There's a lot of talk about Mars now and I'm told some people want to go there. But there's nothing up there, no air or life of any kind. And there's no coming back. What do you think of it? Is the human race going completely mad? Wouldn’t it be better to stop destroying the earth? At the rate we’re going, it will be just like Mars after a while, and then there won’t be any need to go there. What do you think…? Ted
I couldn’t agree more. Things must be very bad at home, I always say, if someone wants to go to live on Mars. But I suppose it has to do with the instinct for exploration; human beings are never satisfied; we always look for more, even when that seems like madness to most people. If we were to recover fully from that kind of madness, we wouldn’t be human in quite the same way.
So we pay a big price for being human. When we reach beyond ourselves we are likely to trip over whatever lies right in front of us. There's a rising chorus of voices telling us to take care of this earth, and never to take it for granted. We are reminded over and over to take time to look at it, to appreciate it, and never to abuse it.
It occurred to me just now, Ted, that as a response to your letter I might just insert here a short talk I gave recently to a Zen group.
Here it is:
The other day I put photographs of two stones beside each other, and they formed an immediate bond – which was a little strange, because the stones were from different planets!
The stones had the same shape, and as far as I could guess, roughly the same size. One was from the planet Mars. It’s thanks to the ingenuity of NASA scientists and engineers that we are able to see these things. I love to scan those photos of the Martian landscape. They show a world that is utterly dead. In fact it’s more than dead, because, to say ‘dead’ suggests that it was once alive. No, it’s just bereft of life. It is totally unconnected to us. And looking at that Martian stone I say to myself: no child has ever sat on that stone (and it appears to be about the right size for that), or played around it, or hid behind it, or picked up any of those pebbles that lie everywhere around it. No shouts, no laughter, no conversations; no rain, no snow, no weeds of any kind growing around it, no life, no insects crawling by, no connection to life, no history, no human associations whatsoever, just nothing. On earth we never see anything as disconnected from us as that.
The other stone, the one from this planet, is at the corner of an old house, down at ground level, protruding about a foot beyond the wall on two sides. It has the same shape as the Martian stone. Why was it there at the corner of the house? And first of all, what was the house? It was the house, now derelict, in which my mother was born in 1904 – nearly 120 years ago! And to understand why that stone was there at the corner of the house, you have to think back to a time before cars and tractors were commonplace. Farmers used horses and carts to move stuff around. These old farm carts had two large wheels, with an axle that stuck out about 6 inches at each side. Now, if you were driving your cart around a corner and you came too close, the axle would damage the corner. So, to avoid that, when people built houses (and even piers at a gateway) they would build a large stone into the foundation. This stone would prevent the wheel of the cart from coming too close to the corner, and so your house or your gateway would be safe.
Now, I sometimes go to see that derelict house, and I always go and sit on that particular stone – because it’s a certainty that my mother and her younger sister (who died young), and her brothers, would have sat on that stone when they were children, and played around it, or headed straight for it when they got a pebble in their shoe…. I can imagine their chatter and their singing…. All of that was well over a hundred years ago, but that stone holds all those associations for me – and for the rest of the family as well.
And it makes me think: there’s hardly a stone on this planet earth that doesn’t have a human history. You know the phrase: ‘It would draw tears from a stone’ – suggesting that that would be impossible. Well, in fact it is possible, and quite easy, because every stone on this planet is full of tears. Full of tears, and joy, too, and human associations of every kind. Even the most negligible things like stones are part of what we are; they’re not separate from us. To see real separation, real otherness, you have to look at Mars. But everything here is human.
Everything, not just some things. Not just works of art and beautiful things in museums; or stones only after Michelangelo has had a go at them. Ordinary sticks and stones. I get very tired of the word ‘beautiful’. It is so selective…. When you pick out something and call it beautiful, you’re putting an awful lot of things into second place. When you say, ‘This is a beautiful wall’, you're saying, ‘This is the Miss Universe of walls!’ But just to say it’s a wall is good enough.
I have a practice of sitting sometimes in the most unlikely places for meditation, so that meditation doesn’t become another beautiful thing to do. So I look for non-places, neglected corners and patches. I have a favourite pothole in a yard here. There are pebbles in it, sometimes water, and when there’s frost, it’s like diamonds. But it has no pretentions to being beautiful or special. It’s just there. And I can well imagine playing in it when I was a child and everything was full of magic. I grew up on a farm long ago, and I played in puddles of water and patches of weeds, and mud, and other glorious things…. Everything is still full of magic, it’s only our eyes that grow dim. If you're always looking for beautiful things to stimulate a jaded palate, the world is a much smaller place – so much is excluded. But when you sit down with just whatever lies at hand, the world is a huge place, full of unexpected things, and you don’t have to go anywhere to find what you want. “Don’t cherish opinions, don’t make choices,” we’re told. Any pothole will do. Everything here speaks to us, everything has a heart; even a stone has a heart. Unlike a stone from Mars, it speaks to us, it is full of humanity. There are no aliens on this earth.