Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ordinary Enlightenment: A Translation of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra

Book Review: Ordinary Enlightenment: A Translation of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra – translated and edited by Charles Luk (Lu K’uan Yu) (1972 – Shambhala 2002)

This is a translation from one of the Chinese versions of this Mahayana Buddhist sutra thought to have been composed in the first or second century CE. There are three main Chinese translations and a Tibetan translation from the original Sanskrit version, which is lost. There are also fragments and references to it from other sutras. The Tibetan translation is thought to be the most faithful to the Sanskrit version. The translation here is from what is thought to be the best of the three Chinese versions, that from the Seng Chao, Chinese student of the Indian translator Kumarjiva. The present translation also makes use of a 1630 commentary by the Ch’an master Po Shan. This is one of my favorite of the Mahayana sutras. It is popular in the Tibetan and Zen traditions. The meaning of the name of the sutra is “The Sutra Spoken by Vimalakirti.” Another name given to it is “A Dharma Door to Inconceivable Liberation.” The translator and editor, Charles Luk (Lu Ku'an Yu) did a great job with notes and clarifications. 

The first chapter, called here, “The Buddha Land,” in the traditional Mahayana fanfare first describes the qualities of the hundreds of thousands of those in attendance in assembly with the Buddha: especially the accomplished bodhisattvas, then the brahma-devas, devas, dragons, spirits, yaksas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kinnaras, mahoragas, and people. Buddha displayed his transcendental magical powers by transforming five-hundred canopies that were brought into one large canopy. The sage Ratna-rasi asks the Buddha how to attain the Buddha land. Buddha answers: “Ratna-rasi, all species of living beings are the Buddha land sought by all Bodhisattvas.” He says Bodhisattvas win the pure land by taming beings knowing that he or she needs the Buddha land in order to better tame beings. He says that the six perfections (generosity, patience, discipline, perseverance, meditation, and wisdom) are the Bodhisattvas’ pure land as are the four immeasurables, or boundless minds (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity), the four persuasive actions (giving what others like, affectionate speech, conduct beneficial to others, cooperation with and adaptation to other’s benefit), the expedient methods, or skillful means (upaya), the thirty-seven contributory states to enlightenment, dedication of merits, showing the end of the eight sad conditions (including hell-beings, hungry ghosts, animals, and other states where the dharma is not encountered or encouraged), keeping of precepts (including refraining from criticism), and practicing the ten virtuous deeds. So by practicing the Dharma as given the Buddha land is found. The Pure Land is equivalent to the purified mind of the practitioner. Buddha explains, with help from Brahma, to Sariputra, that our world with its defilements results from our inability to discern its magnificence due to our defiled mind. He manifests a Pure Land by pressing his right toes to the ground to show such magnificence which gives all those present unshaking confidence in their ability to go toward enlightenment. In this text Shakyamuni Buddha and other Buddhas and celestial beings perform magical acts to show others and inspire their enlightenment. 

Chapter two is about expedient methods, also known as ‘skillful means,’ or upaya. Here we first encounter the human sage Vimalakirti. He was a layman, a householder, not a monk. His enlightened qualities are first expounded, his qualifications greater than even the eldest of the great bodhisattvas. He could travel and teach in all the deva and Buddha realms. Here and now he manifested sickness of body and sought to expound the dharma:

“Virtuous ones, the human body is impermanent; it is neither strong nor durable; it will decay and is, therefore, unreliable.”

He goes on to describe the fleeting impermanence and unreliability of our human body that we tend to cherish. He describes he ultimate Buddha body, the Dharmakaya, as the product of the two accumulations of merit and wisdom. This body is the result of practice and understanding. Thus, in order to develop such an undefilable body one should quest for enlightenment through dharma practice.

Vimalakirti wondered why Buddha had not called upon him in his sickness. The next three chapters have Buddha asking his senior students and then the great Bodhisattvas in turn to call upon Vimalakirti on his behalf and inquire about his health. Each declines, saying they are not qualified and gives previous interactions with the profound teachings of Vimalakirti as examples as to why they are unqualified. These make up some of the teachings in this sutra. Finally it is the oldest Bodhisattva Manjusri that calls upon him. Sariputra’s story is when Vimalakirti encounters Sariputra meditating sitting under a tree and tells him, 

“Sariputra, meditation is not necessarily sitting. For meditation means the non-appearance of body and mind in the three worlds (of desire, form, and no form); giving no thought to inactivity when in nirvana while appearing (in the world) with respect-inspiring deportment [this means being active teaching instead of being passive in nirvana]; not straying from the Truth while attending to worldly affairs; the mind abiding neither within nor without; being imperturbable to wrong views during the practice of the thirty-seven contributory stages leading to enlightenment: and not wiping out (klesa) while entering the state of nirvana. If you can thus sit in meditation, you will win the Buddha’s seal.”

Maudgalaputra has a similar story. When he was expounding the dharma in Vaisali he encountered Vimalakirti who gave him a long exposition in how to expound the dharma and what attitude to take in expounding it. The part on attitude and how to expound it is below:

“Maudgalaputra, such being the characteristics of the Dharma, how can it be expounded? For expounding it is beyond speech and indication, and listening to it is above hearing and grasping. This is like a conjuror expounding the Dharma to illusory men, and you should always bear all this in mind when expounding the Dharma. You should be clear about the sharp or dull roots of your audience and have a good knowledge of this to avoid all sorts of hindrance. Before expounding the Dharma you should use your great compassion (for all living beings) to extoll Mahayana to them, and think of repaying your (own) debt of gratitude to the Buddha by striving to preserve the three treasures (of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) for ever.”

Mahakasyapa has another story. When begging he encountered Vimalakirti who taught him the proper way of begging, eating, and regarding food and gift:

“Hey, Mahakasyapa, you are failing to make your kind and compassionate mind all-embracing by begging from the poor while staying away from the rich.”

He further teaches Mahakasyapa to be impartial, to avoid ulterior motives, to be indifferent to forms and to the pleasantness of eating, to offer his received food to all living beings, and to prefer the all-encompassing Mahayana path to the path of the Sravakas, the “hearers” who follow the smaller vehicle (the Hinayana). 

Subhuti has another story. When begging for food he came to Vimalakirti’s house. Vimalakirti filled his bowl with rice and gave him a teaching about the importance of keeping a clear, impartial, and unprejudiced mind. Subhuti, out of fear, starts to leave without his bowl of rice and Vimalakirti reminds him:

“Hey Subhuti, take the bowl of rice without fear. Are you frightened when the Tathagata makes an illusory man ask you questions? I replied, ‘No.’ He then continued, ‘All things are illusory and you should not fear anything. Why? Because words and speech are illusory. So all wise men do not cling to words and speech and this is why they fear nothing. Why? Because words and speech have no independent nature of their own, and when they are no more, you are liberated. This liberation will free you from all bondage.”

Purnamaitrayaniputra has another story. When teaching the Dharma he encountered Vimalakirti who advised him that he should enter a state of Samadhi before expounding the Dharma to examine the minds of his listeners. At that point Vimalakirti entered a profound state of Samadhi and ripened the listeners by getting them to recall their virtuous seeds planted in past lives, so that they could receive the incomparable Mahayana teachings.

Mahakatyayana has another story. When instructing a group of monks on the topics of impermanence, suffering, voidness, egolessness, and nirvana, he encountered Vimalakirti who said:

“Hey, Mahakatyayana, do not use your mortal mind to preach immortal reality. Mahakatyayana, all things are fundamentally above creation and destruction; this is what impermanence means. The five aggregates are perceived as void and not arising; this is what suffering means. All things are basically non-existent; this is what voidness means. Ego and its absence are not a duality; this is what egolessness means. All things basically are not what they seem to be, they cannot be subject to extinction now; this is what nirvana means.”

Aniruddha has another story. Once when meditating while walking to avoid falling asleep he was visited by a Brahma called the “Gloriously Pure” along with ten thousand devas. He inquired about Aniruddha’s ‘deva eye,’ and how far he could see. Suddenly, Vimalakirti appeared and said:

“Hey Aniruddha, when your deva eye sees, does it see form or formlessness? If it sees form, you are no better than those heretics who have won five supernatural powers. If you see formlessness, your deva eye is non-active (wu wei) and should be unseeing.”

Upali has another story. He was approached by monks who had broken their vows and sought the means and instructions to repair them. Vimalakirti appeared and spoke about the illusory nature of ‘sin’ and reality.

“Upali, all phenomena rise and fall without staying (for an instant) like an illusion and like lightning. All phenomena do not wait for one another and do not stay for the time of a thought. They all derive from false views and are like a dream and a flame, the moon in water, and an image in a mirror, for they are born from wrong thinking. He who understands this is called a keeper of the rules of discipline and he who knows it is called a skillful interpreter (of the precepts).”

Rahula, the Buddha’s son, has another story. When Rahula was once speaking about the accumulation of merits from becoming a homeless monk to the sons of the elders of Vaisali, Vimalakirti appeared and said:

“Hey, Rahula, you should not speak of the advantage of earning merits that derive from leaving home. Why? Because home-leaving bestows neither advantage nor good merits. Only when speaking of the worldly (way of life) can you talk about advantage and merits.”

He goes on to say that home-leaving as renunciation is a practice beyond the worldly – that the worldly is thus renounced, and that ‘true home-leaving’ involves authentic renunciation which is freedom from the bondage of the worldly. He recommends to the sons of the elders that they should become homeless monks since it is the age of the Buddha and the Buddha is alive in the world. True home-leaving requires a mind set on a quest for supreme enlightenment – the annuttara-samyak-sambodhi mind.
Ananda has another story. Buddha once sent him to acquire some cow’s milk to cure an ‘indisposition.’ Vimalakirti encounters him and tells him to stop slandering the Buddha – that Buddha cannot be truly disrupted by worldly discomforts and illness. The body of the World-Honored one is beyond the three realms of desire, form, and formlessness. 

Thus, each of the five-hundred main disciples related their encounters with Vimalakirti to show that they were not qualified to call upon him and inquire after his health.

Next, Buddha asks the same of the Bodhisattvas. First is Maitreya and he has another story. He encountered Vimalakirti while teaching Bodhi-mind to the deva king and his retinue in Tusita heaven. Vimalakirti confounded him about his prediction to become enlightened and to be a future Buddha. Vimalakirti taught mysteries of past, future, and present, of birth, aging, and death. He urged him not to mislead the devas but instead lead them to keep from developing discriminating views about the Bodhi-mind.

“Bodhi is unseeing, for it keeps from all causes. Bodhi is non-discrimination, for it stops memorizing and thinking. Bodhi cuts off ideation, for it is free from all views. Bodhi forsakes inversion, for it prevents perverse thoughts. Bodhi puts an end to desire, for it keeps from longing. Bodhi is unresponsive, for it wipes out all clinging. Bodhi complies (with self-nature), for it is in line with the state of suchness. Bodhi dwells (in this suchness), for it abides in (changeless) Dharma-nature (or Dharmata, the underlying nature of all things) …..”

Next is the Bodhisattva Glorious Light who has another story. Once when leaving Vaisali he encountered Vimalakirti entering the town. He asked Vimalakirti:

“Where does the Venerable Upasaka come from?’ He replied: ‘From a bodhimandala.’ I asked him: ‘Where is this bodhimandala?’ He replied: ‘The straightforward mind is the bodhimandala, for it is free from falsehood. The initiated mind is the bodhimandala, for it can keep discipline. The profound mind is the bodhimandala, for it accumulates merits. The enlightened mind is the bodhimandala for it is infallible.”

He continued on to state that the six perfections, the four immeasurables, skillful means and other qualities and aspects along the path to enlightenment are also the bodhimandala, as are living beings and klesas, since all may be taken onto the path. 

Buddha then asks the Bodhisattva Ruler of the World to call upon Vimalakirti but he declines, giving another story. Once when staying in a vihara this Bodhisattva encountered what he thought was a deva, like Indra, with a retinue of twelve thousand goddesses singing and playing music. It was really a demon. The Bodhisattva mistakenly thought that this was the deva, Sakra, and his retinue. He tells the deva to guard against desire and the five worldly pleasures derived from the five senses. The demon then offers him all the goddesses and the Bodhisattva states that as a monk such an offering does not suit him. Vimalakirti then intervenes and says that he will accept the offering of the goddesses and the demon relents. He then expounds the Dharma to the goddesses and gains their confidence. After this he gives them back to the demon king at his request (as a bodhisattva should do) but also teaches them a Dharma called Inexhaustible Lamp to keep them focused on the quest for enlightenment.

Next is the Bodhisattva Excellent Virtue. He once held a meeting to make offerings to gods, monks, brahmins, and beggars. After it was over Vimalakirti appeared and taught him how to truly make offerings:

“The bestowal of Dharma is (beyond the element of time, having) neither start nor finish, and each offering should benefit all living beings at the same time.”

“This means that Bodhi springs from kindness (maitri) toward living beings; the salvation of living beings from compassion (karuna); the upholding of right Dharma from joy (mudita); wisdom from indifference (upeksa)” {these are the four immeasurables} 

He continues giving further exposition of the proper ‘bestowal of Dharma.’ After this the bodhisattva offered Vimalakirti his necklace of precious jewels which he split into two, offering half to the poorest beggar and half to Buddha who transformed it into a magnificent tower. Vimalakirti then noted that he who gives alms to the poorest beggar should know that this is equivalent to the blessings of Buddha’s field of merit. Thus finally did each Bodhisattva reveal a story as to why they were unqualified to call upon Vimalakirti to inquire about his health.

Buddha then calls upon the eldest Boddhisattva Manjusri who also expresses doubt and expounds the enlightened qualities of Vimalakirti. Manjusri accepts the Buddha’s command and is joined by many bodhisattvas who wish to see the meeting of the two Bodhisattva Mahasattvas. Vimalakirti manifests only himself lying in his sick bed. Manjusri arrives and enquires about his illness as requested by the Buddha.

“Stupidity leads to love which is the source of my illness. Because all living beings are subject to illness I am ill as well.…. A Bodhisattva, because of (his vow to save) living beings, enters the realm of birth and death which is subject to illness; if they are all cured the Bodhisattva will no longer be ill.”

He answers Manjusri’s question regarding where from a bodhisattva’s illness comes – it comes from compassion, he says. Manjusri also asks why his house is empty and he has no attendants. He replies:
“All Buddha lands are also void.” Manjusri asks questions, the first being what the Buddha land is void of. He replies: “It is void of voidness.” “Voidness is void in the absence of discrimination.” “All discrimination is also void.” “It should be sought in the sixty-two false views.” And those, he says, should be sought in the liberation of all Buddhas. 

Manjusri further enquires about his illness and how we should view illness. He asks, “What should a Bodhisattva say when comforting another Bodhisattva who falls ill?”

Vimalakirti replies: “He should speak of the impermanence of the body but never of the abhorrence and relinquishment of the body. He should speak of the suffering body but never of the joy in nirvana. He should speak of egolessness in the body while teaching and guiding all living beings. He should speak of the voidness of the body but should never cling to the ultimate nirvana…. Because of his own illness he should take pity on all those who are sick…. He should act like a king physician to cure others’ illnesses.”

He also tells Manjusri that a Bodhisattva should think that his illness comes from clinging to an ego and such clinging should be wiped out. Subject and object dualities should be avoided since both ego and nirvana are void. When such equality is attained there is still the very concept of voidness which must be let go as well. 

“A sick Bodhisattva should free himself from the conception of sensation (vedana) when experiencing any one of its three states (which are painful, pleasurable, and neither, or neutral).”
He should not free himself from the conception of sensation merely to win nirvana for himself but should always consider living beings through compassion. After freeing himself from false views he should work on freeing others from false views. Vimalakirti says that the true Bodhisattva must also wipe out conceptions of sickness, old age, and death. Regarding pitfalls of Bodhisattvas he notes:
“Clinging to serenity (dhyana) is a Bodhisattva’s bondage, but his expedient rebirth (for the salvation of others) is freedom from bondage.”

The Bodhisattva that has wisdom without expedient methods (skillful means, upaya) is also in bondage but one who has wisdom with such methods is liberated. Conversely expedient methods may be with or without wisdom. When with wisdom, there is liberation. When without wisdom (without restraint from klesas) there is bondage. Interestingly, he also says that a Bodhisattva should dwell neither in a state of uncontrolled mind, which is simply stupidity, nor in a state of (overly) controlled mind, which is the stage of a shravaka, or hearer. The Bodhisattva remains in the worldly state of being without entering into full enlightenment in order to keep close access to sentient beings for their benefit. Thus, the conduct of a Bodhisattva is one of precision balance, of being immersed in world but not carried away by it.

The next chapter begins Vimalakirti’s displays of magical power. He magically invites Buddha Merukalpa to magically manifest gigantic lion thrones for the greatest Bodhisattvas to sit on as they are able to change their body sizes to match them. The others he has pay reverence to the Buddha Merukalpa and after this they are able to reach the lion thrones. Sariputra is marveled by the size magic and Vimalakirti notes that liberation is inconceivable and that an awakened Buddha or Bodhisattva can put Mount Sumeru inside of a mustard seed without anyone realizing it or change the perception of time experienced by beings in varying ways depending on the needs of each being. He goes on to describe the transcendental powers attained with inconceivable liberation. The Buddha’s disciple Mahakasyapa was especially impressed by this teaching about inconceivable liberation, stating that it had not been expounded before. Vimalakirti also notes that Bodhisattvas can and do often appear in many different forms, including as demon kings, as beggars, as animals, or in any form. They do this to influence other beings toward enlightenment.

Manjusri asks Vimalakirti how a Bodhisattva should view living beings. He basically answers that they should be seen as illusory yet still needing help. He then asks how a bodhisattva should practice kindness.

“He should practice causeless (nirvanic) kindness which prevents creativeness; unheated kindness which puts an end to klesa (troubles and causes of trouble); impartial kindness which covers all the three times; passionless kindness which wipes out disputation; non-dual kindness which is beyond sense organs within and sense data without; indestructible kindness which eradicates all corruptibility; stable kindness which is a characteristic of the undying self-mind; pure and clean kindness which is spotless like Dharmata {the underlying nature of all things}; boundless kindness which is all-pervasive like space; the kindness of the arhat stage which destroys all bondage; the Bodhisattva kindness which gives comfort to living beings; the Tathagata kindness which leads to the state of thatness; the Buddha kindness which enlightens all living beings; spontaneous kindness which is causeless; bodhi kindness which is of one flavor; unsurpassed kindness which cuts off all desires; merciful kindness which leads to the Mahayana …”

He goes on to describe more types of kindness, associated with the six perfections and other qualities.
Manjusri questions him intently.

Regarding compassion he notes that: “His compassion should include sharing with all living beings all the merits he has won.”

Regarding joy: “He should be filled with joy on seeing others win the benefit of the Dharma with no regret whatsoever.”

Regarding fear of birth and death: “He should rely on the power of the Tathagata’s moral merits.” By liberating living beings he can gain the support of the Tathagata’s moral merits. 

By upholding correct mindfulness he can wipe out the klesas of himself and all living beings. He also says that the body is the root of good and evil, craving is the root of the body, baseless discrimination is the root of craving, inverted thinking is the root of baseless discrimination, non-abiding is the root of inverted thinking, and non-abiding is rootless – all things arise from non-abiding.

At this point a goddess who had been listening appears in bodily form and showers down flowers to honor the Bodhisattvas and disciples of Buddha. The flowers that encounter Bodhisattvas fall to the floor but the flowers that encounter the disciples stick to them and they can’t shake them off. She asks Sariputra why he wants to shake them off. He says because they are not in the state of suchness. She explains that flowers don’t differentiate, only (human) minds do, and among beings only the Bodhisattvas have put an end to differentiation – thus the flowers do not stick to them. He then asks her how long she has been in the room. She replies that the time of her stay is as long as his liberation. She then reveals she has been (presumably in the company of Vimalakirti hearing his teachings) for twelve years. Sariputra praises her elegance and asks which vehicle she practices. She says she appears as a sravaka (hearer), pratyeka-Buddha (solitary realizer), or as a teacher of the Mahayana, depending on the aptitudes of beings present. She then reveals that Vimalakirti’s room manifests great magical qualities and is visited regularly by Indra, Brahma, deva kings, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas. Sariputra then asks her why she doesn’t change her female form (this is due to beliefs at the time about the difficulty of attaining enlightenment in a female form). She then magically changes Sariputra’s form into that of a woman and her own form into that of a man and asks him the same question – why do you not change your female form? She relates the words of the Buddha: “All things are neither male nor female.” The feisty goddess continues to elegantly teach Sariputra. Vimalakirti praises her powers and says she is a Bodhisattva on the ‘never-receding’ stage. 
Manjusri then asks how a Bodhisattva enters the Buddha path. By avoiding discrimination and attachment as an inhabitant of each of the six realms, he replies. He also has to endure often appearing not what he is – appearing ignorant, greedy, full of desire, etc. The body and the klesas are the seeds of Buddhahood, he also notes. Manjusri further explains that those mired in klesas can attain Buddhahood while those mired in nirvana cannot advance, due presumably to separating themselves from other sentient beings. Mahakasyapa also notes that the worldly human can still set his mind on Buddha Dharma but the sravaka often cuts this off and prefers the state beyond transmigration and life and death and thus is also cut off from the Buddha path. 

The Bodhisattva Universal Manifestation then asks Vimalakirti who are his parents, friends, family, and aids. He replies in a long song-like verse which resembles a song of Milarepa as his family is the doctrine, the Dharma, and constant mindfulness of it. 

“Wisdom-perfection is a Bodhisattva’s Mother, his father is expedient method, for the teachers of all living beings come only from these two (upaya and prajna)”

Vimalakirti then asks each bodhisattva to explain how they understand the non-dual Dharma. First the Bodhisattva Comfort in Dharma says that “…birth and death are a duality but nothing is created and nothing is destroyed.” The Bodhisattva Guardian of the Three Virtues noted that, “Subject and object are a duality  for where there is ego there is also (its) object, but since fundamentally there is no ego, its object does not arise.” The Bodhisattva Never Winking said “Responsiveness and unresponsiveness are a duality. If there is no response to phenomena, the latter cannot be found anywhere; hence there is neither accepting nor rejecting (of anything) and neither karmic activity nor discrimination.” Other bodhisattvas point to other understandings of non-dual Dharma: cessation of the idea of purity, absence of thought, the unity of form and formlessness, the undifferentiation of sravaka-mind and bodhisattva-mind, of good and evil, of weal and woe, of the mundane and supramundane, of samsara and nirvana, of ego and non-ego, of enlightenment and unenlightenment, of form and voidness and the other four aggregates similarly, of consciousness and voidness, of the four elements and voidness. The Bodhisattva Deep Thought noted that if dualities are contemplated without klesas there is the state of nirvana and this state is equivalent to initiation into the non-dual Dharma. Bodhisattva Inexhaustible Mind noted that each of the perfections along with dedication of their merits to the all-knowledge (sarvajna) and realization of this oneness is initiation into the non-dual Dharma. The Bodhisattva Profound Wisdom noted that the gates to liberation – voidness, formlessness, and non-activity, are nondual when each is compared to the other two. Thus liberation through any one these gates is identical with liberation through all three of them. It is the same with the three gems, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, noted the Bodhisattva Unstirred Sense Organs. Bodhisattva Unimpeded Mind noted that body and its eradication in nirvana are duality but body is identical with nirvana since both are non-dual and that, “The absence of alarm and dread when confronting this ultimate state is initiation into the non-dual Dharma.” Bodhisattva Superior Virtue noted that the non-activity of the three karmas of body, speech, and mind is not separate from the non-activity of wisdom (prajna) and thus that realization is initiation into non-dual Dharma. Good, evil, and motionlessness are also unified with their qualities of voidness, noted Bodhisattva Field of Blessedness. Bodhisattva Majestic Blossom noted that if the duality of ego and object is cast aside there will be no consciousness and freedom from consciousness is initiation into non-dual Dharma. Bodhisattva Treasure of Threefold Potency said, “Realization implies subject and object which are a duality, but if nothing is regarded as realization, there will be neither grasping nor rejection, and freedom from grasping and rejection is initiation into non-dual Dharma.” Bodhisattva Moon in Midheaven noted that dark and light are a duality but in Samadhi there is extinction of sensation and thought so that such dualities disappear. It is the same with joy and sadness, the extremes of orthodoxy and heterodoxy – keeping from them, and reality and unreality (true reality is not typically seen without the wisdom eye). They then asked for Manjusri’s opinion. He said, “In my opinion, when all things are no longer within the province of either word or speech, and of either indication or knowledge, and are beyond questions and answers, this is initiation into the non-dual Dharma.” Vimalakirti remained silent and Manjusri declared that this was “Excellent.” 

Next comes another neat part. Sariputra had a thought that he was hungry and Vimalakirti saw this and reprimanded him a little asking him if he wanted to mix his desire to eat with the Buddha Dharma. Vimalakirti then entered Samadhi and magically showed those in attendance a land from a universe far away called the country of All Fragrances whose Buddha was still there and called Tathagata of the Fragrant Land. In this land everything was made of fragrances and everything experienced through fragrances. The only doctrine known there was the Mahayana, they did not know of any ‘smaller vehicle.’ Vimalakirti then asked which bodhisattva could go there and beg food. None spoke up, not even Manjusri. Vimalakirti then magically manifested a bodhisattva and sent him there to beg food. The Buddha there accepted the request and told his bodhisattvas about the saha world (Earth) were dwelled Buddha Shakyamuni. They were awed by the power of Bodhisattva Upasaka Vimalakirti and that Buddha confirmed his powers. A bowl was filled with fragrant rice. The bodhisattvas there expressed a wish to hear the teachings of Vimalakirti. Their Buddha said they could go, but to hide their fragrance so the people there do not give rise to thoughts of clinging to it. He also advised them to change their appearance so the people would not feel lesser. There were nine million new bodhisattvas arriving so Vimalakirti manifested nine million lion thrones for them. The fragrance of the rice spread throughout the town and the universe. Local brahmins as well as many more devas came to the assembly after encountering the fragrance of the rice. Vimalakirti then announced that the rice was infused with great compassion but one must not give rise to the thought of limitation or else the rice could not be digested. Sravakas expressed doubts about the ability of one bowl of rice to feed all but the created bodhisattva proclaimed that the rice was inexhaustible like the Mahayana Dharma. Vimalakirti then asks the visiting bodhisattvas how their Buddha teaches. They explain that he teaches not by words and sounds but by scents which entice them to Samadhi. They ask Vimalakirti the same question and he says that beings here are ‘pig-headed’ so Buddha Shakyamuni has to use words, sometimes strong words, and speak of things like hells, hungry ghosts, and animal realms with their attendant sufferings. The visiting bodhisattvas praise the insurpassable bodhisattvas of the saha world as humble and indefatigable. Vimalakirti explains that this is because they have achieved ten excellent deeds not so required in pure lands: charity, discipline, patience, perseverance, serenity, wisdom, putting an end to the eight distressful conditions, teaching Mahayana to those who cling to Hinayana, cultivation of good roots for those in want of merits, and the four bodhisattva winning devices (intense concentration, intense effort, intense holding on to position, and intense meditation on the root principle). Finally he tells the asking visiting bodhisattvas what dharmas are required for the bodhisattvas here to find rebirth in a pure land.

As the Buddha was expounding the Dharma at Amravana park, the park suddenly became majestic and everything radiated with a golden hugh. Ananda inquired of these auspicious signs and Buddha replied that it was Vimalakirti and Manjusri and their assembly wanting to come and join the Buddha here. Thus Vimalakirti magically wrapped the entire assembly to fit in the palm of his hand and flew to the Amravana park. All venerated the Buddha and joined the assembly there. Ananda inquired about the fragrance from the rice now coming from the pores of those who ate it. Ananda asks Vimalakirti how long the fragrance will last. He says until the rice is digested which takes about a week and each being who digests it will attain along the Buddha path that which he had yet to attain. Ananda notes that it is a rare thing that fragrant rice can be salvific. Indeed replied the Buddha who also explains that other things can do so as well: parks and lands, the Buddha’s robe or bedding, bo trees, illusory bodhisattvas, the Buddha’s body and marks, temples, and even empty space – and also dream, shadow, echo, flame, sound, speech, writing, reflections, and silence. He also explains to Ananda that whether a Buddha appears in a pure or impure land, each Buddha has similar omniscience. He then says to Ananda that to explain the meanings of the three titles of Samyaksambuddha, Tathagata, and Buddha would take more than an entire aeon, and Ananda replies, “From now on I dare no more claim to have heard much of the Dharma.”

The visiting bodhisattvas addressed the Buddha:

“World Honoured One, when we first saw this world we thought of its inferiority but now we repent of our wrong opinion. Why? Because the expedients (upaya) employed by all Buddhas are inconceivable; their aim being to deliver living beings they appear in different Buddha lands suitable for the purpose. World Honoured One, will you please bestow upon us some little Dharma so that when we return to our own land we can always remember you.”

The Buddha replied,

“There are exhaustible and inexhaustible Dharmas which you should study. What is the exhaustible? It is the active (mundane ) Dharma. What is the inexhaustible? It is the non-active (supramundane) Dharma. As Bodhisattvas, you should not exhaust (or put an end to) the mundane (state); nor should you stay in the supramundane (state).” 

He expounds in detail on what entails these Dharmas. Not exhausting the mundane state involves developing and continuously applying compassion, benevolence, effort, gathering knowledge, and ripening beings without fatigue. Thus does he realize wisdom. Not abiding long in the supramundane state involves exploring these states including nirvana without becoming attached to them nor abandoning compassion for it is compassion that keeps him from staying in the supramundane state. Thus does he gain merits. After this the visiting bodhisattvas rained flowers, bowed to the Buddha, and returned to their land. 

Buddha asks Vimalakirti how he sees the Buddha impartially. Vimalakirti replies, “Seeing reality in one’s body is how to see the Buddha.” He expounds much further about this. Then Sariputra asks Vimalakirti where he died to be reborn here. He chides him for asking since “death is unreal and deceptive, and means decay and destruction (to the worldly man), while life which is also unreal and deceptive means continuance to him. As to the Bodhisattva, although he disappears (in one place) he does not put an end to his good deeds, and although h reappears (in another) he prevents evils from arising.” Then Buddha tells Sariputra that Vimalakirti came here from the realm of Profound Joy, the pure land where the Buddha there is Akshobya. Buddha then read the thoughts of those in attendance – they wished to see this pure land – so he asks Vimalakirti to magically manifest it so they can see it. He then entered Samadhi and used his supramundane powers to take the realm of Profound Joy in his right hand. The Bodhisattvas, sravakas, and some devas present who realized supramundane powers asked the Buddha, “World Honoured One, who is taking us away? Will you please protect us?” He simply noted that it was Vimalakirti who was working the magic – but those without realized supramundane powers did not notice anything. Then the realm of Profound Joy was shown to the assembly and many developed the wish to be reborn there and Buddha predicted their rebirth there. Sariputra then praises Buddha and Vimalakirti and his powers and predicts great benefits from the hearing of this sutra, both before and after the Buddha’s (para)-nirvana. 

The deva lord Sakra was also in attendance and praises this sutra. He says he has heard hundreds of thousands of sutras but this is the first time he has heard this one. He also says he and his deva followers will protect and aid anyone who venerates, reads, studies, and practices this sutra. The Buddha praises this and does the standard Mahayana super-veneration of the powers of hearing and practicing such a sutra, its merits being immeasurable.

Buddha then tells a story of a Buddha called Bhaisajya-raja (Medicine Buddha) from an aeon long ago. There was a heavenly ruler, a cakravartin king called Precious Canopy and he had a thousand sons. For five aeons Precious Canopy and his retinue made offerings to the Buddha Bhaisajya-raja and he taught his sons to do so as well. One son called Lunar Canopy wondered what offering was best of all. At this thought a voice was heard that said the offering of Dharma was such and to go and ask the Buddha. He does and that Buddha explains it to him. He notes that the upholding of Dharma through practice is also the offering of Dharma as is the proper expounding of Dharma. Lunar Canopy then took off his robe and offered it to the Buddha, vowed to uphold the Dharma and eventually practice Bodhisattva conduct. Buddha then tells Sakra that this Precious Canopy is now a Buddha called Precious Flame and his thousand sons are the thousand Buddhas of the Bhadrakalpa (the virtuous aeon that is now – Buddha Shakyamuni being the 4th Buddha of the aeon). He also says that he, Shakyamuni Buddha was the son called Lunar Canopy. Thus he confirmed that the offering of Dharma was the supreme offering. 

Buddha then addresses the Bodhisattva Maitreya (the next Buddha) and entrusts him with the Dharma and exhorts him to use his magical powers to proclaim sutras such as this one especially during the period of decline of the teachings of the Buddha (traditionally beginning 1500 years after the Buddha’s paranirvana). He also mentions that there are two categories of Bodhisattvas: those who favor proud words and a racy style (basically beginners) and those who can fathom deeper meanings. There are also two classes of newly initiated Bodhisattvas, some of which will not recognize or praise the profound Dharma and even slander it. There are also older Bodhisattvas who will not properly guide new Bodhisattvas and even belittle them. He notes that the problem with these Bodhisattvas is that they still give rise to discrimination between form and formlessness. Maitreya then vows to uphold the Dharma and magically place this sutra in the hands of practitioners and magically make them remember it. He also notes that those who study, read, recite, praise, and proclaim this sutra should know that they are doing so under the magic power of the future Buddha Maitreya. The other Bodhisattvas present also vow to proclaim this sutra, and the devas present vow to aid and protect those doing so. Buddha also tells Ananda to remember this sutra and Ananda asks what its name should be. Buddha says it should be called “The Sutra Spoken by Vimalakirti” or “The Door to Inconceivable Liberation.” After this the practitioners pay reverence to Buddha and go away.

While the Mahayana sutras can seem odd, uncanny, overly supernatural at times, these circumstances frame a profound ‘doctrine’ that seems to have no counterparts and can seem quite ‘otherworldly’ at times. Historians are kind of confounded trying to source its development and although there is a vast amount of legend and lore intertwined, the doctrine is quite detailed and consistent under most analyses. The Dharma is unique. The Dharma is vast and profound.



Sunday, November 20, 2016

Break Through: Why We Can't Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists

Book Review: Break Through: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists – by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (Mariner Books, 2007, 2009 ed)

This was a very good and very interesting book by the founders of the think tank, Breakthrough Institute. They identify the key drivers of environmental improvement and innovation and show that the most important influences are economic affluence and better quality of life.

In the preface to the 2009 edition they note that solving the global issue of climate change around the world is not the same as solving air and water pollution problems of wealthy Western countries. For one it would involve slowing development for the global poor in developing countries. Decarbonizing requires low cost, low carbon technologies, they note. With Obama’s 2008 $150 billion clean energy investment it remains clear that renewables require government help to be economically implementable. China just recently announced $1 trillion in funds available for clean energy investment. So the authors’ “post-environmental” politics world involves development in tandem with environmental concerns. For example, development in the Brazilian Amazon needs to be in tandem with environmental concerns such as mitigating decrease of carbon uptake from deforestation, loss of habitat, soil erosion, etc. 

This book came about from an essay by the authors called “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World,” in late 2004, released in pamphlet form at the annual conference of environmental donors and grantees. The most resonant part of the essay with readers was their insistence that a doomsday, pessimistic environmentalism was in no one’s best interest. They noted in the essay that had Martin Luther King given a “I have a nightmare” speech instead of the famous “I have a dream” speech, things may have ended up differently. They later found out that King did give such a speech but it was augmented toward optimism by encouragement from Mahalia Jackson. The authors contend that while the “rights-based liberalism” of the 60’s and 70’s gave us many necessary improvements, that phase of work is basically done. We now have better civil rights, racial relations (despite current concerns), and a cleaner environment.

The authors look at environmental and social needs through the lens of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” They relate how these “needs” are expressed differently as social “values” depending on where one is (or thinks one is) on the hierarchy. While environmentalists have tended to see economic growth as the cause of environmental problems there is abundant evidence that, especially in developing countries, it becomes (after a time) the solution to environmental problems. Once the basic needs for food, shelter, and income are met in a society, then that society can better focus on higher needs like environmental quality. “Old-style” environmentalism is overly focused on stopping the bad and under-focused on creating the good, say the authors. They compare global warming to pollution – pollution is more visible, certain, and immediate and local in negative effect while climate change is more global in scope, complex, more uncertain, and less readily evident. Thus, depicting global warming in the same terms as pollution will not be as readily adoptable by policy-makers and the population. Even so, in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act does give the EPA authority to regulate CO2 as a pollutant. The authors note four inconvenient truths about global warming: 1) in the first 20 years after the Kyoto protocol all 41 countries that ratified it failed to decrease emissions but increased them; 2) developing countries like India and China are in no position to reduce emissions as they electrify and technologize; 3) there is not a coherent strategy to tackle deforestation, which is responsible for 25% of global warming; 4) global warming effects are already happening and more drastic ones will happen even if we decrease emissions now (there are uncertainties about this one I add).

The authors argue for a new environmental narrative, one based on aspiration rather than complaint. They also argue that as post-industrial wealth increased, so did insecurity. They call this “insecure affluence.” This is different than poverty. Poverty is lower on Maslow’s scale. However, this insecure affluence has moved the corresponding social values back toward the lower-order survival values so that it mimics poverty. Thus for years we have the narrative that the EPA and regulations are killing jobs when it is often obviously market forces that are doing so. Globalization is not the problem, they say, but individualism and lack of a new social contract that would bind the concerns of the newly minted ‘individual’ to the concerns of society. The authors break away from traditional environmental depictions of the split between humans and nature, individual and community (?), and government and market and especially the far too ingrained notion of “limits to growth,” what they call a “politics of limits.” They argue for a pro-growth environmentalism. They argue for innovation and a technological fix for climate change over a ‘pollution control’ approach. They say we have choice between a politics of limits and a politics of possibility. 

Part 1 of the book begins with a study of the politics of limits, which is basically a history of environmentalism. Later in Part 2 comes the politics of possibility. Beginning with Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, in 1962 and through LA smog, the Cuyahoga River burning, the formation of the NRDC, and the transformation of the Sierra Club into a lobbying organization, an environmental history is explored. Those efforts in the 60’s and 70’s resulted in several great American laws which cleaned air and water, and protected species. They make an interesting argument: rivers, including the Cuyahoga, had been burning for a century and LA smog was present in the early 1950’s, so why hadn’t anything been done to clean things up then? Their answer is that it was not disgust at the defiling of nature that enabled the environmental movement but the arrival of widespread wealth and affluence. People began communing more with nature and exploring its beauty because they were able to spend less time meeting their basic survival needs. They also demonstrate that the environmental movement was not so much countercultural but was often implemented by liberal government officials, mostly Democrats but often of both parties. Though Nixon was not an environmentalist, he spoke about the dangers of smog, water pollution, and noise pollution. They also mention 2005 Duke University bipartisan polls, Pew Research Center, and Nicholas Institute polls that noted that while Americans overwhelmingly have concern for the state of the environment, it is not one of their top priorities. Thus, as social values, environmental concerns are not high on the list. Economic downturns can especially lead to more adopting of survival values like the need for jobs and abandoning of fulfillment values like environmental quality. The authors call it the ‘prosperity-fulfillment connection.’ Environmentalists have not embraced such a connection, instead seeing growth only as a cause of environmental degradation but not a solution to it. The general anti-materialist approach of environmentalists has often been met with scorn and ridicule by those who seek economic prosperity. We see it in the logging and fossil fuel industry where “tree-huggers” have caused job losses in some cases of arguable regulatory overreach. The authors see the development of the environmental movement as a product of industrialization rather than a reaction to it as many in the movement see it. 

The next chapter heads to Brazil, from the slums of Rio de Janeiro where poverty, violence, corruption, and crime are rampant to the Amazon where resource exploitation and deforestation are rampant. Brazil is a wealthy country with abundant land resources and industries. But the affluent own the land. There is major income inequality with consequential economic classism. Brazil suffered massive inflation problems from 1950-1985. After the 1964 military coup and the oil shocks of the 70’s the country borrowed heavily and has remained indebted ever since. By 2007, Brazil owed debtors $511 billion. So, basically the destruction and deforestation of probably the greatest carbon sink in the world is happening to pay off debt to lenders due to some bad decisions far in the past. Brazilian migrants seeking a better life head to the Amazon to log, build roads, mine, cattle ranch, and farm. Next they tell the story of Brazilian rubber tree tapper Chico Mendes, a labor organizer who was gunned down in the late 80’s. While environmentalists credit him as a socialist hero in his efforts to save the rainforest, the authors note that his real goal was opportunity, community, and prosperity for peasant workers. They say he adopted the discourse of environmentalism for tactical reasons. He advocated more for land reform. His concern was not what would happen to the planet but what would happen to local people who depended on the forest for their often traditional livelihoods. While the Brazilian government officially promotes conservation of the Amazon in light of global environmental concerns, in reality such conservation is lax and rarely enforced. Brazil is a global agricultural powerhouse. In 2004 it had the largest trade surplus in the world. The authors note that what Brazil needs most is a solution to their old dictatorship debt rather than small micro-projects to conserve forest while people flock to develop the other parts to survive. The environmental movement has tended to see the debt resolution as a bargaining chip in a “debt-for-nature” exchange. The Brazilian government has argued that such deals encroach on the country’s sovereignty and that the old (and they say quite unfair) debt should be forgiven outright. They don’t wish to ‘internationalize’ the Amazon, which is their sovereign territory. Brazilian politicians on the right see it as “eco-invasion,” and as a conspiracy to force them to forego economic development of their own resources. The authors criticize the Amazonian political aims of conservation biologists Thomas Lovejoy and John Terborgh who seem to advocate that economic prosperity and conservation are mutually exclusive. Terborgh describes rural peasant settlements (often slash-and-burn agriculturists) in Peru as cases of overpopulation when in reality those people are trying to do what they can to meet basic survival needs. He advocates the government relocating these indigenous people and bringing them opportunity elsewhere. In 2007, then Brazilian president Lula da Silva noted that the while wealthy Western countries rail against deforestation, it is easier for them since they already deforested their own lands which helped them to prosper. The bottom line, say the authors, is that we need to help the poverty situation in Brazil, help the poor to meet their basic needs, before we can protect the Amazon. 

The next topic is the environmental justice movement that took off in the 80’s and 90’s which focuses on observations that toxic waste facilities, landfills, and other sources of pollution tend to be sited near low-income and minority communities. While in many cases this is true, I have also seen such charges baselessly leveled at fracking operations, which obviously occur where the resource occurs. The authors argue that the environmental justice movement, while being correct sometimes has failed miserably to change things. Christopher Foreman of the Brookings Institute, investigated environmental justice for the Clinton administration and reported in his 1998 book, The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice. What he found was that environmental justice cases were considerably weaker than depicted by the movement. He also concluded that the EJ movement was more of a distraction, taking attention away from the more important social and economic concerns of minorities and the poor. Critics of the movement tend to be like Foreman himself, a liberal scientist, rather than industry greenwashers as the movement depicted. Foremen also successfully predicted that the EJ movement would fail in its efforts to sue on the basis of civil rights. In fact, trying to make environmental issues into civil rights issues continues today – most recently in Bill McKibben’s and Jesse Jackson’s depiction of the Dakota Access Pipeline as environmental racism against Native Americans. I don’t think any court would agree. The authors also give other environmental justice studies such as the one by the National Law Journal and one by attorney Mark Atlas, which both found no link between environmental enforcement and communities of color or different incomes. While it may be true that poor and minority communities have been more subjected to pollution than wealthy white communities, there is basically no evidence that any intentional targeting was involved. Poor people certainly have less means to move away from polluted areas and to protect themselves. They also tend less to organize against things like the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) protests more common with affluent people. The lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan, is a recent example, but there were no deliberate actions to deceive there aside from the delay in reporting the problem after discovery, which is indeed significant. That delay could be seen as an environmental justice case. The real problem, however, was in evaluation of the water chemistry, the failure to predict that the new water source would be more corrosive to the predominantly lead pipes that make up the town’s infrastructure.

The authors also note that context is important in how the word environment is used. Things like diet, tobacco use, and alcohol use cause vastly more deaths than the environment does. However, epidemiologists and cancer researchers often lump smoking, poor diet, and other lifestyle factors as environmental factors. Poor people and minorities are more likely to smoke say the stats and with the ad targeting, at least in decades past, one might even say they have been more targeted, say the authors – so that could be a clear environmental justice case – but one not emphasized by EJ activists. Pollution is quite obviously and indisputably far less of a risk than smoking. They also note asthma studies, where blacks and Latinos tend to have much greater emergency room visits for asthma. They note that asthma is quite treatable and the greater amount of emergency rooms reflect more the medical care availability to minorities than their disproportionate exposure to pollution. Lack of access to health care access is the real problem. Other asthma studies in poor areas noted many other factors: mold, indoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, dust mites, cockroach feces, and dust. One study that involved forced housing improvements by landlords resulted in very significant reductions in asthma. Other EJ campaigns targeted siting of diesel bus terminals as a source of asthma in minority communities were found to be basically bogus. Of course, they are more likely to live near the bus routes but that is due to socio-economic conditions, not pollution targeting. Public health studies, they note, need to be conducted scientifically, with detailed medical people involved such as epidemiologists, rather than a few statistics thrown together to try and find correlations that can then be suggested as causality, especially with glaring headlines. Many recent studies around fracking have taken such formats, and even though conducted by scientists and medical personnel and coming up with quite inconclusive results, the headlines have oddly and quite deceptively suggested otherwise.  The EJ movement’s goal is to connect racial injustice and pollution. The authors suggest that the economic and social concerns of minorities and the poor are far more important to them and to society as a whole than industrial pollution exposure. The authors sum up the general failure of the environmental justice movement as follows:

“The environmental justice movement has failed to develop a compelling agenda because it continues to see the environment as a thing separate and distinct from everything else. Why else would environmental justice advocates direct their efforts toward reducing exposure to toxic chemicals from refineries but not from cigarettes? Why else would they focus on eliminating diesel bus emissions that contribute to childhood asthma but not improving dilapidated housing that contributes at least as much to the same epidemic?”

Next subject is NIMBYism. They start with NRDC’s Robert Kennedy Jr.’s 2005 opposition to the Cape Cod offshore wind farm plans, called Cape Wind. Kennedy invoked bird deaths and the use of 40,000 gallons of oil (actually possibly less toxic mineral oil) to lubricate the turbine gears as further reasons for opposition.  He didn’t point out that it would blot the view from his own property, which has been suggested was the real reason for his opposition. Cape Cod was/is actually burning oil delivered via single hull tankers for electricity and as a result has the worst air quality in Massachusetts. A tanker spilled 100,000 gallons nearby which killed hundreds of sea birds. He made other claims, about fishing effects and visibility, which were proved to be false. One also has to see the tankers, but only when they are passing by. The authors see this as a clear example of NIMBYism but Kennedy apparently could get away with it – opposing renewable energy and still being seen as a powerful environmentalist. They also see it as a case of seeing human technological development as separate from nature, as a stain on the beauty of nature, as a clash of the ‘conservation ethic’ and the urge to save the planet from carbon emissions and reduce pollution. But really the conservation ethic by definition involves seeking out the best way to develop natural resources. The so-called ‘preservation ethic’ might be a better term, which refers to the primacy of non-development and non-impact over any human development of nature and its resources. The authors see much of NIMBYism as an avoidance of ‘hard choices’ by presenting ‘false choices.’ Is an aesthetic view more important than energy efficiency? That would be a hard choice. A false choice would be presenting all preservation as a fundamental good and all growth and development as a fundamental bad. NIMBYists tend to be concerned with protecting views, property values, and conveniences over development, even if the proposed development is energy efficient, involves renewable energy, and/or reduced pollution and carbon. Thus, they say, NIMBYism and ‘place-based environmentalism’ can be a double-edged sword. Local people are for development as often as against it and do not always know best, as place-based environmental advocates often suggest, nor do those wishing to impose regulations on them always know best. People in Ireland and Scotland have gotten well used to offshore wind turbines, so attitudes can change as well. The same can be true for oil and gas wells and infrastructure, high voltage wires, phone towers, buildings, solar farms, etc.

Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, was deliberately apocalyptic, presenting a dire and pessimistic paradigm in order to spur people to action. One result, say the authors, was to make people feel rather helpless against the forces of climate change, as if buying fluorescent light bulbs and pointing our fingers at fossil fuel producers is all we could do. Our sins against nature were coming back to haunt us. While Gore may have thought such a narrative necessary to present global warming as a moral issue to spur action, it need not be so, say many of us. Those on the political left tend to see global warming as a bigger immediate priority than those on the right, due much to political spin on the subject. The authors still see the global warming problem being presented in the format of the pollution paradigm. In December 2004, then Sierra Club leader Carl Pope wrote a response to the authors’ essay – The Death of Environmentalism – explicitly stating global warming as a pollution problem. But CO2 is not a pollutant in the classical sense. Some of it is good and necessary while only too much of it is bad. Real pollutants are basically ideally undesirable at any level while a certain amount of CO2 is required for life and the biosphere to thrive. The authors see the difference from the pollution paradigm as follows:

“… the fact that overcoming global warming demands something qualitatively different from limiting our contamination of nature. It demands unleashing human power, creating a new economy, and remaking nature as we prepare for the future. And to accomplish all of that, the right models come not from raw sewage, acid rain, or the ozone hole but instead from the very thing environmentalists have long imagined to be the driver of pollution in the first place: economic development.”

Despite being committed in spirit, Europe has made little headway in emissions reduction. The idea that reductions in the developed world would offset growing emissions in the developing world also flopped as China and India grew and continue to grow their economies – although there has been some positive response in recent years due to technology, efficiency, fuel switching (mostly from coal to gas), and increasing renewables penetration. As the Chinese economy grows and people become wealthier they are becoming more concerned with environmental quality. They can literally taste the effects of coal pollution in their throats and since they are less struggling for their next meal they are more enabled to speak out about it. The 2006 Stern Review, a global warming policy recommendation issued by U.K. politician Nicholas Stern, advocated a carbon tax, increased renewables investment, and preparation for the impacts of climate change. The authors suggest that the investment part has been lagging, although it has increased in recent years, since this book was out. They see this as an example of their politics of possibility rather than one of limits, to unleash human activity rather than constrain it. They see the possibility of global emissions trading more as economic development opportunity than a mere limit on emissions and think it should be structured and presented as such. They note that big technology improvements in the past such as computers and the internet were advanced with government money, often due to security concerns. They agree with the Stern Review that more government money is needed for research and implementation of clean energy.

The authors see the common recommended approach to climate change as another in a series of responses to what are perceived as “eco-tragedies,” crises which began with Rachel Carson’s pesticide crisis in Silent Spring. “Catastrophe,” “collapse,” “emergency,” “crisis,” and “apocalypse” are common ways to describe climate change. Such eco-tragedy narratives often end in quasi-authoritarian politics directed by the left, something the political right has strongly rejected. There is the false suggestion that nature without technological humans is harmonious and benign and all attempts to control nature will end in tragedy, which is simply untrue. The authors analyze and rebut the conclusions in Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. They especially debunk Diamond’s claims that Greenlanders starved because they refused to eat fish (which was abundant) for cultural reasons because they were Christian farmers and beef and pork eaters. This certainly seems odd. The authors see Diamond’s book as more biased for the so-called human/nature split rather than as a scientific set of stories. 

Many environmentalists believe that science was the main factor in enacting the successful environmental laws of the 60’s and 70’s. The authors tend to disagree, saying that affluence was a much bigger factor than realized. They mention Michael Crichton’s 2004 novel, State of Fear, about environmentalists that imposed totalitarian rules on society. They see it not as anti-environmental but as pro-contrarian. Crichton spoke out about the potential dangers of politicized science – that it then can be reduced from science to scientism. They make the same argument against environmentalist theologians like Thomas Berry as they did against Diamond – that he emphasizes the human/nature split and sees nature as something divine that can only be defiled by humans and their development. They also criticize Edward O. Wilson’s concept of “biophilia” – that we have an innate desire to commune with non-human nature and that tends to heal us. They ask – Why only non-human? The authors argue that much of environmentalism has become sectarian, claiming special knowledge, whether from science, nature, biophilia, place, racial identity, or indigenous ethnic identity. They argue that their authority comes from their unique perspective and so is more informed than that of others. The authors acknowledge such views of being above politics, of superiority, as being dangerous. It is almost as if they are saying in order to be pro-nature, we need to be anti-human – since the two are somehow incompatible. Diamond thinks it impossible and unwise for Third World humans to gain First World conditions, due to planetary limitations. Is it really fair to exalt nature over humans? The authors see Diamond’s goal of responding to his eco-tragedy narrative as having backfired – that the more afraid people become the more they tend to hold on to their old worldviews rather than shift to new ones. Environmentalists have often seen our longer lifespans and growing population as tragedies rather than as triumphs. We have made significant progress in overcoming starvation, disease, war, poverty, and oppression. So too can we make progress in overcoming ecological collapse, say the authors. In moving to part 2 of the book they note that a new politics requires a new mood – one of optimism rather than pessimism. 

Now we come to part 2 – The Politics of Possibility. They get back to the idea of ‘insecure affluence,’ which affects people in the so-called post-material world, where their basic needs are met but they still have to live with many social uncertainties, which cause many to retreat back into the safety of traditionalism, and go politically to the right. The authors say we need a post-environmental politics to address this post-materialist situation. While environmentalism began as a progressive movement, it has since been adopted in varying forms by non-progressives and that needs to be taken into account. The inner-directed values based on met needs of the optimistic post-war years gave way beginning in the 70’s to a more pessimistic worldview and further on led to outer-directed values based more on meeting materialistic needs due not to lack of affluence but due to insecurity. What is needed they say is a politics that is both pragmatic and inspiring. Just as environmentalism rose from material prosperity so too did liberalism arise from scarcity, they state – particularly the scarcity of the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal was the first manifestation, a ‘materialist liberalism’ which helped feed people and meet their basic needs. By contrast, the post-war years saw massive economic growth and low unemployment. This prosperity also fueled new inner-directed values based on met material needs, such as civil rights, women’s rights, environmentalism, and an expanding safety net. Empathy and generosity increased drastically in times of prosperity, says economist Benjamin Friedman. However, he also noted that rising insecurity, despite still being prosperous, tends to cancel that out. He also noted a return toward security and fulfillment values as prosperity improved again in the early 1990’s. However, the authors think that insecurity has stayed around and has also been expressed as fears in the form of xenophobia. This can be seen as quite self-evident today as Trump and his agenda of pandering to white nationalism and deporting immigrants takes center stage. They even suggest that obesity, once a problem of the rich, is now mainly a problem of the poor, and that this may well be due more to insecurity than cheap food. Insecurity is exemplified by our current employment situations – we have higher-paying jobs but they are often less secure. Companies are sold, downsized, and made obsolete by technological improvements. The desire to rise in status can lead people to live beyond their means and when combined with frauds like predatory lending their problems are exacerbated. People have been going into debt to keep up with materialist lifestyles of those higher in status than them. Our needs are really less material and perhaps more psychological. The authors think we need a new social contract to alleviate our insecure affluence. We need health care security, retirement security, child care security, and job security. The right’s depiction of welfare and even social security as unearned “entitlement programs,” has ate into the safety nets once regarded as proud accomplishments. Our parents were often able to keep the same jobs for decades. Not so these days. They suggest we now experience the world more as a consumer, an individualistic one. The left tends to see this new individualism as a loss of caring compared to the sense of community of the past while the right tends to see it as a loss of the responsibility of the traditionalism of the past. Thus, the left tends to seek communitarianism while the right tends to seek a more authoritarian type of fellowship. The authors see the need for a new social contract as more important than the need for a social safety net since we still have a strong safety net that is just slightly weakened. Part of their new social contract involves more efficiency/less bureaucracy, better preventative health care, and universal health care of some sort so that if ones loses a job, one does not necessarily lose their family health care as well. Liberals tend to blame lack of progress on health care and the environment on corporate corruption, which is certainly part of the problem but not all of it. The authors are just giving more examples here of a politics of limits resentment, and victimization coming from the left. They favor a new politics of gratitude, possibility, and overcoming. 

They next get into the subject/chapter – Belonging and Fulfillment, going though political trends like ‘moral values conservatism,’ ‘New Deal materialism,’ and ‘Clinton-era neo-liberalism.’ They compare eco-tragedy narratives to apocalyptic evangelical Christian narratives – both involve “falls” – from nature or from God and both end up with adherents feeling morally superior. The differences, they note, are that the newly successful moral values of evangelical conservatives have had a more optimistic tone than the eco-tragedy spinners. They note that modern affluence and the demands of the new service and information economies require that people are more mobile in their search for work and so generally less local and community-oriented than they were in the industrial economies of the small towns of the past. Perhaps things like mega-churches have capitalized on such loss of a sense of community by providing for those “lost souls.” Richard Florida wrote a book, The Rise of the Creative Class, which noted that while this new class had less strong social ties, they had more so-called “weak ties.” This seems to me the situation where many of us have less close friends but more acquaintances, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Next they go through the success of Pastor Rick Warren’s, The Purpose-Driven Life, another testament to the new dedicated socially close-knit evangelicals, where people seem to have gotten a sense of belonging, despite the soft bigotry and the mega-rich preachers. The authors compare the evangelicals to environmentalists. The evangelicals are more dedicated with a “thick” identity. While about 70% of people say they support clean air and clean water (I mean who wouldn’t really – the question is perhaps the issue) only a few million are dedicated to environmental organizations – which gives them a “thin” identity overall. While evangelical meetings may be inspiring, environmental organizational meetings are mostly depressing or involved with expressing antagonism toward something.  Our sense of belonging is enhanced by activities where we find “flow,” a kind of trance-like state of artists, athletes, and others, and from service to others as well as simply being with others. These enhance our sense of a meaningful life, our post-material needs, as the authors say. Social change is not likely to come through marketing and policies.

“Liberals and environmentalists have thus tended to be issue based and complaint based, while conservatives have tended to be values and needs based.”

Values approaches have tended to lead to more close-knit and coherent societies. 

“… all politics is about determining what should be public, what should be private, and what should be banned altogether.

The authors invoke philosopher Richard Rorty in their comparison of public and private interests. They say he put too much emphasis on the prevention of cruelty as a means of solidarity rather than the development of a sense of belonging. Perhaps this is true, although if so it seems unfortunate to me as I think prevention of cruelty is one of the most important things to strive for in life, although it may well not be the best solidarity grounds for politics. Liberals tend to see a divide between individual and community and they lament the erosion of social intimacy but that is not necessarily the case, the authors say, we simply need new identities – and indeed so-called identity politics is a major factor now – 7-9 years after this book – as people seem to want to be defined in identity terms – perhaps to tap into some sort of status or social role where they seem useful, but hell I really don’t know what it is they are or want.

Pragmatism is the next subject/chapter, and I think it is a very important one. The first example is the story of psychoanalyst Aaron Beck, who in the 1960’s was making no progress with his depressed patients. He then abandoned the technique and developed his own technique of re-narrative around their needs which became ‘cognitive therapy.’ The idea was, as Thomas Kuhn described in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that if a paradigm no longer explains anomalies, it needs to be augmented or changed. 

Pragmatism as a philosophy was developed by William James, Charles Saunders Pierce, and Oliver Wendell Holmes in the 19th century and further elaborated by John Dewey and Richard Rorty in the 20th century. 
“Pragmatists view beliefs as tools for shaping reality rather than mirrors for reflecting it.” 

Pragmatism, say the authors, was one of the forerunners to modern American liberalism. People change and the needs of the times change. So too should institutions change, and be organized flexibly enough to do so. The authors argue for a pragmatic approach and against an “essentialist” approach which is concerned with stasis and inflexibility. Many have indeed argued for a pragmatic approach to the environment and perhaps the compromises we see between economic and ecological interests can be seen as such an overall effect, although the approaches are often defined by more contrasting extremes. Pragmatism acknowledges that there are different perspectives from which to view and address problems. Pragmatism acknowledges the social and psychological aspects of problems and potential policies addressing them. Global warming has such aspects: the effects are slow and gradual and not immediately evident, people can feel guilty about contributing to it or self-righteous about opposing it, and people can feel hopeless to do anything useful toward alleviating the problem. The authors like the approach of developing global warming preparedness as it is sensible, can be empowering, and gives people a way to cooperate practically toward natural disaster prevention. Both Al Gore and Carl Pope talked down about preparedness, Gore calling it lazy and Pope calling it useless. But it’s happening anyway and happening successfully. While some aspects of it may not work, we humans have done much with technology and will and can do much more. We really have no choice, adaptation and preparedness are necessary. 

The authors tell the story of the CAFE fuel standards which in the 70’s and early 80’s was supported by the auto industry as people were demanding higher mileage vehicles to meet the needs of higher gas prices but as gas prices dropped again and affluence and SUVs popularized in the 90’s the standards were relaxed. Subsequent efforts were taken on by environmentalists without the help of the auto industry and became more of a battle than a collaboration, although in recent times it is somewhere in between as the standards are set to improve incrementally through time as the technologies have caught up. The authors here got together with then senator Obama and others and drafted a Health-Care for Hybrids Act for the auto industry to link increased fuel efficiency with help from the feds with auto-industry health care costs which were bringing companies closer to bankruptcy back in 2005 – long before the actual bailouts due to the economic downturn.

Essentialism tends to deride all efforts to control nature, much as Rachel Carson derided such attempts that resulted in pesticide poisoning. Thus “non-impact,” or not affecting nature at all has become an ideal among leftist environmentalists. Science informs nature. The essentialism of conservatives is about control of the market – that any attempt to control or regulate the free market and flow of goods within it is tantamount to fraud and to be disparaged. Economics informs the market. Thus we see similarity with these declarations of the sacred and profane within each context. In reality, these are overgeneralizations. Neither nature nor the market are fundamentally good or bad. In reality, markets require rules to function and nature requires control in order for it to be useful for us. They see the designations and arguments for and against corporations and capitalism as more or less meaningless overgeneralizations based on essentialism. Nature and markets are not really separate from humans and so we can create our own natures and markets to fit our values and aspirations. As an example  of the failure of both left and right fundamentalism they give the example of the dictatorship debt of Brazil – the left wants to use it as a bargaining chip while the right wants it to continue because fair is fair according to the market. The authors say it should be forgiven – it was unfairly accrued by cruel and incompetent dictators, it helps continue massive poverty, and it obstructs the preservation of the Amazon. Ordinary Brazilians continue to pay a decades old debt made by scoundrels so it would be a justice to forgive the debt, say the authors.

While many environmentalists proclaim that global warming should be above politics, the authors say:

“If politics is our self-governance as a species, then it is the highest form of collective authority there is. The truth of the collective is that it is multiple, contradictory, and divisive. There is no single public interest. To deny the multiplicity, as many neo-Rousseauians do, is to miss something fundamental to politics. Politics is about making decisions.”

The authors suggest that American conservatism has gotten better at changing the world than American liberalism. They mention the famous neoconservative Francis Fukuyama, who stated that modernity has finally become established and developmental history is now history – meaning that the human path away from deep dictatorship, deep defiance, and totalitarianism was done. In his book, America at the Crossroads, he pointed out mistakes made about the Iraq war, changing his previous conclusions. He concluded that it was not liberal Democracy that people wanted but the aspiration to live in a modern world with all of those conveniences (except maybe the anachronistic religious fanatics). Thus as Iraq taught, democracy could not be imposed from outside, only developed from inside. The authors agree with Fukuyama on that point but disagree with him that modernization can be reduced to a single essence that is augmented by limits on personal freedom and creativity. Fukuyama and other conservatives like Daniel Bell advocate a return to ‘traditional family values’ or in Bell’s case ‘Protestant values’ and while that may give strength and coherence to people it is not the wave of the future. Richard Florida noted that the new “creative class’’ is what the Protestant ethic has morphed into – the ‘creative ethos.’ Fukuyama sees hedonism as a threat and the solution as individuals giving their ‘freedom’ back to societies and accepting intolerances – but that ruins it and it ain’t gonna happen on any large scale since the cat has long been out of the bag. The authors contrast these views with Nietzsche who advocated an end to Judeo-Christian moral values but he also thought that only aristocratic societies could come to greatness.

“Americans today aspire to be unique individuals, to be autonomous and in control of their lives, and to be respected and recognized as such by those around them.”

Basically, they suggest that modernity and prosperity has propelled the bulk of us, especially those of us in developed countries, to the level of aristocrats. Wealth, power, and the mastery of nature, are not inherently evil as liberals and environmentalists suggests, but potentially liberating and inspiring, say the authors. They see Fukuyama as an anti-environmentalist who thinks we are separate from nature and rewarded for exploiting it while someone like Rachel Carson sees us as also as separate but being punished for controlling nature. Both positions rely on this illusion of separation. Certainly we are both rewarded and punished for controlling nature and we must be vigilant, adaptive, and address problems and opportunities as they arise. We must be pragmatic. Ideologies are illusory and often impractical. Both environmentalism as practiced and neo-conservatism are essentialist ideas that are philosophies of limits that will continue unresolved conflicts.

“There can be no project of international solidarity and compassion that does not also aspire to human greatness. The new politics should have no utopia, no place, and no end. A politics of greatness demands that we aspire not to an end of history but rather to beginning of new ones.”
In envisioning a new politics the authors invoke questions asked by Richard Nixon: “What kind of country do we want? How can we achieve it?” Or as the authors put it: In what should we invest our efforts, money, and resources? The authors worked with a congressman to put forth a clean energy investment policy called Apollo which received endorsements but an overall lukewarm reception from liberals and environmentalists because it was void of things like binding limits on carbon and CAFÉ standards. Labor also gave it a lukewarm reception because they are more concerned with preserving the status quo of the old rather than embracing the new, say the authors. This is all old hat now and before the economic downturn with the subsequent stimulus packages that included clean energy investment and so-called “green-collar” jobs that didn’t really make a dent. The arrival of shale gas and fracking took more wind out of those sails but also saved us billions. The success of political arguments, the authors contend, often depends on how the argument is advanced, whether inspiring or depressing, whether as a dream to pursue or a nightmare to battle. They compare Tony Blair’s lame argument to take global warming seriously to Churchill’s inspiring speeches.

Global warming will change environmentalism, contend the authors. Stabilizing the climate will require equalization of per capita emissions globally which will require equalization of global living standards. Such connections cannot be ignored. Global warming as an issue, thus, firms up the connection between prosperity and ecological concern. However, simply invoking anti-growth cannot equalize. Taking from the rich to give to the poor – wealth redistribution – which the right accuses the left of wanting to do in the name of climate change – will not be well received and will basically not happen since it is not necessary. A pragmatic politics that acknowledges the needs and also the values of those affected is the best approach and I agree. 

I think this is a great book on pragmatic politics, conscious capitalism, and sensible environmentalism.