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Postcard From the Brink

Wed, 09/18/2019 - 13:04

Have the collective “we” stopped pretending that we haven’t crossed significant tipping points on the way to nonlinear, abrupt climate change? While we can’t prevent it, at this point, we can still do things to alleviate its effects, prevent suffering, and protect nature, in the hope that some ecosystems on earth survive.

The Global Climate Strike, a weeklong demonstration that starts tomorrow, may be the last chance to collectively demand governmental action to give ecosystems and thus ourselves a better chance to survive. Without enough people in the streets to shut down business as usual, though, governments tend not to listen.

Nisargadatta says that we see a world of things, but live in a world of feelings. Laozi says that the wise are guided not by what they see, but what they feel. Someone said that our destiny is determined by our character, which is a result of our habits — the products of actions repeated over time.

I say that, though one’s fate is surely death, no matter the epoch, one may still be bound for glory. One could — and, for at least 20 minutes a day, one should — rest in the bliss of the consciousness of being, the sat-chit-ananda (“being-consciousness-bliss”), the God that is closer than one’s thoughts. Most of us, as isolated egos, are too busy thinking about past and future, searching for meaning and fearing extinction.

Picture this karma: When an American man born in 1922 doesn’t want to be drafted into the infantry in 1940, he joins the Air Force and, after going through flight-training school, becomes a B-17 co-pilot who flies his first mission in 1944. After 23 bombing missions, the war ends and his last two missions are milk runs. He goes home, studies art on the G.I. Bill of Rights, moves to New York City, and, by 1960, can afford to build a summer house in Hither Hills, Montauk. A son is born in 1964, on a day known in Japan as Tanabata (the “evening of the seventh” star festival that celebrates loving deities represented by the stars Vega and Altair).

It’s 1971 when the father’s bipolar disorder results in the closure of his commercial art business, the family moves to Montauk, and the son, coming from a Montessori school in New York, goes to the local public school. In 1974: An oil embargo, lines for gas, and, more significantly, oil companies determine that burning more carbon will lead to climate change that could end civilization as we know it, and then keep the reports secret.

The son is exposed to Buddhist and Taoist teachings through television, and starts studying them. He goes to Japan for a year of college, then to live from 1987 to 2007. During this time, he enjoys his visits to India so much that, in 2008, he moves to Dharamsala for eight years.

Having lived abroad since the age of 20, he now feels more at home in parts of Japan and India than he does in the United States, where the 1980 alliance of the G.O.P. and Southern Baptist Convention allows the neocons to implement a policy of militarism, deregulation, privatization, and an astroturfed, evangelical Christian revivalism that continues to render the country a libertarian dystopia, where refugees fleeing violence instigated by the U.S. in the 1980s are put in for-profit concentration camps.

In “My Life as an Echo,” Henry Miller writes, “Though I was born in Manhattan, I might just as well have been born in the Himalayas, or on Easter Island. American through and through, I am less at home in my own country than anywhere. . . . It took me some fifty-odd years to wake up. Even now I am not thoroughly awake, else I would not be writing these extraneous words.”

What were the Easter Island rank and file thinking as they cut down the last trees to roll out the latest moai carved in honor of a deceased chieftain? Some of them must have realized the madness of the endeavor, but went along to get along. Did any of them stop pretending before they ran out of food and died?

The son’s exposure to 1960s-70s person­al/plan­etary health consciousness makes it easy for him to refrain from eating red meat or patronizing the businesses most responsible for environmental degradation. Environmental concerns are part of the reason he never buys a car or motorbike, but instead lives in places where he can ride a bicycle and take public transportation, or simply walk. These concerns are even part of the reason he never has children, although the other part, the cause of his suffering, like that of youthful Miller, is his never being satisfied with anything, or willing to compromise, or adjust.

Remorse over his egotistical formation and destruction of friendships and love-bonds in Japan drives him, finally, to self-reflection in Dharamsala, where (as Miller writes), “I realized that I alone was responsible for all the misfortunes which had befallen me . . . the burden of guilt and suffering fell away. Of course I have suffered since, many times, and undoubtedly will continue to do so, but in a different way. I have made my peace with suffering. When it is regarded in the light of understanding, it becomes something else. I called this process of transmutation my ‘rosy crucifixion.’ ”

While his choices have had about zero effect on the climate, they haven’t been meaningless. In The New Yorker, Jon­athan Franzen writes, “Each of us has an ethical choice to make. . . . Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically.” Nature and its creatures should be high on everyone’s list since, as is now painfully obvious, we depend on them.

At 54, when the collapse of industrial civilization appears likely, perhaps within a decade, the son can no longer justify (as he had in Japan from 1993 to 2007) spending his waking hours at the front of classrooms of 30 to 50 uninterested secondary and postsecondary E.S.L. students. He is unemployed in Chiang Mai, Thailand, his tourist visa about to expire, when a job listing leads him to an organic farm that rescues animals — room and board provided — in a village near Dharamsala.

Suddenly he’s back in the Himalayan foothills, home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa (of the Gelug and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism), and thousands more monastics and laypersons from around the world, living simply and devoted to realization, the “ego death” that equals the transcendence of physical death. Since his teenage years, he has hoped someday to live this way.

The staff at Peepal Farm grow food, but mainly rescue injured animals and manage a small-scale social enterprise, “leading by example, storytelling, and culture-jamming.” To raise awareness and generate income, they sell herbs, chocolate spread, peanut butter, and more.

Before he left Dharamsala in 2016, in search of paid employment, the son met a Tibetan-Japanese couple who were building a small hotel to fund an eco-village they called the Dharamsala Project, behind Gyuto Monastery, home of the Karmapa.

Karma is the combined consequences of one’s time and place of birth, the family psychological dynamics, the local and national culture . . . and the choices people make, individually and collectively. In 2019, the Sakura Hotel is complete, and the eco-village a work in progress. Places like these need the support of those who choose to help, in the midst of humanity’s greatest crisis.

Jonathan Walsh grew up in Montauk. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Dharamsala Project can be emailed at [email protected], and the Peepal Farm is online at



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