Tending Horses As The World Warms

At least one thing about reality on which we all can agree (I hope), is that it’s going to be whatever it will be regardless of what we might believe. We can argue all day long about how the world began and why, and what we’re doing here, but the only conclusion that we may ever agree on is that we’re here – period. The next step is to work together to figure out what we’re going to do about it. Perhaps that’s why Buddhist practice still resonates with me after all these years; because day in and day out, throughout all of the joys and sorrows of life, it keeps holding a mirror up to my face and reminding me: you’re here, now what are you going to do about it?

There seems to be a human tendency to get lost in our stories, to build grand cities out of brick-pallets full of concepts mortared together with belief, to invent metaphysical realities that are untestable until such time that we finally pass away – and maybe not even then if it just so happens that the observant soul embodied by each of us “scientists” ends up passing away along with the “experiment” that is our life and death. Perhaps that’s why Zen Buddhist practice in particular resonates with me; because it ultimately boils down to unbelieving everything that we’ve been taught to believe from a very early age, and replacing it with a very deep and profound realization of the reality that is right before our eyes: that every “thing” is dependent upon everything else, that no “thing” enjoys a permanent and independent existence, that every “thing” is empty of selfhood – even ourselves. In fact, contrary to all of the hype and romanticism, this is all that enlightenment is – a deep and profound realization of the interdependence, the impermanence, and the emptiness of all phenomena.

Satellite image of Typhoon Haiyan bearing down on the Philippines.

This past week Typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest storms ever recorded, plowed through the Philippines – proving, in case it needed any proving, that absolutely nothing that we call our own can stand up to the destructive power of nature. Our lives and our families, our homes and communities and cities – anything and everything that we can spend our whole lives building up can be torn down in an instant. Everything is impermanent.

In Shime, a fascicle of the Shobogenzo, Dogen Zenji relates the following teaching:

The Buddha once told his monks that there were four kinds of horses. The first, upon seeing the shadow of the riding crop, is startled and forthwith follows the wish of its rider. The second, startled when the crop touches its hair, forthwith follows the wish of its rider. The third is startled after the crop touches its flesh. The fourth is awakened only after the touch of the riding crop is felt in its bones. (Nearman 2007, p. 1045)

Forget what you might be thinking about animal abuse or the appropriateness of fear as motivation. The Buddha is talking about us waking up to reality – whether our awakening comes upon listening to his (the rider’s) teachings related to birth, old age, sickness, and death, or whether our awakening comes at the hands of life itself, riding us hard and putting us away wet (and old, and sick, and dead). Dogen continues:

The first horse is like a man who realizes impermanence when he learns of a death in a neighboring village. The second horse is like a man who realizes this when death occurs in his own village. The third is like a man who does not awaken this mind [the mind that realizes impermanence] until death occurs among his own family, and the forth horse is like a man who awakens this mind only when his own death is imminent. (Nishiyama, 1975; Vol. 3, p. 113)

The storm that swept through the Philippines this past week was so big that even this country that normally weathers some twenty typhoons each year was found woefully unprepared. Consider this extreme weather event along with those closer to our own “village”, like Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and you might be wondering whether there is a trend. Here’s what the somewhat circumspect National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has to say about that, at least with respect to hurricane activity over the Atlantic Ocean:

A large increase in the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes [the most severe] has been observed in the Atlantic since 1980. But… this period is too short to be able to distinguish a long-term trend from the multi-decadal fluctuations that are known to exist in the Atlantic. (Source: NOAA)

By the way, such storms are called typhoons when they occur in the Northwest Pacific Ocean, hurricanes when they occur in the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific Ocean, and cyclones when they occur in the Southwest Pacific and Indian Oceans (NOAA).

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is a little more conclusive in its assessment of the situation. They point to greenhouse gas-induced global warming as the predominant factor increasing the likelihood of such weather events as Haiyan, Sandy, and Katrina, saying:

The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years….

The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century. Their ability to affect the transfer of infrared energy through the atmosphere is the scientific basis of many instruments flown by NASA. Increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response. (Source: NASA)

Levels of carbon dioxide from 400,000 years ago to this past July, 2013.

This same NASA source goes on to state that global warming due to human-generated greenhouse gas emissions is likely the cause of our shrinking ice sheets and glaciers, and the declining arctic sea ice. Such melting ice has caused sea levels to rise, thereby resulting in increased damage caused by the coastal storm surges that accompany those hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones that reach land. Warming oceans also have the potential to cause more intense ocean storms, and the ability of warm air to hold more moisture has the potential to cause more torrential inland rainstorms. Furthermore, dissolved carbon dioxide forms carbonic acid, which acidifies the oceans and makes it more difficult for corals and seashells to form, thereby endangering entire ocean ecosystems. Is there any better evidence than these interrelated causes and conditions that every “thing” is dependent upon everything else, that no “thing” enjoys a permanent and independent existence, that every “thing” is empty of selfhood – even ourselves. How can we even begin to think that we are independent of the environment?

The question for Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, then, is what kind of horse will we be? We have already missed our chance to that first kind of horse – the one that merely has to see the shadow of the riding crop in order to understand what must be done. Those scientists that first realized the potential consequences of the greenhouse effect are due that honor. We might have also missed our chance to be one of the second types of horses as well. So, will it really take each and every one of us experiencing some catastrophe impacting our families or ourselves before we become enlightened to the consequences of our actions – before we wake up and begin asking ourselves: “What are we going to do about it?”  Please consider making a cash donation to the American Red Cross in order to help our Filipino brothers and sisters in this time of great need.


Postscript: Now, some readers might be tempted to throw my words back at me, saying: “You said that everything is impermanent. Well, aren’t our climate patterns impermanent, too? Shouldn’t we just accept this as part of life?” To this I would respond: “Yes, and you know that everyone in your immediate family will one day die, but if you found out that you were inadvertently doing something that might poison them to death, you would stop, wouldn’t you?”



Nearman, H. (2007). Shobogenzo: the treasure house of the eye of the true teaching (H. Nearman, Trans.) Published by Shasta Abbey Press. (Shime was compiled and transcribed from Dogen’s original manuscript by Ejo in 1255.) http://www.shastaabbey.org/pdf/shobo/090shime.pdf

Nishiyama, K. (1975). Shobogenzo: the eye and treasury of the true law, Vol. III. (K. Nishiyama, Trans.) Published by Nakayama Shobo Buddhist Book Store. (Shime was compiled and transcribed from Dogen’s original manuscript by Ejo in 1255.)


Image Credits

Nov. 7, 2013 image of Typhoon Haiyan bearing down on the Philippines courtesy of the Japan Meteorological Agency and EUMETSAT via:

Image of atmospheric carbon dioxide over time courtesy of NASA via:  


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


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