Saturday, July 22, 2017

Photographs more evocative than The Scream or Guernica

After a Syrian Air Force Strike, January 2013
Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
This photograph is more evocative to me than The Scream by Edvard Munch or Guernica by Pablo Picasso. It breaks my heart, symbolizing to me how our modern world – due to greed and lack of empathy – is promoting rampant climate change and mushrooming war, creating mass extinctions and a living hell on earth. 

May the gods, wherever they are, have mercy on us.

Here is another iconic photograph of what living hell looks like from the Vietnam war, which I sadly served in.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Hanging by a Thread

Adam's Point: 4/23/17
CC Jean Stimmell
Dark reveries swirl through my head as I come out anesthesia, swimming in pain medication, after total knee replacement surgery. In rapid succession, like channel surfing, stream of consciousness segments dance across my mind.

Right now, I am reliving a waking vision, I first had many years ago, so real that I wrote about it at the time for the Monitor.

 I am standing on an ocean beach consumed with foreboding, watching the tide go out and out, exposing a rock-strewn bottom with fish flopping about in muddy puddles, all the way to the horizon. I didn’t know about the existence of Tsunamis, at that point in my life, but sensed something horrible was happening.

And, so it was. Soon, I hear a deafening roar and watch in horror as the tide reverses, sending a massive wave, several hundred feet tall, right toward me. The dream ends with my world going dark as I am swept away by the avenging tide.

Meanwhile, my hospital roommate, also recuperating from knee surgery, is having a terrible time, moaning and groaning, flopping about in his bed from Restless Leg Syndrome and frequently calling out to the nurses, who rush in with various pain meds that do no good.

Trying to escape, I switched on the TV only to be assaulted with a barrage of news stories about death and destruction. Two pieces stood out: a UN report estimating that there are 21 million refugees worldwide, 5 million from Syria alone. That’s bad enough. But, on top of that, there’s an additional 44 million displaced folks, who are exiles inside their own countries, trying to survive like the flopping fish in my Tsunami dream.

Millions of our disinherited brothers and sisters have been cast off their land, directly or indirectly, because of climate change; most of the rest are displaced by war, a pursuit in which the U.S. is undisputed world champion: Since WW II, we have engaged in an accelerating string of wars, getting drawn in ever deeper in conflicts around the world, wars we can never win.

Back in the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower, WW II military hero who understood the human cost of war, warned us about this looming danger, a consequence of the accelerating influence of the military-industrial complex: ”Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

My feverish mind spun again, this time landing on something the Buddha said, 2700 years ago, acknowledging this same human dilemma:

I’ll tell you of the anxious dread
that made me to shake all over:
Seeing creatures flopping around,
like fishes in shallow water
so hostile to one another!
–Seeing this, I became afraid.

Then the Buddha goes on to offer a mind-blowing solution!

Seeing people locked in conflict
I became completely distraught…
…But then I discerned here a thorn
hard to see, lodged deep the heart
It is only when pierced by this thorn
that one runs in all directions.
So if that thorn is taken out –
one does not run, one does not sink...[1]

What the Buddha is saying so totally counter-intuitive, it blows my mind! Especially in our country where we worship the Second Amendment, We normally think of ourselves as safer when we are armed. But Buddha is saying the opposite; the taking up or arms is not something born of fear but what gives birth to fear.

In my untethered, chemically altered state, this is a revelation from on high: Rather than some pie-in-the-sky notion, it is the Rosetta Stone, the key to human survival in our postmodern world of escalating nuclear proliferation and accelerating climate change. 

And, yes, it can be done! Starting from the grassroots, from you and me pulling the thorns from our hearts.

Because we are all pierced by these thorns of unwholesome cravings and desire – greed, hate, delusion and their toxic emotional byproducts – we will have to learn to take them out by careful practice: careful practice being nice to each other.

It will take hard work: our habits and ingrained societal worldviews are difficult to change. But it can be done if we are motivated enough. People do it all the time: training for a marathon, learning to play the violin, beating an addiction.

The only difference here is that the goal is not just our individual welfare, but the fate of the earth.

[1]  These verses, translated by Andrew Olenski, are found in one of the oldest parts of the Pali Canon and, according to Olenski, “very likely express the Buddha’s own process of trepidation and discovery.”