Saturday, January 28, 2012

Imperfection in Buddhism

Nothing lasts,
nothing is finished,
nothing is perfect.

In carrying water,
and chopping wood,
I am at peace. 

I was inspired by Richard Powell's description of wabi-sabi, Feng Youlan's five main points of Ch'an, and Thich Nhat Hanh's description of apranihita to compose this very short verse.  I hope, if you read it from a Buddhist perspective, you recognize that the subject is not resignation, but liberation.  It addresses pervasive performance anxiety.  (But who can find peace under those conditions?)  Not the best analogy, but it's something like finding a calm in the middle of a storm, or maybe like the concept of "flawed beauty" (though I'd argue that all real beauty is flawed).  Carrying water and chopping wood is a metaphor for any kind of work that is never finished and whose benefits are only transitory, but if not engaged in (as the need arises) can result in considerable stress and anxiety.

Living in the moment is the key to happiness.  To be a child, to marvel at the beauty of the world and see it new for the first time, pure and unstained, without cynicism, without pessimism, without judgement of any kind.  I watched Nature: The Himalayas last night; every exceptional scene brought this to mind.  Reminding myself that everything is transient and fragile allows me to better appreciate it while it lasts, and yet not regret overmuch when something new inevitably takes its place (this sentiment is also called “mono no aware”).

See also Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Piotr Naskrecki

I just had my first consciousness raising experience in 2012 - I attended a presentation by Piotr Naskrecki on the subject of his latest book: Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine.  He was invited to speak at the university by his close friend, entomologist and Fairbanks resident Derek Sikes.  I have been familiar with Naskrecki's work for the last few years since I saw his first book for sale at the local bookstore.  His photography alone is incomparable.  But some of his best work has been in the field of entomology and conservation biology.  He gave one of the best computer presentations I have ever seen, making me wonder how long it will be before he is a TED conference presenter.  After his speech I asked him about cycad seed dispersal, but during the book signing I engaged in deeper conversation. 

"What would be your advice to someone interested in entering the field of conservation biology?" I asked Naskrecki after he told me about populations of insects that were extinct in the wild but sustained in captive populations.  He described this as a very wide area that can be approached from a variety of directions, but it is a field that he said he was leaving.  There are no real victories in conservation biology, it is all about making compromises, and it is ultimately a losing battle.  Most conservation biologists have focused their efforts on documenting biodiversity before it is lost, as that seems a near certain inevitability.  (All the same, he did recommend organizations such as WWF and Audubon as good places to start.)  He said the only solution, which he mentioned only all too aware of its futility as a politically insupportable policy, is population control.  I asked whether raising the standard of living, which tends to result in decreasing rates of reproduction, might be a solution.  He pointed out that this also tends to increase rates of consumption per capita.  The problem seems insoluble. 

How does one reward others for having fewer children, or consuming fewer resources?  The whole concept of "reward" seems firmly grounded in the framework of consumption!  The only thing that can be consumed without being used up is mental phenomena such as knowledge, understanding, and emotional gratification.  Maybe access to social services is another area.  But we need not abandon our self-centered way of life to see the rationale of population control.  Everything reaches a balance point sooner or later.  The question is if we will have the wisdom to anticipate where that will be and hold ourselves back from the edge. It seems clear that we have passed the point of diminishing returns a long time ago, and have placed ourselves in greater danger had we not.  Who has an ethically defensible solution that can prepare us for where we will go from here?
"By the data to date, there is only one animal in the Galaxy dangerous to man – man himself.  So he must supply his own indispensable competition.  He has no enemy to help him.... anyone with eyes can see that any organism which grows without limit always dies in its own poisons."  - Robert Heinlein, “Time Enough for Love”, 1973