On this bleak winter day in the city of bare trees, northern rocky bioregion of Turtle Island, I joined a global community of Buddhist practitioners sounding out 108 bell chimes in sacred remembrance of those species already claimed by anthropogenic climate mayhem. Of the roughly 200 species that go extinct every day now, compared to a natural rate of one species every few days or so, I am particularly fond of remembering the Javan Tiger, the Baiji River Dolphin, the Black Rhino, the Bubal Hartebeest, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Pyrenean Ibex, and the Tasmanian Tiger, to name just a few of the more charismatic characters we’ve lost. Grieving is in itself a powerful practice that brings us into relation with those whom we’ve lost, taking them into our beating, broken hearts. And tantric meditative practices, especially the Kalacakra – or wheel of time – sadhana, are also quite powerful methods for coming into relation with all of creation in all three times (past/present/future). Combining these two experiences with rhythmic, shamanic bells ‘vibrating in splendor’ proved to be a source of real inspiration and insight for me, in addition to the therapeutic value.
The first insight gleaned from this communal meditation – and by communal I mean not just those in community today ringing memorial bells, but the extinct species themselves – is that, from the perspective of great compassion, ‘species’ is just a conceptual label we attach to a particular group of migratory sentient beings. It is tempting when thinking about the finality of species extinction to fall into the despair of “they are gone forever” by reifying the concept “species” – making solid and real something that is, after all, just a linguistic device. For example, take my totem animal – the Javan tiger. In fact, lets take that particular Javan tiger in the picture above. That divinely beautiful animal is no longer with us, but his mind-stream continues to flow throughout time, from one life form to another. That is the meaning of “migrating” sentient beings. The Tibetan word we translate as “sentient being” is, more literally, a “mind holder.” Look at the picture of that tiger, and you will feel his presence. The tiger’s awareness almost comes through the screen. That fierce light still burns today, in some realm, some world, in some other body. So when I grieve the loss of the Javan tiger, what is it, exactly, from my Buddhist perspective that I am grieving?
From both a Jungian and Tantric perspective, these mind-holders are still with us. According to the eminent scholar and translator of Jung’s Red Book, what he characterizes as a modern book of the dead, Jung believed that “the dead are alive, the dead are animated, and in a certain sense the living are the dead… Our task is living with the dead. What we take to be our individuation, in a personalistic sense, or our quest, or however one frames it, is not such. It is taking up the unredeemed dead, or taking up the tasks left by the dead…” As the recently departed Jungian psychologist and scholar James Hillman put it: “We’re living in a world which is alive with the dead – they’re around us, they’re with us, they are us… we are already in the afterlife. The afterlife is all around us.” According to Jung, we are intimately connected with these departed mind-holders at the level of our collective unconscious, which Buddhism knows quite well as the subtle conscious realm. While Jung felt the only place we could experience that connectivity was in dreams, Buddhism has in fact been exploring the realms of subtle and extremely subtle consciousness for millennia.
Tantra means ‘thread’ – referring to the continuity of certain mental states across time and space. When we drop down into the non-conceptual realms of subtle consciousness, we lose our self (which of course is only a construct) among all that otherness, that clear light nature which embraces all mind-holders in an oceanic non-temporal, non-spacial realm of spiritual emergence. According to the Wheel of Time, the cosmology that underlies the Kalacakra tantra, and according to Buddha himself, all three times are equal. It is only by conventional appearance that we perceive linear time. Even Einstein saw through that illusion. The actions we take in the perceived present affect the entire continuum – yes, including the past. We might not be able to resurrect extinct species, but we can affect the individual mind holders that once defined that species.
Because mind holders continue to migrate across time and space, the loss of a noble species like the Javan tiger is not the tiger’s loss. That tiger is already in another body, experiencing another life. Intstead, it is our loss. While they are transmigrating into other realms, worlds, and bodies, we are losing that tissue by which our collective body is held together in all its astounding biological diversity. It is not just the species that are going extinct – half of all wildlife has been wiped off the planet in the course of my lifetime. We are diminished by the loss of our collective biodiversity, and we are losing our wildness as well – that which defines the ‘natural’ in human nature. At some point, as our ‘flesh’ falls away, in the form of these interpenetrating interdependent arising species that we have evolved in connection with, we not only become less ‘human,’ but lose our humanity altogether. For what is it to live in a world without tigers and lions, rhinos and elephants, polar and grizzly bears, bison and butterflies? In such a world, created by our ignorance, we lose the right to even call ourselves ‘earthlings.’
By grieving these painful losses, we come into relation with the migrators themselves, wandering through the bardo perhaps, looking with confused mind streams for a familiar womb to inhabit. We hold them tenderly in our mind’s embrace, knowing that they were once our mothers, and we theirs. By taking the Javan tiger into my broke-open heart, my own karma is enhanced by virtue of this connection which spans time and space. The tiger becomes me, and I become the tiger, as artificial boundaries between self and other dissolve in the warm amniotic fluid of great compassion and heartfelt love.
And at a deeper, non-conceptual level of luminous awareness, something else happens that is hard to put into words, really. There is a shamanic shift by which that once-fierce Javan tiger now looks out through my own eyes in the world, this bardo alive with the dead. Perhaps in my dying a little inside, I carve out some sacred space for him to live and to have a say in the affairs of this degenerate age. This is the spirit of tonglen practice, by which I exchange my (priveleged) self with other. I take on the immense suffering of my four-legged, winged and finned friends, the darkness of extinction, extirpation, and migration. I allow it’s cumulative sadness to explode the dark shell of ignorance that encases my heart, and from the vast, open expansiveness that is generated by this explosive psychic energy, I give up this life in my mind, let go of that which gives rise to suffering on such scales, and make a humble offering of my vitality and tears. And in that exchange, there is some measure of atonement (at-one-ment) and reconciliation.
And for now, that is enough to sustain me in these dark times. May all migrating mother sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes, and may they never be separated from higher rebirth and sorrowless bliss.