While on a retreat at Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, a small sign in the communal restroom saying “Leave No Trace” caught my attention. Outwardly directing that everyone should clean up after themselves, the message’s inner meaning pointed to Zen instruction about the responsibility we have to each other and the earth, overall. It reminded me of the story of the hermit who, as his dying act, entered a crawl space he’d hollowed out inside his cave, and sealed himself within.
Buddhism is filled with allegories of “no self” intended to teach lessons about interconnectedness, ego and transcendence, but like all other major religions, its primary intent is helping people get along with each other by overcoming the worst of our animal nature: thievery, lust and murder. Turning to our higher selves through right thoughts of mind rather than succumbing to our lower selves’ desires of the loin, has always been and remains our primary human task; the world’s religions, laws, and systems of government are all elaborations of that difficult task.
The earliest teachings of the Buddha are contained within the Vinaya, a compilation of his instructions to the community of monks that formed around him and his words. Rebelling against the confines of strict Hinduism, the Buddha offered his teachings to men and women of all castes, providing guidance on attaining individual liberation and how to live peacefully in a community. The Vinaya is essentially a book of rules.
Buddhism arose during a particularly religious period of human culture, coinciding roughly with the rise of Christianity and Islam. Linked by the Silk Road stretching from the Mediterranean to China, religious traditions mixed with each other and evolved from monastic to social cultures. In doing so, their appeal broadened beyond cloistered, individual-centered practices, became popularized into beliefs about universal salvation, and eventually were selectively incorporated into social and political systems of control. So it remains today.
In modern America, the path of individual liberation is a dominant theme, but in excess veers into dangerously sociopathic behavior. Our all-self materialist culture appears to differ from no-self Buddhist culture, but these seemingly opposite ideas meet at their extremes when they destructively objectify self, other, and the natural world. Such is the peril of thought, slavish reliance on how and what we think in order to control our animal nature.
People form attachments, have desires, and feel compelled to express them. Both biological and psychological, the human experience craves a middle ground between instinct and idea. The latter of the two is imaginary, bounded only by mental capacity, and is highly contagious, which is to say ideas spread very easily, even bad ones. Just as the contagion of ancient religious thought spread globally roughly 2,000 years ago, the contagion of political thought spreads today. One difference is that 2,000 years ago the world’s population was merely 300 million and ideas spread through speech from ear to ear; today it is 7 billion, growing almost 100 million per year, and ideas spread through social media from cell phone to cell phone.
The world in which human beings first appeared was perfect for us, a “Garden of Eden” unspoiled by industry, pesticides, or plastics. Suffice to say we have not cleaned up after ourselves; our traces are all around us and etched into history. We cannot escape our animal nature, not through religion nor politics. We cannot transcend being human; our only possibility is to understand it.