Emergence Magazine

Ma-Lin, Scholar Reclining and Watching Rising Clouds, Poem by Wang Wei, 1225–75.

The Cleveland Museum of Art

A Ghost’s Life

by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

Writer

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, PhD, is a Sufi teacher and author, and editor of Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth. His most recent book is A Handbook for Survivalists: Caring for the Earth, A Series of Meditations, available as a free PDF here.

Responding to our fractured sense of reality, Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee looks to the wisdom of the Ch’an Buddhist masters to help us find balance and belonging through direct experience of life’s wholeness.

 

Into what landscape have we stumbled, where the air is toxic with disinformation and social media distortions, algorithms intensifying divisiveness and tribalism? We know the power of propaganda, whether it comes from democratic governments or authoritarian regimes. We have always been fed lies by those in power, who use the media for their own purposes. But this present miasma has a different intensity and effect, as poisonous as the air of a pandemic. It is as if the very fabric of our consciousness has become distorted, creating not a fairground hall of mirrors but a dark web of conspiracy and deceit that sees truth as a primal adversary.

In this online wasteland nothing seems to grow except anger and acrimony. It is like a landscape inhabited by zombies, always demanding more attention, never satisfied, never fully alive. Whether the stories in this wasteland are of stolen elections, the dangers of vaccines, or other conspiracies, they all seem to image a world turning against itself, voices echoing as they become more strident. These stories appear to arise out of some field of disinformation, trying to catch our attention, wanting to be shared, retweeted, until, lacking real substance, they often dissolve back into our dark collective imagination.

Disturbingly, these distortions that surround us seem to be without a certain human quality that is not just a lack of care or understanding. While they may often be full of anger and oppression, they have the quality of being computer-generated, lacking any feeling of real tears, real passion. It is as if our whole human family has become infected by a virus or malware. Their words catch at our thoughts, our attention, trying to trap or seduce us. It is hard to feel their source in real suffering or searching. Are we caught more and more in some virtual world, where nothing is grounded in what is simple, human, and true, where everything is photoshopped into beauty or terror, the more extreme it is, the more clicks, likes or dislikes?

And what does this mean to our collective story, our shared journey together, whether through this present pandemic or into the coming disaster of climate crisis? How can we find the ground under our feet in this swirling fog of disinformation, where nothing is real except this manipulation of our attention? How have many people become so alienated from any real sense of community or belonging that their only home is in conspiracy theories? This contemporary feeling of living as a rootless exile in a broken world is aptly described in the Chinese Buddhist text No-Gate Gateway, a koan collection from 1228 CE, as living “a ghost’s life, clinging to weeds and trees.” This Buddhist text suggests that the “ghost’s life” is due to our being “radically separated from the vast outside of empirical reality, together with a suspicion that it needn’t be this way, that some kind of immediacy and wholeness is possible.”1 While one can recognize the world of internet memes being outside of any tangible “empirical reality,” the more vital question is whether today there is an open gateway to return us to a direct experience of life’s wholeness. Or will we drift further and further into this rootless viral world?

I feel I am living in a world that is becoming radically separated from any ground of being, inner and outer air made toxic. I watch these stories swirl around and wonder if they are just the nightmares of a civilization that has lost its way, soon to be forgotten as the dawn comes. Do they have any relationship to the real stories of this moment in time, or are they just patterns of denial to distract us from the failures of our culture, with its increasing divisiveness, racial injustice, and the primal tragedy of our dying ecosystem?

I am fortunate to be old enough for my consciousness not to be caught in social media, and I admit it is not a reality I fully understand. I enjoy seeing pictures and videos of my granddaughter growing up half a world away. I appreciate its illusion of connection. But I need the simple human exchange with friends or neighbors, at the post office, the bakery, or the store. I like to touch a tree, feeling the rough bark under my fingers, sensing its roots deep into the ground; I like sweeping its leaves as they fall onto the driveway. This is the direct experience that I need to feel I belong, belong to the earth and the sky, to the fox I found walking down the path towards me. I prefer the sight of wild geese crossing a skyline to any images on a smartphone.

How can we find the ground under our feet in this swirling fog of disinformation, where nothing is real except this manipulation of our attention?

This essential awareness can be found in the teachings of the early Ch’an masters, whose consciousness was woven into the living earth, a moment-by-moment awareness of landscape, of “rivers and mountains.” Here there is no division, no separation or sense of alienation. They are present in life with neither action or non-action but with “the sheer thusness of everyday life.” Returning to this direct experience, I find it all around me. The sun breaking through the fog on the wetlands outside my window tells the same story as a Ch’an teaching:

A monk asked Master Visitation-Land: “What is my teacher?”
Visitation-Land replied: “Clouds rising out of mountains, streams entering valleys without a sound.”2

I need these older stories, simple, essential, in order to keep some clarity, some sense of connection. I do not know if our present civilization has to die like this, like a hungry ghost, even as refugees drown trying to reach land where they would be unwelcome. Life’s wholeness is all around us, in every dawn chorus, every flower turning towards the sun. And yet our contemporary consciousness seems so fragmented. Even the pandemic, which began by bringing people together, helping each other, caring, has constellated more fissures in our culture, more tribalism, more discordant voices, even over the simple protection of wearing a mask. What does this say of our future, where we are meeting a global climate crisis?

Shared truth used to support us as a community—a shared sense of reality. But in our present collective consciousness, we appear to have crossed over into a country where simple truths do not reach us, whether in daily dramas of fake news or in our global adherence to the myth of endless economic growth that is destroying our ecosystem at an accelerating rate.3 Even the voices of young people crying out for a future that is being stolen from them do not reach into these unsustainable ideas of economic progress and prosperity.

Kuncan, Spring Landscape, 1666.

The Cleveland Museum of Art

So many lies, so much disinformation has been spread, often at the very root of our present way of life.4 And our internet bubbles do not distinguish between truth, lies, and bullshit, except perhaps that pure bullshit seems to have more traction, to move faster in online spaces.5 And more and more our consciousness and community seem to migrate into this viral world, so that the simple act of sharing a meal is often interrupted by scrolling a screen. As cellphones were permeating more and more of our public and private spaces, as online platforms were becoming more and more sophisticated at manipulating our attention and addicting us, did we understand our part in this Faustian bargain? That we were surrendering not only our personal data and demographics but also collective truth, the reality of an empirical world outside our increasingly small bubble—a bubble often defined by social media platforms themselves?

There is a deep need to turn to teachings that sustain us, that are not born of a fractured consciousness but walk with two feet on the earth. We need to find a pathway that can return us to wholeness, to the simplicity of what is, a landscape where all things can be known according to their true nature, “the dharma of all things themselves, that is the Buddha-dharma,” where our original nature “reflects everything, holds nothing”—this landscape of what in essence is beyond words, beyond truth or lies, and is at the same time “everyday ordinary mind.”

Nourished by these ancient teachings, I find the only way to return, to embrace reality, is through what is most simple, most ordinary. By baking bread and cooking soup, by smelling herbs, by gardening, or walking and watching in nature, reconnecting to wild places. By noticing what is around me, the sound of the wind, the rain falling. There is a Cherokee practice that is similar to mindfulness, but different because it is grounded in the earth, called “the sound of the green forest humming”: “the awareness of the sound of the forest, the sound of the water and our breath. When people are very well attuned they hear a certain sound and are mindful of that sound. When they don’t hear it they realize they have stepped into a place where their thoughts have become imbalanced.”6

Ordinary, everyday awareness can return us to a place of balance, where we are part of the living community to which we really belong. A community not of internet bubbles, but of the earth and the clouds and the sun on the water. Whether this is an answer or merely a refuge I do not yet know. I am reassured to find this primal awareness described centuries ago, in teachings and poems that remain outside of time. Today, watching a little ruby-crowned bird looking for food at my feet, I feel true kinship. Focused on her own search, she allows me to come close, without fear or concern. Walking through this gate that is always open, we can return to a quality of consciousness beyond truth and lies, one that is more primal, spontaneous. Here an old man in his garden watching a little green bird can leave behind a strange fractured world of distortions and breathe an air that is not toxic, walk on a land that is still singing.

  1. David Hinton, China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen (Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, 2020), 2.
  2. Hinton, China Root, 81.
  3. “The idea that economic growth can continue forever on a finite planet is the unifying faith of industrial civilization. That it is nonsensical in the extreme, a deluded fantasy, doesn’t appear to bother us.” Christopher Kretchem, “The Fallacy of Endless Economic Growth,” Pacific Standard, Sept. 2018. The seminal 1972 bestselling book Limits to Growth began the work of describing this danger, even more important today as the planet is facing a deeper and longer-term crisis, rooted in a number of interconnected global challenges, such as rising socioeconomic inequalities, growing social malaise, climate change, massive biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation.
  4. One of the most primal untruths of our present way of life is the myth of materialism, that more “stuff” will make us happy.
  5. In Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust, Volume 2, Lyra says: “He told me there were truth tellers, and they needed to know what the truth was, so as to tell it. And there were liars, and they needed to know what the truth was, so they could change it or avoid it. And there were bullshitters, who didn’t care about the truth at all. They weren’t interested. What they spoke wasn’t the truth and it wasn’t lies; it was bullshit. All they were interested in was their own performance.”
  6. Cherokee peacemaker Dhyani Ywahoo, quoted in “Maintaining the Fire,” by J. M. White, Parabola Winter 2020–2021.

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