Archive for March, 2012

Towards a metaphysics of culture and ecology

Thursday, March 29th, 2012


Supreme Being Shiva that continuously dissolves to recreate

in the cyclic process of creation, preservation,

dissolution and recreation of the universe.

“Evolutionary wisdom is quite simply the deep realisation of our nature as nature. I am not referring to an abstract knowledge of other primate species as our ancestors, but rather to a deep sense of our co-emergence with the elements, the sea and atmosphere, cellular life and sunlight, plants and animals, sentience- the whole evolutionary shebang. When we can experience ourselves as part of the processes of biological and cosmic evolution, we automatically begin to break free from the domination of ego. We are finally able to loosen the tight shoe of self. Our lives gain new dimension, context, gestalt. We begin to give ourselves some space”.

(Wes Nisker, ‘Buddah’s Nature’)

1 Ethical propriety of living sustainably

Human culture in all its diversity is the outcome of the capacity for conceptual thinking.  We live in a visually intensive society.   Symbols, like artifacts, are things which act as triggers to remind people in a culture of its concepts; the rules, beliefs, etc by which it is organised. They act as a shorthand way to keep people aligned.  In so far as art is undoubtedly an outcome of human conduct, it should be drawn into the domain of human ecological behaviour expressed as living sustainably, which itself has become one of the most ambitious and fertile aspects of the 21st century thought. A new concern for art is therefore to consider what is identified as the ethical content of symbols to promote a conservation culture; their moral and aesthetic style and their impact in mass-education for behaviour change.  The history of images used for this purpose dates from the 1960s but ancient religious imagery is also relevant.  In this connection Clifford Geertz, in his book ‘Religion as a Cultural System’, wrote:

“As we are to deal with meaning, let us begin with a paradigm viz. that sacred symbols function to synthesize a people’s ethos – the tone, character and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood – the picture they have of the way things in sheer actuality are, their most comprehensive ideas of order”.

Seven forms of behaviour are implicit in conservation management of Earth’s resources:







Care for environment

It can be argued that cosmopolitanism is the philosophical pillar for living sustainably.  The other ‘ism’ for liberating self in community is communitarianism, which defines human beings first and foremost in terms of their cultural identity, while according to cosmopolitans, reason should be the governing principle of human interaction. The cosmopolitan belief in the emancipatory power of the human capacity for reasoning derives from the idea that reasoning is a shared capacity, capable of providing the basis for moral principles, which aim to deliver humankind from the mire of ignorance and superstition

Thomas Pogge defines cosmopolitanism in terms of three important characteristics:

  • Individuality–the consideration is for individual people, not groups, tribes, families, or nation states:
  • Universality–status of moral consideration is equal to all, not just to a particular group like whites, men, or those in the “developed” world, and
  • Generality–the special and equal moral status of all individuals has global force. Persons are units for everyone’s concern, which means you should not simply concern yourself with your own fellow compatriots in a more local sphere. In short, our moral responsibility spans across geographical boundaries.

All seven concepts are part of the ethical propriety of contemporary cultural ecology. As symbols they represent a worldview of the social framework needed for humanity to survive ‘peak oil’ and maintain the movement towards global democracy that is needed for transformation into a learning rather than consuming society, with less greed, more spirituality and care for the future.

Sustainable development policies generally embody an economic determinism with respect to technological change. It avoids the issue of ethics and assumes environmental and economic goals are compatible. Yet makers of social policy today are grappling with the ethical dilemmas posed by everyday conflicts between the economic and environmental requirements of living sustainably. Such propriety is related to art’s instrumentality. This is a contemporary aesthetic issue in the fullest sense of the word. The desire to create legitimate, easily read patterns, models, pathways for systems thinking about people and environment, is one that is traced throughout the rise of environmentalism from the early 1960s to the present time. Memorable images, either directly experienced or seen through a mediated format, are those that people think about. They are usually simple compositions with immediate impact. They are images that trigger the emotional and rational aspects of the mind’s personality, to crystallise a meaningful message. They are pictures recalled again and again long after the original object of oral perception has faded from memory (Fig 1).  It has been argued the industrial, mass production model of education, as schooling being confined to factory-like buildings for persons between the ages of four and twenty-something, should change. Education must urgently be regenerated by spatial and temporal expansion into life-long learning about living sustainably in physical, architectural and social spaces that breathe with the community.

 Fig1 An image map of ethical propriety for living sustainably.


As long ago as the 1930s Otto Neurath invented the ‘community museum’ in Vienna, dedicated to presenting the social issues of the time in a universal pictorial language. His aim was to draw the attention of the man in the street to these, hoping for a behavioural change for the better.  ‘When a Viennese citizen enters this museum,’ he wrote, ‘he finds reflected his problems, his past, his future – himself’.

2 Oneness with the universe

People must create and maintain a local accommodating social, economic, and natural environment for a desirable quality of life, over time, indefinitely. Sustainable communities don’t evolve naturally from the pursuit of individual economic self-interests; they must be created and sustained by the conscious and purposeful decisions of people working together with ethical propriety for the common good. Sustainable communities must continually reassess the ecological, social, and economic assets of their communities, and through the processes of local planning, nurture a continuing culture of sustainability. The community planning process is important, but planning can be effective only if it is guided by a shared sense of purpose and common understanding of the ethical principles necessary to achieve that purpose.

Each community is different, with different resources, capacities, visions, and capabilities. Thus, the developmental goals, plans, and strategies must be tailored to maintain a particular sense of place. However, the basic purpose and principles of sustainability are not arbitrary or voluntary. They are inviolable principles of nature and natural law that must guide all sustainable societies. Here, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyse human nature — both social and personal — and deduce binding rules of moral behaviour.  The Sanskrit word for ethics is dharma (“to hold”). It signifies that which upholds or embodies law, custom, and religion, and is analogous to the concept of ‘Natural Law’ in Christian ethics. Jesus’ ministry was focussed on how people should behave towards each other in this world.  This trans-religion metaphorical emphasis on an image of communitarianism is also a feature of the Hindu Upanishads, the authorless philosophical texts considered to be an early source of Hindu spirituality. In the Upanishads, the thread (sutra) is described as the link between this world and ‘the other world’ and all beings. It connects self with universe and in all things it ‘must be followed back to its source’.   Eastern mystics also see the universe metaphorically as an inseparable web, whose interconnections are dynamic.

 All these simple, everyday images emphasize that the universe has to be grasped dynamically, as it moves, vibrates and dances.  In Indian philosophy, the main terms used by Hindus and Buddhists have dynamic connotations. The word Brahman (Shiva) to denote the power that is the source and sustainer of the universe, is derived from the Sanskrit root brih – to grow- and thus suggests a reality which is dynamic, alive and expanding. The Upanishads refer to Brahman as ‘this unformed, immortal, moving’, thus associating it with cosmic motion even though it transcends all forms. The Hindu Rig Veda uses another term to express the dynamic character of the universe, the word Rita. This comes from the root ri- to move. Cosmic oneness is thus intrinsically dynamic, and the apprehension of its dynamic nature is basic to all schools of Eastern mysticism.  In this context, Buddhist thought is tremendously rich in the arena of human consciousness and its connectedness with nature.  Buddha himself was very close to understanding reality as he knew that matter was both impermanent and interconnected; like a candle flame, the world is in continuous flux and is impermanent.

The most important characteristic of the Eastern worldview – one could almost say the essence of it – is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness. All things are seen as interdependent and inseparable parts of this cosmic whole; as different manifestations of the same ultimate reality.  This is a cosmic reality of cultural ecology and why, as a concept, it offers a new metaphysical focus for living sustainably in the present, a present of things now, a present of things to come; and a present of things past, in a dynamic equilibrium.

3 Science of the real

Science attempts to separate, categorize, quantify, and objectify physical experience, labelling certain aspects as “real” and others as “not real”. In contrast, metaphysics includes science, but goes beyond it to encompass all aspects and dimensions of life experience as “real”.  Fritjof Capra takes the view that modern physics, too, has come to conceive of the universe as such a comprehensive web of relations between the tangible and intangible inputs to the consciousness.  Like Eastern mysticism, it recognises that this web is intrinsically dynamic.

The dynamic aspect of matter arises in quantum theory as a consequence of the wave-nature of subatomic particles, and is even more essential in relativity theory, where the unification of space and time implies that the being of matter cannot be separated from its activity. The properties of subatomic particles can therefore only be understood in a dynamic context; in terms of movement, interaction and transformation. 

The scientific ‘particle’ conception of matter has contributed to an incorrect conception of self, founding the illusion that we exist as discrete bodies without relations to all other matter. Recent discoveries on the wave structure of matter show that human beings do not exist in isolation, but are in fact structures of the Universe. Thus humanity does not have dominion over the earth and all living things by divine decree, on the contrary, humans are intimately interconnected both to all other matter in the Cosmos, and to all other life on Earth.  In his book ‘The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism’, Capra argued that modern science and Eastern mysticism offer parallel insights into the ultimate nature of reality. But, beyond this, Capra suggested that the profound harmony between these concepts, as expressed in systems language, and the corresponding ideas of Eastern mysticism, was impressive evidence for a remarkable claim: that mystical philosophy offers the most consistent background to our modern scientific theories.  If this is so, then mysticism should be added to our ecological models of self and environment.  Indeed, it has been said that cosmology is semi-mathematical mysticism.

4 Metaphysics

Humanity is part of this dancing universe and contemporary metaphysics is the branch of philosophy responsible for the study of OUR existence WITHIN NATURE AS NATURE. Metaphysics tries to transcend the idea of religion by all encompassing ideas like letting go of “written in stone” beliefs that never change, realizing the self as the outcome of coalescing particles, and seeing all beings as equals in spirit.  Literally, it has to do with the conception of existence with the living universe and humankind’s place within.  It is the foundation of a worldview. Metaphysics means ‘after physics’ and was a term coined to bring unity to the study of the obvious physical expressions of nature.  At this point in our conscious evolution, metaphysics has become the most comprehensive and most effective means of gaining knowledge and understanding of who we really are, why we are here, and the true nature of the physical universe that we can perceive from our present point of view.  It answers the question “What is?” It encompasses everything that exists, as well as the nature of existence itself. It says whether the world is real, or merely an illusion. It is a philosophical conception of universe and the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence.   It is a fundamental view of the world around us.  The metaphysics of cultural ecology addresses the problem that humanity has become disconnected from Nature in our modern world of cities, cars and economics. 

Science helps us perceive and understand the qualities of various aspects of physical existence, and religion and spirituality can help us integrate what we call non-physical experience into our lives.  It is only through metaphysical studies that the “big picture” of the universe as an ecosystem, within which culture has always been embedded, can be seen and applied.  The impact of gaining knowledge of the big picture and learning how to manipulate and affect our world at that level is an aspect of human ecology applied to living sustainably.

5 The mind/matter maze

The Buddha, well before Thomas Aquinas, an important Medieval philosopher, and theologian, or Heisenberg, who made seminal contributions to quantum mechanics, stressed the primacy of the mind in the perception and even “creation” of reality. A central concept of Buddhism is the idea that “everything is made from the mind.” Any distinction between subject and object is false, imagined, at best an expedient nod to demands of conventional language. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Buddha uses metaphor to elucidate:

“The mind is like an artist/It can paint an entire world. . . If a person knows the workings of the mind/As it universally creates the world/This person then sees the Buddha/And understands the Buddha’s true and actual nature.” (Chap. 20)

In other words, we think we are observing nature, but what we are observing is our own mind at work. We are the subject and object of our own methodology. Moreover, this mind encompasses the entirety of the universe; there is nothing outside of it, nothing it does not contain, according to the Buddha.

Such insights have long intrigued Western thinkers, as Buddhism hinted of a new avenues of travel through the mind/matter maze.

It led scientists like Albert Einstein to declare:

“The religion of the future will be cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. . . If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism”.

Einstein not alone in his positive assessment of Buddhism’s potential for going beyond the boundaries of Western thought. The British mathematician philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, declared,

“Buddhism is the most colossal example in the history of applied metaphysics.”

He also made the point when he emphasised the enormous gap between what natural science describes and what we know as living, sensing, experiencing human beings. His contemporary Bertrand Russell, another Nobel Prize philosopher, found in Buddhism the greatest religion in history because

“it has had the smallest element of persecution.”

But beyond the freedom of inquiry he attributed to the Buddha’s teaching, Russell discovered a superior scientific method- one that reconciled the speculative and the rational while investigating the ultimate questions of life:

“Buddhism is a combination of both speculative and scientific philosophy. It advocates the scientific method and pursues that to a finality that may be called Rationalistic. In it are to be found answers to such questions of interest as: ‘What is mind and matter? Of them, which is of greater importance? Is the universe moving towards a goal? What is man’s position? Is there living that is noble?’ It takes up where science cannot lead because of the limitations of the latter’s instruments. Its conquests are those of the mind”.

As early as the 1940’s, the pioneering physicist Niels Bohr sensed this congruence between modern science and what he called “Eastern mysticism.” As he investigated atomic physics and searched for a unified field of reality, he often used the Buddha in his discussions on physics in his classes. He made up his own coat of arms with the yin/yang symbol on it.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was the supervising physicist of the Manhattan project to create the first atomic bomb.  On the 16th July 1945, after witnessing the successful test, he quoted from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture, that is part of the ancient epic Mahabharata, the words of Shiva;

‘Now I am become Death the destroyer of worlds’

The actual section is:

‘If the radiance of a thousand suns

Were to burst at once into the sky

That would be like the splendour of the Mighty one

I am become Death

The shatterer of worlds’

His familiarity with the Hindu epic had made him aware of a scientific parallel in Buddhism to the puzzling riddles of modern physics.  The cutting-edge discoveries of his team of nuclear physicists seemed to echo the enigmatic wisdom of the ancient sages. He wrote:

“The general notions about human understanding… which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom.”

If we ask, for instance, whether the position of the electron remains the same, we must say ‘no;’ if we ask whether the electron’s position changes with time, we must say ‘no;’ if we ask whether the electron is at rest, we must say ‘no;’ if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say ‘no.’

The Buddha has given such answers when interrogated as to the conditions of man’s self after his death; but they are not familiar answers for the tradition of seventeenth and eighteenth-century science.

The dialogues between Buddhist masters, such as the Dalai Lama, and scientists have focused so far primarily on three areas. One is astrophysics, concerning primarily how the universe developed. Does it have a beginning? Was it created or is it part of an eternal process? Another topic is particle physics, regarding the structure of atoms and matter. The third is neurosciences, about how the brain works.

In science, the theory of the conservation of matter and energy states that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed.  Particle physicists emphasize the role of the observer in defining anything. For example, from a certain point of view, light is matter; from another point of view, it is energy. What type of phenomenon light seems to exist as depends on many variables, particularly on the conceptual framework the investigator is using to analyse it. Thus, phenomena do not exist inherently as this or that from their own sides, unrelated to the consciousness that perceives them.

Buddhism asserts the same thing: what things exist depends on the observer and the conceptual framework with which the person regards them. For example, whether a certain situation exists as an intractable problem or as something solvable depends on the observer, the person involved. If somebody has the conceptual framework such as: “This is an impossible situation and nothing can be done,” then there really is a difficult problem that cannot be solved. However, with the frame of mind that thinks, “This is complicated and complex, but there is a solution if we approach it in a different way,” then that person is much more open to try to find a solution. What is a huge problem for one person is not a big deal for another. It depends on the observer, for our problems do not inherently exist as monstrous problems.   Thus, science and Buddhism come to the same conclusion: phenomena exist as this or that dependent on the observer.  “Wisdom” in this case means seeing things as they are. Most of the time, the Buddha taught, our perceptions are clouded by our opinions and biases and the way we are conditioned to understand reality by our cultures. Buddhist scholar Wapola Rahula said that wisdom is “seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label.”  Breaking through our delusional perceptions, seeing things as they are, is enlightenment, and this is the means of liberation from suffering.  However, to say that the Buddha was only interested in releasing us from suffering, and not interested in the nature of reality, is a bit like saying a doctor is only interested in curing our disease and is not interested in medicine.  Thus, Buddhism comes nearest to a path of metaphysical practice, that meets the spiritual needs of scientists seeking an insight into the true nature of reality. However, these teachings, that it is possible to gain release from the sufferings of life by essentially good and compassionate behaviour, combined with a sense of transience in meditation, are clearly a causal belief and brings Buddhism into focus as part of the human survival tool kit, which is a fundamental propensity of the evolution of the human brain to see events in causal terms.

Metaphysics has developed over the centuries at the same time as human consciousness has expanded to include science and spiritual awareness as tools to explore and observe the true nature of reality. When comparing this religious/spiritual belief, generated by a cellular engine genetically programmed in the circuitry in our brains, with belief used to make a scientific judgement, the polymath Lewis Woolpert distinguished it as operating on different principles:

“It prefers quick decisions, it is bad with numbers, loves representativeness, and sees patterns where often there is only randomness. It is too often influenced by authority, and it has a liking for mysticism.  Religious and mystical beliefs will continue for the foreseeable future to be held by millions of people, not only because mysticism is in our brains, but also because it gives enormous comfort and meaning to life. And it provides a basis for causal beliefs about fundamental human issues. Just look at the strength of religion in an advanced industrial culture like the USA. And while we may be hostile to the beliefs of others, we need always to remember that it is having beliefs that makes us human. We have to both respect, if we can, the beliefs of others, and accept the responsibility to try and change them if the evidence for them is weak or scientifically improbable. The loss of religious beliefs could have very serious consequences, and so could the enforcement of those beliefs on others. It is the action based on beliefs that ultimately matters, and respect for the rights of others is fundamental”. 

6 Mixing and matching

The relationship between scientific and religious beliefs is that people have the right to hold whatever beliefs appeal to them, but with a fundamental provision that those beliefs must be reliable if they lead to actions that affect the lives of people. In the West it has become commonplace to find people picking and choosing among various spiritual traditions and practices, selecting whatever is most useful, meaningful or intriguing at the moment. While such cafeteria-style spirituality is frequently criticized as superficial, it is common in a pluralistic open-minded culture, where supernatural forces of gods are no longer part of the belief system.  In this connection, an ‘athiest reductionist materialist’ aims not to disparage the beliefs of others, even though she does not share them. This aim may not always be successful as she is neither religious nor has any beliefs in a spiritual world of paranormal happenings. Her thinking is based on a belief in the scientific process, and the necessity for evidence.  She is committed to science and believes it to be the best way to understand the world.  A Christian Buddhist, on the other hand, accepts the Buddhist quest for reality supported by the moral exhortations of Jesus as a man about justice, loving your neighbour and improving the world.  The Christian values were originally religion-based but have become normative secular values among all people in countries with a Christian heritage. Parochial belief of Christianity may have declined, but awareness has grown of the need to work towards a universally endorsed secular ethic for healing the world. The golden rule teaches people to “love your neighbour as yourself.” From a Judeo-Christian tradition, this philosophy holds that an individual should be as humane as possible and never harm others unless there is no other reasonable choice.

Reality, or physical reality, sought by a Christian Buddhist includes everything we experience. Thoughts, ideas, emotions, perceptions, even what we call dreams and hallucinations, life and death; all are included in this experience that is their “reality”.

Many high ranking Buddhist monks emphasize the natural relationship between deep ecology and Buddhism which will reveal reality of humankind in nature. According to the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Buddhists believe that the reality of the interconnectedness of human beings, society and Nature will reveal itself more and more to us as we gradually recover; as we gradually cease to be possessed by anxiety, fear, and the dispersion of the mind. Among human beings, society, and Nature, it is us who begin to effect change. But in order to effect change we must recover ourselves, one must be whole. Since this requires the kind of environment favourable to one’s healing, one must seek the kind of lifestyle that is free from the destruction of one’s humanness. Efforts to change the environment and to change oneself are both necessary. But we know how difficult it is to change the environment if individuals themselves are not in a state of equilibrium.”

In this way modern Buddhism is a metaphysical enquiry into the state of equilibrium between humankind, nature and the cosmos.  The metaphysics of environmentalism encourages us to ask basic questions about the ecological place of our species in the universe, in the hope that deeper questioning will lead to more profound solutions to the growing environmental crisis faced today. ‘Shallow ecology’ fights against pollution in wealthy countries alone, while ‘deep ecology’ looks for the fundamental roots of ecological problems within a global cultural perspective of environmental justice.  Christ’s approach to environmental justice is based on his commandment: to love our neighbours as ourselves. This requires respect for all creation. Love of neighbour requires justice with equality, which prohibits the selfish destruction of the environment without regard for those in need today or for the needs of future generations. It is worth contemplating in this connection the origin of the word neighbour from nigh bour; he who tills the next piece of land.  The common purse shared by Jesus and his first followers vividly demonstrates that Jesus repeated and deepened the old call for transformed economic relationships among people who are sceptical about top down rationalistic systems.


Boss in South aisle of ‘Angel Choir’,

Lincoln Cathedral (1256-80)–%20Principle-based.htm§ion=6.2