Light your own Lamp – Guest post by Stefan Geyer
“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him” – Linji. Permaculture is not only wary of authority – it consciously, jovially, and regularly discriminates against it, promoting autonomy at every corner. The freedom of autonomy and self-determination keeps life fresh, dynamic and bountiful. Only when unrestricted, can we and our projects blossom new emergent properties in ways unforeseen and revolutionary. Having the ability to self-organise is the strongest form of resilience – this is evolution in action. As our projects evolve in complexity, so we need to allow them the space and time to demonstrate their own identity. In this way the practitioner is asked to cultivate a stance of healthy disregard to anyone claiming to be in possession of superior knowledge – such as how you should ‘do’ Permaculture, or what a ‘Permaculture answer’ to a question might be – other than more questions (or ‘it depends’). The one-size-fits-all answer is a trap, a red-herring and a dead-end – and lazily using it will only end in misery and confusion for all concerned. That doesn’t mean there aren’t wonderfully instructive teachers out there who could show every one of us a thing or two, it’s more that although they can hand you the baton, only you can run with it. This grassroots Do-It-Yourself/Be-Yourself attitude promotes autonomy, and is one of the reasons Permaculture has spread so virally over the last few decades. Part of its attractiveness is that everyone is offered the chance to be part of the living vernacular culture as they are – instead of going to a gallery to see the work of ‘the professional artist’ paraded as genius, you’re invited to create your own art piece together in community, and be part of a dynamic local tapestry that stays fresh by always changing, mutating and re-inventing itself. – Excerpt from ‘Zen in the Art of Permaculture Design’ by Stefan Geyer, published by Permanent Publications October 2016
I chose the Linji quote above for full impact. It’s a powerful statement that could do with some unpacking, otherwise some might simply dismiss it as sensationalist. I did have other quotes to choose from that have a similar thrust but didn’t quite cut the mustard, such as one I knew Graham Burnett would like; a quote from the band Crass ‘There is no authority but yourself’. Linji (or Rinzai in Japanese), founder of one of the most important schools of Zen, is perhaps more famous for his iconoclastic style of awakening his students by hitting & shouting at them – something that would make the late Bill Mollison’s (the co-originator of Permaculture) own unique teaching methods seem positively vanilla. Both Linji and Mollison had this in common – their sense of urgency with the matter at hand. Linji wanted to awaken his students from their mental slavery, which in this case meant “believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense”. Bill Mollison knew that if we humans continued destroying our environment, we wouldn’t have much of a planet left at the end of the next hundred years – something that seems to be tragically playing out in front of our eyes. In the same way that Zen students may counter-productively hold onto ideas that hinder their enlightenment, many who get into Permaculture suffer from their own version of blindness – imagining that there is a ‘right way’ to do something, or that in order for it to be Permaculture it must conform to a set of guidelines. An example of this I have heard regularly over the years is that Permaculture is just about growing things – “it’s about organic gardening and mulching”. However, one of the best Permaculture Designs I ever saw was from a student from Brighton working out how to effectively teach children with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Handing over authority, often to an opinionated extrovert, even when it has detrimental effects, is so common in so many cultures that it’s fair to say we may have this built into our genes – in which case we could probably do with being reminded about this character flaw on a regular basis – and sew it into the back of all our underpants, as otherwise we could all quite easily slip back into letting someone else take the reins, leading us to god knows where. In my experience, good Permaculture educators teach intellectual independence, and tools & techniques for solving problems. They are training a generation of citizen engineers of the future, who choose freedom of autonomy & self-organisation over elitism & coercion. If aware of the inherent dangers of teaching rules and beliefs, Permaculturalists like myself can be extra careful not to offer answers or spread dogma – but rather choose to empower with information and lead by example. Of course this isn’t always easy. But it’s better for all concerned to admit one’s shortcomings than pretend we’ve got it sussed.
Stefan Geyer is former Chair of the Permaculture Association (Britain), co-founder of the London Permaculture Festival and London Permaculture Network and has co-taught a number of courses with Spiralseed. He is also the author of the recently published Zen in the Art of Permaculture, and describes himself as a “Doorstop, loofer & wannabe moocher, intermittent beekeeper, occasional artist and erstwhile Shiatsu practitioner, I’m also an avid mycophile and born-again hotelier“. He lives and plots in north London www.stefangeyer.co.uk