Sunday, June 16, 2002

Independent Co-Arising and Stewardship: Uncle Bill and the Wolves

Uncle Bill was a cattleman which I guess is different from a rancher because he lived in town and leased a 350 acre place east of there from an elderly fellow who lived up in the Panhandle. Bill's place was less than an hour's drive from Dallas and when I was growing up we spent many weekends fishing and camping by the the 40 acre lake on the property. Bill was my favorite uncle. Years ago, during World War II, he was in the civilian corps and spent several years in the Yukon Territory where he did a lot of trapping. He had a multitude of stories to tell and he is the first one who taught me about the Buddhist concept of "Interdependent Co-Arising", although he didn't call it that. He was part Cherokee Indian and had a great respect for balance and harmony in nature. Although he had done his share of hunting, usually out of necessity rather than sport, he had "No Hunting" signs posted on his property that caused a bit of controversy with neighboring ranchers because Bill's Place, as we called it, was a refuge for a medium size pack of timber wolves. At night, when we were camping, they often awakened us with their howling and although I was scared to death of them at first, I learned to love their sound.

In the evenings, I would ride with Bill when he went to feed the cattle. (I was useful for opening gates.) Often, the wolves would be peacefully resting in the shade a short distance away from where the cattle were grazing and they seemed to co-exist peacefully together. The wolves had become so tame they wouldn't bother to move even when we were only yards away. Bill explained that there was plenty of small game in the vicinity because most of the land around was in the soil bank program and not being farmed so the wolves had no need to bother the cattle.

Years ago the timber wolves had almost been hunted to extinction. The land was rich mid-plains prairie covered with native grasses and had been plowed up and planted in cotton which wore out the soil in a short time. Farmers had eradicated the numerous prairie dog towns which had been essential to keeping the prairie meadows aerated. Deprived of a major food source, the wolves had resorted to attacking cattle. So the wolves were eliminated which allowed the rabbit population to explode. Rabbits were a major pest to farmers because they eat down new vegetation so the rabbits had to be hunted down but it's a lot harder to eliminate rabbits than wolves. Then the soil wore out and was put in the soil bank program and native vegetation began to take over once again. With careful conservation measures, you could make a living raising cattle by rotating the pastures so long as you didn't overgraze and gave the pastures time to recover during the fallow intervals. Gradually the wolves began moving back in and they helped keep rabbits, coons and armadillos in check.

The Buddhist concept of "Interdependent Co-Arising" teaches that there is no separate independent self. Everything is interdependent and interrelated. As humans, we have the capacity to imagine that we are separate beings from other creatures and nature, but this is an illusion. In all circumstances, our physical selves are defined only as part of sets of relationships with others. We are a father, sister, neighbor, employee, employer, friend or citizen, to name only a few of these relationships. None of us exists in isolation, nor can we. Our physical existence impacts and is impacted upon by everything both living and non-living. We can ruin our environment by polluting it or destroying it and it is we ourselves who suffer. We can fail to live up to the responsibilities incumbent upon us in our various relationships, and we are the ones who ultimately suffer.

We teach our children the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have other do unto you." But too often we ignore the corollary to that rule which is, "What we do unto others will be done unto us." When we act out of disregard for the needs and rights of others, we ultimately will find our own needs and rights ignored or violated. When we act unjustly, break trust or fail to show compassion, we will be the ultimate recipients of the suffering, injustice and lack of trust we have shown to others. The social contract that governs relationships in community, or the covenant relationship the Bible teaches us about are based on this understanding of "Interdependent Co-Arising". We cannot exist successfully without others and community is not possible without self-sacrifice, honesty, loyalty and trust-worthiness.

The past 30 years have witnessed a tragic loss of trust and accountability, first in government, and now more recently in the scandals in the business community and most recently in the sex-abuse scandal confronting the church. All of these situations arise because of a mind set of individual pride, greed and lust for power that leads individuals and groups to act selfishly and independently of the needs and rights of others. The concepts of self-sacrifice, honesty, loyalty and trust-worthiness seem no longer to govern the actions of either persons in positions of leadership or the general public.

There is a Buddhist proverb that says, "If one horse is sick, all the other horses in the stable will refuse to eat." We practice stewardship when we understand that if one of us suffers, all of us suffer; if one of us is deprived, all of us are deprived; if one of us suffers injustice, eventually all of us will suffer injustice. This is an instance where Buddhism and Christianity compliment each other and can contribute to a greater understanding on the part of each. The Christian concept of Stewardship is based on the understanding of creation as a gift. We have an ethical obligation to care for each other, and especially for the weaker or more vulnerable members of the community. The Buddhist understanding of "Interdependent Co-Arising" helps us understand that there really is no reality of separateness; Thou art I, I am Thou. To live in and for others recognizes and celebrates our essential Oneness and enables us to forego selfish individual actions that cause suffering. When we give up acting as if what we do affects only ourselves and begin to act in concert with others for our mutual benefit, we will discover a rich reward in the expanded consciousness of the life we all share.