‘Is man a part of nature, or apart from nature?’ It seems paradoxical to ask such a question. Man is so obviously a product of nature; he has evolved from and with the apes, and is connected in a myriad ways to the natural world; his DNA is virtually the same as that of his closest cousin, the chimpanzee. And yet as he has evolved, he has drawn away from nature, and is moving steadily away. Of course, ‘nature’ is not just the forests and the birds and animals, but also the sky, the stars, the desert, the sea, the sunset, the wind. What does it mean to be ‘related to nature’ and yet to be ‘moving away’? The analogy must be that of belonging to a family or community yet being alienated from it.
There is another aspect to this question that is more paradoxical and harder to answer: inside our heads, there resides another wilderness, as savage as the forest, untamed, mysterious, and possessed of awesome power. How did such a miracle come about? And how are these two related?
NATURE AS TEACHER
I think it is appropriate to talk about Nature in the context of learning. As Krishnamurti emphasized, learning is sacred—not all learning, perhaps, but certainly learning about the ways of the self, about how to live with intelligence; hence I ask: what can one learn from Nature, the supreme teacher?
When I used this phrase the other day, ‘Nature as teacher’, I was asked, how can nature possibly be a teacher? Nature just is; it is neither a teacher, nor isn’t. But do we need to animate nature, or give it a human persona? I feel we can learn a great deal about life simply by watching nature, by being with it, feeling with it. I have noticed that virtually every aspect of Krishnamurti’s teaching has an echo in the rhythms of Nature. Whatever I have written here has arisen as a result of this observation.
The trees were so stately and strangely impervious to man’s tarred roads and traffic. Their roots were deep down, deep in the earth, and their tops stretched to the skies.
[Krishnamurti, ‘Letters to a Young Friend’]
What does it mean ‘to educate the senses’? Krishnamurti said, ‘start with the outer, look at nature’. What is implied in this? In educating the senses one necessarily starts with ‘the outer’; the focus is on sensitivity per se—not merely on ‘sensitivity to beauty’. There is so much richness in nature with which to educate the senses, whether it be the sense of sight, or sound, or smell, or touch: to observe the footprints of a line of ants, to hear the faint rustle of sound the ants make when they scatter, to feel the pads of an animal, soft and rough at the same time, or to simply be alive to the mood of an evening.
Once Krishnamurti asked a teacher not to stop his student from watching a lizard, even if it meant that he was ‘not paying attention to the lesson’. Is this because in such a watching one begins to educate the senses and so learns about the nature of attention itself (which goes beyond learning about the object of attention)? This has relevance to self understanding, because observing oneself in the living present needs just that kind of attention; it is rather like ‘following a butterfly through a dense forest’—but here it is the world within us which is the forest, the wilderness.
But nature can also be an intoxicant. There is so much in nature to beguile the senses, to intoxicate and overpower us with luxuriant beauty. Perhaps it is only in a state of innocent learning that one can have a right relationship with nature.
When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.
The complexity of nature is almost beyond understanding. Today that fact is coming home to us in the form of the ecological crisis.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of nature is its ability to maintain a dynamic living balance; its internal mechanism of checks and balances. We humans have long since lost that capacity (maybe the ancients had it); hence the many occurrences of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. It would appear that there is a sort of ‘natural law’ which operates invisibly and powerfully, a law with its own rhythm and time scale, which cannot be hurried; a law that has no mercy: one cannot break a natural law, any more than one can break the law of gravity. In facing nature, one faces absolute, unalterable fact.
But to say that nature has ‘no mercy’ may seem an overly extravagant use of words, for natural law is how nature operates; it just is. Here is how Emily Dickinson expresses it:
Apparently with no surprise,
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play,
In accidental power.
The blond assassin passes on.
The sun proceeds unmoved,
To measure off another day,
For an approving God.
So nature knows neither morality nor justice; it is neither just nor unjust, neither moral nor amoral; it is completely unsentimental. Alongside the 24 x 7 care which an animal mother bestows on its young, it will not hesitate to discard the little one which appears too weak to make it to adult life—an action which seems cruel and inconceivable by human standards. But that is the way it is. Nature is not to be combed; to impose sentimentality upon nature is to invite illusion.
Vital to human society though they may be, morality and justice are human constructs, and nature does not lie within the compass of human thought. This is an important point which connects with Krishnamurti’s observation about justice: that there is no justice in the world. Natural law is the only morality, and the only foundation for existence. Perhaps it is what one may call dharma.
Many examples of natural law can be given, relating to human life; some are as old as the hills, others are recent in origin, yet others have been stated by Krishamurti. Indeed, it seems to me that most proverbs are statements of natural law, in some form. For example:
- Where there is division, there is conflict. [Krishnamurti, Saanen, 1974]
- Inner disorder inevitably overcomes outer order—no matter how well established is that outer order.
- There is no path to truth. [Krishnamurti, Saanen, 1968] (And, in consequence: The first step is the last step.)
- War is the spectacular and bloody projection of our daily lives. [Krishnamurti, ‘The First and Last Freedom’]
- The more one asks of life, the more fearful and painful it becomes … Happy is the man who is nothing. [Krishnamurti, ‘Letters to a Young Friend’]
- When you are in love, you have no time for anything else.
- As ye sow, so shall ye reap. [The Bible]
- The truth will set you free. [The Bible] (to which the modern amendment is: The truth may set you free, but first it will make you miserable.)
- If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. [Jesus, in ‘The Gospel According to Thomas’ from ‘The Gnostic Gospels’]
- Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. [Lord Acton]
Probably the most fundamental of natural laws are those relating to balance and conservation. Nature is extraordinarily frugal and ingenious when it comes to recycling things. Without such a strategy, life would not have survived for three billion years. Human beings seem bent on rejecting this basic law.
Krishnamurti used a variety of metaphors from nature—the tide moving in and out, the flow of a river, the leaf falling from its tree … These are rhythms which flow from natural law, and may be thought of as expressions of natural law.
Here is another aspect of natural law: the tension between change and constancy. Change exists at every moment in nature; death is part of life, across all possible time scales, and across space. Yet, there is such an astonishing strength in the constancy of pattern—night following day, the sun rising each morning, the arrival of the monsoon, and the lengthening days as winter draws close. In the mango grove close by, each evening I see the fruits bats come out in droves and do what they are best at: attacking the fruit trees with gusto. The enduring nature of pattern is staggering
I recall seeing a film showing how large groups of male penguins survive the long, harsh Antarctic winter in each other’s company. When terrible blizzards blow, they huddle together tightly but at the same time move about in such a way that each one gets to spend a certain amount of time at the centre of the group, where it is better protected than at the periphery. What an extraordinary expression of natural law!
But surely the most remarkable thing about natural law is its regenerative quality—it is life enabling, at even its minutest level. In this it is quite unlike human law. In the act of maintaining balance, there arises regeneration and new life, as in the aftermath of a destructive forest fire: new growth springing up from the ashes of the old. Life does not wait; the creative force is too strong.
What gives natural law its regenerative quality is a mystery. But we do know some consequences of natural law; one of them is that in nature all flow is cyclic in character. Everything, from the tiniest particle upward, is part of a cycle; it feeds from one cycle into another. Nothing is ever lost, nothing can escape that cycle. The ubiquity of cyclical movement is absolute.
Can we allow natural law to play such a role in our lives? This demands the ability to move with the flow of nature, to not resist. It demands inward quietness and maturity. Can we live this way? We have been violating this principle for centuries. Is it possible to reverse the trend, at least individually?
But I must not make the mistake of looking at the entirety of life through the ideology of natural law; there may be aspects of life that cannot be subsumed under such ideology. How does nature look at a transgression of natural law? Is there any parallel to the human act of doing wrong and atoning for it? Or is it that it is not possible to atone for a wrong doing?
Krishnamurti mentions a friend who had helped kill a tiger in his youth, and had regretted the act ever since. Surely, we have all done wrong things; I know I have. Does nature forgive such an act? Can it at all? Or is forgiveness a wholly human construct, with no meaning in nature? And what of compassion? Is this too a purely human phenomenon? I do not know.
Living Without A Single Problem
A river when it meets an obstruction is never still; the river breaks down the obstruction by its weight or goes over it or works its way under it or around it; the river is never still; it cannot but act. It revolts, if we can so put it, intelligently.
[Krishnamurti, ‘Letters to a Young Friend’]
No religious teacher has denied so emphatically and so completely the place of the ‘how’ questions in religious inquiry as has Krishnamurti—the relevance of ‘how’ in facing the problems of living. One wonders what brought him to this simple yet astonishingly fresh insight, from which flow vital consequences like ‘The first step is the last step’.
Is Krishnamurti giving us a hint in the above lines? Can one so revolt, intelligently, accept what is intelligently? One sees, all around, how life intelligently revolts to the conditions imposed on it. Either it cheerfully accepts its lot, without a murmur, or it acts; in any case it does not make a problem of it. I remember seeing a tree which appeared to have a heavy spiral groove running all around its trunk to a height of several feet. When I looked more closely at this strange sight, I found it was a thick metal wire around which the tree had wrapped itself while growing. And we have all seen the blade of grass pushing its way through a tarred or cemented surface. Nature appears to have worked out long back how to revolt intelligently.
When natural rhythm is allowed free expression, time seems not to exist—‘psychological time’ in the sense that Krishnamurti used that phrase. Perhaps therein lies a clue for us.
Living In Anonymity
The tree is nothing to itself. It exists. And in its very existence it is the most beautiful thing ... You see, a lily or a rose never pretends, and its beauty is that it is what it is.
[Krishnamurti, Ojai, 1983]
Can one learn about trust from nature, accepting ‘what is’ without any resistance whatever? Watch a handicapped animal move about; it asks for nothing. We think of it as something ‘less’ than a healthy animal but it does not. Nature, it seems, does not ask for concessions or favours; it does not even ask to be noticed. Sometimes I see tiny flowers growing by the roadside, anonymously, and I wonder to myself: Can I live like that? Is that the secret of life?
All these are related: living anonymously, being nothing to oneself, living without a single problem.
The Art Of Dying
When death comes, it does not ask your permission; it comes and takes you. It destroys you on the spot.
[Krishnamurti, Madras, 1959]
And then there is death, which never bothers about permissions; that is its essential nature. And in this lies potential for great sorrow, unless one lives with death inwardly. Can the understanding of natural law help us to understand this most subtle and mysterious of all phenomena? Perhaps not. But it may, perhaps, help in learning the art of dying. And in the final analysis this may well be the most important of all arts.
‘The long habit of living indisposeth us to dying.’ [Thomas Browne, quoted by Lewis Thomas in ‘The Lives of a Cell’] Can one, as Thomas puts it, ‘give up the idea that death is an abomination, or avoidable, or strange’?
When you deal with animals you see how brief, how transient their fear, how physical it is; it has no persistence. The other day I held a dying creature. To the end it responded to touch and affection. There was an innocent dignity about how it went. Thomas offers this poignant thought: think of the various gardens in which one has walked, the various wild trails—there must be hundreds of squirrels scampering about, yet how hard it is to come across a dead squirrel! So, can one learn the art of dying unseen? The art of dying unnoticed, with quiet dignity? Nature has long since mastered these arts; can we learn them too?
In doing so we may also learn about incorruptibility; for the incorruptibility of a flower lies in its fragility and its readiness to die — with dignity, with quietness, with no regret.
NATURE AS A RESOURCE
If you lose touch with nature you lose touch with humanity.
[Krishnamurti, ‘Krishnamurti’s Journal’]
It is one of the ironies of life that some of the keenest nature writings are those written by hunters. But there is a parallel in society—some of the keenest observers of human nature are those who intend to exploit it (and know how to): those in the advertising industry, those in the business of propaganda. But is nature there only for the purpose of soothing us, to help bring about quietness, to give us a sense of space and leisure; something available just for our benefit? Is it a backdrop against which we operate? Is it simply a resource, to be exploited till it can yield nothing more?
Today, the ecological crisis looms large: global warming, destruction of the rain forests, melting of the polar ice caps etc. The central problem really is our attitude to nature. If nature is merely a resource, a supplier of coal, of oil and natural gas, of granite, of rare medicinal herbs, then sooner or later such a crisis must come; it is inevitable.
In a neat turn of symmetry, our relationship with nature mirrors with exceeding accuracy the way we relate to our fellow human beings.
At the outset I asked, ‘Is man part of nature?’ The answer, surely, is ‘yes’. But just as obviously, life (or God or call it what one may) has created something within us which seems not to be part of nature, something with great power and the potential for great destruction. It seems that we hold in our hands the power to destroy not just many varieties of life but ourselves as well. Why we have this power is a mystery. But as ‘power tends to corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, ’ our destiny lies in our relationship with that power, and in the role we allow it to play in our lives.
What man needs is that contentment that is in the earth when it has given birth to a tree. In a bush when it has produced a flower.
[Krishnamurti, in Pupul Jayakar’s Krishnamurti]
I believe that one of the best antidotes to the toxin of power is to tell people the story of your love and your contentment. Surely, nature offers one of the purest environments for telling that story.
I close with an ode to diversity and constancy from ‘Pied Beauty’, by Gerald Manley Hopkins.
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: