Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Outdoor Life

I'm not complaining, but for some reason my self-employment has had me epically busy as of late with out-of-doors field work.  

January started with me field sampling at a Buckhead shopping center, and February with me field sampling at a Decatur, Georgia auto dealership.  This week, I've been sampling at a Southwest Atlanta apartment complex, and next week at a manufacturing facility in Birmingham, Alabama.  The time spent between these field adventures have been spent writing up documentation of the activities and providing an interpretation of the results.

We always complain about the weather, and I don't know if I would be enjoying this more if the work were being performed in the heat of the Georgia summer, but it's been either cold and windy or cold and rainy for much of the time I've been doing this work.  I've come home most days wanting little more than a hot bath and a warm bed.

Work seems to have always arrived as bundles of similar activities.  If I get a request for one type of service, I usually get several more similar requests and the pattern continues until I get a request that bucks the trend, but then I tend to get several more requests similar to that trend-bucking request.  In over 30 years in this business, I still haven't figured out why this pattern seems to exist and if it exists only in my perception.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Science of the Self

"As you wake up each morning, hazy and disoriented, you gradually become aware of the rustling of the sheets, sense their texture and squint at the light. One aspect of your self has reassembled: the first-person observer of reality, inhabiting a human body.

"As wakefulness grows, so does your sense of having a past, a personality and motivations. Your self is complete, as both witness of the world and bearer of your consciousness and identity. You.

"This intuitive sense of self is an effortless and fundamental human experience. But it is nothing more than an elaborate illusion. Under scrutiny, many common-sense beliefs about selfhood begin to unravel. Some thinkers even go as far as claiming that there is no such thing as the self."
The observations of some Zen teacher?   The ramblings of a new-age mystic?  No, none of the above.  These words were written by the editors of New Scientist in their introduction to a series of articles about scientific investigations of the so-called self.  The result of these studies shouldn't be surprising (but somehow still are), but neurologists, philosophers, and experimenters are increasingly coming to the Buddha's conclusion of some 2,500 years ago, that on close examination, one can find no evidence of a "self."

The New Scientist articles on the self include the following:
  • There are flaws in our intuitive beliefs about what makes us who we are. Who are we really, asks British philosopher Jan Westerhoff.
  • Westerhoff also notes that our brains create their own version of reality to help us make sense of things. But this means we're living outside time.
  • Your mind isn't as firmly anchored in your body as you think according to Anil Ananthaswamy
  • That seamless sense of who you are can be disturbed by many things, including illness, injury or drugs, as explained by Anil Ananthaswamy and Graham Lawton.
  • Our perception of our self might be an illusion, like free will, says Richard Fisher. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from it.
The problem with modern science, and the reason that it took it 2,500 years to catch up with the Buddha, is its insistence on relying only on impartial observation and experimentation, and its reluctance to tely on subjective, first-person experience.  But despite this obstacle, it seems to finally be coming around.
"Think back to your earliest memory. Now project forward to the day of your death. It is impossible to know when this will come, but it will. 
"What you have just surveyed might be called your 'self-span,' or the time when this entity you call your self exists. Either side of that, zilch. 
"Which is very mysterious, and a little unsettling. Modern humans have existed for perhaps 100,000 years, and more than 100 billion have already lived and died. We assume that they all experienced a sense of self similar to yours. None of these selves has made a comeback, and as far as we know, neither will you. 
"What is it about a mere arrangement of matter and energy that gives rise to a subjective sense of self? It must be a collective property of the neurons in your brain, which have mostly stayed with you throughout life, and which will cease to exist after you die. But why a given bundle of neurons can give rise to a given sense of selfhood, and whether that subjective sense can ever reside in a different bundle of neurons, may forever remain a mystery." - Graham Lawton

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

On the Origins of Lineage

“The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” (David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest)

This may prove interesting to those interested in this sort of thing:  apparently, tracking and charting of the dharma transmission from student to teacher back to the Buddha, so integral to Chan and Zen practice, did not begin until the Eighth Century A.D.  

As described by Philip Yampolsky, a lecturer at Columbia University until his death in 1996, in his translation of The Platform Sutra, "By the time that the T'ang dynasty had gained control of a unified China in 618, Buddhism was already firmly entrenched on Chinese soil.  From its modest beginnings as a religion introduced by traveling merchants and both Indian and Central Asian missionaries in the first and second centuries, it had spread throughout all levels of Chinese society.  Vast temple complexes, awe-inspiring in their magnificence, stood in the cities and towns; great monastic communities graced the top of many a lofty mountain.  Imposing works of sculpture and painting and elaborate and ornate ritual stirred the hearts and minds of the populace."

Meditation had always been an essential part of Indian Buddhism, and it was no less important in China.  Eventually, there came to be practioners who devoted themselves almost exclusively to meditation.  Probably originally wandering ascetics, some of them began to gain a following, and eventually communities of monks were established where the practioners meditated and worked together.  Toward the end of the seventh century, one such community, that of the priest Hongren of East Mountain, had gained considerable prominence.  Hongren and his many disciples were the original Chan Buddhists.

As explained by Dr. Yampolsky, once Chan began to be organized into an independent sect, it required a history and tradition which would provide it with the respectability already possessed by the longer-established schools of Buddhism.  "In the manufacture of this history," Dr. Yampolsky writes, "accuracy was not a consideration; a tradition traceable to the Indian patriarchs was the objective."  To this end, they not only perpetuated some of the old legends, but they also devised new ones, which were repeated continuously until they were accepted as fact.  To achieve the aura of legitimacy so urgently needed, histories were compiled tracing the Chan sect back to the historical Buddha.  Stories of the Chinese patriarchs were composed, their teachings outlined, their histories written, and their legends collected.  

So, obviously, the histories, stories, koans, and traditions so essential to Chan and Zen Buddhism are not what we consider in the 21st century to be "historical fact," but that does not matter in the least.  As with the historical Buddha, the authority of the teachings does not rely on who taught them, but whether or not they work.  If it were somehow proven that Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming hadn't in fact invented penicillin, the medicine would still be every bit as effective.  Whether or not there was ever an actual Betty Crocker, the recipes would still be only as useful as the dishes they can produce.

The stories, teachings, and lives ascribed to the Chan lineage may have been drawn from popular legend and not from historical fact, but the legends have survived the centuries due to their ability to awaken us to our true nature, to their value as teaching devices, and to their guidance for those following the buddha-way.  But it's helpful to remember their origins before we become too attached to the teachers and not the teachings.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

As humans, we usually think that we are separate from the natural world and entitled to use it for our own ends. When we ourselves are treated this way – objectified, exploited – we object strongly: witness the Arab spring, revolutions throughout history, and significant support for the aims of the Occupy movement (Time poll, 10/2011). Yet the few people who suggest not exploiting animals, plants, or ecosystems are usually ridiculed or trivialized. Even Buddhists rarely live in accordance with the very clear teachings of their religion on this subject.

The direct results of this alienation, central to human civilization, include the present financial crisis, the loss of 200 animal species every day, the degradation of soils, air, water and human health along with them, peak oil, and a forced march toward a cliff known as climate catastrophe. The subtler results are loneliness, ennui, and attempts to fill our empty hearts by consuming – which is very good for business. . . 

The only reason catastrophe is inevitable is because we prioritize industrial civilization over survival. As long as we are consumers rather than citizens, we are consenting to our own demise, participating in global murder-suicide. - from The Compassionate Earthwalk Manifesto

Saturday, February 23, 2013


The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.” - David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (2009)

Friday, February 22, 2013

There Is No More Neutral Corner

“If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day.  By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting.  In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.” - David Foster Wallace in Rolling Stone (2000)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Compassionate Earth Walk

"Humans are destroying the earth, including ourselves. We are using up all the natural resources (coal, oil, water, soil, natural gas) as if they would replenish themselves – or as if there were no tomorrow. We make chemicals that make millions of us sick. Our extraction of fossil fuels (and our unnatural methods of farming) are causing climate change that has already caused catastrophic floods and droughts – and we are on track for much, much worse.

"Knowing this, our governments and institutions have chosen to continue extracting resources at an ever-increasing rate, to create new and more sophisticated poisons, and to ridicule or imprison those who object. The disease of our day is to see ourselves as independent and the world as a resource to consume.

"In this walk, we openly announce that it is the other way around: we are part of the earth, embraced, supported, and given life by it. None of us could take a single breath without the help of the myriad beings that inhabit this planet. In doing so, we ally ourselves with millions of people who have lived in harmony with their natural communities, for centuries and millenia. We thus begin to decolonize ourselves, which is a step toward real decolonization."

- from The Compassionate Earth Walk

Monday, February 18, 2013

Dogen instructed,
There is a proverb about the way of the emperor, “If one’s heart is not empty, it is impossible to accept loyal advice.” What this means is that without holding personal views, one follows the opinions of loyal ministers and carries out the way of the sovereign according to how things should be. 
The attitude of Zen monks practicing the Way should be the same.  If you hold on to personal views even slightly, the words of your teacher will not enter your ears.  If you don’t listen to your teacher’s words, you cannot grasp your teacher’s dharma.  Forget not only the different views on the dharma, but also worldly affairs, and hunger and cold as well.  When you listen being completely purified in body and mind, you will be able to hear intimately.  When you listen with this attitude, you will be able to clarify the truth and resolve your questions.  True attainment of the Way is casting aside body and mind and following your teacher directly.  If you maintain this attitude, you will be a true person of the Way.  This is a primary secret. (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 6, Chapter 17).

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Unity Through Harmony

A monastic once asked Zen Master Tozan, "Among the three bodies, which one does not fall into any category?"  I have also heard this question phrased, "Among the three buddha bodies, which one expounds the dharma?"

Same question, really.  The dharma, the Buddha's teaching, states that all things are in essence one, so any categorization, any division or separation, is just a construct of the human mind.  To not fall into any category is to expound the dharma, and as nothing actually falls into any category, all things expound the dharma.  So the three bodies, which themselves are merely three different views of the same reality, all transcend categorization and each expounds the dharma.  The monastic's question is clouded in confusion.

The noted biologist Richard Dawkins once pointed out that if there were no extinction and if every species and subspecies of living being that has ever existed were still alive on the face of the planet, these would be a complete continuum between every living thing.  We would be unable to say where Homo sapiens ended and where Homo erectus (or whichever) began, and there would be no discernible point between even mammals and reptiles, or between birds and reptiles, or even vertebrates and invertebrates.  The only reason we can divide living things into "species" is because there are so many gaps owing to extinction,.but without those gaps, the concept of species would be meaningless.  There is, in reality, only life, and division of life into species, speciation, is just another construct of the human mind.  

Tozan does not tell the monk that he is clouded in confusion.  He does not argue, and he does not oppose the monk's premise.  When Joshu is asked by a monk "How can I throw away nothing?", Joshu does not argue but tells the monk to carry it with him then.  When the Sixth Ancestor Hui-Neng is confronted by the monk Ming demanding the robe and the bowl, Hui-Neng does not protest but merely sets it down and offers it to him.  Opposition does not resolve differences; unity is achieved through harmony.

It is better for the monastic to realize his confusion for himself.  When Tozan replies, "I am always sharp at this concrete place," he is merely holding his view up for the monastic to contrast with his own, and to realize for himself the confusion in his question.

This is why when another monastic asked Zen Master Sozan what "I am always sharp at this concrete place"  meant, Sozan replied, "If you need a head, chop my head off and take it with you."  A severed head can't think for you, and you can't access the knowledge in a severed head.  In other words, don't rely on my explanation, as my understanding won't do you any good.  Look into it for yourself.  He kindly allows his monastic the same opportunity to see for himself that Tozan had provided to his monastic. 

Zen Master Seppo simply hit his monastic with a staff.  This was not in punishment, but a "wake up" reminder that we are in the here and now and to stop such idle speculation.  "I too have been to Tozan," can mean that Seppo once had the same confusion and the same question - or same sort of question - as the monk who first asked Tozan, or it could mean that Seppo has the same understanding as Tozan.  Or both.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


A monastic once asked Zen Master Tozan, "Among the three bodies, which one does not fall into any category?"  Tozan replied, "I am always sharp at this concrete place."

Later, it is said that another monastic visited Zen Master Sozan and asked the not unreasonable question, "Tozan said, 'I am always sharp at this concrete place.'  What does that mean?"

Sozan said, "If you need a head, chop my head off and take it with you."

Yet another monastic is said to have asked Zen Master Seppo about this, and Seppo suddenly hit the monastic with his staff and said, "I too have been to Tozan."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A monastic once asked Zen Master Tozan, "Among the three bodies, which one does not fall into any category?" 

We should examine what is being asked here.

"The three bodies" refers to the trikaya, the three bodies of a buddha.  As I understand it, it is based on the concept that a buddha is one with the absolute while manifesting in the relative world in order to work for the welfare of all beings.  

The first of the three bodies, the dharmakaya, is the true nature of a buddha.  It is buddha nature itself, and is essentially ineffable.  It is the unified existence that lies beyond all concepts.  If you express it, that's not the dharmakaya.  The dharmakaya is our true self.

The second body is the sambogakaya, the "reward body," and is sometimes described as the experience of the ecstasy of enlightenment.  I have been told that Soyu Matsuoka has described the sambogakaya as the joyful realization of the dharmakaya and the nirmanakaya as one.

The third body, the nirmanakaya, or body of transformation, is the earthly body in which buddha's appear in order to teach and serve others.  It is represented by the historical person of Shakyamuni Buddha.

In Zen, the relationship between the three bodies is illustrated by an analogy of medical knowledge.  The dharmakaya can be compared to the great body of medical knowledge; the sambogakaya to the education of a doctor through which he or she gains that knowledge; and the nirmanakaya to the application of that knowledge in treating patients, who are thus liberated from sickness.  Zen teacher Gerry Shishin Wick explains that dharmakaya is wisdom, sambogakaya is the realization of wisdom, and nirmanakaya is the utilization of wisdom.

The trikaya are really three different views of the same reality and together constitute a whole.  They are just ways of talking about things, and ultimately, there are no three bodies - they are not three separate things, although each is a complete representation of the unified whole.

The monk asks Tozan which of the three bodies does not fall into any category.  I don't know how the monk even came to think that one of the three bodies defies categorization while the other two don't, but he's already lost in delusion.  He's asking the wrong question.  It's like asking "What is the marital status of the number seven?  Is it married?  If not, is it therefore single?  Or is it somehow neither (or both) married and single?"  These are the wrong questions, and there's no merit to contemplating them.

Our minds assign name and form to the nameless, formless universe, and we then come to believe that the cookie-cutter pieces of reality that our minds have tried to separate from the unified existence are actually separate existent or nonexistent "things."  This is what the monk is trying to do with the the buddha dharma - slice it and dice it into separate entities, and then hold each one up for examination to compare and contrast with the others.  By acknowledging that there are things that do not fall into categories, he's further created "things" called "categorical" and "non-categorical."  He's created a "thing" not only out of nothing, but out of "no thing."

Zen Master Tozan will have none of this.  He tells the monastic, "I am always sharp at this concrete place."

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I Am Always Sharp At This Concrete Place

In Shōbōgenzō Jinzū, Zen Master Dogen discusses "the state in which, facing all existent and non-existent dharmas, the eyes, ears, nose and tongue are each untainted by greed.  Not to be tainted by greed is untaintedness.  Untaintedness is the everyday mind and is the state of 'I am always sharp at this concrete place'."

Like much of Dogen's writing, this needs to be chewed on for a while before it can be digested.  The first symptom of Ummon's first sickness is when things are not yet clear and something appears before you.  The "sickness" here is the delusion of separation of self from the appearance. If "something" appears before "you," you've already divided the nameless, formless substance of the universe into "you" and that "something," missing entirely the seamless, interconnected nature of reality.  Yet, shrouded in our delusion, we cling to the name and form of the appearance and to the egocentric concept of self identity.  

Dogen is discussing the healthy state free from Ummon's first sickness.  Things still appear before the awakened mind, but when it is facing an existent dharma or even a non-existent dharma (such as a thought, a concept, or an emotion), the awakened mind is not tainted by attachment to the senses. Recognizing that all sensory sensations are like a dream, the awakened mind does not cling to the delusion that the perceptions are real or that they are not all aspects of the one thing.  This untainted mind is in accord with the Buddha way, and one with such a mind once remarked. "I am always sharp at this concrete place."

In the Rev. Hubert Nearman's translation of Shōbōgenzō Jinzū, the same passage discusses "eyes, ears, nose, and tongue all being undefiled by the various material and immaterial things that arise. ‘Being undefiled’ means ‘not being stained with desires’. ‘Not being stained with desires’ refers to our everyday mind: it is our continually cutting through whatever arises here and now."

So in the statement "I am always sharp at this concrete place," "always" means "continually" and "this concrete place" means "here and now," wherever and whenever that might be.  "Always sharp" means cutting through the appearance of whatever arises.  "I am always sharp at this concrete place" means the everyday mind of Zen that continually cuts through whatever arises here and now.

Okay, can you use it in a sentence?

A monastic once asked Zen Master Tozan, "Among the three bodies, which one does not fall into any category?"  Tozan replied, "I am always sharp at this concrete place."

Monday, February 11, 2013

Dogen instructed,
All the buddhas and patriarchs were originally ordinary people. While they were ordinary people, they certainly did bad deeds and had evil minds. Some of them were undoubtedly dull or even stupid. However, since they reformed their minds, followed their teachers, and practiced the Way, they all became buddhas and patriarchs. People today should also be like this. Do not underestimate yourselves because you think you are dull or stupid. If you do not arouse bodhi-mind in this present lifetime, when can you expect to be able to practice the Way? If you force yourselves to practice now, you will surely attain the Way.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


On the way up to Chattanooga, I'm always reminded of impermanence when I pass the 298-mile marker on I-75 and see the wide swath of sheared-off trees from a tornado that crossed the highway in 2011.  Every single tree for about a quarter mile on both sides of the highway has been snapped off at about 6 to 10 feet above the ground, and although the trees are finally starting to regrow after two years, it's still a startling sight.

I passed this zone again today on my way up to Chattanooga, but I also encountered a new scar slightly further up the road, right at the 306-mile marker and the exit for Adairsville, Georgia.  Here, although the land is more open and there are fewer trees, every one of the few that are present (or were present) have been similarly snapped in half.  Even more sobering is the sight on the north-bound side of the highway, where several large billboards were knocked over and the large steel columns that supported them lay on the ground twisted like pretzels.  This is where last week's Adairsville tornado crossed the highway, and it is almost as wide as the path of destruction down the road from the earlier tornado.

Nearly a half-mile of devastation in total, and only 8 miles apart.  Talk about a "tornado alley. . . "

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Life-Threatening Blizzard Poised to Strike New England

A life-threatening and historic blizzard that could rank among the top 10 snowstorms on record in southern New England is poised to plaster the region this weekend with snow that will be measured in feet rather than inches. The storm could also cause major coastal flooding and produce hurricane-force wind gusts, forecasters said.  At times, this storm is expected to deliver snow at rates of 2-to-3 inches per hour, with thundersnow a distinct possibility according to the National Weather Service said.

(from The Onion)
As was the case when Hurricane Sandy struck in late October, sea-surface temperatures are running several degrees above average off the East Coast, which according to climate scientists may reflect both natural climate variability and the effects of manmade global warming. The presence of unusually warm waters could aid in the rapid development of the storm system, and infuse it with additional moisture, thereby increasing snowfall totals.

Heavy precipitation events in the Northeast, including both rain and snowstorms, have been increasing in the past few decades, in a trend that a new federal climate report links to manmade global climate change. As the world has warmed, more moisture has been added to the atmosphere, giving storms additional energy to work with, and making precipitation extremes more common in many places. The last major snowstorm to strike southern New England was the unusual Halloween snowstorm in 2011.

This storm also comes 35 years to the day after the infamous 1978 blizzard paralyzed New England under more than 2 feet of snow. I was stuck in a Greyhound bus between New York and Boston during that storm, and wound up walking over a mile down a deserted Mass. Pike in the snow and climbing a fence to cross the Amtrak tracks to get back home to my apartment in Brighton.  

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Virtue of Patience

Rock Balance Demonstration by Michael Grab July 2012

"The challenge here was making this balance happen within the 5 minute video limitation of my camera... it took about 5 takes to finally get it (AFTER getting to know the rocks). 

*FOCUS. Relax. the coolest thing is that the camera was able to capture the creation AND natural collapse of the balance before the 5 minute limit. completing the cycle. :)) so here's how it's done. 

*notice the technique of bracing the lower rocks while placing the next. the top rock acts as a pin to stabilize the whole structure, which is why it is very helpful to use a LARGE rock on top. plus, i like the overall design balance that the large top rock adds. and i love shades of red. as soon as i found that red rock, i knew it must go on top. it was a beautiful rock. :) contemplate, try it for yourself. all about presence in the moment. SLOW down. become the balance. :)"

Monday, February 04, 2013

Dogen instructed, 
The mental attitude of a person of the Way is somewhat different from that of ordinary people. One time when the late Sojo (Archbishop) of Kenninji (Eisai) was still alive, the temple ran completely out of food. At the time, one of the patrons invited the Sojo over and offered him a bolt of silk. The Sojo rejoiced and carried it back to the temple himself, instead of having someone else carry it for him. He gave it to the temple officer who was in charge and told him to use it to pay for the following morning’s gruel, etc.  
However, a certain layman asked, “A shameful affair happened, so that I need a few bolts of silk. If you have any, could you kindly let me have them?”  
The Sojo immediately took back the silk from the temple officer and gave it to the man. At the time, the officer and all the other monks were extremely upset by this. Later the Sojo said, “You may think it was wrong. However, my thinking is that you gather together here because of your aspiration for the Buddha-Way. It should not matter even if we run out of food and starve to death. It is more beneficial to save people in the secular world right now who are suffering from a lack of something they need.”  
Truly, the consideration of a person of the Way is like this (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 6, Chapter 15).

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Ummon's Other Sickness

Ummon also taught that the Dharma-body also has two kinds of sickness.  One is when we manage to reach the Dharma-body, but still clinging to our sense of self, we abide at the margins of the Dharma-body. The other is that even if we can pass through, we cannot let go of having passed through.  Ummon encouraged us to  examine this state carefully, thinking "What inadequacy can there still be?," as this too is sickness.

The Dharma-body is without any characteristic, without any boundary; it reaches everywhere. It has no name and no form. But as long as we still cling to our sense of self, as long as we regard the Dharma-body as our Dharma-body, the sense of self still remains.   To use an eloquent example described by Sensei Geoffrey Shugen Arnold of Daido Loori's Mountains and Rivers Order, before it was like one drop of water within the great ocean drawing a circle around itself and declaring, “This is me. Everything else is not me.” But after it's like the line was erased and the one drop of water now declares "The great ocean is me."  This is still a sickness, as the clinging mind has merely altered its definition of itself, but still has not let go of itself.

But even if self drops away and we abide in the Dharma-body, Ummon encourages us to keep looking deeper, to find the dust within the dust within the dust, and to sweep even that away. Practice does not end at awakening and nothing is achieved.  We merely continue to look deeper and deeper for traces of the self, for who it is that's breathing and inquiring, and of what can still be let go.

A monk once asked Joshu, "I have nothing. How's that?"
Joshu replied, "Throw it away."
The monk then asked, "How can I throw away nothing?"
Joshu answered, "Carry it with you then."

Saturday, February 02, 2013

On Ummon's Sickness

The late American Zen teacher John Daido Loori said that the monk who asked Joshu how he could throw away nothing was afflicted with Ummon's sickness.

Ummon said, "When the light does not penetrate freely, there are two kinds of sickness. One is when all places are not clear and there is something before you. Having penetrated the emptiness of all things, subtly it seems like there is something—this too is the light not penetrating freely."

"When the light does not penetrate freely" refers to all of us in our deluded state, even those who have attained some amount of insight and awakening.  "When there is something before you" points to the duality of subject and object - as long as we cling to the concepts of "something" and "you" as being two separate and opposite entities, we are still in the dark.  We are still confusing the myriad names and forms with the real substance.

But Ummon looks into it deeper.  "Having penetrated the emptiness of all things," that is, recognizing that all names and forms are devoid of an independent existence, "subtly it seems like there is something," he teaches.  This is the sickness, this is the light still not fully penetrating.

"Subtly it seems like something" refers to us grasping onto the substance, the cookie dough, as a "thing."  Joshu's monk was still clinging to a concept of "nothing" and missed Joshu's reminder that "nothing" is still just another shape and form.  This is still not enlightenment, Ummon taught, this too is the sickness.  Even existence and non-existence, the cookie dough and nothing, are still names and forms. 

When we're grasping onto an understanding that is still grasping, and by thinking "it's this way" or "that way" we're still mistaking our understanding for an immovable, fixed "thing."  Even if our understanding is correct at that moment, clinging to that understanding is to fix name and form to it, and makes it yet another delusion.

"Not knowing" is not holding onto any such fixed views, but encountering each moment as it comes and accepting it for what it is, without assigning it name and form.  "Not knowing" is letting go of even the self, is letting go of "nothing," is letting go of "letting go."

Friday, February 01, 2013

Climate Change and the Adairsville Tornado

I woke up last Wednesday morning to the sound of the Emergency Broadcast System on my radio alarm clock issuing a tornado warning for North Georgia, including the greater Atlanta region.  The skies outside were dark, even for that early hour of the morning, but it didn't really look like tornado weather, or even severe thunderstorm weather.  The warning was called off before 10 am and before the incoming cold front hit Atlanta.

The cold front finally did arrive around 2:00 in the afternoon, and it rained for about an hour as hard as I've ever seen it come down.  The picture above is of Interstate 75 traffic about a half-mile from my home as the rain was letting up - at its peak, visibility was so low you wouldn't have been able to see as far as the highway signs, much less the skyline.

As you've probably heard, the storm included a tornado that reportedly reached 900 yards wide and tore across northwest Georgia for nearly 22 miles.  The tornado reached an estimated peak wind speed of 160 mph when it slammed into Adairsville, causing staggering damage and killing one person.  

The fatality was the first U.S. tornado-related death in 220 days, ending the longest streak of days on record without a tornado-related fatality in the nation.  The streak was due both to the low number of tornadoes that the U.S. saw during 2012, and the fact that the strongest tornadoes that did occur tended to miss heavily populated areas.

It's very unusual, even in Georgia, to see weather like this in January.  Big spring thunderstorms and associated tornadoes usually don't occur until at least the month of March.  Wednesday's tornado was part of a three-day outbreak of severe weather associated with a sprawling storm system that first brought spring-like temperatures and humidity to the Midwest and East Coast, followed by howling winds and cold weather on Wednesday night.  The early appearance of a tornado raises the question of what role, if any, climate change had with the storm.

Tornadoes require a particular combination of ingredients in order to form, and the number of tornadoes is highly dependent on the prevailing weather patterns. As explained by science writer Andrew Freedman at Climate Central, the same weather pattern associated with the record heat and drought of 2012 also stifled tornado activity by keeping a very hot, dry, and stable air mass in place across Tornado Alley.  The drought was most intense in the heart of Tornado Alley - Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, and other states where spring and summer twisters are typical. 

While natural climate variability likely played a major role in initiating the drought, climate scientists said global warming may have made the drought worse by making conditions hotter, and therefore drier, than they otherwise might have been. So climate change may have contributed as much to the low number of tornadoes observed in 2012 - and the record 220 days without a tornado-related fatality - as to the generation of Wednesday's intense storm.  

With the Arctic warming up, the temperature differential between the Gulf and Arctic air masses has decreased and will decrease further. That differential is what drives tornadoes and makes North America the tornado capital of the planet, so the good news is that climate change means that tornadoes will likely decrease in number as the climate continues to change. 

The bad news is that with the warming planet, there is much more energy in the climate system and we can expect more powerful storms in general. Tornadoes might become less frequent, but they will tend to be larger and more intense when they do occur.

The warming Arctic may have triggered the storm front that caused the Adairsville tornado.  A sudden warming event that took place high in the stratosphere above the Arctic Circle in late December and early January may be drawing cold air away from the Arctic and into the northern mid-latitudes, while the Arctic enjoys relatively mild temperatures. Although the physics behind sudden stratospheric warming events are too complicated for me to explain (a good explanation can be found here), we can expect colder and possibly stormier weather for four to eight weeks after the event, meaning that after a mild start, the rest of this winter could be the coldest yet for parts of the U.S., along with a heightened chance of snow.

Sudden stratospheric warming events take place in about half of all Northern Hemisphere winters, but they have been occurring with increasing frequency during the past decade, possibly related to the loss of Arctic sea ice due to global warming.  Arctic sea ice declined to its smallest extent on record in September 2012. 

Storms like this are also powerful reminders of impermanence.  As a society, we put such great emphasis on our material belongings, and we define ourselves as much on what we own as on what we do.  But one large tornado, or an earthquake, or a tsunami, or a storm surge, can wipe it all away in a matter of minutes, causing us such great grief and suffering, raising the question of why we put such value on that which we can't hold on to anyway (including our own selves).