Sangha Reflections: On Earth Medicine

· Earth Initiative, Reflections · ,

Increasingly these days I notice how a play of light, a sound, a smell can send me back in time. I live in the same town I grew up in. During Ango this spring I was struck, during one of these moments when the feeling was particularly intense, by the realization that this place is, in a very real way, a part of me. For more than 60 years I’ve breathed this air, eaten food grown in this soil, drunk this water, felt the tilt of the earth in this spot, warmed myself in the sun and light at just this point on the planet and now—maybe for the first time—I’ve made real for myself the fact that “this place being a part of me” isn’t just a nice phrase. It’s a simple fact. This place and I are inextricable from each other. I have been formed here. The raw material of me is from here. Maybe that’s obvious. Maybe the truth is always obvious once we see it. But expand that realization out and apply it to the whole earth and I have the truth I need to hold in my heart to rise beyond the helpless feeling and discomfort, and act. The cries of the earth, the pain of the planet, are my own cries, our own pain.

—Mark Joshin Woodhouse


Perhaps it was not our neighbor’s fault. Perhaps it was the loggers, obviously inexperienced and insensitive to the natural order of the land. Perhaps it was my parents’ fault. For several years they witnessed the logging taking place—slowly at first—then in the last year with swift, brute force. My mother’s heart would break at the sound of an old oak crashing to the ground, yet no attempt was ever made to contact the loggers or the land- owner. Perhaps it was my fault. At the beginning of that last year of cutting I knew this was a hack job and that something should be done. I brought the issue to my father who immediately silenced me out of fear of involving the “feds” and of meddling with other people’s property. I wrote to the Tennesee Department of Environmental Conservation to which I received a response asking for an address. But hesitation got to me, and it took me over a year to respond. By then it was too late. Everything was gone in a horrible way.

Or is it? I began talking to my neighbor, person to person. It’s been a year and a half now and many conversations since the last trees were removed. Tea, back hoes, and many cigarettes have been shared. There have been rides on the four wheeler, finger painting in the mud with the kids… “No don’t kill that crawdad! Respect the mountain!!!” I say… “Polly said respect the moountainnn”… his kids taunt and play. He sees a vision of a homestead, a mountain farm…the whole mountain covered in flowers!!

Whaaat?! Okay. Let’s do this, neighbor.

In the void of this once dense forest the view is expansive. All that has fallen away points to what is most important. If I tread carefully, maybe I can find the way for those of us who may not see, but know it in our hearts that we are looking.

—Polly Horne


This half-mile lonely stretch of road, a cutback on the north side of the hill called directly to me. It’s one of those places, icy in winter that seldom sees the sun. With no snow cover this year it lay barren and exposed the years of litter and daily deposits of fresh trash, pitched from the windows of passers-by.

I spent the first morning picking the new litter along the road, by gloved hand at first. Plastic, styro cups, liquor bottles, glass, fast- food wrappers, beer cans and butts. Then I worked my way down the hill on one side. It was cold and raw. I was sore and angry, loading the back of the truck. Eight full leaf bags of trash and it looked like nothing had really been done.

During the following week, in places I went and roads I traveled, I began to notice litter. When loose, it has its own life, riding the winds settling here and there captured in pockets of bushes, corners of fences, curbs, clinging to tree branches, and riverbanks. I saw that it is everywhere: that it lies upon the earth as surely as leaves, pebbles and people.

So I bought a litter-picker stick and a proper leaf bag hoop and on a sunny, mild afternoon I set to picking with renewed vigor. The woods and undergrowth were beginning to take hold and soon it would cover the grounds in lush thick green. I got three more periods of picking in before the hill was abloom. Walking among the new spring grasses my litter-stick picked kindly around the tiniest of flower blossoms. In a slow easy way I softened towards the trash and the beings who left it there.

Now that it’s packed and confined to a landfill, I question what is it I am calling litter. Is out of sight out of mind? I wonder about the actions of pitching and picking and the consequences of choices. Now I see these lovely curves of road and woods wear a sum- mer’s mantle. I am happy to speak for them.

—Warren Chikan Bacon


I moved from rural New England to Brooklyn. Among the disorientation I experienced was missing the easy access to the natural world I was used to.

My practice became to see the earth everywhere: to see it in the people on the subway, and the subway itself. It’s easiest when I sit in the park on my lunch break and watch the flowering and blooming of the trees, the activities of the birds and squirrels. And in my yard, where I’m marshaling household resources like food scraps and even my own urine to coax the soil back to health. I’ve planted veggies, perennial herbs and flowers, a blueberry bush, a blackberry bush and installed a bird feeder, an insect house and a bee bath. The happiness comes easily.

Much harder has been connecting to the earth where it isn’t obvious. My office is a small, windowless room with a fluorescent light. I cried the night after I first saw it. I couldn’t imagine passing days in that room. How could I create a warm, welcoming atmosphere where my clients would feel at ease? It seemed impossible. And then I remembered: Everything is a dharma if I can only see it. This depressing little room is a dharma. How can I enter it?

I started sitting for a few minutes a day in the office, trying to feel the earth that is there. I brought some symbols of earth: low light plants, photos of waterfalls and forests, a big watercolor, softer lighting.

I’m still learning how to touch the earth within the city. I’ll sometimes walk around and think, “It’s all earth, it’s all earth.” Sometimes I can feel that easily, and sometimes it’s more difficult. But I know that it’s all dharma, it’s the ten thousand things, and little by little I am letting myself open to that.

—Donna Nicolino


I came across an essay by Graham Parkes called Voices of Mountains, Trees, and Rivers which helped me to listen in a different way to the dharma teachings of the natural world. By pursuing an in-depth study of Kukai and Dogen’s understanding of how natural phenomena possess buddha nature, Parkes explores how Buddhists’ vows can lead to the turning of consciousness that is necessary to listen to the earth rather than simply use the earth for anthropocentric purposes.

An instance of this is when Dogen is quoted by Parkes: “The way insentient beings expound the true teachings should not be understood to be necessarily like the way sentient beings do….it is contrary to the buddha way to usurp the voices of the living and conjecture about those of the non-living in terms of them.”

This helped me clarify the relationship between mystery and intimacy as one that does not diminish but rather profoundly expands the mystery of things. My “practice” is to listen to the mountains and rivers rather than “thinking” I already know how to do this. They well might have a voice that has to be seen or touched, and a color that needs to be listened to differently.

Questions arise with this coming of spring. Early this year, warm southern winds moving north, higher than usual—patterns, currents. How could there be regrets for such warmth? This body melts immediately, even disappears into earth, green and budding, robins, wet grass sounding the ground. There is a knowing, however, with this ease, this warm, close breeze—why so early and unlikely—yet so soothing?

—Tom Honen Kyle


This summer will be my older son’s third summer working in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Children’s Garden, where children cultivate and harvest vegetables, herbs, and flowers. I want my city kid to spend some time getting dirty in real soil. I want my picky eater to get more comfortable with kale, chard, and beets. And I want each of my children to know the basics of growing their own food, in part due to my fear that they may see the collapse of civilization as we know it in their lifetimes. My calmer self sees the drama and possible paranoia of that last sentence. But the truth is I’ve lived with this fear for my entire life. I fear the effects of irreversible damage to global climate patterns and to the oceans.

It’s no accident that vegetables are the medicine for my fears. My Great-Grandfather Gallas’s vegetable garden is legendary on my mother’s side of the family. My grandfather also had a garden, and he would send us home from summertime visits with boxes laden with squash, eggplants, tomatoes, and green beans. And my mother was a localvore long before the term existed, buying much of our produce from Wade’s Farm in Bloomington and Rosedale Farms in Simsbury, which still grows the best corn.

I maintain tradition by taking my family to local farmers markets and build our weekly menus on what we find. These days, it is an astonishing abundance: piles of greens, bins of cabbages and root vegetables, countless berries, and myriad foods we haven’t yet even tried, all from local sources. This abundance gives me hope that the earth will continue to nourish us, as we learn to nourish the earth.

—Rachel Nevins


Years ago I read an article about something called the “Broken Windows” theory. The basic idea is that when windows are broken on the buildings or cars in a neighborhood the residents take this as a signal that destruction is tolerated in their community. A few broken windows incite people to break more windows, and things go downhill from there.

On the other hand, when windows are fixed in a neighborhood, and care is taken to repair and improve broken parts of a community, the trend is reversed. This phenomenon has been seen in wealthy and poor neighborhoods.

I travel quite a bit for work, and I end up using a wide range of bathrooms across the country, from fancy hotels to dingy gas stations. My approach to earth medicine has been to apply the Broken Windows theory to all the bathrooms I encounter. I spend a few extra minutes cleaning every one I use: wiping down the sink, picking up litter, replacing supplies. Sometimes things are in good order; sometimes I face years of accumulated dust and grime on the doorjambs and fixtures.

My goal is to leave every bathroom cleaner than it was when I first entered it. It’s a small action, but I’ve found that it helps me push against the resistance to the idea that I’m “not responsible” for a mess. I didn’t drop this paper towel, so why should I pick it up? Doing this over and over in the past few years has helped me see my role in overwhelming planetary messes and my ability to clean them up.

I enjoy thinking about people I will never meet coming into these shared spaces and sensing that they’re cleaner and fresher, that they’ve been cared for. My hope is that on a subtle level these strangers will be encouraged to maintain this order and even improve on it in ways I will never know. In so doing I aspire to communicate my love and respect for our common human places—our earth—without speaking it aloud.

—Katherine Jifu Jameson


Since the Earth’s climate comprises myriad interdependent complex systems, there’s no one simple solution to climate change. Any action we take today may not yield noticeable effects for some time. So what can we do?

As in any complex system, there are points where an intervention, or change in one part of it, can yield large changes in how that system behaves overall. So we can ask, “Where are the points of leverage that can move the system in a healthier direction?” In other words, where can small changes yield big results?

The economy is also a complex system that is nested within interdependent societal and Earth systems. One of the most influential points of leverage is changing the rules under which a system operates. Putting a price on carbon (carbon tax) would have a dramatic effect on the behavior of all industries that rely on fossil fuels and their customers. Directionally, it would help to slow or even reverse overall CO emissions over time.

I’m currently serving on a steering committee working to form the New Jersey Sustainable Business Council, a combined effort of the American Sustainable Business Council, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and several business and non-governmental (NGO) leaders. I’ve been focusing on passing legislation for a carbon tax as an area of high leverage in combatting climate change. While conservatives, liberals and everyone in between have different views on the role of government in addressing climate change, the idea of putting a price on carbon has some common appeal, albeit for different reasons. To liberals, it’s a way of addressing climate change; to conservatives, a way of addressing a “market failure” since CO2 emissions create “negative externalities” that skew price signals; and to libertarians, a carbon tax is something that will not grow the size of government since it could replace bureaucratic top-down regulations. A carbon tax would give a new “price signal” that would incentivize industries to unleash a new wave of market-driven innovation and competition instead of spending money to comply with new government regulations.

While there are still powerful economic interests that will fight any form of carbon pricing, some conservative and progressive legislators, NGOs and think tanks are engaged in a dialogue that has the potential to result in some form of carbon tax. Lots of details to work out remain, like: what should the price of carbon be? Where should it be levied—at the point of origin or downstream? What should be done with the tax revenue—use it to reduce debt? Eliminate corporate taxes? Distribute it as a refund to taxpayers?

The fact that this dialogue is happening is a hopeful sign and something that needs to be nurtured. It’s an opportunity for all participants to approach the issue of our time with a sense of urgency and humility. By listening to other perspectives, more skillful ways of engaging can emerge and help us work realistically with the common challenges that affect us all.

—Richard Kokuan Lawton

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