Reflections on the Jewel Net

Hope for Pessimists

When the worship associates met to decide the speaking schedule, I at first tried to avoid January, which by now you should know has been about “hope.” That is, until I remembered that the theme for February is “love.”

You see, whether it’s due to living with recurring depression or being the child of Chinese immigrants traumatized by war (and those two things may be related), I find it difficult to express positive sentiments, and to believe them when expressed by others. In our house, we never talked about “love.” And while I’m not exactly pessimistic, I do tend to be suspicious when things seem too easy. The values our parents emphasized were things like duty, responsibility, and sacrifice. Words that sound a lot less positive than love and hope. In fact, they sound and often feel like a burden. But there is a connection. I knew my parents loved me, and what they hoped for their children, not by what they said but what they did.

So, I’d been fretting over what I can sincerely say about hope. Until it occurred to me that maybe I don't have to be “uplifting.” Maybe this could be for those of you who, like me, need a somewhat grittier view to take hope seriously. Then, I knew what to talk about... Star Wars.

You’ve had over six weeks now to see Star Wars Rogue One, so if I spoil the ending for you it’s your own fault. Or, you can plug your ears

To refresh your memory, or if you happen to be one of the six people on this planet who’ve never seen the original Star Wars movie, it was entitled “A New Hope.” In it, Luke Skywalker eagerly joins the rebel alliance to fight the evil Empire, which has built a Death Star that can reduce entire planets to rubble, and the alliance must find a way to destroy it or else all hope is lost. Together with Princess Leia and others, our heroes deliver the schematics of the Death Star to rebel command, which determines that there is a one in a million chance to destroy the thing, which of course Luke succeeds in doing. There were casualties, to be sure, but most of them were secondary characters with whom the audience has no emotional attachment. Even as a kid, there was little doubt in my mind that our heroes would triumph despite the odds. Good vanquishes evil and they all lived happily ever after. (Well, not quite, but that’s for a different movie.) Star Wars: A New Hope is one view of hope. I like it as much as the next person, as a fantasy that lifts our spirits, and that is important. But I don't take it seriously.

The events of the latest movie, Rogue One, occur right before A New Hope; ending just where the latter begins. When the new movie first came out, there were those who criticized it for betraying the spirit of Star Wars. Admittedly, it is not a kids fantasy film. This time the protagonist, Jyn Erso, at first wants nothing to do with the rebellion. It isn’t until she learns of the sacrifices that her father made to protect her and the alliance that she gets involved, setting out to retrieve the Death Star plans to redeem her father’s legacy. Jyn doesn’t go alone - she would not have gotten very far without help - and I won’t go into detail but I’d argue that almost every one of her companions - the humans with speaking roles at least - are motivated by a sense of duty or responsibility of various kinds. Of course they successfully acquire the plans as we knew they would, but Rogue One does not have a “Hollywood ending.” Characters that we’ve grown to care about do not live happily ever after. The last scene of the film is like a relay race, with rebels passing off the plans, one to another, as they fall, until finally a soldier hands it to Princess Leia. He asks her what is in the parcel he’s just given her, and Leia responds: "Hope."

I don’t mean to give the impression that I think hope can only be gained by martyrdom and suffering. No, I think that we’re supposed to live, and that every day that we live joyfully is an act of resistance against Empire. The reason why Rogue One’s version of hope resonates much more deeply with me is because it wasn’t just miraculously handed to us. We got to see all that went into creating hope, keeping it alive. If any one of the characters in Rogue One had said, “Forget it” there would have been no plans for the rebels to use in the next movie. There would have been no one-in-a-million chance for Luke to destroy the Death Star.

Rogue One reminds me of the sacrifices my parents and countless other parents have made, for a better life for their children. It reminds me of what Moses did for Joshua and the next generation of Israelites. Of what Rev King and others in the Civil Rights movement did for us. There was no guarantee of “success.” There was no guarantee that they’d even get to see the outcome of their efforts. But they did what they could so that the possibility for something better could still exist.

In reality, we don’t know whether we currently are in “Rogue One” or “A New Hope.” All we can do is what we can, so that hope, the possibility of something better, still exists.

"A New King"










It is supremely ironic that Christianity became the religion of Empire. Because the thing I love about it — the reason why I get choked up every Good Friday, joyful every Easter, and hopeful every Christmas — is the story of the savior (whether you think him God or fully human) being born a helpless infant to poor people under occupation, whose family had to flee to another land to save his life, who as an adult hung out with social outcasts, who preached that “the last shall be made first,” and who was tortured to death by Roman decree. The glory of Jesus’ story isn’t (in my opinion and that of many others) that he was God made flesh who died for our sins. The glory of Jesus’ story is that his entire life he lived on the margins, and yet at the lowest point when all seemed lost, he ultimately was raised up most high. (Whether you believe it was by God or humans. (Or both.)) To every person who has ever felt outcast, that is a story that resonates. (Although some are unable to hear it, understandably, because of the empire thing.)

Or maybe it isn’t ironic that Christianity became the religion of Empire. Maybe Empire recognized the power of the story, the threat it posed, and co-opted it in order to control and obscure it.

The version of Jesus’ story that Empire promotes focuses on Christ the King, the ruler, the conqueror. It conveniently forgets that Christ the King was FIRST Jesus the child, not different from the children of Aleppo, or of Standing Rock. That part of the story must always come first, lest the focus on “King” (conveniently) transform Jesus from an emblem of hope to a justification for Empire.

And that is exactly what RNC chairman Reince Priebus was doing in not-so-subtly comparing Trump to Jesus, announcing a “new King.” Trump has never been the babe born into poverty, never been the refugee child, and never been the man who sided with and was himself an outcast. He cannot understand, let alone represent, the low made high. If Trump is “king” he is only conqueror, tyrant, ruler of Empire.

The Season of Wonder













If you look in the dictionary, there are two uses of the word “wonder.” The first meaning curiosity, as in “I wonder how that works.” And the second meaning awe, as in “They gazed in wonder at the star(s).” The two meanings feel different to me. When we wonder about something, there is the sense – whether it’s true or not – that we can use observation and reason to eventually discover the answer. When we wonder at something - marvel, behold in awe - there is more the sense that this is something so grand, so amazing, that all we can do is experience it. Yet the two definitions of wonder are clearly related; both start with the recognition of not knowing. As I thought about it, I realized that the times when I do not know - whether it’s curiosity or awe - are the times I feel most alive; and that I’ve pursued that feeling throughout my life.

You see I started vocationally as a scientist. Got a PhD in neurobiology from Caltech and worked in a research lab for seven years at SUNY Stony Brook. But then changed professions. Studied religion at Georgetown; then got a job working for the UUA. (That’s the national association of Unitarian Universalist congregations.) I got into science for the same reason that most scientist do, I think - curiosity, the desire to understand the world around us. And left science once I realized, belatedly, that while I loved asking questions and designing experiments, I almost always felt disappointed by the results. Knowing answers seemed far less rich, less magical to me, than posing questions. So I switched to a field where answers are much harder to come by than questions. (Come to think of it, no wonder I’m a UU.)

Of course, we're here to celebrate Christmas, but there are several other holidays this time of year as well. One of them is Bodhi Day. That's the day when Siddhartha became the Buddha, when he “awoke” and attained enlightenment.

On one level, Buddhism, like science, is a quest to know. We practice in order to see more clearly, to know more truly. And if one believes the sutras, they tell us that when the Buddha attained enlightenment, he could see everything. Every previous life. Every karmic consequence. The entire interdependent web, past, present, and future. He didn’t teach about those things because they are not relevant to the goal of Buddhism, which is to end suffering. But if the sutras are to be believed, with full enlightenment comes perfect knowing.

Whereas Christianity values mystery, NOT-knowing. The mystery of the Divine incarnating as a poor infant in an occupied land. The mystery of what the shepherds saw that night, trembling in awe. Every year, whether we believe it literally or not, many of us repeat the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth in order to re-experience wonder.

Yet knowing and not-knowing are not mutually exclusive. Followers of Zen are taught the value of not-knowing, or beginner’s mind, which isn’t the same as confusion or ignorance. Not-knowing means always being aware that we don’t see the whole picture, and thus approaching each situation with curiosity. After all, we are not enlightened yet. (Or at least I’m not.) In order to learn, it’s necessary to first recognize that we don’t know. When we think that we already know, we miss things due to preconceived ideas, filter out due to interpretations, and dismiss due to judgments.

In science too, every conclusion is to be held lightly, tentatively. So that one is always open to new information that might transform our understanding. Looking back, I realize now that, while I don’t regret it, it wasn’t necessary to leave science to maintain wonder, if I had kept my focus on the process and not the so-called results.

Chapter 71 of the Tao Te Jing tells us, “To know that we do not know is health. To not know yet think we know is disease.”

We live in a society that values knowing over not knowing. Not-knowing is seen as weakness, whereas knowing - certainty - is seen as strength. What’s more, the people who “know” tend to assume the worst. That things are going to turn out badly, that people can’t be trusted, that suggestions won’t work. Those who “know” are quick to say ‘I told you so’ and to make others feel foolish for hoping and trying and, yes, failing.

Right now, this country seems determined to hurl itself backwards a half century or more, and daily reports of violence assail us; it is extremely tempting to despair. Most of us, myself included, think that we know what the next few years are going to be like. But if we “know” that it’s hopeless, then we will not see opportunities. We fulfill our own naysaying prophecy.

This darkest time of the year is also the season of wonder. The season to tell stories of babies born who will redeem our world, of oil lamps that burn eight times longer than reason would allow, of people who sit under trees until they become Buddhas. Let us have the courage to NOT know what is not possible, to believe that the future is still ours to imagine.

It Matters Where We Came From

Between my serving as worship associate on this Sunday and helping to create the accompanying communal altar for the congregation, I’ve been thinking about Day of the Dead and ancestors a lot these past few days. The other night while Dad was watching the Warrior game, a commercial for a beer came on - Modelo Especial. The commercial ended with “It doesn’t matter where you came from; It matters what you’re made of.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, they’re using a uniquely USAmerican perspective to sell a Mexican beer.” Because Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, is a recognition that it does matter where we came from, that what we’re made of is in large part due to where we came from.

So... the Chinese traditionally do not celebrate Dia de Muertos. That holiday originated with the peoples of Mesoamerica. But we observe similar practices at other times of the year. Multiple times of the year. (Our ancestors are pretty demanding.) We too visit the graves of departed loved ones on special days, and we too invite our ancestors home for a visit and meal at the family altar.

In my family, the biggest ancestral observance is QingMing. On QingMing we visit the graves of loved ones and bring their favorite foods and drinks. When Mom died in 2009, QingMing became a lot more complicated, since she's in Colma and my paternal grandparents are in Walnut Creek.

Last year, in 2015, QingMing fell on a Sunday, so I was at church, prior to driving all over the Bay Area. Before I left UUSF, I worked up the courage to do something I'd wanted to do since I first joined the congregation. Sheepishly, furtively, I approached the sarcophagus of Thomas Starr King, who lies just outside our church. I awkwardly bowed (3 times), and poured a small libation of coffee for my spiritual ancestor. The embarrassment I felt came from what other people might think, who were passing by. Not because of any question in my mind that Thomas Starr King is my ancestor and deserves an offering.

Starr King may not have contributed to my genetic makeup, but he nevertheless contributed to the making of me. I am who I am because he was who he was. Just as Ralph Waldo Emerson's blood may not run thru my veins, but his ideas run thru my mind. And just as my forebears sacrificed and strived to make life better for their descendants, so too has my life, our lives, been bettered by the labors of Clara Barton and Frederick Douglas. I've learned from my aunts, and I've learned from Sophia Lyon Fahs and Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley. I am who I am because they were who they were.

To recognize our spiritual ancestors is to recognize the interdependent web, and the ongoing unfolding of life. It is to recognize that we don’t just come from a lineage of blood and that we are even now, no matter what age, continually being created, and helping to create others by our actions.

On my altar at home, there’s a picture of Mom, the names of my grandparents written in Chinese, a small pantheon of deities, AND representations of several spiritual ancestors. They can’t all occupy the altar at once - there isn’t enough space - but they make their appearances depending on whose counsel I most need at the time.

Now, it is easy to recognize someone as an ancestor - in other words, someone we have a connection with - when they are people whom we greatly admire. It might be harder to recognize people who are neither familially related nor did they necessarily say or do anything profound. In fact, I likely would never have known they existed had their lives not been cut short. Mario Woods, surrounded by five San Francisco police officers, crouching against the wall, obviously scared of what he likely knew was going to happen next. Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros, a 14-yr old girl from El Salvador who died alone in the desert, while trying to reunite with her mother in Los Angeles. 14 year olds should not be anyone’s ancestor.

Their likenesses and those of others who were killed by injustice share space on my altar with family relatives and bodhisattvas and luminaries. Because they too have something to teach me.

We honor our ancestors so that we know who we are.

The Difference Is the Practice

When I went to the People of Color retreat at Deer Park last week, I went in thinking only that it would be a place to connect with and spend time with other people of color who practice the Dharma. The theme of the retreat – healing – was incidental in my mind. I just took it as a “theme” that the organizers chose, something nice sounding that goes after the colon in the title. In past experiences, for example with General Assemblies, to be honest the chosen theme does not generally affect my experience of the gathering at all. (Justice GA was the one exception.)

I've been to many People of Color gatherings now, but never before in a Buddhist context and never before for so many days together. It was interesting to see how things were similar and how they were different. There was the same woundedness and rawness. The first couple of days, I kept thinking to myself, "So much pain here. So much pain here." Even as most of us expressed joy and gratitude to be gathered together. But around the second full day of the retreat, I started to understand the difference between this gathering and others I'd been to.

The difference is the practice. In many ways, the teachings of Buddhism can be likened to deescalation techniques. (In fact, sometimes I wonder whether that's where they came from, tho of course it's entirely possible the same principles have been discovered repeatedly over time.) The gist of it is that instead of reacting to what another person is doing and thus (most often) escalating conflict, we sit with it. Try to understand that their behavior is due to causes and conditions, and to understand what in us is reacting, being triggered, due to our causes and conditions. So instead of feeding and thus escalating conflict, we let that energy dissipate. NOT suppress it, which would be different, just not add to it, not make it stronger, bigger.

Most everyone at the retreat has an understanding of this practice, but the organizers and the monastics are especially versed in it. So, for the first day and a half or so, they just let folks express their anger and hurt and dissatisfaction, without responding in defensiveness. Whether or not they were as calm on the inside I do not know, but outwardly, they just let the criticisms be voiced. And once folks were able to voice their dissatisfactions without being told that they were wrong for feeling that way, that in and of itself was healing. And that allowed participants to open more as well, and be more gentle with each other. It was an amazing thing to behold. (Altho I think I personally spent more time observing it in admiration than actually allowing myself to be transformed by it.)

Reflecting on Evil

Fountain of Peace, St John the Divine

By most counts I am a religion nerd. Not only is it a favorite topic of discussion, but if there is a church, temple, mosque, synagogue, shrine or ritual place of note in the area that allows visitors, I am there. So when I learned that the fourth largest Christian church in the world - the Cathedral of St. John the Divine - was in New York City, I of course had to go.

The cathedral itself was grand, Gothic, and a little too dark, but what I most remember is that just outside the building was a sign inviting visitors to stroll in the “Children's Peace Garden.” And in the center of the small garden, dominating the space, was a very large statue of the Archangel Michael, wings unfurled, sword drawn, standing over the prone and nearly decapitated body of Satan, his horned head hanging over the edge of the piece by a single bronze ligament. And I thought in horror, “Who in their right minds would put something this violent in a children's peace garden?

Reading the inscription, I understood. For the creators of this garden, peace comes when good annihilates evil. In their theology, there are good people and bad people. If you are a good person, then goodness is inherent and evil is external to you, and if you are a bad person, then evil is inherent in you. Actions are neither inherently good nor evil, people are. So killing an evil person is a good act because it reduces the amount of evil in the world. The ends justify the means. According to that theology, Michael decapitating Satan is the triumph of good over evil.

This is the same thinking, regardless of religion, that motivates religious wars and attacks. It's the thinking behind capital punishment. It's the thinking behind most murders, actually, like the many we’ve grieved this month including in Baton Rouge this morning. And if I am honest, it's the same thinking, on a smaller scale, that I revert to when someone has hurt me and my first reaction is to hurt them back. Verbally. When my desire is to say something so devastating that the person is overwhelmed and does not mess with me again.

In those moments, I have to stop and remember that from a Buddhist perspective, overcoming evil doesn't work that way. First, as the Heart Sutra says, “All phenomena in their own-being are empty.” No thing including us is inherently in and of itself anything. All things including us are conditional upon other things. (That whole interdependent web of existence.) Thus, people are neither inherently good nor evil. Whatever state we're in is the result of our conditions.

Now, emptiness doesn't mean that there is no good and evil. It's not “all relative” and “anything goes.” Rather, the focus is on actions, not people. Those actions that benefit beings are wholesome and can be considered good and those that cause harm to beings are unwholesome and can be considered evil.

The focus is on actions, or karma. In common usage, karma is often interchangeable with punishment. Sometimes, punishment and reward. In the original Sanskrit, however, the word “karma” literally means action. Simply put, karma is the consequences of our actions, all consequences of every action. We cannot take any action, good or bad, without it affecting both the wider world AND ourselves. From a Buddhist perspective, even an angel of God such as Michael cannot kill someone, even the Devil himself, without that act of violence tainting their own being, making them more inclined to violence in the future. Because of karma, the means are the ends. Thus, we cannot end evil through violence, because violence itself increases the evil in the world.

And unfortunately, that includes name-calling and insults. The only way to overcome evil is to meet it with good, to meet violence with compassion. SO MUCH easier said than done. But then I remember that the good news is, if every action we take affects our being, then when we do kind things - even if we don't feel particularly kind at the moment - it makes it easier for us to be kind in the future. Little by little, it makes us better people. We really can “fake it to make it.”

Thank You Body

Being religiously savvy Unitarian Universalists, most of you probably know that one of the core teachings of Buddhism is impermanence. All things are conditional and thus all things change. For example, people get older. When you're a kid this seems like a good thing. As an adult, not so much. (Young adults may not yet relate to this, but trust me, it's coming.) You probably also know that Buddhism teaches that attachment, or grasping - for example, not wanting things to change even tho all things change - is the cause of dukkha, the Sanskrit word that gets translated into English as suffering, or dissatisfaction.

Knowing this, I try to not be attached. I try to accept that everything changes, including us. People are born. People die. And those of us in between those two events, grow older with every day. So it is partly due to age (and partly due to inactivity) that my joints are far less flexible than they used to be. I’ve suffered frozen shoulder on both sides, limiting their range of motion, and my knees ache if I sit in half-lotus position (forget full-lotus). My eyes don't focus quite as well as they used to. I accept getting older with the intellectual understanding that aging is inevitable, unless you're dead, and thus there is no point in lamenting the changes that come with it. But while stoic acceptance of aging may mitigate dukkha, suffering, dissatisfaction, I can't say as there was any joy in that approach.

Back in February I took a day-long workshop at East Bay Meditation Center or EBMC, in Oakland. I really did not know what to expect from the class other than I admire one of the two teachers and wanted to learn from him. And he did not disappoint. But it was the other teacher, whom I did not know, whose wisdom that day was transformative.

One of EBMC's core teachings is to embody the Dharma. Literally. Reminding us that we are embodied beings. So I was not surprised when this other teacher started leading us in movement meditation. But I was a bit apprehensive about whether my body would be able move as requested.

I needn’t have worried. Using language that acknowledged our various degrees of mobility in the room, she guided us to stretch and bend, so far as we were able to, emphasizing that whatever we did was enough, asking us to be gentle with ourselves. She encouraged us to focus not on what our bodies could not do but instead on what they could and did do. And that for me caused a profound shift. I realized that, without being consciously aware of it, I’d been thinking of my body as like a machine that my mind rides around in, and machines break over time. But that way of thinking only looks at change in terms of loss, and the best you can do is to accept it. Instead, our teacher reminded us that whoever we are is in large part due to our bodies, however they are. We are continually becoming something new together.  AND, she reminded us of the things our bodies do for us that we usually take for granted.

Our hearts beat without us having to ask.
Our lungs breathe without us having to tell them to.
Stomach digests.
Liver filters.
Our bodies – right down to the individual cells - provide for us without our even thinking about it.

By the end of the meditation, I felt well-cared for, loved, and was overflowing with gratitude. For this body, my body. Instead of stoic acceptance of what it/i could no longer do, I felt JOY, in breathing, in moving, in being alive.

So.... we can't do moving meditation here, but I invite you to repeat these words in your minds:
Thank you heart, for faithfully pumping blood to every part of my body to nourish my cells.
Thank you lungs, for steadfastly drawing in life-giving oxygen and pushing out CO2.
Thank you marrow of my bones, for making the blood cells that protect me from infections and injuries.
Thank you muscles, for flexing and extending to the extent that you are able.
Thank you body.
Thank you. Thank you.

Truth In the Time of Babel

A few months ago, I mentioned on Facebook that I no longer trusted my friends to tell me the truth. Some people expressed hurt feelings, and in retrospect, I should have anticipated how that would sound. But I wasn't questioning anyone's honesty. Rather, I was expressing dismay at feeling lost in a sea of misinformation.

It must have been easier in the days of Edward Murrow and then Walter Cronkite. Whether justified or not, the general perception was that you could trust these journalists to tell the truth, even if governments or corporations didn't want them to.

But by the time my generation came of age, that sense of trust in the media was gone. One of the defining characteristics of GenerationX is that we are distrustful of institutional authority - whether it's political, religious, advertising, or media. While sociologists have attached that cynicism to GenX, this distrust of mainstream media has arguably increased across all age groups.

And no wonder. We all know the biases of Fox News. And that CNN helped Bush and Cheney sell the public on the second Iraq war. We know that the mainstream media don't just report the news, they create it, shape it by what they choose to report and how they frame the story.

Just as a brief aside, in Buddhism the three poisons that stand between us and realizing our Buddha nature are hatred, greed, and delusion. Buddhist scholars like David Loy have argued that these three poisons are institutionalized in our society – hatred in the military industrial complex, greed in Wall Street and advertising, and delusion is institutionalized in our mainstream media.

For a while, the rise of the internet and then social media seemed like the antidote, because we could get information from other sources. Whether it was events that the mainstream media didn't cover, or someone pointing to biases in their reporting, we could learn about it via independent sites. These stories were shared among friends, first via email and now via Facebook and Twitter. And I trusted my friends when they shared these stories.

Now, my friends tend towards a certain political persuasion. Occasionally, a story would be shared of someone of the other persuasion doing bad things, to which we'd be outraged, only to learn later that it wasn't true. Either it was a misunderstanding, or exaggeration of a partial truth, or a completely fabricated story on a website designed to look legitimate. I've shared a few myself. And such mistakes are understandable. Your friends share something. You trust your friends. And sharing takes only a click, which makes passing on false information too easy. But it's also because we have a tendency to believe stories that fit our preconceptions whereas if a story doesn't fit, we're more likely to investigate its validity or just dismiss it outright. Confirmation bias.

At first these questionable stories came up only occasionally.

Then, election season happened.

And my online friends support two different candidates.

My Facebook feed was overrun with posts about the two candidates or their supporters. Claims of people doing bad things, to which they'd be outraged, but I wasn't sure were true. Or exactly opposite claims that couldn't both be true. Wading thru these articles, the only thing of which I'm certain is that we are locked in collective a feedback loop of confirmation bias. People preferentially believing and sharing those stories that confirm their preconceptions and discounting those stories that conflict. And since we tend to be friends with those whom agree with us, we preferentially see stories that confirm our view and the effect is magnified. In addition to the mainstream media deluding us, we are deluding ourselves.

I no longer trust my friends to share the truth. Or trust myself for that matter. Lost in a sea of misinformation. How do we navigate? Where is our anchor and what is our compass? Well, as an anchor I'm keeping a list of websites that have proven from past experience to be reliable. If a controversial story comes up, I'll try to remember to look to these sites to see if they confirm it. And as a compass, this rule of thumb – if a story validates my preconceptions, scrutinize it carefully, and if a story challenges my preconceptions, try it on for size. I'm not saying that I always succeed. Just the other day, I shared a story that while factually true was two years old and thus misleading, because it fit my preconceptions, and because I trusted the person who shared it. So the challenge continues. And if anyone has suggestions for how they navigate, I'm all ears.

Mother Earth Does Not Need Saving

In June of 2009, I was still reeling from my mother's death from cancer the month before when two DC metro trains collided near the stop I took every day, killing 9 people. One evening shortly after the crash, I got off that stop after work, walked by the flowers left for those killed, turned towards home, and then saw them... dozens, maybe hundreds of fireflies, flashing on the lush green grass. They didn't care at all about the recent deaths – they were looking to reproduce, to create life. Lives end but Life continues.

As we near the end of Climate Justice Month and approach Earth Day, some people talk about needing to "save the earth." But Mother Earth does not need us to save Her. It is us humans and our cousin species who are in serious trouble. Our populations are built around predictable sources of water, and as weather patterns change with rising temperatures, some places suffer drought and others flood.  Either way, sources of clean water become scarce, and people fight for control. The violence in both Darfur and Syria have been linked to climate change and things will only get worse.  Not to mention the poisons we're digging up and sending into our air, water, and soil.  So the need to act is urgent, particularly for those of us who are poorest, most vulnerable, as we saw with Katrina and with Flint. But Mother Earth, Pachamama, Gaia... She will ultimately be fine with or without us.

We've all seen plants growing, even blooming, out of cracks in concrete and asphalt and the cypress trees clinging to the craggy rocks in Monterey. I don't know how many of you have been to Bryce National Park but there are enormous trees growing from the dim light of the canyon floor up all the way until their tops surpass the canyon walls and they finally see direct sun. How many seeds fall and are unable to take root, or even if they do germinate are unable to survive, because the conditions are too harsh? But even as the vast majority don't make it, a few do. Any one life is fragile and vulnerable, even species can be extinguished, but Life collectively is amazingly resilient and adaptive.

There is a famous study of the adaptation of peppered moths in England to environmental changes brought on by industrialization. Before industrialization the moths were a light grey to help them blend with trees and avoid predators. As soot from the factories stained the tree bark darker, the moths too became darker grey to match the trees. Of course, individual moths didn't necessarily adapt. Countless lighter colored ones were eaten; the ones that happened to be darker survived and were able to reproduce. Collectively, the population adapted.

We are now living during the Sixth Great Extinction, by our hand. Unless we act, it's predicted that up to ¾ of species on earth will die. But Life on Earth has survived five other mass extinctions and will most likely survive this one. Some species are already adapting to fill the new niches created. For example, populations of mosquitoes have exploded in more northern latitudes and higher altitudes as temperatures climb high enough for them to live there. And populations of American robins that migrate south are declining, but those that now stay north where winters were once too cold are rising. Both pink and sockeye salmon populations are migrating earlier than they used to, to better deal with warming waters. (Personally, I care more about cheetahs and rhinos than I do mosquitoes, but Mother Earth does not distinguish between insects and cute, fuzzy mammals the way humans do.  We are all Her children.)  Many species will die; others live on.  Lives end but the glory that is Life continues.

Anthropomorphization and Objectification

Image from

    I grew up in San Francisco in the neighborhood of Parkside, one block away from the city park. There was a small copse of trees and bushes there that together created a private space, if one was small enough to crawl into the center. And there, sitting on the cool earth against a tree trunk in the filtered sun, I could hear the birds and insects and, I thought, I could hear the trees. Talking to each other, joyfully. And taken all together – the sun, the earth, the chirps and buzzes and especially the trees - I heard God telling me that I was part of and connected to all. Loved.

When I was nine, my Buddhist parents sent me to West Portal Lutheran school, where I was taught, among other things, that God was NOT in the sunlight and the trees, and that humans were special, separate from the rest of creation.

By age 16 I had rejected Christianity, in favor of the rational reductionist materialism of science, which taught me to look at things objectively; not subjectively. To distance oneself mentally and emotionally from the world we observe. Rational people do not anthropomorphize animals and inanimate objects. That is, rational people don't attribute human qualities to things, like our “superstitious” ancestors used to do.

So trees cannot be joyful, let alone talk to each other. They are just … things that are useful to us, as wood to build new things, as lungs for the planet exchanging CO2 for oxygen, or as prettiness to look at. Trees are objects; we are subjects. Subjects have inherent worth – worth in and of ourselves. Objects only have worth if they are useful to subjects.

Science has given us so much – and even that is an anthropomorphized thought – so it's not my intent to disparage science. But over time, following the rational, objective approach, the world seemed less magical, less loving to me. What I've found is that, if one thinks of trees as objects whose worth is dependent upon their being useful to us, then it becomes easier to think that way about (non-human) animals. And if one thinks of animals as objects whose worth is dependent upon their use to us, then it becomes easier to think that way about fellow humans. The circle of who has worth gets ever smaller. The distance between us, ever greater. This type of thinking justified slavery both then and now. It is what allows people – usually men but increasingly women too – to rate other people on whether or not they are “do-able.” It's why this society cares so little for those who are aged and/or disabled, who are of “no use.” It's what allows people to write open letters to the mayor complaining about having to see people on the street who are not “contributing to society.” And it is why I get anxious when people ask me “what do you do?” – a very common question – yet I worry, am I being useful enough?

So much of our society actively trains us to objectify others, creating deeply ingrained ways of thinking, of which we may not even be aware. It requires active resistance on our part to counter it, to balance it by training our minds otherwise. So I decided, if I'm going to err on one side or the other, instead of treating subjects like objects, I'd rather treat objects like subjects. I'd rather anthropomoprhize trees than objectify humans. (Incidentally, scientists have recently discovered that trees do indeed talk to each other and support each other.) I'd rather strive to enlarge the circle of who has worth, and recognize our kinship with all things.

The other day I was at East Bay Meditation Center and in the context of talking about mindfulness our teacher, Mushim, mentioned thanking the tea cup for holding the tea. Faint alarm bells about anthropomorphization rang but they were drowned out by a louder, deeper joy welling up in me. To thank the teacup is to be grateful, to not take it for granted. As an object, its existence barely registers on my consciousness, except when things go wrong, like if it breaks or is dirty. Otherwise, it's just a conveyance for the tea, which I drink also without much notice, thinking instead of my next task. I've done that with tea, and honestly, I know I've done that with people. As a subject, whom we thank, the cup has my attention and has inherent worth. I/we are fully present to the moment, between the self, the tea cup, and the tea.


Subscribe to Reflections on the Jewel Net

Forum Activity

Fri, 10/31/2014 - 08:11
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 07:09
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 22:01

Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative