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Earth, Mars, and Meteorites Inter-Are October 1, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, earth community, geology, Iron Man/Space Buddha, Mars, meteorites, Norman Fischer, science, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

Credit: Dr. Elmar Buchner

While discussing the five skandhas (aspects) that constitute a human being during a dharma talk on The Heart Sutra—a core Buddhist text—renowned Zen teacher Norman Fischer commented that although we don’t need science to confirm the veracity of what we think to be true, it’s nice when it happens that way.

Recently some extraterrestrial data sources corroborated for me what my beginner’s mind thinks The Heart Sutra teaches—that all phenomena are expressions of emptiness. Fischer says this teaching on emptiness is really a teaching about connection. Emptiness, he says, refers to the emptiness of any separation and therefore to the radical connection or interdependence of all things.

Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “interbeing” to express this idea that no thing arises independently. As he described in The Heart of Understanding, there is only the constant arising of the universe (which etymologically means “turned into one”)—each so-called thing enables every other so-called thing. News of the past weeks from both Mars and the asteroid belt confirm such connection between Earth and our neighbors in the solar system.

Ever since it landed in Mars’ Gale Crater in early August I’ve been following the discoveries of NASA’s Curiosity rover (a car-sized, six-wheeled robot), the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory whose mission is to see if the red planet ever could have supported small life forms called microbes. The photos the rover sends back are mesmerizing and the discoveries tremendously exciting for they show that the material substance and processes of Mars are the material substance and processes of Earth.

Curiosity’s discoveries in the past months repeatedly reveal rocks and rock formations that are similar maybe even the same, as what we see on Earth. For example, the first rock analyzed chemically by Curiosity, just for the sake of target practice and dubbed “Coronation,” turns out to be basalt. This is no more spiritually surprising than it is scientifically surprising: this type of volcanic rock is common on Earth and Earth’s moon as well as known from previous missions to Mars to be abundant there.

In at least three sites, visual observations by Curiosity’s high-resolution imager reveal sedimentary conglomerate—a rock composed of compacted and rounded gravels naturally cemented together. We know from geological observations on Earth that water transport is the only process capable of producing the rounded shape of rock fragments this size. Curiosity has found evidence of an ancient Martian streambed!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and PSI

Listen to Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Space Institute describe these findings. Williams is able to offer her lucid explanation because Curiosity is seeing on Mars the same materials and processes we are accustomed to seeing on Earth.

And as if I were not already convinced of the truth of The Heart Sutra, word arrived that a one thousand year old Buddhist statue taken during a Nazi expedition in 1938 turned up five years ago and was analyzed by planetary scientists in Germany.

Guess what the monument is carved from: iron meteorite, a piece of a meteor from the asteroid belt. Okay, so this piece of iron meteorite has an unusual composition. It’s an especially nickel- and cobalt-rich variety and so is easily traced to the Chinga meteorite that 15,000 years ago smashed into the border area between Mongolia and Siberia. Nonetheless, this “Iron Man” was carved from a piece of space rock whose major elements, iron and nickel, are the very same elements that make up the core of Earth.

Not that we need science to confirm that what we think is true. We’ve also got the wisdom of the ancients. Earth, Mars, and meteorites, for example, inter-are.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on October 1, 2012 at 10:28 am and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

Falling in Love with “Other” Earth February 27, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, environmentalism, mineral resources, science, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Photo by Don Farber

In his recent interview with Guardian editor Jo Confino, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanhsuggested that a spiritual revolution is needed so that we might avoid living in a future world torn asunder by societal stresses related to climate change. He characterized such a spiritual revolution as one in which we fall back in love with the planet and see the connection between the Earth and ourselves. In doing so, he says, we will heal the planet.

I had just heard Christian Parenti, contributing editor at The Nation and author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011) speak about the “catastrophic convergence” of climate change and increased social and political violence, and as a result felt convinced that Thich Nhat Hanh’s radical prescription for repair is precisely what we need. But how does one fall back in love with the Earth?

For me, learning about this remarkable planet is an important means to that end. And though I’ve studied the earth for three decades, I continue to understand it in new ways that inspire my devotion. For example, currently I am enamored of a new and unusual framework within which to think about the Earth’s minerals.

In 2008, geoscientist Robert Hazen with collaborating colleagues proposed a radical revision to the way we think about minerals. In the past, mineralogy was considered an ahistorical subject, one in which formation of minerals was viewed as unlinked to the twists and turns of history. In this view, the quartz of today is the quartz of yesteryear, relatively unaffected by the moment in time when the mineral grew.

But Hazen and his colleagues suggested that minerals have evolved over time along with the Earth. Why? As we know from studying meteorites, only about 60 different minerals existed in the materials that came together to form planets and asteroids in Earth’s solar system. Hazen’s group pointed out that today we count more than four thousand minerals on Earth. Through processes such as the formation of oceanic and continental crust, melting, and volcanism, mineral diversity has increased over geological time.

At first, the notion that minerals have evolved in concert with life seems surprising. Since nearly one hundred elements make up the periodic table you might think that an almost infinite number of crystalline compounds might form from the get-go. But different minerals develop only under very particular conditions of pressure, temperature, and concentrations of specific elements.

After initial accretion, the numerically small array of Earth’s minerals were affected by rapidly changing internal temperatures and pressures and external fluctuations in the chemistry of surface waters and atmospheric gases. Thus, according to these researchers, the first minerals combined to birth new mineral species.

Then when life originated on the planet, even more possibilities arose for the evolution of new mineral species because even the simplest organisms– colonies of microbes– metabolized minerals. As life evolved, organisms directly made minerals that served good purposes like shells, bones and teeth. And by the time that photosynthesizing plants caused the atmosphere to have an overabundance of oxygen, indirectly they were responsible for the formation of a multitude of new oxide minerals at the surface of the Earth.

If Hazen and others are right, then minerals evolve along a linear arrow of time; there is no going back to bygone Eons of a limited number of mineral types.  Minerals diversify in irreversible manner just as organisms do and I’m excited to think in this new way about these mostly inorganic substances!

What’s more, although reports from the Kepler mission to survey near realms of the Milky Way galaxy and find Earth-size planets around other stars have inspired dreams of finding an Earth-like planet, it seems unlikely that any such planets would look like our blue-green home.

As reported in a recent issue of Nature Geoscience, an array of research contends that ostensibly original environmental features of the Earth in fact appeared late in the planet’s history and were brought about by evolution in the three domains of life with unpredictable contingencies.

These recent developments in the way we think about both minerals and life have caused me to fall in love again with this planet, as Thich Nhat Hanh has urged.

But though I agree with this beloved teacher that we must develop that “insight of inter-being” which concedes the connection between the Earth and ourselves, I differ with this teacher whom I respect and admire, when he refers to our planet as “Mother Earth.”

I believe that harm may come from referring to our planet as “Mother Earth.” Instead, I think it is critical to acknowledge that well into the 21st century we have rendered the planet Other Earth, a system separate and apart from ourselves. In academic parlance, we have “Othered” the Earth–made it into an object rather than a beloved subject. Such acknowledgement is part of the “real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things” which Thich Nhat Hanh advises.

We have distanced ourselves from the Earth. But as Thich Nhat Hanh says, we are the Earth. And,

When we recognize the virtues, the talent, the beauty of (M)other Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born. We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one. When you love someone you want to say I need you, I take refuge in you. You do anything for the benefit of the Earth and the Earth will do anything for your wellbeing.

The complex interactions between minerals, life, and landscapes of our host planet have enabled our wellbeing. It is up to us to love it in return.

Awaken, Eaarthlings! An Earth Day Missive April 22, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in "Eaarth", Anthropocene, Bill McKibben, book review, Buddhist concepts, climate change, earth community, earth cycles, geologic time, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace, CommonDreams.org, and Truthout.

In his recent book, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology (2008), the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh asserts that Buddhism, as a robust type of humanism, allows people to learn how to live on our planet not only responsibly, but with compassion and lovingkindness. Every Buddhist practitioner, he says, should have the capacity to “protect” the environment and determine the destiny of the Earth.

Though I would argue that we have moved beyond the point at which the planet can be protected and that we must join with Earth as kin, Thich Nhat Hanh contends that if we awaken to the environmental reality of our planetary circumstance, our collective consciousness will shift.  He declares that Buddhists must help rouse people on Earth, stating “We have to help the Buddha to wake up the people who are living in a dream.”

Bill McKibben, author of more than a dozen books including The End of Nature (1989), perhaps the first book for the layperson about climate change, and founder of 350.org, a global warming awareness campaign that coordinated what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” has devoted much energy to this project of awakening. McKibben may not be a Buddhist, but his interview with Krista Tippett, host of American Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith, reveals him to be a spiritual thinker. His most recent effort to bring about this tectonic shift in the collective human mind and heart is his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

McKibben argues that humans have changed Earth in such fundamental ways that it is no longer the planet on which human civilization developed over the past 10,000 years. Seawater is becoming acidic as oceans absorb carbon from the atmosphere; the cryosphere—Earth’s once frozen realms of ice caps and high mountain glaciers—has melted or is in the process of doing so; tropical regions of the globe have pushed two degrees further north and south changing patterns of rainfall and causing droughts, fires and floods.

What’s more, these geographically vast features are changing rapidly. As I tell my students, we humans have acted as geologic agents at non-geologic time scales. McKibben’s central point is a corollary to this formulation: global change is no longer a threat, a changed globe is our reality. Hence, McKibben’s homophone: we live on Eaarth, not Earth. His book is the call to stir that Thich Nhat Hanh prescribes. In the service of helping to rally the populace to such awareness, I’d like to add some Buddhist geoscience to McKibben’s already excellent reality check.

The Buddha spoke of the impermanence of things and in The World We Have, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that the sixth-century Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said that because a river changes constantly, we never step into the same river twice. Hanh writes, “Nothing stays the same for two consecutive moments. A view that is not based on impermanence is a wrong view. When we have the insight of impermanence, we suffer less and we create more happiness.” According to Thich Nhat Hanh, people resist two types of impermanence: instantaneous and cyclic. Using the analogy of water set to boil, he teaches that the increase in water temperature from moment to moment manifests instantaneous impermanence. However, when the water boils and turns to steam, we witness cyclic impermanence—the end of a cycle of arising, duration and cessation.

Thich Nhat Hahn suggests that we must look deeply at cyclic change in order to accept it as an integral aspect of life and as a result, not startle or suffer so greatly when we endure shifts in circumstances. Looking deeply at cyclic change—for example the transformation of rocks to soil and back again—is what we geoscientists do. We gaze deeply at impermanence and know that without it, life would not be possible.

McKibben avers that we have passed the geological moment when we might possibly have avoided the mutation from Earth to Eaarth. Though he doesn’t name it as such, we have moved from The Holocene Epoch—the most recent 12,000 years since the Earth emerged from the last major ice age—into what Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist called the Anthropocene—a new geological epoch denoted by novel biotic, geochemical, and sedimentary effects of global proportion induced by human activity. To a Buddhist geoscientist such as I, this formulation of our current planetary predicament makes deep sense. In order to understand why, I must mention a few monumental concepts in Earth history, namely evolution, punctuated equilibrium, and extinction. Impossible a task as it is to explain such big topics, since we humans seem to excel at taking in more than we can digest, I’ll give it a try.

Evolution—commonly misrepresented as improvement or progress—is, quite simply, change. Most familiarly, species evolve; they do so by punctuated equilibrium, a fancy phrase that means that organisms mostly stay the same but when they do change, they do so quickly and in spurts of geological time. Or they die.

Which brings us to extinction events. The geological record is replete with them, their intensity ranges from the small and local to the massive and global—the ones that shattered Earth’s biological order. Like the episode 65 million years ago that famously wiped out dinosaurs as well as numerous other species across the spectrum of life in all habitats sampled from the fossil record. Seventeen percent of families (the taxonomic unit above genus and species, a family can consist of a few to thousands of species) were lost in that extinction event. Or the greatest mass extinction as yet, the one 245 million years ago that marks the end of the Paleozoic Era; it rid the Earth of trilobites, those early marine invertebrates with a segmented body and exoskeleton that belong to the same group (Phylum Arthropoda) as modern-day crabs, insects and spiders as well as fifty-four percent of all living families.

These and other mass extinction events happened concurrently with vast climatic and physical disturbances on Earth that were outside the norm of what species and ecosystems ordinarily survived.  Such extreme physical changes doubtless had something to do with the occurrence of the extinctions in the first place. Lest I embark on a far-reaching lesson in Earth history, I’ll make the point simply, that over geological time life on the planet and Earth itself have morphed from one form to another. Our seas were acidic in the Archean and our atmosphere was oxygen-poor in the early Proterozoic (“age of first life”). This is the way I see our situation: all beings now live on Eaarth during the Anthropocene. Like other organisms before us we are challenged by changed environmental circumstances and must adjust to Eaarth in its current state.

To this Buddhist geoscientist the planet and its life forms epitomize impermanence. When I read the history of our planet I can’t help but see it as fitting with the concept of cyclic impermanence in particular. I ask, how will the species homo sapiens fare as we make our way across the epochs from Holocene to Anthropocene? Will humans and other great apes be counted among the taxonomic families that succumb in this latest great extinction? Will the record of our one-time presence on the planet comprise only an early Anthropocene stratum of bones, tools and garbage? Both McKibben and Thich Nhat Hanh give us reason to believe that human beings, if we wake up in the Anthropocene on Eaarth, instead may persist as one of the long-lived multicellular species on the planet (think horseshoe crab).

In the second part of Eaarth, McKibben argues that the catalyst for the evolution of Earth to Eaarth has been insatiable, fast growth. He says that any hope for our future on Eaarth depends on “scaling back” and “hunkering down”—creating communities that concentrate on the essentials of maintenance rather than the spoils of growth. He provides inspirational examples of neighborhood windmills, provincial currencies, corner markets, and local internet communities. Thich Nhat Hanh does the same, describing the efforts of his Sangha to practice mindful consumption. Both visionaries advocate proximal, small-scale ways of living.

By looking back in Earth history as we geologists do, I’d like to support with geological evidence the soundness of McKibben’s and Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach to surviving on Eaarth. The Earth’s most successful and abundant life forms are prokaryotes (organisms that lack a cell nucleus or any other membrane-bound organelles). They appear as fossils in 3.5 billion year old rocks and persist today in nearly all environments where liquid water exists. Some thrive in harsh regions like the snow surface of Antarctica while others persist at marine hydrothermal vents and land-based hot springs. Some use photosynthesis and organic compounds for energy while others obtain energy from inorganic compounds such as hydrogen sulfide.

Prokaryotes keep things pretty simple and make do with what exists in their immediate surroundings. Lots of them live together. They’ve survived numerous extinction events. Can it be that the collective simplicity they represent suggests a way forward for awakened Eaarthlings?

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

See also our Shambhala Sun Spotlight on Buddhism and Green Living.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on April 13, 2010 at 10:25 am and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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