Oil Spilling and the Cosmic Stain

by | Oct 17, 2021

This week’s dharma talk, Oil Spilling and the Cosmic Stain, is offered by Roshi Monika Genmitsu Kahn. Roshi Genmitsu is the co-founder of the Zen Garland Order as well as the co-founder of the Ancient Oaks Temple in Savannah, Georgia.

Oil Spilling and The Cosmic Stain -- Transcript

Beginning last week we had word from Huntington Beach, CA that there was a petroleum smell and an oily sheen on their ocean waters. The sheen thickened and spread; the words that followed thickened and spread. An underwater pipeline had ruptured spilling an estimated 144,000 gallons of oil. Enough to fill the gas tanks of 9,600 or more cars. Expert divers descend with underwater blow torches and other specialized equipment to seal the leak. Accusations and investigations follow. A likely culprit is identified, a tanker in the area dragging an anchor may have torn open the hole. Further investigation further confuses. The pipe had been dragged off her original place 105 feet and the rupture could have occurred a year ago.

But where does responsibility begin and end?

We have heard so much about how safe pipelines are. Just build it from Canada to Texas and they will come; come to fill their vehicles, their machines, power their homes. “So safe” in the mouths of petroleum executive, “so safe” in the mouths of auto manufacturers, “so safe” in the mouths of politicians bought and sold. And we like to turn a blind eye because we love the crude. If Zen is to be believed, we are “crude.”

Where does responsibility begin and end?

Our immediate response to an incident like this is to want to know who to blame. Is it the anker or the captain or the weather or the pipeline or that company? Or is it the markets that demand for all those containers to be shipped, or us with our expectation of having anything at anytime? Is it all of that or none of it?

In the dedication to our fourth morning liturgy, we honor and dedicate our merit to, “All guardians and protectors of the Dharma worlds.” These are the professionals and volunteers who risk their health to contain and gather up the spill, clean the beeches, and who wash and care for the birds and sea lions, and mourn the dying and dead fish and innumerable other sea life. Of course, the beaches are closed, and lawsuits are filed from business owners directly affected. Everyone is shocked at home all over the world, clucking their tongues and shaking their heads with sad eyes. Who sees themselves as responsible here?

Almost all spiritual paths and religions have diagnosed humans as disconnected from each other, from nature and as living cut off from what is essential. We are living in the subject-object universe of separate fragments. Hassidic tales tell of a shattering of the light and encourage their spiritual wayfarers to re-gather that light. This diagnosis and the many prescriptions for cure have been around for millennia. Now we can see disaster, hear its screams and cries from any location on earth instantly, and in real time. Somehow, we are still here, and the disaster is there. Where it occurs, there may be a temporary rendering of garments, donning of sackcloth and ashes, atonement and restoration of cooperation and sense of WE and community. But we have all seen what a short half-life that swell contains. We live in Andy Warhol’s “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15minutes”. A few days ago, we were that oil spill poisoning the beaches, that seagull unable to fly, that guardian picking it up and cleaning it carefully, that person who desperately needed that toilet paper to be delivered to their store, or the new doors coming in from China. And then it passes, something else has caught our attention…

Zen is deeply influenced and based on the dynamic vision and metaphysics of Huayen Buddhism: that “one is all and all is one,” the infinite interdependence and co-creation of all things”. Eugene Gendlin created his own term for this, “eveving” – everything inter-affecting everything. His philosophy of the implicit describes human beings as “interactions,” in his Process Model he extends that to all creation. We can describe the whole of Zen practice as the effort to awaken to and learn to live as Genki’s interactive multiverse, a co-creative way of being.

Yesterday, William Shatner, who had just returned from space expressed his feelings of seeing the earth from another perspective:

“I hope I never recover from this. I hope I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it. It’s so, so much larger than me. It has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the rudeness of life and death.

What I would love to do is communicate as much as possible the jeopardy, the moment you see the vulnerability of everything. It’s so small. This air which is keeping us alive is thinner than your skin. It’s a sliver. It’s immeasurably small when you think in terms of the universe. I am overwhelmed. I had no idea.”

I am reminded of a koan from the Blue Cliff Record I love, in part because it is one of the few of these stories to feature a female Zen Master, Iron Grindstone Liu, a successor of Master Issan. The koan describes a meeting between Liu and Issan when the Iron Grindstone has already been acknowledged as his successor and is living in a hermitage near Issan’s monastery.

As Liu enters Issan’s quarters, he greets her somewhat crudely, “So you’ve come Old Cow.” She replies calmly, “There’s a great celebration on Mt. Tai tomorrow. Will you be going?” Know that Mt. Tai is impossibly far away from Issan’s place, 3,000 miles or so. Issan says nothing, just rests his head in his hands and lies down. Liu turns around without bowing and leaves.

Seemingly strange, this is actually a warm and intimate chat between two Dharma sweethearts. What about? Coming and going. From the perspective of no-thing-at-all, no boundaries, there is no one to come and go, nowhere here or there. Issan and Liu both rest in that place. And they rest comfortably in knowing that the influence of each and every particular extends infinitely in all dimensions and directions. So smoothly they turn the facets of the diamond of coming and going.

Indra’s net, Tu-shun’s tale to illuminate the Huayen vision: At the net’s every node, is hung a single glittering jewel and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold.

If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, which sparkle in the magnificence of its totality.

Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite. As each gem reflects every other one and everything else in the universe, so are you affected by every other system in the universe.

Issan is feasting on Mt. Tai. Liu never came and never went. This is the world of nirvana: healing, salvation and liberation.

Doesn’t this feel a little too nice and cozy? Well, with that world of pure freedom comes the invisible saddle and harness of great responsibility. It must be actualized in what Dogen Zenji calls “the floating world of vast and giddy karmic consciousness. Only then the spiritual longing to liberate all being from suffering can manifest. Karuna calls us out into engagement with the world of suffering. How could that oil spill then have nothing to do with me?

The Georgia coast has approximately 500,000 acres of salt marshes each between 4 and 8 miles long, incredible wetland ecosystems flooded and drained by the tides. They are the lungs and kidneys between land and ocean. The marshes create nutrient rich soils composed of deep mud and peat. Peat is made of decomposing plant matter in layers several feet thick.

Marshes operate as natural sponges, trap and slowly release surface water. During that process sediment settles and water is cleansed in a natural maintenance system. Salt marshes can absorb large amounts of wave and storm surge energy. Research has shown that storm surges can be reduced by 1 foot for each mile of wetland.

And of course, they provide shelter for innumerable wildlife in an ideal biodiverse environment that regulates itself. Many of the birds in the marshes migrate to different areas in the world depending on daylight and temperatures, during their journeys and stops they are pray and predators, they help with the dispersal of seed material and leave fertilizer through droppings.

If you are in it with all your senses, the marsh becomes your extended living breathing body. The marsh is not just in Georgia, it is this whole pulsing living land. If you burn your little finger, your whole body is in pain. How would we expect this to be different?

Things are not separate, they are always already deeply interconnected, interrelated and co-created, depended on each other.

Anything that happens somewhere, good, bad or indifferent, affects us all. And when we awaken to this living body, we realize that we are agents of awareness, and we affect anything else as well.

Each breath I take, each craving I surrender to, each car I buy, each person I elect affects the whole system. How else would a tanker full of containers with needed materials hook its anker into a pipeline, if not for me and us?

So, yes, I want us to see and experience this disaster we are creating,

I want us to feel guilt and shame about having some responsibility for that oil spill and I also want us to see that the perspective I am talking from is very privileged. And that brings a whole different dimension to this issue and to this talk.

If you are struggling to make ends meet, feed a couple of children with whatever you can afford, raise and educate them, you are probably not really able to focusing on how to lower your carbon footprint.

We all have responsibility for this as well, not just here in the US but worldwide.

Living in the awareness of this interconnectedness is a serious practice.

We need to evaluate our personal life and our relationship to community, government, and nature.

Resignation out of the feeling of being overwhelmed and helpless, is a death sentence. We need to re-engage to help promote the welfare of all beings in equality and liberty. Each of us need to choose what we are agents for, depending on our particular skills and our spiritual longing.

So, we realize that oil is spilling off the coast of California. Do we cluck our tongues and shake our heads?

This is what Master Hakuin describes as “leaving the absolute state inwardly experienced. It falls into a sea of poison…Many people tend to want to sit their butts down in realization.

Zen has always had two wings, wisdom and karuna. Karuna comes from the Sanskrit word ‘kara’ which means “to do” or “to make”, it is an action-based spiritual longing to act in the world with “care”, beneficence, and benevolence. In wisdom we realize identity, our identity with all creation. But that realization can become a sea of poison The great Korean Zen and Huayen Master, Chinul, taught that karuna does not simply arise from realization; it arises as we try to live out the consequences of our identity through beneficence, being a field of benefaction in the world. This is our 4th Bodhisattva Vows. This is what we in the Zen Garland Order call, “Reclaiming the World.” Or “Reclaiming Life”

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, one of my favorite Swiss authors, social and environmental critic, encouraged us to not give up:

“To not be afraid in our world is the message that doesn’t derive from reason, but maybe from this mysterious capacity given to humans which we call – not without a little embarrassment – faith.”

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