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Chile, Haiti, and “Govinda’s Bridge” March 4, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Andes, Buddhist concepts, Chile, disasters, earth community, earth cycles, earthquakes, environmental justice, geology, Haiti.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

When I turned as part of my daily practice to today’s page of Offerings, a compilation of Buddhist quotations, I read a comment by Lama Anagarika Govinda that registered as particularly meaningful in light of the recent earthquake in Chile:

“A bridge is revealed which connects the everyday world of sense perceptions to the realm of timeless knowledge.”

Oddly enough, given the topic of collapsed infrastructure as a result of recent high magnitude earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, a visible viaduct has emerged which connects the agonizing reality of these events to the timeless truth that economically and educationally impoverished people are disproportionately vulnerable to risks posed by life on a dynamic planet.

How is it that these two seismic events in the first quarter of 2010 have together exposed Govinda’s bridge?

In order to answer that question we must compare geologically these natural events. Both earthquakes occurred at lithospheric plate boundaries. Geologists have come to expect earthquakes at these locations because such boundaries, which are delineated by earthquakes and often volcanism, are the relatively flexible seams that connect pieces of comparatively inflexible crust comprising the skin of the earth. When rigid crust moves, it releases energy stored in the rocks causing them to break abruptly. This is a fundamental geological reality that all human beings must understand, as a starting point, if we are to lessen the catastrophic human consequences that follow from such natural events. Both temblors were massive — Chile magnitude 8.8 , Haiti 7.0. In fact, the Chilean event ranks among the largest quakes ever measured.

A substantial geological difference between the Chile and Haiti tremors was that the former originated deep in the Earth’s crust, 35 km, while the latter one had a shallow focus, 13 km. The difference in the depth of the rupture relates to the type of plate boundary at each site — sideways sliding in Haiti versus downward thrust in Chile. And though to the geologically uninitiated the difference between 8.8 and 7.0 may seem negligible, the Richter scale is logarithmic, not linear, and that means that the Chilean quake was substantially stronger than the Haitian one. These geological details beg the human question, why do the numbers of Haitian deaths and catastrophic injuries eclipse Chilean ones?

The answer to the question has socioeconomic, rather than geologic roots. An adage well known to geologists reads, “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.” Many Chileans were spared crush-injuries and death because Chile constructed quake-resistant buildings after experiencing a 9.5 magnitude earthquake in 1960. In this recent event, buildings shook but did not collapse into stacks of flattened concrete, minimizing the chance that Chileans might be killed or trapped inside them. Too, the Chilean quake struck near Concepcion, a region of much lower population than Port-au-Prince.

We can build earthquake-resistant structures with adequate know-how and financial resources. Concrete, a common and relatively strong masonry material consists of cement — primarily heated limestone that is finely ground and mixed with the mineral gypsum—that binds together sand and gravel. But concrete doesn’t stretch or extend very well when stressed by shearing horizontal forces. It can be reinforced with steel bars or pre-stressed for use as an earthquake-resistant building material. Other elements of an earthquake resistant building include a good-quality foundation and high quality cement.

Living on land prone to shift, Chileans endure constant reminders of the need to utilize high quality building materials and enforce strict building regulations. Haitians also receive portentous jolts. But Chile, not Haiti, is one of the most earthquake-ready countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Why are buildings in Chile more stable than those in Haiti? While 98% of Chileans are literate and 18% of the population lives in poverty, the respective numbers for Haiti are 53% and 80%. These numbers may explain why Haitians have used brittle steel without ribbing and poor quality cement to hold together concrete. And using cement too sparingly for mortar between concrete blocks or in the production of the concrete itself reduces the earthquake resistance of the structure built with it. In Haiti inferior building materials and poor building practices have been replicated from the foundation up. As a result, the Haitian earthquake left more than 200,000 people dead, nearly one million people homeless, and an indeterminate amount of pain and anguish; in Chile we may hope that the death toll will not reach four digits.

When we examine a geologic map of the world, an unfortunate reality becomes clear: the earth’s most populous cities exist along plate boundaries. Plate boundaries coincide with shorelines and sources of water hence our earliest civilizations arose there and grew to be villages and towns. Today large population centers in places like Tehran and Istanbul are disasters waiting to happen. Though geologists cannot predict when an earthquake will occur, we can forecast, in decades-wide windows, the inevitability of such events. Haphazardly constructed communities in vulnerable mega-cities put millions of people at risk for the suffering that ensues after a large earthquake in a poorly prepared region. The Buddha taught that suffering is endless yet one must vow to end it. Anyone who subscribes to this principle must reject as unacceptable the disproportionate vulnerability of the poor and under-educated to the earth’s perpetual processes.

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Buddhist Survival in the Andes February 5, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Andes, book review, Buddhist concepts.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

I just finished reading Nando Parrado’s account of his 72-day ordeal of pain and suffering in the South American cordillera, Miracle in the Andes (2006). It’s an extraordinary testimony of his survival, along with 15 out of 45 people, most of them rugby teammates, after their privately chartered airplane crashes into the side of a volcano en route from Montevideo, Uruguay to San Fernando, Chile and comes to rest on a glacier at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. Instead of having these members of the Old Christians rugby team play an exhibition game in Chile, the boys—most of them no more than 23 years old—find themselves relying on each other and their most intimate interior selves as they struggle to survive after the Argentine, Uruguayan and Chilean rescue teams have given up the search. Parrado’s observations about the exterior landscape in which he survives impressed me as a geologist. Even more amazing however were his remarks about the interior landscape of survival because to me they resonated with Buddhist thinking about living with suffering.

I’d read Alive (1975), Piers Paul Read’s gruesome and sensational tale of this disaster replete with charges of cannibalism and ostensibly heroic feats, as a high school student in the late seventies; as much as I can remember, it bears little resemblance to the book I just read.  In this book, Parrado details the mountainous landscape that hosts the plane’s fuselage including notes about the appearance of glacial ice, volcanic rocks, sedimentary strata, skin-shredding talus slopes, and house-sized boulders reposing in braided streams.  Even more noteworthy is his deep appreciation of the Earth’s vast scales of geologic time. Parrado writes: “I felt an involuntary sense of privilege and gratitude, as humans often do when treated to one of nature’s wonders, but it lasted only a moment. After my education on the mountain, I understood that all this beauty was not for me. The Andes had staged this spectacle for millions of years, long before humans even walked the earth, and it would continue to do so after all of us were gone” (203). Parrado has the eye of a naturalist. Benefiting from the gift of time more than 30 years after his hardship he describes with poetic accuracy this remote, inaccessible high-reaching cordillera, a terrain that most people will never encounter.

Parrado’s description of this trek to salvation on his own behalf, as well as that of other survivors, hints at the truly remarkable interior landscape to which his trial allowed access:

On the morning of December 8, the seventh day of our trek, the punishing snow cover began to give way to scattered patches of gray ice and fields of sharp loose rubble. I was weakening rapidly. Each step now required supreme effort, and a total concentration of my will. My mind had narrowed until there was no room in my consciousness for anything but my next stride, the careful placement of a foot, the critical issue of moving forward….

I would feel an apprehension of the age and experience of the mountains, and realize that they had stood here silent and oblivious, as civilizations rose and fell. Against the backdrop of the Andes, it was impossible to ignore the fact that human life was just a tiny blip in time, and I knew that if the mountains had minds, our lives would pass too quickly for them to notice. It struck me, though, that even the mountains were not eternal. If the earth lasts long enough, all these peaks will someday crumble to dust. So what is the significance of a single human life? Why do we struggle? Why do we endure such suffering and pain? What keeps us battling so desperately to live, when we could simply surrender, sink into the silence in the shadows, and know peace? (212-213)

Parrado’s depiction of his interior journey resonates with Buddhist approaches to a life of suffering. Central to Parrado’s ability to survive was his emphasis on breathing. More than once he recounts how his reminder to focus on the breath was the key to his survival. He writes:

I drew a long breath and then slowly, richly, I exhaled. Breathe once more, we used to say on the mountain, to encourage each other in moments of despair. As long as you breathe, you are alive. In those days, each breath was almost an act of defiance… Again and again, I filled my lungs, then let the air out in long, unhurried exhalations, and with each breath I whispered to myself in amazement: I am alive. I am alive. I am alive. (233)

What’s more, Parrado exhorted himself to pay attention for he saw that ability as life-saving. In puzzling over whether his survival was an act of God or of self-reliance he wrote:

It was not a God who would choose to save us or abandon us, or change [us] in any way. It was simply a silence, a wholeness, an awe-inspiring simplicity. It seemed to reach me through my own feelings of love and I have often thought that when we feel what we call love, we are really feeling our connection to this awesome presence. I feel this presence still when my mind quiets and I really pay attention. (263)

Parrado described how, by being present for every step and every breath, he was able to survive each moment of pain, loss, and suffering: “These moments bring time to a stop for me. I savor them and let each one become a miniature eternity, and by living the small moments of my life so fully, I defy the shadow of death that hovers over all of us, I reaffirm my love and gratitude for all the gifts I’ve been given, and I feel myself more and more deeply with life.” (262) Though Parrado gives no indication that he studied Buddhist teachings, he sounds as if before the crash he’d been meditating for years. He tells his readers that something in the mountains wanted him to be still: “I gazed at this place: we had upset an ancient balance, and balance would have to be restored. It was all around me, in the silence, in the cold. Something wanted all that perfect silence back again; something in the mountain wanted us to be still.” (188)

In these trying times that to some may feel as difficult as survival in the high Andes, Parrado offers well-tested advice—breathe, pay attention, be still.

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

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on February 4, 2010 at 7:24 am and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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