I've been reading and commenting on Brad Warner's last article on the Suicide Girls sight. If you haven't checked out his stuff written for that site, you should do so; it may seem like an odd place for a Zen teacher to be posting, but it fits in quite well, and if anything I think I like his articles there even more than the ones written for his regular blog, probably because on Suicide Girls he's writing less for insiders. You don't have to be a member of the site to read the articles, and there's a link to it in my directory to the right.
Anway, in the latest article, Brad writes of how the recent death of his mother led him to look at his place in the world and his responsbility to it differently, and to appreciate the value of each moment of life. When my mother died almost four years ago, I fell apart and went crazy for a while, but when I came back to myself a year later, I felt the need to define myself in a new way. As long as your mother lives, you have a mediator between yourself and reality, but with her death, you face the great unknown head-on for the first time, and it becomes necessary to do so clearly. In my case, it led me back through various forms of Buddhism to Zen, which as you all know by now is where I started in about 1981.
I always have a dissonance with all the Buddhist writers who talk about Zen or Buddhism as a way of saving the world. First, as my friend Gareth has pointed out, Zen will never be a majority religion in the country, and I think that the reason for this is most of the Zen teachers in America, as opposed to what has happened at various times in its long history in Japan, have tried to keep it pretty true and honest, avoid all the mythologizing and devotionalism that tend to inflate popular religions and make them acceptible to the masses. I'm not against the other branches of Buddhism, mind you, but I think that for the most part they are what Buddhists talk about as skillful means, or as I might rephrase it, expedient means.
The only way to get to a real understanding of Zen is to burn out all of the shortcuts and easy answers that your brain will try to give you on the way to an understanding of the truth. I try not to talk about Zen too much (except for its history and a listing of my activities) because it ultimately can't be talked about; words always fail, by definition. The only truly accurate map of the world is a the world itself, but we have to have less accurate maps because the world is hard to fold up and put in the glove compartment. John Dewey's discussion of mistaking maps for territories was one of the valuable things I brought out of my undergraduate education in psychology into my adult worldview. This is how all the books and speeches on Zen compare to the real thing.
So in other words, I think the people who have come to Zen in America are the people who have come through the games of philosophy with its ulimate message: that the mind is limited and cannot grasp reality. They have come through conventional religion and seen that it is a delusion. If Zen were taught to everyone, if it were a mass religion, it would have a lot of deluded adherents. Maybe I'd feel differently if I liked in California or somewhere with a lot more Buddhists; there are fools in every crowd.
My point to all this is that the completion to my understand and acceptance of where I stand in relation to the universe came when Jim Lydecker began hitting me with his Peak Oil stuff. Oh, and The Omnivore's Dilemma was the other part that completed the whole. Realising the influence of petroleum and post-WW II surplusses in ammonium nitrate on the modern food industry, one finally has grasped enough parts of the elephant's body to realize what the whole beast looks like.
And what it looks like is the end of civilization. We are already in the beginning of the Oil Wars, and I believe we will never see peace again. In pursuit of the Carter doctrine that the U.S. is willing to go to war for oil, with no intention of reducing our consumption, we will have to fight the rest of the world for the rest of our lives to feed the burgeoning monster that is America. And it's not just us; the rest of the world will have to do the same. In one sense, the Bible-thumpers will be vindicated; the End Times are coming, and I think those in my generation will see by the end how lucky we will be not to see them through to their own bitter end.
I tend to agree with the thesis of Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation, that my parents' generation, who grew up in the Great Depression, fought and won WW II and turned America into the greatest power in the World, was the greatest American generation. It appears also that they drove the final nails in the coffin of world civilization, although they did so with the best of intentions. Ironically, I think it will the revolution in food production which occurred in the forties, fifties, and continues, which will be the death knell of humankind. Peak Oil has always been inevitable, but it is the mindless and ridiculous expansion of human population, which Paul Ehrlich pointed out in The Population Bomb in 1971, resulting from literally forcing food out of the ground with petroleum fertilizers, which have made it occur within our lifetimes. Maybe fifty years ago civilization could have been redirected in a way to let us and our children and maybe the next generation lead decent lives, but it's too late now. Life for children born now will be hell by the time they are middle-aged.
And there's not much you can do it; if it makes you feel good to try to save the world, by all means do so. Jim is still upset up the end of the world; I'm not. The same human drives and human nature that build civilization have led it to its almost inevitable end. I accept that, and I thank Zen for that acceptance. No, Zen is not fatalism. In my case, it is the tool that enables me to perceive clearly and apply what I feel is appropriate effort to the world around me. I would like to promote Buddhism, and ultimately, Zen, as my own particular kind of compassion; I feel it is a tool that may enable those about to walk into hell to endure it as well as possible. And none of your delusions will help you with the walk through hell.