Bryson (2004: 176) points out that atoms are so numerous and so enduring, that any or all of us, may now be composed of billions of atoms that were once part of an insect, a tree, a cloud, as well as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Buddha, and, spare the thought, Hitler or Pol Pot.

These characteristics of atoms and their sub-atomic constituents raise obvious questions about our own sense of self-ownership, self-identity and solidity. We are all atomic cousins and we need to be mindful of the long dead ancestors whose atoms we may share – constituent parts of this temporary atomic structure we call ‘our’ body or ‘our’ self. And we should keep in mind that atoms are utterly indifferent to the race or religion of the so-called ‘individuals’ to whose lives they give form and temporary shelter. These intermingled atoms don’t recognise bodily limits, national boundaries, religious affiliations or any of the petty conflicts that arise from notions of ‘purity’, autonomy or exclusivity. The most fanatical ideas of ethnic and religious difference arise in brains that share a common and universal atomic ancestry. The racist slave-owner shares an atomic heritage with his slave, as does the Catholic nationalist with his Protestant competitor in the campaign for righteousness, or the Serbian Christian with the Serbian Muslim he considers as his enemy. We are all atomic hybrids.

Gold atomsGold atoms

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) – the self as opening, clearing – an open-work

I’d like to turn, briefly, to Martin Heidegger, that most elusive of thinkers. Although I’m sure you’re already familiar with many of Heidegger’s ideas about the self I’d like to focus on a few points. Firstly, that the self is a site of being, what Heidegger calls Dasein or ‘being-here’. For Heidegger, Dasein is both a clearing or opening, a place in which possibilities arise and, more importantly, the act of clearing or opening – clearing a space in which entities or phenomena can be. Dasein is always being-in-the-world, being as a participatory act, a relating to, and being part of, the warp and weft of the world. As Barrett puts it:

My Being is not something that takes place inside my skin (or inside an immaterial substance inside that skin); my Being, rather, is spread over a field or region which is the world of its care and concern. (Barrett 1990: 217)

Barrett calls this a ‘Field Theory of Being’ (ibid) In other words we are inhabitants of the world not spectators. We are implicated in what goes on around us, indeed ‘what goes on around’ is part of our being. Just as we are biologically a constellation of atoms, genes, cells, microbes, tissues and bones, we are existentially and philosophically an unfolding of ideas, images, stories and songs, a meeting place of countless threads of narrative, tradition and culture.

It is interesting to note that Heidegger often uses a forest metaphor to describe Dasein as an opening or clearing in which possibilities arise – human being is, paradoxically, an absence, an open indeterminate space in which things become present. We can extend this aspect of Heidegger’s thinking to describe human beings as agents of consciousness in the world, the world being conscious through us. Each of us presents a distinctive worldview in so far as we are located at different points within the wider field, yet we offer shared perspectives in so far as our fields of being conjoin, inter-flow and eddy around each other – as currents do in a stream or river.

Human skin cellsHuman skin cells

John Dewey: being as process

John Dewey (1859-1952), the American pragmatist philosopher, has some interesting things to say on these matters. Stephen C. Rockefeller (1989) points out that for Dewey, “Life is process. The self is process. The end of human life is not to attain some static ideal state and stop growing. The only end of living is to be found in a way of living”. (ibid: 229) For Dewey the universe is a relational field, a network of interacting and interdependent processes, constantly changing, constantly evolving. Human beings are agents within this field, weaving narratives and actions into the complex unfolding multi-dimensional tapestry of events, in which “nothing exists as an isolated entity”. (ibid: 221) This is as true of the human self as it is of a lemon, a cloud or an amoeba. Dewey describes a world of ceaseless motion and interaction, about which we can never reach any conclusions, final answers or definitive theories. All we can do is try to find an effective way of living with this unending mutability.

One consequence of the coming together of these strands of thought is the realisation that incompleteness, instability and openness are characteristics of the self as open-work. The self as process, rather than as object, is in continuous construction. We weave and compose as we are woven and composed. There is no end to self-construction except in death, and even then we might consider the finite ego-self as being dissolved into the network of objects, memories and stories made by ourselves and by others, and into the atoms we return to the atomic storehouse. In this sense our artefacts and stories, our bodymind, are continued, revised and absorbed into the collective stories of a culture, into the unfolding communal mind. (Danvers 2006: 157)

Dandelion heads

Back to Buddhism

Kodo Sawaki, a twentieth century Zen master writes: ‘Zazen is the way through which you can connect with the whole universe.’ (in Uchiyama 1990: 80) Connecting to the universe involves setting aside the conditional or discriminating self to see things as they are in their infinite inter-dependence – this is to be free, to realise natural wisdom – to be wholly here. According to Sawaki when we realise true selfhood in all its transparency ‘there is no gap between the true self and all sentient beings’. (ibid: 20) And as there is no gap between beings, all beings are integral to ‘my’ being, a facet of the transparent or permeable self. As Uchiyama puts it:

everything I encounter here and now is a part of my life, I shouldn’t treat anything [or anyone, or any being] roughly. I should take care of everything wholeheartedly. I practice in this way. Everything I encounter is my life. (ibid: 124)

I’ve been trying to suggest that we are participants in the mutuality of existence, embodied manifestations of the chemical, biological and cultural processes that constitute the world we inhabit. I’ve suggested that there are no ‘things’ in the world, in the sense of objects with separate fixed essences. What we call ‘objects’ and ‘things’, or apples, or beings like mosquitoes and John Danvers, are only conventional labels for states of relationship and interdependence. The skin of the apple, or ‘my’ skin, is as much the skin of the surrounding space. Merleau- Ponty uses the term “the flesh of the world” to refer to this zone of contact between us and the world – the fusion of skin and air, eye and light, tongue and food – our reciprocal relationship with our surroundings. (in Abram 1997: 68) At the sub-atomic level there is no separation between apple, skin and the rest of the world. All ‘things’ are permeable and in flux. We are all endlessly exchanging energies with everything that is around us. We are transparent vessels through which pass waves of sound, cosmic radiation and light. There is no clear boundary between inside and outside. But most of the time we think and act as if there is.

Raindrops on a leaf

A short poem:


how bees spin

honeycombs of flight in

languid air

how blackbirds sculpt

shafts of song

how rains fall in

gravity’s quiet

how grasses overcome

the brittleness of


how this is always

not what it seems

how everything becomes

something else

A question

Where does my mind end and yours begin? I say something or show you something. You listen and look and think about what you’ve heard and seen. Your thinking extends my thinking, mine yours. When we exchange “ideas” we are not exchanging things, we are involved in a much more complex process of opening out, unfolding and interacting – a process in which our apparent boundaries of mind and self are dissolved as we converse, communicate, interpret and reflect. We are mutually active. A mingling of minds happens – thoughts and feelings flow in the space between us, in a liminal zone which is neither mine nor yours but ours. It is in this zone that ideas arise and it is for this reason that ideas tend not to be easily bounded by claims of ownership or identity.

Art and poetry

The arts can be considered as manifestations of this liminal field, of this intermingling of minds we also refer to as culture. Art and poetry can open up the realm of interrelatedness through the use of metaphor, analogy, imagination and association. The arts, like the sciences, can help us to gain a more durable, sustainable understanding of kinship, grounded in a multi-perspectival view, a gathering of learnings from all quarters, from many minds and from many modes of being. Cultural diversity across all life forms can be considered to be as important as biological and chemical diversity – such diversity acts as a resource-base, a bank of potential ways of knowing, doing and being. An important part of that “resource base” is the polyphony of cultures and languages, human and non-human, which speaks to us of ourselves and about the world we inhabit.

The world is a hubbub of languages, of songs and stories, dances and images, woven into the air and waters, inscribed on the land, reaching into the past and the future – including the symbol structures and communication systems not only of humans but of other mammals, and of insects and birds, and the information-processing and sharing systems of other organisms. It is in a spirit of embeddedness and participation in the universe, that we need to listen to all voices – not just our own species, but also the voices  of birds, insects, other mammals, trees, flowers, clouds, rivers and mountains – the complex communication systems that hum, vibrate and shimmer throughout the universe. It may be that we think we are speaking metaphorically or poetically when we say that plants talk to each other – but recent studies in plant interactions demonstrate that plants do communicate, sharing information about resources and dangers to their well-being. Plants listen to the “chemical chatter” of their neighbourhood species and participate in a “social network” via their root systems – the “rhizosphere”. (see Jabr 2011: 46) Buddhism, like ecology, is a way of listening, a way of attending to this ceaseless multi-sensory music. And there is no composer or conductor controlling what happens, only an endless process of polyphonic improvisation. For this is a universe at play: purposeless in its entirety, yet made up of countless threads of purpose; without beginning or end, yet made up of countless beginnings and endings – a dynamic relational field of beings and currents of existence. Intuitive understandings of these reciprocal flows of language can be found in the oral poetry of many tribal cultures. Here’s an example from the Inuit people of the arctic region:

Magic words

In the very earliest time,

when both people and animals lived on earth,

a person could become an animal if he wanted to

and an animal could become a human being.

Sometimes they were people

and sometimes animals

and there was no difference.

All spoke the same language.

That was the time when words were like magic.

(Rothenberg 1972: 45)

As a metaphor for this intermingling of minds and of chemical and biological processes, it may be useful to think of the mycelium of a fungus: the mass of thread-like filaments that exist below the ground through which the fungus absorbs and processes nutrients. Mycelia often spread over large areas, interconnecting and interweaving with each other. The apparently individual mushroom or toadstool is only a part, the fruiting body, of a much larger and more indeterminate organism. Maybe we are only the fruiting bodies of networks of thoughts and signs, imaginations and constructions – networks that we refer to as cultures.

Mycelium on rotting woodMycelium on rotting wood


This brings us to shamanism – an ancient tradition that offers us a model for a way of being-in-the-world that is strikingly ecological. According to David Abram, the purpose of shamanic practices is to establish experiential contact with the non-human realm – developing an ecological awareness grounded in human perception. Abram writes:

“Magic, then, in its… most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives… is an experiencing form…” (Abram 1997: 9)

The idea that there are more intelligences at work in the world than just the human and that these intelligences fill the world with communication systems, codes, stories and songs is a very powerful one – and it is a central belief of many indigenous cultures around the world – and still has relevance insofar as it engenders a reverence for the natural world and its processes and mysteries. Mary Oliver, in her poem, Sleeping in the Forest, articulates this idea in her own quiet voice:

                                                …I slept

as never before, a stone

on the riverbed, nothing

between me and the white fire of the stars

    but my thoughts, and they floated

light as moths among the branches

    of the perfect trees. All night

I heard the small kingdoms breathing

around me, the insects, and the birds

who do their work in the darkness…

(Oliver 1979: 3)

In this kind of writing a balance has to be struck between anthropocentric personalisation and empathic imagining. The danger is always that nature becomes too domesticated, too soft and furry. R.S.Thomas offers an antidote to a cosy view of nature in the doubled image of a barn owl, which he describes as “soft / feathers camouflaging a machine” – a machine that “repeats itself year / after year”. (Thomas 2001: 319) In a similar vein Rexroth reminds us of the indifference of stones, the remoteness of the geosphere, “the cold and cruel apathy of mountains” – though this image in a different way is anthropocentric – for we can hardly accuse mountains of “apathy”, let alone “cruelty”. (Rexroth 2003: 161)

Dogen again

Dogen reminds us of one of the most important insights of the Buddha: “Delusion is seeing all things from the perspective of the self. Enlightenment is seeing the self from the perspective of the myriad things of the universe”. (in Habito 1997: 170) We could put this slightly differently: we are mistaken if we believe and act as if each ego/self is a fixed and essential centre of the universe; we become wise when we act on the belief that the self has no fixed essence and is woven into the universe and inseparable from it. If we believe in an essential self, separated from the rest of the world, we think we act in our own self-interest by trying to satisfy every desire of our ego, and our politics, culture and social organisation reflect this need for self-fulfilment, at the expense of all other considerations. Yet, as Peter Timmerman points out, “how can we survive on a planet of [eight] billion points of infinite greed?” (Timmerman 1992: 74) This delusory way of living is clearly unsustainable. While ecology provides the analytical tools to understand the interconnectedness of living systems, Buddhism offers an alternative way of being-in-the-world that harmonises with ecological understanding.

When Dogen and other Mahayana Buddhists use the term “Buddha-nature” they are not referring to an essence or soul or core of being. When we say that all beings manifest Buddha-nature we are acknowledging that insofar as all beings have no fixed essence, soul or Atman, but are instead fluid and transient currents of existence within an infinite relational field, then all beings are as open to, and as likely to be agents of enlightenment as the Buddha. Human nature, seen from this perspective, is a manifestation of all of nature – as we see the world reflected in an infinite variety of ways in every raindrop that falls, as every illuminated surface in a dancehall is reflected in the rotating mirrored globe which, in its turn, casts its reflections on every surface.

Each of us is a community of organisms, cells and atoms – which is why taking a community perspective, an ecological viewpoint, makes so much sense and why the maintenance of bio-diversity and cultural diversity is crucial to our well-being. It has been recently proposed that we have now entered (possibly beginning in the industrial revolution) a new era in planetary evolution: the Anthropocene period. An era marked by the impact upon the earth of one species: Homo sapiens – human beings. Certainly there are few places on earth that aren’t affected by human activities. Large areas of the globe are habitats managed by humans – in the form of agriculture, horticulture, mineral extraction and urban expansion.  We have to take full responsibility for these managed habitats and consider carefully what we do as individuals acting within, and on behalf of, diverse communities of beings.

Considered in this way we have to accept that states with a large Buddhist presence have often been no less harmful to the environment than have non-Buddhist communities. Deforestation, industrial degradation and, in many cases, intolerance of minorities and lack of care for other species, is as widespread in China, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar and Korea as it is in ostensibly Christian or Islamic countries. We need to think of Buddhist temples and monasteries as managed habitats in the same way that we consider domestic gardens, allotments and farmland as sites in which many interwoven communities live. The more diverse are these communities and the more attuned they are to local conditions the more sustainable they are in the long run. A Zen dry garden, though on a small scale, could be seen as being as barren and ecologically unsound as a soil-depleted mono-crop intensive farm in the American Midwest! Maybe we need to treat every acre of land as a sacred site, as first and foremost a home – only in this way might we restore the planet to health.

For the Buddha, Dogen, Kodo Sawaki and Nichiren Daishonin there are no firm boundaries between things and therefore we are intimately related to everything else. Coming to this realisation and understanding that our being extends into its surroundings leads to a sense of participation and kinship that underpins the Buddhist beliefs in compassion, minimising harm done to others and in “loving-kindness” towards all of creation. Although our ability to translate these beliefs into action is always limited by historical understanding and cultural conditioning, in the twenty-first century we are in a position to extend Buddhist compassion, not only to our fellow humans but to our kith and kin throughout the natural world – from mice to mountains, from tiny bacteria to vast river systems – to listen to the songs sung by every organism and to learn from all beings. It is this shift of viewpoint – from the one to the many, the part to the whole – that Buddhism, and ecology in a very different way, work towards – providing us with tools and methods that enable us to experience the world as it is, to come to a realisation of who, and how, we are in the world: to fully realise that we are relational beings in a relational universe.

Deforestation ThailandDeforestation Thailand

I’d like to end with a well-known poem by e.e.cummings (1963)

O sweet spontaneous

earth how often have



            fingers of

prurient philosophers pinched




, has the naughty thumb

of science prodded


     beauty   .  how

often have religions taken

thee upon their scraggy knees

squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightiest conceive




to the incomparable

couch of death thy



          thou answerest

them only with




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Timmerman, Peter. 1992. It is dark outside: Western Buddhism from the Enlightenment to the global crisis, in Batchelor, Martine & Brown, Kerry. 1992. Buddhism and Ecology. London: Cassell.

Uchiyama, Kôshô. 1990. The Zen Teaching of ‘Homeless’ Kôdô. Kyoto: Kyoto Sôtô-Zen Center

White, Kenneth. 2003. Open World: The Collected Poems 1960-2000. Edinburgh: Polygon.


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