Recently, I penned a review of the movie Interstellar, a science fiction blockbuster that chronicles a plan to find a new place for mankind to live after the earth is rendered uninhabitable by destructive human activities. The very personal point of the post was that I would have preferred to see such wonderful special effects and directorial wizardry applied to a solution for the problems on this planet rather than glorifying a high-tech escape to a new one. As a Taoist with an abiding respect for nature, a love of harmony and balance, I find the creative opportunities inherent in living a life of compassion, frugality, and humility (Taoism’s Three Treasures) more engaging than the notion of exporting our destructive, species-centric culture to yet another floating rock.
Because environmental awareness and Taoism go hand in hand, I frequently conflate destruction of our environment with trends in the way we express ourselves spiritually, or fail to do so. These trends include a culture of consumption, a growing sense of entitlement, an exaggerated notion of our own importance, valuing the pleasures of the individual above the good of the community, and the belief (advanced by all Abrahamic religions) that our species enjoys holy dispensation to do with the world as it wishes.
Of all the ideas advanced in the manifesto on my Taoist site, www.spiritualswat.org, it is my challenge to this last precept that generates the most energetic response. As a monk, I understand why. We deeply love such heroes as Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster, Mani, Buddha, Mohammed, and Lao Tzu, whether they ever really lived or not. We are also deeply attached to their stories, which typically begin with a mystical experience (a burning bush, an amphibious crossing, a wrestling match with a devil), continue to a spiritual awakening, and finish with an exhortation to followers to treat all sentient beings with compassion and respect. Yet while I know that the human brain is organically wired for stories, I worry when we value plot over message in a way that would surely disturb their mythical protagonists.
I recognize that living according to the Three Treasures, treating each other with respect and compassion, and cherishing all living things as cradles of cosmic consciousness sounds naively utopian. Even so, I agree with the famous critic, Irving Howe, who is reported to have quipped “utopianism is a necessity of the moral imagination.” If this Taoist utopia seems overly simplistic, I’m okay with that. Simplicity, it turns out, seems to be an important component of spiritual growth in every tradition.
The term spirituality has become an object of derision among some scientists, material pragmatists, nihilists, and even religious traditionalists. Perhaps some of this ridicule is warranted, given that these days, at least in our country, the word can be associated with shallow narcissism, the sales of yoga mats, the wearing of silver amulets, the slurping of energy drinks, and chanting in dead languages. I submit that we ought emphasize not the commercial aspects of the term but rather the connection between what we believe and how we behave.
Spirituality can be as real, concrete, and legitimate as our ability with numbers, language, and the manipulation of our physical world. It can be about the Golden Rule: about treating other sentient beings with the same care and respect that we would have them treat us. It can be about kindness rather than violence in our large-scale actions towards the environment and each other. It can be about changing our priorities, coming to terms with our impulses and drives, and making better choices. It can be about turning off the tap rather than letting it run, about giving a hungry person something to eat, and about aiding an injured animal. Spirituality can be about not taking two when one will do, and about eschewing meat in favor of a plant-based diet. It can be about rejecting tyranny, or any other injury perpetrated by the strong upon the weak. It can mean switching off the TV when nobody is in the room. It simply must be about turning our ideals into actions so as to manifest the maximum possible good in the world.
In my own life, I cleave to Taoism precisely because it makes clear how to do just that. Unlike many other religions, Taoism requires no belief in the supernatural, though it does tend to view all of nature as super. It offers a peaceful, practical recipe for living that seems right at a time when religion must evolve to emphasize framework over faith, and to provide a coherent, broadly accessible, non-exclusive community inside of which we can all work together to find solutions for Earth’s problems.
In the same way that environmental forces once selected for our opposable thumbs, upright posture, and the development of language and tools, they are now pushing us not to flee the planet, but to evolve a totally new worldview and value set like the one Taoists discovered millennia ago. We can either embrace such a system or extinguish ourselves—and much of the other life on Earth—in a furious orgy of hate and pain. If your set of myths and stories offers good practical solutions to the world problems, then sing them and live them. If your beliefs have been lost to greed, politics, literalism, or dilution, may I humbly ask you to reconsider them? Until such time as we take a great leap forward in consciousness, we must at least embrace stories that serve the entire living planet, not merely ourselves.