To End the Earth’s Suffering

“Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”

~ Unknown Buddhist Monk

Our suffering is killing us, and it’s destroying what sustains life on earth.

We suffer, in part, because we crave or desire material objects – a newer iPhone, a nicer car, a bigger house – as well as emotional safety, such as the illusion of stable relationships and certainty about life’s path.

No amount of material possessions can ever satisfy our longing because happiness and peace in life cannot be obtained from external belongings. Nor can we ever count on our relationships with other people, with our work, or even with our family for emotional grounding because these things are constantly in flux: friends move away, careers change with time, children grow up and leave home and loved-ones die. Happiness and peace are not found outside of the self; only within.

Across much of western society, and around the world, we have either forgotten this simple truth or have never learned it in the first place. We continue to try and ease our suffering through the accumulation of wealth and by denying the most basic fundamental truths of human existence: everything changes; everybody grows old, gets sick and dies; and everything is part of everything else.

Our difficulty grasping the interconnectedness of everything, not only on earth, but across all of time and space, leads us to feel a profound loneliness and a sense of isolation from one another. In turn, we try to ease this pain by filling our lives with material possessions, rather than practices that help us erase the barrier between ourselves and the rest of existence.

As humanity struggles to address the most pressing global issues of our time – a changing climate that will irrevocably alter life on earth, crushing poverty and inequality, and the loss of biodiversity that will cripple global ecosystems of which we are inextricably a part – we need to address not just the outcome of these challenges, but their root cause: our suffering’s impact on the world that sustains us, and on one another.

For almost twenty-five years I’ve been an environmental and social activist. I’ve taken a straight-forward approach to advocating for what I believe in: a patch of wilderness that I cherish is threatened, so I work with my community, scientists, and with other activists to fight oil and gas development, logging, mining or road building. An important animal like the grizzly bear or the bull trout is threatened with extinction so I rally the public to fight for stronger laws and regulations to protect it. I’ve had some success, but I’ve also watched so many things that I cherish slip away.

My advocacy was often fueled by anger, and its underlying cause fear, because of what we were losing. Around ten years ago that started to change; I realized that letting my love for other people, for wild places, and for the dignity of humanity fuel my work to make change was far more effective – and personally sustainable – than being driven by my fear. In 2006 I wrote Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership to outline what I thought was a better path for people who want to make the world a better place to follow.

Since then I’ve been trying to use the three pillars of the Tao – restraint, compassion and love – in my everybody life, first as a consultant to non-profits and business, and once again as a leader in North America’s conservation movement.

In doing so I’ve stumbled upon a difficult reality: all of our victories to protect the fabric of life on this planet, all of our efforts to provide dignity, food and shelter for people who are in need of it, are temporary. Everything we do to protect the backbone of the globe’s biodiversity only lasts until our own insatiable appetite for whatever riches lie buried beneath that place as goal, oil and gas, or growing on it as merchantable timber, are needed by an ever more desperate human population.

Nothing is safe and no place is so sacred that we won’t one day sacrifice it if we grew desperate enough. There is no law that can’t be rescinded; there is no United Nations status that is so prestigious that it won’t be ignored if humankind continues on its current trajectory. Witness the status of South Africa’s black rhinoceros: hunted to near extinction for the aphrodisiac believed to be continued in its horn. Laws and even an armed militia aren’t enough to keep poachers from shooting these animals and leaving them to rot, and for what? So that someone somewhere can satisfy their sexual desire.

Witness also the full-out assault on Canada’s laws to protect our environment; laws that once made us the envy of the world, and now leave us the laughing stock. In just a few short years Canada’s Conservative government under Prime Minster Stephen Harper have dismantled the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waterways Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act, once the strongest piece of legislation in Canada for safeguarding the Environment. The Species at Risk Act, which I helped advocate for from 1997 through late 2002, is next on the chopping block. Why? To make it easier for petrochemical companies to drill for oil and ship it to refineries around the world.

Until we address the underlying cause of the rampant destruction of the natural world, until we address the extraordinary disparity between rich and poor around the globe, every effort to protect life on earth will be fleeting. We need another approach; we need something in addition to our political and community advocacy in order to address what Wade Davis calls the “fire burring over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom.”[1]

Through the practice of meditation, which I began in earnest during a period of personal upheaval in 2006, I began to understand the nature of my own suffering, and that of every other human being. Suffering is at once deeply personal and universal. We all suffer; it is the nature of humanity to feel the pain that comes from life, and our perceptions of it.

Twenty-five hundred years ago an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama felt that pain too. Raised in opulent luxury and sheltered from the world of sickness, disease and death, the young prince came face-to-face with these realities and fled his life of privilege and began to follow a spiritual path. After six years of wandering, meditation, and self-deprivation, the man who would become the first Buddha was no closer to solving for himself what is a universal paradox: life ends, everything we love is taken from us, and we and everybody we care for will one day die. Nothing we can do will stop that; we have to make peace with it.

Siddhartha sat down under the Bodhi tree and meditated on this quandary. He recalled that in his youth he had found the greatest peace of his life enjoying a profound interconnectedness with nature, and with all life on earth, and in that moment realized what Buddhists now call the two Great Truths: that everything is temporary and everything is interconnected with everything else.

In that moment he ceased to be Siddhartha the prince and he became a Buddha; one who has conquered suffering; an enlightened being.

All the riches in the world could not fulfill the young prince’s soul; he had to confront the most basic facts of human existence, and make peace with them, before he could be happy. From that moment on he dedicated the rest of his life – another forty-five years – teaching a simple message: that we are all the Buddha. Every human being who has ever lived and ever will are Buddha, and all that is needed is a profound understanding – not just intellectually, but an actual emotional and spiritual acceptance – of the basic conditions of life.

Let me be clear about this: I have not surmounted the obstacles to suffering. I have not achieved enlightenment; not even of the 25-watt kind. Enlightenment isn’t even my goal; peace of heart and mind is my simple ambition. But the world is careening toward disaster and I am no longer convinced that activism alone will abate the destruction, so I find myself writing about an end to suffering out of a moral imperative to preserve what, and who, I love.

In concert with activism of all kinds, I believe that a spiritual and practical application of the Buddha’s teaching could ease the pell-mell ruin of the earth’s wonders. Once we have experienced, first hand, the simple truths of the Buddha’s teaching, and put into place some basic tenants to guide our behaviour, we no longer feel the need to satiate our appetite for material objects to fill the hole in our hearts. It does not mean that we must live the life of an aesthete, shunning any material possession or pleasure. It means that we control our desire, rather than the other way around.

The Buddha taught that there are Four Noble Truths that we must confront before we can do so.

The first is the truth of suffering. We all suffer. Some have misinterpreted this to mean that all life is suffering, but that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught us that life entails suffering.

Second he taught that there is a cause to this suffering. Our suffering is caused by our lack of understanding of the two Great Truths: that everything changes and everything is connected. We become attached to things, to people, to loved ones, to objects of desire, and that attachment, our desire for these things, causes us to suffer when we can’t have them, or when they change. We suffer also because we perceive ourselves as separate from one another and the fabric of life on earth and across the universe.

Third, the Buddha taught that there is an end to suffering. If we can experience the interconnectedness of life and make peace with the nature of change, we can conquer our suffering.

Finally the Buddha taught that there is a path that we can follow to peace, joy, liberation from suffering and ultimately nirvana: the magic of living fully in the present moment in a state of enlightenment. That path is the Noble Eightfold Path, and it remains a guide that we in the 21st century can use to achieve peace while addressing the underlying cause of the suffering we inflict on the world.

The Noble Eightfold Path is not a mystical passageway that leads to a conversion or to a religious belief: it is a set of guidelines for living a life free of suffering. The Eightfold Path is right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness and right concentration.  Right in this case means “in the right way” or “straight” or “upright.”[2]

For example, right view means developing a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths about the nature of suffering and how to end it. Right view means developing personal insight into these truths and believing in our hearts that there is an end the pain caused by our misperceptions of life and having faith in ourselves that we can overcome this pain because many others have already.

When we have come to grips with the nature of suffering through right view, we then automatically begin to think more clearly about our lives and the choices we have to make, and so on. In this way we see that each of the Noble Eightfold Path’s steps are at once a logical progression from one to another and all interconnected.

My purpose in writing this book is simple: I want to help ease human suffering so that we in turn can ease the suffering we cause the world and one another.

The purpose of Buddhism is not to make more Buddhists, nor is that my purpose. While I identify myself as a Buddhist – one who has accepted the basic truth about human suffering and who is trying to ease it – I also am a father, a husband, an activist, a writer, a community member and a friend. The teachings of the Buddha are not aimed at converting people to a certain religion. People from any faith can learn about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path – along with many other teachings – and adopt them as part of their own personal trajectory towards happiness and peace. While there are certainly schools of Buddhism that verge on the worship of the man who was Gautama Buddha that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught that we are all Buddha, and that each and every one of us can wake up to the peace that comes with liberation from suffering.

Nor is my purpose in writing this book is not to replace what I think of as traditional activism with a spiritual practice. Buddhism has existed on earth for more than two-thousand, five hundred years; the process of seeking and finding nirvana – everyday freedom from suffering – is a slow process. We will need to use all of our skills and tools to save what we love about the earth, its cultures and its people. We must continue with political pressure, with protests and marches, with letter writing and economic pressure; but to win in the long term, we must remove the desire that drives the hunger for more; more things, and the precious resources that must be consumed to make ever more material objects.

My purpose is this: if we want our success in preserving life on earth and human dignity to be lasting then we must quench the fire that burns in the heart of humanity that must constantly be fed by more and more material demands. Until we do nothing will be sacred. Once we begin to make peace with our selves and the basic truth of human existence everything will be sacred.

This is the first piece of writing in a series of essays I am completing for a book. What do you think? I want your feedback to improve the ideas, and to collect first-hand examples. Please chime in.

[1] Wade Davis, The Clouded Leopard. pp 231. 1998, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd.

[2] From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching; Thich Nat Hanh, page 11. Broadway Press, 1998.

The Hardest Book I’ve Ever Written

The hardest book I’ve ever written is set to be released in the coming weeks (mid March, 2013). The Third Riel Conspiracy is the second novel in the Durrant Wallace Series of historically themed murder mysteries, and is my seventh published book. It was hard to write in several ways: the research was hard; the writing process was hard; and the editorial process was by far the hardest I’ve gone through.

The book follows Durrant – the one-legged North West Mounted Policeman – from the newly minted town of Calgary to the battlefield of Batoche at the apex of the Northwest Rebellion. He arrives during the chaos of the final day of the four day battle to find that a man has been murdered in the Zareba, the African inspired fortifications erected by the Northwest field force. A Métis man is in irons for the crime, but Durrant suspects that there is more to the murder than simple revenge.

When I started working on the Durrant Wallace series in 2007 I quickly plotted out the first three or four books in the series. This is how I’ve approached all of my writing projects. I don’t think in terms of single books, but narrative arcs that continue over several volumes. The first book in the series, The End of the Line, was published in the fall of 2011, and by the time it came out I was already neck-deep in the second volume.

That was the first thing that was hard: the research. Writing historical fiction isn’t like penning a regular mystery novel. In addition to mapping out the plot of the story and ensuring that the settings are accurate – something that I think is very important – there is the additional challenge of matching the storyline with the actual events of history.

In the case of The Third Riel Conspiracy, that meant doing a great deal of reading about the Northwest Rebellion and actually visiting many of the places in the book. Starting in the summer of 2009 I began reading dozens of books on the history of this seminal period of Canada’s development. The roots of the second Northwest Rebellion were in the uprising of 1870 in Fort Garry so I had to reach back that far in my research. The conspiracies that form the backbone of the novel’s plot are based on actual political skulduggery at the time so I made a chart of the real life machinations afoot and then changed them to meet my needs. (Interestingly Riel and his colleagues’ sentiment in 1885 was that “the west wants in;” 100 years later the Reform Party would use that same sentiment as a motto but with a much different result.)

I tried my best to understand the various motivations – religious, social and political – for the return of Louis Riel from Sun River, Montana to the Saskatchewan Territory in late 1884 and use those to create suspects for the murder. This gave me the chance to explore each of these themes in turn throughout the novel. In addition, I wanted to tell the story of the Battle of Batoche, a fascinating and often overlooked marker in our nation’s history, but didn’t want to reduce myself to mere exposition. Instead, I selected four key suspects and through Durrant’s interrogation of them revealed the events of the four-day conflagration.

I made dozens of pages of notes and charts and printed maps of the battleground and created a detailed timeline that placed my characters into the context of the real action of the day. As is my custom, I created a thorough outline of the book – what happens in each chapter, and how the characters interact – before I started writing. I made a chart of all the suspects – and there are a fair number in this novel – and then created a list of red-herrings that would be used to distract the reader from the actual killer.

All of this took place in the summer and fall of 2009. It was obvious that I would have to visit Saskatchewan, so instead of taking a trip to Utah to ride our mountain bikes, Jenn and I went on a four- thousand-kilometer road trip from our home in Victoria BC to the battlefields of the Resistance: Fort Pitt, Frenchman’s Butte, Fort Carlton, and finally Batoche National Historic Site. My wife is a good sport.

Photo taken from a grown-over riffle pit on Frenchman's Butte, looking toward the ground held by General Strange during that skirmish.

This on the ground research was vital. While I had a vague sense of the landscape from reading the historical accounts of the conflict, seeing it, feeling it underfoot, breathing in the prairie air, was critical to being able to write about the place, and for understanding the origin of the uprising. It was very much about the land and the Métis and First Nations relationship with these beautiful places.

When we got back from the trip we were distracted by our upcoming move back to the Canadian Rockies (we had bought a house in Canmore on the final leg of the journey) and writing The Third Riel Conspiracy got put on the back-burner. It would be a year before I took it up again.

That was the second thing that made writing this book so difficult: the time lapse between research and writing. I’ve outlined some of these problems in more detail in the section of my blog I call “deconstructing draft one.” The main problem was that my notes, while plentiful, left me guessing in places about what I wanted to happen, to whom, and when. I didn’t have to start over once at the keyboard, but I did have to reconstruct some of the plot.

Reconstructed gate at Fort Pitt.

The next challenge was fitting the actual historical events into the timeline I had constructed for my characters. Durrant Wallace is a sergeant in the Northwest Mounted Police, but because there was no official investigative branch in the NWMP, he operates outside of his jurisdiction. He reports to Sam Steele, who during the period of the Battle of Batoche was more than 300 miles away, tracking the Plains Cree and Big Bear as they fled towards Frenchman’s Butte and Steele’s Narrows. I had a critical exchange that I needed to engineer between the two men, but they couldn’t just text each other; I had to get them in the same place at the same time. Steel stopped at the burned-out Fort Pitt at one point, so that’s where the scene would take place. I had to jimmy dates and Durrant’s progress in the investigation to allow him to arrive at Fort Pitt the same time Steele would. It worked, but it took several tries to get the dates aligned.

Similar challenges occurred with Leif Croizer, who was the Deputy Commissioner of the NWMP at the time. I took some liberties there.

Undoubtedly the greatest challenge with writing the book was how to address Louis Riel. More than one-hundred and twenty-five years after his execution, Riel remains one of the most contentious characters in Canadian history. One possible motivation for the murder in this book was the complex web of politics that surrounded his life, and death. I figured that having Riel as an actual character in the book would be a flashpoint for controversy, but only he could have the critical piece of information that Durrant Wallace would need in order to find the real killer in the novel.

You’ll have to read the book to judge how I handled this challenge.

The cemetery and Mission church at Batoche; the scene of heavy fighting on day one and day four of the battle, and where the Métis killed during the fighting were buried.

The final challenge for this book (so far) occurred when I sent it to my publisher, and the book went through the inevitable story-editing hell. I love my publisher, and I love my editor. We’ve worked together on five books now, including The Third Riel Conspiracy, and the upcoming Glacier Gallows, and without a doubt they have made every single one of those books better. But it isn’t easy. Buy the time I press send on another novel, shipping it off to the publisher, I’ve spent several years with the book. I’ve dreamt about it; I’ve sweated bullets over dialog; I’ve made painful decisions about, as Bob Seger says, “what to leave in and what to leave out.”

So I’m attached. I try not to be, but inevitably when the edits start rolling in, I realize that I am.

The Third Riel edits were very difficult. I’m not going to go into details, because it’s water under the bridge, but suffice to say that for the first time in decades I seriously considered stopping writing. It lasted for a few weeks. On a good day I require a pretty heavy hand when it comes to edits, but The Third Riel was by far the most red ink I’ve ever seen. I plowed my way through, frustrated and a little despondent, wondering how it could be that seven books into my writing career I was still making all the same mistakes. I got through them, and with a pep talk from my publisher, got excited once more about writing. But there were some pretty dark days during the editorial process for this book.

The book should be back from the printer this week, which means soon I’ll get my shipment of complementary copies, and will experience once more the excitement of opening the box, smelling that fresh-printed-ink smell, and get to fondle a copy of The Third Riel Conspiracy for the first time. I know from experience when that happens all the challenges of creating the book will dim and I’ll get to feel the excitement of holding this creation in my hands.

I don’t know if this being the hardest book I’ve ever written will equate to being the best book I’ve written. I’d like to think that’s true for every book I write, which would mean that my writing is always improving. That’s for you to decide.