A Zen Koan on Columbus Day

Wednesday, October 13th, 2021

By Robert C. Koehler

It’s too easy, right? Too simple — shoving Christopher Columbus off the historical honor roll, pulling down his statues, yanking his “day” away from him and renaming it in honor of the people he murdered, kidnapped, turned into property?

Or is Indigenous Peoples Day seen by the world as simply a starting point, a launching of the transpatriarchal change in collective humanity we so desperately need but do not understand? I certainly put myself in that category: clueless. I both oppose and participate in environmental devastation, consuming my share of fossil fuels, plastic, etc., etc., even as I join those demanding change and pushing back against political-corporate interests. Yeah, Indigenous Peoples Day, that should do it . . . even as the Amazon burns, the tar-sands oil flows, militarism rules and moneyed interests continue getting what they want.

Is that it then? Outrage and a shrug just aren’t enough. Even the Green New Deal isn’t enough, not if it involves “extractivism,” i.e., mining lithium and other resources crucial in green technology. If the world “goes green” but stays focused on wealth and domination, new systems will be gamed and indigenous peoples across the planet will continue to be exploited and displaced, their needs and wisdom ignored.

Maybe the place to start is with this (controversial) declaration: We are all indigenous. By this I mean we all have roots deeper than our comfortable, but guilt-inducing, middle-class lives — we are all, in fact, part of the circle of life. I say this solely with the hope that believing so will permanently open our minds and let us face what we don’t know, indeed, that it will both let us acknowledge the enormity of what we don’t know and begin realizing and valuing, once again, the sacredness of life. We can then begin contemplating change not with outrage and certainty but with humility.

Vijay Kolinjivadi, in an extraordinary essay published several years ago in Al-Jazeera, notes that for the Green New Deal to work, for it to “transform the economy and our lives, it must be decolonial.” That is to say, green thinking can’t just slide into place in a context of global domination and the sacredness of money.

“Our development trajectory,” he writes, “has been marred by the idea that humans are the overlords of the world, who have to tame nature and submit it to exploitation for their exclusive benefit. It implies that human civilization is somehow separate from nature, whose only role is to provide unlimited resources to feed and expand the human material world.”

As long as we remain structurally separate from nature, we are able to regard environmental collapse as “merely a symptom of bad management” and attempt to fix the problem without making profound — and inconvenient — changes in how we live.

“As long as we erroneously see ourselves as outside and above the rest of the living world, we will continue to contribute to its destruction,” he continues. “A decolonial GND (Green New Deal), therefore, requires repositioning ourselves vis-à-vis nature as an integral part of it — just as many indigenous peoples have consistently sought to do in their historical and ongoing struggle for cultural autonomy and self-determination.”

If we begin reconnecting with nature — whatever in God’s name this means! — we will have to reconsider virtually every aspect of Western-style development, including the necessity of ever-expanding economic growth, which is the nature of the god we actually worship, a.k.a., money. Bringing about such sociocultural and political rethinking is almost impossible to imagine — which is to say, we, the global overlords, are not even close to where we need to be. But then again, we will never be. Our journey has no end.

Kolinjivadi offers this bit of wisdom for our journey: “A decolonial GND requires constant learning, building mutual consent and trust, and self-reflection of the embedded thought processes . . . that we all hold in contributing to such oppression, whether we realize it or not.

“We have reached a point of no return and we must realize that there is no savior and no quick-fix solution for the climate catastrophe we currently face. While the ‘mess’ we are in was not created by all of humanity equally (and we must recognize this!), it is a ‘mess’ of such proportions that we need committed and unconditional solidarity to get ourselves out of it.”

My final focus, for now, is on the idea of “constant learning.” I think there is value to it beyond measure. Every last soul on the planet can engage in constant learning. All that’s required is pushing oneself beyond one’s certainties.

The other day, in my attempt to re-believe I am part of the circle of life, I took a walk through my Chicago neighborhood. I wound up calling it a “literacy” walk because mostly what I focused on was the litter that was everywhere, and my goal was to bring it with me back into the circle of life.

Here’s some of what I encountered: endless cigarette butts and shards of broken glass, a crack spoon, a tennis ball, half a sandwich (with mayonnaise plus lettuce and dirt), a floss holder, a grocery store receipt, a plastic cup and gum wads. In the midst of it all was a Zen koan, which kept asking: What is nature?

Removing designated trash from the streets, dumping into landfills and/or the ocean, doesn’t “get rid of” it. So what’s to be done? If we stopped calling it trash, would an answer be forthcoming?

I ask the question of Christopher Columbus as he disappears from history.