Who owns this land?

Inspired by the work of the Center for Whole Communities in which i participate at Knoll Farm (Vermont), and especially other faculty, i’ve been pondering our relationship to the land acquired by Liberation Park. In the CWC work, the relationship between people and land is crucial, vital, nurturing, sustaining, inspiring. Yet some of of us are privileged to own land while many are not. Are those who own land more deserving, more virtuous, more spiritually advanced? Nope.

Before our European ancestors came to this continent, the indigenous peoples had a much different relationship to the land. Even after the European invasion and conquest, the Africans brought here as slaves had a different relationship to the land (see Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound). Those people still do, even as they continued to be marginalized. Today, many who work the land or aspire to cannot own it, either because they cannot afford it or are in hock to our corrupt financial system. There are reasons that some own land and others do not. They boil down to power and privilege within systems of greed, domination, racism, and patriarchy. Where does Liberation Park stand within all that? Is there a Dhamma of land ownership?

Native American writers whom I’ve been reading — Leslie Marmon Silko, John Mohawk, Vine Deloria, Jr. — understand the land to have been stolen by we whites (collectively, perhaps not “me” personally). Even worse, we have desecrated and destroyed much of it through our unhealthy, deluded, extraction and profit centered attitudes to land and Nature’s bounty. This a legacy that Liberation Park, along with all other non-native landowners, have bough into. What are the moral consequences? Can we practice Dhamma on stolen and desecrated land?

Since coming here two years ago, this land — this specific valley of oak & hickory woods, savanna, upland prairie, sedge meadow, stream, springs, deer, turkeys, hawks, crows, queen anne’s lace, chicory — has been healing for us. The beauty delights our eyes and warms our hearts. The sun, winds, and rains nourish our living bodies. Wherever i go to teach (which i still enjoy thoroughly), i have a home to return to. I am allowed to wander among the trees, grasses, and forbs; hearing hawks screech; following the drifts of clouds; munching apples and mints. Others require our permission to do the same. What gave us that privilege and power? What are we to do with it?

These are powerful questions. For the most part, I don’t hear them being asked in this culture, no more so among Buddhist groups. Would the Buddha own land? Simply because bhikkhus didn’t own property? Or because there is something fundamentally immoral and decadent about owning living beings? Yet we do.

Perhaps we have no other choice within this greedy, frightened, violent society. I’m not sure. It’s so hard to see our way clearly when we’ve been educated within the dominant cultural-economic paradigm all our lives.

I’m reluctant to venture answers here. Will stick with the questions and learning from the land. The intention to cooperate in healing may give guidance.

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