Sunday, November 6, 2011
CHARLES JOHNSON AND THE MAGIC OF NATURE
“Only come to know the nature of your own mind, in which there is no self and no other, and you will in fact be a Buddha.” The Zen Teachings of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind, translated by John Blofeld.
“Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are and of things that are not that they are not.” Protagoras.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "With your interest in science as well as Buddhism, I find it surprising that you don't write more about the environment and nature in your essays. Is this a correct conclusion?"
This is a very good and a fair question. In my body of published non-fiction one finds little that could be strictly called traditional nature-writing. And there is a personal (as well as philosophical) reason for that.
Nothing pleases me more than quietly sitting in a natural setting, especially the kind provided by the Pacific Northwest, just sitting and listening to wind wuthering through the plumage of trees, watching birds flying in formation, and my dog Nova as he stares at squirrels swinging effortlessly from one branch to another. I sit. I breathe. All sense of twoness falls away. I finger a branch from the tree I am leaning against, marveling at the rough, hard texture of its bark, and of the way fall leaves around me wrinkle and stiffen and change color. During these times I empty my mind of interpretations and concepts. I just sit, letting myself “occur” or “be” in the midst of so much beauty. Nature is the ultimate Other. However, I do not know any natural object---the tree, the leaf, the squirrel--- "in-itself," but only as it appears for me as it unfolds in a series of perceptual profiles. Those profiles (or meanings) are inexhaustible (and include profiles only science can reveal) so they retain a degree of mystery. Therefore, as a writer, as a thinker, I find myself reflecting upon the means by which I "know" nature and the other, i.e., as I quietly sit, as I observe, I am led by nature and the environment from the outside to the inside, from thinking about the object to thinking about the subject, from the object of consciousness (tree, leaf, squirrel) to the operations of my consciousness itself.
This is clearly an idealistic tendency that I have within me.
Epistemological idealism is probably inscribed deeply in my philosophical DNA, perhaps because I'm very non-materialistic. I'm conscious of this, and so (I hope) work at not taking an extreme position by privileging the experiencing subject over the experienced object. (Think of Capt. Falcon in Middle Passage when of other people he says, "I suppose they've never been real to me. Only I'm real to me. Even you're not real to me, Mr. Calhoun, but I think you like me a little, so I like you too.") But that privileging of mind over matter, of subject over object can be found in Buddhist history (as well as in Hinduism). Consider these verses from Vasubandhu's Trisvabhāvanirdeśa (Treatise on the Three Natures):
If anything appears, it is imagined.
The way it appears is as duality.
What is the consequence of its non-existence?
The fact of non-duality!
What is the imagination of the non-existent?
Since what is imagined absolutely never
Exists in the way it is imagined,
It is mind that constructs that illusion.
One should think of the illusory non-existent
Completely ripened, grasped as other,
And as appearance.
The first, because it itself ripens,
Is the root consciousness.
The others as emergent consciousness,
Having emerged from the conceptualization of seer and seen.
Like an elephant that appears
Through the power of a magician's mantra---
Only the percept appears,
The elephant is completely non-existent.
In Jay L. Garfield's superb essay on Vasubandhu, which appears in Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, edited by William Edelglass and Jay L. Garfield (Oxford University Press, 2009), he writes that in contrast to Nāgārjuna's understanding of emptiness, "Vasubandhu...reinterprets the emptiness of the object as being its lack of external reality, and its purely mind-dependent, or ideal, status. At the same time, however, he argues that the foundational mind is nonempty since it truly exists as the substratum of the apparent reality represented in our experience. The position is hence a kind of idealism akin to, but different in important ways from, the idealisms defended by such Western philosophers as Berkeley, Kant, and Schopenhauer."
So what does all this mean in terms of today's question? OK, I'll 'fess up: I do sometimes tilt toward experiencing, like Vasubandhu, the world or "nature" around me as a kind of "magic show," one that always boomerangs me (as Ralph Ellison might put it) back to the consciousness that makes these sometimes magnificent appearances possible. This is why you see me writing much non-fiction about the way we consciously experience (or interpret) nature and the environment and not much about the objects of nature and the environment themselves, although I greatly appreciate the work of others who have contributed significantly to this genre, like Barry Lopez (winner of a 1986 National Book Award for Artic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape). I shall have to leave it up to the literary scholars who write about my work to determine if this idealistic tendency (and my lack of writing about nature) is a virtue or a flaw.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 2:35 AM