Deep Down Things

A Tricycle Book Club Discussion with Lin Jensen

This book was written in an effort to better understand the relationship between society and environment, between the people and the land. A wealth of detail regarding specific interactions within an ecosystem is already being compiled through the systematic methods of inquiry utilized by the science of ecology. We humans are involved in that interaction, and what I’m after in this book is not so much the data but the condition of mind essential to a genuine human interaction with the earth. What has been lost to us that we no longer know how to speak the language earth speaks? What have we forgotten to think of say or do that, could we but remember, would restore our acquaintance once more?

As both a Buddhist and a student of deep ecology, I’m struck by how much the two have in common, each exacting of the follower a genuine paradigm shift in perception. For the Buddhist the shift is an awakening to earth as an extension of one’s own body wherein the dichotomy of self and other dissolves. For the deep ecologist the shift is a similar awakening wherein earth is realized as one indivisible body comprised of all beings of any sort. In both instances, this awakening is of profound proportions arguing for a shared communal relationship with earth that is unknown in modern industrial society. 

In the pages that follow, I’ve written a great deal about farms and food because it is there in the orchards, fields, ranch lands, and kitchens of a nation that we humans enact an intimate and essential interaction with earth. But I also write a great deal about human culture and society itself. I can’t reason intelligently about the land without including the humans who inhabit the land, particularly since I’m interested in the impact of the exchange between the two. I suppose that what has driven me more than anything else to write Deep Down Things is that in our society, such as it is now, we are often attending to things that are less and less deep down.

Long before I discovered its expression in Buddhism I felt the body of the earth as though it were my own, just as you did. Just as we all do when we set aside false distinctions to the contrary. It's a love affair really, and one we need to take up again while the loved one is still responsive to our need. If such language seems excessively anthropomorphic, it might be that we’ve forgotten how reciprocal our relationship with earth actually is. We’ve forgotten earth is a mutual exchange, a call and response, a giving and receiving from both sides.

Lin Jensen is Senior Buddhist Chaplain to High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California, and founder and teacher of the Chico Zen Sangha in Chico, CA, where he writes and works on behalf of nonviolence and in defense of the earth.

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Lin Jensen's picture

Dear Phil,

You asked the questions that need to be asked: "For many of us,' you wrote, "the food we eat seems the closest we come to the earth. So what should we do to support family farms? How can we support actual farmers who produce our food, whether they are "legal" or not?" For me Zen is not something to think about or believe in; Zen is something to do. We do Zen. What I call Zen is, in fact, only a name for our very doing. The earth-doing that most of us are involved in takes place in the kitchen and at the dining room table. Our daily connection with the food we eat is the closest any of us will ever come to earth. We literally eat earth, and that's very close indeed. Oh I don't mean that we pick up handfuls of dirt to swallow, but every handful of everything we do eat is the offspring of dirt, which makes the whole animal kingdom the offspring of dirt. We humans,along with every other living creature, plant or animal, are sustained by sunlight playing upon the soils, water, and atmosphere of the earth in a process called photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the umbilical cord to which we are tethered. When we were infants in the womb, we were fed by our mothers through an umbilical cord that served as our lifeline and without which we would quickly perish. The cord that connects us to our birth mother is severed at birth, but the cord that connects us to our earth mother can never be severed: we are utterly dependent upon that connection the whole of our lives here on earth. Our support of organic family farmers is the most direct way we can safeguard that critical connection.

Our most vital connection with the earth is enacted in what we bring home to eat. Is the food I bring home to my kitchen locally grown organic food harvested on farms of a scale small enough to be properly tended by an attentive hand? To buy produce and meats from factory farms of such typically massive scale is to cast a vote for mechanized inattention, resulting in the poisoning and destruction of the nation's soils and foods. So the first quality necessary to genuine food reform is one of attention. Zen master Ikkyu when asked, "What is Zen?" replied, "Attention." When asked to elaborate, Ikkyu said, "Attention. Attention. Attention." There's a reason Ikkyu refused to move beyond this single principle and behavior of Zen; the reason being that Zen is nothing more or less than simple attention. If I really look at what I've brought home - the carrots, potatoes, squash, all laid out on the cutting board, I will be looking at the only viable means of livelihood available to me. In the kitchen, earth speaks to me in the language of carrots, potatoes, squash; and if I listen to what's being said, I will be taking the first necessary step toward an attitude and reality essential to food reform.

I don't know if I'm being clear about what I mean here. I'm saying that what's needed is a genuine paradigm shift in our perceived relationship to the earth. Such a paradigm shift runs deeper than even the best accumulation of information, reasoning, and logical persuasion. A new paradigm is something more in the nature of an awakening to a reality heretofore unrealized, and it's more likely to be realized on the kitchen cutting board than in the best and most accurate of thoughts. We realize our genuine relationship to the living earth most directly when we literally have earth in hand - holding it like a bunch of carrots that I receive first from the hands of Rob, the organic farmer at Saturday's farmer's market, and then carry home on my bicycle and slice into chunks for a soup I'm making. My exchange with Rob goes deeper than mere market economics. There's a mutual trust and obligation involving not just the two of us, but the dirt from which my carrots were dug that morning as well. Rob and I feel the presence of this third party in the exchange. He as dirt farmer and I as customer and household cook tacitly acknowledge a gratitude and indebtedness toward the natural mother that sustains us all.

It's my judgment that the only means of supporting those family farmers who protect the integrity of our food is a means indivisible from support of the earth itself, and by logical extension an urgent matter of self-support. I see the essential change required as falling upon the shoulders of anyone who eats. The change that's needed is a change in consumer attitude and behavior. The change in attitude consists of a radical paradigm shift; the change in behavior consist of buying only locally grown food from small scale organic farms. Until we are willing to do this, nothing much will change. If Zen is, as I've said, something you do, then this is a doing that's worthwhile.


Philip Ryan's picture

Dear Lin, Thank you for your generosity in hosting this forum!

Growing up on a farm you probably have mixed feelings about the plight of the family farm today. My impression (growing up in densely suburban coastal Connecticut and now in New York City) is that the "family farm" is something of a myth used by Monsanto and the corn and soybean lobbies to guilt-trip Congress and the American people into pouring money into production of the garbage they use to make corn syrup. I think affection for farms ("How you gonna keep em down on the farm...") is wired into our national DNA: we are—or were, rather—a nation of farmers, at least in our heads. We seem to have inherited the idea of the country gentleman and the rural ideal from the English.

Everyone (I'm speaking generally again) would love to support farmers and their families but the reality seems to be factory farms and genetically modified soybeans with labels like Happy Valley and Fresh Picked—not to mention the ruthless exploitation of what used to be called migrant workers but are now labeled "illegal immingrants." We want to buy organic and "natural" foods, but the organic label can be misleading and many actual small farmers cannot afford whatever byzantine government certification it takes. For many of us, the food we eat seems the closest we come to the earth. So what should we do to support family farms? How can we support actual farmers who produce our food, whether they are "legal" or not?

Thank you again for this book and this discussion!

Lin Jensen's picture


You wrote, "I still feel distant from the land I hope to commune with." You also expressed your concern for city-dwellers who often have so little contact with a natural environment. How do we cross that divide that separates us from the living earth? I think perhaps the first essential is to realize that we're not actually separated from the earth, which is true even of those who live in environments where virtually everything they see and touch is the result of human manufacture and where all but the surface of the city park is paved over with asphalt and concrete. If, for example, the city-dweller would simply reflect on what's happening when she turns the handle on the kitchen faucet, she would realize that she's intimately connected with the earth in a life and death exchange. From what distant snow field, down what tributaries and rivers, by way of recharge into what deep underground aquifer, by extraction by what system of pumps and pipelines has this little stream of water answered to her need by a simple twist of the wrist. By such means every dweller in California's Central Valley is linked to the crest of the great Sierra Nevada Range. Our cities with their "improvements" make perception of this unbreakable bond with nature seem distant and remote; nonetheless the bond is intact every time we purchase anything or "consume" anything at all. It helps to look more carefully at the produce and packaged meats at the market with a thought toward their ultimate source in nature, and to realize from these observations that we're sustained in our lives by an uninterrupted exchange with the earth from birth (actually even before birth) to death. You can, and in fact must, cut the umbilical cord that links the newborn infant to its mother, but we never cut the cord that links us to earth. So a first step in healing our sense of disconnection from the earth is to recognize that we aren't actually disconnected.

Even though our ongoing connection with earth is obvious, it's important to not lose the sense of that in our everyday thoughts and experiences. You, Sam, are doing this in your own choice of diet, travel, recycling, and so forth. It helps to do these things particularly at times when the earth's natural open spaces are remote from current surroundings. But nothing helps more than actually finding the time to spend in nature. I live in a fairly natural place with lots of wild country close around. This makes it easier to feel the presence of nature and as you put it to "commune" with nature, a term I take to mean something like sharing a conversation with the earth. Another way to keep alive the connection with the earth is to defend the earth against those forces that would pave over every inch of developable land available. Another would be to restore earth that has already been assaulted by development. One of the most heartwarming instances of earth defense and restoration involves the Los Angeles River. Let me tell you the story as I uncovered it; perhaps it will give you heart to carry as it has me.

Of all the municipal watersheds in this nation of ours, perhaps the most degraded of them is that of the Los Angeles Basin. The fifty-two mile length of the Los Angeles River that once meandered through a lush riparian corridor, spawning vast wetlands on its approach to the sea, has been reduced to a concrete drainage ditch stripped of all its vegetation, crisscrossed by a series of jammed freeways crawling with cars, lined by industrial plants, warehouses, and railroad yards. Backed up to the elevated cement levees and sandwiched between junkyards, gravel plants, and oil refineries are some of the poorest immigrant neighborhoods in the entire basin, remnants of what was once the original Pueblo de Los Angeles. Like the river, these inhabitants have been essentially discarded, put out of mind in favor of more profitable interests. But it is from these forgotten neighborhoods on the banks of this forgotten river that one of the most heartening defenses of the natural world has arisen.

They call themselves the River School, and they consist of middle school and high school students formed into teams to monitor what’s left of the river in hopes of encouraging its unlikely restoration. Under the hum of high-voltage power lines and the sizzle of tires on an adjacent freeway, a group of teenagers with notebooks stand and look down the concrete inner slope of the levee to the floor of the river where the cement once laid down by the Army Corps of Engineers has cracked and split open to allow a trickle of stagnant water to ooze up out of the mud. A smear of green algae has gathered there and a few scrubby willows have taken root. These children, deprived of contact with much of anything natural, find this small oasis in a degraded riverbed a thing of beauty. When they find a few crayfish clinging to the algae, they’re thrilled with the discovery.

A thirteen-year-old named Brenda says, “My friends don’t believe I went to the L.A. River! They’re like, there’s nothing there, that’s a sewer! I used to think it was a sewer, too, but when I went there, it was beautiful.” Another time she said, “The best bird I saw was the blue heron, a beautiful bird–I loved the blue.” And the thing is, Brenda’s right. The heron is beautiful. The slightest resurrection of nature under such unlikely circumstances is beautiful. And Brenda’s delighted “I loved the blue” is as beautiful as it ever gets. Recalling a day when she and some others we’re tugging a heavy load of trash up out of the river channel, Brenda said, “I started to think, ‘Oh my God, I could be cleaning up my own trash! Gum or a piece of paper or something you threw out. It gave me a whole different look on the world.” And Daniel, a classmate of Brenda’s said, “You can see plants coming through the cement–and that explains a lot. Nature is trying so very hard to be alive.”

Nature is trying hard to be alive. And so are these offspring of the poverty-ridden, pavement-and-graffiti neighborhoods trying hard to be alive. They somehow know that their own survival is to be found in the resurrection and survival of the river.

I could write about this for the rest of my life, have written about it most of my life up to now. There's so much I haven't said here. I haven't for example in this response referred specifically to any particular Buddhist teaching and practice. We could talk about that another time.


Sam Mowe's picture


Thanks for your response, when you rephrased my question as "If all is of one nature, then how is it that this one nature can turn against itself?" you articulated my question better than I had.

I can't say that your response cleared everything up for me, but that's certainly no fault of yours. It's a question without an answer, and one that has the power to paralyze action if you get sucked in too deep. Neither of us want that, so perhaps a more pertinent question is: what kinds of action might you recommend to people who feel that instinctive pull to the earth? To speak on a personal level, I recycle, don't drive cars, try to fly in planes as little as I can (a tough one, living across the country from my family and homeland), I don't eat much meat, etc. etc.-- however, even though I do these things because of my convictions about climate change, I still feel distant from the land I hope to commune with.

What, if any, kinds of action might you recommend for people (especially city-dwellers) who wish for an intimacy with the earth? If a sacred relationship with the earth is vital to what it means to be a human being, then it has to be possible to cultivate that relationship within city limits-- because, for better or worse, that's where more and more people are finding themselves.

Kind wishes,

Lin Jensen's picture


I completely understand the quandary you are facing: if all is of one nature, then how is it that this one nature can turn against itself? In your note to me, you refer to “heart” twice: once as a heart that feels nature to be of one element, including human nature and consequently human behavior as well, and then again as a heart sickened by the violence and destruction of human behavior. Robert Frost who once served as poet laureate of the United States, had something to say about this that he expressed in a brief poem:

From Iron
Tools and Weapons
Nature in her inmost self divides
To trouble men with having to take sides

Frosts “iron” in the poem serves as an expression of the single source, as in your use of “nature,” out of which all being is derived. But from this single source arise tools and weapons, contrary instruments of life and instruments of death. But this doesn’t point to an inherent conflict in “iron” itself or nature itself but rather to a conflict in the use to which humans put nature. We humans make choices and those choices have consequences. If our choices are motivated by generosity, good will, and harmlessness, consequences of that sort will follow. But if our choices are motivated by greed, ill will, and harmfulness, those too will determine the outcome. As Frost points out, human nature has this capacity to divide itself into conflicting relationships with other humans and with the earth itself. We are faced with having to take sides; that is, we have to decide what sort of society and environment we want and if we want a peaceful society and healthy environment, we must act in peaceful and healthy ways.

You wrote that you “believe that everything is nature---from mountains and forests to airplanes and skyscrapers…” That’s certainly true in a sense, but while mountains and forests are “natural” components of reality, airplanes, skyscrapers, missiles, nuclear warheads, clear-cut forests, drained wetlands, developed farmlands, etc. are elements of nature altered by human ambition and intervention. Nature as such, can’t be held accountable for this assault on itself. You ask, “If humans are nature too, is the earth destroying itself?” Taking humans as nature itself, the answer would have to be “Yes.” But neither you nor I are likely to be satisfied by that particular conclusion, because we humans are not just “nature,” but rather a component of nature. The earth is not destroying the earth. We humans cannot be thought of as earth itself even though we are brought forth and sustained by earth each moment of our lives. We’ve somehow acquired free agency to choose much of what we do and consequently of what we become. A tomato seed can only become a tomato plant with certain very distinct and limiting characteristics, but the seed of a human can develop in quite diverse and conflicting ways. We’re divided in that way and therefore held responsible for what we do. We cannot blame nature for our behavior. It is we humans that are destroying earth. The Buddha confronted this division in human nature and it gave rise to his teaching of the four noble truths, in which he identifies greed and craving as the source of suffering and the need for humans to relinquish greed and craving if they ever wished to experience the harmony and beauty of natural life itself.

I thank you for your question. As you can see, it has given me another try at clarifying for myself the simultaneous reality of the self as One and self as many with all the diversity that the many manifest.


Alan Shusterman's picture

Thank you for bringing together these two views, the deep ecological and the Buddhist. Both of these perspectives matter to me and it is helpful to hear from others who have contemplated these views.
I have been turning over the distinction(s?) you made between a tomato seed and the seed of a human. Three characteristics that you tie together are free agency, diversity in behavior, and one's responsibility for the consequences of that behavior. From these you asserted that humans are destroying the earth. (Small quibble: I'm troubled by Sam's apocalyptic phrasing. The last time the earth was seriously threatened was 60-odd million years ago when a comet or meteor took a pot shot at the planet. The planet survived, but a lot of dinosaurs died, and the survivors turned into birds. Although it could happen, it seems unlikely that humans will destroy the earth.)
Returning to problem of human v. nature as the source of our current problems, I feel like your response to Sam expressed the deep ecological point of view more than it did the Buddhist. The latter, as I understand it, would encourage a view in which a human like me, a tomato, even the earth, are empty and impermanent. The things "I" might do emerge out of the contingencies of my past and present, which all have their roots in the universe, and not just in other "humans". A Buddhist must accept responsibility for his or her actions, but I keep struggling with how to embrace non-self while simultaneously accepting free agency and personal responsibility, particularly in matters ecological.
Peace, Alan

Lin Jensen's picture


Let me begin by observing that Buddhism and deep ecology hold the same view of self: namely that no permanent, separate self exists. In the ecological sciences, an ecosystem is one indivisible whole, ultimately encompassing the whole universe. Ecology recognizes that when any element in a ecosystem shifts or is changed in any way, however slight, the whole ecosystem is reconfigured by the change. Thus no part of an ecosystem has an inherent, independent, existence. This means that you and I and the backyard walnut tree are inextricably linked with one another. Thich Nach Hanh coined the verb “inter-being” to express this radical mutual integration. You and I inter-are with all beings, animate and inanimate. But let me turn to the Buddhist side of this view.

If an unqualified belief in no self is essential to Buddhist philosophy, then I’m flunking the prerequisite. Anything that’s alive and present does in some sense exist, and exists not merely as a collective self but as an individual self, the latter distinction allowing for the obvious difference between you and me or between me and the cabbage I’m about to grate. And such a distinction is pretty much what most users of the English language mean by “self.” The Buddhist term “emptiness” is on examination virtually synomonous with “impermanence.” “No-self” means no permanent, separate, independent existence. When I go out walking on these cold mornings, my nose runs. Now I understand, and agree, that a runny nose is resultant of numerous conditioning factors and has no existence in the absence of these factors. A runny nose is dependent on weather, physical exertion, the liquefying or drying of bodily fluid, the pull of gravity to drain downward, and all sorts of cell, organ, and system level coordination. This complex of coordinated conditions is what a runny or dry nose is. So it’s true that a runny nose is not exactly something entirely in and of itself or as Zen would put it a nose of any sort dry or wet is empty of self-existence. But that doesn’t make it non-existent. For the duration of those conditions giving rise to it, a runny nose as real as anything can be. Any nose needs occasional wiping and blowing which ought to be enough to convince anyone of its tangible actuality. Likewise, the psycho/physical organism I call me is admittedly comprised of a set of shifting conditions; yet there’s no logical necessity to conclude from that fact that I’m any less real and existent than I might be were I some sort of fixed and lasting entity. The Buddha didn’t teach that the self is some sort of airy nothingness, but rather that that the self is a momentary aggregate of quite actual conditioning factors. Stephen Batchelor said it best:

"Gotama did for the self what Copernicus did for the earth: he put it in its rightful place…. Gotama no more rejected the existence of the self than Copernicus rejected the existence of the earth. Instead, rather than regarding it as a fixed non-contingent point around which everything else turned, he recognized that each self was a fluid, contingent process just like everything else.”

There’s no question that you and I exist, that we "are." And the fact that we "inter-are," doesn’t make us any less actual. You wrote, “A Buddhist must accept responsibility for his or her actions, but I keep struggling with how to embrace non-self while simultaneously accepting free agency and personal responsibility, particularly in matters ecological.” Since non-self simply means no unconditioned, permanent, separate self, then you and I are quite tangibly existent, and responsible for what we choose to do. Nothing about us is a simple matter of fate or destiny. To “embrace non-self while simultaneously accepting free agency and responsibility…in matters ecological” is to embrace your radical integration in your surroundings and then act responsibly to preserve and protect this larger body of yours in whatever way you can. Your situation is the same as it would be if you’d never heard of the Buddhist conception of no-self.


Sam Mowe's picture

Hi Lin, 

I am hoping that you might have something to say about a question that I think about a lot but never have an answer for. In my heart I believe that everything is nature—from mountains and forests to airplanes and skyscrapers—and yet it makes my heart sick to think about how manifestations of human nature sometimes destroy the wild natural world. If humans are nature too, is the earth destroying itself?


dwolfl's picture

Hello Lin and others who have joined the bookclub,

I have only just started reading your book today, and I want to thank you for integrating and then presenting in written form these two deeply important life experiences, Buddhism, and love of the earth/nature. Since childhood, I have always considered nature to be pretty much me, really, and always believed that nature was in essence everyone else as well. Over the years it has been heartbreaking to witness that many others do not understand or honor that connection, yet as a Buddhist I came to understand that by living the belief of our connection with the earth (walking my talk, so to speak), I could have an impact on that ignorance. Your work does this as well, in a very big way, and I want to thank you for that. It is spiritually uplifting just reading someone else's words who shares that belief. I believe I am energized for the week!

I am new to the bookclub, and hope to find the discussion thread so I can share what others are saying as well.

Blessings, Diana

Lin Jensen's picture

It's good to hear your voice as well. It helps to know that I have company in this world and that someone else shares the feelings I have regarding the earth. I've for some time been deeply interested in the close connection between Buddhist principles and way of life and the tenets of deep ecology. In all honesty, I wanted to write about the earth - about farms and kitchens and wild places. My discovery of the principles of deep ecology as set down by Arne Naess and George Sessions gave me a rationale for writing such a book from the viewpoint of a Zen Buddhist, or more accurately from the viewpoint of a human being who still feels the comforting support of dirt under his feet. I was born in 1932, and have lived to witness the most violent degradation of the natural earth. I need others like you to give heart and hope to the earth's salvation.