Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.

Jose Ortega y Gasset,
quoted in Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate by Wendy Johnson

We had an interesting discussion in sangha about opportunity and destiny.  I had read a passage from Jimmy Santiago Baca’s autobiography A Place to Stand.  Baca is a writer and poet who was incarcerated for 15 years for drug-related crimes.  He was illiterate up to the age of 21 years; as a child his family was the target of his father’s drunken rages and Baca became phobic about going to school.  The turmoil in the family was so intense that he became lost in the battles (given his experience of bigotry advancing in what was available as education may not have been possible anyway, I imagine).  He slowly wove a life of drug use and crime.  Just prior to reading Baca’s book, I had skimmed through Fleet Maull’s Dharma in Hell (OK – full disclosure: I’m cramming for the Core Chaplaincy retreat next week at Upaya).  Maull went through his own hell serving time which, in his case, deepened his Buddhist practice (before prison, he was Buddhist while running drugs etc. – go figure).  Both men have formed organizations and developed programs for prisoners; Baca founded literacy and writing programs while Maull founded the Prison Dharma Network.  Canadian inmate Roger Caron, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well.  Infamous as an armed robber who repeatedly attempted escapes, he wrote Go-Boy! and two other books.  Unfortunately, despite the success of his book and rubbing elbows with the well-heeled in Canadian social circles, he dropped into several abysses that eventually lead to a desperate armed robbery in 1992 while high on cocaine and stricken with Parkinson’s disease.  His life closes in a hell of dementia and advanced Parkinson’s.

In sangha, we shared about the way in which our landscape shapes our vision, our choices, our destiny.  We wondered if it would have been different for Maull had he been assigned to the laundry section and not the medical facility where he became attuned to the need for hospice care.  Would Baca have become the prize-winning author if he couldn’t envision the opportunities opened to him within the container of his fate?  Of course, we wondered about the rolling hills and abysses of our own landscape.  Did we see what was available or carve it out of a parched ground?

Interestingly, the quote by Gasset above took on greater significance in the context of Baca and Maull’s books.  I don’t know anything about Gasset (yet) other than what I found via the Oracle (Google).  A philosopher, he asserted that who I am is inseparable from the circumstances I am in (don’t quote me on this!).  It harkens back to the embodied mind of Varela and the process of self as emergent.  But, I’m in over my head here.  The take-away lessons from Baca and Maull are about letting go (without erasing) and entering a dialogue with the container of our lives – be it a wide panaroma or a small container in an urbanscape.

In the context of gardening my life, it makes me look more deeply into the factors that shape my body, speech and mind – not only in the wide swath of fields, hills, and valleys but also in this tiny cut of soil I’m rooted.

Thank you for practicing,


8 thoughts on “landscape

  1. I think it takes more than mere “landscape” to know who someone is. But then perhaps Gasset had a more in depth analysis of landscape in mind, rather than just a surface glance.

    Certainly on the surface anyway, the landscape in which I spent my first quarter century was one of privilege and promise, and yet my life of 65 years, apart from having a lovely family, has largely fallen very short of what it could have been.

    So I suspect there is more than landscape involved. Gumption, guts, persistence, confidence, and hope or optimism, are needed as well. We hear of people who pull themselves out of extreme hardship to accomplish great things; their landscape was powerless to hold them back, just as mine was powerless to propel me to my potential, even though it made repeated attempts.

    Did the barren landscape of these accomplishers somehow instill the seeds of hope anyway? Were they better able to nourish those seeds?

    I think, in spite of the outward appearances, that my early landscape had a life-sucking parasite hidden in it.

    So I am glad that my present landscape is nourishing, and that I seem to be purging the parasite. I am enjoying the journey.

    So I will practice your take-away lessons from Baca and Maull, and I will look for the potential.

    Thank you.

    • P.S. when I say “my early landscape had a life-sucking parasite hidden in it” I am using it in a very broad sense that potentially includes even genetic tendencies.

  2. It is so much beyond my understanding how we land in the “scape” we have been in or are in now. A complex web of interconnected factors, I think with karma being very dominant.

    One thing for me that I find interesting is looking back and seeing the tiny seed of something that blooms later on. As in physical landscape, it might be standing on the ferry dock and looking across the harbour, saying yes, I could live there ( a general statement) and then finding oneself living in almost the very spot where the eye was fixed three years later.

    Life is a strange and mysterious thing!

  3. I once was a firm believer in the “environmental” theory of human development – that our landscape and environs shapes our life. And there is truth in this, perhaps a great deal of truth.

    At the same time, this theory can easily lead to social engineering, both at a personal and a societal level.

    At a personal level, it can be as simple as, “If only I could live in a Zen center, then my life would be fine…” At a societal level, it can be as simple-minded as, “Let’s tear down this old neighborhood and build some nice, clean high-rise apartments.”

    I think it takes extraordinary clarity to work with environmental issues without falling into social engineering, clarity that I certainly lack (just look at my desktop!).

  4. I don’t think my landscape *defines* me – yet, my early “landscape” certainly shaped my vision of life, my engagement with the “landscape” of life, and my inner landscape. I also find that life circumstances are now changing that landscape, re-shaping it; once again impacting how I *see*.

    And maybe the landscape I’m in also reflects back to me my delusions of what life is supposed to look like – my expectations.

    For me it seems it’s the inner landscape that has determined much of the outer landscape – that shapes how I see. Which begs the question – how do I see myself in the greater context of the landscape I’m in type thing… But maybe that’s Gasset’s point in his quote. (I’m definitely in over my head here!) 🙂

  5. Thank you for all your thoughtful comments! It’s such a complex system, this inner and outer way of being. I really understand your hesitancies about environmental theory and, at the same time, I know from personal experience how a dark, negative and even abusive landscape can elicit the same from me. I don’t think we can ever know all the complexities that come to bear on where we put down that next step or plant that next seed. Maybe that’s what makes life fun!

    This is such a great exploration of how we see our development and how we believe that shapes our aspirations!

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