We’re all grateful to see the infrastructure of the US government finally get into action on behalf of the living and the dead who have suffered so from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
But as we look beneath the surface of that event - an event which destroyed a huge city of almost a million people - it is clear that this is not an isolated event. The people who measure risk for a living - the world’s great insurance companies - have all revised their underwriting projections in anticipation of even more overwhelming events like this to come - because of global warming.
We’ve begun to see the unfolding of them across the globe, as the ice caps melt at a rate that is unprecedented, and the sea level and temperature rises across the world. The predicted changed are dire - even apocalyptic. A consortium of enlightened capitalist leaders are beginning to speak out, along with the environmentalists.
To see the levees break, and the waters of Lake Pontchartrain overflow flood New Orleans is an awesome and a terrible sight. To see the bodies floating in the water, and know it is now a toxic cesspool of sewage and decay that man and beast are walking through - is a vision of hell. To be aware of how we got to this point - to know that all this was both predicted and preventable - is terrible knowledge indeed.
The dire need to rid the drowned city of water could trigger fish kills and poison the delicate wetlands near New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi. (Full story)
State and federal agencies have just begun water quality testing but environmental experts say the vile, stagnant chemical soup that sits in the streets of the city will contain traces of everything imaginable.
“Go home and identify all the chemicals in your house. It’s a very long list,” said Ivor van Heerden, head of a Louisiana State University center that studies the public health impacts of hurricanes.
“And that’s just in a home. Imagine what’s in an industrial plant,” he said. “Or a sewage plant.”
Gasoline, diesel, anti-freeze, bleach, human waste, acids, alcohols and a host of other substances must be washed out of homes, factories, refineries, hospitals and other buildings.
Of course it is a good thing that there has been an outpouring of support from all over the world. But it would have been a better thing if the governmental agencies had not ignored the many warnings about the inadequacy of the barriers - and made the preventative investment of less than $200 million necessary to fix the levees. It was common knowledge - for those who lived there - that the levees would never withstand a hurricane of Katrina’s magnitude…and that one was inevitable, sooner or later.
Having ignored what was known as only us bonbus can - we are now faced with an estimated bill of $100 BILLION. That’s 500 times the $200 million that was needed to prevent all this.
And of course, that number can’t possibly account for the emotional devastation, which is unspeakable in the wake of an estimated 10,000 people dead, and a million left with literally NOTHING - neither homes, nor job, nor a life in their own community.
We are all reminded of the recent tsunami in the Pacific Rim which devastated so many - over 100,000 lives lost in an instant. But I can’t help but think that in some fundamental way this is WORSE - because it is, to a great degree, a self-inflicted wound - and a harbinger of more like this to come. As the waters keep rising, and the temperature of the sea creeps up one degree at a time, entire continents are at risk. The world our children and grandchildren will inherit - if this continues - will be a harsh and terrible landscape.
Such is THE WEIGHT OF WATER in the samsaric hell-realm in which we live. Yes, it sustains our life - but it is also the agent of our suffering and death. And as we continue to break the natural environment, and (largely) ignore what we are doing - the weight of water begins to crush us all.
When I moved into my current home, a water test was required because New Jersey has such pollution problems - and my water comes from a well. It turned out that the water was full of filth - not just rust but the kind of bacteria you’d be exposed to if you drank from the toilet. The prior owners had been living here - and (in effect) drinking toilet water for the past 20 years.
Such is THE WEIGHT OF WATER in the samsaric hell-realm in which we live. That is why Shakyamuni Buddha spoke of how difficult it was - what a great sacrifice it was - for him to take birth here in corporeal form. By doing so he subjected himself to everything that afflicts us all - including the weight of water in a world where many live their whole lives drinking the kind of sewage now pouring through the streets of New Orleans.
This all struck me with great force this week, as I both watched the horrific images on TV, and also read The Larger Pure Land Sutra - in particular the passage describing the experience of water that a being has in The Pure Land of Amida Buddha.
I invite you to LISTEN DEEPLY to Shakyamuni Buddha as he describes this experience of water in the Pure Land to his cousin and disciple Ananda - and the thousands listening with him that fateful day on Vulture Peak.
The halls, monasteries, palaces and pavilions are spontaneous apparitions, all adorned with the seven jewels and hung with curtains of various other jewels, such as pearls and moon-bright mani gems. “Inside and out, to right and left, are bathing pools. Some of them are ten yojanas in length, breadth and depth; some are twenty yojanas, others, thirty, and so on, until we come to those measuring a hundred thousand yojanas in length, breadth and depth. They are brimful of the water of eight excellent qualities, clear, fragrant and tasting like nectar.
There are golden pools with beds of silver sand; silver pools with beds of golden sand; crystal pools with beds of beryl sand; beryl pools with beds of crystal sand; coral pools with beds of amber sand; amber pools with beds of coral sand; agate pools with beds of ruby sand; ruby pools with beds of agate sand; white-jade pools with beds of purple-gold sand; purple-gold pools with beds of white-jade sand. Others are composed of two to seven jewels.
On the banks of these pools are sandalwood trees, whose flowers and leaves hang down and diffuse perfumes everywhere. Heavenly lotuses of blue, pink, yellow and white bloom profusely in various tints and tones, completely covering the surface of the water.
If bodhisattvas and shravakas in that land enter the jewel-ponds and wish the water to rise to their ankles, it rises to their ankles. If they wish it to rise to their knees, it rises to their knees. If they wish it to rise to their waists, it rises to their waists. If they wish it to rise to their necks, it rises to their necks. If they wish it to pour over their bodies, it spontaneously pours over their bodies. If they wish it to recede, it recedes.
Its temperature is moderate, cool or warm, according to their wishes. The water comforts the body and refreshes the mind, washing away their mental defilements. Clear and pure, the water is so transparent that it seems formless. The jewel-sand shines so brightly that even the depth of the water cannot prevent its brilliance from being seen.
The rippling water forms meandering streams, which join and flow into each other. Their movement is peaceful and quiet, neither too fast nor too slow, and their ripples spontaneously produce innumerable wonderful sounds. One can hear whatever sound one wishes.
For example, some hear the sound ‘Buddha,’ some hear the sound ‘Dharma,’ some ‘Sangha,’ others hear ‘tranquillity,’ ‘emptiness and non-self,’ ‘great compassion,’ ‘paramita,’ ‘ten powers,’ ‘fearlessness,’ ’special qualities,’ ’supernatural powers,’ ‘non-activity,’ ‘neither arising nor perishing,’ ‘insight into the non-arising of all dharmas,’ and so on until the various sounds of the wonderful Dharma, such as ‘the sprinkling of nectar upon the head of a bodhisattva,’ are heard.
As one hears those sounds, one attains immeasurable joy and accords with the principles of purity, absence of desires, extinction, and reality. One is in harmony with the Three Treasures, the Buddha’s powers, fearlessness and special qualities, and also with supernatural powers and other methods of practice for bodhisattvas and shravakas. Not even the names of the three realms of suffering are heard there, but only Nirvanic sounds of bliss. For this reason, that land is called ‘Peace and Bliss’.
In our world - the world of samsara - suffering rules our lives - each and every one of us. There is no escaping it.
Why is this? Because the power of our minds is broken. We are subject to physical reality - which is blind and inexorable - bringing disease and death to each and every one of us. The weight of water crushes us, and drowns us - and for untold millions of us brings terrible disease into our bodies even as we slake our endless thirst by drinking it.
Such is the weight of water here in samsara. As Dharma Master Shinran says, truly hell is our ONLY home.
The Pure Land - a land and an existence we can scarcely imagine as non-Buddhas - is ENTIRELY different. There we find no suffering - not even a WORD for suffering. There, the power of our minds is restored as we become Buddhas at last. There - as Shakyamuni Buddha explains to us, there truly is NO weight of water - its very appearance, and its qualities, are all subject to our individual and personal preferences and desires.
Out of infinite wisdom (KARUNA) and compassion (METTA), Shakyamuni Buddha decided to answer Ananda’s question that day on Vulture Peak, when Ananda asked why Buddha’s face was shining with such an unearthly glow. Shakyamuni praised Ananda for that question, and said that his asking it was going to be the occasion for opening a Dharma Gate like no other - a Dharma Gate that countless beings would be able to walk through in order to find the end of suffering at last.
That dharma gate is the dharma gate created by Amida - greatest of all the Buddhas - whose work is unsurpassed in the entire Buddha-verse. Having spent endless ages studying all the qualities of countless Buddha lands, he created THIS land as the vehicle for our complete transcendence - our salvation at last from endless rounds of birth into samsaric life.
Dharma Master Shinran says, UNEQUIVOCALLY, that to give this teaching which we find in the Larger Pure Land Sutra is the reason that Shakyamuni Buddha enfleshed himself, and went through the profound difficulties of being a human being in this world. He came here to bring us THIS dharma - for THIS age of dharma decline - when none of us can self-cultivate to Buddhahood.
Along with his teacher Honen, and his true student Rennyo, Shinran warned us, UNEQUIVOCALLY, not to be confused ourselves or make others confused, with self-powered intellectualized thinking about Shakyamuni’s and Shinran’s plain talk for plain people about suffering and the END of suffering.
- Listen like an uneducated person without pretension to wisdom, Honen said HERE.
- Let there be no calculation whatsoever, Shinran said HERE.
- We need no great intellect or genius to hear and understand the dharma, Rennyo said HERE.
How you choose to listen to Shakyamuni is up to you. My advice would be: listen as these three Dharma Masters listened, when they were here as BONBUS - as non-Buddhas - on the earth. Read with their eyes. Hear with their ears. As you do, Amida Buddha himself will speak deeply to you - because you are listening deeply, at last - to his dharma, on his terms - and not yours..
And so, after endless ages of transmigrating from suffering life to suffering life, you too will come to know:
- You will come to know the reality of the same SHINJIN - the same TRUE ENTRUSTING - as these, our dharma masters.
- You will come to know that indeed, this is your last life as a non-Buddha. This is the last time you must drown beneath the weight of water - and the weight of your own blind passions - and the weight of suffering and death that must come to each and every one of us - in one way or another.
- You will come to know the reality of being “embraced, never to be abandoned“.
- You will come to know “the world of certainty“.
- You will come to know “salvation in the present” - and look forward with no doubt whatsoever to Buddhahood in the next life.
The weight of water is NOT the final reality - the end of the story - for any of us. Listen deeply to Amida Buddha’s call - the call of the Primal Vow. Listen deeply, to the words he says - by way of the teaching of Shakyamuni and Shinran. Listen deeply - and entrust yourself - and your karmic destiny - to him and to him alone.
As you do - I promise you that His own voice will call you. And as you respond to his call, the Pure Water of AMIDA BUDDHA’s True Nembutsu will overflow out in your own heart.
If only you will LISTEN DEEPLY, I promise you that you will know the joy and gratitude that only a person of true SHINJIN can know: the joy and gratitude of anticipating - with no doubt whatsoever - the end of suffering at last - even as in this life hell remains our only home.