Nature is transcendental

Most of us realize that spending time in nature is good for mind and spirit. A new study by researchers at Stanford University more or less confirms it, according to a paper published in last month’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.”

Honestly, I was confused by the title.  I always thought nature enhanced rumination or contemplation. But I didn’t know that in psychology, rumination means to focus excessively on one’s problems and to brood on why you might be depressed. So,  nature reducing rumination is a positive.

The researchers say their study “reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

IMG_4821bEvidently, walking in natural areas simulates activity in a section of the brain that’s known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is connected to negative mental conditions and a negative pattern of thought the paper calls “morbid rumination.” They sent study participants to various areas on the Stanford campus and when the participants returned, the researchers scanned their brains. The result: “Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.”

In other words, walking in nature is good for mind and spirit, and walking in urban areas is not so good. As I suggested at the top, this only confirms what most people already know.

I have written a great deal about how the sages and poets of the East found nature to be beneficial in this way. Naturally, they are not the only ones.

Two prominent naturalists from America’s past, Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, had connections to Eastern philosophy but their appreciation of nature was firmly in place long before they became interested in the teachings of Buddha and Lao Tzu.

Thoreau’s name is practically synonymous with Walden Pond, a lake in Concord, Massachusetts formed by glaciers some 10,000–12,000 years ago. The place itself is famously associated with Naturalism. Emerson also wandered around Walden, and in 1846 he bought a wood-lot there, consisting of “more than forty acres, on the border of a little lake a half a mile wide and more, called Walden Pond,” as he wrote in a letter to his friend, Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher.

In his 1836 essay, Nature, Emerson complained that far too many people do not recognize the full worth and beauty of nature. In the essay, Emerson also set down some of the fundamentals of Transcendentalism, the philosophical movement linked to both Emerson and Thoreau. In another essay, The Transcendentalist, Emerson wrote a phrase I like: “Nature is Transcendental.”

Emerson’s view of nature differed a bit from the Eastern view. He saw nature as something outside the life of the individual, “all that is separate from us . . . the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body.” The Buddhist/Taoist concept of “Not me” goes further and nature is viewed as profoundly  inter-connected with inner life.

Nature is transcendental (note the small ‘t’). And, when we use any of the forms of the word “transcendent,” we do not necessarily mean metaphysical. Transcendent can mean beyond the limits of ordinary experience, what cannot be expressed in words, or realization that “goes beyond,” which in Buddhism refers to Prajna-Paramita or Transcendental Wisdom.

I would suggest transcendental can also be “going back,” in that it we can recapture a quality of childhood, the innocence, the sense of wonder, the “original mind” we had before our brains became cluttered with all the disorderly and tangled notions we’ve acquired as adults. I think others have commented on the same child-like orientation connected with spirituality, and judging by this passage from Nature, Emerson would seem to have been one of them.

ralph-waldo-emersonTo speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Note Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”

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The Dual, the Non-Dual, and the Dominion Mandate

Maybe I’ll be there to shake your hand
Maybe I’ll be there to share the land
That they’ll be givin’ away
When we all live together

– The Guess Who

I can’t say that I am a big fan of the institution of the Pope, but then since I’m not Catholic, my opinion about the Bishops of Rome doesn’t count for much. I can say that I am glad to see the new guy, Francis, making efforts to drag his church into the 21st Century. You may have heard about his recent statements on climate change. What you may not know is that it is more than just a few remarks, it’s a 192-page document called an encyclical, which is a papal letter sent to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. In this document leaked to the public, he says climate change is real, he argues for a new, positive relationship between religion and science, and he criticizes those who are skeptical about climate change for being in “denial.”

And, in what I think is a major step, he says that Christians have misinterpreted the Bible. According to Francis, the book of Genesis lays out “three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.” He says that these relationships have been broken and states “This rupture is sin,” which has “distorted our mandate to ‘have dominion’ over the earth. It’s too bad he didn’t reject the notion of “dominion.” If he had, it would have been truly revolutionary.

The so-called dominion mandate has been the focal point of criticism of the Christian approach to the environmental ethics. The critique is that it has enabled humans to view the earth as merely a tool for human needs. This notion of dominion created the Industrial Revolution and resulted in the wholesale devastation of our planet. There is nothing inherently wrong about using nature, but abusing it is another matter. The Industrial Revolution changed the world, but it would have been better if the changes had occurred in a more responsible manner.

I’d like to mention (and you knew I would) that the view of Eastern philosophy is completely opposite. Western religious philosophy established a dualism in separating human life from nature, and as you know, Buddhism and Taoism are based on non-dualism. In ancient Buddhist texts, there are very few instances where the intrinsic value of nature is directly addressed. However, the oneness of “man” and nature has been a major theme in Taoism from its earliest beginnings.

Yin-Yang, the Taoist symbol for non-duality
Yin-Yang, the Taoist symbol for non-duality

For the Taoist sage, the environment has always been in an intimate relationship with wisdom or what we Buddhist’s call enlightenment. The highest wisdom is the penetrating insight of the interdependency of all things, and this inter-connectedness is expressed in the sage’s identification between his true nature and nature itself. T’ien-t’ai Buddhism went even further when Chih-i declared that there is nothing in the entire universe that is not within the mind.

We don’t have dominion over the land, it is not our inheritance, or something we bequeath to our children. We participate in nature. We share the land. We are its caretakers only in the sense that we take care of each other.

One writer I’ve read says that the passage I quote below is Chuang Tzu’s attempt to “undermine the whole metaphysical debate: how can one know what is natural and what is human? How can one possible justify the claim that humans are part of nature or the contrary claim that they are not?”* To me, it is a bit simpler. Chuang Tzu is pointing to the non-dual nature of reality. On one hand, we know that things are physically separate, but on the other, everything is equal and one.

One who knows what nature is, and knows what it is that is human, has reached the peak of wisdom. Whoever knows about nature and humanity what nature does lives a life grounded in nature . . . However, there is a difficulty. Knowing is dependent on objects, but the objects of knowledge are transient and therefore uncertain. How can one know what we call nature is not really human, and what is human is not is not really nature?”

from Chapter Six “The Great and Honorable Teacher”

So, now the Pope has joined the chorus of those who call for urgent action on climate change. I wish he had gone further, but a small step in the right direction is better than nothing. Someone over at Fox News called him a Marxist and the “most dangerous man on earth.” Sorry deadhead, the most dangerous are those who just don’t get it, who refuse to understand the earth is a giant, living organism and we humans are the cancer threatening its existence – our existence.

Moving images, poignant words, and a classic song:

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* Perrenboom, R.P. “Beyond Naturalism: A Reconstruction of Daoist Environmental Ethics.” Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of Thought. Ed. J. Baird Callicott , James McRae. SUNY Press, 2014. 152

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Sages and Dreams

In Buddhism, buddhas and bodhisattvas are held up as ideal models of human behavior. In Taoism, it is the sage.

Sagehood is the perfected state of being, a state like Buddhahood that is achievable through self-development. And also like Buddahood, sagehood is a way of seeing the world in its harmonious original nature. Sagehood is a the state of being one with all things.

The sage has many other characteristics, some of which are discussed in this passage from the so-called “inner chapters” of Chuang Tzu:

Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly.
Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly.

One day Chu Chuai Tzu said to his teacher, Chang Wu Tzu, “I have heard Confucius say that a sage does not get involved in the world. A sage does not seek gain or try to avoid loss. A sage does not seek anything, and does not even cling to the Tao (the Way). A sage does not use words and when speaking has nothing to say. In this way, a sage is able to go far beyond this world of dust. Now, Confucius thinks these are empty and fancy words, yet I feel they are much like the mysterious Tao itself. What do you think?”

Chang Wu Tzu replied, “I think these words would confuse even the Yellow Emperor . . . The sage floats with the sun and moon and joins the universe, embracing it as one great whole. A sage has no use for distinctions and ignores social status. Ordinary men toil and struggle while the sage seems stubborn and dull-witted. To the sage a thousand years is one, the myriad beings of the universe are but one, forming a great whole.

“How do we know that loving life is not a delusion? How do we know that in fearing death we are not like someone who gets lost on the way home like a child?

“Lady Li was the child of a border guard who was taken prisoner by the Duke of Chin. When first captured, she wept so much her clothes were soaked. But after she adjusted to her new surroundings and luxurious new life, she regretted her tears. How can we know that the dead do not regret their previous longing for life? One who dreams of drinking wine may in the morning weep; one who dreams weeping may in the morning go out and hunt. When dreaming we do not now we are dreaming. We may even dream of dreaming a dream. Only when we awaken do we know it was a dream. Only after our great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream.

“And yet fools dream and think they are awake. They pretend to know what is going on, and distinguish between kings and slaves. How stupid! I think both you and Confucius are dreaming. Of course, I am dreaming, too. My words may seem like nonsense, but after ten thousand years, a sage may come along who can explain them and then it will seem like morning.”

It is said that the ancient sages of China traveled the country, sharing knowledge with everyone, never asking for anything in exchange. They established no institutions, religions, schools or temples. They did not bother to give their teachings a name, except to say that what they taught was consistent with the great Tao.

It is also said that these sages understood the nature of dreams and delusions and that they understood that delusions disappear while one sits quietly and recognizes the original nature.

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A Big Tree

It’s been a while since we checked in with our old friend, Chuang Tzu, the Taoist philosopher of ancient China. Chuang Tzu’s writings are collected in a book called Chuang Tzu, one of the classics of Chinese literature. He espoused a holistic approach to life, and lived in the fourth century BCE, the same time as Plato and Aristotle. To read some of the other stories and mentions of this sage I’ve posted, click on ‘Chuang Tzu’ in the tag cloud on the right sidebar.

Today, an antidotes from Chuang Tzu, in which he advises us not to sweat the small stuff:

One day Hui said to Chuang Tzu, “I have a large tree, but its trunk is too big and knotty to be measured out for planks, and its branches are too bent for use with a compass or a square. If you put it in the middle of the road, no carpenter would look at it twice. Now your words are just as big and useless and everyone is unanimous in rejecting them.”

Chuang Tzu replied, “Have you ever watched a wildcat? It crouches down and waits for something to come along, ready to pounce east or west, high or low, only to fall into a trap and die in the net. Then there is the yak, as big as a cloud floating in the sky. It knows how to be big, but it does not know how to catch a rat. So you have a big tree but are troubled over its uselessness. Why not plant it in Nothing Town or in Emptiness Field? Then you could walk around doing nothing by its side or go to sleep beneath it. Axes will never shorten its life, indeed, nothing will ever harm it. If the tree is of no use, then how can it trouble you?”

 

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Li Po: Poet Transcendent

Li Po Chanting a Poem, by Liang K’ai (1140 – 1210)

Yesterday I discussed the ideal of the Taoist sage, who to me is a romantic figure. One of those guys I am very fond of is Li Po (Li Bai) (although he was more a poet than a sage perhaps). He lived in the 8th century, which was the Tang Dynasty, the “golden age” of Chinese poetry, and he was one of its greatest poets.

I will not go into details about Li Po’s life, you can read about it here at Wikipedia. As for his poetry, suffice to say that its essential quality is that old wu-wei: the natural and spontaneous way of “not-doing.”

“Poet Transcendent” (Shih-hsien) was one of Li Po’s nicknames. Another was Ching-lien Chu-shih or “Householder of the Azure Lotus.”

Around 744, Li Po formally became a Taoist, and although he maintained a home in Shandong, he spent much of the next ten years wandering around writing poetry. I ask you, is there anything more romantic, more fanciful than that? It’s what I’d love to do, just roam around, with few possessions, composing poems, checking out mountains, watching the sky . . . but then I’d have no cable and I’d miss out on my favorite TV shows like Dexter and Boardwalk Empire, no Turner Classic Movies, so  . . . maybe not.

Anyway, here are four poems from that period in Li Po’s life I translated* myself:

Viewing Heaven’s-Gate Mountain

The River Chu cuts through Heaven’s-Gate Mountain in the middle.
The green water flows east, swirling when it reaches here.
The blue mountain faces both banks.
A lonely sail is silhouetted by the sun.

 

Sent to Tu Fu below Shaqiu City
(Tu Fu was a fellow poet)

I’ve finally come here, but why?
High above lies Shaqiu City.
Ancient trees stand at the edge of the city
And the setting sun joins the autumn softness.
Drinking Lu wine does not get me drunk.
Even with Qi’s songs my feelings are empty.
Thinking of you, my thoughts are like the River Wen’s waters,
Strong and deep as they journey south.

Listening to Jun, the Buddhist Monk, Play the Ch’in
(The ch’in is a plucked zither consisting of a narrow box strung with seven silk strings.)

The monk from Shu, lugging his ch’in in a green silk bag
As he walks westward down lofty Omei Peak:
When he plays, I become one with his waving hand.
Listening, it’s as if ten thousand pines were singing,
And flowing water were washing clean my wandering heart.
I enter into the echo of white bells
And when dusk comes, I forget about the blue mountains
And do not take seriously the dark autumn clouds gathering.

Jade Stairs Complaint

White dew on the jade stairs
Invades her gauze stockings.
Yet lowering the crystal curtain
She lifts her gaze to the autumn moon.

 

 

 

[The key to appreciating this last poem is to understand that because the woman in question is a lady of the court, she makes no complaint when her feet get wet going up the staircase. Chinese poetry is very subtle.]

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* Back in the day, before I had a computer, I had to find the radical in the Chinese character, then identify the character, and finally look it up in the Chinese dictionary. Took me forever. Now with computers it’s much easier and faster.

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