Paper or plastic?

The Zen Buddhist tradition often makes use of the koan, a pithy question or dilemma that is posed by a master to the aspiring student.

The most famous example of a koan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” but there are many more: “What was your original face before you were born?” “Has a dog the Buddha nature?” The aim of the koan is to produce a short-circuit in the mind and spirit of the aspirant that leads to new insights or even to qualitatively different ways of understanding or experiencing the world. The mind is startled out of its usual sluggishness by the koan into a more alert perception.

A koan for our time and culture might be this one that we hear often on our visits to the supermarkets: “Paper or plastic?” These three words sketch out a key dilemma. Just a few years ago, practically all grocery stores routinely stuffed our groceries into paper sacks. Then plastic bags began to replace them. Now they seem to be running neck and neck; most stores offering a choice. Some customers prefer paper because they stand upright and are biodegradable. Others prefer plastic because of their handles and waterproof character, and point out that while they don’t biodegrade as well as paper, landfills tend to slow down decomposition anyway, and plastic bags take up less room.

Either option is a bad choice for the natural world. Paper bags mean trees felled, while plastic takes forever in the landfill to self-destruct. Both contribute to the ubiquitous and serious problem of resource consumption and solid waste disposal. So the koan is presented to us by the clerk or bagger frequently. The koan, of course, is resolved successfully by realizing that the choice is really not between types of containers, the choice is between disposable and reusable. The real solution to the problem is to bring a durable cloth bag that can be used over and over. Thus resolving the koan moves us to a new level of awareness.

Attention to the koan points to the immense contributions of Asian spirituality to the current development of an ecological Christianity. Environmentalists and spiritual seekers alike have utilized this rich treasure trove for insight and application in the struggle to preserve the Earth’s life-supporting resources.

“If you wish to know the divine,” said the Buddha 2,500 years ago, “then feel the wind on your face and the warm sun on your hand.” Asian spiritual traditions have always emphasized the human connection with the natural world. The natural world not only reveals divinity everywhere, it is an unquenchable fountain of lessons and instructions on how to live our lives in harmony with one another and with all living things.

17th-century Japanese Zen poet Basho gave this advice to his disciples:

“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must let go of your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object, and don’t learn. Your poetry arises by itself when you and the object become one, when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden light glimmering there.”

Zen spiritual masters urged their students to develop a “beginner’s mind,” a perspective that is always capable of being awed and struck by wonder. Look around you, says the master, with ever fresh eyes and behold the wonders of creation.

Taoism, which arose in China in the 6th century BC reverences the created world and finds strategies for right living in the ways of the natural world. Lao Tzu, a Taoist sage, wrote:

“Trees and animals, humans and insects, flowers and birds. These are active images of the subtle energies that flow from the stars through the universe. Meeting and combining with each other and the elements of the Earth, they give rise to all living things. The wise person understands this, and that her own energies play a part in it. Understanding these things, she respects the Earth as her mother, the heavens as her father, and all living things as her brothers and sisters.”

Chinese and Japanese landscape paintings offer graphic illustrations of this harmoniously interconnected relationship between humans and the natural world. Elegantly and delicately rendered, they depict lofty peaks, pine-covered hillsides, bamboo forests alive with monkeys and panda bears. In amongst the peaks and forests are human figures and dwellings. Harmoniously existing within the land and with its other life. The ancient eyes of the little figures glitter in the midst of the Earth’s beauty.

One of the biggest threats to the life support systems on the planet now is Western consumerism. We live in a country whose people make up five percent of the world’s population, yet we consume more than 30 percent of its resources (according to the Worldwatch Institute). If the Earth’s systems are to continue to sustain us, we in the West must probably adopt simpler ways of living. Toward this end, the gift from Asian spirituality is the Zen concept of mindfulness, a way of living in the present moment, that not only leads to peacefulness but also contributes to a richer life, thus reducing the need for more and more consumer goods to distract and entertain us.

Too often we hurry through our life experiences, missing out on the richness of ordinary moments. For example, we are eating an orange and notice that as soon as we pop one slice into our mouth, we are so intent on the business of separating the next slice that we completely miss out on the succulence and exquisite flavor of our first bites. If we can’t eat the orange one slice at a time, savoring and enjoying each segment, then we really are incapable of eating the orange at all. Thus, our life is sucked away into the future. Mindfulness is a way by which we master and restore ourselves. It’s both a means and an end in itself.

Zen master Ling Chi said: “The miracle is not walk on burning coals or thin air or on water; the real miracle is to walk on the Earth. You are alive and walking on this beautiful planet and are mindful of it. That is a true miracle.”

And experiencing the miracle should lead to conversion, then action. Paper or plastic?