Spiritual poverty is the greatest poverty of all
Many historical movements in the world have three key words that express their spirit. During the French Revolution, for example, the key words were liberté, égalité, fraternité and in the American Declaration of Independence you find the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” is a very nice trinity but it is very human: human liberty, human fraternity, human equality. In the same way, in the Declaration of Independence, life is primarily human life, liberty is human liberty and happiness is human happiness. So these three words represent a more human-centred worldview. We have come to think that somehow human beings are at the centre of the universe, as the most important species, and that the Earth’s other species are all in our service. This has created a very human-centred worldview.
But this worldview is no longer valid. Especially once we realise we are interdependent on other species; we are not separate, we are not the rulers of the world, here to do what we like, but we have to take care of the other species because we are all made of each other, we are all related, we are members of one Earth community.
We need a new trinity to replace those human-centred ones. (Even the trinity adopted by the New Age movement: “mind, body and spirit” refers to the human mind, human body and human spirit. We need a new trinity that is holistic and more inclusive, which embraces the entire planet Earth and not just the human species. We need a philosophy, a science, a religion, and a legal system that benefits all living beings, not just humankind.
So I propose a brand new trinity. And at the top of this new trinity is the word soil, which represents the entire natural world, since without soil there is no food and without food there is no life, no trees, no forests. So soil represents life on earth.
In our human-centred worldview, in our education systems, our science and technology and our universities, we have come to think that soil simply means dirt, and that dirt means dirty. But dirt is not dirty; dirt is the source of life. Without dirt there is no life.
Soil, therefore, represent all natural life. And that natural life means that we are related to and dependent on the soil. We think food comes from the supermarket; we don’t grow food these days. If somebody grows food, we think: “Oh poor man, peasant, labourer; he is not educated so he has to grow food.” If you are educated then you don’t grow food. You sit at your computer and your food comes from some poor country. You don’t want to grow food because growing food is a sign of backwardness. If you are advanced, educated, rich, then you manufacture cars or you manufacture televisions or computers or some other gadgets.
Growing food has become a sign of backwardness and underdevelopment, something that only peasants do. The word “peasant” itself has become an insult. I want to change that. I want to say that we must touch the soil; we must put our hands into the soil. How many times do you touch your mobile phone every day? Maybe 100 times? How many times do you touch the soil?
Soil is the source of life and is so important, yet we have forgotten about it. Yes, we humans are important, of course, and precious too but the human species is only one of the 7.8 million species on Earth. We are not the Kings. We are not an imperial power. At the moment we behave as if we can do what we like. We can cause global warming, we can change the climate, we can alter the soil, we can destroy the rainforests, we can overfish the oceans. This attitude must change.
This then is why I put the soil first. We are all part of this healthy web of life. It makes us humble; to be human is to be humble. The word “humus” means soil. “Humid”, “human”, “humility” and “humus” all come from the same root. And so the soil is fertile yet humble.
Once the Buddha was sitting in meditation, with his right hand above the palm of the left hand, and someone came to him and asked: “Lord Buddha, you teach compassion, forgiveness, love and forbearance – from where did you learn all these wonderful qualities? Who is your teacher? And the Buddha lifted his right hand in a pose called Bhūmiśparṣa mudra, or “touch the Earth” posture. In other words, he said: “I learned my forgiveness, compassion, friendship, kindness and all the wonderful qualities of love, beauty, unity and generosity from the Earth.” The word “bhumi” means soil. It means to be touching the soil.
Do you know where the Buddha was enlightened? He was sitting under a Bodhi tree. My mother used to say that Buddha only got enlightenment because he was sitting under a tree.
A tree has intrinsic value. That is, a tree is good not because it gives me an aesthetic pleasure when I see the beautiful cherry blossoms. No, the cherry tree is good in and of itself, even if nobody goes and looks at it, if nobody ever says: “Wow, look at those beautiful cherry blossoms!” Even if no one ever sees it, the tree will still blossom. This is divine grace appearing on the earth. And it has an intrinsic value. Trees, animals, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers, worms, butterflies, honeybees – every creature upon this Earth has intrinsic value and the right to be as they are, who they are, what they are. We talk about human rights, and that’s fine. But Nature also has rights. The trees have a right to exist. We have no right to cut them down without proper purpose. And when you understand this, when you recognise the rights of the trees, then you are truly an ecologist and you have understood the meaning of the soil.
The second word in our new trinity is “soul,” which sounds similar to “soil”. Soul is something you cannot see. The human body you can touch, hug, kiss and admire but in order to touch your soul I have to close my eyes. It’s not something I can see. Everything – trees, animals, worms – has a soul.
We need to take care of the soul, as well as take care of the body. But we can only take care the soul when we slow down. No computer, no car. Just sit in your room with tea and flowers: elegantly simple, without clutter. Go in a room without noise, no mobile phone. Take time for yourself. You represent the totality of the universe. There is nothing in the universe that is not in you, and there is nothing in you that is not in the universe. The universe is the macrocosm and you are the microcosm. You are earth, air, fire, water, imagination, creativity, consciousness, time and space – you have this all in your genes and in your cells. You are billions of years old. You have been recycled and recycled. You are a beautiful example of the total recycling principle of the universe.
So if you want to take care of the universe, you start with yourself. Care of the soul is for self-realisation. Meditation is for self-realisation. As is gardening. In gardening you are in meditation. When you are cooking you are not just cooking to feed yourself or your family, you are cooking for self-realisation: taking care of yourself, being at ease with yourself, being happy with yourself, being fulfilled in yourself. Whoever I am, I am. Self-realisation will make you at ease with yourself – you won’t want things. Everything you need and want is within you. You are capable of solving every problem in the world with your inner wisdom. Wisdom is a soul quality, as are generosity, love and friendship, unity and beauty.
You will discover that all you need is here: the air, fire, water, trees, soil and sky. What more do you want? If you want mobiles and computers, more possessions and more clutter, it is because you have lost touch with your soul. That’s why your soul is hungry, thirsty or empty. That emptiness will not be filled by computers, cars or mobile phones. You must slow down and take care of your soul. Without a happy soul you are the poorest of the poor. Spiritual poverty is the greatest poverty, greater than any physical poverty. And as you take care of the soil, you take care of the soul. Your outer body is soil and your inner being is soul. When you take care of both you have self-realisation, you have wellbeing.
Caring for the soul has nothing to do with ego. This is why we include the third word of our trinity: Society. First and foremost, we are members of the Earth community. Then we are members of the human community. I have walked from India to America. When I came to the border between India and Pakistan - where three wars have been fought – I was joined 35 people who had come to say goodbye. One of them said: “At least take some food with you.” And I looked at the food and I said: “Thank you, but no thank you. I’m going for peace. And peace begins with trust. These packets of food are not packets of food, they are packets of mistrust. What would I tell my Pakistani hosts? That I did not trust that you would feed me.”
My friend began to cry. I said: “Why are you crying, my friend?” He replied: “Satish, this might be our last meeting. I may never see you again. You are going to Muslim countries, Christian countries, capitalist countries, communist countries, mountains, jungles, deserts, snow. No money, no food. Walking. How are you going to survive?” At that moment, I said: “My friend, from today I’m not afraid of death. If I die by walking for peace, then that is the best kind of death I can have. And I’m not afraid of hunger. If I don’t get food, I’ll say this is my opportunity to fast.”
Then I walked into Pakistan and to my astonishment, there was someone on the other side of the border waiting. He said: “Are you the man who is walking into Pakistan for peace?” I was surprised. “How do you know?” I asked. He said: “I read about you. And I thought that if you are coming for peace to Pakistan, then I should welcome you. This war between India and Pakistan is complete nonsense.”
At that moment, I realised the unity of the human family. If we come here as Indians then we will meet Pakistanis. If we come here as Hindus then we will meet Muslims. But if we come here as human beings, then we meet human beings.
Mahatma Ghandi said: “There is enough in the world for everybody’s need but not enough for anybody’s greed.” At the moment, 1 per cent of population is greedy, 99 per cent are suffering. This 1 per cent wants to be the superpower. But we need to embrace all of society. We need to solve problems with imagination, creativity, forgiveness. How much can you give? How much can you take? All problems can be solved by negotiations, friendship, giving in, letting go of ego and going into eco. Eco means home, eco means relationships.
If we can have a holistic view of soil, soul and society, if we can understand the interdependence of all living beings, and understand that all living creatures – from trees to worms – depend on each other then we can live in harmony with ourselves, with other people and Nature.
Satish Kumar is editor-in-chief of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. This article is an edited extract of a talk he gave at Kyoto University in 2012 and forms the backbone of his 2012 TedEx talk which you can see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSLUd0veioU