I was off the air and the blog last month because I was on the road, accompanying my son and a mutual buddy on a journey to the east–and yes, that kind of ” journey to the east,” for all you Hesse fans, but our cover story was that we were just going up to help some friends build an addition…fortunately, we never needed to use that cover story, although it was true. “Our friends” needed an addition to the temple at Padma Samye Ling retreat center, and we were happy to be able to do something for the Tibetan Lamas who have done so much for us.
Wait a minute, you say–this is “Deep Green Perspective,” not “Deep Buddhist Perspective”–are you about to get all faith-based on your readers?
As I’ve said elsewhere in these pages, I see religion and politics as inseparably intertwined…your politics is part of how you express your true religion in your everyday life, whether you think of it that way or not. Another part of “true religion” is how you treat other people, but “politics” is just a word that means “how we treat people en masse.” Another expression of religion in everyday life is our attitude towards what happens to us–which dictates how we treat people, which is our true politics, which is why it is so important to know how to adjust your attitude, however you choose to do it.
Well, as so often happens, I’m digressing. Working at the retreat center provided me with some valuable insights not just about myself, but about our culture and the nature of work. Let me explain.
The three of us shared a dormitory room in the retreat center’s kitchen/dining building. We never used an alarm clock while we were there, just woke up in the morning, got dressed, went upstairs and fixed ourselves some breakfast, and then walked up the hill to work. (There was no group program going on, so arrangements were fairly informal.) We worked until lunch, which was prepared by the folks who live at the center, and then after lunch we worked until we came to a natural stopping place, or we were tired, or it was time for evening practice, or it got dark. Every afternoon and some mornings, we were brought tea and cookies, and spent a good half hour sharing them with the folks who brought them to us, all the while discussing anything from questions about Buddhism to current events to details of the work we were doing. When we were done for the day, we went back to our dormitory, cleaned up, took a walk in the beautiful countryside or went to evening practice in the temple, and then fixed ourselves some dinner, after which it was just about bedtime.
At the same time as we were doing our work, another construction project was going on, and when it became apparent that his knowledgeable hand and eye were needed there, my son Silas left the two of us to carry on and lent his skills and talents to the other project for a few hours.
Here’s the thing: we were not keeping track of our hours on this job. We just did it. We were volunteers. Our sole interest was in doing the job well, not just as a matter of personal integrity but because, like the builders of cathedrals in Medieval Europe, the structure we were working on was important to us. Our labor was not, as Marx termed it, “alienated.”
People don’t talk much about “alienated labor” these days; most people take it for granted that what they do for a living has little to do with their real interests in life. This is one of the great curses of modern society. For the most part, nobody is invested in their work, and for good reason: most of what our society defines as “work” is, in the long, “deep green perspective,” highly destructive of either the planet or the human spirit. From raw materials extraction to factory work to sales and service and banking, “work” wrecks the world. Even teaching and medicine, with their noble aspirations toward education and the relief of suffering, mainly serve to indoctrinate and regiment the young in the first case, and to create sickening profits for pharmaceutical firms and so-called “health care providers” in the other.
Not that what we were doing was totally cutting-edge new–or old–“green tech.” In the midst of the Appalachian forest, we were using 2X4’s imported from the Czech Republic as well as thoroughly mainstream sheet rock and fiberglass insulation. But the mode of our work was different. We weren’t in it for the money. Here’s to the day when that’s just how it is for everyone.
music: David Rovics, “After the Revolution“