Making Life

Lama Zopa Rinpoche
(Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archives)
What is the meaning of life, and why, in God's name, are we here? According to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, we are here to bring compassion. With compassion, everything is meaningful. Without it, "our lives become empty."

He says that "the attitude of self-cherishing" must be abandoned to help others who are in pain and suffering. Responsibility for the happiness of all sentient beings means that we must be in good health, live a long life, sleep well at night. All of our activities --- playing, eating, working --- must have "good motivation."

This extends, cough, to other activities as well. In the chapter entitled "Going to the toilet with bodhicitta," the Lama says that we should realize that "whatever you excrete" is, in reality, "all the sentient beings' diseases, in the form of pus and blood," as well as

    negative karma and obscurations, in the form of filthy black liquid; and spirit harm, in the form of snakes, frogs, and the like.

"Visualize the opening of the toilet as the mouth of the Lord of Death, and as all the negativity enters, it turns into nectar," he tells us. This he refers to as our "toilet yoga."

He also tells us to make offerings to all sentient beings, including worms. We are to pray as follows:

    Through the connection I have established by making charity to all 21,000 microscopic worms inside my body, may they be reborn human in their very next life and may I be able to guide them to enlightenment by showing them the Dharma in all future lives.

Even at the moment of death, we should not be thinking of ourselves, but of others:

    I am experiencing death for the numberless sentient beings who are also experiencing the suffering of dying at this very moment. I take it all upon myself. May they be free from the suffering of death and receive ultimate happiness right now.

In the midst of this overweening compassion creeps a touch of willful judgment towards the very ill which sensitive readers may deplore. Lama Zopa Rinpoche tells us that cancer "comes from the individual's own negative attitude ... Therefore, the way to heal cancer is to have a positive attitude, a pure mind." He goes on to say that AIDS "is negative imprints left on the mental continuum by past negative actions." The cure?

    In Singapore there was a Chinese Dharma student who had AIDS. He informed his guru, a very high lama called Ratö Rinpoche, who lived in Dharamsala. Rinpoche sent this student instructions on how to do the special bodhicitta practice that I mentioned before, tong-len, as a remedy, a method for him to practice. So, he practiced for four days and then went to the hospital for a check-up, where the doctors told him, "You no longer have AIDS."

No-one is going to gainsay that there are miracle cures in the world. Some come from hope, some come from the divine, some come from sheer animal will-power. But for Lama Zopa Rinpoche to tell us that we should blame ourselves for the agony of a life-threatening disease can only add to that agony. In contrast to the largely loving thoughts conveyed in this book, one can hardly call these blame-the-victim ideas compassionate.

--- Deb Das

The Ship and
The Storm
Hurricane Mitch and
The Loss of the Fantome

Jim Carrier
The Fantome was launched as the Flying Cloud in 1927. It was a classic luxury sailing ship, 282 feet long, with masts as high as a twelve-story building and elaborate decking and cabins. It had been owned by the Duke of Westminster, the Guiness brewing family, and Aristotle Onassis. Twenty years ago it was sold to Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, which specializes in party jaunts around the Caribbean.

Early on, Windjammer's voyages had been "Treasure Island" adventures on older, beat-up boats, often subject to minor disasters (broken toilets, occasional groundings, running out of food). Now, with the Fantome and several other luxury vessels, it had turned into a spiffy outfit designed to give fun-loving young boomers a gala time of parties, boozing, dancing, mooning drunkenly at the stars, bedding each other --- all well attended by a loving, macho young crew mostly drawn from various Caribbean countries.

The voyage that left from Omoa, Honduras in early October 1998 was to be of a different order. There were 128 passengers and a crew of forty-five. The vessel was under the command of the thirty-two year-old Guyan March, and mid-way through the journey, it was to sail directly into Hurricane Mitch --- one of the few Category Five hurricanes on record.

Carrier's book takes us through this disaster day by day, from October 4 --- the day of departure --- to October 28 --- the day of the disappearance of the Fantome. We are there as the ship leaves port, gets closer and closer to the storm, and, finally, plunges into it.

These chapters alternate with journalistic takes on the nature of storms, the methodology of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, the history and work of Hurricane Hunters, the topology of the Honduran coastline ... and the character of the crew and the owners of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises.

Carrier spends considerable time speculating on why Captain March and those in charge at Windjammer made the decision to sail from Belize directly into the path of Mitch, and, once there, why --- as the storm increased in fury --- to stay in a narrow cul-de-sac which finally trapped and sank the $20,000,000 vessel and sent thirty-one crew-members to their death (all the passengers and part of the crew had decamped in Belize).

Since the Captain is no longer with us, and since no log has been found, and since there was little consensus-building during the last hours of his communication with Miami, we can never know why he chose this route. The author suggests that it may have been his comparatively young age, plus his certainty that hurricanes in the western Caribbean rarely reach the super-dangerous stage, and even fewer head south into the coast of Honduras.

This one is a real pot-boiler, one that refuses to let you go. We all know the outcome --- it was a story covered heavily in the national and international media --- yet despite that, we find ourselves hoping that it won't come to pass. The Fantome was a boat close to the heart of any of us who love the sea, love the salt-air, love getting blind drunk in the company of forgiving, equally drunk strangers, for those of us who love being tended to by dark, strong, handsome natives.

The Fantome was a place where we party-lovers could sing and dance and fiddle with each other and go nuts in the "Dragon" bar (they sold drinks for "doubloons"), where "snack and swizzles" appeared every evening at five, where "Thursday nights are party nights and the crew appears in drag." And suddenly our devil-may-care kisses-in-the-moonlight vessel of passion and stupors disappears in one of the fiercest storms of the 20th century. Our tropical floating paradise is turned upside down in shrieking winds with massive waves smashing down on us from forty or fifty feet up, the deck tilted dangerously, and we can only imagine the last moments of the Fantome's existence, the wind howling like a banshee, men now terrified, scared to death of dying, forced down on their hands and knees, trying not to be swept overboard or be crushed by flying objects, all the while around them shrouds and stays are snapping, the waves towering then collapsing on them from every side, the masts finally giving way, smashing holes in the deck, the hull leaking from every seam --- and suddenly... suddenly...


--- Adm. Ben J. Loucks

Groundwater Pumping and
The Fate of America's
Fresh Waters

Robert Glennon
(Island Press)
Groundwater is that wet stuff that lies around under the ground and makes lakes and rivers and trees, but when you pump it and pump it and pump it --- the lakes and rivers and trees sicken, nearby houses can collapse, and fish and wildlife up and die or go away.

If you have any doubts about that, ask Cathy and Steve Monsees who bought a house fifteen years ago on Prairie Lake --- some 100 acres in size --- near the Tampa Bay. They looked forward in their senior years to "fishing for bass, watching birds and wildlife."

What they didn't bargain for was their lake gradually disappearing because of the insatiable thirst of Tampa-St. Petersburg, where 1,179 new residents move in every week. Tampa Bay Water bought and developed three major groundwater pumping areas near the Monsees, and a recent study found that

    Of the 153 lakes in the region, it found that fewer than ten functioned as healthy lakes and over half were seriously impacted or even dry.

The villain? We could blame the developer who built the Mosees' house, or the water districts pumping endless waters from the ground, or the stork who brought so many new babies into our world --- but the real bad guy is a legal concept called "the doctrine of prior appropriation."

In brief, it says that he who arrives first on a piece of land --- adjacent to a river, say --- has the absolute right to divert whatever waters he may want for purposes of mining, farming, or milling. Those who come later have only secondary rights, with one exception. If the original landholder fails to divert sufficient water from the river, the doctrine says that he is wasting it, and he may lose his water rights.

It's a screwed-up system, and it is screwing up America's lands, ecosystem, and our future.

    Groundwater pumping has caused rivers, springs, lakes, and wetlands to dry up, the ground beneath us to collapse, and fish , birds, wildlife, trees, and shrubs to die. In the Southwest, we have seen verdant rivers, such as the Santa Cruz in Tucson, become desiccated sandboxes as cities pumped underground water until the surface water disappeared ... freshwater is becoming scarce, not just in the arid West, with its tradition of battling over water rights, but even in places we think of as relatively wet.

Glennon takes twelve cases of gross misuse of groundwater, and shows how the big guys win, and the little guys (and plants and animals and wells) wither away. Also, he tells of towns, cities, water districts and whole states in pitched battle with each other for the fast-disappearing ground water. There is, for instance, the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, in which the oyster cultivators of Apalachicola, and the states of Florida and Alabama are at war with Georgia and Atlanta --- now with 4,000,000 inhabitants --- which is sucking away most of their water with the kind assistance of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In this country, state water laws constitute a fantasy world, where surface water is treated differently than groundwater. For the latter, he who has the biggest pump wins.

Whether it is catfish farming or goldmining or a coal-slurry pipeline, they all create "externalized costs" (e.g., you and I pay --- they don't). Peabody Energy or Barrick Gold Corporation or Perrier Water (owned by Nestlé) make out like bandits; and everyone else gets to watch their favorite swimming hole dry up, and then we find ourselves heavily taxed to try to undo the damage that's been done.

How to cure the problem? Glennon has an eight-point strategy, which includes state protection of minimum stream flows, the ending of unregulated groundwater pumping, an "extraction tax" on water pumped from a well within a certain distance of a river, spring, or lake. Water meters should be installed to measure that water taken from the ground, and new pumpers must mitigate the impact on the environment.

Glennon also encourages financial incentives --- which would include something as simple as putting a value on the water pumped --- rather than treating it, as we do now, as a free product. "Our habits of water use will not change until the cost of water rises sufficiently to force an alteration," he states.

§     §     §

In 1972, one of the few times of my life when I was quite flush, and money was burning a hole in my pockets --- I looked around for a hot springs to buy: a place where my friends and I could go on weekends to lollygag about and let the aches and pains of civilization leach into the warm waters. I was told of one for sale in the Fresno, California area, in the middle of the central valley farm belt.

When we arrived to look it over, the owners treated us to a wonderful catered lunch, plied us with fine wines, led us through several glorious 19th century buildings that had been part of a luxurious spa. Finally I asked if we could see the waters.

Reluctantly, it seemed, the once-jolly couple led us down a narrow path to a broken-down bathhouse, filled with cobwebs and fallen beams and dusty windows. I could see nothing but wrack and ruin, much less water. "Where are the hot springs?" I asked. The now-glum owner turned to me and said, "Gone."


"Groundwater pumping," he said. Constant pumping by the nearby agribusinesses had lowered the water table so much so that the hot springs were, in effect, defunct.

That was thirty years ago and we suspect --- and Glennon has proved, in non-technical terms, with easy-to-understand examples, and heart-breaking surety --- that the problem is now far, far worse.

--- L. W. Milam

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