Let’s examine the perspective humans have of nature, from different points of view. First, The Buddhist view, then the Shinto perspective, the Hindu, and finally, Chief Seattle’s view. While there is striking similarity among the three, they all diverge significantly from the ‘Christian’ view. And it is our relationship to nature, and whether or not we conceptualize nature as evil that could spell or at least draw a picture of whether or not we are willing to accept responsibility for continuing to turn nature against humanity.
All are borrowed from The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers (Doubleday, 1988).
Here are Campbell’s words, from the interview with Moyers:
The mind has to do with meaning. What is the meaning of a flower? There’s a Zen story about a sermon of the Buddha in which he simply lifted a flower. There was only one man who gave him a sign with his eyes that he understood what was said. Now, the Buddha himself is called ‘the one thus come.’ There is no meaning. What’s the meaning of the universe? What’s the meaning of a flea? It’s just there. That’s it. And your own meaning is that you’re there. We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about. (p. 5)
And a little later, Campbell’s words again:
The closest thing I know to a planetary mythology is Buddhism, which sees all beings as Buddha beings. The only problem is to come to the recognition of that. There is nothing to do. The task is only so know what is, and then to act in relation to the brotherhood of all of these beings. ….The biblical tradition is a socially oriented mythology. Nature is condemned. In the nineteenth century, scholars thought of mythology and ritual as an attempt to control nature. But that is magic, not, mythology or religion. Nature religions are not attempts to control nature but to help you put yourself in accord with it. But when nature is thought of as evil, you don’t put yourself in accord with it, you control it, or try to, and hence the tensions, the anxiety, the cutting down of forests, the annhiliation of native people. And the accent here separates us from nature….I will never forget the experience I had when I was in Japan, a place that never heard of the Fall and the Garden of Eden. One of the Shinto texts says that the processes of nature cannot be evil. Every natural impulse is not to be corrected but to be sublimated, to be beautified. There is a glorious interest in the beauty of nature and cooperation with nature, so that in some of those gardens you don’t know where nature begins and art ends—this was a tremendous experience. (p.28 and 29)
The Hindus, for example, don’t believe in special revelation. They speak of a state .in which the ears have opened to the song of the universe….Once you reject the idea of the Fall in the Garden, man is not cut off from his source. (p.32)
In 1852, when the United States “inquired about buying tribal lands for the arriving people of the United States, the Chief Seattle wrote a marvelous letter in reply.
‘The president in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of the earth if sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people. We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The Bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man, all belong to the same family….We love the earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So if we sell you or land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it…As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know: there is only one God. No man, be he Red Man of White Man, can be apart. We are brothers after all. (p.42-43)
While these passages are part of the introduction to mythology and its relevance to human life, with Campbell as tutor and Moyers as surrogate student, they offer a significant glimpse into the differences in culture, including mythology, that warrant being re-considered in the light of our current pandemic crisis.
If we, humans, led primarily by males, continue to perceive, conceive and practice a view that nature is either or both evil and a resource for our unbridled plundering, for our unbridled greed and profit, rather than embracing the universe’s song, and accepting our fundamental unity with its bounty (including the cycles of death and rebirth), we risk our own survival.
Of course, that sounds apocalyptic and melodramatic to all those corporate business tycoons to whom trump listens in his daily phone calls, looking for counsel about how to manage this crisis. Nevertheless, if mythology is, as it has for the long lineage of centuries, and ethnicities, and religions and ideologies, a teacher for how humans might live, then, at the vortex of time when the pandemic of COVID-19 and global warming and climate change converge on every city and hamlet, in every corner of the planet, it seems that we not only need a new mythology but a new vision of how humans and nature are to be “seen” and “heard” and “related with”….
Traditionally, myths have emerged from the fire-pit in a tribe, a family, a community, and then merged with other myths from other communities, indicating the things of value, the culmination of the human imagination and spirit, the potential of experiencing the fullness of life, as conceived by the originators of the single myth. Today, in mythological terms, we have lost much of the essence of those fire-pits, those tribes, and those unifying and inspiring myths that held various cultures together. In geopolitical terms, we have both dived into the deep waters of globalization, while at the same time, recoiled from its worst threats like mass movements of millions of displaced immigrants, refugees and essentially homeless people. In the short term, we are likely to withdraw from a total immersion in globalization, leaving the production of special needed goods and processes to our own national, provincial countrymen and women.
However, from a wider perspective, we know cognitively, based on a tidal wave of data, the cliché that we really are all ‘in this together’ while we continue to compete, to the death, for every inch of space, every last dollar, every last vote, every last headline, and every last morsel of food. We have not only democratized communication and commerce, putting a digital business machine in hands on every continent.
Transactions, in real time, take place every second, from continent to continent. Unless and until there is a dispute when we sometimes refer to the World Trade Organization, for resolution, between signatory nations. However, in trade agreements, the rights of the corporations tend to take precedence over the rights of the nations with whom those corporations trade, in the event of a dispute. So, consequently, national sovereignty has been supplanted by corporate tyranny. Not only are we facing, today, dysfunctional competitions for profoundly needed medical supplies, for health care professionals, for health care accommodations and for research professionals and laboratories in pursuit of vaccines, and remedies, including antibodies to ward off this pandemic.
On the face of it, we are at war on several fronts: management of the virus, procuring the professionals and the equipment for the war, sustaining those displaced and unpaid by the pandemic and the regulations to control its spread and prevent additional viruses, as well as the over-riding complexities of cultures that feed on wild animals, and the incursion of capitalism into the previously untouched habitats of those wild animals and birds as well as attempting to sustain displaced and fiscally threatened workers and corporations.
Given the resistance of individual political leaders even to engage in minimal “control measures” to limit the spread of the virus in their own jurisdictions, and the spotty evidence of sharing between nations, and the political/legal resistance to the full disclosure of the facts of this virus, and the millions in the “pipeline” to come, there are merely glimmers of hope and light from the single exemplary health care professionals, whose expertise includes, in fact depends upon, sharing of information with their global partners.
Could it be that a new myth that shines some light into the current coal mine, farther into the mine than the canary of New York, and Italy and South Korea, could emerge from the mergers of the scientific scholarship with the poetic imagination that has fed previous myths.
Bill Moyers utters these words, to Campbell at one point in the conversation in The Power of Myth:
…(W)e moderns are stripping the world of its natural revelations, of nature itself. I thing of that pygmy legend of the little boy who find the bird with the beautiful song in the forest and brings it home.
Campbell replies: He asks his father to bring food for the bird, and the father doesn’t want to feed a mere bird, so he kills it. And the legend says the man killed the bird, and with the bird he killed the song, and with the song, himself. He dropped dead, completely dead, and was dead forever. (op. cit. p. 27)
Are we in danger of living out that legend?
Are we in danger of not even wanting to spend the time reading and ruminating on the legend?
Are we in danger of simply rendering such utterly simplistic and child-like stories disposable like so much we have shoved into the trash bin of avoidance/denial because it does not ‘fit’ with our compulsive need for domination, control and effective rape and pillage of our planet, at our own peril?
I heard a local mechanic this week utter these words about the pandemic, “I sure hope the right people are paying attention to how we are treating the planet!
On reflection, I believe that the “right people” are no longer the experts, and certainly not the politicians, or the economists, the bankers, or the corporations. The RIGHT PEOPLE now are comprised by every single human being on the planet.
We all breath the same air, risk the same air particles from the same virus, drink the same water, plant seeds and harvest from the same land, and to varying degrees have assimilated many of the same myths, that speak to the depth and the endurance and the invincibility of the human spirit. Each in our own way, in our own village, we can begin to tell the stories of how we are dependent on that air, water, land preserved and protected by both rules and habits.
Our personal habits are expressions of our capacity and willingness, even our sense of responsibility to ourselves, our families and each other. However, lectures, homilies, and political harangues are never going to generate the new mythologies that inject the pure oxygen of the human imagination and spirit into the lungs, minds and hearts of people of every ethnicity, nationality, language and faith.
And while the digital concerts of the musicians, and the street art of the painters, and the digital dance recitals of the ballerinas and modern dancers can and will lift our spirits this day and in the days to come, we need a poetic imagination akin to that of Stephen Hawking to tell a new story of how humans can re-birth a relationship with nature that wraps our arms around its shoulders, and embraces its smile, and feeds its appetites, and listens to its song.
The cacophony of our self-imposed alienation and separation from and our deaf-and-blind disdain for nature’s universal bounty not only denigrates nature, but foretells our own potential silence.
Recalling the prophetic voice of Paul Simon in Sounds of Silence:
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And the tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence.
Those people in the tenements “get it” as do the people riding the subways, (when they are permitted)….are the rest of us prepared to open our ears to the song of the universe crying out for our care, compassion, empathy and respect?