The Jeweled Net of Nature

by Paul O. Ingram

Paul O. Ingram is Professor of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, WA 98447. He is the author of The Modern Buddhist-Christian Dialogue (Edwin Mellon, 1988), The Dharma of Faith (University Press of America, 1975), and editor, with Frederick J. Streng, of Buddhist-Christian Dialogue: Essays in Mutual Transformation (University of Hawaii Press, 1985).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 134-144, Vol. 22, Number 3, Fall, 1993. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author’s thesis is this: dialogical encounter with Buddhist tradition — in this case illustrated by the esoteric teachings of Kukai — and Western ecological models of reality emerging in the natural sciences and Christian process theology, may energize an already evolving global vision.

Most significant and profound is the teaching of the ultimate path of Mahayana. It teaches salvation of oneself and others. It does not exclude even animals or birds. The flowers in the spring fall beneath its branches; Dew in autumn vanishes before the withered grass.

ango shiki (Indications of the Goals of the Three Teachings) (K 139)1

During my last visit to Japan I was invited by three Shingon Buddhist lay scholars to a restaurant outside Osaka specializing in preparation and serving of a deadly toxic fish known as "fugu." Though it has a certain Russian-roulette quality, eating fugu is considered by many Japanese a highly aesthetic experience.

Of course, I declined; my aesthetic tastes run in different directions. Still, the experience of watching my friends eat fugu made me wonder about the condition that we, in chauvinistic shorthand, refer to as "human." Beings who will one day vanish from the earth in that ultimate subtraction of sensuality called death, we spend so much of our lives courting it: fomenting wars, watching with sickening horror movies in which maniacs slice and dice their victims, or hurrying to our own deaths in fast cars, cigarette smoking, or suicide. Death obsesses us, as well it might, but our responses are so strange.

This is particularly true of our response to nature. All we have to do is look in a mirror. The face that pins us with its double gaze reveals a frightening secret: we look into a predator’s eyes. It’s rough out there in nature, whether in the wilds of a rain forest or an urban jungle, partly because the earth is jammed with devout human predators unlike all others: we not only kill for food, we kill each other along with the natural forces nourishing life on this planet.

We stalk and kill nature even as we know what contemporary ecological research makes plain: that we are enfolded in a living, terrestrial environment in which all living and non-living things are so mutually implicated and interrelated that no distinct line separates life from non-life (LL Chap. 3). This conclusion is not only a biological claim; it is also a claim about the nature of reality. Of necessity, ecological research alters our understanding of ourselves, individually, and of human nature, generally. Or at least it ought to. For not only do "ecology and contemporary physics complement one another conceptually and converge toward the same metaphysical notions" (NAT 51), so do contemporary process theology and Buddhist teachings and practices. The question is, how can we, the most efficiently aggressive predators in nature, train ourselves to act according to what this research shows?

It is least of all a matter of technology, mostly a matter of vision, that sense of reality -- "the way things really are" -- according to which we most appropriately structure our relation to nature. For as Proverbs 29:18 warns, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." My thesis is this: dialogical encounter with Buddhist tradition -- in this case illustrated by the esoteric teachings of Kukai -- and Western ecological models of reality emerging in the natural sciences and Christian process theology, may energize an already evolving global vision through which to refigure and resolve the current ecological crisis. What is at stake is nothing less than the "liberation of life" (LL Chaps. 1 and 2).

But first, some remarks about mainstream Christian teaching about nature. In 1967, Lynn White, Jr.’s controversial essay, "The Modern Roots of our Ecological Crisis" (S 155: 1203-1207) started a debate that raged through the 1970s among theologians, philosophers, and scientists. One focal point of this debate was White’s recommendation for reforming the Christian Way in order to lead humanity out of the ecological shadow of death he thought "mainstream Christianity" originally created. Specifically, he recommended that mainstream Christianity endorse a "Franciscan world view" and "panpsychism" in order to deliberately reconstruct a contemporary Western environmental ethic (S 155: 1206-1207).

Initial reaction to White’s essay focused on identifying the Christian world view. Surprisingly, there was little Christian bashing; more surprising, most Christian discussion agreed with White’s characterization of Christian tradition. But there was little agreement about how to reconstruct a distinctively Christian view of nature, or indeed, whether it could or should be reconstructed.

Recently, the structure of "mainstream" Christian tradition roughly caricatured by White was formulated into a typology by J. Baird Collicott and Roger T. Ames (NAT 3-4): (1) God transcends nature; (2) nature is a creation, an artifact, of a divine craftsman-like male creator; (3) human beings are exclusively created in God’s image, and therefore essentially segregated from the rest of nature; (4) human beings are given dominion by God over nature; (5) God commands humanity to subdue nature and multiply the human species; (6) nature is viewed politically and hierarchically -- God over humanity, humanity over nature, male over female -- which establishes an exploitive ethical-political pecking order and power structure; (7) the image of God-in-humanity is the ground of humanity’s intrinsic value, but nonhuman entities lack the divine image and are religiously and ethically disenfranchised and possess merely instrumental value for God and human beings; (8) the biblical view of nature’s instrumental value is compounded in mainline Christian theology by an Aristotelian-Thomistic teleology that represents nature as a support system for rational human beings.

The upshot of this seems clear. The great monotheistic traditions of the West are the major sources of Western moral and political attitudes. Christianity doctrinally focuses on humanity’s uniqueness as a species. Thus if one wants theological license to increase radioactivity without constraint, to consent to the bulldozer mentality of developers, or to encourage unbridled harvest of old growth forests, historically there has been no better scriptural source than Genesis 1-2. The mythological injunctions to conquer nature, the enemy of God and humanity, are here.

However, placing the full blame for the environmental crisis on the altar of the Christian Way is far too simplistic. Historically, the biblical creation story was read through the sensitivities of Greco-Roman philosophy; in fact, the legacy of Greco-Roman contributions to the ecological crisis may be more powerfully influential than distinctively biblical contributions.

Furthermore, Greek philosophical anthropology assumed an atomistic world view, paradigmatically expressed in Plato and given its modern version by Descartes. Human nature is dualistic, composed of body and soul. The body, especially in Descartes’ version, is like any other natural entity, exhaustively describable in atomistic-mechanistic language. But the human soul resides temporarily in the body -- the ghost in the machine -- and is otherworldly in nature and destiny. Thus human beings are both essentially and morally segregated from God, nature, and each other. Accordingly, the natural environment can and should be engineered to human specifications, no matter what the environmental consequences, without either human responsibility or penalty.

Here we have it in a nutshell. The contemporary ecological crisis represents a failure of prevailing Western ideas and attitudes: a male oriented culture in which it is believed that reality exists only as human beings perceive it (Berkeley); whose structure is a hierarchy erected to support humanity at its apex (Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes); to whom God has given exclusive dominance over all life forms and inorganic entities (Genesis 1-2); in which God has been transformed into humanity’s image by modern secularism (Genesis inverted). It seems unlikely that mainstream Christian tradition, married as it is in the West to the traditions of Greco-Roman philosophy, is capable of resolving the ecological crisis Christian reading of Genesis 1-2 through Greco-Roman philosophy created.

However, the traditional Western-Christian paradigm of nature is being challenged by new ecological models and theoretical explanations of the interconnectedness of humanity with nature developing within the natural sciences.2 Recent Christian theological discussion, most notably process theology, also focuses on these same scientific models in recognition of the inadequacies of traditional Christian and secular views of nature.3 Of course, there are a number of Western versions of this emerging ecological paradigm; no two of them are exactly alike in their technical details or explanatory categories. Even so, it is possible to abstract three principles these paradigms share.4

The first principle is holistic unity -- nature is an "eco-system whose constituent elements exist in constantly changing, interdependent causal relationships. What an entity is, or becomes, is a direct function of how it relates with every entity in the universe at every moment of space-time.

Second is the principle of interior life movements -- all living entities possess a life force intrinsic to their own natures that is not imposed from other things or from God, but derived from life itself. That is, life is an emerging field of force supporting networks of interrelationship and interdependency ceaselessly occurring in all entities in the universe. Or to invert traditional Christian images of God, God does not impose or give life; God is the chief exemplar of life.

The third principle -- that of organic balance -- means that all things and events at every moment of space-time are interrelated bipolar processes that proceed toward balance and harmony between opposites.

Similar organic principles have always been structural elements of the Buddhist world view. The Shingon (Ch., chen-yen or "truth word") "esoteric" (Jpn., mikky or "secret teaching") transmission established in Japan by Kukai in the ninth century particularly embraces these elements.5 His Buddhist environmental paradigm is summarized in the first stanza of a two-stanza poem Kukai wrote in Chinese in Attaining Enlightenment in This Very Body (Sokushin jobutsu gi).

The Six Great Elements are interfused and are in a state of eternal harmony.

The Four Mandalas are inseparably related to one another.

When the grace of the Three Mysteries is retained, (our inborn three mysteries will) be quickly manifested.

Infinitely interrelated like the meshes of Indra’s net are those we call existences. (K 227)

The first two lines, "The Six Great Elements are interfused in a state of eternal harmony," presuppose two propositions upon which Kukai’s Buddhist understanding of nature rests: (I) The Buddha, Dainichi Nyorai ("Great Sun"; Skt., Mahavairocana Tathagata), and the Six Great Elements are interfused, and (2) Dainichi and the universe coexist in a state of timeless non-dual harmony.

Kukai’s buddhaology and subsequent Shingon doctrinal formulation assumed standard Mahayana "three-body theory (Skt., trikaya; Jpn., sanshin), but with a difference. Prior to Kukai’s teacher, Hui-kuo, Dainichi was symbolized as one of a number of sambhogakaya ("body of bliss") forms of absolute reality called dharmakaya ("Dharma" or "Teaching Body") that all Buddhas comprehend and manifest when they become "enlightened ones." But in exoteric Buddhist teaching and esoteric Buddhist tantra prior to Hui-kuo and Kukai, the Dharmakaya is ultimate reality, beyond names and forms, utterly beyond verbal capture by doctrines, while yet the foundational source of all Buddhist thought and practice. Thus Sambhogakaya forms of Buddhas are not "historical Buddhas" (nirmanakaya), of whom the historical Shakyamuni is an example: they exist in nonhistorical realms of existence, forever enjoying their enlightened bliss, as objects of human veneration and devotion. Normally, bodhisattvas and nonhistorical Buddhas, including Dainichi, were represented as Sambhogakaya forms of the eternal Dharmakaya.

It was probably Hui-kuo who first identified Dainichi as the Dharmakaya Buddha and who taught that the Dainichi-kyo and the Kongocho-kyo, which according to Shingon teaching embody the fullest expression of truth, were preached by Dainichi, not the historical Shakyamuni (K 881-82).6 Kukai, following Hui-kuo, transformed Dainichi into a personified, uncreated, imperishable, beginning-less and endless Ultimate Reality. He reasoned that as the sun is the source of light and warmth, Dainichi is the "Great Luminous One" at the source of enlightenment and unity underlying the diversity of the phenomenal world. And since the Buddha Nature is within all things and events in space-time -- an idea Kukai also accepted -- the implication is that Dainichi is the Ultimate Reality "originally" within all sentient beings and nonsentient natural phenomena. As Kukai explained it:

Where is the Dharmakaya? It is not far away; it is in our own bodies. The source of wisdom? In our mind. Indeed, it is close to us. (K 227)

As a Buddhist, Kukai also accepted the doctrine of "interdependent co-origination" (Skt., pratityasamutpada), but he interpreted this teaching according to his notion that reality is constituted by the Six Great Elements in ceaselessly interdependent and interpenetrating interaction: earth, water, fire. wind, space, and consciousness or "mind" (Skt., citta; .Jpn., shin). The adjective "great" signifies the universality of each element. The first five elements stand for all material realities, and the last, "consciousness," for the Body and Mind of Dainichi.

All Buddhas and unenlightened beings, all sentient and non-sentient beings, all material "worlds" are "created" by the ceaseless interaction of the Six Great Elements. This means that all phenomena are identical in their constituent self-identity; all are in a state of constant transformation; and there are no absolute differences between human nature and the natural order, body and mind, male and female, enlightenment and ignorance. In short, reality -- the way things really are -- is nondual. In Kukai’s words:

Differences exist between matter and mind, but in their essential nature they remain the same. Matter is no other than mind; mind no other than matter. Without any obstruction, they are interrelated. The subject is the object; the object the subject. The seeing is the seen; the seen the seeing. Nothing differentiates them. Although we speak of creating and the created, there is in reality neither creation nor the created. (K 82)7

The problem is, how do we train ourselves to experience this eternal cosmic harmony and attune ourselves to it as it occurs? This "how" is expressed in the second line of the stanza: "The Four Mandalas are inseparably related to one another." Involved here is the practice of meditation, which in Shingon tradition is a skillful method (upaya) of integrating our body, speech, and mind (the "three mysteries" or sanmitsu) with the eternal harmony of Dainichi’s Body, Speech, and Mind. In this sense, Shingon meditation is a process of imitation of Dainichi’s enlightened harmony with nature through ritual performance of mudras (Body), mantras (Speech), and mandalas (Mind).

Shingon training involves a number of mandalas, but Kukai’s poem refers to four: (1) the "Maha-mandala" or "Great Mandala" (Jpn., daimandara) are circular portrayals of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and deities in anthropomorphic form painted in the five Buddhist colors -- yellow, white, red, black, and blue or blue-green. Each color corresponds to five of the Six Great Elements: earth is yellow, water is white, fire is red, wind is black, space is blue. Since consciousness is nonmaterial, it is colorless and cannot be depicted in the mandala. But Kukai also taught that there is perfect interpenetration of the Six Great Elements, so that consciousness is present in the five colors and pervades the painting. Thus Maha-mandalas symbolize the universe as the physical extension of Dainichi.

The second mandala is the Samaya-mandala. "Samaya" is a Sanskrit word meaning "a coming together, and agreement." So Samaya-mandalas express the ontological unity underlying the diversity of all things in space-time as forms of Dainichi’s Dharma Body. Accordingly, every thing and event in the universe is a samaya or "coming together, and agreement" of this ontological unity -- all things and events are forms of Dainichi -- experienced from the perspective of Dainichi, as well as all Buddhas.8

The third mandala, the Dharma Mandala, is the same circle as the Mahamandala and the Samaya Mandala, but "viewed" as the sphere where "revelation" of absolute truth -- the Dharma -- takes place. Thus Dharma mandalas portray Dainichi Nyorai’s continual communication of the Dharma throughout all moments of space-time to all sentient and non-sentient beings. The universe is Dainichi’s "sound-body." Dharma mandalas represent the totality of the sound of the Dharma as Dainichi continually discloses or "preaches" it throughout the universe as depicted in "seed syllables" (Skt., bija; Jpa., shuji) written in Sanskrit letters.

Finally, Karma Mandalas are the same circle viewed from the perspective of Dainichi’s action in the realm of samsara. Since, as Kukai taught, all things and events, all transformations in the flux of nature, interpenetrate the actions of Dainichi’s Dharma Body, every change in any form or entity is simultaneously an action of Dainichi. Conversely, every action of Dainichi is simultaneously the action of all things and events in the universe.9

In summary, the Four Mandalas symbolize Dainichi Nyorai’s "extension, intention, communication, and action" (K 91). "Extension" is Dainichi’s compassionate wisdom; "communication" is his intended "self-revelation" as the "preaching of the Dharmakaya" in all things and events in space-time; and his "action" is all movement in the universe.

The third line of the stanza, "When the grace of the Three Mysteries is retained (our inborn three mysteries will) be quickly manifested," summarizes Kukai’s conception of esoteric Buddhist practice. In relation to Dainichi Nyorai, the Three Mysteries stand for suprarational activities or macrocosmic functions of Dainichi’s Body, Speech, and Mind at work in all things and events. Thus through the Mystery of Body, Dainichi’s suchness is incarnate within the patterns and forms of all natural phenomena; the Mystery of Speech refers to Dainichi’s continual "preaching" or "revelation" of the Dharma through every thing and event in space time; the Mystery of Mind refers to Dainichi’s own enlightened experience of the "suchness" of all natural phenomena as interdependent forms of the Dharmakaya.10 In this way, Kukai personified the Three Mysteries as interrelated forms of Dainichi’s enlightened compassion toward all sentient and nonsentient beings.

Finally, in the stanza’s fourth line, "Infinitely interrelated like the meshes of Indra’s net are those we call existences," Kukai employed the well-known Buddhist simile of India’s net. As every jewel of India’s net reflects all others, and as all jewels are reflected in a single jewel, so existence is Dainichi Nyorai: seemingly discrete entities are interdependent forms of Dainichi, the one ultimate reality underlying the diversity of all natural phenomena. Or in Kukai’s words:

Existence is my existence, the existence of the Buddhas and the existence of all sentient beings.... The existence of the Buddha (Mahavairocana) is the existence of sentient beings and vice versa. They are not identical; they are not different but are nevertheless different.20 (K 106)

That Kukai’s Esoteric Buddhist teachings assert an ecological conception of nature quite different from mainstream Christian tradition is quite evident. First, Christian tradition understands and explains the universe in terms of a divine plan with respect to its creation and final end. Kukai’s universe is completely nonteleological. For him, the universe has neither beginning nor end, no creator, and no purpose. The universe just is, to be taken as given, a marvelous fact which can be understood only in terms of its own inner dynamism.

Second, mainstream Christian teaching and our Greek philosophical heritage have taught the West that nature is a world of limited, external, and special relationships. We have family relationships, marital relationships, relationships with a limited number of animal species, and occasional relationships with inanimate objects, most of which are external. But it is hard for us to imagine how anything is internally related to everything. How, for example, are we related to a star in Orion? How are Euro-Americans related to Lakota native Americans or Alaskan Inuit? How are plants and animals related to us, other than externally as objects for exploitation? In short, Western persons generally find it easier to think of isolated beings and insulated minds, rather than of One Reality ontologically interconnecting all things and events.

In contrast, Kukai’s universe is a universe of non-dual-identity-in-difference, in which there is total interdependence: what affects and effects one item in the cosmos affects and effects every item, whether it is death, ignorance, enlightenment, or sin.

Finally, the mainstream Christian view of existence is one of rigid hierarchy, in which a male creator-god occupies the top link in the chain of being, human beings next, and nature -- animals, plants, rocks -- the bottom. In contrast, Kukai’s universe posits no hierarchy. Nor does it have a center, of if it does, it is everywhere. In short, Kukai’s universe leaves no room for anthropocentric biases endemic to Hebraic and Christian tradition, as well as those modern movements of philosophy having roots in Cartesian affirmation of human consciousness divorced from dead nature.

It is at this point that Kukai’s Esoteric Buddhist world view makes contact with the vision and work of earlier Western physicists such as Faraday and Maxwell, later physicists such as Einstein and Bohr, and process philosophy and Christian process theology. Like Western "new physics" and process thought, Kukai ‘s world view also characterizes nature as an "aesthetic order" that cognitively resonates with contemporary Western ecological ideas.

According to Roger Ames (NAT 117), an "aesthetic order" is a paradigm that: (1) proposes plurality as prior to unity and disjunction to conjunction, so that all particulars possess real and unique individuality; (2) focuses on the unique perspective of concrete particulars as the source of emergent harmony and unity in all interrelationships; (3) entails movement away from any universal characteristic to concrete particular detail; (4) apprehends movement and change in the natural order as a processive act of "disclosure" -- and hence describable in qualitative language; (5) perceives that nothing is predetermined by preassigned principles, so that creativity is apprehended in the natural order, in contrast to being determined by God or chance; and (6) understands "rightness" to mean the degree to which a thing or event expresses, in its emergence toward novelty as this exists in tension with the unity of nature, an aesthetically pleasing order.

In contrast to the aesthetic order implicit in Kukai’s view of nature and contemporary science and process thought, the "logical order" of mainline Christianity characterized by Ames assumes: (1) preassigned patterns of relatedness, a blueprint" wherein unity is prior to plurality, and plurality is a "fall" from unity; (2) values concrete particularity only to the degree it mirrors this preassigned pattern of relatedness; (3) reduces particulars to only those aspects needed to illustrate the given pattern, which necessarily entails moving away from concrete particulars toward the universal; (4) interprets nature as a closed system of predetermined specifications, and therefore reducible to quantitative description; (5) characterizes being as necessity, creativity as conformity, and novelty as defect; and (6) views "rightness" as the degree of conformity to preassigned patterns (NAT 116).

A number of examples of logical order come to mind: Plato’s realm of Ideas, for instance, constitutes a preassigned pattern that charts particular things and events as real or good only to the degree they conform to these preexistent ideas. But aesthetic orders such as Kukai’s or process philosophy’s are easily distinguishable from a logical order. In both, there are no preassigned patterns in things and events in nature. Creativity and order work themselves Out through the arrangements and relationships of the particular constituents in the natural order. Nature is a "work of art" in which "rightness" is defined by the comprehension of particular details that constitute it as a work of art.

Of course, the technical details of the "aesthetic order" portrayed by Kukai’s ecological paradigm, and, for example, those of Christian process theology, are not identical. This much, however, should be noted: in spite of important technical differences, two common conceptualities are foundational in Kukai’s world view and Whiteheadian process theology. The first is there is continuity within nature. Kukai portrayed this continuity in his doctrines of the Three Mysteries and the Six Great Elements. For both Kukai and Whiteheadian thought, nature’s continuity extends internal relatedness -- a metaphysical relatedness in which individuals and societies are constituted by relationships of interdependence -- to organic and inorganic nature. The second shared teaching is that human beings have vital connection with nature, since all of nature is interconnected. This corresponds to Kukai’s image of Indra’s Jeweled Net, as well as his doctrine of the Six Great Elements.

Whitehead’s definition of "living body" gives some precision to these similarities. The living body, he writes, is "a region of nature which is itself the primary field of expression issuing from each of its parts" (MT 22). This means that those entities that are centers of expression and feeling are alive, and Whitehead clearly applies this description to both animal and vegetable bodies. Also, this same definition of living body is an expansion of his definition of the human and animal body; the distinction between animals and vegetables is not a sharp one (MT 22-25).

Whitehead also contended that precise classification of the differences between organic and inorganic nature is not possible; although such classification might be pragmatically useful for scientific investigation, it is dangerous for nature. Scientific classifications often obscure the fact that "different modes of natural existence often shade off into each other" (MT 18). The same point was made in Process and Reality, where Whitehead noted that there are no distinct boundaries in the continuum of nature, and thus no distinct boundaries between living organisms and inorganic entities; whatever differences there are is a matter of degree. This does not mean that differences are unimportant; even degrees of difference affirm the continuity of all nature (PR 109; 179).

This point is central to Whiteheadian biologist Charles Birch and process theologian John Cobb’s definition of "life." They raise the issue of the boundaries between animate and inanimate in light of the ambiguity of "life" on hypothetical boundaries (LL 92). Viruses are particularly good examples of entities possessing the properties of life and nonlife. Another example is cellular organelles, which reproduce but are incapable of life independent of the cell that is their environment.

The significance of these examples for the ecological model of life Birch and Cobb propose is that every entity is internally related to its environment. Human beings are not exceptions to the model, nor in Cobb’s opinion, is God, who is the chief example of what constitutes Life (LL 176-78; 195-200). Kukai’s view is similar: every entity in nature is internally related to its environment and to Dainichi. Although Dainichi is not a reality Christians or Shingon Buddhists name as God, like God, Dainichi is the chief example of what constitutes Life.

As there is continuity between organic and inorganic in Whiteheadian process thought, so too there is continuity between human and nonhuman. Whitehead underscored this continuity by including "higher animals" in his definition of "living person." Both human beings and animals are living persons characterized by a dominant occasion of experience which coordinates and unifies the activities of the plurality of occasions and enduring objects which ceaselessly form persons. Personal order is linear, serial, object-to-subject inheritance of the past in the present. Personal order in human beings and in nature is one component of what Whitehead called "the doctrine of the immanence of the past energizing the present" (AI 188). This linear, one-dimensional character of personal inheritance from the past is called the "vector-structure" of nature. A similar picture of nature evolves in Kukai’s notions of the Five Elements and the Three Secrets.

At this point, the question is, so what? Why is it important for Western organic environmental paradigms to encounter Asian versions of organic views of nature such as Kukai’s? The answer is, because what people do to the natural environment corresponds to what they think and experience about themselves in relation to the things around them.

Even at the level of empirical confirmation of scientific theory, it seems evident that "the ruination of the natural world is directly related to the psychological and spiritual health of the human race since our practices follow our perceptions."11 Culture and world view, faith and practice, merge in language and indicate perceptions in persons and in societies. When we relate to nature as a "thing" separate from ourselves or as separate from God, we not only engender, but perpetuate the environmental nightmare through which we are now living. The Christian term for this separation of ourselves from nature is "original sin," the Buddhist word is "desire" (tanha).

The environmental destructiveness of Western rationalism’s hyper-yang view of its own culture and of nature has been to a large extent delayed. But the ecological limits of the Earth are now stretched, and in some cases, broken. Dialogue with Asian views of nature such as Kukai’s can foster the process of Western self-critical "consciousness-raising" by providing alternative places to stand and imagine new possibilities. In so doing, we might discern deeper organic strata within our own inherited cultural biases and assumptions, and apprehend that we neither stand against nor dominate nature.

But like any particular dialogue, dialogue between Buddhists and Christians about nature has an inner and an outer dimension. Discussion of organic paradigms must not remain at the level of verbal abstraction. Buddhists can understand and appreciate the conceptions and technical language of Christian process views; process theologians can understand and appreciate Buddhist conceptions of nature. Both may be conceptually transformed. But this is an outer dialogue. Important as such dialogue is, it is incomplete if divorced from an inner dialogue about how Buddhists and Christians can personally experience non-duality between themselves and nature. For to the degree we experience the realities to which Buddhist and process Christian concepts of nature point, to that degree are we energized to live according to the organic structures of nature outer dialogue conceptually reveals.

It’s like the union of lyrics with music in a great chorale: the "music" of inner dialogue "enfleshes" the abstract lyrics of outer dialogue. What inner dialogue teaches is that we can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience -- even of silence -- by choice. People destroy the environment -- by choice because they experience it as a machine. Choosing to experience nature organically is to stalk our calling in skilled and supple ways, to locate the most tender live spot in nature we can find and plug into its pulse. This is yielding to nature, not dominating nature.

From Kukai’s perspective transformed by encounter with Christian process thought, outer and inner dialogue means, appropriating Joseph Campbell’s words, "following our collective bliss." Would it not be proper, and obedient, and pure, to begin by flowing with nature rather than dominating nature, dangling from it limp wherever nature takes us. Then even death, where we are going no matter what, cannot us part. Seize nature and let it seize us up aloft, until our eyes burn and drop out; let our murky flesh fall off in shreds, and let our bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles. Then we discover there was never anything to seize, nothing to grasp all along, because we are nature, looking at ourselves.

Or from a Christian process theological perspective transformed by inner and outer dialogue with Kukai: God does not demand that we give up our personal dignity, that we throw in our lot with random people, that we lose ourselves and turn from all that is not God. For God is the "Life" of nature, intimior intimo meo, as Augustine put it -- "more intimate than I am to myself." God needs nothing, demands nothing, like the stars. It is life with God that demands these things. Of course, we do not have to stop abusing the environment; not at all. We do not have to stop abusing nature -- unless we want to know God. It’s like sitting outside on a cold, clear winter’s night. We don’t have to do so; it may be too cold. If, however, we want to look at the stars, we will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.



K -- Kukai: Major Works, Trans. Yoshitito S. Hakeda. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.

LL -- Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr. The Liberation of Life. Denton, TX: Environmental Ethics Books, 1990.

NAT -- Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought. Eds. J. Baird Collicott and Roger T. Ames. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989.

S 155 -- Lynn White, Jr. "The Modern Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." Science 155 (1967): 1203-07.



1All citations from Kukai’s works in this essay are from Hakeda’s translation, although I have checked them against the Chinese text in Yoshitake Inage, ed., Kobo Daishi Zenshu (The Complete Works of Kobo Daishi), 3rd edition revised (Tokyo: Mikkyo Bunka Kenkyusha, 1965). Although Hakeda’s volume does not translate all of Kukai’s works, it remains the best English translation of Kukai’s most influential writings in print. Since I cannot improve on Hakeda’s translations, I have cited his with gratitude.

2See E. A. Bunt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1954). Also see Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature; two recent studies by Kenneth Boulding entitled The World As a Total System (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1985) and Ecodynamics (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1981); and two works by Fritjof Capra entitled The Tao of Physics (Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications, 1975) and The Turning Point (New York: Bantam Books. 1982).

3 I have recently cited John B. Cobb, Jr.’s, Is It Too Late? Toward A Theology of Ecology. Also see The Liberation of Life (LL) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Richard H. Oberman, Evolution and the Christian Doctrine of Creation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967); and a series of wonderful essays edited by Ian Barbour, Earth Might be Fair: Reflections on Ethics, Religion, and Ecology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1972), especially Huston Smith’s essay, "Tao Now: An Ecological Testament," 66-69.

4Much of what follows is based on previous research published in my essay, "Nature’s Jeweled Net: Kukai’s Ecological Buddhism," The Pacific World 6 (1990): 50-64.

5Kukai (774-835), "Empty Sea," is commonly known as Kobo Daishi, an honorific title posthumously awarded to him by the Heian Court. "Kobo" means "to widely transmit the Buddha’s teachings," and "Daishi" means "great teacher." Widely revered in his own time, Kukai remains a figure of profound reverence in Japan today, both as a Buddhist master and a culture hero. In 804 Kukai traveled to China to study Buddhism, and while there he visited many eminent teachers, among whom was the esoteric master, Hui-kuo (746-805). He become Hui-kuo’s favorite disciple. Presumably, Kukai’s understanding of Hui-kuo’s teachings was so impressive that Hui-kuo declared Kukai his dharma-heir before he died. Kukai’s study in Japan lasted only thirty months, and he returned to Japan at age thirty-three as the eighth patriarch of the Shingon School. See Hakeda, Kukai, 10-15.

6Also see Yamasaki Taiko, Shingon: Japanese Esoteric Buddhism (Boston: Shambala Publications, 1988), 62-64.

7Sokushin Jobutsu Gi (Attaining Enlightenment in This Very Existence).

8Samaya Mandalas portray each of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and deities in some samaya or "symbolic" form, such as a jewel, sword, or lotus, that embodies the special quality of the individual Buddha, Bodhisattva, or deity portrayed.

9Karma Mandalas portray the "actions of awe-inspiring deportment" (rijigyo) of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in three-dimensional figures representing each particular Buddha and Bodhisattva painted in the five colors of the Great Mandala.

t0Adrian Snodgrass, "The Shingon Buddhist Doctrines of Interpenetration," Religious Traditions 9 (1986): 66-68; and Yamasaki, 106.

11Jay C. Rochelle, "Letting Go: Buddhism and Christian Models," The Eastern Buddhist (Autumn 1989): 45.