Monday, June 20, 2011

Sermon - "Respecting the Web"

Respecting the Web

Often when we talk about the web that connects us, one to the other, I’m reminded of a wonderful Buddhist image. It’s Indra’s net. I’m reminded of Indra’s Net for first, because obviously a net and a web are only slightly different things. But much more importantly, I love the way that Indra’s net describes so beautifully what we call the web of life or the interconnected web of all existence. I found this quote that describes Indra’s web beautifully.

“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring”
(Francis Harold Cook describes the metaphor of Indra's net from the perspective of the Huayan school in the book Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra)

Isn’t that beautiful. The Buddhist interpretation of this metaphor is quite different from what you or I might first suggest. Buddhists understand the infinite nature of the web to talk about the insignificance of self. Each of us is merely a reflection of the world around us. Like a reflective jewel, our very essence is a composition of other things. We are nothing more than a combination of physical parts, the ideas in our hear, or the cultural way we express ourselves. We are a composite reflection of everything else, not a unique and separate entity. Quite simply, Buddhists see the net as a metaphor to say, “Get over yourself.” To live a meaningful life is to get over self-obsession, and accept that we are products of the world around us. We are a jewel, a beautiful jewel reflecting all the other infinite jewels in the net. And once we do get over ourselves, we are inspired to help others.

That’s probably not what you first thought of when you heard this reading though. As Unitarian Universalists, our interpretation of the web is quite different. We start with the belief that every person has inherent worth and dignity, and that we are endowed with bodies and particular skills to change the world; we start from a focus on the way we can impact the world, rather than the goal of getting over ourselves. It’s worth pointing out that wherever we start from, as Buddhists or as Unitarian Universalists, Indra’s net teaches us that the religious life is about considering and caring for others.

There is one more take on the Net, or the web. It’s the undersatanding that we usually suggest when we talk about the Interdependent web of all existence as our Seventh Principle. That is the truth, the fundamental truth that we depend on one another to live. As living beings we eat breath and live in relationship with the natural world. Other lives make our life possible. Both the world of science and the world of religion have pointed to this fact of life. We are in fact jewels that reflect the infinite other jewels in the net. We have together on the interconnected web.

I wanted to bring up all of these various interpretations of Indra’s Net because there are just as many interpretations of our Seventh principle. For some it’s about the spiritual truth of interconnectedness. For others is about acting to help out because we’re all in this together. And still for others it can be a source of humility, and recognizing our place in the web. As our responsive reading said, We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it.

Sometime’s it’s easy to respect the web. Sometimes we feel connected and motivated to do that little extra to help the environment. But for me, it gets a little overwhelming. Perhaps it is a generational thing. But my head has been crammed with so many messages about how devastated our planet is, it’s hard to feel like what I do matters. I haven’t even bothered to bring you the latest scientific information on global warming. But you know as well as I do, it’s bad, worse than we thought.

The scale of the problem just seems to swallow the impact of my efforts. How does my choice to recycle this paper, or take a five minute walk rather than fire up my care make a difference? How can I make a difference in such a tremendous global problem?

Perhaps more than anything today, I want this sermon to be a remind that our actions are also like a web. Every choice that we make reaches out across space and time to affect the world in a multitude of ways. I know that sounds dramatic but it’s true. Every time we choose to recycle, or walk, or eat a plant-based diet, or turn off the lights, our action is reflected in countless ways across space.

I’ve been focusing quite a bit in my daily life on the broader impact of my decisions. It’s as simple as the the question “Is this who I want to be in the world.” Do I want to be the kind of person who recycles, or the kind of person who doesn’t care. Do I want to be the kind of person who finds some greener way to get from A to B, or do I want to pollute more? I have been trying a lot lately to ask the question, “is this the type of person I want to be,” rather than the question, “is this what I want to do.” In the moment, in a tired disconnected moment I often frankly want to do the thing that is fastest and most comfortable. But that doesn’t usually lead to being the type of person I want to be.

That question actually sums up a whole field of ethics called virtue ethics. I don’t want to go into it in detail, but basically the idea is that the ethical choice isn’t just about what you do in this moment. It is about the type of character you build, because you’re like to act that way again, and again, and again. So the impact of your choice today is likely to be repeated over and over in the future.

Our actions as like a web. They spread out across time as we learn to make the same choice over and over. One recycled can, one reuse-able grocery bag, one vegetarian dinner becomes many more as we cultivate habits of helping the earth. Our choices do make a difference in this global challenge. Each individual choice to respect the web spreads out far and wide.

Sometimes making the right choice casts an array of benefits far beyond what we first intended. It touches people and places we never knew about. It spreads across tremendous distance to make a difference. The best example I can think of in this was is eating organic foods.
You all have heard that eating organic foods is better. Some of us do it, some of us think it’s silly and expensive. But think with me for just a minute about the broad consequences of making the choice to eat organic. At the simplest level that we are all aware of, eating organic foods means that you aren’t exposing your body to pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones that are in many of our foods. Eating what nature produces is healthier than eating what comes out of a science lab. That seems reasonable.
But eating organic has other benefits that you may not be as aware of. Those chemicals that you want to avoid eating are also bad for the environment. So when we buy foods that have been grown without them, we save not only ourselves from those chemicals, we also reduce the use of petro chemicals, oil production, water pollution through run-off and soil erosion. So when we keep those chemicals out of our own diet, they are not spread in mass quantities over soil. So we keep those chemicals out of our bodies as well as out of the ecological system we all depend on.
But there’s more. Eating organic actually helps the diversity and health of our food sources. You see the foods that are grown for commercial production are selected and bred for maximum production with the help of chemicals. They aren’t the crops that are the heartiest or most drought resistant. They aren’t the crops that have the best natural defenses against disease or insects. They are the crops that grow the fastest and the biggest, with the help of chemicals. The vase majority of food produced in the United States comes from an alarmingly small number of genetically modified breads of plants and animals. But, by choosing foods that don’t rely on chemicals to grow, we encourage healthy strains of food sources, we help nature to do its job of creating a beautiful bounty of resources, without a chemicals or genetic tinkering.
And there’s more. Eating organic means that you save the people who grow and process our foods from being exposed to the harmful pesticides and chemical fertilizers used in conventional farming. Far from the bucolic image of American Gothic, or Norman Rockwell paintings, conventional farming is a massive industry with tremendous risks to workers, not the least of which is the harmful chemicals that saturate their work place. Keeping those chemicals off our plate also keeps farm workers out of harm’s way.

I’m sure a real environmental wiz or foodie could tell you more benefits of eating organic foods. That’s just the little bit that I know of. This is not meant to be an ad for organic foods. Yes, that is one way of respecting the web. But more importantly, it is an example of how our choices tug on a string of the web. One choice can have multiple layers of impact. Tugging on one thread of the web can have a very, very broad impact for the better. In the face of global climate melt down, we absolutely must remember that our individual actions reach out in ways we may never have known to help build better, stronger web of life.

I want to leave you all with a short story of hope. It’s a story that has touched me tremendously because I see it every day. Those of you who are one facebook may remember a few months ago how delighted I was to see so many marine mammals at main beach. There were dolphins and sea lions. I was thrilled.
But the really thrilling news is that they have stuck around. You may have noticed this yourself. The number of dolphins off our coast has skyrocketed. And I finally found out why.
It’s because of kelp. But not just any kelp. It’s because of giant kelp forests that have been restored. This is kelp that people helped to grow, with the explicit goal of repairing the marine habitat off our coast. And it has worked beautifully. I love seeing dolphins at the beach when I walk my dog there. They are amazing creatures. And there presence is even more magical for me now, when I realize that those beautiful graceful mammals are there, because a handful of committed people cared enough to grow kelp, which fed sea urchins, which fed fish which feed dolphins.
Some people are turning the world around literally. They are restoring species, and reinvigorating nature to its glory. There’s too much work to assume that you can’t make a difference. There’s too much need to set this one out.


No comments:

Post a Comment