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Buddhism and Science: Kin by Water July 15, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, contemplative practice, earth cycles, earth system science, Francisco Varela, hydrologic cycle, hydrosphere, ice cores, meditation, Rabbi Jeff Roth, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, science.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace


Dr. Francisco Varela (1946-2001), a neuroscientist and Buddhist practitioner involved intimately in the initiative to foster dialogue and collaboration between modern scientists and Buddhist contemplatives, commented that Buddhism, as an outstanding source of observations concerning human mind and experience accumulated over centuries with great theoretical rigor, is an uncanny complement to science.

Appreciating this, Varela and others were able to cultivate a unique forum, the Mind and Life Institute, that for two decades has led conversations between the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhists and scientists, first from the realms of cognitive psychology and neurobiology and more recently, from physics and cosmology. In his essay “The Importance of the Encounter with Buddhism for Modern Science,” Varela wrote that the natural meeting ground between science and Buddhism is the place where we put together the data from scientific empiricism with the inner examination of human experience. When writing this, Varela had in mind particularly neuroscience, but I believe that earth science may also provide a fertile commons. Allow me to elucidate.

The other day, the sea drew me down the coral escarpment behind my apartment in Barbados for my morning sit. I walked downstairs and across the lawn, now turned emerald with the arrival of the rainy season. I swung outward the heavy iron gate—hinges squeaking—that opens onto the blue water of James Bay. The tide, on its way out, exposed squat, wave-washed pedestals of coral. I walked south with the sea on my right glittering aqua in the early morning sunshine, and found my seat—the water-worn stump of a tree whose girth suggested old age. I rooted my “sit bones” in the sand, my back touched gently what remained of the tree trunk, and I focused my attention on my breath.

Per instructions from my mindfulness teachers, Rabbis Sheila Peltz Weinberg and Jeff Roth, I had reflected all week on the question “Who am I in relation to sensations, feelings, and thoughts that arise and pass from moment to moment?” It arose in shortened form as a mantra during my meditation. With my eyes lightly shut, I saw the waves pulling the coralline sand and cobbles back into the sea, reclaiming that material—the solid calcium carbonate—that it had itself once produced collaboratively with the invertebrate organisms whose home is the sea.

My breathing felt fast and shallow. Was I anxious? Would I be able to settle myself here without my cushion? Worried mind hindered me. I began again. After some time my breathing came more slowly and from deeper down in my body. Along came another distraction familiar to any beachgoer—bugs. Were ants crawling on my leg? Had a fly landed on my neck? I felt annoyed and chastised myself for having chosen an inappropriate place to meditate. Had I deliberately set myself up for failure? Recognizing that I was again beset by another hindrance—doubt—I began again, again.

As I brought my awareness to my body, I discovered that the prickly sensation on my skin was not caused by crawling insects but by my own sweat—droplets of water leaving me. An answer to the question “What am I” became clear; I am part of the hydrosphere. The realization startled me. I already understood myself and other human beings as part of the biosphere, geosphere and atmosphere—the three of the four great interacting spheres that make up the Earth System. As with any living organism, some day I will become part of the solid substrate at the earth’s surface. Through my respiration I participate in the cycling of oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the atmosphere. But I had not previously conceptualized myself as part of the hydrosphere—surprising, given that more than half of the human body is water.

Of course I know intellectually how we humans interact with the hydrologic cycle—how we commandeer water for industrial, agricultural and domestic purposes. But during this sit I realized myself to be one of the reservoirs of the hydrosphere, albeit a miniscule one. The hydrologic cycle is simple: precipitation falling from the atmosphere as snow accumulates in glaciers and ice caps—though these days there’s more melting than accumulating going on; rainwater from clouds along with meltwater from glaciers become streams, rivers, and lakes—“surface water” in geological parlance; that water soaks into the soil and percolates downward to become groundwater and soil moisture, or it gets incorporated into living matter; ultimately it all flows back to the oceans. Evaporation of water into the atmosphere occurs throughout the hydrologic cycle, but especially from the ocean—the largest of all the reservoirs—and the cycle begins again.

Geologists know empirically something of the history of fossil waters—essentially water entombed for long periods of time in one part of the hydrologic cycle, most typically in the form of groundwater —from studying the oxygen isotopic composition of fluids in geological artifacts such as slices of Antarctic ice (H2O) cores and calcite (CaCO3) in sand-sized deep marine fossils called foraminifera. Put simply, some elements—isotopes—occur as two varieties of the same substance one of which is slightly heavier than the other. Remember Goobers and Raisinets? As chocolate-covered fruits, they are arguably the same confection. (I’m one to pass on the raisinets, preferring the goobers, but this isn’t the venue for detailing their respective virtues). Yet, the goobers are heavier than the raisinets because their insides differ. The same is true for oxygen. One variety of oxygen is the light “oxygen-16” (O16) while another is the heavy “oxygen-18” (O18); they are isotopes of oxygen just as raisinets and goobers are isotopes of chocolate candies—sort of. And if you’ve persisted in following me this far, thank you, and hang in there for I intend to make good on the promise of linking earth science and Buddhist thought.

When water evaporates from oceans, it’s the lighter H2O16 that gets incorporated preferentially into clouds. Therefore, during cold periods in the geological past, when more water is stored in ice caps, seawater concentrates H2O18 in it. That is, since it’s harder for H2O18 to get lifted up into the atmosphere, so to speak, it gets left behind in the ocean. By analogy, think of whether you’d rather heft your jacket or suitcase into the overhead compartment in an airplane and you’ll understand why some heavy items—not all—remain “stowed beneath the seat in front of you” while the lighter ones go into the upper bins. When paleoclimatologists investigate the cold periods in earth history—glacial ages— when more of the hydrosphere’s water stays sequestered in ice, they find that ice core samples from these cold times have more H2O16 in them than they do H2O18. In like manner, calcium carbonate from ice-age foraminifera, tends to be relatively enriched in O18 (as well as the heavier of two carbon isotopes). Paleontologists analyzing their composition find they have relatively more CaC(O18)3 than CaC(O16)3 . It’s clever science but unarguably esoteric business, this isotope geochemistry. It requires ice cores kept frozen from Antarctica to lab, analysis of fluid bubbles enclosed in the ice, and specialized machines called mass spectrometers that can measure miniscule differences in the weight of oxygen atoms. It also requires mathematical calculations that I found tedious in graduate school. Still, all of that is not as difficult as staying focused on my breath.

I sat sweating, and the water droplets from my body connected me to the hydrosphere. Where had that water been before—the water that makes up me? Was part of me once a glacier? Was I a mountain stream? What tale might the oxygen isotopic signature of my bones, calcium phosphate (PO4) tell?

As the perspiration dripped down my shins, it disappeared in the pores between unconsolidated beach sand. Water from the reservoir of me meandered to the sea as moisture between sand grains. The sweat trickling down my spine slid down my back and disappeared into the wood of the tree stump. This “Jillwater” will remain for some time in the soggy wood and won’t soon join the vast oceanic reservoir of the hydrosphere. I finished my sit and rose slowly.

I walked to the water’s edge and felt its cool wetness envelope my toes, the soles of my feet, my ankles and shins. The sea sipped directly the sweat from my skin. These droplets that have eked out of me flowed unimpeded to the ocean. As seawater may one day become part of an ice cap, the water from me will be a drop in the sea.

The dialogue between science and Buddhism has the potential to develop specific interventions that could promote not only psychological and physical wellbeing but planetary health too. Modern earth science allows that human beings interact with the earth system and, to a degree, try to serve as stewards of the planet. But Buddhism offers earth science the possibility of a more unified understanding of the Earth, a science that frames humans as kin rather than stewards of the planet.

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Blame Game in the Gulf June 16, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Buddhist concepts, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, disasters, earth community, fossil fuel, oil, oil spill, poetry.
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This piece is crossed-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

As I was driving my children to their school in Bridgetown Barbados today—my partner is a Fulbright Fellow at the University of the West Indies on the island—I stopped the car to allow some older people to cross the street. One woman wore a shower cap, a bathrobe swaddled another member of the group of five, and one of the men had on swim trunks and carried a bath towel. It was 7:30 a.m. and the assemblage had just emerged from Payne’s Bay, a stretch of calm, blue Caribbean Sea after their morning sea bath.

Sea bath is a daily ritual here, mostly for older folks who I suppose grew up with the tradition—and without household plumbing—or the younger underemployed. Regardless, I was reminded, as I am every morning when I see bathers along various stretches of Barbados’ coastline of how important the sea is to the life of Bajans. Of course, there are more obvious relationships between people and the sea here, in the form of fishmongers, water sports purveyors, and boat makers. But the ritual of sea bath holds a level of intimacy with the earth that to my mind is matched only when Spiritual Baptists worship in “open air” services involving “living waters.”

As I paused for the bathers to cross the street and return home to continue their daily activities, my mind drifted to the residents of southern Louisiana whose way of life is currently rent asunder by the oil oozing from the BP/Transocean puncture wound to the Earth’s thin skin—the ocean crust is no more than 35 km thick and can be visualized accurately in scale if pictured as the shell on a hard boiled egg. Had the Deepwater drilling accident taken place off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago, a fossil fuel-rich island nation off the coast of Venezuela and roughly 150 miles from Barbados, the crisis we Americans confront in the Gulf of Mexico would be disrupting the sea-based life of Barbadians today.

I listened carefully along with others last night as President Obama addressed the nation on the topic of the oil disaster. I’m glad that our President has been to southern Louisiana four times already and that he will meet with the head of BP to hold that company responsible. But I was disappointed to hear our intelligent and well-intentioned President in our current predicament resort to the familiar military metaphors. He talked about our “siege,” “battle,” and “assault” on the oil. As feminist geographer Joni Seager pointed out many years ago in her fine book Earth Follies: Coming to Feminist Terms with the Global Environmental Crisis, it seems that our government must always conjure an enemy with which to fight. Whether it’s a war in Afghanistan or Iraq, or a “war on drugs,” we resort to martial images when crisis arises. Do we do so because such representations prop up masculinity? Does this type of depiction make us feel more secure in uncertain situations?

As much as I was glad to hear President Obama assert that we must pay attention in this moment and move forward on alternative energy initiatives—renewable ones like solar and wind—I was sorry to hear the commander-in-chief’s lingo. What would our relationship with the earth be like if we approached it from a position of unity and love rather than separation and aggression? The sea birthed life on this planet. Before the first land emerged—while we know the planet to be 4.6 billion years old based on the ages of meteorites and the concomitant formation of our solar system, our oldest record of solid ground is rocks that are only 4.28 billion years old—there was no outer rock sphere, only a hydrosphere and thin atmosphere. The sea is our ultimate source. Does it not require our reverence?

I’m reminded of the poem “In the Salt Marsh,” by my friend, Nancy Willard:

How faithfully grass holds the shape of the sea it loves,
how it molds itself to the waves, how the dried salt
peaks into cowlicks the combed mane of the marsh.
Tousled by tides, it pitches tents, breaks into turrets
and cockscombs and whorled nests and green baskets
for the bleached armor of fiddler crabs, like earrings
hung by the sea on lobes of darkness. Could I lay my ear
on that darkness where the tide’s trowel smooths islands
and scallops the sand, moon-tugged, till it slows
and turns? Could I keep the past in the present’s eye?
Could I know what the grass knows?

Living on this tiny coral island I’ve felt fortunate to be among people whose daily lives acknowledge our debt to the sea. Despite the money to be made if excessive development were allowed on Barbados’ east coast, as it has been on the west coast of the island, Bajans mostly stand against such coastal augmentation. They already live with plentiful trash that washes up on the island’s eastern shores from transoceanic vessels that dump all sorts of waste–including oily bilge—into the sea. Can we know what old-time Bajans know?

Preeminent teacher of Tibetan Buddhism Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote:

Everything is based on our own uptightness. We could blame the organization; we could blame the government; we could blame the food; we could blame the highways; we could blame our own motorcars, our own clothes; we could blame an infinite variety of things. But it is we who are not letting go, not developing enough warmth and sympathy—which makes us problematic. So we cannot blame anybody.

Since the Deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began in April much talk has focused on the question of who is at fault? Of course we want to avoid another incident of this type and I’m glad that President Obama has banned such drilling for at least six months. But the question that will stay with me as I ponder this latest insult to the Earth System is “Can we know what the grass knows?”

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on June 16, 2010 at 6:53 pm and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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The Earth Day BP Oil Catastrophe: When Do We Say “Dayenu” (Enough)? May 14, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Buddhist concepts, disasters, earth community, fossil fuel, oil, oil spill.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

“What counts is not the enormity of the task, but the size of the courage,” says Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and confidant of the Dalai Lama who was dubbed “Mr. Happy” after U.S. neuroscientists declared him the most content man they ever tested. Ricard’s statement resonated for me in light of continued developments in what I’ve come to think of as the Earth Day BP Oil Catastrophe. We’re going to need this kind of inspiration in order to deal with the Gulf of Mexico mess because the magnitude of the task before us—stopping the forcefully gushing oil, cleaning up devastated habitat, caring for injured or soon-to-be-harmed living beings in the path of the petroleum, protecting as yet unaffected regions—boggles the mind as it stirs the heart.

Since I’ve just returned from a weeklong Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training retreat, I’ve been away from the news of this calamity. But sad to say, my geologist’s perspective leaves me unsurprised by broadcasts of impotent efforts of oil industry professionals to handle the tragedy. Why? Because I’ve been sitting for the last week paying attention to body sensations, I’ll just say that we earth scientists feel in our guts the vast scales of Earth time and space; (it’s why I write about them). As Congress and a federal panel in Louisiana begin their inquiry into the situation not one person should be perplexed by the sequence of events that follow the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig. Here’s why.

First of all, this event is much more than just another “oil spill.” To me, the word spill suggests flow from a confined space and implies a finite amount of liquid. The monster in the Gulf of Mexico is a gusher, a blowout, an uncontrolled flow of oil from a well bored into the earth, what drillers call a “wild well.” Dr. Frankenstein has put a spigot in the Earth and can’t shut it off.

When in September 2009 BP announced its discovery of the Tiber oilfield—what the workers on the Deepwater Horizon were boring into when it exploded—they characterized it as “giant” and meant to convey that their find contained between four and six billion barrels of oil; this contrasts with a “huge” oilfield usually considered to contain 250 million barrels of the stuff. Regardless of whether it’s giant or huge, this Gulf of Mexico event is more than a spill. Basically we’ve tapped into a source of oil that will not be exhausted quickly. Isn’t that ironic?

It’s impossible to conceptualize such vast quantities, and as the crude oil continues to spew for the 24th consecutive day at daily rates reported to be 210,000 gallons, I’d like to help. Check out a Google Earth map website by Paul Rademacher that will allow you to compare the horizontal extent of the oil with the geographic size of your city, county or state. I checked Barbados, the tiny island on which I currently live; the crude oil would blanket it completely.

Ditto my home county—Dutchess in New York. It’s way bigger than Rhode Island, our convenient measuring rod for environmental disaster (Remember the Larsen Ice Shelf? The 220 meter thick—three football fields—chunk of ice “the size of Rhode Island” that disintegrated in 2002 after having been stable for up to 12,000 years.) Check the places that matter most to you and sense in your gut the feeling caused by the spatial comparison.

And speaking of space, oil and gas executives crowed about their record-setting achievement, touting it as one of the deepest wells ever achieved by their industry—drilled 35,055 feet deep into the Earth’s crust beneath 4,132 feet of water. You may wonder, “Just how deep into the earth is that?” Let’s put it this way, transcontinental flights cruise at that elevation above the Earth’s surface. Next time you are in an airplane, picture a pipe connecting your jet to the surface of the Earth and you’ll have a picture of the distance that BP went to access the Tiber Oilfield black gold.

Would that these innovators had gone to such extremes in order to apply to their work an ethical code that includes the Precautionary Principle:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Regrettably, precautionary action has been the exception rather than the rule in U.S. environmental policy. Perhaps it has operated to the frustration of some in decisions concerning disposal of high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, but the Earth Day BP Oil Catastrophe demonstrates the virtue of Vorsorgeprinzip, German for “precautionary principle.” Literally, Vorsorge means “forecaring” and conveys forethought and preparedness—not simply “caution.” I say that a plan to bore “the deepest well ever” into the Earth, should be accompanied by accurately scaled and well-tested models for responding to unexpected contingencies. Ahimsa, first do no harm.

The first homework assignment of my Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training program was to read Jack Kornfield on the five basic Buddhist training precepts. Number two, “we undertake the precept of refraining from taking that which is not given,” strikes me as particularly apt given the circumstances in the Gulf. We consent to not take that which does not belong to us. We agree to bring consciousness to the use of all of the earth’s resources in a respectful and ecological way.

When will we, like Job, clap our hands to our mouths with the realization that human beings occupy an infinitesimal place within a divine whole? When will the “knowledge” of modernity succumb to the wisdom of the ancients? Could the answer to Job’s question of how long must his people suffer, “Till towns lie waste without inhabitants, and houses without people; and the ground lies waste and desolate (Isaiah 6:11),” be also the answer to the question, when will the oil stop gushing? The chutzpah of humans got us into this mess; humility will help us out of it. We will need clear mind, wise heart, and sizable courage to say dayenu, enough.

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This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on May 14, 2010 at 11:17 am and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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Adventures with Wind on Water March 20, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, book review, Buddhist concepts, earth cycles, geology, learning differences.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Earth Dharma: “Planned Outage”

Yesterday I stepped onto the volcanic terra firma of St. Vincent, though I hesitate to call it that given the spate of earthquakes in the first quarter of 2010, after having sailed down the Grenadine islands with my partner, our two kids, and their grandparents. Chris, the skipper of our Barefoot Charter, was a forty-something nice guy who had recently checked out of Washington (state), left behind television, telephone, and internet connection, to follow his dream of skippering sailboats in the Caribbean Sea. When I saw that the name of our fifty-foot monohull was Planned Outage and glimpsed Chris reading The Art of Happiness by H.H. The Dalai Lama, I felt delighted about the experience we were about to have.

The book I’d taken with me on the three-day sail was Saltwater Buddha, Jaimal Yogis’ memoir about learning the lessons of Zen Buddhism while living a surfer’s life. I have to admit that after reading a brief excerpt I didn’t see immediately the appeal of the book. I thought to myself, “What is this guy going to teach me about lessons learned along a meandering course of thrill seeking?” I’d done my own share of thrill seeking and meditating and I’ve lived a lot longer than Yogis, encountering my own piece of disillusionment. But as Charles Darwin surely thought about James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, his choice of reading material aboard the Beagle, “this book is great!”

I didn’t know Yogis’ tale and had no idea he ended up at the Columbia School of Journalism but I wasn’t surprised to find that out because Saltwater Buddha is a good story. From California to Hawaii to France, India, Brooklyn and finally back again, with richly described characters like a sagacious Hawaiian insurance agent immobilized by Elephant Man disease, leather-skinned commercial fishermen in dock-side bars in Montauk, red rubber-suited Santa Cruz “Surf Nazis”, and a hilarious caricature of Yogis as a bliss-seeking surf bum who gets closest to having a real job when as a barista in San Francisco he gets “really good at making the thick foam with the little leafy designs,” Yogis shows his readers how lessons of dharma abound in life experiences that range from the mundane—caring for a sick friend—to the absurd—surfing in a snowstorm in Brooklyn.

I was attracted to the book because I’m living seaside, having run away from professional responsibility with my family at the age of 50, so that we all could recover from the two-year ordeal of dealing with schools, psychologists, doctors and lawyers while negotiating the rough surf that’s called education for kids with learning differences in the U.S. Not to mention the exposure of our difference as a family with queer parents. I’ve been seeking the healing balm of the sea spray myself—an escape from the samsara caused by narrow conceptions of intelligence—meditating daily and interspersing my days and those of my kids with windsurfing and sailing. My whole family has taken to living in the present, and the blue waters surrounding this chunk of coral in the eastern Caribbean have certainly helped. As my friends say, it’s been a skillful move.

What I loved about Saltwater Buddha is the way Yogis easily accesses earth dharma. His observations about wind and water resonated for me as a geoscientist who alternates periods of sitting and adventures with wind on water. For example, Yogis describes the earth science related to surfing: creation of tides as the moon tugs at the ocean; materialization of waves as water feels the seafloor on its coastal approach; and, formation of wind owing to temperature differences between land and sea. Yogis sees the poetry of the earth system.

Of the four spheres of the earth system—rock sphere, biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere—the latter two, as fluids, are especially available to sentient beings as dharma teachers because they move and change in time frames quick enough for us to perceive them. Living this year at the edge of the sea, I walk daily along the shore and watch the fluctuating character of the air and water. When previously I’d been for short periods to places where I’d hoped for placid seas, it always seemed that my timing was off—according to the locals the sea was calmer or the wind more gentle just before I’d arrived. But living at the waters edge this year, I see that the ocean—the biggest reservoir of the hydrosphere— and the atmosphere change constantly. They manifest fluidity.

In Saltwater Buddha, Yogis quotes Suzuki Roshi: “waves are the practice of water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves, is delusion.” My shore walks reveal that we can say the same for the atmosphere; wind is the habit of air and to speak of the two apart from one another is fantasy. The ways of water and air bring home the Buddha’s fundamental teaching of impermanence. As Yogis recognized, each different face of the sea offers episodes of samsara and nirvana. Lately Caribbean breezes have taught me lessons that Brooklyn surf taught Yogis.

Huge swells and shifting winds have caused me to be caught up “in irons” on my dinghy and capsized in a mooring field; but I’ve also had the chance to ride winds on a beam reach while hawksbill turtles lift their heads for subaerial breaths above teal blue waters. As the surfer merges with his medium, so the sailor melds with hers. Connecting with our surroundings in these ways fosters the natural inclination to live with harmony on Earth.

Too, both pastimes are good metaphors for life. Since environmental conditions are mutable, attachment to any one set of circumstances causes suffering. Yogis’ book in combination with my Caribbean sailing adventures reminds me of a slogan on the door of the West End Racing Club in Provincetown, Massachusetts: “You can’t direct the wind but you can adjust the sails.” Or, as my dyslexic sailing instructor cautions, “you can only sail where the wind will let you.”

Read-aloud sessions are my family’s book habit. These past three days aboard Planned Outage we listened to sections of Saltwater Buddha. As sharp-eared dyslexics, my kids recognized a good story. They said they’d like to see the movie and were delighted to learn that the visual version is in production. No doubt we’ll all relish seeing the film when it’s released, but for the time being, we’re living Yogis’ lessons together in the present.

For more “Earth Dharma” from Jill S. Schneiderman, click here.

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This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on March 19, 2010 at 8:58 pm and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

Caribbean Awakening January 28, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, Buddhist concepts, disasters, earthquakes, Haiti.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Jack Kornfield has commented that Suzuki Roshi captured the essence of Buddhism with the words: “not always so.”

Reports of earthquakes and tsunamis in the Caribbean region continue to shake my world in Barbados and remind me of Suzuki Roshi’s wisdom.

A 6.0 earthquake sixty miles southwest of Guatemala City shook the Guatemalan countryside and parts of El Salvador on January 18. The next day, one week after the Port-au-Prince earthquake, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake rattled the Cayman Islands. And though it was underreported, the devastating Port-au-Prince earthquake did in fact trigger a localized tsunami. It swept at least seven people to sea and drowned portions of the Haitian coastline in the village of Petit Paradis, located on the south side of the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system that ruptured to produce the January 12 magnitude 7.0 temblor. (More on this here. )

As a geologist my mind knows that the Caribbean is a tectonically active region that poses volcanic, seismic and tsunami hazards. The hazards result from the subduction of the American Plate beneath the much smaller Caribbean Plate; it generates the overlying chain of volcanic islands as well as lithospheric crustal movement along the subducting plate boundary and in the region of intense folding at the plate margin.

Tectonic map of the Lesser Antilles showing plate boundaries, rates of plate movement, active volcanoes, major faults and regions of strong deformation (from Day et al. 2008, Issues in Risk Science: Tectonic Threats in the Caribbean; http://www.abuhrc.org/rp/publications/Pages/issues.aspx)

But aside from the volcanic activity ongoing at Soufrière Hills, Montserrat since 1995 and eruptions in 1979 from Soufrière in St. Vincent and in 1976 from La Soufrière in Guadeloupe—Soufrière means sulfur in French, hence the large number of volcanoes that bear the name — the area has been relatively quiet, volcanically speaking. And though earthquakes have caused the second and third most destructive geological disasters in the Caribbean as a whole, they occurred in 1692 — an earthquake and tsunami destroyed Port Royal in Jamaica and more than half the inhabitants died in the event itself or later of disease — and 1843 when an earthquake severely damaged Guadeloupe and nearby islands. Relatively minor earthquakes in 1761, 1823, and 1918 caused tsunamis on various islands but none resulted in devastating disaster and death. So, when I read reports warning that the “long-sleeping Caribbean” has awakened — that the ruinous quake that struck Haiti could be the first of several in the region — I experience cognitive dissonance.

I’ve come to the eastern Caribbean with my partner and our two children on a family sabbatical of sorts so that we might rest, rejuvenate, and live with ease. While so engaged the earth stirred and reminded me that, in the words of Kalu Rinpoche:

Nothing is permanent:
The sun and the moon rise and then set,
The bright, clear day is followed by the deep, dark night.
From hour to hour, everything changes.

But I’ll also take the advice uttered by Jean Frank, a Haitian fisherman in Petit Paradis making a fishing net in the shade away from the heat. Having already lived a long life, the fisherman said in Creole “Me? I’m not afraid. I’m old … I take life as it comes.”

For more “Earth Dharma” from Jill S. Schneiderman, click here.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on January 28, 2010 at 12:32 pm and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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Satellite View of a Densely Populated Small Island Nation December 16, 2009

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, satellite images.
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Satellite Image of Greater Bridgetown, Barbados

Click on link for full description of this image from NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Island as Paleo-Sangha November 24, 2009

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, Buddhist concepts, climate change, contemplative practice, earth community, geology.
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This is cross-posted at  Shambhala SunSpace.

scheniderman-reef

I’ve been thinking about the upcoming Copenhagen United Nations climate change conference—the opportunity to secure agreements to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions that will replace the Kyoto Protocol before it expires—because this year I’ve been living on a tiny coral island in the Atlantic Ocean. Here in Barbados, everywhere I look with my geologist’s gaze I see evidence of past climate change. And in the daily newspapers I read reports that record the nation’s worries about the effects of climate change on islander’s livelihoods. As is true for other small island nations, the future of all living beings on Barbados depends on productive conversations in Copenhagen.

Barbados is a coral island that rose roughly 1200 feet above sea level in the last one million years—in other words, Barbados is a geological infant. Still, it has much to teach us. I’m reminded of a verse from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Keeping Quiet”:

“If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us

As when everything seems dead
And later proves to be alive.” *

Though some sandstone and shale form a nucleus of the island, more than 85% of the exposed land consists of coral rock, known to geologists as limestone, naturally lithified from broken debris of ancient coral reefs. The island is unique in the Caribbean. Unlike the Bahamas that consist largely of windblown sand cemented together by the action of rainwater, or other Caribbean islands so vividly volcanic, Barbados today is comprised of nothing more than subaerial coralline remnants of dead communities and submarine fringes of currently living colonies of organisms—corals. Tiny animals called polyps that are related to and look like sea anemones, each coral encloses itself in a stony cup of limestone that it secretes. As they grow, the polyps divide to form coral colonies that build up on top of each other and manifest as a reef. Over thousands of years, coral reefs respond to fluctuations in sea level as well as changes in water temperature and other environmental conditions.

Abiding on this island I traverse slopes telling me that where I now walk, ocean waves once lapped. Hillsides shaped like treads and risers of a coralline staircase, coastal terraces in geological parlance, mark ancient shorelines. These old coastal features some distance above the modern coastline indicate that with changing climate and consequent sea level fluctuations some colonial organisms have become extinct while others have succeeded them. As a Jewish Buddhist geologist—or jubugeoscientist as I’ve come to think of myself lately—I think of these ancient reefs as paleo-Sanghas, communities that lived and died together.

In thinking about Buddhist responses to climate change, I’ve come to believe that Buddhist scientists must emphasize compassion and the ethical conduct components of the eightfold path—wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood. Though we scientists lead with our heads, I believe that we must add our hearts to our enterprise. From my observations of impermanent coral communities, my head knows that the living communities of Barbados will be vulnerable to inevitable sea level fluctuations. But as I behold the Barbadian’s Earth, I realize that scientist-negotiators going to Copenhagen must bring to conversations more than scientific wisdom; they must bring scientific heart.

Just before I left for an extended silent meditation retreat with Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg last week, I read that world leaders had concluded that it would be unrealistic to strive for a legally binding agreement at the upcoming climate conference. Instead, the Danes have suggested that some Copenhagen aspirations could be salvaged through a “first-stage series of commitments rather than an all-encompassing protocol.” I have an alternative suggestion for the U.N. climate conference organizers prompted by my recent sit with Sylvia and Sharon: let negotiators not speak; let them live together and practice karuna and metta meditation as a community of retreatants for the twelve days set aside for the conference. By the end of that period, perhaps negotiator-retreatants will feel connected enough to one another and the home countries they each represent so that true giving will be possible. In preparation for the retreat I’d be happy to send them a piece of Barbados limestone for the altar.

* Italics mine

Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College. This year she received a Contemplative Practice Fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She is editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design (University of California Press, 2009) and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet (Westview Press, 2003).

For more about Buddhism and Green Living, visit our special page on the topic here on ShambhalaSun.com.

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