I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Steve Kanji Ruhl on Green Buddhism at Ahimsa on December 12, 2009.
For those who may not know Kanji, allow me to draw briefly on his biography. Kanji, born and raised in Central Pennsylvania, has roots in this soil. His academic prowess was evident: He has a MA in Divinity from Harvard. He is a writer and poet. He is a lifelong Zen practioner who has trained in Japan, studied with John Daido Loori Roshi at Zen Mountain Monastery in New York, is a graduate of the Maezumi Institute's Zen House Seminary for Socially Engaged Buddhism and currently a novice minister training with Roshi Bernie Glassman of the Zen Peacemakers. He and Rosalind Jiko Kisan McIntosh opened the first Appalachian Zen House, based at Ahimsa Village last year.
It is impossible to give more than a glancing impression of the experience of his talk and I can do so only from the perspective of how it filtered through my own nervous system. Kanji gave a brief but concise history of Buddhism as it evolved across India, China and to Japan. He related the history of that tradition with that of the West and with our collective ancestor’s reverence for the Earth, trees and animals. I found this intriguing because, although I was brought up in a Christian faith, which is perhaps more focused on life after death than the experience of the real miracle of life between birth and death, I have always had a deep reverence for the Earth; perhaps as a result of growing up in a rural environment and due to my Celtic and Native American blood. But he also brought home the lessons I learned from the Japanese while once stationed in a remote area of Kyushu where I had my first direct encounter with both Buddhism and Shinto and my first real spiritual awakening.
Over my lifetime there has been a gradual, albeit limited, return to a more earthy religion. As Kanji pointed out, in the dim history of all our faiths, at the root of all of our civilizations, there were religious and spiritual traditions that reverences earth, air, fire and water and the flora and fauna that gave life to the world of matter and energy. As a longtime resident of the Southwest, and familiar with its Native cultures, I am reminded that the food we grow has been reverenced by our forbearers. Such traditions live, if barely, in forms such as Holy Communion where bread and wine are used as symbols of our deepest reverence. More and more people are returning to a sense of the sacred in growing, sharing and eating good foods.
Kanji talked about the spiritual people who retreated to the countryside in China and Japan, and also St. Francis. I’ve toured both Zen and Christian monasteries and marveled at the beauty and simplicity of life withdrawn from the bustle of city life. I find the best of the monastic traditions, both East and West in the times they were self-sufficient. Such highly disciplined and focused lives give the residents of these places an opportunity to sharpen their spiritual perceptions and may, I would hope, allow them to more completely focus on the here and now such as celebrated by the Buddhist.
Kanji talked about the Bodhisattva path, the deep compassion felt by great souls for all living things and the commitment by them to foregoing final enlightenment until all have been brought to fulfillment. He brought the spiritual dimensions of the environment movement up to date with examples of Green Buddhist leadership such as that of the Dali Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn but he also gave due credit to Pope Benedict, who just a couple of weeks ago denounced the world leader’s failure at the Copenhagen Climate Conference, and mainstream Protestantism and Christian evangelicals such as Rick Warren and Jim Wallis. I have worked with faith-based groups for a number of years and I am delighted to see a resurgence of interest in spiritual stewardship which needs to be encouraged.
There are important lessons for us in Kanji’s talk and his mission. I believe we are experiencing one of those times in human history like those that gave rise to its great spiritual traditions. We need, I am convinced, to more deeply reflect on our reality and flame that spark of compassion that assures us not only of personal salvation but the well-being of all that lives on this Earth.
Bill Sharp lives in State College. He is retired from a career in education, public service and business. He is active in developing more sustainable communities, is affiliated with the Transition Towns movement and chairs the Garden Starters group that meets twice monthly at ClearWater Conservancy. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org