Nondual Ecology

John McClellan

Saving Sentient Being

The saving of sentient beings is perhaps the most confusing issue in contemplative work. All are in agreement, this must be done, but who are the sentient beings, how are they to be saved, and on what scale? What about those who are out of reach, or worse yet, who dwell in past and future times?

I've sometimes thought the greatest single clarification that could be brought to this subject might be to drop the s from "beings." The project suddenly becomes the vaster and simpler one of saving Sentient Being. Immediately we stop worrying how to handle the crowd of particular individual beings, more or less accessible to today's saving methods—each of whom has passed a qualifying exam for sentience (no rocks, dust clouds, or empty space, no computers, shovels, old car tires, etc.), has demonstrated clear and present need of saving, is in fact a separate, individual ego entity, has not been previously saved by others (it's getting hard to find unsaved beings anymore), and so on.

Simply drop the bothersome s, and Sentient Being itself looms up. vast, inconceivable, glowing and humming, in all ages and all spaces—indestructible, beyond confusing particulars. This vast Presence of aliveness, of sentient Is-ness, filling the time-space cosmos from beginning to end, dwarfs all bodhisattvas, all saints, revolutionaries, and liberal reformists—it silences the poets, and overflows even the hearts of mothers. It is inexhaustible, self-sufficient, needing nothing, wanting nothing. Suffering is as natural and organic a process to it as breathing. The tides of life and death are its diastolic rhythm.

Who would dare try to "save" this vast Presence? Save it from what? Who would wish to "alleviate" the suffering/breathing, living/dying of Sentient Being? Any who approach this Being with a "saving mind" would have to have the greatest humility, the greatest respect, the greatest hesitation, and the greatest boldness. The lack of an s might even cause some investigators to question the need for the qualifier "sentient" . . . Are there any boundaries to sentience? Can the universe be divided up into sentient and non-sentient regions or beings? Is the whole universe not completely sentient, one being? Try saving That by ordinary methods.

As for the innumerable creatures on our planet who are undoubtedly suffering and in need of assistance, including very much and most especially our own "personal" selves, our ability to see and share the true nature of these beings is more the issue than our good health and large numbers. This saving may have more to do with being with them than with preventing their extinction or raising their minimum income level or wiping a bit of pollution off their brow. Sentient beings can for the most part take care of themselves, just as we like to think we can. Considering them in this way is a mark of respect; it honors them. Compassion is a curious word: "with-passion." Passion is pathio (Latin), from pathos (Greek), and actually means "suffering." So suffering-with. First comes "knowing," then at the same time comes "suffering-with." This complementary dual emphasis is the winsome way of the Buddhas with sentient beings. Maybe it should be the way of deep ecologists with ecosystems, too.

This deep frame of reference may seem chilling to some, but it is not. On the contrary, it warms the heart and lightens the step, and it should help to save the earth and advance the agenda of conservation biology, too, along with any other worthy projects. The buddhas and patriarchs may play rough, but this roughness is good for us. There's no reason in the world that environmentalists shouldn't be able to hold a deep view and still be energetic and effective, good people to have around when things are tough. We aren't babies. We can look at Reality along with the rest of sentient beings. Biology may not be the only thing evolution has planned for this planet. Doesn't seem to be, does it? We do not need to tell ourselves children's stories about how unique and precious we are, to make ourselves go out and help the world. In fact, we are precious and worthless at the same time. We are neither precious nor worthless. It's not like that.

This is non-dual ecology.

Dynamic Evolution, not Fixed Ecosystems

Deep Ecology is good, but not always useful in everyday life. We need a working ecology, something tough and flexible, something that can be used to save the world. This practical ecology might come in two parts: view and practice.

The View. Reality is as perfect today as it has ever been. The world in this moment, along with one's mind in this same moment, is the Great Perfection spoken of in the teachings. It must be enjoyed just as it is—pollution, warfare, famine, poverty, confusion, materialistic greed, and all—no matter how unlikely, unhappy, or sorry a specimen of world or mind it may seem to be. Ecosystems, like minds, are always in perfect balance, even when they're neurotic, ill, confused, or going extinct, miserably and unnecessarily.

The Practice. A dynamic ecology has got to work in a world that is changing from one moment to the next. Ecology cannot be based on an attempt to preserve ecosystems at some particular stage of their evolution, no matter how beautiful that stage may have been. This is like trying to prevent children from growing up, or old people from dying. It is a form of materialism to be overly attached to a special set of God's works, and it is doomed to failure in any case.

We will never achieve our dream of attractive, healthy ecosystems—they will always be collapsing around our ears. This is what ecosystems do! They have a natural lifespan, which in addition to being short is frequently terminated "unnecessarily" early by accident or misfortune. Just like our own lives. Wanting to freeze ecosystems at a certain stage of their existence is like our other foolish dream of always being young, attractive, and healthy.

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michaelgarfield's picture

Huge thanks to John McClellan for voicing this perspective! As a former paleontologist and someone currently deep in the conversation about technological evolution, I cannot adequately express my appreciation for having such an eloquent voice to cite when I want to evoke this middle way meta-perspective. Here are a couple of related pieces I have published in the last few months about this very issue, from slightly different angles:

Anyone interested in more of this stuff, please contact me. I will never tire of this discussion.