What Is Buddhist Ecopsychology? 9 Bodhichitta, Hollow Bones, and Revolutions__Jonathan Barfield

Green Earth and Buddhism|What Is Buddhist Ecopsychology? 9
Bodhichitta, Hollow Bones, and Revolutions
Jonathan Barfield | Ecopsychologist
1) A sudden, radical, or complete change
2) An unprecedented change in social structure, usually considered radical for the times.
Bodhi: Awakened
Chitta: Mind/Heart

Industrial Revolution Consciousness
More and more I am beginning to see these two very different reality views regarding life. On one hand there is a view of separation, isolation, and an encapsulated self where everything is external. In this view, the world is filled with things that impinge upon other things. Accordingly, with this view we try our best to navigate our lives to come out on top. It is a life of stress and striving. It is a life of pushing and pulling. It is a life of comparison, jealousy, judgment and  regrets. It is, in the end, a life of deep isolation as the gap between self and others widens to the point where our compassion is too weak to embrace our loved ones, much less the enemies on the other shore. We are left numbed and estranged from this life.
Coming from this reality-view it becomes quite easy to condemn forests and rivers with the flick of a pen from the seat of a chair, inside an office building 30 stories above the ground. Here, life is so readily full of numbers that we push and pull all day long. Not understanding the nature of this recursive situation, we blame the numbers, the people, and the institutions for our discontent. This is simply how suffering works.
Self-fixation, group identity, and isolation is a human tendency. However, it was not until the Industrial Revolution that, as a race, we would so greatly deepen our self-fixation and anthropocentric (humancentered) life-style. The Industrial Revolution marked a radical, unprecedented change in social structure, beginning in Europe and spreading around the world. It was filled with excitement, new inventions, machines, and methods of production. This revolution created the conditions for humans to flourish as we do today. Life expectancy, global population, and income increased dramatically. For many, life became economic and actions became justifiable in terms of profitability.
Industry, with its fixation on economy and production of material goods, has improved life. It seems to have made life more simple, more pleasurable, more leisurely, and more efficient. With the production of medicines we can now cure ailments that once caused so much pain and grief in recent times. However, the revolution has a shadow side of emergent conflict. The cotton gin provides a simple example of this.
In 1794, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin to separate the seeds from cotton. Prior to this invention, the southern states used slaves. It seemed reasonable that with the cotton gin, slaves would not be necessary anymore to separate the seeds from the cotton by hand. However, just the opposite effect occurred. With the ease of milling cotton the demand in the cotton production stage increased. To meet the demand, even more slaves were trafficked from Africa and put to work in the cotton fields. The slave states increased from six to fifteen states. By the late 1800s slaves increased from 700,000 to over 3.2 million. According to many historians this increase in slavery, initiated by the invention of the cotton gin, not only strengthened a culture of slavery but also served as the preliminary cause of the Civil War in which over 750,000 American soldiers died over the struggle to abolish slavery.

The possibility of the Great Turning is evident in the small, selfless contributions that millions of people make every day. We are recognizing the preciousness of life. We want to give. We want our lives to be meaningful and contribute in the best way possible.

As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum, factories and interchangeable parts increased material production and the demand for raw materials greatly increased. We mined and deforested much of the Earth. We broke the natural rules of the  ecosystem and generated a stream of waste that was not, in turn, food for the unfolding cycle of life. The Earth became a network of commodities. An economical consciousness flourished at the expense of an ecological consciousness. The former being based on conquest, while the later being based on relationship.
Again, this is not to say that the Industrial Revolution was bad. I don’t want to romanticize a world that was better before a simple antibiotic could save a child from losing his leg, or life, from an infected cut. Rather, just as a medicinal plant in certain amounts, or harvested at the wrong times, can also be a poison, so too can an idea that once served us well, now bring our ruin. Now, this Industrial Revolution that has become so much a part of who we think we are, how we act, and how we think, is beginning to leave us abandoned in isolation. We are forgetting our relations.
“Great Turning” Consciousness
Today there is a new revolution rising. Many philosophers, ecopsychologists, economists, and activists are calling it the Great Work, the Great Turning, or an Ecological Revolution. It is a transition that, as Thomas Berry suggests, “has no historical parallel since the geobiological transition that took place 67 million years ago when the period of the dinosaurs was terminated and a new biological era begun.”i Basically, this revolution is the transition from harmful intentions and actions to a life that recognizes boundless compassion. It may not seem like such a Great Turning at first glance, however, when we stop to contemplate the radical shift in consciousness required to actually put beings-even the smallest salamander-before ourselves, it is evident that the necessary transformation is certainly profound.
Joanna Macy, deep ecologist and Buddhist scholar, suggests that the Great Turning is the awakening of a mind of interdependence and compassion. She says that,
A revolution is underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world. We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools, and material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water, and meet rational energy needs. Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning. It is happening now.ii
She clarifies in her book, “World as Lover, World as Self” that “with this [Great] Turning, we see that everything we do impinges on all beings.”iii The preamble of The Earth Charter Initiative summarizes the Great Turning as:
We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature,  universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.iv
David Korten, an early contributor to the idea of the Great Turning wrote:
… we humans stand at a defining moment that presents us with an irrevocable choice. Our collective response will determine how our time is remembered for so long as the human species survives. In the days now at hand, we must each be clear that every individual and collective choice we make is a vote for the future we of this time will bequeath to the generations that follow. The Great Turning is not a prophecy; it is a possibility.v
“The Great Work now,” Thomas Berry says, “as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.vi
Hollow Bones and Bodhichitta
The possibility of the Great Turning is evident in the small, selfless contributions that millions of people make every day. We are recognizing the preciousness of life. We want to give. We want our lives to be meaningful and contribute in the  best way possible. We long to be part of something greater than our little, lonesome selves. We are deeply seeking methods to live in right relationship.
The problem is that we are struggling internally to find meaning because we have learned fast methods, pushing and pulling methods, and methods of numbers and industry. These are methods of conquest, or, as David Korten explains, they are methods of “Empire” as opposed to a relational “Earth Community.” The social structure is hierarchical and has widely adopted the notion of self-preservation. It is hard to crack through this shell of fear, defensiveness, jealousy, and impatience inherent in this system. As a result, we don’t know how to give. The intention may be strong to help, but how do we apply our vague intentions? How do we change the cycles of destruction that we are currently entrenched in?
If there is to be a Great Turning, it will not succeed by chance and good intentions alone. Generalizations and philosophical propositions of a Great Turning, though inspiring hopefulness, will not do either. We need practices. We need direct methods to develop a visceral sense of our interdependence and to strengthen our compassion for all life. We need to find a way to remember this Earth as a living system that we are inseparable from. We need a psychology that remembers ecology. These are not suggestions to generate some new transcendental experience, but suggestions to embrace our deeply ordinary selves. We are connected already. “We don’t have to invent or construct our connections. They already exist. We already and indissolubly belong to each other.”vii We need practices to open more deeply to this relationship with each other and this precious Earth.
The Buddhist practice of Bodhichitta seems to me to be the practice necessary for the fruition of the Great Turning. This is precisely the practice of becoming a hollow bone. A hollow bone is what Frank Fools Crow, one of the last traditional elders of the Lakota people who was taught in the old Native American ways, refers to as a medicine man. A medicine man and a bodhisattva have the same orientation in life. These beings are here to work for the benefit of others.
The hollowness of the bone refers to the hollowness of the self. Only when the self is completely hollow, can the medicine man be of help. In the words of Fools Crow,
Medicine people do what they do for their communities and nation. We are called to become hollow bones for our people and anyone else we can help, and we are not supposed to seek power for our personal use and honor. What we bones really become is the pipeline that connects [the Great Spirit] … and the community.viii
Fools Crow taught that if we are to really do the Great Work, the work of the Great Spirit, we must be clean hollow bones. If we are not clean, the Great Work cannot come through us. He also taught that to be a clean hollow bone “you must love everyone” and “put others first.”ix These are precisely two of the most important bodhisattva precepts. In fact, all of the bodhisattva practices, including the teachings and practices of the Four Boundless qualities, the ways of arousing bodhichitta, training in the precepts, and the six perfections are all practices to help with the Great Turning.x These are practices to become that hollow bone and help all our relations. The practices are direct, explicit, and effective. The bodhisattva path is not to be a special path only for the realized being or serious practitioner. If we are to help this Great Turning and leave a beautiful world for our grandchildren, we must all become little hollow bones in every precious moment.

  • i Berry, T. (1999). The Great Work: Our way into the future. New York: Bell Tower.
  • ii http://www.joannamacy.net/thegreatturning.html (accessed September, 2012)
  • iii Macy, J. (1991). World as lover, world as self. Berkely, CA: Parallax Press. (p. 241)
  • iv http://www.earthcharterinaction.org/content/pages/Read-the-Charter.html (accessed September, 2012)
  • v Korten, D. (2006). The Great Turning: From empire to Earth community. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press. (p. 4)
  • vi Berry, T. (1999). The Great Work: Our way into the future. New York: Bell Tower. (p. 3)
  • vii Macy, J. (1991). World as lover, world as self. Berkely, CA: Parallax Press. (p. 243)
  • viii Mails, T. (1991). Fools Crow: Wisdom and power. San Francisco: Council Oaks Books. (p. 27)
  • ix (p. 31.)
  • x It is not within the scope of this paper to deeply explore the relationship of these practices individually with the idea of the Hollow Bone, or the Great Turning consciousness, however, investigation into these concepts will reveal deeper parallels. For example, from the bodhisattva training, boundless love is first based upon boundless impartiality, just as from the Lakota training to be a hollow bone, “loving
    everyone” is based upon the understanding of Mitakuye Oyasin, which translates as “all my relations” and refers to the equal and interdependent nature.

Illustration by Jeong Jin-ung
Jonathan A. Barfield received PhD from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. He is an ecopsychologist and psychotherapist in the mountain and desert communities of the American Southwest. He works for a number of non-profits that facilitate therapeutic wilderness adventures. His research focus is on radical transformations of consciousness-exploring the experience of individuals who have found peace and freedom of mind amidst great conflict. He is a professional musician, organic gardener, and teaches meditation in small mountain towns.

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