Emergence Magazine
Susan Murphy Roshi:

The fundamental koan is the Earth, which is also inseparable from the fundamental human koan of what is this self? They are the same koan in a way. They heal into each other, like medicine and sickness do.

Photo by Warren Summers

Earth as Koan, Earth as Self

An Interview with Susan Murphy Roshi


Susan Murphy Roshi is a writer, filmmaker, radio producer, and founding teacher of Zen Open Circle in Sydney, Australia. Since receiving dharma transmission in both Diamond Sangha and Pacific Zen lineages, she has been leading regular retreats around Australia and teaching a country-wide sangha that extends internationally online. She is the author of Upside-Down Zen; Minding the Earth, Mending the World; and Red Thread Zen. Her latest book is A Fire Runs Through All Things: Zen Koans for Facing the Climate Crisis.


Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee is an Emmy- and Peabody Award–nominated filmmaker and a Sufi teacher. His films include: Earthrise, Sanctuaries of Silence, The Atomic Tree, Counter Mapping, Marie’s Dictionary, and Elemental. His films have been screened at New York Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, SXSW, and Hot Docs, exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum, and featured on PBS POV, National Geographic, and New York Times Op-Docs. He is the founder and executive editor of Emergence Magazine.

What becomes possible when we open and orient our consciousness towards uncertainty, emptiness, and a sense of relationship with the world beyond the self? Australian writer and Zen teacher Susan Murphy Roshi immerses us in the tradition of Zen koan and the power of the not-knowing mind to open a treasury of resources for navigating the climate crisis.


Emmanuel Vaughan-LeeSusan, it’s wonderful to be in conversation with you today. Thanks so much for being on the show.

Susan Murphy RoshiIt’s entirely my pleasure.

EVAs I think you know, one of the primary aspects of our work at Emergence is exploring the spiritual dimension of the ecological crisis that we’re in, and both questioning and responding to the unraveling of our world from a space that acknowledges our relationship to the living world as sacred. And what I really appreciated about your latest book, A Fire Runs Through All Things, is that it really explores the necessity of a spiritual response to our moment—and in a beautiful and unique way. And you write extensively on the tradition of the Zen koan and how it can be a tool in both revealing ways to be in relationship with the world around us and also offering new frames for approaching crisis. And I want to talk to you about this, but before we do that, perhaps to help orient people who aren’t as familiar with Zen koans and the function they serve, I wonder if you could walk us through what a koan is and what purpose it traditionally serves?

SMRSo the actual “technology” (in inverted commas) of koan is a way to create a tipping point in consciousness—we talk about a tipping point in climate change, but this is a tipping point in consciousness—that is provoked into being by either a question or the response that someone hears to a question, these things having been recorded—well, noted down—as live exchanges. “Koan” literally means “public case,” because there’s nothing hidden. In reality itself, nothing is hidden. But also within the words spoken, no special meaning is being conveyed so much as the ground is shifted in that response. And you cannot actually see into what’s happening in that koan until you move onto that ground, which is ultimately emptiness itself. It is emptiness, not in the sense of some great void in which life doesn’t exist, but the inside story of emptiness could be summed up as something like, nothing exists except in relation to everything else. So looking at it from that point of view, there’s a kind of whole quality to reality that the koan obliges you to meet. And that’s a very valuable medicine or healing of the kind of consciousness we normally cart around with us, which is focused on small things. It is fundamentally inattentive to the place we’re in, at a certain level. It is preoccupied with a kind of talking mind that is somewhat adjacent to just where we are and somewhat remote or removed from just what we are, you know? So this is a kind of means of recovering original mind—most natural mind. And so the whole use of this to bring forward, you could almost say, the entire dharma, Buddhist dharma, just in that lived moment—this rose during a really catastrophic time in Chinese history.

EVRight. I remember reading about that in the book: that it was in what you described as one of the most violent periods of human history up until that point that the koan emerged.

SMRThat’s right. It was a time when there was a rebellion against the dynasty that was in power at the time led by a general called An Lushan, and so it’s often called the An Lushan Rebellion. It only lasted for about ten years, but in that ten years it utterly undid the Chinese world. There was a catastrophic devastation of the population, a huge loss of life, somewhere between a third and two thirds of the people. It’s been compared to World War I and II combined in a sense—that impact, but in a very short period. So it’s actually a time, not quite like our time, but certainly like the kind of time that’s looking at us now.

EVWell, it’s interesting that the koan emerged in a time and space when there was so much conflict, and the parallel to now; and how the koan has existed, obviously, through the ages, through many conflicts. But you write about the relevance of crisis, not just on a personal level, but also on a planetary one in relation to the koan.

SMRThere’s an affinity between koan and crisis. And of course the crises that we’re in—the eco-crisis, the climate crisis, I’d say also the geopolitical crisis that we’re in—they all come together. There’s a kind of affinity, in the mind, that a koan draws into being over time; draws into being if you live deeply with a koan, or make your way through many of these extraordinary exchanges, tiny, tiny exchanges, usually very brief. But it’s almost like you sit on the point of that needle of the koan, and it continues to provoke and open up and unfold you. Well, a crisis like the one the world is in, you could say—it’s unfolding us the way a koan unfolds us, or at least it must unfold us as coherently, as sanely, as realistically. Because we don’t quite live in reality in its wholeness. And that’s, I think, one of the reasons why we could talk about the sense in which a human being, unlike every other creature on Earth, has a consciousness that is able to look all the way back to the very source of this cosmos, this universe, and at the same time, is able to very effectively insulate itself from the reality of just where we are.

There’s a character in a James Joyce short story in Dubliners. I forget his name, but he is said to live about seven inches off from his life. And I think that’s a fair way of talking about the sense in which, at a certain level, we’re extraterrestrials. We’re not quite here embedded in the terms of this planet. Not quite. We are slightly adjacent to it, if not opposed. And that’s, I guess you could say, what our consciousness delivers us into. We can then use exactly that consciousness to undo the way we’ve made ourselves up in this alienated state from just where we are and what we are. So the koan is like a healing, it’s like a medicine that heals us back, even sort of smuggles us back into reality.

EVI love how you describe koans as both “leaving minds on more intimate terms with reality” and illuminating “the field of what is trying to emerge within the great emergency of our time.” And that the koan is an extremely simple tool in breaking our patterns of perception. And you’ve said that to apply the lens of koan to crisis dismantles “the common frame” of a problem, and instead opens an “opportunity to resolve a situation back to its original wholeness.” I wonder if you could speak to this?

SMRMaybe the best way is to look at a couple of examples. Would that be a good idea?

EVSure, yeah. That’d be great to hear some koans.

SMRWell, one of the structuring koans of this book is a good one, because what it does is, in a way, unfold exactly what you said. So it says, medicine and sickness— This is Yunmen, and Yunmen is a tenth-century master, a bit further on from that time of great catastrophic change. But now the tradition is simply speaking in this direct way that is bringing the whole of reality along with it at its most fundamental level. So Yunmen said to his assembly, medicine and sickness heal into each other. Then he says, the whole Earth is medicine. And then he says, then what is this self? What is this self? I mean, in a sense, the koan of “what is this self” runs all the way through the first two parts, because “what is this self” flows out of a statement like, “the whole Earth is medicine.” There’s a wholeness there that does not leave us out, does nothing but heal us back into itself. At the same time, we have this sort of carapace of self, this insulated sense. Someone called it suffocating inside our own skulls, this sort of suffocated state. Now that is what this great question arrives at. The koan of the self is the koan of the Earth, or at least it is the koan of our relationship, or its lack, with the Earth.

So medicine and sickness heal into each other. This is referencing the whole sense of that alienated state, the sense of, the Buddha called it, unsatisfactoriness, or suffering, more pointedly—suffering, of course, being our greatest opportunity to wake up in lots of ways. When you say medicine and sickness heal into each other, these strong categories of two things opposed to each other—medicine and sickness—they’re categories that have to be kept apart, from a linear point of view, a linear mind point of view. But what he says is they disappear into each other. They resolve each other. In a sense, there is no other there. There’s a seamlessness instead. And so then that flows into “the whole Earth is medicine.” There’s nothing that does not reveal this great medicine of transformation. And then he leaves those monks in that assembly with, “what is this self?” Take that away with you until it opens you up completely.

EVHmm. It’s a very beautiful koan. And I guess one of the companion streams of thought that might stir in me is that the suffering that we’re feeling at the moment is often, for many of us, this kind of overwhelming grief that we are continually and daily inundated by directly and indirectly. And in these moments of grief, it’s very tempting to turn inwards and away from this. But you write that koans require us not only to reclaim our existence in the physical world, but to reclaim our understanding that we are part of its mystery. And I very much resonated with this: that we are part of its mystery. I wonder if you could talk about how koans can reclaim this understanding that we are part of this whole that you just spoke of in relation to the koan that you offered.

SMRLet me take you to a moment that was one of the triggers for writing this book. We were facing a megafire called the Currowan Fire. It had been moving up the coast towards us for around three to four months and devouring forests and townships and people and billions of creatures. So it came to the edge of where I live, Kangaroo Valley. There’s a huge river, the Shoalhaven River, and it was corralled on one side of the Shoalhaven River. But at a certain point it jumped the river. Then things quietened down for a bit. We knew that there was a very strong southerly change coming that would drive that huge fire front—thirty-seven kilometers wide—into where we live and sweep everything away, just as it had done all the way up the coast. We had done a lot of preparation, nonstop preparation, to face this fire, because, after all, there’s nothing like a fire staring at you, a megafire, to sort out what reality is. Reality becomes the inarguable fact. And so there we were, exhausted from doing this. But at a certain point we had to evacuate, just that night that it was expected to sweep into the valley. So we had everything ready to go.

And there’s something that an old Indigenous teacher taught me once. She said: Sometimes you just need to find out what it needs. So this is what you do. And she described this way of going out— Her name is Minmia, Auntie. “Auntie” is an honorific term in Australian Indigenous terms. “Auntie” and “Uncle” mean “elder.” So Auntie Maureen [Minmia] said: Take yourself off to a place that wants you to sit down; sit down there on the Earth. When you’re ready, ease your fingers into the Earth, and then say out loud, “Hello Mother, this is your daughter.” You just name yourself: “Susan’s talking to you, talking with you.” And then you ask a question. My question was something like, what does this need us to know—this very kind of critical-feeling moment when we could be leaving tonight? Already there were sort of fire-created drops of water and dry lightning, you know, around us, coming from the huge—those clouds that go so high up they actually start to generate their own weather and winds. Clouds of smoke.

So there we were, sitting on the Earth and waiting for the response. Because, as she said, you’ll know when the response comes. It’s sort of like a tingling in your fingers, but anyway, words appear in you. And the words that appeared were something like a koan. It was, “Your suffering with me”—this is Mother Earth, okay—“your suffering with me is my care for you.” And it took a while to sort of— it actually left me feeling strangely consoled. It just felt as though there’s some really deep transforming purpose working through the agreement to share the suffering of the Earth. To let that suffering, in a sense, reconsecrate our relationship with the Earth. And that’s deeply caring. It’s like, has the Earth been waiting all this time for us to finally turn in that direction? But also the relationship between compassion and care and suffering of the other, the so-called other. In a sense, suffering wakes us into the sense of no self and no other. When compassion is flowing from one person to another or one person to another creature, there’s a sense of not quite a definable other on either side of that flow, you know? And so this was like reconsecration of that fundamental relationship with the Earth.

“Your suffering with me is my care for you”—that’s not a vindictive statement. It’s a “wake up to how this works, wake up to this mutuality” that’s so implicit in that response. I’d like to tell everybody that we did come back the next morning to find that the wind, a tiny shift in the wind direction, had swept the fire instead in a different direction, catastrophically, but not onto us. And so everything was just as we had left it: green and beautiful. But if even that leaves you feeling strangely wrong, you know, we know who suffered instead.

EVA big part of the tradition of the koan is the not-knowing mind, which perhaps most simply could be described as a state of consciousness in which we embrace what lies outside the limits of our understanding. And in this space, it is our receptivity to the present moment that can open us up to broader, deeper ways of being and knowing. And you write that this not-knowing mind that is needed to open up koans is also needed to open up “a treasury of resources for facing the climate crisis.” And I really resonated with this for many reasons, but especially because I’m very appreciative of how spiritual practices and methodologies can be applied in very practical ways to the crisis we’re in. Can you speak about this treasury of the not-knowing mind the koan opens us to?

SMRWell, first of all, it sort of obliges us to find a certain fearlessness, which is always valuable. Actually, there’s another short koan, which is Linji—another great master of that Tang dynasty period, when this tradition of koan as a fundamental shifter of consciousness started to happen. Now Linji said, whatever confronts you, don’t believe it. Now that could seem like that is a really radical pulling of the rug from under your feet in a very good way. But then you look more closely and you see, whatever confronts you— Think about when you feel confronted. There’s a very strong sense of [feeling] self-indignant or angry or, you know, certainly ill at ease, off balance. And so then he says, don’t believe it. Don’t believe it. Undo, put aside your most immediate self-saving beliefs that spring up. Put them aside. What do you see when you put them aside? That view that immediately wants to assert itself—don’t believe it. Discount it. Put it aside and see what’s here instead, or as well. Or more pointedly, instead of that one-pointed, confronted response, there’s a whole field of awareness that can open up. When I say field awareness I mean it’s distributed across many points. You can see other points of view. You can experiment with them. But above all, just dropping that view is quite dramatic. First of all, it relieves you of a certain weight, because that weight is already something you’ve dragged around for years, in a way. That drops away. And it’s often impossible to see anything much going on beyond—this might sound strange—various forms of love in different kinds of clear or unclear or habitual or deformed kinds of states. But I guess you could say that not-knowing has ten trillion moments to it. It never repeats. What it opens up never repeats. Just as, you know, when you’re paying attention, nothing repeats. Nothing has ever repeated.

I think at the heart of not-knowing, I could sum it up with a tiny fragment of a poem of Mary Oliver’s—a long poem, but there’s a little fragment in it. Just before she died, she wrote this poem and it just has this little section that says, “Pay attention. Be [astonished]. Tell about it.” Now I think if you look at “Pay attention,” that sort of sums up the entirety of Zen practice—paying attention. Paying the due of giving attention, paying the due of caring enough to pay attention. Do you know what I mean? There’s a whole lot of obligation towards each other and towards reality that comes with that, towards caring. Pay attention. And if you do, you can’t help but be, in some measure, astounded, because look at this Earth—it’s astounding. The idea that we can live on it in a kind of habitual state where we kind of know—we’ve sorted it all out—we know what this is, when in fact, first of all, it’s a miracle that it exists. It didn’t have to. And then it’s a miracle that matter became living, it became animated, became alive. And then there’s the miracle that that animated matter, living creatures, formed consciousness. They can look back at the entirety of this. I can’t not be astounded. It’s enough to make you cry, you know? I love the fact that she ends with, “Tell about it.” We have an obligation to bring this forth into the world. The astoundingness has to be brought forward. It is medicine. It’s the medicine latent in the Earth, in a sense, in the complexity and astonishing quality of the Earth.

EVWell, I very much resonate with the notion that love is the treasure trove that is revealed when the not-knowing mind is allowed to breathe and connect with the world around us. And there were many things about this notion of what the not-knowing mind can offer us at this time that struck me. I also liked how you describe how it doesn’t engineer solutions, which feels so relevant now because the response people often give is the solution to the problem versus actually looking at the root of the problem. And the koan seems to be so relevant here because it offers a way of being that is adapted to navigate uncertainty, obstacles, and, in particular, impasse, because it’s designed to get one from one place to another without a solution, which is something we don’t really talk about in relation to the climate very often.

SMRSo this is almost like saying the impasse is a form of medicine waiting to heal us, in a way.

EVRight, yeah.

SMRAnd of course when you say love, you’re talking also about what Thich Nhat Hanh called interbeing—like there is no gap in the end. It’s seamless. What is here is seamless. I can’t be here without all that is here. So that sense of falling back into the most natural and ordinary mind, you know, this awake state is, at a certain level, the most ordinary of states. Let’s put it differently: the most original of states of consciousness. And it does have a great deal of power to find the unexpected within what’s facing us. You mentioned the word “solution,” which, in fact, is a kind of very linear-minded way of thinking, right? This has this problem; we’ll find this solution. Yes, to go back to the root is to go back to the wholeness of reality. And that’s where the not-knowing state or mind or practice takes us. But from that point of view, sometimes I’m reminded that not-knowing is a very kind of playful activity. Because, first of all, it accepts the offer of the moment as the gift, the gift that is present, even if it’s a huge challenge or a frightening crisis of some sort. And “accept the offer” is a phrase that comes from improvisation, “impro,” where you never know what the next offer will be, and the only obligation is to find the form of yes. To find the form of openness to the offer. It’s another way of saying, you know, face directly into what is happening.

But in theater impro, if someone says, comes into the space saying, “Doctor, doctor, it’s my leg. I think it’s my leg,” immediately the other person knows, oh, I’m a doctor. And so they might say, “Oh no, we’ll have to remove it.” And then if the person is on the point of the moment, they might say, “But doctor, that’s the leg you took last time.” And so it starts to roll open on and on and on. But if someone says, “Oh, but doctor, I need that leg,” that’s not accepting the offer and the improvisation dies. So not-knowing is a constant process. It doesn’t have an endpoint, ultimately. It is one unfolding. It is just allowing ourselves to be unfolded by what is happening. But truly unfolded, not repeated, not reaffirming what we think we are. No, discovering what that is, moment by moment, in that live moment. And that’s why the koan is so pertinent as a kind of training in this mind, because in taking up the koan, you really have to enter the live moment in which those words were spoken. You have to come to share the mind of the koan itself, the words that were given.

Here’s another example, if you like. This is Zhaozhou. Someone came to Zhaozhou asking, When difficult times come to visit us, how should we meet them? Which seems like a very pertinent koan for right where we are. And Zhaozhou just gave a one-word response. He just said, Welcome. Now that welcome goes very wide and deep when you look at it. It is the courage of, or the fearlessness of, not-knowing. To say welcome, in a way, is to already place yourself at home. You welcome a guest coming to meet you in the form of a difficult situation, difficult time. But by saying “welcome,” you are taking the form of host, or the role of host, towards a guest. And that sense of being at home right where you are, located, completely located is already a totally different grounding. You have earthed yourself. But also, not-knowing is a form of welcome towards each thing that is happening. It is not opposing. It is not putting up a barrier. It is finding no obstacle. Welcome, you know. It is such a wide-open state.

EVDeep adaptation is something you explored in the book, describing it as both a move towards relinquishing our normal expectations and a process of transforming ourselves within and through the experience of disaster. And you wrote that “facilitating regenerative capacities and systems is our sole path of not just surviving, but flourishing as a species,” which I think is important, because often it’s thought of as, again, a reaction versus a response that is regenerative. So I wonder if you could speak a little bit about this.

SMRDeep adaptation is taken from that paper by Jem Bendell. I took the title from that, because he, too, reaches towards the spiritual depth of what adaptation must be. Not just noticing, not just mitigating, not just restoring or repairing, but also regenerating. And within that there’s also relinquishing: relinquishing our certainties, losing our certainties, giving them up. They’re too expensive. And so what comes through from that term “deep adaptation” for me, the way I’ve tried to reposition it in the book, is also a sense that this is one long, infinitely ongoing process. It does not have an end. It cannot have an agenda. Not-knowing doesn’t have an agenda. It has one continuous looking for the moment of responding. And that could be in a group of people mounting a protest. It could be people getting together to create an inarguable sort of presentation of the craziness of where and what we are, what we are doing, how we’re doing it, why we are doing it.

There’s a thousand ways to oppose the insanity. Because that’s what it is—we are in a somewhat normative insanity at the moment. Another Indigenous elder, Auntie Beryl Carmichael out at Broken Hill in Australia, once said to me, “Reality is connectedness. If you’re not in connectedness, you’re not in reality.” And I think this not-in-reality state is literally—we are not in a state of reality towards the Earth. We have normalized our engineered relationship to it and constructed a kind of whole series of, I guess you could almost call them, alibis for our bad behavior, such as being here to dominate the Earth or subdue the Earth—you know, this is not a very Indigenous frame of mind. But Auntie Beryl says, if you’re not in connectedness, if you’re not alive to it, if you’re not awake to it, you’re not in reality. And so your actions are not connecting in a real or effective way with what is here. You are literally absurd—not in reality. And so I find this to be provocative in a good way towards thinking about how responding in an awake state might look.

There’s another matter that I explore in the book: I once heard a whitewater rafting expert talking about class V rivers. Now he said— can I just read that section?

EVYeah, sure. Please do.

SMROkay. “A class I river: you can go canoeing, no problem. A class VI river: don’t even think about it. And a class V river? The only way you can go down that river is if you’re confident you know how to find and follow the through-line, the safest way through the rapids. The through line is not an outcome, it’s the way through a constantly changing flow. The world is in a class V river now, wouldn’t you say? Savage rocks ahead and on either side of us could destroy our boat, and fierce whirlpools could swallow us whole.… we must learn to read conditions beyond the noise of ‘There’s a rock that will shred our boat!’ or ‘That whirlpool will plunge us in head-first.’ … To find the subtle through-line in a class V river, you must be able to read all the little, telling details. If you miss them, they can spin you towards the big dangers. It is crucial, our whitewater expert said, not ever to fix attention on the truly big obstacles and dangers because they will magnetize your attention and draw your fear to only them, and that way you’ll miss the subtle salvific through-line discovered only when you stay fully aware of the entire river.” And you can’t map this out in advance of discerning what is immediately happening right where you are. And most important of all, he also said, when looking for the through-line, you’re looking for it in concert with all the people in the boat. So all the many hands and eyes are needed to find and stay in accord with the flow.

A class V river—let’s now call it the eco-crisis, the climate crisis—“is not an object to be fought or conquered in an act of personal heroism. There is relief in letting go the mind of being in militant opposition to reality and instead seeking to navigate the subtlety of its flow. It is the same in activism and collective action of any kind: to propose a single powerful enemy that must be overcome is to resource and strengthen and rivet all eyes on one, missing the perspective of the emergent field of circumstance. The great revelation of our practice is that in the deepest intimacy we can find with reality, there is ‘no other.’”

EVThere was another piece on deep adaptation that feels relevant here: that it reshapes our minds to operate with a tenderness towards the planet. It feels like the tenderness allows us to begin to see the through-line and open these veils of separation and being constricted within the self that prevent us from being in relationship to the other people in the boat; to actually seeing the path forward without being caught, as you say, in the whirlpool or smashed against the rock. And you talk about how such a mind, one that’s been tenderized, can break “the culture of silence” that has rendered the Earth “mute and inert.”

SMRWell, I think for me, that takes me back to “Your suffering with me is my care for you,” in the sense that that suffering is what tenderizes us. Our own suffering tenderizes us towards other beings, towards the fact that they, too, suffer; that there’s unavoidable suffering. Living hurts, at a certain level. Most of the things that we discover that are valuable come through meeting that hurt. And then there’s old age, sickness, and death. No one’s gonna get outta that one. [laughs] So this sense of tenderizing: it is a tender fact that we have and are in the act of hurting something that, in a sense, said to us—I’m talking now about the planet itself—said, “I’m all yours.” Not in the sense of for the taking. But if we can say “I’m all yours” in response, we’re home. You know, “I’m all yours” is a most tender offer. It’s the most abundant offer as well. It’s holding nothing back.

I remember watching somebody who was sitting in a waiting room in a clinic, in a hospital. She had obvious signs of chemotherapy happening. A specialist came by who was not her specialist and sat down just probably in passing to say, how are you? And he fell into a long conversation with her. She spoke in great detail about what was going on. He was not her specialist—I want to make it clear. And he listened so clearly and deeply. And this is in a hospital where everyone’s in a rush by nature. And then at the end of that, she said, “Oh look, I’m so sorry. I’ve taken up all this time and, you know, you’re not even my specialist.” And he just touched her arm, and he said, “Ah, no, I’m all yours.” And it really reached me. You know, isn’t that the call on us right now from the Earth—a mutual “I’m all yours?” We can’t say anything, I can’t ask anything, of the Earth that doesn’t come back as our own question or our own statement. There’s another time Thich Nhat Hanh decided to have a deep conversation with the Earth. In other words, a meditation on what’s facing us. And he asked the Earth, can we rely on you? Because, after all, the conditions on Earth don’t look all that comfortable, facing us right now. Can we rely on you? Sorry. Can I rely on you—that was his question. He waited for the response, and it came back: Can I rely on you? It’s the same question. And then Thich Nhat Hanh looked deeply into himself, and he said, in all honesty, you can mostly rely on me. And the Earth said, you can mostly rely on me. I find that so telling, and I think “I’m all yours”—it goes the same way, too. We are mutual. It’s mutual all the way down. We can’t get out of this fact. Luckily, we can’t.

EVI wanted to speak about the intelligence of emptiness, which you’ve hinted at and mentioned in brief in our conversation so far. And in the book you share a very famous koan about a donkey and a well that captures an essential teaching in Buddhism from the heart sutra: that emptiness is form and form is emptiness. And I wonder if you might share that koan and what it teaches about what you call the intelligence of emptiness.

SMRI’ll just get the actual koan. I want to read it as it should be. There it is. Okay. Can I perhaps read that bit from the book?

EVPlease do.

SMROkay. So the well, by the way, is worth mentioning. It’s a very old image, a little bit like the ancient mirror—another image in Zen of this mutuality. But the old well, it’s like, “I’m all yours”—the infinite source of brimming emptiness that comes forth with everything that is here. So in this case, Caoshan asked Elder De how you would explain this relationship of emptiness and form. And Edler De says it is like a donkey looking at a well. Caoshan says, nicely expressed, but only eighty percent of the matter. And then Elder De says, how about you, Acharya (meaning “teacher”)? And Caoshan says, it is like a well looking at a donkey. Now, I hope you can already pick up that mutuality that we’ve just been talking about. Because if it’s a donkey looking at a well, it’s not— By the way, donkeys are impeccable. There is nothing here to put down donkeys when we say “donkey.” So there’s a sense here, though, of Elder De saying, I am a human being trying to look into this mystery. What Caoshan is saying, pretty much, is that this mystery is just trying to let you be looked into by it. So the well—let’s call that the mystery of this empty, seamless, infinitely productive reality, brimming, brimming, and saying at every point, I’m all yours. So on one side—donkey looking at a well—we have form is emptiness. That monk is, in the sense of a limited human being, opening himself as radically as he possibly can manage to this proposition of there is no other; there is one seamless reality here, and it is marvelous, and it is infinitely productive and it brought you forth, and here you are. At the same time, the heart sutra says emptiness is form, form is emptiness. Form is emptiness is, you could say, that’s the sense of, yes, we realize or we wake up to ourselves or into the sense of this vast emptiness. At the same time, we have an elbow that only bends so far and no further. It doesn’t bend backwards. We have knees that are poorly designed and get sore over time. We have form in the sense of a body that will suffer. We will encounter suffering. This also, of course, is the tenderness we spoke about. If we had some proposition like “form is emptiness,” we’d have a sense of “transcend this earthly reality,” or we’d have the temptation towards it. When you say “form is emptiness,” you have the fundamental creaturely, human, tender fact, that we are all actually here. That each one of us is unrepeatable, you know? Our fingerprints will never be seen on Earth again. And this “form is emptiness”—it takes us forward into saying, if you have an awakening experience that shatters your sense of what you thought you were, how are you going to walk it into the world? That well is looking back at the donkey, in a sense, asking that really great question. At a certain level there is no such thing as enlightenment. There’s only enlightened activity. So I think all of that’s in play in that koan. And as for the eighty percent of the matter, that’s sort of one of the ways in which in some of these exchanges people poke each other. But at every point of course, eighty percent is the whole matter, you know? If you’ve got a broken fingernail, that broken fingernail brings forth the entire universe with it. It can’t be without the entire universe, just as much as anything else. So eighty percent of the matter is the whole matter. And that’s part of the fun. There’s a lot of playfulness in koans. It’s actually playing with the sort of ridiculous ways we make ourselves up.

EVHmm. You also draw out the sort of paradoxical relationship between form and emptiness and how the formless can also be formed, which is a teaching not just in Buddhism, but is at the root of many spiritual traditions around the world, including very much in my own Sufi path. And you share the story of how a Buddhist master was asked by a monk, “What is my teacher?” To which the master replied, “Clouds rising out of mountains, streams entering valleys without a sound,” which is a reply that has many, many levels: the Earth as teacher, the present moment as teacher, also ourselves as teacher. And this response not only speaks to this dance between form and emptiness but is also particularly relevant to the difficulty of our present moment when we have no certain ground to stand on. We’re in this space of uncertainty.

SMRWelcome. Welcome. Yeah. That is the stance, that is the awake stance: “welcome.” One of the things I explore in the book is the way the word “precariousness” is actually a word that’s already half open. If you’re in a state of precariousness, you know, the root word of it takes us back to a sense of prayer, imprecation, making imprecation, calling out. Something in you is already calling out beyond yourself. You know, if you think of teetering on the top of a ladder and it’s starting to slip—there’s precariousness. And you know, you shout out, “Hey help!”: already the prayer is there. It’s a state of being slightly beyond yourself, or at least on the cusp of being beyond yourself. So you could almost call it a fortunate state from that point of view. If you know it’s a precarious moment, you’re halfway home. And I think that the precariousness is nonstop. Actually, to go to the Sufi tradition for a minute, when Rumi talks about the farmer who goes out to his barn in the dark without a lantern because he knows the ox is there. His very familiar, loved ox is tethered in the barn. He goes out just to check on it, also because he likes it, I think. And he puts his arm sort of half over it, and he leans into its warmth. He has no idea that a lion—and that, of course, is unqualified reality, or God, if you like—has eaten the ox. And he is standing in the barn, and he has no idea that he is touching the shoulder of the lion. So that state of precariousness, you know, it’s imminent at every point of our lives in the best possible way. We could fall awake at any moment. Of course, if he did, Rumi says, he would die of shock. But that dying of shock is great. Be astounded. Tell about it.

EVI wanna talk a bit more about interbeing, which you raised earlier and obviously Thich Nhat Hanh who brought that teaching and awareness very much into the ecological sphere. And this is really a sense of seamlessness. Merging with the living world around you is one way one could describe it. But much of our culture in the West is estranged from this sense of deep connection between the individual and the whole. And you write the self and its state of separation from the Earth “is itself a koan, a matter to be resolved, a peace to be found, a deep agreement to be reached … and a grave to be climbed out of.” And this really struck me. Can you speak a little bit about this?

SMRI think one of the ways I do try to speak about it in the book is by exploring this word “Country,” which is a very Australian word. What we call Country in Australia doesn’t mean landscape or countryside or anything like that. Country is like a really deep human place; intimacy that is built up over—in the case of Australian Indigenous reality, it’s sixty thousand years deep, in one place—over vast periods of climatic change. Talk about deep adaptation, you know? It is the very template of what that might form in a human being, or human beings, in a sense of becoming able to think along with the Earth; the Earth becoming able to think along with us. And so that’s probably the best way I can talk about this reconciliation, this deep sense of a reconciled state. A state that is constantly conciliating, in fact, or reconciliating with what is happening, like in the way droughts, fires, and floods, or even lovely, well-balanced, well-tempered weather systems and all the productivity that comes with it.

Country is a really difficult thing to talk about simply because it really is a template of mind. And it is very specific to the place where you are located. Another Indigenous teacher, Mary Graham is her name, said, we’re so accustomed to the old statement, “I think therefore I am.” And she said, now that’s so out of date and such a misfit with the Earth. She says, “I am located, therefore I am.” So Country begins in a really forensically detailed set of relationships; of kinship and relationship that becomes a kind of shared dreaming, I mean shared with the Earth. And the Earth is treated as the kind of repository. The details of the Earth, the formations, the land, landforms, mountains, rivers, particular rocks, trees, creatures are all seen as the archive, in a way, of this deep body of long, long, long-time conversation going on between human beings and the place where they are. So that’s one way of understanding this sort of sense of reconciliation. And at a very deep level, if we were to reconcile with the Earth, we would be reconciled with each other. There’s no choice but to undo the kind of conflicts— Every conflict, in a sense, would have to be undone on the way to reconciling with the Earth.

The person I dedicate the book to, Uncle Max Harrison, Dulumunmun, my longtime [friend]—twenty-five years of walking in Country with him and learning, learning, letting Country teach me through him. He and I were out on a walk in Country with a group of people, and Uncle Max was walking ahead with his stick that he lent on as he walked. He turned around suddenly, and he looked at everybody and said, “Look, I don’t hold with this word ‘reconciliation.’” Everyone was, whoa, what does this mean, what’s going on here? It was an enlightening moment because people began to think this man, you know, this teacher— He’s a fully initiated man, which is rare on the south coast of New South Wales. And he said, “How can there be reconciliation when there’s never been a relationship in the first place? What is there to reconcile with no relationship in the first place? And then he picked up a handful of earth and held it up. And he said, “I tell both mobs”—mobs being a way of talking about white fellas, black fellas, as we say in Australia (and that is Indigenous naming). He says, “I tell both mobs: reconcile with this.” He’s holding out just this handful of earth. And I think that is, in a sense, the “your suffering with me is my care for you,” you know, that sense of reconcile with the Earth. And reconciliation will have happened throughout the entirety of all the fissures and broken state of relationships on Earth. That’s a very large statement. And, of course, it’s not a kind of ambition that will come to its end. It’s ongoing. Keep on reconciling with this. Never stop reconciling with this.

EVI met Max Harrison, I guess twenty years ago. I interviewed him in 2006—not quite twenty years ago—when I first traveled to Australia. A wonderful man. And I remember spending a few hours with him by a creek near his home.

SMRDid you know he died with Covid?

EVI did. I did. Yes. I was saddened to hear about his passing.

SMRYeah, totally. Yeah. Huge loss.

EVHmm. You know, I felt part of the power of your book is this demonstration of the ways that spiritual practices can offer a framework or container for returning to an Earth-based consciousness. And on the back of that, it made me again think about the ways contemporary spirituality in the West, which sadly too often I feel revolves around self-help or personal transformation, often holds very little attention towards the Earth. And that it’s so deeply important at this time to reinstate an Earth-based consciousness into many of our spiritual traditions; and that they have to evolve to become more Earth-centered, because many of them were not necessarily so Earth-centered. Some were, you know? The root of Zen is in Chan, and Chan in Taoism, and there’s very much an Earth-centered relationship there. But often when it came to the West it lost those pieces, and some traditions had them less.

SMRAbsolutely. That’s run through every book I’ve ever written, when I look back. It’s just, you know, the sense that the fundamental koan is the Earth, which is also inseparable from the fundamental koan, human koan, of what is this self? What is this self? They are the same koan in a way. They become— they heal into each other, put it that way, like medicine and sickness do. In a way, it’s sort of mysterious to me that this isn’t obvious to everybody. Possibly it’s because I had a childhood in North Queensland, far north Queensland, tropical North Queensland, [near the] Great Barrier Reef—totally alive at that point. To my great sorrow, it is not in a healthy state, it’s in a sick state right now. That’s the greatest living— the biggest living organism on Earth is the Great Barrier Reef of Queensland. So that was part of my childhood. But even more than that, I didn’t wear shoes until I was eight. There was no need, no reason to wear shoes. So I didn’t. I had a pair you could put on if needed, but I hated wearing them, and I got rid of them as soon as I possibly could. So having a barefoot childhood means you are simply soul-to-soul with the Earth, you know? It’s an incidental thing that it’s called the sole of the foot. But in a sense you don’t know, and don’t need to know, some kind of cut between the human and the Earth.

Gradually, of course, educational systems, make sure that you do begin to make that cut, that fundamental cut. And even the word “I” is a strange, strange thing. I can remember sitting on the back stairs of our house in North Queensland and reading a book. My sister taught me to read when I was three. She came back from school and taught me to read—she thought it was a useful skill, so I did. But I came across the word I in the middle of a sentence, [and thought,] “What’s this capital letter on its own doing in the middle of a sentence?” And I remember taking it to my father, and he looked at it. He was working binding books down— We had a home library. And he said, “Oh, that’s you. That’s you. Or it’s me.” This capital letter I. And I can remember that feeling right at that moment of, it carves us out of the universe. Just that single letter I is like a cut that needs an entire lifetime’s work to heal it back over time, with practice, whatever your spiritual practice is. If that’s not the course of your spiritual practice, if it’s still kind of marooned in a sense of “I” and “my salvation,” then the entire salvific— Well, the nature of salvation itself is so small, so quarterized, so withheld at a certain level. Because when we do have that sense of no gap between this very being and all that is, that reconsecrates the Earth. It reconsecrates each life on Earth. It is a reconsecration of the Earth to recognize there is no fundamental gap. Everything we are is the pure gift “I’m all yours” from the Earth, you know? We are Earth-formed, Earth-made. I’m not trying to turn the Earth into a God. I’m just saying it is the most immediate, local origin point of our being, which itself is a sort of tiny minor speck in a vast, vast presence. And where you want to take that is entirely up to your own spiritual tradition, you know?

The old address we used to write on our letters when we were children was we’d say the street number, the street, the suburb, the town, the state, the country, the hemisphere. Then we’d go to Planet Earth, then we’d say Milky Way, and then we’d say, Mind of God. [laughter]
So that locating of the self, you know, it’s huge. It’s astounding.

EVSusan, it’s been lovely speaking with you today. Thank you so much for joining us.

SMROh, Emmanuel, I’ve totally enjoyed it myself. Thank you. Thanks for thinking of it.

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