What do you see?
This story is related in a recent issue of Adbusters–one of the very few magazines worth reading these days. An economics professor at Oxford walks into his packed classroom carrying a cup of coffee. When he walks in he asks, “Do you see the cup of coffee?” The students are puzzled because he obviously is holding a cup of coffee! Well, what the professor is getting at is the tangle of economic and government policies that lie behind that cup of coffee–most of them bad for the people who brought you that cup of coffee. So let us follow that professor’s lead and expand on the point he was trying to make to his class.
Exactly what do you see when you are having your cup of coffee at Starbuck’s (or wherever)? Do you see the sun drenched land that was taken over by a big corporation from a small landowner who himself inherited it from people who drove out natives who had lived there for maybe a thousand years? Do you see the deforestation that took place and all the insecticide and pesticide that was put into the earth to bring you that cup of coffee? Do you see the bean pickers working in the hot sun, or the guy carrying the heavy bags of beans to a shipping point–all for barely liveable wages? Do you see all the fossil fuel that was burned to bring you that cup of coffee? Do you see the 140 liters of water that were used to produce the coffee for that one cup? Etc, etc, etc. All this and more comes to you in that one cup of coffee.
The negative stuff is being emphasized here because that is the stuff we don’t want to see. A list of positive connections could also be made. But the real point here is to have an awareness of the incredible connectedness and interrelatedness of everything we do or touch–no matter how trivial–and to have a very concrete awareness of that and not just in the abstract. Buddhism, at least in theory, is very good in pointing that out. Christianity and others, perhaps not so. First of all, at the metaphysical/ontological level, simply because we “are,” we are a pure relationality, a nexus of connectedness. Modern Western man has developed this peculiar notion of an atomized, isolated individual, “Robinson Crusoe,” each person on his own island–the self-made man, etc. There is a profound uniqueness to each person, but it is not of that character. In any case when that gets translated into economics and politics, there are some really bad consequences. Note today’s attitudes about “my money,” “my property,” — the cup of coffee is simply there for me to enjoy–afterall I paid for it with my hard-earned money! And another example: “don’t help that person with healthcare because he/she is an undocumented alien.” In the Bible it tells us to “take care of the stranger in your midst.” But with this prevailing attitude some artificial, external thing like a piece of paper makes me lose sight of my fundamental human connection to the person in need.
But let us be on the monk’s way–with an awareness of the connections and embracing the consequences of that connectedness. And that awareness can lead one into a state of heart perhaps best articulated by Father Zossima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: Take responsibility for everything! So do your monastic practice out of compassion for all sentient beings. Your very mode of being is relationality and connectedness; you are not an isolated atomized reality. Or if you are of one of the theistic traditions, walk in the presence of God forgiving all, bow humbly before even the greatest of sinners, see your connection to even the person who is most repugnant to you, and bear the mercy of God on all there is. In either case, having even a cup of coffee you will dwell within the awareness of being connected to the sin and the grace of this world.
So, what do you see?
What do you want to see?
And when you do see, what are you going to do?
These questions–really one question–are the monk’s way.