Summer Ocean

With Our Minds We Make The World

This post is the slightly edited sermon I offered at Sunday Service at the Gloucester UU Church on July 25, 2019.
On this glorious Sunday morning in July, you would never know it. It is so hard to see on a day like today. But weather patterns and the climate are changing in ways that pose a monumental threat to our future.

“With Our Minds We Make The World”

By dribs and drabs this story is told on the news everyday. For example, Chennai, India, a city of 8 million, is out of drinking water. Chennai and its surrounds are dry because the monsoon rains don’t last like they used to. How will 8 million people get water? Where will they go?

Earlier this year, NASA reported that the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland have been thinning and shrinking since 2002. Around 68 percent of the earth’s fresh water is locked up in ice caps and glaciers. Millions of people rely on glaciers for fresh water. Where will they get water when the ice is all melted?

To this news add that massive floods forced many farmers in the Midwest to forego planting crops this past spring.

Chaosing of the Climate

These changes in weather, this accelerating chaosing of the climate, is what Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee asks us to call a Climate Emergency. Thunberg is not alone.

More than 650 local governments from around the world, including New York City, and the national governments of the UK, France, Canada, and Ireland have declared Climate Emergencies.

Disturbingly, many of these same governments are expanding carbon economy infrastructure and doubling down on fossil fuel industry subsidies. When it comes to behavior, as temperatures continue to rise many people in positions of power, and many ordinary citizens, too, seem to be having a difficult time coming to grips with reality.

And the climate is changing rapidly. For example, it was nearly 110 F in Paris just last Friday.


“Yes,” you might say, “but why call it a Climate Emergency?” Because, ever increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may soon trigger irreversible “tipping points” leading to an era of intensifying droughts, ocean acidification, sea level rise, desertification, and even more extreme temperatures.

These changes will surely cause large-scale human migrations, resource wars, and famine on an ever-widening scale.

Some who study the matter say that if we do not dramatically change course in the next 11 years, it could mean the end of Civilization, as we know it. That’s why governments and scientists are calling what we’re in a Climate Emergency.

Business As Usual

But, so far, the response to the Climate Crisis has been deeply unsettling. The response has been underwhelming. The response has been business as usual.

If it is true that the Climate Emergency is a consequence of human activity—and the scientific consensus says it is— then it is not just an ecological crisis. No, if the Climate Crisis is of our making, the Climate Crisis is also a moral crisis.

The Climate Crisis is a Moral Crisis because we can know the Earth and what she requires from us. But, do our governments recognize any obligations to the earth before they act? Do corporations acknowledge their responsibilities to the Earth before they act? Do private citizens and consumers ask what is best for the Earth before they act?

We are in a Climate Crisis because we have failed to protect the Earth, and because we have failed or refused to protect the Earth we have failed to protect our children, our earthling kin, and ourselves.

The Earth’s resources and fertility are limited, yet governments, businesses, and citizens have treated the Earth as a colony to be limitlessly exploited.

In Buddhist terms, we have acted toward the Earth based on delusion, based on a false picture of the Earth. We have imagined a limitlessly exploitable Earth, but our imagination does not make the Earth.   We have acted with impure minds and so trouble is bound to follow.

What is perhaps the earliest of Buddhist scriptures begins,

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.   ~ The Buddha, The Dhammapada

At first reading, many people assume these verses are making the absurd claim that we make the material world and everything in it with our thoughts.   If we could do such a thing, we could have an Earth based on our imagination.

But these verses are not trying to tell us how the world of matter or energy, chemistry or physics came to be.

Rather, they are addressing questions like, “How do I make the world better? How do we avoid trouble in this world? The verses aim to tell us how best to live. The verses aim to alert us to a lawfulness in nature.

How do we make life more wonderful?

Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.

That’s a law of nature Buddhists call the Dharma.

How do we make our world less wonderful?

Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

That’s a law of Dharma, a law of the natural order of things.

The Buddha’s teachings tell us that if we want to be happy and avoid trouble, we must cultivate a pure mind.

But what kind of mind is that?

For a rough and ready description of the impure mind I offer the novelist and moral philosopher, Iris Murdoch’s, account of the psyche. I offer it because it’s secular and modern and we’ll all recognize it. I also offer it because her account accords well with the Buddha’s. Murdoch writes,

“The psyche is a historically determined individual relentlessly looking after itself… One of its main pastimes is daydreaming. It is reluctant to face unpleasant realities. Its consciousness is… a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to protect [itself] from pain. It constantly seeks consolation, either through imagined inflation of self or through fictions… Even its loving is more often than not an assertion of self.”

Depressing, but all too true

Conversely, in the Buddha’s view, and in Murdoch’s too, the pure mind is free of the bonds of biased historical conditioning. It is interested in the welfare of others. It avoids daydreams all the better to engage life here and now. But, if the pure mind daydreams, it knows it is daydreaming. It faces realities both pleasant and unpleasant. The pure mind is not clouded over with fantastic reverie but knows studying pain and its causes is essential to reducing pain. The pure mind seeks truth not consolation. The pure mind aims to harmonize with reality and the law like processes and limitations of the Earth.

The Buddha and the Buddhist tradition recommend countless practices for mind purification. We’ve read two of them this morning. I’ll leave it to you to consider whether or not cultivating the universal loving-kindness of The Metta Sutta or reflecting on The Five Remembrances can help you further purify your mind and heart on your spiritual path.


What I will say about them is that The Metta Sutta and The Five Remembrances share the same strategy for purifying the mind. Let’s call this strategy of purification “unselfing.” I take the term from Iris Murdoch. You can find this strategy of purification, in one form or another, in every spiritual tradition. The strategy involves asking the impure mind to make a detailed study of both the self it assumes it controls, and of a reality beyond its control.

Of this unselfing strategy, Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan famously said,

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.”

I’ll unpack Dogen’s account of unselfing as I trace its movements along with the movements of Murdoch’s account of unselfing.

The reason I like Murdoch’s conception of unselfing is because she describes how unselfing works in everyday contexts.

Let’s take the context and practice of boat building as we consider unselfing in both Dogen and Murdoch.

Boat Building and Unselfing

Murdoch writes that to learn her craft the apprentice boat builder will be “confronted by an authoritative structure” which commands her respect. Furthermore, the apprentice must be willing to be confronted by that authoritative structure as it brings her own limitations to light. She must also willingly set her limitations and preferences aside as she faces the actually existing needs, limitations and other exigencies of the tools and materials used in building boats.

In Dogen’s terms one can say, to study boat building is to study the self, and to study the self in the context of boat building is to set aside the self’s preferences and limitations, not for the immediate sake of the self, but for the sake of boat building—an endeavor that’s beyond the self and worthy of respect.

In Murdoch’s terms, the apprentice boat builder’s “work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of” her and the apprentices “attention is rewarded with a knowledge of reality” including processes and practices that her “consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny, or make unreal.”

Actualized by Reality and Actualizing Reality in Return–harmonizing body and mind.

In Dogen Zenji’s terms, as the apprentice becomes a journeywoman her mastery becomes the expression of her submission to the tools, materials and ways of boat building, realities that exist beyond her but which actualize themselves as the tradition of boat building through her. She is actualized by “myriad things and the myriad things are actualized by her.” She has dropped the impure mind of personal preference and illusion. She has unselfed and become a living part of a reality greater than herself.

In our spiritual traditions and in Murdoch’s conception of unselfing, unselfing is the key to knowing reality. Unselfing is the key to leading a morally admirable life. To unself is to drop the one’s illusions, self-centeredness, fantasies and ego inflations as one quests to know reality.

Are we grown up?

We call the person who has unselfed a grown up. A grown up knows actions have consequences. A grown up is able to put the needs of others first. A grown up tries to avoid making messes and cleans up the messes she makes.

The Climate Crisis is a Moral Crisis because the governments and the businesses and the citizens of the counties that are powerful enough and technologically advanced enough to cause the Climate Crisis have failed to know and love the Earth.

What is Love?

“Love” writes Murdoch, is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” She means real love requires unselfing.

We can meet the world as it is, but only if the mind is pure—unselfed. We can imagine a world that suites our fantasies and if we act on those fantasies odds are we’ll ruin the world. Our fantasies of limitlessness and of techno-industrial prowess have led to the Climate Crisis.

Have we met the Earth as something real? When we shop, when we throw things away, when we eat, drive, or fly, do we ask ourselves what the Earth requires of us? Do we ask about our obligations to future generations? Have we met this Earth as an authoritative structure worthy of our respect?

Before I say more, it’s important to remember that making a lifestyle change out of concern for the Earth is not a “holier than thou,” guilt tripping exercise in self-righteousness.

Making lifestyle changes will tell our families and friends that we’re serious about the crisis. Adopting lifestyle changes can help us build a culture of solidarity that says no more business as usual.

As more of us reject the environmentally unaffordable choices on offer in our current fossil fuel dependent economy, our lifestyle changes may send a signal to politicians and market movers and shakers that times and sentiments are changing.  The changes we make can give them the courage to act.

We need the fossil fuel industry and chemical companies to relate to the Earth as something their “consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny, or make unreal.” How can we best influence them to change their approach by 180 degrees?

I’ll conclude with a quote from the novelist, poet, great essayist, and unselfed lover of the Earth, Wendell Berry.

“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world…. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

Please, learn all you can about the Climate Crisis.

Please talk to your family and neighbors and friends and coworkers about the Climate Crisis.

Demand that our politicians and business leaders act. Demand that the media cover the Crisis with the regularity and urgency it deserves.

Please continue to unself to the degree you can as you harmonize with the life of the Earth to whatever degree you can.


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May your life go well!