As many of you know, in my day job, I am a professor of Earth Sciences at the University of New Mexico, where I study Earth’s changing climate. I just got back from a two-week long research expedition to the Peruvian Andes to study the Quelccaya Ice Cap, which is the largest glacier in the tropics. It’s rapidly melting, and we were there as part of a larger set of projects to study the processes that control the melting of the ice cap. I won’t say much about the science, but during the trip, I thought a lot about our Soto Zen practice, and that’s I wanted to talk about tonight.
First, I want to say a bit about my personal experience of the trip and then I’ll talk in a broader way about what came up for me in terms of how our practice might relate to the very difficult issue of climate change. For me personally, the trip was extremely physical, pretty much entirely a bodily experience rather than an intellectual experience. For most of us, most of the time, climate change is a set of ideas floating around in our heads, or maybe in the blogosphere, that are subject to all sorts of spin and debate and excitement, and really in this sense climate change pretty much exists only from the neck up. This trip took place entirely from the neck down, and the mind was just along for the ride. The ice cap we were studying is at an altitude of 18,600 feet, so most of the trip was about physically acclimatizing to the altitude. We drove from Cusco, Peru, up to a final camp at 15,000 feet, where we spent two nights, then hiked up to a high base camp at 17,000 feet for another few nights, and then up to the summit at 18,600 feet. In addition to altitude sickness, there was a nasty stomach bug going around (not uncommon), so most of us were pretty sick for several days.
We were working with some very professional mountaineering guides and their job was to make sure that we were staying relatively healthy and comfortable. Every day, they would come around and look closely at each of us and ask “How are you feeling”, and they really meant it, it wasn’t just small talk. And they would very gently lead us on simple acclimatization walks, often leading so subtly it wasn’t clear that they were doing anything except chatting and strolling with us. They encouraged us not to push too hard, and early on I recognized that the way we were going to climb the mountain was simply by following the schedule that we had previously set up. So many days here, so many nights there, so many hours for a particular hike.
Following the schedule is one of the hallmarks of Soto Zen monastic training, and we get a little flavor of that here. We have a schedule of zazen, kinhin or soji, service, lecture, and so on. The idea is that you don’t pick and choose what parts of the schedule you follow, you just do what everyone else is doing, and don’t worry about getting anywhere in particular with it. Just sit this period of zazen, chant the Heart Sutra, just do this particular hike or take this rest day, and you’ll get there. But of course the point isn’t really to get to the end. The point is just to be present with what’s unfolding now, whatever that is.
I was pretty sick on our hike up to the base camp, and none of us could walk at a normal pace because of the altitude. If I tried to walk too fast, and certainly if I focused on when we were going to reach camp, I would completely lose my breath and would feel rather overwhelmed by the difficulty. Instead, I found that if I basically practiced kinhin, I could walk at a steady pace, and that if I let go of thinking about the goal and just focused on this step, I could keep going. It was really quite a revelation for me because I was so clearly doing kinhin – this hiking was practice! As I was walking, I kept thinking of the verses from the Sandokai:
If you don’t understand the path as it meets your eyes,
how can you know the way as you walk?
Progress is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused mountains and rivers block the way.
I humbly say to those who study the mystery:
Don’t waste time.
When we hiked up to the summit, several days later, I was impressed by the stately, mindful pace that the guide set. It was exactly the same feeling as when we do outdoor walking meditation at, for example, Upaya – faster than kinhin, but definitely slow in a follow-the-leader sort of way. That hike was on snow and ice and the altitude made it quite challenging, but the practice was the same: just take literally one step at a time. When I scanned the horizon for the summit weather station and camp, I would start to despair a little bit, but I just returned to the coordination of breath and body in walking. This step. Now this step. The world just shrank down to the path, the guide, and this step, this breath. Later on, I talked with the guides and my fellow trekkers about how much this reminded me of Buddhist walking meditation, and the guides (who had no Buddhist training) knew exactly what I was talking about. So it seems that mountaineering and Zen practice take us to the same place, somehow.
So this was the physical experience of the trip, and you will note that I haven’t said anything about the research, or about climate change, or the appropriate societal response to greenhouse gas emissions. This trip was really not about those things, which were very vague, not very relevant. What was relevant was body, breath, and walking. That was it.
What about this melting glacier? What about climate change? This is a big concern for many of us, but it’s never been completely clear how our meditation practice relates to this issue. I think this is primarily because, as I mentioned earlier, we mostly experience climate change as an abstract, intellectual issue.
I was lucky to be able to spend most of a day by myself at the margin of the glacier, where ice meets bedrock, about a half-hour’s hike from the base camp. This ice cap, even though it is rapidly melting, is immense, many many miles across. And the site is essentially silent. So the overall experience of being in the presence of this glacier is one of immensity, stillness, and deep deep silence. Sitting there, you see that the glacier is really not involved in our spinning, busy ideas about climate change and greenhouse gases and who’s a republican and who’s a democrat. The glacier is clearly melting, for sure, but I really experienced it in terms of the most basic Buddhist teaching of impermanence: all conditioned things arise, abide for a time, and pass away. As far as we can tell, this particular glacier has completely melted and re-grown many times over the last hundreds of thousands of years. This impermanence is also very impersonal. It doesn’t matter what we think about it, or how we feel about it, or how we vote, or what we drive. This impermanence is simply the nature of things. In fact when we say ‘things’, what we really mean is ‘impermanence’. It is awesome.
Unfortunately, we usually don’t see this fundamentally flowing, impermanent nature of things, especially things like mountains and glaciers that seem like they should be more reliable. When we sit in zazen, we can start to see how this flowing quality is the nature of our own minds, but can we see that this is really the nature of absolutely everything?
This is exactly what Dogen discusses in his fascicle Sansui kyo, the Mountains and Waters Sutra. Normally we think of a sutra as being the words of the Buddha, a teaching about the dharma, but in this case, the mountains and waters are the sutra: the mountains are expressing the dharma directly. And in this text, Dogen talks about how the mountains and waters specifically express impermanence. In this section, Dogen talks about mountains ‘walking’, as a metaphor for impermanence:
Preceptor Kai of Mt. Dayang addressed the assembly, saying, “The blue mountains are constantly walking. The stone woman gives birth to a child in the night.” The mountains lack none of their proper virtues; hence, they are constantly at rest and constantly walking. We must devote ourselves to a detailed study of this virtue of walking. Since the walking of the mountains should be like that of people, one ought not doubt that the mountains walk simply because they may not appear to stride like humans. . .Those outside the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. Those without eyes to see the mountains, do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear the reason for this. To doubt the walking of the mountains means that one does not yet know one’s own walking. It is not that one does not walk but that one does not yet know, has not made clear, this walking. Those who would know their own walking must also know the walking of the blue mountains. . . We can have no doubts about these blue mountains walking. We do not know what measure of dharma realms would be necessary to clarify the blue mountains. We should do a clear accounting of the blue mountains’ walking and our own walking . . . Do not slander mountains by saying that the blue mountains cannot walk . . . It is because of the baseness of the common person’s point of view that we doubt the phrase “the blue mountains walk”; because of the crudeness of our limited experience, we are surprised by the words “flowing mountain”. Without having fully penetrated even the term “flowing water”, we just remain sunk in our limited perception.
For sure, change is the nature of all things, including Earth’s climate, but does that mean we should just fatalistically accept man-made climate change? If all things arise, abide for a time, and pass away, doesn’t that apply to the human race as a whole? Why make any effort on this issue if it’s hopeless?
Recall our Bodhisattva Vow: Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them. Set aside for the moment the idea of whether or not mountains and glaciers are sentient beings. Don’t be too concerned for the Earth, which is of the nature of continuous ongoing change, or for the glacier, which has come and gone many times in the past and will likely do so into the future, but for sure, we should be concerned about our fellow humans. As people, we are capable of a great deal of suffering and climate change is likely to create a lot of suffering for people. I think that’s where we should place our emphasis in terms of where practice intersects climate change. Yes, the glaciers will melt, and for sure there will be suffering. What can we do help ease the suffering of our fellow humans? It certainly may mean engaging with society with the aim of ameliorating suffering – it may entail passing legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions so that the glaciers stop melting and so that people have enough water. It may mean working with local communities to ensure stable water and food supplies. For sure, it means, as practitioners, being present with the difficulties that arise in each moment with kindness and compassion, and responding with a full open heart to whatever is going on. For sure, it means not using climate change as a stick to beat others with. Don’t use climate change as a wedge against others or to create difficulty for others. There is enough suffering in the world without our self-righteousness. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote:
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ”