Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for June 2014

Meditation on impermanence, geologic style

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The Universe is thought to have been created about 13.7 billion years ago. Measuring two long-lived radioactive elements in meteorites, uranium-238 and thorium-232, has placed the age of the Milky Way at in the same time frame. From these measurements, it appears that large scale structures like galaxies formed relatively quickly after the Big Bang. Read more at http://www.universetoday.com/15575/how-old-is-the-solar-system/

My father wrote a book entitled Cambrian and Ordovician rocks of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Although I have had the book in my library since it first came out in 1978, I still haven’t managed to read it all the way through, but I am gradually working my way up to it by reading more elementary and accessible works on geology. It is my hope to use my retirement years to learn enough about geology to be able to understand at least a few paragraphs of that book before it’s time to return all the molecules in my body back to planet from which they came. I am discovering about myself, however, that I have a tendency to put almost everything I learn into a contemplative context. So what follows is a Buddhist meditation—albeit by no means exclusively Buddhist—with a bit of a geological flavor.

Given that I live on the escarpment of Virgin Mesa a bit north of Jemez Springs, which is located in San Diego Canyon in the Jemez Mountains a bit southwest of Valles Caldera National Preserve in the northwest quadrant of what has, for the last century or so, been known as New Mexico, I thought a good place to start my amateurish exploration of geology would be Fraser Goff’s Valles Caldera: A geologic history, a most accessible book with plenty of maps and charts and photographs accompanying an admirably lucid text. Reading this book has multiplied my enjoyment and appreciation of this beautiful area and helped me understand how it is that less than a hundred meters from my house, at an elevation of around 2033 meters (6670 ft), one can find fossils of shellfish that lived their lives at the bottom of a shallow sea when this piece of the earth’s crust was located near the equator. One of my favorite reveries is to hold one of these fossils and try to imagine how much force, and how much time, it took to move this piece of crust more than 30º to the north and to raise it to more than 2000 meters above sea level. I love thinking about that, because it makes me feel so very insignificant. It puts my life, and the life of the species to which I belong, into proper perspective. Almost all the rocks I can see from my front porch have been here for millions of years, an exception being some tuff that dates back a mere 55,000 years—practically yesterday in geologic terms—and more than likely they will remain pretty much as they are until there is another episode of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, probably any time between later this year and 10,000 or more years from now.

Notwithstanding the relative longevity of geologic formations when compared to timescales that human being can comprehend, everything on the earth is impermanent, subject to change, liable to undergo violent and catastrophic transformation. As Fraser Goff reminds his readers, nearly everything that can be seen in this area has taken its present form during a period of time that represents only about 5% of the 4.5 billion-year history of the planet Earth. Like the human beings and the other mammals and the reptiles and insects that now scurry about on the rocks, the rocks themselves are just passing through, on their way to being transformed into something else. It’s just that their impermanence is not quite as obvious to us. As the Zen Master Dōgen observed back in the thirteenth century, “The blue mountains are constantly walking.” So are the red and yellow and tan mountains of New Mexico. Even this vast landscape that makes my own life so puny and insignificant is itself puny and insignificant in the context of the overall history of the Earth, and the Earth itself has been around for about a third as long as the Universe, which itself has an uncertain future, although we can be sure it will keep changing for as long as it exists.

For as long as I can remember, I have been exposed to terminology such as “Proterozoic Eon” and “Devonian Period” and “Halocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era” (the latter being the name geologists have given to the time during which most readers of this blog were born), and to time scales such as 13.7 billion years ago (Big Bang), 2.5 billion years ago (beginning of Proterozoic Eon), and 200,000 years ago (earliest Homo sapiens). An indispensable part of that geologic package was the conviction that all planetary change, including the evolution of species, has been essentially without purpose or design or intelligence and that it is therefore a mistake to attribute features of human intelligence and aspiration to the workings of the universe as a whole.

As William James (1842–1910) observed, it is the tendency of human beings to hold onto the first beliefs they acquired through childhood indoctrination and to abandon them only when “experience boils over,” that is, when the circumstances of life conspire to make it impossible to fit what one has experienced into the framework of one’s beliefs. Experience has never boiled over for me. Nothing has occurred in my life to make me question the teachings I received as a child that life is essentially accidental, undesigned and without purpose and that the universe in general, and planet Earth in particular, could have gotten along very well without it. Life does, however, happen to be here, and as long as it is here, those who happen to participate in it can, if they so choose, find some purpose to their own existence. James (who, along with Charles Darwin, was one of the most highly revered thinkers referred to by the adults in my life) also said “Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.” In keeping with that observation, I was encouraged to explore the world until I could find something that seemed worth living for; purpose in life is not given by anyone from the outside, I was told, but is created by one’s own mind.

As my own experience kept stubbornly refusing to boil over, thus leaving me quite comfortable with my childhood beliefs, my needs for religion were close to non-existent. When crises did finally arise (all of them entirely created by human beings), the only traditional religious teachings that spoke to my condition were the basic teachings that Buddhists claim were given by the Buddha (although I personally suspect these teachings have probably been around in some form for as long as Homo sapiens have felt an urge to teach their children): namely, that life is disappointing to those who have unrealistic expectations, and it is unrealistic to expect anything to endure without undergoing change, and therefore the only way not to be disappointed with life is to learn to accept that things will change, often in unexpected and unwelcome ways. For any observation beyond those, I never found any need, and so Buddhism has remained part of the framework of my system of beliefs since the day I became aware of it.

One of my favorite television programs of all time was the Canadian Broadcast Corporation program called The Red Green Show, which featured a slightly curmudgeonly country bumpkin who occasionally said “Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.” That pithy saying perfectly sums up the Buddhist approach to ethics. All of us beings who have consciousness are together in this vast, purposeless, meaningless and largely hostile universe that keeps delivering up changes that few of us asked for, and all we have to turn to for comfort and help is one another. If we don’t pull for each other, there is no one else around to pull for us. So I’m pulling for you. And maybe when I get into a jam, if I get lucky, you’ll pull for me. Beyond that, there really is nothing much more to say about moral philosophy.

That being my own unboiled-over worldview, when I look out onto the escarpment of Virgin Mesa every morning, I see the consequences of millions of years of sedimentation at the bottom of a sea, followed by periods of upheaval caused by unintelligent forces of magnitudes beyond my ability to reckon, and violent volcanic eruptions that deposited hundreds of feet of ash and pyroclastic flow, and I note that some trees have managed to grow in an arid region and that birds live in those trees and that a few mammals have learned to eke out a livelihood in this environment, and I go into a village in which just about everyone is kindly and helpful, because they all know that life is not particularly easy in these starkly beautiful canyons, and all of those observations reinforce my Buddhist leanings. Everything in life is uncertain; we’re all in this together; let’s pull for one another.

Perhaps what intrigues me the most is that these very same surroundings also seem to reinforce the convictions of the Jews and the Christians and the Sufis and the atheists who have been attracted here. Even people who have never even heard of Cambrian and Ordovician rocks seem to feel quite at home here. How could one not love such people and pull for them?

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, June 30, 2014 at 13:46

Posted in Buddhism