In a few days, I'll be jumping on a train and heading to an organic farm in upstate New York to assist the owner with gardening, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. My hope is that the six months I spend there will allow me to experience a subsistence lifestyle outside of the capitalist paradigm that currently dominates America. Additionally, by working on an organic farm I'll be able to advocate for environmental causes by directly competing with industrial farms that dump huge amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides into the ecosystem. In short, I'll be able to walk the walk of environmentalism as opposed to just talking the talk. You would think that caring for the planet that we live on would be a natural thing, but there is a disconnect. Many people think that the environment is a separate "thing" from us that is not worthy of concern. Others think that our planet must be conquered in order to ensure human survival. Naturally, I disagree with both of these points. In large part, this is due to my understanding of sunyata and the emptiness of my own existence. Let me explain:
The teaching of sunyata is at the heart of Zen Buddhism. It sets the stage for the end of human suffering, and it breaks down barriers which make things like compassion and generosity hard to practice. My understanding of the teaching is that everything in the universe is void of an inherent, permanent self-nature. When I first learned this, I took it to mean that I didn't exist, and that the world was a weird matrix-like illusion. But that's not quite true. I exist, and so do you for that matter. We both have names, social security numbers, and bank accounts that no one should have access to but us. Sunyata doesn't mean that those things aren't real, but it does mean that these things are infinitesimally small parts of who we really are. I am me, but that's not where the story stops. I'm also you, the trees, the water, the sun, and everything else that exists in the universe. We are all part of one massive living organism! Confused yet? Don't be, because it's all fairly simple if you look at how mushrooms and mycelium interact.
Mycelium is a Latin word that translates to, "more than one". Mycelium are formed when mushroom spores settle into the substrate (soil, wood, straw, etc.) and emit thread-like appendages called hyphae to absorb nutrients. When hyphae connect with each other in order to reproduce they form little knots called primordia which eventually grow into mushrooms. The giant mass of primordia and hyphae which forms as a result of this is called the mycelium. So what we end up having is several mushrooms on top of the substrate that appear to be totally separate from one another. However, when we look beneath the substrate we see that each of these individual mushrooms are connected to one another by the mycelium. The mushrooms can't exist without the mycelium because that is how they get nutrients, and the mycelium can't exist without the mushrooms because it needs them to release spores which create hyphae and make the mycelium larger. Additionally, the mushrooms need each other to survive because it takes all of them working together to sustain the mycelium. They appear separate, however, the mushrooms and the mycelium are actually part of a single living organism.
When Zen Buddhists say that everything is void of inherent, permanent self-nature, we're saying that the apparent separateness between us and the universe (or the planet) is an illusion caused by not looking closely enough at reality just like the apparent separateness of the mushrooms is a result of not looking under the surface and seeing how they're connected by the mycelium. Once I wrapped my head around this concept, environmental activism became a necessity. In his book, The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory, David Loy describes the ethical viewpoint that comes from sunyata:
This makes ethical responsibility for Buddhism not the means to salvation but natural to the expression of genuine enlightenment. It is what might be called the "nonmoral morality" of the Bodhisattva, who having nothing to gain or lose- because he or she has no self to do the gaining or losing- is devoted to the welfare of others. The Bodhisattva knows that no one is fully saved until everyone is saved. When I am the universe, to help others is to help myself.
It's the last line of this quote that really gets to me. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone thought that way? I feel called to environmental activism because the more I practice, the more I see a part of myself when I look at the natural world. This planet is our home. More than that, it's a part of us. What does it say about us if we don't work to keep it, and ourselves, alive?