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Enjoy highlights from our Faith & Moral Courage event series: read the keynote speech by author and scholar David Hinton, delivered at St Ethelburga’s Bridging Divides, Loving Earth Conference. To watch the full speech and discover more content from Faith & Moral Courage event series, subscribe to our YouTube channel here.

Evening Landscape, Clearing Snow

Walking-stick in hand, I watch snow clear.
Ten thousand clouds and streams banked up,

woodcutters return to their simple homes,
and soon a cold sun sets among risky peaks.

A wildfire burns among ridgeline grasses.
Scraps of mist rise, born of rock and pine.

On the road back to a mountain monastery,
I hear it struck: that bell of evening skies!

– Chia Tao

Before ideas and understanding and everything we think we know about ourselves, we loved the world around us. How can that be? How can we love all this when our cultural assumptions tell us that we humans are fundamentally other than nature and that nature’s only real value is how it supports our well-being? There’s no love in that. Doesn’t love require kindred natures? And what is kinship with wild Earth but wild mind? How else could we feel exhilarating awe when a majestic orca whale leaps joyfully?… How else could we feel delight at orcas birthing underwater and nurturing their young? Or feel grief that Southern resident orcas of the Northwest Coast are slowly starving to death and it’s because of us. The noise of industrial ship traffic disrupts the echolocation they need to locate prey… We love this world, this living planet. We feel joy when life thrives and grief when it suffers and dies. This may seem obvious and uninteresting in and of itself, but it’s a mystery, isn’t it? Given our Western assumptions, it’s inexplicable…

What makes us feel so separated from nature? The separation is built into our language. The word nature is by definition everything other than the human. Every time we say the word nature, we’re defining ourselves as separate from everything else. That wasn’t true for our ancestors, the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. They experienced themselves as completely integral with the rest of the world… Then five or ten thousand years ago the Neolithic began, when humans settled into farming and agriculture. Suddenly there was a human space separate from everything else, like the fields they were cultivating, which had to be protected from wild nature… With the Neolithic, humans took on this kind of instrumental, exploitative relation to the land and to Earth. Before that, Earth had been experienced more as this huge gift. We were grateful for its bounty. 

…The Neolithic quickly led to cities and writing began. Writing was a second gigantic transformation in consciousness because once you can write your thoughts down, that’s a radically different experience of yourself. The interior world becomes apparently timeless and permanent. Other people can come to them thousands of years later, like I do with ancient Chinese texts, and they haven’t changed… That creates this illusion of a permanent, almost eternal interior self… With alphabetic language that was exacerbated… The Greek philosophers reified that illusory self, the by-product of writing, into a sort of soul.

…William Radford was one of the most prominent pilgrims who travelled from Europe to North America. In 1620, in his journal, he wrote that when he arrived at Cape Cod and was looking out at North America, he saw a hideous and desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men. Radford was an epitome of European culture and, at that point, nature was considered a kind of evil, something that had to be shaped into order. That’s where Western culture was. 

Then beginning around the time of Bradford, a transformation happened that we don’t even notice. We do feel this kinship with nature, but given our deep structures of Western tradition don’t allow for it, where did it come from? It came from Native Americans… Accounts of how the Native Americans thought about themselves as woven into the natural world, about how they experienced the natural world as sustaining and kindred, were published in Europe and were wildly popular and hugely influential among intellectuals. In England, Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Cole were opened up to this feeling that nature was sustaining. It was an antidote to civilisation, to industrialisation and commercialisation. These thoughts were hugely influential to British Romanticism. In Wordsworth’s Preludes, he describes himself as a child, or maybe an imagination of childhood before it was debased by industrialisation and the urban.

Bronzed with a deep radiance stood alone
Beneath the sky as if I had been born
On Indian plains and from my mother’s hut
Had run abroad in wantonness to sport
A naked savage, in the thunder-shower

– William Wordsworth

These ideas were transmitted throughout Europe, to American Romantics, and John Muir. John Muir was very influential in the US where he started the Sierra Club which is still a hugely influential environmental organisation. He got the political world thinking about protecting the environment…

It’s amazing to me that our current feeling of kinship, of love for the natural world, and eco-hope came from Native America. It’s like Native American resistance is alive in us. Kinship is not an unthought assumption for us as it was for Native Americans and instead it’s something we have to cultivate and think about. 

…That brings me to China, which is my real place, and where I think we have to question our assumptions again… Ancient China had a very similar history to the West, but it happened 3000 years earlier. There was a kind of monotheistic, monolithic theocracy in which people experienced themselves as spirits, as radically separate from the world… And then the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy was all about creating a new way of understanding society, our relation to the world, the nature of reality and the nature of consciousness. Out of that grew Taoism and Chan Buddhism. Chan is the original Chinese word for Zen… Chan and Taoism are reweaving consciousness with the landscape, with cosmos and with the non-human. Once you’ve done that, once you’ve woven back kinship, then I  think you’ve learned to value the non-human in and of itself, for its own potential and possibility.

…Valuing nature in and of itself is so important. I recently read a book about how whales speak, which I wanted to throw against a wall time and time again, because it was trying to find out how whales are like us. Once they’re like us, then we can value them. That doesn’t work…You need to value whales for whatever they are and leave them alone. We value things that are useful to us, or like us, which is human-centred.

Ancient China wasn’t human-centred but was centred on landscape. Humans are only part of it… These unthought cultural assumptions come out in the arts. We have some remains of Paleolithic assumptions in Paleolithic art. We see the landscape, animals and sun… Either the human is not present or they’re very small in the images… These paintings are from around 1200 AD. If you think about Western art at this time, it’s all human-centred. It’s all Christian iconography or portraits. You don’t really see landscapes in Western art until the 18th or 19th centuries.

The lack of attention on the human in Chinese art is mirrored in its poetry.

Golden-Rain Rapids

Wind buffets and blows autumn rain.
Water cascading thin across rocks,
waves lash at each other. An egret
startles up, white, then settles back.

– Wang Wei

Reverence Pavilion Mountain, Sitting Alone

The birds have vanished into deep skies
A last cloud drips away, all idleness
Inexhaustible this mountain and I gaze at each other
It alone remaining.

– Li Bai

Or,

Evening View

Already, at South Tower: Evening stillness.
In the darkness, a few forest birds astir.
The busting city-wall sink out of sight
Deeper, deeper, just four mountain peaks.

And finally,

Egrets

Robes of snow, crests of snow, and beaks of azure jade,
they fish in shadowy streams.Then startling up into
flight, they leave emerald mountains for lit distances.
Pear blossoms, a tree-full, tumble in the evening wind.

There are a lot of ways of cultivating this kinship with nature and of reweaving nature into human consciousness. I want to end with a little journey inside yourselves to see how this kinship works. The most basic and essential way that the ancient Chinese achieved this kinship was through Chan meditation. I’m going to talk you through it and you can close your eyes if you wish. Chan meditation is about watching what’s going on in your mind. If you sit quietly for a minute with your eyes closed and just start watching what’s going on, you start seeing thoughts coming, going and trading around. The ancient Chinese realised we can watch our thoughts and that we are separate from them… We in the West think our brain is the essence of us and is what defines us. But, wonder of wonders, in 15 seconds of meditation we realise that thoughts are not just who we are… If you sit and keep watch quietly you start noticing how thoughts work… You realise that thoughts are new, thoughts appear and they evolve through their transformation, and then they end. It just keeps going and going… The ancient Chinese realised that thoughts work just like everything else. The natural world is all about change. Everything is constantly changing and nothing holds still. The West likes permanence. But in change is the possibility of change. Life emerges in spring, goes through its changes in summer, dies back into autumn, just like everything else, just like you and me and our thoughts.

So our minds are absolutely part of the same tissue as everything else. You’re weaving yourself back into things… That’s a beautiful place once we’re completely woven back together, a place where you can start thinking about environmental activism and about making changes. I remember early Greenpeace people and Earth First people talked about themselves this way as Earth defending itself. I’m just Earth defending itself.

I just want to end with one last poem to settle into that place, which is essentially a description of this meditative reweaving. It starts with someone who is self-absorbed and distracted.

Autumn begins unnoticed, Nights slowly lengthen,
And little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,
summer’s blaze giving way. My thatch hut grows still.
At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.

– Meng Hao-Jan

Why faith and moral courage? 

This content is a segment of an extensive event series exploring what faith and moral courage look like in an age of polycrisis. Where does extraordinary courage come from? What can we learn from people who’ve risked everything to live up to their values? What forms of courage are especially needed in our age of unravelling, uncertainty and risk? How can we inspire ourselves and each other to grow our capacity to brave our limits? Are there insights from the world’s spiritual and faith traditions that can help us grow our courage?

Chen has a background in art history and the creative industries. She supports the Faith and Moral Courage project, Contemplative Practice event series, and various creative endeavours at St Ethelburga's. Along with her regular meditation practice, Chen enjoys exploring different contemplative practices and experiences. When she is not on her yoga mat, she can usually be found in the kitchen, experimenting with culinary art and completely immersed in the mesmerising sound of Sanskrit.