Friday, February 21, 2014

A Warm Climate and a Cold, Cold Heart

Before the title of this post gives you any contrary ideas, I want to say straightaway that my friend, Brian Ettling, has a very big and warm heart. Brian’s a park ranger and climate change communicator who maintains a blog called Be Green Now. He recently posed a challenge to his readers: explain climate change in fewer than 200 words. As both a writer and lover of all life on this earth I found this challenge intriguing. Now, Brian didn’t actually say what sort of prize awaits the winner, but I’m thinking that it just might be a greener planet. So I’m going for it! Here’s my entry:

Climate Change In Fewer Than 200 Words

Plants “breathe in” carbon dioxide and “breathe out” oxygen. The carbon becomes part of the plant’s new growth and the oxygen benefits animal life as well. Over the course of millions of years, the accumulation of dead vegetation became the coal, oil, and natural gas fields that now fuel our modern lifestyle. Burning these “fossil fuels” takes oxygen out of today’s atmosphere and puts carbon dioxide back in. In just one hundred years we have largely reversed a natural process that was millions of years in the making. Carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse gas”. It traps heat in the atmosphere and causes the earth’s average temperature to rise. This warming has taken place so quickly that it is disrupting weather patterns and making storms and droughts more severe. It is changing regional climates too quickly for plants and animals to adapt and disrupting our ability to grow food. Furthermore, since carbon dioxide turns into carbonic acid when it rains the oceans are becoming more acidic, thereby killing off corals and shellfish – an important part of the food chain. Life as we know it is in danger! We must stop burning fossil fuels!

Given the immense harm caused by burning fossil fuels, it’s difficult to understand why we can’t muster the collective will to do something about it. Four reasons do come to mind, though: 1) Greed 2) Laziness 3) Ideology 4) Compassion Deficit. Let me address each of these in turn.

Greed The status quo with respect to power and money is almost certainly a factor in prompting some to deny that climate change is real, human-caused, and resolvable. We in the West are presently at the top of the heap, enjoying whatever protection our money can buy. Doesn’t it appear at times as though we feel entitled to the lion’s share of the world’s resources?  

Laziness – We all have a lazy bone or two hidden deep inside of us, as evidenced by our long, hot showers, our beloved air-conditioning, our unnecessary automobile travel, and our unnecessary consumption. Change is hard; and our hectic modern lifestyle makes it even more difficult in that we feel that we lack the time required to make the changes that need to be made.

Ideology – If we acknowledge that climate change is real, human-caused, and resolvable, then we have to do something about it. We’re good and moral people, after all. We wouldn’t stand by and do nothing if there were a real problem that needed solving. No, it’s easier to deny that a problem even exists than to have to entertain solutions that don’t fit into our ideology: government investment in alternative energy, carbon taxation, industry regulation, global cooperation, reductions in consumption, etc.

Compassion Deficit – The most egregious example of this “compassion deficit” is the ‘we’ll just move to Canada’ attitude towards climate change. Thus, even if it turns out that climate change is real, WE (those of us who presently control the lion’s share of the world’s resources) simply have to move to a place where we can continue doing what we’re doing – the rest of the world be damned. I suppose the argument could be made that this “compassion deficit” undergirds the previous three reasons. That being the case, and given the fact that this is primarily a spiritual blog, let me focus for the remainder of this post on how compassion, or the lack thereof, impacts our willingness to do something about climate change.

These Kiribati children may not yet realize that their Pacific island nation will soon be underwater.

A Warm Climate and a Cold, Cold Heart

Even if our good neighbor, Canada, were to welcome all of us displaced Southerners into its newly temperate clime, consider what that would mean for the rest of the world. It would mean that the rest of the world had become all but uninhabitable. It would mean that the increasing average temperature had finally killed off a great many of the now native plants and that the growing season for many others will have become so disrupted as to make agriculture as we presently know it exceedingly difficult. And even if the growing season for some crops were to somehow fit into whatever regional climate might happen to exist, the lack of groundwater or the unpredictability of rainfall will have further diminished their yields. Add to these woes the increased range of what are now considered tropical diseases. Factor in, as well, the chaotic weather patterns spinning off ever more violent and deadly storms. And, yes, consider how the decline in global economic productivity will have left us hard-pressed to find any money or resources whatsoever to help mitigate these problems – even if we were to somehow find the will.

Is our individual happiness and wellbeing really so divorced from that of the plants and animals that we live with and amongst that we can afford to write them all off, sign their death sentence, and move on to a more temperate clime? Are our consciences so immune to guilt that we can leave our more southerly-dwelling brothers and sisters to starve and drown and die as we, literally or figuratively, pack up the SUV and head north? Can we really live with ourselves as we watch species after species get driven into extinction, as the oceans gradually turn into increasingly acidic aquatic deserts, as the future of even human life becomes bleaker and bleaker?

Merriam-Webster defines a sociopath as “someone who behaves in a dangerous or violent way towards other people and does not feel guilty about such behavior.” Are we not presently displaying, on a mass scale, such a dangerously cavalier attitude towards our fellow humans, and all of life, as to constitute remorseless violence? Is that harsh? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Maybe our elected officials are to blame. But, then again, we elect them. Maybe the corporations are to blame. But, then again, we buy their goods, thereby abdicating our “power of the purse”. Oh, and we work for them, too, thereby prompting us to take our blood money and remain silent about the harm that we’re causing. Maybe our neighbor with the humongous carbon footprint is to blame. But, then again, how often do we miss our opportunity to show what really responsible behavior entails?

Do I sound harsh? Yes, I probably do. I should have a little bit more of the compassion of which I speak. After all, what can prepare us for the realization that what we are doing is causing such unprecedented destruction? We have simply been following the course that generations before us have laid down, and now all of a sudden we are responsible for all of its ill effects. So let’s have compassion for ourselves and each other. Let’s have compassion for the earth and every living thing that calls it home. Let’s have compassion as we make the decision whether or not to take that drive. Let’s have compassion as we decide whether or not we need that second car. Let’s have compassion as we decide whether we really need the heat to be on so high or the air-conditioner on so low. Let’s have compassion as we decide whether we need all of that stuff that, up until now, we’ve always thought that we needed. Let’s have compassion as we consider whether or not to vote for that official who just can’t seem to wrap his or her brain around the fact of climate change, and the fact that we are causing it, and the fact that we can do something about it. Yes, let’s have compassion and DO something about it.

Image Credits

Kiribati children playing on the main island of Tarawa by Mike Bowers/The Global Mail via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Monday, February 17, 2014

interfaith ZEN

Zen in its most general sense simply refers to meditative absorption. It is the Japanese version of the Chinese word, ch’an, which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word, dhyana jhana in Pali. It is one individual turning his or her attention to the coming and going of breath, the coming and going of thoughts, the coming and going of bodily sensations, and in doing so experiencing stillness and silence in the midst of all phenomena. The cultural milieu within which it is practiced might change; the metaphysical meaning with which it is invested might vary; the ritual context within which it is immersed might differ, and yet the experience itself is timeless and universal. It is this timelessness and universality that prompted me to write a blog post entitled Stillness, Silence, Truth and the multi-post series related to Universality and Ritual (Parts 1, 2, & 3). It is this timelessness and universality that also prompts me to want to welcome people into an environment that is as free as possible of that which separates us – whether that be faith, creed, ritual, metaphysical belief, or theoretical framework.

So, if you're in St. Louis and would like to experience stillness and silence in the company of other individuals who value an environment that is as free of that which divides us as possible, then please check out the newly forming interfaith ZEN group. Whether you call your practice Zen, Insight Meditation, mindfulness practice, sharing silence, contemplative prayer, or simply being with that which is, please come and do it in the company of others – supported by and, in turn, supporting others. In addition to a very welcoming environment in which to cultivate stillness and silence, we will also have the opportunity to share our experiences of stillness and silence and to discuss what some of the great spiritual writers have said about it.

The easiest way to find out more information is to go to the Meetup website and find interfaith ZEN. By signing in to the group you’ll be kept updated on meeting times and places. Thank you!

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Right Speech

You will likely recall that the last of the Four Noble Truths points to the path leading to the cessation of suffering – the Noble Eightfold Path. You might also recall that the three “steps” along that Path referred to as right speech, right action, and right livelihood pertain to moral conduct, whereas the others pertain to either wisdom or meditation, as the case may be. Implicit, then, within the practice of Buddhism, is the understanding that the cessation of “our” suffering is only possible within the context of our relationship with “others” and the world. One simple way to think of how these steps of the Path might link together is to consider how difficult it is to act morally without at least a little bit of wisdom guiding our behavior. Likewise, it is difficult to settle deeply into meditation when our life is fraught with conflict due to the improper nature of our conduct. Furthermore, without the ability to settle deeply into the stillness of meditation our ability to discern true wisdom is impaired. The “steps” of the Path all impact each other in ways such as this.

Of these three components of moral conduct, right speech is perhaps the most subtle and difficult to master. The oft-repeated aphorism about the pen being mightier than the sword resonates with us for a reason. We intuitively grasp the fact that wounds of the flesh, though painful and debilitating, often heal more quickly than wounds of the psyche, which might leave emotional scars that last a lifetime. We must also grasp that our words, or the lack thereof, have the power to save a person’s life or sentence them to death, to put food in the mouths of children or leave them to go hungry, to prevent pain from being inflicted or perpetuate the dynamics of abuse. In that regard our mouths, our pens, and the keystrokes with which we project our minds out into cyberspace have the potential to do great deeds or inflict great harm.

How are we to decide, then, what constitutes right speech? This very topic is expounded upon in one of the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha – the Abhaya Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 58). According to the Abhaya Sutta, there are four criteria to consider when deciding whether and how to speak: Is what I am about to say truthful? Is it beneficial? Is it timely? Will the hearer welcome it? According to this teaching, one should always speak truthful and timely words that are beneficial to the world. However, though it is always worthy of consideration, speech need not always be welcome to the hearer. Sometimes difficult things need to be said, regardless of how they might be received. But even when difficult words need to be spoken, they can still be spoken with a spirit of goodwill (e.g. The Patimokkha, as quoted in Right Speech). The specific inclusion of goodwill strikes me as a bit redundant in that a desire to be of benefit to the world would seem to presuppose such a spirit. On the other hand, I suppose we can also believe that we are benefitting the world by taking other people down a notch or two, can’t we? Thus, it seems appropriate to let that fifth criteria hover in the back of our mind – just in case.

I bet I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering, aren’t you, whether there’s any room in right speech for “the little white lie” – the falsehood uttered for the sake of the greater good? In fact, something akin to “the little white lie” does surface in the Lotus Sutra – a later teaching that enjoys varying levels of esteem depending upon whether you lean in favor of the Mahayana or the Theravada tradition. In the Lotus Sutra, Shariputra (he of the Heart Sutra) realizes that what the Buddha has just taught does not quite coincide with what his earlier teachings convey. In response, the Buddha tells a story – which I will shorten considerably – of a man whose children are playing in a house that is about to be consumed by a great fire. The man knows that the children are engrossed in their play and will not heed his cries for them to go outside at once. Instead he tells them that there is a cart full of their favorite toys outside the front gate waiting for them (Watson, 1993, pp. 55-62).

From the Mahayana viewpoint, this metaphor relates to the Buddha’s use of skillful means in order to save all beings by providing teachings that are appropriate to the hearer, even if those teachings might appear to convey a lesser truth to someone else. It seems then that this example of right speech encompasses most or all of the aforementioned criteria depending upon your point of view. It is beneficial, timely, welcome, and delivered with goodwill. The truthfulness of the metaphor, on the other hand, depends upon your point of view. In worldly terms, a “white lie” is indeed an untruth, but one delivered for the sake of some overarching good. In the realm of ultimate truth, however, the Buddha’s teachings and the means used are considered to be truth – truth that manifests differently depending upon circumstances. I’m reminded of a quote by one of the great physicists exploring the, then, strange new world of quantum mechanics:
[There are] two sorts of truth: profound truths recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities where opposites are obviously absurd. (Niels Bohr via Wikiquote)
I will let the reader decide for herself or himself just how often such an example of right speech might be applicable in everyday life for those of us who are not so skillful (or intelligent) as the Buddha (or Bohr)!

Let me end this discussion here for the time being. In my next post I’ll explore how we might use these criteria for right speech to evaluate some of the discussion that has taken place in the media these days. In the meantime, I hope you experience all of the joys that right speech may impart and none of the sorrows that tainted words can unleash.

Nanamoli Thera (2005). Right speech: Samma vaca. (Translated from the Pali by Nanamoli Thera and edited by Access to Insight.) Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1997). Abhaya sutta: To Prince Abhaya (MN 58). (Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.) Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,

Watson, B. (1993). The Lotus Sutra (tr. Watson, B.). Columbia University Press, New York.

Image Credits

Two People Talking logo by Selena Wilke via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank