Last week on Tuesday April 23, 2019 I was up early before the sunrise. There was much to do: an early swim at the gym, before an early day at work. Quietly closing the door so as not to wake the sleeping family, bounding down the stairs towards the car, I stopped in my tracks. The waning gibbous moon shone bright, but what captured my attention was the shining planet just beneath the moon visible to my naked eye. What celestial body briefly shared a trek across this late April night sky with our moon? Quickly searching Google, I learned the planet was Jupiter, the fifth planet from our sun and the largest in our system, a gas giant like Saturn; Jupiter sacred to the principal god in Roman mythology, and visible in the night sky to astronomers since antiquity. Two days later on Thursday April 25, I was once again awake early before the sun, once again on my way to swim. That morning, Saturn was the moon’s companion, although much dimmer than Jupiter, it was still the brightest celestial body closest to the moon. Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and the second largest planet in our solar system. It is the most distant of the five planets visible to the naked eye, the other four being Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. The Heavens gave me a glorious gift this week: a full moon and two rare planets. Jupiter and Saturn dancing with the moon consecrated the rare coincidence of Pesach and Easter, a conjunction giving us here on Earth a special time to consider the interconnectedness of deliverance, freedom, redemption, and forgiveness.
Darkness punctuated only by the light emitted by stars hundreds of thousands of miles distant and the embers of our fire; and a quiet stillness, broken only by the sounds of waves crashing upon the beach and my wife’s slumbered breathing, measured exhales. The sound of the infinite, slow and steady. We came to Mendocino to slow life’s rapid pace and savor special moments, but, we were unexpectedly blessed to briefly experience the infinite.
Caspar is situated on coastal prairie between the communities of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. An active lumber company town in the 19thand 20thcenturies, it is now a quiet village whose headlands, once the location of a lumber mill, are now conserved as the Caspar Headlands State Reserve. The terrace grasslands are home to meadowlarks, white crowned sparrows and harrier hawks and the beach and estuary below host cormorants, gulls and oystercatchers and the endangered Coho salmon and steelhead trout.
From the balcony of our lodgings, we have a good view of the headlands and the Pacific and on Saturday we were rewarded with a sighting of a pod of gray whales migrating north. The whales were surfacing, exhaling and spouting warm, moist air before diving, their flukes breaking the surface as they plunged. Now as I lay in my bed after midnight, listening to the sounds of the surf, I imagined the gray whales swimming through a deep blue sea, and the sounds of their breathing as they steadily continued north to Alaska, guided by an ancient knowledge passed from cetacean to cetacean. The infinite.
“Close your eyes, prick your ears, and from the softest sound to the wildest noise…it is by Nature who speaks, revealing her being, her power, her life, and her relatedness so that a blind person, to whom the infinitely visible world is denied, can grasp an infinite vitality in what can be heard. ” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor grey ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire or light…wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”
Marilynne Robinson Gilead
In mid-January, we drove northward on 395 through the Owens Valley from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes. Late afternoon, the sun flirted among the storm clouds and the Eastern Sierra mountain peaks creating a dramatic bright yellow light shining on the valley floor turning the White Mountains a mysterious blue. Ahead, a red cinder cone, a volcanic legacy, grew larger as we made our way closer to the sleeping Long Valley Caldera. The cinder cone, a beautiful rich red, still captivates my imagination.
Rebecca Fish Ewan wrote in A Land Between: The Owens Valley“ the landscape…reveals that stability in the West is both precious and fragile; the relationship between people and the land is deep and passionate, yet the balance of this union can be shaken overnight.” When settlers brought cattle to the Owens Valley in the 19thcentury, the new grazing animal destroyed the grasses and marshland environment that had been vital to the lives of the Pauite-Shoshone. When Los Angeles Water and Power Department diverted and transported snow-fed lakes, creeks and rivers of the Owens Valley to the Los Angeles basin, the ecosystem of the region was changed forever.
The Buddha teaches that we must accept that impermanence characterizes existence. But the Buddha’s noble eightfold path also teaches us to have right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort right mindfulness and right concentration. The recent damage to Joshua Tree National Park caused during the Federal government shutdown may last for centuries. It is difficult for me to grasp the consciousness of people who cause such damage. Are they mindful of their actions consequences? Do they lack a relationship with place and community? Do they believe their “life” exists somewhere else in a different time and space? How can I teach that every moment is precious and our actions reflect our consciousness? We must understand our impact on the land and it’s inhabitants; our choices must be guided by sensitivity to the needs of others and not by our desires alone. Stewardship means never having to say your sorry.
In the 1970s, Gary Snyder heard a Crow elder say at a conference in Bozeman, Montana “you know I think if people stay somewhere long enough the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”
It is a tiny step, but all great things have small beginnings. I start my teaching by sharing these thoughtful commandments I learned recently from an East Bay Regional Park District Park Supervisor:
- The earth is your mother, care for Her!
- Honor all your relations!
- Open your heart and soul to the Great Spirit
- All life is sacred; treat all beings with respect!
- Take from the Earth what is needed and nothing more
- Do what needs to be done for the good of all!
- Give constant thanks to the Great Spirit for each new day
- Speak the truth, but only the good in others
- Follow the rhythms of Nature; rise and retire with the sun
- Enjoy life’s journey, but leave no tracks
Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. “The Place, The Region, The Commons.” p.42 San Francisco: North Point Press. 1990.
December is my favorite time of the year in Northern California: bright sunshine and deep shadows; long nights alive with twinkling stars; and days of cold gray rain turning hillsides olive green and leaves burnt orange. I celebrate this time of the Winter Solstice measuring our shortest day and longest night on our journey around the sun. And as the New Year approaches, I reflect on days passed and days to come; counting blessings past and praying for a peaceful tomorrow.
Yesterday in San Francisco (with very dear friends), we rang the Bonsho – the 16th Century Buddhist Temple Bell at the Asian Art Museum, symbolically eliminating darkness through the Joya ceremony, preparing to receive a bright new year of peace and happiness for everyone. The Buddhist priests at the ceremony wrote “ the deep and sonorous sound of the temple bell awakens people to the meaning of bussho – Buddha nature (intelligence, reasoning, and understanding) and wisdom – traits that are already within us.” May we all offer prayers for a peaceful 2019 awakening the good Buddhist nature and wisdom in us all.
For over two weeks, Northern California was wrapped in an apocalyptic blanket of toxic air caused by the raging “Camp Fire” in Butte County. The Camp Fire, the most deadliest and destructive fire in California’s history, burned over 150,000 acres. Drought, low humidity and high winds gave birth to a rapidly growing firestorm that took the communities of Paradise and Magalia by surprise destroying almost 14,000 homes and numerous habitats, claiming the lives of 88 humans and untold numbers of wild animals. Devastated by the losses, we wake soberly to the reality that Climate Change is here, now. Pretending is no longer a survival strategy.
Ironically, the desperately needed rain came with Thanksgiving, the shared holiday commemorating our nation’s beginnings; a day when we count our blessings and say thanks for all we share with our family, our friends, and our community. We have so much to be grateful for such as clean air and fresh water…..and there is so much we take for granted. But no longer. We can no longer ignore our impact on Earth, and shut our eyes and ears to the change the planet is experiencing. Clean air and fresh water are gifts that must be cherished instead of being trampled through our choices and ignorance. Climate is changing as a result of our actions, and animals and plants we assumed would share this planet with us forever are becoming extinct. Climate Change is real. On Friday November 23, 2018 the day after Thanksgiving, the U.S. Government released the Fourth National Climate Assessment reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:
Global warming is intensifying and will result in more disastrous fires, like the ones that have ravaged California, and other weather catastrophes unless governments act now to reduce carbon emissions, according to a stark new assessment of the impact of climate change…the 1,656-page analysis was unambiguous that climate change is here and getting worse. It said warming temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels and fire are likely to take a terrible toll on the U.S. economy, reducing it by as much as 10 percent by century’s end that would mean annual losses of hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century from heat-related deaths, sea level rise and infrastructure damage. The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country.”
On Monday November 26, 2018, President Trump rejected the reports climate assessment findings.
Humans have a great capacity for self-knowledge, but with this knowledge comes responsibility. And so we must step-up to the challenge, and open our hearts and minds to bringing balance and respect to our relationship with the Earth, her plants and animals and perhaps most importantly bring balance and respect to our relationship with our own self. With respect, for others and for ourselves, we can create solutions good for the many; without respect, we will sow the seeds of our own destruction.
Last Saturday morning – October 27, 2018 – I was standing on the rim of Panum Crater at the edge of Mono Lake looking across the long valley at John Muir’s “range of light” beginning to understand great fullness is found in the emptiness.* My dear companions were scrambling joyously across the rock and ash, relishing the beautiful obsidian and pumice fragments, shattered remains of a past volcanic event. Sadly, a text notified me of the tragedy befalling innocents worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh over 3,000 miles distant. I kept the news to myself desiring my friends feel the joy of discovery, just a little longer. Looking West, I saw before me quaking yellow aspens dancing up the hillside along creeks fed by the alpine lakes Parker and Walker. A single perfect moment – shattered suddenly into a thousand fragments by the destruction at the Tree of Life. At the Eastern Side of the Sierras, we grasp our insignificance within the vastness of eternity, and realize the significance of our actions towards other living beings. May we all find healing, redemption, forgiveness and a mindful constructive path rising from the ashes of our volcano.
* “Before the emanations were emanated and the creations created, a most supreme, simple light filled the whole of existence. There was no vacant place, no aspect of empty space or void, but everything was filled by that simple, infinite light…what is called the light of the Infinite (Eyn Sof).” Luria, Issac. The Tree of Life (Etz Chayyim), Vol. 1. with an introduction by Donald Wilder Menzi and Zwe Padah, and ed. (New York: Arizal, 2008), p. 13.