Satish Kumar was born in India to a family of peasant farmers. At his birth, the village astrologer predicted that his life would be one of endless travel, and that he would never reach his destination. This prophecy proved true.
Kumar’s parents were followers of the Jain religion, which requires strict adherence to the principle of ahimsa (not harming any living creature). When Kumar was four, his father died, and this proved to be a pivotal event for him. Afterward, Kumar and his mother began to spend more and more time around the Jain monks, who wandered from village to village begging for food and spreading a message of absolute nonviolence. The monks took an interest in the young boy, who, they said, possessed a “spiritual soul.” At age nine, over the objections of some family members, Kumar joined their order. He severed all contact with his relatives, abandoned all worldly concerns, and for nine years walked across India as a Jain monk.
In time, however, Kumar found that renouncing the world stifled rather than deepened his spirituality. He quit the order, but he did not quit walking. He joined India’s political land-reform movement and walked the country, along with thousands of others, asking rich landowners to give some of their land to the poor untouchables. And his wandering did not end there: years later, he walked to protest nuclear weapons, traveling penniless and on foot from India to Moscow, Paris, London, and Washington, D.C. He eventually settled in England, where he has made pilgrimages to various holy sites – all, of course, on foot.
For the past quarter century, Kumar has edited and published Resurgence, a bimonthly journal exploring ecological thinking, traditional cultures, and the wisdom of nature. The magazine has been nominated for eight consecutive Utne Reader Alternative Press Awards, and has published such authors as James Hillman, Hazel Henderson, Thomas Moore, Stephanie Mills, and Noam Chomsky.
Kumar also cofounded Schumacher College in England. The institute started as a lecture series celebrating the teachings of ecological visionary E. F. Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful, and has grown into an international center for holistic learning. Its students study economic, philosophical, social, and scientific issues from an ecological perspective. In order to make real the principles of egalitarianism and ecological awareness for which the college stands, students and teachers live, eat, and work together, doing everything from cooking and washing up to cleaning the toilets. Lynn Margulis, Terry Tempest Williams, Fritjof Capra, James Lovelock, and Vandana Shiva are just a few of the alternative thinkers who have taught there.
Kumar has edited and authored many books, including his autobiog-raphy, Path without Destination (Eagle Brook). He lives in North Devon, Eng-land, with his wife, June Mitchell.
I met Kumar on a sunny day in March at a San Francisco radio station, where he’d just done a call-in show. From there, we walked to a small cafe and talked over scones. I was immediately impressed by his warmth and by the speed with which he moved from small talk to a discussion of ecological issues. Before I even turned on the tape recorder, he had begun to speak not only of ecology, but of what it means to live fully.
Kumar: I try to live imaginatively every moment. I never want to go back to what I wrote or said before. It’s a matter of being present and alert. Aware of what’s going on in your mind, what you are hearing, what you are seeing. All the time being present rather than being deadened to your surroundings, to your intellect, to your emotions.
Jensen: Isn’t that a lot of work?
Kumar: Yes, but it’s not heavy work. It’s not deadening work. Quite the opposite. It’s creative, and therefore challenging and enjoyable. Once you begin living at the edge, taking real risks with real consequences, then every moment is an adventure. You have, of course, entered into a life of extremely hard work, but simultaneously you will feel invigorated by this life, and by the work itself. On the other hand, whenever you find yourself drifting into a set pattern – your income is there, your house, your life, your books; everything arranged, planned, organized – you may be able to get by with less work, but you will feel . . . well, I don’t know how you will feel, but I would feel dissatisfied with that.
Jensen: How did you get to the point where you can practice this?
Kumar: How did they build the Great Wall of China? They put one brick on top of another on top of another. There’s no other way. It’s how I got from India to Moscow to Paris to London to Washington, D.C., on my peace walk against nuclear weapons: I took one step, then another, and then another. All long journeys – whether we’re walking for peace or writing a novel or constructing a life – consist of arduous, continuous work. When we see the Sistine Chapel ceiling, we might say, “Ah, this is wonderful; how did it come to be?” The answer is simple: one stroke after another, and with each stroke asking, What color do I put here? What texture do I put there? It is a creative process.
Creating a piece of art and creating a life are very simi-lar. To write a book, you must have discipline; you must place yourself in front of your paper and write sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, chapter after chapter, until you are done. So, too, with a life, moment after moment, day after day, year after year; you live it until your life is complete. Life, too, is a book, a work of art, a creative process.
So, to answer your question, I got here step by step, by being alive, alert, aware, open, creative, imaginative. I got here by way of a sixty-two-year journey. And you have to make that journey, always inventing your way, inventing your life.
Jensen: Have you been consciously inventing your life all along?
Jensen: Do you think that’s unusual?
Kumar: I was fortunate in that I was not conditioned or put in a straitjacket by my mother or by my education, so I had the chance to take a more risky and adventurous path, like becoming a Jain monk at the age of nine. That was risky, even then.
So, yes, maybe it is unusual. But everybody’s life circumstances are unusual. If you are aware that you are cre-ating a piece of art simply by living, then you are treading an unusual path.
Jensen: The notion of creating art just by living reminds me of something I have heard a fair number of artists say: that much of their art is not influenced by the outside world.
Kumar: It is a tragedy that art has been separated from the world that way. In my view, art, life, and the world at large cannot be separated. You can be in solitude momentarily, in your studio or wherever, but still you are not separate. This points to a deep fault in our culture: the belief that we can be separate. It’s not possible. Even when I meditate, though I have a sense of solitude, in no way am I self-contained. There is a saying I use to describe this: “Let noble thoughts come to me from all corners of the universe, and in return let my own noble thoughts extend to all corners of the universe.”
All creative artists, whether they are making a book, a painting, a pot, or a life, are extremely connected to the wider world. On the physical level, a writer, for example, is handling paper, which is made of wood. He or she is taking in air, digesting food. On a spiritual or emotional level, too, the writer is breathing in the community. Art is a response to our collective being, a response that is sent out into the community, and to which the community responds, in turn. It’s like our conversation: You ask a question. I respond to it. There is mutuality, reciprocity.
Jensen: So if life is like art, then is life, too, a conversation?
Kumar: Yes. A long, sixty-year conversation.
Jensen: With whom?
Kumar: With the other. And the other is everything. It is trees and rivers, birds and mountains, your spouse, your children, your neighbors, your ancestors. I mentioned my mother earlier. She is in this conversation. She is not gone, not dead. I can talk about my guru. I can talk about the Vedas. They are not gone and dead. Life is a conversation with the past, and with the future. It’s an all-embracing, all-inclusive conversation.
Jensen: Are your ideas grounded in the events of your life?
Kumar: Yes, what we are talking about comes directly out of my life. The conversation in my life begins with death: When I was four years old, my father died, and when I saw him dead and my mother crying and taking off her jewelry and changing her colorful sari for one of mourning, I was shocked, amazed, confused, perplexed. I began to ask, What’s going on? What is death?
Jensen: Do you think death is a universal place for life’s conversation to begin, or is it particular to you?
Kumar: Everything is particular to everybody. Each conversation is unique to each person. My life’s conversation began with death. And that conversation led to a conclusion that if I wanted to overcome the fear of death, the presence of death, the effect of death, I would have to renounce the world. And so, at age nine, I became a Jain monk.
The Jain religion began about twenty-five hundred years ago in India. Jains adhere completely to the principle of ahimsa, or not harming any living being. They are non-violent and, of course, vegetarian. But it goes much further than that. For example, I wore a cloth folded eight times across my mouth to prevent me from accidentally hurting any organisms in the air. I removed this cloth only to eat, and I could not speak while eating. And every morning and evening I inspected my clothes and belongings – a blanket, begging bowls, and manuscripts – to make sure no insects had gotten into them, and also to make sure I had not acquired anything I didn’t need. I walked slowly and carefully, making certain not to tread on any insects or plants, and at night, when I couldn’t see clearly, I didn’t go outside. Even inside, I swept the floor in front of me with a broom of soft wool.
Monks beg for food. Our rule was that we could beg food only from households with open doors and could accept only vegetarian food that was gladly offered. Sometimes other constraints were added, to enable us to practice en-durance. Our Lord Mahavir, the founder of the Jains, once made a vow that he would accept food only from a princess who had been sold as a slave and who was chained with one foot outside the house and one inside. There had to be tears in her eyes, and she had to offer soaked beans on a bamboo plate.
As a monk, I never washed my clothes, but simply wore them until they fell off. I never bathed, nor cleaned my teeth. One day, sitting next to a guru, I scratched my head and some fleas fell out of my hair. The guru told me that, since I had taken a vow not to hurt any creature, I should put them back.
Jensen: What about sex?
Kumar: It was forbidden. Sex is of this world. The Jains believe that, to achieve moksha, or salvation of the soul, one must renounce all desires, all attachment to the body, all emotions, relations – everything. One can have no husband or wife, father or mother. The love between human beings is an illusion.
Jensen: That sounds pretty awful to me.
Kumar: It’s the Jain response to death. How do you get away from death, make it lose its hold? If life is samsara, or the everlasting cycle of birth and death, then the aim of Jain monks is to get free of that cycle.
Jensen: Why did you leave the order?
Kumar: The primary reason is that a friend gave me a book by Mahatma Gandhi. I told my friend I was not allowed to read any nonreligious book, but he said this book was religious in a very deep sense. So I read it. Gandhi said that no religion is a true religion if it does not help solve the problems of the world, here and now. Any religion that tries to take a person away from this life and this world is mere escapism. This was in total opposition to the teaching of my guru: that a monk’s duty was to turn his back on this world in order to face God.
Another revelation came the first time I went to a big city. Our guide in the city carried a large stick with a sword concealed in it. I asked my guru about this, and he said, “We don’t carry the sword, but the guide isn’t a monk. He lives in a world of compromise.” Later, I asked the guide himself, and he responded, “Do you think I should stand by and let something happen to you or the guru?”
“But we believe in nonviolence,” I said.
“You couldn’t live nonviolently unless we were here to protect you,” he replied. “You don’t produce any food, be-cause there is violence in producing and cooking it, but if we didn’t do it for you, how could you live?”
The guide had pointed out to me a fundamental contradiction: if we were to live “purely,” without committing violence, someone else had to commit it for us.
Because of the stringent boundaries that monastic life placed on the search for truth – that truth does not reside in the world, or in experience, or in the body – I decided to leave the order and to seek nirvana in the world.
Jensen: So your renunciation of the world didn’t last.
Kumar: Yet it was an important foundation upon which the rest of my life has been built. While engaged in that part of my conversation, I learned to live with physical suffering: Walking bare- foot on the hot earth. Walking through thorns. Living without money, without home, without mother and father. Begging for food. Going through that chasm was, in retrospect, very good for me. It prepared me so that, when I came to understand the untenability of separating the spirit from the world – believing that spirituality is for saints, art for artists, music for musicians, and that ordinary people “can’t do anything” – I was ready to follow this new path no matter what difficulties it might bring.
So I do not regret at all spending my early life as a monk. In fact, I am grateful for that experience. I will say, however, that many religious orders have lost a sense of the spirit, becoming wedded instead to organizational discipline. When that happens, maintaining the organization becomes more important than searching for the truth.
Jensen: Is there a relationship between the renunciation of the world and the stifling of a person’s free spirit?
Kumar: When I did it, renunciation of the world was actually very freeing for me. I cannot overemphasize how appropriate and helpful it was at that stage. But when it ceased to serve my spirit, it became time for me to go. So I took courage into my hands and said, “I must leave.”
The central realization that pulled me away from monkhood was that there is no escaping from life; the spirit has to be practiced in the everyday world, and not outside of it. The world is beautiful – the earth, the land, the people – and you have to accept even pain and suffering as part of that beauty. That realization threw me into the social, political, economic, cultural arena. It convinced me that wholeness of life is paramount.
Jensen: What did you do after leaving the Jain religion?
Kumar: I began to work with Vinoba Bhave, who had worked previously with Gandhi and was something of a spiritual heir to him. He was working mainly for land reform, to get land for the poorest of the poor: the harijans, or untouchables. So he walked all over India, talking to harijans and landowners, saying that land, like air, sun, or water, is a free gift from God, and that every person – every “son of the soil,” as he put it – has a right to the earth. He said, “Though my own stomach is very small, that of the poor is very big.” And so he demanded land: 50 million acres. When a landlord owning three hundred acres would offer only one acre, Vinoba would say that if he were only building a temple, that would suffice, but since access to land is a fundamental right of the poor, nothing less than one-sixth would do. And people gave.
If before, when I was in the monastic order, life and spirituality had been to some degree abstract ideas to me, with Vinoba Bhave they became grounded. There were new, practical questions for me to address: How does my spirituality manifest itself when I am faced with landless laborers, suffering in poverty, being exploited and subjugated by their landlords? How do nonviolence, truth, and spirituality respond to questions of economic, political, and social segregation? How do you open the hearts of those who think land ownership is their birthright, who believe that poor, untouchable farmers are born to work for them and serve them, and that there’s nothing wrong with that? Just as difficult is to find the key to the hearts of the untouchables, who think it’s their fate – their previous life’s karma – to serve a master. How do you open their hearts and make them understand that they, too, have free spirits and deserve the same opportunities to engage in the world, to have con-versations with the world, to live in relationships of equality? Finding answers to these questions became a quest for me. Through the land-reform movement, I felt that I was able to extend the personal spirituality of monastic life into a collective spirituality.
We were able to get thousands of landlords to part with land, and thousands of harijans to accept it. We didn’t get the 50 million acres Vinoba demanded, but we did get 4 million. And we were able to encourage sufficient numbers of poor, landless untouchables to come forward and take this land, cultivate it, dig wells, grow food, and create community schooling.
The key to this effort was that we didn’t see the land-lords and the landless as enemies of each other. Rather, they were partners without realizing it.
Jensen: But it seems to me that a partnership, by defi-nition, is based on positions of equal power. How can you have a partnership when one party is rich and another poor?
Kumar: I am talking about a spiritual partnership. When people begin to focus on the fact that the landlords depend on the good will and good work of the poor, then the power balance begins to shift. Eventually, true partnership will require social justice and economic equality, but we have to begin our journey from where we are. Vinoba’s land reform was primarily undertaken to initiate a spiritual transformation, to encourage us to envision a future in which people of all persuasions can live in partnership, and there will be no rich and no poor. And he made a beginning. Many landlords gave not only one-sixth, but all of their land. They told us, “I never realized what I was doing to the people.”
Jensen: How did you respond to landowners who weren’t open to conversation?
Kumar: We would say that maybe they were not open to conversation today, but who knows about tomorrow? If you want to come into this cafe where you and I are sitting, you have to find the door. If you try to come in any other way, you will merely bang your head against a wall. Similarly, every landlord has a door to his heart, a soft spot that you can find if you wait and search. We knew that if we didn’t find the door today, we might find it tomorrow. And even then, we knew it might be locked. So we’d have to find the key. And when we found the key, it might be rusty, so we’d have to put oil on it. It was a lot of work, but we knew that if we took it step by step, eventually the door would open, and we would be able to enter. In a practical sense, this meant that if we met with resistance, we moved on and came back another day, this time bringing a friend of the landlord’s – one who’d already given land. Perhaps then the landlord would be willing to listen. If not, we’d keep coming back.
To change someone’s heart, you must be persistent, and patient. Vinoba Bhave started his movement in 1955, and for thirty years, until his death in 1985, he walked back and forth across India seeking land for the landless.
Jensen: What do you do if the people in power are unwilling to stop their exploitation? What if they are murderous? What about someone like Hitler?
Kumar: When a house is on fire and has gone beyond the point where you can save it, the only option left is to bring lots of water and try to stop the fire from spreading. Nonviolence is a precautionary principle. Before the house catches fire, you have to make sure you have a fire extinguisher, clearly marked escape routes, emergency exits. The same is true in society: You have to educate your children in nonviolence. You have to educate your media in nonviolence. And when someone has a grievance, you don’t ignore or suppress it. You listen and ask, “What is your concern?” You say, “Let’s sit down and discuss it.”
To pursue the question of what to do about Hitler, we have to ask what the problems were in Germany after the First World War. What kind of treaty did we make? Did we simply say to the Germans, “You caused the war, so now you will be punished”? That’s precisely what we did. And it’s what the United States is doing right now with Iraq. It is sowing the seeds of a new Hitler. If it’s not Saddam Hussein, then someone else will come along and fight back, because their nation is being destroyed. By the time a Hitler has arisen, it’s too late to think about nonviolence.
So what I’m talking about here is using methods of education, compassion, generosity, equity, dignity, and respect for others, all in order to build a culture of nonviolence. Just as we are taught to read, to write, to paint, or to sing, we should be taught how to deal with conflict – from childhood. That is where a culture of nonviolence must begin, with the children. From there, it can branch out into the media, advertising, government, the police, the court. All these institutions can begin emphasizing nonviolence as opposed to simply punishment.
But nobody is doing this. We all sanction violence every step of the way, and then we are somehow surprised when someone like Hitler or Sad-dam Hussein comes along. We say, “He must be evil.” Yet it’s we who have created him. Hitler did not fall from the sky. We gave birth to him. We are responsible for Hitler.
Jensen: It gives me hope that there continue to be many peaceful indigenous cultures: for example, the Semay of Malaysia and the Okanagans of British Columbia.
Kumar: Not surprisingly, many of these cultures are nonviolent not only toward humans, but also toward nonhumans. If we kill animals in slaughterhouses, if we factory-farm, if millions of animals are treated cruelly, then that cruelty gets inculcated in our hearts, and we turn it against humans, as well.
Jensen: We are what we eat.
Kumar: It’s all connected. If we are to survive, we must make peace with nature. Nonviolence is not just about Hitler. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Nonviolence is a way of life.
Jensen: With Vinoba Bhave you walked for land. Starting in 1962, you walked for peace. How did that come about?
Kumar: I was having coffee in a cafe, much as we are today, and an article in the local newspaper caught my attention. It said the ninety-year-old English philosopher Bertrand Russell had been put in jail for protesting against nuclear weapons. I was shocked. I thought, Here’s a man of ninety going to jail for peace in the world, for his convictions. What am I doing? So I talked to my friend and compan-ion Prabhakar Menon, and together we decided to go on a peace march to Moscow, Paris, London, and Washington: the capitals of the four nuclear powers. We wrote to Bertrand Russell, telling him we were coming to support him, and he responded, “I’m an old man, so please walk fast.”
We started collecting do-nations to prepare, but Vin-oba suggested we go without money. It was a hard decision, because we would be walking across several continents, passing through countries where people spoke different languages, practiced different religions, and lived under different political systems. But Vinoba said, “If you have money, you will eat in restaurants and sleep in motels. But if you have no money, you will be defenseless, you will be vulnerable, so you will have to trust, you will have to be fearless, you will have to have faith. You will be forced to find hospitable and kind people wherever you go.” We took his advice and left India on foot and without money.
Jensen: This seems to be a pattern in your life’s journey: stepping unprotected into the abyss.
Kumar: There is a continuity: begging for food, begging for land, begging for peace. Knowing that people had already given land, we thought we should be able to find people willing to give us food and shelter for the night. Trust has been the building block of my life thus far.
Jensen: And people were supportive?
Kumar: Yes, overwhelmingly. Sometimes entire towns turned out to welcome us, bringing food and sweets. In one town, they gave us a feast and washed our feet. I was embarrassed by that, but they insisted. Shoemakers gave us shoes. A postal inspector gave us stamps. Barbers shaved us. Taxi drivers offered rides, but we couldn’t accept them. Many people offered money, which likewise we could not take. A young child in Poland begged us tearfully to walk a few miles out of our way to visit his home, and we did. At the East Berlin border, one of the guards told us he was longing for the day when he could throw away his gun and join us in the fight for peace.
Near the Black Sea in Georgia, some women invited us to give a talk at the tea factory where they worked. In our talk, we said that, all over the world, common people bear the burdens of the bombs: we are the ones who pay for them, and we are the ones who will be killed by them. Therefore, we are the ones who must raise our voices against them. Hearing this, one of the women had an inspiration. She dashed out of the room and returned with four packets of tea. She said, “Please give one of these to our premier in Moscow, one to the president of France, one to the prime minister of England, and one to the president of the United States of America. And give them a message from me that, if they think of dropping bombs, they should stop for a moment and have a fresh cup of tea from these packets. That will give them a chance to remember that the simple people of the world want bread, not bombs; life, not death.” Hers was a very powerful message, and we carried it to the world leaders.
Jensen: Did you encounter anybody who was opposed to your march?
Kumar: No one we met didn’t want peace, but no one seemed to know how to achieve it, either. There were a few who were afraid. I remember in one Russian village, a husband gave us hospitality, but his wife threw us out. On the surface, her argument was that she was sick of her husband bringing visitors home to spend the night, but underneath that was a fear of these noncommunists who came from India talking politics and peace.
And in the U.S., in Albany, Georgia, I went into a cafe with an English friend. We sat down and ordered cheese sandwiches and tea. The waitress left and came back to inform us that they were out of stock. So we asked for coffee. She said they had none. We went to the manager, who told us he could refuse to serve whomever he chose and that we had better leave. I didn’t understand what he was talking about, and I said so. Then he pulled out a pistol and aimed it at my chest. My friend stepped between us, and the other customers pushed us into the street. Never before – not in all my previous travels – had the color of my skin been of any significance.
But you were asking whether anyone was in favor of nuclear weapons. The short answer is no.
Jensen: What was the difference in reaction between common people and those who purported to represent them?
Kumar: The response by governments ranged from giving us a polite reception, the whole time insisting the problem was not they but their enemies, to outright hostility. In France we were jailed, under abysmal conditions, and then kicked out of the country.
Jensen: I see this same split in environmental and anticorporate issues. You don’t find many common citizens who want salmon to go extinct or who like Weyerhaeuser or Boise Cascade. But there is this huge split between the actions of –
Kumar: – corporate and governmental institutions on the one hand, and ordinary people on the other.
Jensen: And also between ordinary people acting within these institutions and the institutions themselves.
Kumar: I believe that happens in great measure because we’ve been conditioned by propaganda, advertising, education, and the media to believe that somehow the only normal and proper way of life is to have a job, a house, a car, a mortgage, insurance, and a pension. We’ve been brainwashed to believe that if we don’t have these things, we must be strange, antisocial.
Jensen: I agree. My first degree was in physics from the Colorado School of Mines. Most of my classmates went on to work on nuclear submarines, or for oil transnationals, or for mining companies. But I couldn’t do it. I quit to become a beekeeper. Sometimes people tell me I was courageous to have broken out of the life that was laid out for me, but the truth is that I never had a choice. I was miserable. It doesn’t take courage to get out of a trap: it merely takes the awareness that the trap exists, and that there are alternatives. Why do you think so many people are afraid to take control of their own lives?
Kumar: Fear is the ruling factor in our society. Fear is inculcated in us from childhood by parents, schools, and governments. Since we are raised to be fearful, we look around desperately for security. And our society offers a very easy form of false security: money. Thus, we end up ruled by the dictatorship of the dollar. This is often as true of our private lives as it is of our public ones.
Jensen: How does this idea take root?
Kumar: One obvious way is through advertising. We see all these messages every day telling us we will be happy, safe, secure, loved, desired, and respected if only we will buy this or that product. Every day, a billion dollars is spent on advertising. Every day! That’s $365 billion a year.
Jensen: Whenever I hear figures like that, I recall some comparisons I read a few years ago: For about $300 million – not billion – smallpox was eliminated back in the late seventies. A little less than that amount would provide basic immunizations against chickenpox, diphtheria, and measles for 500 million children, saving 2.5 million lives annually. A billion dollars would send 5 million Third World children to school for a year. And for what the world spends on ad-vertising every workweek, we could provide sanitary water for every human being who currently lacks it.
Kumar: It’s very important to realize that it’s not simply a matter of evil or corrupt leaders doing this to us. Just as it was sometimes more difficult to reach the heart of the harijan than of the landlord, so it is sometimes tremendously difficult to find the key to the hearts of people everywhere who don’t believe they have the right to control their own lives, or to live without the fear of nuclear bombs, or to live with clean water and clean air in an intact world. Instead, they follow the path they’ve been brainwashed and conditioned to follow. Our minds, our beings, our eyes, and our thinking are aimed in a single direction: toward a global monoculture; toward each of us becoming an industrial producer, a manufacturer, a computer programmer.
The answer is not easy. People have to find courage. That courage might come from their own convictions, or from a breakdown in their lives. It might come from the breakdown of a marriage. It might come from the breakdown of the whole society. Or it might come because, as evidently happened with you, they realize that, although on the outside everything seems fine, inside they’re feeling an emptiness, a pain, a kind of misery that comes from not finding satisfaction or fulfillment. And once they begin feeling that hollowness, they might begin to break their chains.
Industrial society’s cost to the human soul is tremendous. Our mass-produced society is very ugly. To give just one tiny example, compare the tactile pleasure of ceramic versus polystyrene – not to mention the waste created by polystyrene. Compare walking barefoot on asphalt to feeling the soil beneath your feet. When we lose a sense of beauty, our souls die of starvation.
Jensen: How much longer do you think industrial civilization will last?
Kumar: The Soviet Union didn’t last. Apartheid didn’t last. I don’t see any reason to suppose this industrial, materialistic monoculture will last forever. I cannot imagine human beings allowing themselves to be enslaved forever. Our whole system is built on a foundation of sand. Ecologically it can’t last, and spiritually it can’t last.
In the end, the human spirit will triumph. I believe the manifold environmental catastrophes currently overtaking us will precipitate a return to a better way of living. To organic food, homemade crafts, and arts. To music, poetry, and the land. People will return to making things themselves. They will return to the celebration of life and nature and love. And to reciprocity. They will return to the mutuality and community that feed the soul.
Jensen: Many environmental activists state explicitly that they’re simply trying to keep grizzly bears or salmon or whatever alive until industrial civilization collapses, so that these other creatures will have a chance to continue. I know of indigenous peoples who say that they, too, are simply trying to maintain their culture until that same time, so there will be a nucleus from which things can grow back. It seems to me there’s an element of that in your work, too – the attempt to retain some sense of community, to keep intact a form of communal human habitat.
Kumar: There are two metaphors I use for this. One is that we are building lifeboats, so that when the industrial ship goes down, we will not sink with it. We are keeping the ideas and skills alive. Alternative technol-ogies, community, arts, small schools, crafts – these are the lifeboats.
The second metaphor is the old adage “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” It is better to start one constructive project than to talk endlessly about how bad everything is. Critiquing technological mass society is necessary, but we need to go beyond that and build alternatives, which is what I’ve tried to do through Resurgence magazine and Schumacher College.
I’m trying to promote a vision that brings together the spiritual foundation of my monk’s life, the social concerns of my work with the landless, the ideals of peace I pursued during my walk around the world, and the ecological concerns I discovered by walking the earth. When you walk the earth, you are in close proximity with the world – the trees, rivers, butterflies, beetles. You enter into conversation with them. And they can teach you how to live. I came to think of my two legs as the most creative parts of my body, and walking as the most creative expression of my energy. And all of that was through close contact with natural beauty. With life.
There’s no magic formula or quick answer for building a culture of nonviolence. It’s a hard, painstakingly slow process. You have to have a lot of patience. And compassion. Patience and compassion are the two qualities of non-violence. The culture will change person by person, because we’re all part of one big movement, one big conversation.
Conducted March 11, 1999, at a cafe near KQED, in San Francisco, CA.
Originally published in the August 1999 issue of The Sun.