World As Lover World As Self By Joanna Macy
Review by Rev. Dorothy Streutker
World as Lover World as Self is a clarion call to environmental action, with a heavy Buddhist accent. Joanna Macy, a Berkeley resident, has a Ph.D. in religious studies and was introduced to Buddhist practice and theory in 1965. She is an internationally known environmental activist, concentrating on the problem of nuclear waste.
Macy starts this book with a solution to the body/mind dichotomy that has plagued Western philosophers. Does the other exist in reality, or only in my imagination? Plato had his ideal forms, Descartes reasoned, “I think, therefore I am.” Others theorized that all perceived reality is merely imagined. Related to this dichotomy is the notion that good and evil are separate realities that are constantly warring against one another. There are also philosophies that put mind above body, theory above physical existence.
In Buddhist thought, there is the principle of dependent co-arising. All things are interconnected in a deep way. Buddha’s perception of “all existence as a dynamic, self-sustaining web of relations ... stood in stark contrast to the other schools of thought circulating in India of the seventh century,” and much of today’s thinking (or non-thinking) as well. The Buddha taught that “[k]nowing is transactional. Like a fire that cannot burn without the wood or dried grass on which it feeds, all consciousness requires an object.” Macy declares that this dependent co-arising heals the separation between body and mind so frequently found in Western thought, and in some Buddhist thought as well, where the mind isexalted and the body reviled. Macy offers Buddha’s creation story, at pages 44 and 45, to illustrate how the principle of dependent co-arising results in a society that is the result of interactions, not imposed by some divine proclamation or inescapable fate.
This teaching, that there is not a permanent, stand-alone self, Macy finds freeing. One is not stuck with one’s karma established in some prior life butis capable of doing what is necessary and right, right now. Co-determinate karma leaves us with free will to act in gratitude for the wonder of existence, our own and all that surrounds us.
This is a basis of ethical teaching in Buddhism: “What we do not only matters, it molds us.” Rather, “[t]he effect of our behavior is inescapable, not because God watches and tallies, or an angel marks our acts in a ledger, but because our acts co-determine what we become.” In this teaching, karma is somewhat like process theology, in that each choice we make determines what next choices will be available.
Macy offers encouragement for environmental activists, and succor for those who feel apathetic in the face of all the damage being done on earth and to the earth today. Apathy, she posits, “stems from a fear of the despair that lurks beneath the tenor of life-as-usual.” The word comes from the Greek, apatheia, which literally means non-suffering. Those who refuse to suffer also miss the joys available to them. Macy calls for compassion and understanding for those caught in apathy.
For activists, pain at the destruction we witness is part of healing. It draws activists into groups, to work together to acknowledge the pain, which also enables them to have hope for humanity. Working together allows us to see others who are not afraid of experiencing the pain. Macy quotes John Seed, a rainforest activist: “When we unblock our despair, everything else follows - the respect, the awe, the love.” The ability to explore the depths allows us to experience compassion. “We are experiencers of compassion,” heroic actors known in Buddhism as bodhisattvas. And we know that there is no such thing as private salvation; because of dependent co-arising, we are all affected by the acts of the individual, for good or ill.
Macy uses a beautiful image to illustrate this. The Jeweled Net of Indra is a web filling the cosmos. At each node of the web is a jewel that reflects all the other jewels. Those jewels are representations of individual beings, reflecting all the other beings. When one is in pain, all jewels reflect that pain. When one acts with compassion, all reflect that compassion.
Macy recommends spiritual practices for activists, to empower them to act as bodhisattvas. She offers several methods of meditation, self-practiced and guided.