Thoughts on economics, ethics, gender, climate, language, Zen, and a few other things…
Author: Julie A. Nelson
Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.
About eating chocolate…and wanting the piece that is still in my hand.
In Zen, as in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, there is talk of characters who have two heads. In Adams’ book, it’s a character named Zaphod Beeblebrox. In Zen, it comes from a talk by the 9th century Chinese Master Linji:
…There are indeed so far none who have presented themselves before me all alone, all free, all unique… They are all ghostly existences, ignominious gnomes haunting the woods, elf-spirits of the wilderness….Do you think you deserve the name of ‘monk’ when you are still entertaining mistaken ideas of Zen? You are putting another head over your own! What do you lack in yourselves?
Zen teachings tell us continually that “this is it,” that there is no need to keep seeking for something beyond, for something outside of ourselves. I’ve made a practice for myself of asking “Which head am I in?” Am I in this head that rests on top of my neck, connected to my spine, my heart, and the feelings and sensations that are going on right now? Or am I feeling, thinking, and acting from the additional head I’ve constructed on top of that one? Continue reading “Another Head”
Is it possible to cultivate a sense of “enoughness” with regard to relationships?
My teacher, Josh Bartok Roshi, gave a dharma talk at an all-day sit recently. Which I missed. (I was helping a friend move.) But although I arrived late in the afternoon, Josh shared with me a set of reflections he had handed out. These were lists of “Values based on” various precepts, vows, and liturgical pieces. One stood out for me: A meditation on the 2nd Grave Precept.
In our liturgy book, the second of the Ten Grave Precepts is worded, in its longer form, as
Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous. In the realm of the unattainable Dharma, not having thoughts of gaining is called the Precept of Not Stealing. The self and the things of the world are just as they are. The gate of emancipation is open. Being satisfied with what I have, I vow to take up the Way of Not Stealing. (p. 48)
Economies have no essential nature. Once this is recognized, many more opportunities for change present themselves.
Many of us, informed about world events and motivated by love and compassion, feel the need for profound economic transformation. We started long ago to question injustice, consumerism, and military-industrial ties. The growing specter of climate-change related disruptions has convinced even more people that ‘business as usual’ is not a viable option.
But what form should this transformation take, and how can we make it happen? I believe that insights from the careful study of both economics and Zen Buddhism can help us along this path—no matter what faith tradition we come from (if any).
Based on a talk given at Harvard Divinity School, sponsored by the Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative, on Feb. 18, 2016.
MANY BUDDHISTS—as well as many non-Buddhists!—have raised concern and alarm about the climate crisis and other crises facing our society and our world. Clearly, we need to take urgent action. As Buddhists, we have a pressing moral obligation to do what we can to relieve the suffering of all beings on the planet, both now and in the future. Our hearts yearn to make things better.
And clearly much of the climate change disaster is caused by economic activity. If you graph carbon dioxide emissions and industrial output over a long period of time, the two graphs look pretty much identical. The development of large scale, fossil-fuel burning industries was accompanied, in Western societies, by the rise of large corporations, global markets, and a rising emphasis on consumption as a source of well-being. Great wealth has been created, but this wealth has been very unequally distributed, and has often come at the cost of environmental and social sustainability.
It’s abundantly clear that we can’t go on with “business as usual.” People and other sentient beings are already feeling the disruptive effects of a set of historical and social developments that, as a whole, have taken far too little account of the effects of our production and consumption on the rest of nature. We urgently need to change how our economies work.
To stop the economy’s advance towards greed and destruction, we need new metaphors and images that inspire a radically different alternative.
What do you see in your mind’s eye when you hear the word ‘care’? If you search for images on Google you’ll get lots of pictures of white mothers snuggling with their babies. You’ll also see photos of a female caregiver’s hands intertwined with those of an elderly person, and images that show two hands holding a young plant that symbolizes Earth.
We get to choose between being self-interested, on the one hand, or putting the needs of others first, on the other, right? Or maybe not.
I grew up, as a Lutheran preacher’s kid, hearing a lot of negative things about self-interest, selfishness, and self-centeredness. And I heard a lot of positive things about putting others ahead of oneself, altruism, and even self-sacrifice. When I got older and went to college, I was exposed to a different view. Continue reading “Self-Interest and Other-Interest”
Part 4 of a reflection on birth, death, and the Linji Lu
Fear of the responsibilities that come with birth are only one side of the coin. At other times, I dread the prospect of loss and death. Things are slipping away. Health. Loved ones. Hopes. Abilities. Now my little log-rolling human figure is running backwards at a full tilt, trying to avoid loss, trying to pull things back towards myself.
Last January, I had planned to stay at sesshin for three weeks! But a mysterious illness forced me to return home after two days. Continue reading “Loss”
Part 3 of a reflection on birth, death, and the Linji Lu
Where does that feeling that something more–that too much–is expected from me come from? Many of the dharma talks that I listened to online, being too ill to attend the January sesshin in person, looked into our fundamental and common sense of “lack.” They examined how this drives us to think we need to be someone else other than who we are. Certainly my feelings of fear about under-performing during my sabbatical semester was an instance of that.
Also, more particularly, I could see how these fears were reinforced by being brought up in a Protestant Christian faith tradition that includes teachings about a final judgment day. Continue reading “Judgment day”
Part 2 of a reflection on birth, death, and the Linji Lu
Master Linji said, “Once there is right view, birth and death can no longer touch you……You should … achieve the state of having nothing to do…” At some moments, it is the responsibilities that come with birth that seem overwhelming to me. I was born a human, and feel a responsibility to do something worthwhile with that. What Linji describes sure doesn’t sound like my life! I live by to-do lists, crossing out work and personal tasks as they get accomplished. I feel myself racing ahead, as if log-rolling, trying to get somewhere. I’m doing and doing to keep that log spinning forward, and myself upright. Continue reading “When the responsibilities seem like too much…”