In this article, the author, Satish Kumar, explores how to move beyond our anthropocentric beliefs and learn to take on our role as stewards of the Earth. He proposes a new trinity of ‘soil, soul and society’ to help us in this process of living a more harmonious life. He talks about how using these three concepts as a basis, we can view and work with the inner and outer landscapes of not only all beings, human and non-human, but also the earth as a whole. We can heal ourselves and the planet all in one go!
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. These words represent a more anthropocentric worldview. We have come to think that somehow human beings are at the centre of the universe. It is as if we are the most important species and that the Earth’s other species are all in our service. This is a very human-centred worldview.
But this worldview is no longer valid. Especially once we realise that we are utterly dependent on other species; 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 not separate, we are all related, we are members of one Earth community.
So we need a new trinity to replace those human-centred ones. (Even the trinity adopted by the New Age movement, ‘mind, body, spirit’, refers to the human mind, human body and human spirit.) We need a new trinity that is holistic and more inclusive, that embraces the entire planet Earth and not just the human species. We need a philosophy, a science, a religion and a legal system that will benefit all living beings, not just human beings.
So I propose a new trinity. And at the top of this trinity is the word ‘soil’, which represents the entire natural world. 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, in our study of science and technology, 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, represents all natural life. And the fact 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. Growing food has no dignity. 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 televisions or computers or some other gadgets.
Growing food has become a sign of underdevelopment. The word ‘peasant’ itself has become a term of 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? Hardly ever! I want to give dignity to peasants, to those who grow food, to farmers and gardeners.
Soil is so important, yet we have forgotten it. Yes, we humans are important 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 and the Earth is not a human colony. 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, we can interfere with seeds through genetic engineering. This attitude must change.
This is why I put the soil first. We are all part of this healthy web of life maintained by soil. It makes us humble; to be human is to be humble. The Latin word humus means soil. ‘Humid’, ‘human’, ‘humility’ and ‘humus’ all come from the same root. The soil is so fertile, yet humble. When humans lose humility they are no longer humans.
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?” The Buddha lifted his right hand in the bhūmiśpara mudra, which means ‘touch the Earth’ posture. Pointing towards the soil, he said: “I learned my forgiveness, compassion, friendship, kindness and all the wonderful qualities of love, beauty, unity and generosity from the Earth.”
Do you know where the Buddha was enlightened? 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 food, wood, shade or aesthetic pleasure. No, the tree is good in and of itself, even if nobody goes and looks at it, even 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. Trees, animals, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers, worms, butterflies, honeybees – all creatures upon this Earth have intrinsic value. They have 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. When we understand this, when we recognise the rights of the trees, of all Nature, then we are truly ecologists and have understood the meaning of the word ‘soil’.
The second word in my new trinity is ‘soul’, which sounds similar to ‘soil’. Soul is something we 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 and humans – has a soul. Soil is the outer landscape, and soul, the inner landscape.
We need to take care of the soul, as we take care of the body. But we can only take care of the soul when we slow down. No computer. No car. No shopping. Just sit in your room with tea and flowers: elegantly simple, without clutter. Go into a room without noise, no mobile phone. Take time for yourself. Meditate on the fact that 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, again and again. 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 mindful gardening you are in meditation. When you are cooking mindfully you are also in meditation because 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. Everything you truly 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,food, water, trees, soil, sun and sky. What more do you want? If you want more possessions and more clutter, it is because you have lost touch with your soul. That’s why your soul is hungry or empty. That emptiness will not be filled by computers, cars or mobile phones. 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 also take care of both you have self-realisation, you achieve wellbeing.
Caring for the soul has nothing to do with our 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 walked from India to America without money. When I came to the border between India and Pakistan – where three wars have been fought – I was joined by 35 people who had come to say goodbye. One of them said: “At least take some food with you.” 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 them to feed me.”
My friend began to cry. I said: “Why are you crying, my friend?” she 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 while 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 coming to 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, 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. This way I was able to rise above my narrow identity and identify myself instead with all of human society.
Mahatma Gandhi said that there is enough in the world for everybody’s need but not enough for anybody’s greed. At the moment, 1% of the population is greedy, while 99% are suffering. This 1% wants to be the superpower. But we need to embrace all of society. We need to solve social problems of poverty and wars with imagination and creativity, forgiveness. How much can you give? How much can you take? All problems can be solved by negotiation, friendship, giving in, letting go of ego and going into eco. Eco means home, eco means relationships. Let us make a shift from ego to eco, from self interest to mutual interest of whole human society.
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 to humans – depend on each other, then we can live in harmony with ourselves, with other people and with Nature.
‘This article is an edited extract from a talk Satish Kumar gave at Kyoto University in 2012, and forms the backbone of his more recent Ted talk
This article is reprinted courtesy of Resurgence & Ecologist.