Monday, September 30, 2013

No, non, nyet!

We can all find something to criticize in the way civilization is going. "No, non, nyet," we say all day long, on blogs, forums, and social media. But the Buddhist principle of  "right saying" suggests another approach we can try, more closely related to a saying I've often heard: "Is it kind? Is it true? is it necessary? Then go ahead and say it."

In a tree-planting labor cooperative of which I was a member in the 1970s-80s, we had a practice (consciously borrowed from Marxism), used in crew meetings or the twelve-crew General Meetings, of "Criticism/Self Criticism."

In a crew meeting one might say, "I criticize Risa for hogging up the gravy on the other side of the slash patch in the draw on the unit today, but I also criticize myself for waiting until now to say something -- I was afraid of pointing it out in front of the inspectors but what I should have done was climb across the draw and explain what was bothering me, out of their hearing."

To which Risa might respond the patch was so small she thought doing it all herself would keep the others from having to clamber across the slick broken logs for so little income, but also criticize herself for not having voiced that terrain tactic openly, perhaps offering it to someone else to take on. 

In this way the common loop of accusation/rejoinder at least has a chance of providing all parties with a chance at new insight.

Using such a communication strategy can strengthen a group taking on a permacultural design exercise, or a crew carrying out work within a permaculturally designed setting, converting potential conflict (a weakness) into a problem-solving process of discovery (a strength).

Saturday, September 28, 2013


Making sure the air and water are clean and the soil and oceans healthy, and working for the betterment of all -- people, animals, plants -- is certainly Right Doing, but eventually you yourself must sit down to a meal, drink the water, build a shelter for yourself, and keep warm or cool as dictated by circumstance. This is Right Livelihood. Perhaps your job provides you an income -- say, at the farmer's market, the organic local-foods wholesaler, or a social agency. Or perhaps you have acreage, or a city lot, or an apartment patio and an allotment or community garden, or just the patio, or just a windowsill. In all these settings some form of productivity is available, such that what you do rewards you with minimal impact on others.

For years in the late 80s and early 90s, my work, at a local university, sustained the family, but we also had, on our small city lot, fruit trees, a garden, greenhouse and flock of ducks. We saved seed, canned produce, gathered eggs. Because it rained a lot, we were known as the "boot people."

The university was eight miles away by bike path. I commuted to work on a beat-up ten speed that had a basket between the drop bars and a milk crate on the rear rack. I learned where to find nettles, mint, apples, plums, pears, rose hips, and walnuts along my route. Often I arrived home carrying a full load. 

We also learned to stretch our budget by buying, in a timely manner, twenty-five or fifty pound bags of rice, Navy beans, Pinto beans, lentils, split peas, oats, barley, wheat berries, and millet. Combining these (and the savings from my use of the bicycle and bus lines) with the garden and the occasional duck soup, our grocery bills (and doctor co-pays) were accordingly very low, and the five of us were able to double our mortgage payments. It helped that most of our entertainment was supplied by the local library.

Unexpected costs arose, of course: our only car, a little '84 Escort wagon, was demolished, while parked, by a drunk hit-and-run driver one night. But, even though we were below poverty level and the insurance paid very little for the car, our ongoing budgeting made it possible for us to recover. 

One cannot always count on such disasters not to overwhelm one; but one can improve the odds. Even an unclaimed apple tree at the end of the alley provides a little more depth for your pocket, if you will use it.

Principle 3: Obtain a yield. “You can’t work on an empty stomach.” Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Power Up

The second Permaculture Principle is called "Catch and Store Energy." As with most of the Principles, if you look for it in the Eightfold Path, it pretty much falls under Right Doing and Right Livelihood. Livelihood is not necessarily a job; if your house warms in the sunshine during the winter day and keeps you warm for at least part of the night, that captured sunshine is income to you, and therefore part of your livelihood. Designing the house to do that is acting according to both Buddhist and Permaculture ideals, since sunshine is not stolen from anyone (unlike petroleum, quite a lot of which has been stolen through the judicious use of lawyers, politicians, and militaries). Growing your own fuelwood or using a ram pump to lift water to the homestead from a stream on the property would also fit this pattern. So would investing together in a community solar power system or wind turbine. These have issues of hidden costs of manufacture, but it could be argued that they may be preferable to remaining grid-tied to coal or nuclear. 

Energy efficiency is also income. By caulking, insulating and otherwise retrofitting a home, one reduces payout to the utility companies, freeing up income toward, saying, paying down a mortgage early.

Powering down is also "powering up." Assuming you are within range of whatever you need transportation to reach, and in reasonable physical condition, trading in the car for a bicycle eliminates car payments, fuel costs, the higher level of maintenance required by a car, associated governmental costs such as license plates, registration and smog inspection, and insurance payments, thus paying the mortgage even faster.

The image at the top of this post shows a solar hot water pre-heater. With a little tweaking, it could provide all hot water half the year, even at 44 degrees North where it resides. It's a salvaged hot water heater with half its jacket removed, painted black, surrounded by an insulated cold frame built onto the well's pumphouse. Currently all it does is heat well water before the water goes to the household electric hot water heater, passively collecting sunshine as income.

There are gigabytes of such projects, mostly in PDF form, at this link:

Principle 2: Catch and store energy: “Make hay while the sun shines.” By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Right seeing = observe and interact

"Right seeing" in the Buddhist sense is easily taken as a negative -- noticing where we as human beings have gone "astray." But it can also mean "see what is right to do," referring by implication to such things as right action and right livelihood. "Observe and interact" in the Permaculture sense is also positivist. The assumption is that the universe has no "astray" and that by studying the life and energy flows around us, we can more closely attune our actions to what is, instead of trying to buck the system.

Both principles are the same.

Watch what the sun, moon, sky, landscape, waterscape, plant communities, insects, animals, human communities, institutions and people around you are doing. What are the rhythms? What happened before? What is going on right now? What can we reasonably anticipate? How is that changing?

Wisdom is to be in and of the flow, putting a hand in where it is needed, but also knowing when it's not about us and when to wait. By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The holistic way

If we look up "holistic" in Google we find, apart from the narrower medical term, that it means "characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole."

It is a term used by Permaculturists and is the point of Permaculture; treat this life (the "world") as a whole system of which we are a part, rather than as a set of resources (separate from us: objectified) to be exploited, regardless of "externalized" costs (placed beyond consideration as a consequence for which we are responsible, so as to be able to show a "profit").

No one invented Permaculture; IIRC it is a word originated by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren while considering whole systems in the context of agriculture in Tasmania. Permaculture principles as a set of ideas or design tools are in flux, as the movement's leadership is diverse and democratic, with new knowledge added all the time, so this series of posts will become dated quickly.

I'll be using David Holmgren and Richard Telford's current set of principles as set forth here: As they keep their site updated, bookmark it and you should be able to stay out of whatever trouble I might get you into.

I think the Wikipedia article is updated regularly, too. As practices, such as Hugelkultur, become better known, they become part of the lexicon and the toolbox. Note the article is relatively restricted to agriculture and "environmental design" -- some would say Permaculture can be applied to all relations between humans and between humans and their surroundings -- a complete culture.

I think so, too, though I'm inclined to think that a) this is hobbled by the perception that many people and media have that the Permaculture movement is limited to New Age and hippies. And b) if it were to shed that perception (as it is beginning to do) and become more widely implemented, it would (will) run afoul of the authorities, who have no intention of being supplanted by an ethical (hence largely anti-capitalist) agenda. This has happened to the Whole Systems movement before.

That said, with the fossil fuels rapidly approaching a EROEI of 1:1, the planet heating as a result of the massive overuse of same, and the likely consequent famines, resource wars, revolts, and corporate and governmental collapse, those who have been feverishly working to create sustainable practices may or may not find a way for humanity to muddle through but remain the only game in town.

I think the ethic (the "three ethics") as stated on is spot on. "Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share." Viewed through the monist glass, we can say that all this is Earth Care, people being a part of the holistic whole.

Here are the principles, as listed on an earlier post:
1. Observe and Interact. By taking the time to engage with nature we can design relevant solutions.
2. Catch and Store Energy. Developing systems to collect resources when abundant, we can use them in need.
3. Obtain a yield – Ensure that you are getting useful rewards from your work.
4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback – Efficient or resilient systems require noting and correcting inefficient or non-resilient practices.
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services – as opposed to non-renewable resources.
6. Produce No Waste – “Waste not, want not.”
7. Design From Patterns to Details – Observe patterns in nature and society. Test their appropriateness broadly, rather than losing yourself in detail.
8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate – By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop, creating efficiencies and resiliences.
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions – Small is beautiful.
10. Use and Value Diversity – “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” -- be resilient.
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal – These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change – We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing and then intervening at the right time.
And, we'll go over them one by one, and this series of 21 pompous posts will be (whew) done.

Right singularity

I've been covering, in my idiosyncratic way, the eight points of the eightfold path promulgated by Gotama when he snapped out of his long bout of meditation, determined to save the world. We've arrived at the last one, and it's a doozy. Here's the first part of the exposition/exegesis by the author of A Basic Buddhism Guide:

8. Samma-Samadhi — Full, Integral or Holistic Samadhi. This is often translated as concentration, meditation, absorption or one-pointedness of mind.

And the rest:

None of these translations is adequate. Samadhi literally means to be fixed, absorbed in or established at one point, thus the first level of meaning is concentration when the mind is fixed on a single object. The second level of meaning goes further and represents the establishment, not just of the mind, but also of the whole being in various levels or modes of consciousness and awareness. This is Samadhi in the sense of enlightenment or Buddhahood.

Wow, fancy; meditation is said, when undertaken correctly (whatever that might be), to get you the whole enchilada.

Well, it does. But it's generally offered embedded in pietistic hooraw: that "various levels or modes" thing can easily, and I suspect very often, be the money clause: "This stuff takes years, kid. Support me the whole time and I might get you there."

I like and recommend meditation's ability to show, experimentally, such reality as we're equipped (as brains with sampling systems -- eyes, ears, etc.) to appreciate. And it takes some appreciation of what's what for there to be some justification for the other seven aspects of the path. 

But it would be a mistake to go sit with the idea of "attaining" some kind of holiness. Becoming something special (which is patently impossible) is exactly what Gotama would have you not do -- it would be the very illusion he returned to his friends to warn against.

So let's do a simple intellectual exercise. 'K?

You can imagine animals and plants arising from the biosphere, not as anything separate from the biosphere, the planet, the galaxy, the universe, but as aspects of all of the above -- it's all one thing, taking a variety of shapes, like thoughts in a mind. Yes?

But, wait -- are you an observer, outside of this image, or are you in it? The center of the universe, or an aspect of the universal?

Stolen from Paul Watson (Sea Shepherd Society)
I think we have to understand ourselves as, in our individuality, provisional beings at best, an aspect of the universal, to go on from here to the twelve principles that have been adumbrated as those of Permaculture. As foraging and farming and trading beings (which we have to be to live) we intervene with the plants and animals around us for our own benefit. How we do so may matter: what if they are our equals? What if it's important to show some respect? Hmm?

We know we have been destructive. How do we become less destructive, or are there even ways in which we can be constructive? If we are going to undertake to change the world for the "better," it's godawfully important that the results be, umm, for the better. 

'Cuz if we don't have good evidence for what we're doing, better we shoulda stayed on that couch, watching the commercials.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Right focus

Action, to be correct action, must spring from focus. If we react mainly to provocation, or take action aimlessly, our contribution will be correspondingly small. If we visualize a worthwhile project, and concentrate on it day and night, our impact will be the greater.

First we ascertain that our vision is "worthwhile." Then, whether we mean to create a one-acre food forest or manage a great nation's food system, we must focus on the task at hand and give it our all.

We can see, as we work through these principles, how each of them is a facet of a single principle. It becomes clear to us that right desire and right focus are practically the same. Right focus and right avocation, or livelihood, are also the same. The path is described as having eight parts so that we can absorb the lesson in manageable chunks.

Dogen uses the words "die sitting, die standing" to indicate the urgency we should bring to taking our path seriously. That doesn't mean don't have a sense of fun or play. It does mean not frittering away our minds endlessly on inconsequential matters -- a major trap for us in these times.

6. Samma-Vayama — Complete or Full Effort, Energy or Vitality. Also called right effort or diligence. Consciously directing our life energy to the transformative path of creative and healing action that fosters wholeness.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Right work

From right doing, right work naturally flows. It is understandable if one has had to keep working at a fast-food place to help support one's children, but one must also keep an eye out for a better livelihood, as fast-food places poison the population.

In general few jobs meet this principle, as the world system has grown toward wage slavery to enrich those already rich, to most of whom the prospect of such enrichment doing harm to the population is of little or no concern.

It can be helpful to learn a craft or trade that may provide safe and nutritious food, clean water, goods or services that are as free as possible of harm through exploitation -- or debt, which is exploitation at one remove (including the system whereby corporate entities prioritize shareholders rather than the good of society and the biosphere).

Here is a list of pre-fossil-fuel-driven occupations, which may serve as a starting point for thoughts about what might constitute right work:

5. Samma-Ajiva — Proper Livelihood. Also called right livelihood. This is a livelihood based on correct action the ethical principal of non-exploitation. The basis of an Ideal society.

Right doing

Key to understanding why there are eight parts to the long-established Buddhist way and twelve principles to the more recent Permaculture way is this concept of "right doing."

If we are alive, we do some things. But perhaps some of them are thoughtless things. Then it behooves us to think this through. To do well, it may help to have (and keep to) a plan. (If we are uncomfortable calling what we do by the names given here, we may use other names. The important thing is the action.)

The Buddhist way may in general practice be reduced to the Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not have done to yourself. 

The Permaculture principles are thought to be an expression of three ethics, caring for the earth, caring for people, and fairness -- which is really but one ethic, and may also in general practice be reduced to the Golden Rule. 

Everything unfolds from the observation that there is one observable reality, regardless of how it may be described, and that therefore in some sense there is no one or nothing from which we can be divided. Care for the earth is people care and is sharing. 

So we can try this experimentally. See, feel, say (or refrain from saying), do, earn, strive, think, and manifest caring and sharing. We may find that it works, and that our cynicism has been a hindrance. Why should we ever be bored a single moment in an awakened life dedicated to right doing? It's not really harder than wrong doing.

4. Samma-Kammanta — Integral Action. Also called right action. An ethical foundation for life based on the principle of non-exploitation of oneself and others.

Right saying

In a world that is coming to be defined by competing slanders, clarity, honesty, openness and nurture are revolutionary. What really needs to be said? Are you the one to say it? How, when and where will it be most helpful? There are those who break silence only when it will be like a sunrise, and we know to treasure them.

3. Samma-Vaca — Perfected or whole Speech. Also called right speech. Clear, truthful, uplifting and non-harmful communication.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Right desire

Desire is sometimes given a bad rap by good and thoughtful people. That's because it is conflated with acquisitiveness. We often wish to accrue money, fame, a lover, electronic toys, a car. But surely it is not wrong to desire health, cleanliness, comradeship, companionship, mercy, and justice for ourselves and others. So, right desire can be the motivator toward living a principled and clarified life. We see by this how far from these good things we can be led by advertising, propaganda, and selected "news" -- which may be but advertising and propaganda put forth by the unprincipled for the sake of a greedful and almost universally hurtful agenda. On a warm day we may desire to walk together to the lake or to sit under a tree and look across the river toward the mountain; in cold rain we may desire to sit by a fire with tea. These are good things; yet by wishing as much for others we find the springboard toward right action.

2. Samma-Sankappa — Perfected Emotion or Aspiration, also translated as right thought or attitude. Liberating emotional intelligence in your life and acting from love and compassion. An informed heart and feeling mind that are free to practice letting go. --

Right seeing

We begin by seeing our mistake. The universe with all that is in it is one thing. This is why it is right to resist the spreading of poisons in agriculture, the land, the skies, the sea, and in our cities, and to resist the spreading of fear and of war. The cause of the spreading of poisons, fear and war is the lack of accountability due to greed, and the correction of this sickness is accountability -- accepting responsibility for both the visible and invisible costs of our actions, and adjusting those actions accordingly, so that we may act with clarity and justice. Capitalism is (or certainly has become) systematized avoidance of justice. We can do better than this.

Thursday, September 05, 2013


I have been reading a stiff, rather dry but worthwhile dissertation written and accepted in the 1980s and published later as a book (as often happens) called Women Living Zen. (If you follow that link, before fainting at the price, note that used copies are available. Whew!)

After studying with one of her mentors in Japan for a year, Arai, the doctoral candidate, had this story related to her:
In a small, inconspicuous nun's temple in Nagoya, a hardy Zen nun, Nogami Senryo, tried to live according to Dogen's teachings with her entire being. Though little known beyond the temple's walls, her daily life was plain testimony to her supreme realization of Buddhist truth. She dedicated herself to caring for this nun's temple, Seikan-ji, while training a quiet but alert nun, Kuriki Kakujo. Kuriki, the current head nun of Seikan-ji, arrived under Nogami's tutelage at the age of eight. With a sense of awe, respect, and a hint of trepidation, Kuriki remembers how Nogami raised her on the classical Zen dictum: "Zadastsu Ryubo. (Die sitting. Die standing.) This is the way of a monastic."….
Many Zen masters (male, notably) are famous for dying in the lotus position, or while standing in the attitude appropriate to preparing to make prayerful prostrations. It's said to be proof of their attainment in this matter of enlightenment, though I detect a hint of patriarchal one-upsmanship in the telling. Perhaps that's why Arai's informant, presumably Kuriki-sensei herself, had hesitated to tell this story of a nun -- she did not wish the memory to be sullied by a misunderstanding.
Nogami Senryo repeated this like a mantra as she strove to live each moment with pure and relentless concentration. On a crisp afternoon, the 17th of November, 1980, Nogami's adamantine voice pierced the silence: "It's time for zadatsu ryubo!" Not knowing what to expect, Kuriki rushed to the dim hallway where she saw Nogami slowly walking toward the bronze sculpture of Sakyamuni Buddha sitting full-lotus on the altar in the Worship Hall. Arriving in time to witness the ninety-seven-year old nun in simple black robes take a final step to perfect her stance, Kuriki pealed, "Congratulations!" as Nogami died standing.
Women Living Zen, 153-4, Paula Kane Robinson Arai

To me this is a wonderful story, though it does not seem to appeal much to others to whom I've related it. What is it I like so much here? Perhaps the simple dedication. If a path appears to you to be truly your path, why dawdle idly along the way? 

I try (yes, yes: "Do, or not do. There is no try") to approach the garden in this spirit. Laziness creeps in. But the plants are giving me (and other creatures!) their all; shall I not do the same for them?