The Tibetan Boo…

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Peering into Life after Death

ImageOur culture is changing at a staggering rate, nearly outpacing our imaginative capacity to predict what lies ahead for the future of humanity and of the Earth. Modern technology has brought about immense transformations, some arguably favorable- others quite disastrous. This has impacted the psychological orientation of individuals, the lifestyles of societies, and the very fabric of the vital ecological systems of this strange yet beautiful blue planet. There will undoubtedly be periods of tragic unrest in the human sphere as a result of the impending projected trajectories of trends human-born but now no longer within our species’ control. The biosphere at large will also experience upheavals of all sorts. This list seems to grow by the day and includes the unfortunate loss of biodiversity ushering in what scientists’ term the sixth mass extinction event the Earth has witnessed since its inception. This sudden drop in biodiversity is connected to the exploitation of natural resources that spawns worldwide pollution and inequity- a process driven by the demands of a voracious globalized consumer culture. Also we have the wildcard that is runaway population explosion, exacerbating an already compounded problem. These forces are largely environmental factors caused in part or entirely by human action; they can in turn cause profound problems for our species. The dwindling supply of fresh water, arable land, clean air and accessible fuels will likely increase ethno-national conflict, untimely death due to resource scarcity and disease, lowering the overall quality of life for all beings on Earth. The burden our global capitalist economy is placing upon the fragile ecological systems could even undermine the entire foundation of modern civilization as we know it.

The future seems bleak to an honest eye; as humanity is wholly dependent upon the vitality of the planet itself, the degradation of our mother will inevitably bring about our own species’ demise for we have so ruthlessly broken the sacred bonds with nature, speaking of both the wider ecology and our own inner nature. The story of humanity in the modern period is surely one of triumphant progress, although in actuality it was a victory celebrated in haste. The full implications of our ‘progress’ were utterly unknown to the pioneers who believed they were playing their part in an unfolding manifest destiny that swept over the face of Earth like a relentless wildfire. We failed to ask ourselves a crucial question: what exactly are we progressing towards? It is a story which illustrates a profound principle in Tibetan Buddhism- the indisputable law of karma. In what manner will our present actions, both collective and individual in respect to the environment at large, affect the course of our future lives? The greed, the callousness that has been conditioned in modern man and the disregard for the planet, each sow their own unique seeds. Greed breeds wealth at the expense of others causing despicable injustice; in the pursuit for transient human playthings and pleasures other creatures are trampled over without the least bit of remorse; the fact that the Earth is eroding beneath our feet hardly causes the common human eye to blink for our collective focus appears to be fixated on mindless superficialities. In addition to the way the existing human predicament predicated upon ecological disharmony demonstrates the law of karma, the central epiphany of Buddhist philosophy- that suffering pervades conditioned existence, is made plain through the reality of our disheartening socio-ecological situation.

 The effects of humanity’s sinister presence are becoming visible, to the point of being categorically undeniable, on this plane of existence but one might surmise what may befall our species in the succeeding plane. Are we spared the consequences of our actions once the death of our physical being occurs or do we continue to experience the consequences in the supposed life thereafter? The question may appear unknowable for in Western culture one finds an ambiguity as to the state of existence after death, at least for those who have since renounced a Judeo-Christian tradition whereby God’s judgment is paramount to the souls’ dual recourse. In contrast, the cosmology of Tibetan Buddhism provides rich material for understanding what may be knocking on the other side of deaths’ door. The various impending difficulties of the present world, principally environmental ruin provoked by human action and animated by anthropocentrism, are relative to this historical period of time although other conundrums exist which occur irrespective to the current time period. Death is perhaps the most universal existential crisis that all beings face; the heightened consciousness of humanity predisposes our species to yearn to reconcile this inescapable fate and develop various means to console the living and provide solace in death.

Within Tibetan Buddhism there are philosophical features which can be viewed as a means of predicting the future course of one’s life. One such teaching is that of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, composed by the great Indian sage Padma Sambhava, who initially introduced Buddhism into Tibet. In this monumental piece, also known traditionally as The Great Book of Natural Liberation through Understanding in the Between (Bardo Thodol in Tibetan), the author sheds light on the future of all living beings: the inevitability of death and the experience that comes after this lifetime. It is an affirmation of the post-death continuity of consciousness. Although it is imperative to note that the emphasis within Buddhism and specifically within the Tibetan Book of the Dead is placed upon the realization of enlightenment- liberation from samsaric existence. “Samsara refers to transmigration, birth-and-death, or rebirth, the condition of constantly moving about, and its notion means one’s going through one life after another (Hoyu 152)”. Essentially samsara is unenlightened existence and so long as we are ignorant of our true nature we will perpetually meander through the six realms of existence: hell, ‘hungry-ghost’, animal, human, anti-god, and god realms. Hell-beings are incarnations of hate, ‘hungry-ghosts’ are the result of greed, animal life is a product of accumulated ignorance, anti-gods the consequence of jealousy, and beings in the god realm are an outcome of pride. The procurement of the human form allows the most freedom and potential for spiritual growth, being a byproduct of all the various conflicting passions of hate, greed, ignorance, jealousy, and pride as well as the converse virtues of the three lower realms, generosity, patience, and intelligent sensitivity (Thurman 30). Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche offers a more comprehensive understanding of the six realms of cyclic existence:

Each realm can be thought of as a continuum of experience. The hell realm, for instance, ranges from the internal emotional experience of anger and hatred, to behaviors rooted in anger such as fighting and wars, to institutions, prejudices, and biases built on hatred such as armies, racial hatred, and intolerance, to the actual realm in which beings exist (Rinpoche).

 Through an intellectual dissection the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I aspire to reinterpret the principle of karma and the role it plays in the reincarnation of our soul in light of the modern environmental holocaust occurring on this planet while also highlighting relevant truths suffused in the teachings that will be of benefit in this period of ecological upheaval and in our own spiritual transformations.

The teaching contained in the Tibetan Book of the Dead is designed to help guide souls through the death process in an effort to actualize their Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is the capacity to awaken to the ultimate reality of the universe and to ones own true nature. A theory of reincarnation is employed which is fundamental to the premise of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Seen from the Tibetan perspective, death marks the beginning of another phase of an individual’s life continuum, which is comprised of six ‘bardos’, which can be conceptualized as states of existence. The phase is aptly termed between as it is the period between the moment of death and the moment of rebirth into another realm. This teaching is an explication of the between period with a detailed narrative of what happens perceptually to the person undergoing the process of death and their experiences before they are reborn. Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche, author of A Modern Commentary on Karma Lingpa’s Zhi-Khro: teachings on the peaceful and wrathful deities, explains the six bardo realms:

“The first bardo of birth and life lasts from the time you are conceived in mother’s womb until your last breath, when consciousness leaves the body at death. This is called the shi-nay bardo. The second is the mi-lam or dream bardo and is considered a subdivision of the first bardo. Third is the sam-ten bardo of meditation. The meditation bardo is also considered a subdivision of the bardo of birth and living. The fourth is the chik-khai bardo of the moment of death. It begins when the outer and inner signs indicate that death is approaching, and continues through the dissolution of the elements until the moment after the last breath. The fifth is the chö-nyid bardo of the luminosity of the true nature which begins right after the last breath. The sixth, or sid-pai bardo, is known as the bardo of becoming or transmigration (Sherab 5-6)”.

           The Tibetan Book of the Dead primarily refers to the fourth and fifth bardos, the death-point and the bardo which occurs between the moment of death and rebirth, respectively. According to Tibetan Buddhism the future of each individual, in terms of what comes after the end of this life, is none other than death, followed by this fifth bardo, also named the ‘reality-between’. It enables a broadening of the idea of our existence; our lifetime is composed of our consciousness incarnated in human form while our ‘deathtime’ is just as fluid a process however our consciousness is disembodied and formless. Although the process of the soul moving through the different bardo realms is universal, the contents of the experience are uniquely individual and this phenomenon can be attributed to the personal natures and inclinations of the being. The state of the soul during the between bardo is especially vulnerable to the law of karma, in the sense that the conscious or unconscious volitions are exceptionally influential in the further evolution of the individual. Robert Thurman in reference to this vulnerability states: “The [reality] between is after all a time of crisis after death, when the soul (the very subtle mind-body) is in its most highly fluid state (Thurman 80)”. All our aspirations, effort, and spiritual practices cultivated during the breadth of our incarnated life on Earth culminate in the moment of death and the succeeding reality-between bardo. This momentary magnification of karmic causation, at least in respect to the quickness of karmic fruition, seems to be correlated to the incorporeal and subtle state of the soul and the utter malleability of mind. Thurman continues in his description of the soul during the between state, detailing the extraordinary abilities now exhibited:

The between voyager has temporarily an immensely heightened intelligence, extraordinary powers of concentration, special abilities of clairvoyance and teleportation, flexibility to become whatever can be imagined, and the openness to be radically transformed by a thought, vision, or an instruction (Thurman 80).

 These remarkable faculties conventionally unknown to us in ordinary existence behave as a double-edge sword, beneficial if our inclinations are positive and resulting enlightenment or a rebirth into conditions conducive to liberation, detrimental if otherwise. The subtlety and fluidity characteristic of the reality-between being enables the potential for spontaneous awakening, or ‘natural liberation’ as conceived in the original title of the Tibetan text. Likewise, a mentality steeped in fear, greed, hatred or another motivation rooted in attachment and craving can serve as cause for a lower rebirth with unfavorable circumstances for the actualization of enlightenment, let alone happiness. The urgency and necessity of the teachings contained within the Tibetan Book of the Dead is exemplified by this quality of the soul’s sheer impressionability at this juncture in one’s life-continuum.

To understand what happens when death occurs it is helpful to first look at what comprises a human being. Tibetan Buddhism has a detailed conception of the body-mind complex which for our purposes is analogous to the human being. The body-mind complex is broken down into three levels: gross, subtle, and extremely subtle. Gross in this sense refers to the corporeal and more easily perceptible aspects of the body and mind. The gross body is comprised of flesh, blood, bone and other material that is comparable to the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space (Thurman 35). In association with this body is the gross mind, which includes six sense-consciousnesses; “the five that correspond to the physical senses of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body, and the sixth, mental sense-consciousness that operates within the central nervous system coordinating all the input from the senses with concepts, thoughts, images, and volitions (Thurman 36)”. Moving down from the gross we find the subtle body, which can be thought of as the nervous system. It includes the nerve channels and fibers that radiate outward from wheels that punctuate the main nerve channel that outline the spine; these wheels are perhaps a Tibetan correlate to the chakras of the yogic spiritual systems of India. Also, the nerve signals that course through these pathways make up part of the subtle body. The subtle mind is the various states of consciousness that arise in response to the perceptions of the six senses; this subjectivity is three-tiered consisting of subtle states of consciousness referred to as luminance, radiance, and imminence. Along with these three are the more familiar subconscious drives, desires, aspirations and a nearly infinite array of different mental states that can be subjectively experienced. Finally we have the extremely subtle body which is termed the indestructible drop and it exists, during the incarnated lifetime, at the center of the heart wheel. The extremely subtle mind is the intuition of clear light, known as transparency, and at this point the duality of mind and body dissolves as the indestructible drop is one with the intuition of clear light. Although a central tenet of Buddhism is the belief of non-self- that being the fallacy of our separate, unconditioned existence- this extremely subtle body-mind transparency for a lack of a better word is the Buddhist soul. It is what creates the continuity of existence through the bardo realms; this extremely subtle energy is what transmigrates and reincarnates and contains the imprint of one’s personal karma (Thurman 36).

With this understanding of the human being we can now proceed to the stages of the death process. In crafting the sublime art of dying, Tibetan Buddhists developed a model known as the eight stages of the dissolution process. The stages of dissolution represent a succession of subjective experiences. The first stage is when the element of earth in the gross body-mind complex dissolves into water and the dying person feels a sense of weakness and frailty; the visual field becomes distorted, forms look like mere mirages and the eyes lose its ability to see clearly. The water element then dissolves into fire causing one to experience a feeling of being enveloped by smoke. At this stage the auditory sensations of the physical body fade and one can no longer hear sounds of the external world with their ears. Then the fire element dissolves into wind, thereby engendering a feeling of coldness with the loss of the olfactory sensation and this stage is accompanied by the experience of sparks flickering. At this point the wind aspect of the body-mind complex folds into pure space, halting the breath which causes the energy of the subtle body to be withdrawn into the central nervous system; textures and tastes are lost and the feeling of being surrounded by a candle flame on the verge of extinguishing occurs. This marks the end of the gross body-mind complex, comparable to our Western culture as the indication of clinical death.

The succeeding stage occurs when gross consciousness dissolves into luminance with the resultant subjective experience of a clear moonlit sky. Luminance is melts into the consciousness of radiance with the feeling of a clear sunlit sky. Radiance dissolves into imminence and finally imminence to translucency with the experience of clear pitch-darkness and the clear light of predawn sky respectively. During the subtle and extremely subtle dissolution process, the white male essence descends from the energetic wheel located in the brain through the central channel to the heart wheel, followed by the red female essence which rises from the genital wheel again to the heart wheel. The two complimentary aspects of the individual join at the heart wheel and ordinary consciousness is lost. As one progresses to the clear light of translucency a non-dualistic consciousness emerges in concurrence with the unraveling of the ‘six-fold knot’ in the heart wheel, the knot is the enabling factor for incarnated existence on this plane of experience.

When it unravels totally, our extremely subtle consciousness flies out of its location, driven by our evolutionary orientation. This is the real moment of death; this is the death-point between. It is the subtlest state possible for a being. […] It is a state so transparent that one unprepared for it will see right through it and not even notice it. […] The whole science and art of navigating the between-state bears down on this moment, assisting the person to use the transition between habitual lives to enter this extremely subtle awareness that is naturally at one with blissful freedom, total intelligence, boundless sensitivity- that is, perfect enlightenment (Thurman 43-4).

For most people this state is experienced unconsciously but the Tibetan Book of the Dead is presupposed on the belief that it is indeed possible, and quite advantageous, to remain conscious during this crucial juncture between the realms of life and death as one is better prepared to avoid an unfavorable rebirth and progress spiritually on the path of enlightenment.

            This moment of transition is understandably traumatic and for one who is still caught up in egotistic instincts, fear and terror predominate. Liberation though possible is unlikely if one is spiritually immature. The deceased wander through this bardo between lives and eventually reincarnate through the eight dissolutions in reverse order, coming to identify themselves once again with the elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space and the gross manifestations of consciousness upon rebirth through a womb (or lotus, egg, moist cavity if the next incarnation is non-placental). In this state before rebirth, the consciousness is embodied in an ethereal bardo-body made of subtle energies strewn from the mind, much like the bodily self that is experienced during dreams. This state is the fifth bardo, the reality-between and is said to last up 14 days consisting of a prolonged conscious state afflicted by hallucinations of deities mild and fierce (Thurman 34). The crucial advice implored by this teaching is that we are not necessarily passive in the process of rebirth; there are methods recommended to sharpen our awareness so that during the moment of death and the reality following it we are better equipped to realize what is occurring. By becoming more conscious during this vulnerable point in an individual’s life-continuum it is possible to attain enlightenment or in the very least achieve a positive rebirth where the conditions conducive to spiritual practice are present.

            Turning our attention to the karma created from living in this world and its effect on the next stage of an individual’s journey, what are the possible ramifications of living unsustainably, negligent and unaccountable to the limits of Earth’s biosphere? The near insatiable desire for material acquisition that is touted as a healthy drive for rational economic human automatons can be viewed as a symptom of greed mired in the ignorance of what our genuine needs are as ecological organisms. According to Tibetan philosophy when greed is the predominant emotion in ones’ experience a rebirth as a ‘hungry-ghost’ is likely, a being depicted as plagued by immense thirst and hunger but relentlessly unable to find relief (Rinpoche 38). With all belief systems a common question is whether the teachings should be taken literally or metaphorically. I think when understood within the frame of mind of the original crafters of the philosophy the distinction is nonsensical. From my own interpretation, Buddhism sees this concrete reality as illusory as a dream from the perspective of absolute truth so whether a proclivity towards greed crafts your current self or a future one into a ‘hungry-ghost’ is beside the point; the crux instead is the certainty that our actions-mental, verbal, or physical, create karma in our mind-stream, the consequences of which are sure to come to fruition at the appropriate time.

Proceeding forward though with a more literal reading, accepting the Buddhist cosmology as veritable as well as the corresponding processes operating within this paradigm- reincarnation, interdependence, suffering, and enlightenment, I wish to examine other possible consequences for human actions which impress a deep footprint on this planet. Take for instance the industry of animal agriculture, whereby the industrialized production of animals reared solely for food facilitates the consumption of flesh by human beings. The factory farms are hidden away in rural communities, conveniently out of sight from the people whose demand for butchered animal flesh ensures the economic viability of the supply line. There is an apparent disconnect between production and consumption, as well as a near instinctual denial of the way one’s own action in the form of personal demand is implicated in the detrimental effects that the production of flesh foods has upon the local, regional and global environment. Eating the flesh of an animal, a sentient creature possessing the capacity for pleasure and pain, contributes to the effects the production of such flesh has on the ecosystem it depends on. Aside from the externalities of the industry, the act of slaughtering is unavoidable in the routine manufacture of commodities out of living beings and being unconscious of this fact does not remove one from the merciless violence that is the severed backbone of the industry, nor spare one from the consequences of their contribution to such violence. We all know the old axiom: you are what you eat; what if we were to extrapolate that saying to suggest you will become what you eat? Perhaps the ignorance presupposing one to consume the flesh of pigs for instance, despite the ghastly health implications and environmental effects- from water pollution to greenhouse gas emissions, serves as the karmic ground for being reborn in the (non-human) animal realm as a domestic pig slated for slaughter in a factory farm. A factory farm is as close to hell on Earth that one can imagine and the hatred ensuing rebirth in a hell realm is conceivably latent in the denial of animal sentience used to rationalize the consumption of flesh.

             The Tibetan Book of the Dead emphasizes the incredible opportunity we are afforded at the moment of death, when our ability to shape the further development of our existence is heightened beyond belief. To shatter through the illusion of samsara at the death-point requires a sharp consciousness undeterred by the frightening manifestations of the mind and detached from all that was held dear in the irretrievable life left behind. Certain preparations for death are extolled by Tibetan Buddhism; they operate as means to increase the potential for liberation now and at the moment of death. Included among these preparations are ethical guidelines for living which purify the mind-stream of entrenched karma such as cultivating the virtues of generosity, compassion, and wisdom (Thurman 53). Also incorporated are detailed practices such as Tibetan sleep yoga and dream yoga whereby one develops awareness of the process of sleep and lucidity in dreams, better preparing one to remain conscious during the process of death and realizing the between-bardo state, respectively. If as evolutionary beings guided by our karma past and present aspire to experience positive states of existence currently and in the future, than what naturally follows is an acknowledgement that essentially morality matters. It is therefore in our best interest, assuming we want to gravitate towards happiness and away from suffering, to act in an ecologically sensible manner in the greatest capacity our creativity permits us. Having compassion for all Earth’s inhabitants would logically be necessary if we wish to avoid the karmic retribution for heartlessness; this empathetic connection with other living creatures may manifest itself as abstaining from consuming flesh foods or simply reducing as much as is possible our consumption admitting the deeply-rooted nature of our habits. Treading lightly on this earthly plane out of a respect for and reverence of the interdependence of Earth’s biosphere is evident of the type of awareness that is crucial to attaining liberation at the moment of death, in the reality-between, or in this very lifetime. Padma Sambhava, in speaking to the fate of every incarnated individual instructs us as such:

Hey, noble one! Now you have arrived at what is called ‘death’. You are going from this world to the beyond. You are not alone; it happens to everyone. You must not indulge in attachment and insistence on this life. […] Whatever terrifying visions of the reality-between may dawn upon you, you should not forget the following words (Thurman 132).

 What proceeds is a summation of the entire teaching of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, spoken in a manner to give voice to our own innate awakened nature:

            Hey! Now when the reality-between dawns upon me,

I will let go of the hallucinations of instinctive terror,

Enter the recognition of all objects as my mind’s own visions,

And understand this as the pattern of perception in the between;

Come to this moment, arrived at this most critical cessation,

I will not fear my own visions of deities mild and fierce! (Thurman 132) 

At this point the soul traverses the death-point and enters the reality-between, going on to wander in samsara for as long as ignorance clouds ones conduct. In each fleeting moment we can recognize the phenomena we perceive as representative of our mental state. If in this world we perceive environmental degradation, shall we look to our own minds to see if our own moral foundation has been eroded and overridden by unchecked desires?  The surface of the Earth is most certainly a manufactured landscape, etched and reflected from our mindscape. If our thoughts and motives are contaminated with the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance- the binding forces trapping one in samsara, then what follows is a polluted planet as our actions grow from that quality of consciousness and affect the environment in like manner. On the other hand if we preserve the virtues of generosity, compassion, and wisdom that are the fabric of our basic nature, as implicit in Buddhism, we can create a harmonious world that takes into consideration the wellbeing of every living creature. Through understanding interdependence, the aspiration to live an ecologically- responsible lifestyle naturally follows.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is an invaluable instruction for our individual souls for the travail after death, but the teaching can be expanded in an effort to advance an optimistic vision of the world in light of our modern desolate situation. The environment is subject to our minds’ apparitions, as has been clearly demonstrated by the demons of greed and hatred and the violated biosphere that we perceive to be our reality. We do not have to wait for our death to hope for a better existence, we can use this present opportunity to work towards equality and harmony, manifesting in this reality an enriched environment restored by our recovered ideals.

Bibliography

 Rinpoche, Tenzin Wangyal. The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep. Snow Lion Publications, 1998.

 Sambhava, Padma. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between. Translated by Robert A.F. Thurman. New York, N.Y. Bantam Books,1994.

Shugchang, Padma (editor); Sherab, Khenchen Palden & Dongyal, Khenpo Tse Wang A Modern Commentary on Karma Lingpa’s Zhi-Khro: teachings on the peaceful and wrathful deities. Padma Gochen Ling. 2000

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The Political and Spiritual Ecology of Beef

A symbol of wealth, status, and luxury- red meat, and in particular beef, has become a dominate force in cultures and economies around the world. Beef consumption has surged with the advent of fast food and serves as a staple in the Standard American Diet (SAD), a peculiar food culture emerging in the last half century adopted rather unconsciously by the majority of Americans today. Certain assumptions are held by mainstream American culture and persist unquestioned in spite of empirical and empathetic evidence on the contrary. Within these mistaken beliefs lies the ubiquitous sentiment that meat consumption is necessary to maintain health and build protein in the human body. Then there is the commonly held belief that there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking an animals life for any human need or desire (with or without the justification that God put animals on this Earth for humans to dominate and hence it is our God-given right to do what we wish with them) and the naive thought that our beef comes from cows who grazed on grass in open fields; accompanied along with these assumptions is denial. We’d rather not think of the inevitable slaughtering that must have taken place for a cow in a feedlot to reach our dinner plates, or the oil required to infuse fields with fossil-fuel based fertilizers and transport the animals hundreds of miles to the four main slaughterhouses around the country that butcher nearly 80% of the 35 million beef cows sacrificed each year.[1] It is more convenient to simply enjoy the food in front of us and not contemplate the complex dynamics surrounding beef production- the high inputs of nonrenewable energy, the excessive amounts of pollution and environmental degradation, the systemic cruelty embedded in the industry, and the alarming ignorance and indifference to these facts by the dominant majority of society.

There is a profound gap in both consciousness and conscience. A theory has developed over the centuries which propose that Nature is marked by its continuity; as early as the seventeenth century Gottfried Leibniz’s aphorism natura non facit saltus—“nature makes no jump” captured this idea.[2] Although it seems humanity has spawned a culture whose worldview is based not on the laws of Nature but on the fulfillment of trivial human preoccupations. In America, we inherit and perpetuate a romanticized reality that has been crafted over the years to suit our ever-changing needs, and this worldview still reeks of the reminiscent fictions of manifest destiny and laissez-faire economics which have become entrenched in our cultural orientation. We fabricate an illusion which is substituted for reality, thus allowing us to continue to indulge without the least bit of remorse. Our beliefs about the world stray so much from the way the world actually is that we find ourselves wandering aimlessly in a fog of ignorance. Our economic system, especially the beef industry, hardly factors in natural resource constraints and with these exploited raw materials toxic goods are produced and consumed to burden the planet with resource depletion and environmental pollution; the predictable result of a civilization that has become out of sync with the natural order of the planet and the universe. In our pursuit of wealth and sensual gratification we slip into a disconnection from our inner nature and the natural environment, and remain too entranced by the particles of fog-our trivial preoccupations, to realize it. This disconnection from our world illustrates the gap in consciousness. As we have strayed from Nature, man has devolved into a being discontinuous with the world- essentially a self-seeking, self-destructive entity whose collective actions jeopardize the life-support systems of our planet; we can only guess at whether our species will perish before we decimate irrevocably the biodiversity of the planet. Extrapolating the current trajectory of population explosion, resource extraction, species extinction, land degradation, soil erosion, accelerating climate change, and pollution accumulation brings us to the tipping point of Earth’s carrying capacity. A collective lack of focus inhibits a much needed depth to our perspective by preventing us from seeing the definite limits which contradicts our ideas of progress and development. Beef is linked to each and every one of these issues and is emblematic of our culture of counter-intuitive evolutionary impulses. The gap in our conscience is the absence of compassion in the interplay between man and animal; the immense suffering endured by the animal goes unaccounted for. How horrifying from humanity’s point of view would it be if a species of animal with a self-proclaimed higher degree of intelligence enslaved the human race, forced us to live in inhumane and disease-ridden living conditions, feed us an unnatural diet of grains, hormones, and antibiotics to be ruthlessly slaughtered after just 14 months and manufactured into a profitable commodity to be consumed. Yet a Holocaust of deplorable proportions occurs in our country with the roughly 35 million cows slaughtered each year, amounting to a total US consumption of 27 billion pounds of beef- with an average per capita consumption of 67 pounds every year.[3] In the process of commodification, we reduce the complex and curious creature known to us as the cow to a mere piece of meat; the rich inner life of the cow is disregarded and the physical dimension of the animal is the sole determiner in computing its value. Neither is there much respect and appreciation for the cow as a provider of food, even aside from its disputable nutritive potential. In this case, commodification is exemplified through the objectification of the sentient creature, where we ignore their subjectivity and subsequent capacity for physical pain and emotional distress that the animal most certainly possesses.

A prominent issue now is that this intergenerational crafting of reality, which has typically been the task of enduring cultural traditions, has buckled under corporate pressure and is now an enterprise like any other. The corporate food establishment, specifically the industrial beef market, has been capitalizing on our desires and manipulating our minds through advertisements and front groups which serve to flood the population with propaganda- false notions of safety and health regarding the consumption of beef, warping our relationship to the commodity.[4] Although the ways in which we relate to beef are not simply determined by propagandists or the overarching norms of society; depending on your cultural heritage or personal prerogative your relationship to beef as a commodity, and indirectly to cows as a species, varies greatly.

Beginning with our own culture, Americans generally relate to beef as a food item fit for human consumption. A commodity designed, developed, and delivered to satisfy our demand and desire for flesh. Consequently, our attachment to an object of perceived pleasure initiates defensive reactions and denial when another conscious individual offers up information that logically would compel most compassionate human beings to adapt their dietary habits in light of this new information. Whether it is the health-compromising effects of regular beef consumption or the immense environmental footprint of the production of beef, there is a growing consensus among alternative health doctors, animal welfare advocates, and ecologists who propose that both human, animal, and planetary health and wellbeing could be improved if we shifted away from an industrial model of beef production that is fundamentally unsustainable and unsound.[5]

The history of cattle husbandry reveals one of the longest enduring traditions of humanity as domestication of the animal stretches back 8,000 years, occurring in Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, and Sub-Saharan Africa simultaneously.[6] The cow was a suitable animal to domesticate because it offered us a sense of security, as the animal was able to provide milk, meat, clothing, and labor. For the vast majority of those years cattle were raised by allowing herds to graze on grass; there was an intimate connection between the herders and the herd, each being dependent on the other for survival. The herders led their herds to new pasture to prevent overgrazing and were attuned to the needs of the animals. Fast forward several thousands of years and this relationship changes with the Industrial and “Green” revolutions; mechanization and chemical inputs become standard practice as the rearing of cattle shifted from a livelihood centered on subsistence to an enterprise bent on profit maximization. A once symbiotic relationship has been replaced with one that is exclusively exploitative; the bond that joined people and cattle together for generations unraveled over the 20th century and a despicable form of nonhuman slavery assumed its place.

The conventional production model for beef in modern America, and increasingly worldwide, is the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs); a venture which eerily resembles the concentration camps of World War II. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines CAFOs as “agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. CAFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland”.[7] A CAFO owned by Simplot Cattle Feeding in Grand View, Idaho has the largest holding capability in the United States, with a capacity of 150,000 cattle on only 750 acres of land.[8] This is equivalent to roughly 128,000 cattle per square mile; in comparison the US has only 84 people per square mile (Singapore- 18,645, India- 954, UK- 650, and China- 365).[9]  The impacts on the local environment are numerous: soil compaction and erosion, land desecration and desertification, and soil and water pollution. The high volume of wastes produced in CAFOs incurs disposal costs as the land has virtually no microbial capacity for manure to be composted into soil. Wastes often are illegally dumped into streams but two common disposal practices are open air lagoons and utilizing CAFO manure as a soil amendment on conventional agricultural fields. Lagoons a major source of methane as it tends to form a crust on top culturing anaerobic bacteria; also the lining is either inadequate to prevent leaking or absent altogether.[10] The manure produced from CAFOs is not your ordinary farm fresh manure and it’s usefulness as a fertilizer is suspicious; it seems like industry ploy to reduce their disposal cost by creating a new commodity out of a burdensome by-product of beef production. The waste contains a slew of chemical residues- hormones, antibiotics, and a host of disease-causing pathogens. The EPA admits that “current regulations do not sufficiently restrict pathogen exposure, [and also] that Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) present in the solid [manure] contaminate the environment as runoff and groundwater infiltration.[11] Inevitably animal wastes flow into nearby watersheds, reducing the water quality and spurring eutrophication; a process which occurs when aquatic ecosystems are overloaded with organic nutrients and subsequent algal blooms consequently decrease dissolved oxygen levels, killing fish and other aquatic animals. On a global level, ruminant livestock produce about 80 million tons of methane annually, accounting for about 22% of global methane emissions from human-related activities. In the U.S., cattle emit about 6 million metric tons of methane per year into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to about 36 million metric tons of carbon.[12] The unsustainable nature of this production process is rivaled only by the devastating deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon brought about by cattle ranching. Roughly 25,000 square kilometers or 6 million acres of the Amazon rainforest is cut down every year for grazing cattle.[13] An estimated 70% of deforestation in the Amazon is caused by cattle ranches and for every quarter-pound fast-food hamburger that comes from the rainforest, 55 square feet of rainforest is destroyed.[14]The first step in this process is known as slash and burn; huge areas of the forest are set on fire to be cleared for pasture for cows that are predominantly for export to satisfy United States and European demand.

Beef production makes evident our misappropriation of value; globally we value beef as a commodity more than we value the biodiversity found in tropical rainforest ecosystems, more than the stability of our climate, more than human health and animal welfare. Annual prices for beef in 2009 averaged $4.26/pound, up from $3.75/pound in 2003 after the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), known popularly as Mad Cow Disease. The presence of BSE in the US food supply resulted in increased regulations on the industry, imposing additional costs on beef production and meat processing sectors to ensure safety. Although high US domestic demand for beef coupled with comparatively low supplies minimized the loss of projected profits and caused little to change in the industry. In the US it is legal, even after the discovery of BSE, to feed cattle the leftover waste of slaughtered livestock under the guise of food supplementation. Cows, who are by nature herbivores and not cannibals, are given feed which may include central nervous tissue of other cows who may be infected with BSE, if that occurs the cow develops the condition; the neurodegenerative disease can be transmitted to humans when the meat consumed by people is contaminated with infected nerve tissue.[15] Just as the industry attempts to justify dispersing wastes from CAFOs on agricultural fields as “soil amendments”, using the by-products of slaughtering as fed for livestock under the illusion of food supplementation displays the degree of perverse greed and negligence commonplace in the beef industry.

With all the known risks and externalities associated with beef production, a price of $4.26/pound appears artificially low; the exchange value (price) does not reflect the true cost and as a consequence consumers are left with a mistaken conception of the proper value of the commodity. Beef producers in the Amazon convert vast amounts of ecological capital through minimal amounts of human capital to extract excessive amounts of economic capital; wealth which is concentrated in the hands of a few and whose benefits rarely trickle down to the average citizen. The ecological capital found in the Amazon Rainforest is derived from the value of ecosystem services: carbon sequestration and oxygen generation, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, watershed purification, and renewable resources; these are provided free by the natural environment and the costs to replicate these services would be astronomical. The human capital in this case is the labor required to set the forest on fire and clear the land for pasture; also included is the labor needed to transport and process the finished product. Economic capital refers to the initial investment required, as well as the capital to pay the wages of workers, and the revenue generated from the sales of the commodity. Much of the value is lost in the production process and can never be fully recovered as ecosystems are irreversibly damaged. To account for the depreciation of ecological capital, the price of beef should be substantially higher to enable more sustainable business practices. There also should be a tax in addition to the higher price which would then need to be reinvested in the ecological capital, say in the form of conservation, preservation, restoration and remediation, to mitigate the depreciation of natural capital. From a social perspective, the production of beef reduces the value of human capital as the health effects of beef consumption include widespread heart disease, cancers, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. The National Cancer Institute published a study in March 2009 which followed more than 500,000 middle-aged and elderly Americans and found that those who consumed about four ounces of red meat a day were more than 30 percent more likely to die during the next 10 years, mostly from heart disease and cancer.[16] The social cost of beef production is not only found in the consumption of the commodity, but in the dangerous conditions workers operate in the slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities. Immigrant labor is often exploited as many workers are lured to the United States from Mexico by Spanish radio advertisements paid for by U.S. meat companies, which bus the workers to factories in the rural United States.[17] The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that from 2003 to 2007,  the rate of illnesses and injuries for workers in “animal slaughtering and processing” was over twice as high as the national average, and the rate of illnesses alone was over ten times the national average.[18]

The cheap price of beef reflects how our culture (de)values the environment, animals, and human beings. It is made possible by the enormous government subsides for corn and other grain fed to cattle; corn subsidies totaling $4 billion in 2009 alone.[19] Although cattle are not distinguished in this statistic, US livestock consume nearly 70% of the grain produced in America and consume five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population.[20] In the short-term, producers will continue to supply beef at the current prices as long as consumers demand for low quality, environmentally-insensitive beef remains strong. Government regulations which would require environmentally-sound and humane production practices prove politically infeasible and increasingly unlikely as the regulatory agencies such as the USDA and FDA become infiltrated by industry representatives. Over the long-term, this unsustainable form of beef production has an inevitable collapse ahead of it; whether it is from the depletion of fossil fuels that the industry is highly dependent on for fertilizer and transportation, from water shortages exacerbated by the water-intensive method of factory farming, or from escalating climate change intensified by animal agriculture, it is clear that this form of beef production will undermine it’s own future success by failing to conserve and manage natural resources and industrial wastes effectively. Just as the consumption of beef is self-destructive from the view of health, as it promotes disease and increases the likelihood of death, the production of beef is self-destructive from an ecological perspective, as the current level of natural capital inputs simply cannot be sustained. The economic system of beef in embedded within larger natural systems and spheres: from local ecosystems to regional biomes, from the hydrosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere- all the way up to the biosphere, the global sum of all ecosystems. One main tenet of the biosphere is its nature as a self-regulating system and the fact that the Earth is responding to human activities by producing a climate not suitable for industrial beef production and other unsustainable practices illustrates this principle. Despite there being a foreseeable end for the current industrial model of producing beef, it is necessary to accelerate our shift away from beef consumption and eventually all animal products to ensure a habitable planet for ourselves and for generations to come. If we wait for the Earth to step in and force changes in the industry, the Amazon Rainforest may be completely cleared; global freshwater reserves may be dangerously low with contaminated water exceedingly high, and many species and ecosystems may be on the verge of extinction and collapse as the biodiversity of the planet plummets. Communities organized around collective and strategic resistance can lead the struggle against the exploitation of animals, humans, and the environment embodied by the beef industry. We can unite to oppose unjust “agricultural product disparagement laws”, that give the food industry unprecedented powers to sue people who criticize their products by dramatically shifting the “burden of proof” in favor of the industry.[21] I firmly believe it is within our power as a democratic nation to reclaim authority over industries driven by short-sighted greed and move away from models of food production which are fundamentally unsustainable, unnecessarily cruel, and socially unjust.

[1] http://www.da4a.org/cows.htm [2] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/continuity/ [3] http://www.ers.usda.gov/news/BSECoverage.htm http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/ldp/oct05/ldpm13502/[4] http://www.beefusa.org/uDocs/Nutrition.pdf The National Cattleman’s Association makes the claim that beef can help with weight management, stating: “With the obesity epidemic growing and the baby-boomer generation aging, the benefits of high quality protein like beef have never been more critical” [5] http://www.cqs.com/beef.htm http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-greenhouse-hamburger [6] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/holycow/ [7] http://www.epa.gov/region7/water/cafo/index.htm [8] http://www.simplot.com/land/cattle_feeding/feedlots.cfm [9] http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0934666.html [10] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1817674/ [11] http://www.epa.gov/nrmrl/lrpcd/esm/projects/56399.htm [12] http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/anafobmp.html [13] http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/feed/ [14] http://www.mongabay.com/brazil.html http://action.ran.org/index.php/Seven_Things_You_Can_Do_To_Save_The_Rainforest [15] http://www.organicconsumers.org/madcow.cfm [16] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/23/AR2009032301626.html?hpid=topnews [17] http://www.organicconsumers.org/irrad/slaughterworkers.cfm [18] http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/processing/ [19] http://farm.ewg.org/progdetail.php?fips=00000&progcode=corn [20] http://foodawareness.org/wasting_resources_65.html [21] http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/1997Q2/eat.html

"The feedlot in Grand View, Idaho is located just 60 miles southwest of Boise, Idaho. The feedlot spans 750 acres. Grand View boasts the largest holding capability in the United States, with a one-time capacity of 150,000 head"

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Resistance is not futile.

Doesn’t it seem like there are forces everywhere you turn trying to distort your life into a tool to be used for somebody else’s perverted motives? Whether it is the advertisers trying to sell us senseless shit we don’t need, political puppets pandering for our votes so they can remain in power, or just the overall societal sentiment that we must work for a living- either way we are being fed fat lies that are making us spiritually obese. We are deprived of the real opportunities to be fulfilled and satisfied, but not because they don’t exist, it is because we are blind to them. Our minds have a remarkable ability to soak up whatever influences they are inundated with. We are bombarded at every sense door with the most ridiculously mundane objects, essentially greed incarnate attempting to tap into our financial reserves without concern for our welfare. I think it is the commercialization of our world that is driving us insane. It robs us of our humanity. It reduces us to consumers. It limits our potential to be. Be what? To just be. We’re in a mad rush to do something- anything, buy our way to happiness, accumulate the stuff of our prepackaged dreams… forget all that, just be here now, in this moment, wherever you are. We are saturated with the mental trash of our culture. We must ring out our minds of all the mindless clutter that has been deposited in our mental continuum since the beginning of our lives, since the start of this dreadful conditioning that implants negativity and limitation into our experience. Say we are horses, wild by nature, domesticated by The Man, we have blinders on our eyes which impede our peripheral vision… and there’s a genetically-modified ‘carrot’ dangled just far away enough so we can never reach it. We are stuck in an endless pursuit of elusive pleasures, without exploring the edge of the mainstream. Buck, fucking buck as if your life depended on it, because it does. Resist the whip, the branding, the ball and chain of orthodoxy.  Ditch the free rider on your back and run for the hills, for heavens sake. What do we really need to survive? Are our existential needs really much different from the millions of other species? Food, water, shelter, healthy social interaction… that’s basically it. We don’t need Wal-Marts, fast-food, or even banks for that matter. The rest of the web of life has been thriving for millennia without them, and actually it was the birth of those very institutions that initiated the death of various creatures. We need creativity and ingenuity; a revival of the indigenous lifestyles which are intuitively sustainable and harmonious with the local environment. We need to cultivate fluidity in this age of increasing rigidity and conformity. Self-sufficiency will be a hot commodity in a future of dwindling resources and a resulting heightened reliance on the corporate sugar-daddies. Giant food conglomerates like Monsanto are taking control of our global food system (www.foodincmovie.com), water companies like Coca-Cola and Nestle are hijacking our fresh water reserves (www.flowthefilm.com), and the banks are probably the biggest ghostly homeowners with the surge in foreclosures; worst of all the fabric of our society- at least in America, is being fractured by suburban sprawl and endless strip malls. Our convenience culture has certainly seen better days, back when it was a novelty. Now it is a disease. Look at the oceans, with swirling gyres of plastic debris. Cetaceans and shore-birds are starving to death; oil ruptures poisoning our waters, corporate greed unchecked blended with sheer indifference to the horrors our modern lifestyles inflict on the Earth. There is something not quite right with this picture. Factor in the externalities, if a quarter-pound hamburger requires 55 square feet of the rainforest in the Amazon to be destroyed (http://vegetarian.about.com/od/vegetarianvegan101/f/forestclearcut.htm), then let the price reflect the true cost. Our supersized portions are being subsidized, essentially. It will not last forever. Either savor the fabricated abundance in ignorance until the resources are totally depleted, or choose a life of deliberate simplicity, of mindful renunciation. Less is more- more of the same only brings about more of the same- a polluted planet and deprived humanity. Find joy in the simple pleasures we have available to us at any moment, our breath, our aspirations, our treasured friendships. These things do not require a transaction, although reciprocation is essential. To breath we must be enveloped by an atmosphere, we must be inspired to aspire. It takes two to tango, and the more the merrier.

Shall we dance a dance to reclaim our sovereignty, to reappoint ourselves captains of our souls, to break free from the old mold of social norms and mores?

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Adora

I have decided to start a blog; this venture has always held some allure although it wasn’t until I watched an incredible talk given by Adora Svitak, a twelve-year-old writer, poet, and humanitarian who travels the world promoting literacy and human rights, that I felt motivated enough to begin my own. She is certainly making an effort to make the world a better place, acknowledging her own gifts and demonstrating ways she can offer them to the world for all of our benefit. Two must-see lectures are on TED and ideaCity (http://www.ted.com/talks/adora_svitak.html   &    http://ideacityonline.com/video/adora-svitak ). 

So it got me thinking, in what ways am I contributing to the healing of our Planet, the transformation of our society’s short-sighted pysche and the destructive economic machine it perpetuates? How am I helping to carve out of the mass hysteria a world worth living and dying for; a world which fosters the best in every individual? I want to feel elated when I walk outside, knowing that a loving world awaits me. I want to feel secure inside, knowing that I am a living expression of the love that sustains my own being.  Though there persists an uneasiness, a lingering doubt that proclaims the problems of the world amounting to a total sense of hopelessness for the state of our Planet, for the billions of people living today who are deprived of the necessities for a dignified life, and all the innocent sentient creatures- from the factory farmed domesticated livestock slated for human indulgence to the wild and diverse species being driven to extinction by our insatiable desires. In an attempt to cope with the despair that comes with the witnessing of oppression and mass suffering, I like to believe it is possible to revitalize our hope and reawaken our spirits. Hope is a frequency of consciousness that transcends conventional reality; it is not dependent on certain circumstances to flower but instead can always be found deep within our hearts. I don’t mean heart as in the physical organ that circulates our blood, but that aspect of ourselves which is genuinely caring and compassionate, a spiritual organ that circulates the love within to the world without. We each have the potential to feel and express the hope we have for a better world, and by opening up in this way we can begin the process of channeling the energy of hope into a practical solution, seeing the ways we can realistically overcome the challenges that prevent each indivdual from realizing their highest potential.  Solutions are the natural by-product of problems, they are one and the same, yin and yang. If we can clearly see the essence of the issues that plauge our world, we will then naturally come to the conclusions which have the potential, if acted upon, to turn the global situation around.

It is with that intention that I begin this blog. It’s a starting point for me to help focus my own thoughts and observations, a place to capture my transient perspective and commentary on life before I die.

 and hopefully offering up something worth reading and reflecting upon. Namaste.

Earth is located in the universe in the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies. A supercluster is a group of galaxies held together by gravity. Within this supercluster we are in a smaller group of galaxies called the Local Group. Earth is in the second largest galaxy of the Local Group - a galaxy called the Milky Way. The Milky Way is a large spiral galaxy. Earth is located in one of the spiral arms of the Milky Way (called the Orion Arm) which lies about two-thirds of the way out from the center of the galaxy. Here we are part of the solar system - a group of nine planets, as well as numerous comets and asteroids which orbit the sun. We are the third planet from the sun in the solar system.

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