Understanding the Tsunami
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 30, 2005
Finally, she heard about the Buddha, who was teaching in a nearby forest grove. So Kisa traveled into the forest, and approached the Buddha, and still crying with grief, she asked him, “Great teacher, master, please bring my boy back to life.”
The Buddha thought for a moment, and then replied, “First you must do something for me, Kisa Gotami. You must go back into the village and get me a handful of mustard seed, and from this I will fashion a medicine for your child. But there’s one more thing,” the Buddha then continued. “The mustard seed must come from a home which has never known sorrow.”
So, Kisa Gotami ran back into the village and up to the first house begging, “Please, please, may I have some mustard seed? I need just a handful of mustard seed.”
And the people, seeing her grief and wanting to help her, responded at once, “Mustard seed? Yes, certainly!” (for mustard seed was a very common spice in India).
But when Kisa asked, “Has anyone in this house known sorrow?” the answer was always the same: “Yes, we have...”
At the first house, they had lost a child, just the year before... At the next, the mother had died, two months previously... At the third, a brother... At the fourth, a son.... A daughter... A husband... A wife... And so on... “Yes, we have known great sorrow,” they all told her—from house to house, throughout the entire village. The story was always the same. She could not find a single household that had not known sorrow.
Finally, Kisa Gotami went back to the Buddha, still carrying the body of her dead son. But this time, he was buried with all the proper rites. She had learned to let go. After the burial ritual was completed, Kisa bowed before the Buddha, and asked this time for teachings that would bring her wisdom and comfort at this time of sadness. (And, it is said, she took the Buddha’s teachings deeply to heart and became a great yogi and wise woman, known for her ability to comfort others,)
When we build a bridge from our shared pain
linking soul to soul
and reaching out our hands to help each other,
we build a roadway so powerful and strong
that no division of age or class or color
can ever threaten to tear it down...
When we listen to the voice within our souls-- when we are true to our spiritual and religious callings-- then perhaps this is what we’ll be able to discern of why we’re here:
But we all know what this life can do. It can rip us apart at times. It can tear away whatever fragile sense of meaning we might have found in all our wondering and searching. As Joel Miller has written: “Suffering, even as it is causing us physical or emotional pain, will also strip away our assumptions or our religious faith just as violently as [the] tsunami crashed through the Indonesian and Sri Lankan cities on the coast of the Indian Ocean.”
We like to tell ourselves that the universe is just; that the natural world is ordered; that creation intends our good; that everything is unfolding as it should be. Perhaps we need to tell ourselves these things, in order to be able to face this world without going crazy. “Mankind cannot bear too much reality,” T.S. Eliot once wrote. Maybe we can’t bear too much of the cold, stark truth. Perhaps we need to make these affirmations of faith in order to survive psychologically.
But events like the tsunami should keep us humble in the face of forces in the universe so much greater than us or any of our sophisticated philosophizing or theologizing.
I have very little patience at times like this for people who want to blame the victims for the tragedies they have experienced. I actually heard one woman not too long ago muse that, perhaps—just perhaps—the tsunamis had been sent to East Asia because, after all, those people “weren’t Christian”. What utter and total nonsense! One fundamentalist Christian minister is promoting the idea that the tsunami was God’s punishment for some of the nations that persecute Christians. One his website, he wrote:
“What we have seen, over and over again, was that Christians, supernaturally, have been able to escape from harm’s way.” Really? Tell that to the thousands of Swedish and Norwegian Lutherans who were killed. Or tell it to the Catholic communities along the coast of Sri Lanka which were completely decimated. One can just imagine the reaction of that all-compassionate soul Jesus on hearing such religious balderdash dished out in “his name”!
Nor is such nonsense confined to (so-called) “Christians”. When several Buddhist statues were found unscathed amid collapsed walls in Sri Lanka, one Buddhist monk said it was a “divine sign” that “The people were not living according to religious virtues.” Some of the Muslims in the area are blaming the Hindus for the disaster; some of the Hindus are blaming the Christians; other Hindus in India have gotten amazingly specific, and believe the tsunami is “divine retribution” for the recent arrest of Jayendra Saraswati, a Hindu religious leader.
Of course, you can’t argue with such a narrow-minded belief system. You’ll never convince those who think they own the truth that they don’t. We can only stay humble, and try to build bridges of compassion where we can. For all of our technology and sophistication, it seems that it was the native tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar islands who may have dealt with the impending disaster best—not with an elaborate tsunami warning system-- not with complicated technologies and sophisticated scientific systems-- but simply by noticing changes in the behavior or the birds and the native wildlife; by keenly observing the world around them, and respecting its ways.
The Tao Te Ching reminds us: “All streams flow to the sea, because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power.”
As Rev. Kathryn Bert has written: “We long for meanings and reasons, causes and control—and sometimes tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis just happen. We want to put a title to it, but ‘Sometimes the old ocean god stands upright and roars and the earth shakes under the water.’” We stand humbled by the power of nature.
Which is where we ought to stand.
The deeper reason-- the deeper meaning-- behind all of our existence, especially when bad things, inevitably nag at us, constantly. The poet Matthew Arnold reminds us that we have:
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
We might long to know the why of tragic events like this (if there is, indeed, a deeper “why”). But ultimately, we find ourselves coming back to a different Buddhist leader in Sri Lanka, who said in the face of the devastation: “According to Buddhist explanation, life is very short. It is like a dream. But I never expected it to be a nightmare like this.”
Sometimes, life just is a nightmare. You see, as much as I might like to have one set explanation for all this, I don’t. For me, the basic question of why bad things happen resists all of these pat answers and neat theological packages that have been developed over the centuries. It goes deeper...
Fundamentally, as much as I might want to at times, I just can’t accept the theological idea that puts God behind all the bad things we experience. Looking out at all the pain and suffering in the world, I just can’t accept that there always is a deeper, divinely-inspired reason for our pain-- a divine, holy, silver lining of a reason which we mortal ones simply do not discern or comprehend.
I don’t believe that all our suffering is “God’s will” because I don’t believe in a God who is a tyrant. I don’t believe the Middle Eastern proverb which tells us, “If you see a blind man coming, kick him, for why should you be kinder than God?” We might identify a little more with an old Yiddish proverb that tells us: “God is not nice. God is not your uncle. God is an earthquake.” But still-- the God I picture is infinitely kinder than we are—or even than Uncle Frank might be. God is infinitely more loving than any human being can ever possibly be, because, to me, God’s very nature is love. But God might not necessarily in control of everything that happens. As much as we might like an omnipotent God, God might not micromanage the natural world.
God is, to me, ultimately a mystery; God is so much more than the all categories of the natural world alone-- so much more that cannot be understood. But I believe that we shouldn’t expect less from God than that which our natural powers and reason and decency-- our own natural instincts-- affirm.
Instead of always having to have someone or something to “blame” when bad things happen-- ourselves, or other people, or the Devil, or our past lives, or even God-- there is, I think, a healthier, more empowering way of looking at life when bad things come our way, or come the world’s way.
We don’t need to “blame” anyone at all. Instead, we can acknowledge that the natural world is wonderful, and that we are part of that wonder. But the natural world, even though it provides us with so many great blessings, doesn’t really care about our human well-being or safety or progress. We must accept as given the limitations of the natural order and our need to exist within certain natural laws. None of this takes away from affirming and celebrating the Gift of Life as a profound and immortal blessing.
Pearl S. Buck's 1947 novel The Big Wave, tells the story of two friends Kino and Jiya, and grew out of her memories of living near a volcano in a house on a hillside above the sea when "a big wave came up and washed away the fishing village on the beach."
After the volcano erupts and causes the ocean floor to explode, a big wave rushes ashore. Jiya's family is swept away, and he must live with Kino and his family. While discussing the calamity with his father, Kino asks: "Father, are we not very unfortunate people to live in Japan?"
To which his father replies: "To live in the midst of danger is to know how good life is. . . . To live in the presence of death makes us brave and strong. That is why our people never fear death. We see it too often and we do not fear it. To die a little later or a little sooner does not matter. But to live bravely, to love life, to see how beautiful the trees are and the mountains, yes, and even the sea, to enjoy work because it produces food for life - in these things we Japanese are a fortunate people. We love life because we live in danger. We do not fear death, because we understand that life and death are necessary to each other."
A healthy, holistic religious faith can declare that, in these human lives we lead, joy and pain and intimately intermingled-- just like light and dark, heat and cold, life and death. We can affirm that there is so much we do not control-- but that we are nevertheless co-creators of this world, full of the power to heal-- or to hurt; full of the potential to do good-- or to do evil.
This we know, more than ever now: We are part of the creative, expansive, interdependent web of all Creation. As human beings we have been especially blessed with our consciousness of this interdependence.
The real issue at a time like this is not so much why bad things happen, for that is a question to which, if we are honest, we will never have more than tentative, incomplete, barest-fingerhold-upon-the-truth answers. The question that should engage our hearts and minds—our familes and churches and communities and governments is: How shall we respond humanely now that our help is needed?
As Bruce Southworth has said, “To accept the reality of suffering does not mean that we need to be defeated by it.” Even when bad things happen to us (maybe especially when bad things happen) we need to be able to turn our spirits outward, embrace life, and go on living.
This world tears us apart sometimes. And as human lives are torn asunder, so may our human hands join with others in putting them back together again. There are many names for God, the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart reminds us: “You may call God father or mother. You may call God love. You may call God goodness. But the best name for God is compassion.”
In this holy work of compassion, we each have our own part to play.