There is one central tenet within the Buddhist tradition that does not require an adherence to Buddhist philosophy in order to agree with it. That principle is impermanence, that everything, even the mountain that has stood there majestically through our lifetime, is in a constant state of change.
One reason for impermanence being so central a concept within Buddhism is in order to generate a sense of urgency into our spiritual practice. This is not a manic urgency fueled by fear, but an honest acceptance grounded in the reality of how things really are. Right now we have a precious opportunity to grow spiritually, to realize more of our potential. This is not an opportunity to be taken for granted but rather, we should enthusiastically grasp the chance and the most made of it.
If we sit and think deeply enough about impermanence, a realization dawns on us that at any given moment anything can happen. We might like to think that we are in control, but in a world where things are in a constant state of change, who really knows what will happen next? The ultimate consequence of this is our own mortality — When will we die?
It’s easy to forget that everything in our lives is impermanent, simply because this can fly in the face of our best-laid and best-favored plans. We like things to stay as are they are, or to change as we would like them to. Put simply, we want to be in control.
However, if not being in control is the truth of the matter, the other option open to us is to be prepared.
When the tsunami struck Japan late on Thursday night US time, I was online. Reports appeared saying that there was live coverage on CNN of the disaster. I put the television on and sat there watching the events unfold, live, my mind swimming with emotions. Initially foremost to me was the sheer scale and immediateness of what we were watching.
In 2004 when the tsunami struck Indonesia, the images that came through from there, horrifying though they were, came after the event. By contrast, on Thursday night we were watching events as they unfolded. Waves of water flooding across the land with total indifference as to what was in their path, and the obvious human suffering that was occurring with the destruction. All of this happening before our eyes as we sat in the warmth and comfort of our home.
These images were unsettling to me for other reasons as well. Our home in Portland is situated in an earthquake prone area of the country, the Pacific Northwest. Scientists have found that major earthquakes, on the scale of that which hit Japan, have occurred on average every 240 years in the area. The last big quake to strike the Northwest came in 1700, a full 311 years ago. We, and I don’t like saying this because it can make me feel deeply uncomfortable, are overdue for the “big one.” For this reason, the reality of what we were seeing happening in Japan was a very real, terrible and tragic manifestation of impermanence.
A helpful checklist
A couple of evenings later, we were having dinner with some friends. The conversation inevitably turned to the events of 48 hours earlier. One in our small gathering had grown up in Los Angeles, had lived through a number of tremors and earthquakes, and was no stranger to being prepared for when a disaster might strike. She ran through some things that her family did to be prepared and to build their own personal resilience:
- Make sure that there is some spare cash in the house at all times, as we don’t know what the access to money will be
- Always keep the gas tank of the car half full to counter fuel shortages
- Keep a store of at least three days worth of water and non-perishable foods
- Have some basic medical supplies
- Make sure that you know where copies of important papers are
Nervous, honest laughter followed this as we all acknowledged how grossly unprepared we were, and how such change could come at any time…even before the meal was over. Thankfully there were no tremors that evening.
Transition, resilience and preparation
Emergency preparedness is something that has made its way into our Transition Initiative in Portland. Within the context of Transition, I see grassroots emergency preparedness fulfilling two roles:
- The Transition Initiative has as its main focus the building of resiliency in the face of the Long Emergency driven by peak oil, climate change and economic instability. However, where there is the more immediate threat of a large earthquake that could occur at any time, how well prepared are our communities for such an event? Communities that are preparing for future events also need to have contingency plans for threats along the way.
- While some people here in Portland might question peak oil or climate change, I don’t think that anyone living in the city would doubt that we live in a major earthquake zone. In educating people around preparing for such an event, you are also helping to build trust within a community. Once that trust is built, you are then in a better position to start talking about the wider issues of the Long Emergency.
The Transition PDX Emergency Preparedness group formed at the end of 2010 and is exploring models used in other cities for community emergency preparedness. The group is looking to engage in community education around issues of emergency preparedness.
A hoped-for outcome of this will be for citizens to get to know their neighbors and discover the skills and resources that are held within the communities where we live. Should disaster strike, a knowledgeable and well resourced community has a much greater resiliency than a street of neighbors who do not know each other. The Emergency Preparedness group in Portland is further looking to integrate community grassroots preparedness with the similar work that local government is doing around these issues.
From a Buddhist perspective, discussion around the threats to the infrastructure that holds our societies together is not meant to lead to a paralysis of overwhelm around what to do, but paradoxically is meant to lead to what is referred to in the Buddhist world as a “letting go.” In choosing, an important part of the process, to speak of these risks, we are starting to honestly acknowledge and accept the challenges that we face.
With the discussion leading to action, we are preparing ourselves for all eventualities, and from there we can start to let go and enjoy life for what it brings us. Such a letting go does not deny the very human emotions that arise or the suffering that can accompany them when the unexpected arises, but it does mean that we do not live our lives in denial and fear. Rather we live in a greater acceptance of what is and we can be better prepared for whatever might occur.
— David Johnson