Monday, February 7, 2011

A perpetual existence of the good life

There is no such thing.

My grandpa had once told me about a Tibetan custom: each year, the monks make a beautiful design in the image of the Buddha from flowers that were brought to the temple by the devoted. Each year, after the completion of this labor intensive undertake, the carpet of flowers bearing the astonishing image of Siddhārtha Gautama was destroyed in a blaze set by those who had made his image.

I remember asking my grandpa, but why would the monks work so hard all those months just so they could set it to flame?

What seemed to me counter-intuitive was obvious to my grandfather. He would laugh intentionally, not to belittle me, but to show the ignorance of my faith in something so intangible to the facts of life. He would tell me the monks knew that no matter how much we treasure the seemingly tangible, we would have to acknowledge its eventual cessation from our awareness. “All things come to an end,” he would say,” and that is why “the monks would continue this custom year after year, to show their devotion to the cycle of life that must end and begin again.” What is more important to the monks is not the product of their labor, but their opportunity to make a better one next year – to show their devotion and their celebration to life.

Today I saw a Huffington Post article about how China had banned reincarnations without government permission. This was a direct response to the Dali Lama’s indication that his successor would not be born inside Tibet so long it is under Chinese control.

My first reaction was anger. My instinct was to criticize the Chinese government for its shortsighted policies and its futile attempt to reach beyond its control.

Then, I realized something more peculiar in my range of possible reactions: something more precarious but inescapable just as the eventual destruction of Siddhartha’s image year after year – China will never be able to control the spiritual continuation of a faith by regulating it.

Oddly this made me realize another very important, precarious and inescapable, truth about my American family: the government will never be able to regulate our fundamental relationship with food and our sustainable necessities. As a culture just beginning to understand the value of our health, the worth of our fundamental rights, the need to govern ourselves with regards to the basics of our livelihood, there will always be those of us who continue to believe in what we believe. Through our labor and our perpetual effort, we will make a better life than what we think of as the perpetual good life. We will replace this industrialized food culture with a bio-diverse, locally distributed, culturally rich agriculture landscape; we will replace this over-consumptive and polluted environment with a refreshing spiritual one.

If the monks can try and try each year, remaking the image of their worship, then we can try and try, in however small ways we can to be sustainable and green, to help remake this one and only planet in the image of our own determination. But first we must believe, just as the monks have believed, that we are capable of making positive changes, not afraid of letting go what we value - a Big Mac with cheese. Only so can the Dali Lama live on in the minds of his believers, and only then can we live in the minds of our founding fathers – who believed in us to make this a perfect union of the states for the people and by the people.

Just as Tibetan Buddhism is not about where or who the Dali Lama reincarnation should be, sustainability is not about what label or what government regulation is. Both are about the believers doing the perpetual task of making the imperfect state of things into a better one, year after year, life after life.

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