When I went swimming at the spring near my house one day last week, I met a beautiful young woman of Indian (Indian/Asian, not Native American) descent as I was bringing some small pieces of trash out of the spring. We fell into conversation about the health of the springs, and practically the first thing she said was, “These places are sacred.”
Even—or perhaps, especially—my neighbors, who are part of a large extended family that has lived in this area for generations, are upset about the pollution and water withdrawals that are harming the health of our springs. I don’t know if my neighbors would agree that the springs are sacred; most Western cultures have moved far away from attributing any kind of sanctity to the natural world, even at places that most everyone recognizes as having intrinsic power. My neighbors might, however, agree that “The springs shouldn’t be messed with.”
So if we humans are concerned, I wonder what the nagas must be feeling, since the big algae blooms and reduced spring flows must be hurting them even more?
Here is how Machik Labdron describes the appearance of nagas, the watery inhabitants of the underworld.
“Black spiders and scorpions, or ants, beetles, otters or fishlike female dogs fall like rain and cover the ground and stick to your body. They are as big as puppies that have just opened their eyes, and extremely cold and wet. Just seeing them is unpleasant and frightening. Also frogs, scorpions, fish, tadpoles, large pir fish, makaras (crocodiles), or lizards the size of young bulls with their mouths open as if ready to eat. Whether on dry or wet land, they all gather together, yelping or quarrelling. They are single or in pairs, their bodies sheathed in fog with slightly formed water droplets. Just looking at them upsets and confuses you and makes your flesh crawl. Or else snakes: black, red, yellow, green, multi-colored, white, variegated red, variegated yellow, or variegated blue, like great trees in full foliage. They are as long as fifty bow lengths…The toxic vapors of some of them boil over onto your body as it lies in bed. They have great manes (hoods) that blaze with fire. Various diseases exude from their mouths and eyes in the form of various colors, like oozing fog spreading out as far as a hundred bow lengths… Just seeing them terrifies you. Your hairs stand on end, your senses become paralyzed, and your body goes out of control from their contamination.
Alternatively, [you experience] small children just eight years old with serpentine bodies below the breast and many blazing snake-hoods on their heads exuding bluish-red disease. Toxic vapors and fog boil up from their tails. Their torsos are generally covered in mist. They are seen in various colors in wetlands larger than the eye can see. Sometimes their torsos are exposed and sometimes their tails show above the water.” (From Machik’s Complete Explanation, pp. 239-240; the italics in the first paragraph of the quote are mine.)
Now, whether you believe in the existence of nagas or not—and I cannot either prove or disprove their existence—the idea of disease-causing nagas is a powerful metaphor for the dangers of pollution.
Just this week, I learned of a 2004 study on “Cyanobacteria: Lyngbya Toxin Monitoring and Evaluation” that was conducted in Florida’s springs under the auspices of the Centers for Disease Control. Lyngbya is just one of the species of algae that is blooming now in our rivers and springs, and is suspected as a cause of allergic reactions that some swimmers have experienced. According to the study, “Elevated groundwater nitrate and other nutrients may be responsible for the proliferation and expansion of toxic Lyngbya species (spp.)…Limited reports of acute dermatitis, blisters, desquamation, and respiratory distress may be related to Lyngbya exposure.”
Our nagas, it seems, are not pleased.
And my Buddhist teachers are sounding warnings.
“…Ever since the human race first appeared on this earth, we have used this earth heavily. It is said that ninety-nine percent of the resources and so on in this world come from the natural environment. We are using the earth until she is used up. The earth has given us immeasurable benefit, but what have we done for the earth in return? We always ask for something from the earth, but never give her anything back. We never have loving or protective thoughts for the earth. Whenever trees or anything else emerge from the ground, we cut them down. If there is a bit of level earth, we fight over it. To this day we perpetuate a continuous cycle of war and conflict over it. In fact, we have not done much of anything for the earth.
Now the time has come when the earth is scowling at us; the time has come when the earth is giving up on us. The earth is about to treat us badly and give up on us. If she gives up on us, where can we live? There is talk of going to other planets that could support life, but only a few rich people could go. What would happen to all of us sentient beings who could not go? What should we do now that the situation has become so critical? The sentient beings living on the earth and the elements of the natural world need to join their hands together—the earth must not give up on sentient beings, and sentient beings must not give up on the earth. Each needs to grasp the other’s hand.”
“If the external world we live in does not thrive, how can that be good for the ‘internal’ beings who live in that world, its inhabitants? In the external world there are clearly problems…Those of us who are humankind have the responsibility to take care of this world we are in. We might say that it is the responsibility of governments. But whether governments will do anything or not is another question. It is something we all individually need to do something about…When we call this the degenerate age or the age of dregs, we mean this is a time when sentient beings are not easily satiated. They are not modest in their wishes. So they do a lot of business in order to benefit themselves. They make a lot of pollution to do business and gather wealth. They do not gather that wealth for the benefit of the whole of society, but for their own individual benefit. In doing so, they pollute the ground, the water and the air. It creates a problem for the whole world. It is all really due to our greed…We need to know what is happening to our world, what scientists have elucidated. When we know this, we can infer what we need to do, and what we actually can do….
What is happening today is that there is chaos in the elements. There are the four different elements of earth, water, fire and air, and these have now become unbalanced. Due to this imbalance, sometimes there is destruction because of floods and water, sometimes due to wind. Sometimes there is destruction through earthquakes and now there is also destruction happening through global warming. The temperatures are unbalanced—sometimes too hot, sometimes too cold. Because of this, what is happening now is that grand, resplendent snow mountains are melting. Hard, firm, beautiful glaciers are melting. When they melt and disappear, the rivers and lakes will become scarce, parched and dried out. We can actually see this happening. Disturbance in the four elements, snow mountains and glaciers all melting, the water all drying up – what harm do these lead to? Then all the forests of the ancients and trees of beauty will near their deaths. Forests are drying out, trees are dying. Beautiful, wonderful forests that you could explore are drying out, and coming to their deaths. There is now the danger that the whole world’s reaches will become a great wasteland without water supplies. In the entire world, we will not have anything beautiful or good, nor any way of supporting ourselves. There is a frightful, terrifying danger that this will happen. It is a basic truth that if something bad happens to the environment we live in, the inhabitants that live within it will also suffer great harm.” (Again, the italics are mine.)
Karmapa has also said, in a recent message to young people:
“…it is not impossible that in the future, we might face great and unbearable mental burdens and a sense of chaos…”.
Yes, we are being warned—and at the same time, encouraged to take action.
I went back to the spring near my house very early yesterday morning to make an offering to the naga. On the short drive to the spring, I saw a skunk scuttle across the road into an overgrown field. As I waded into the spring, the great heron that had been standing silently in the shallows flapped her large wings and flew off upriver. Something—a raccoon? an otter? a squirrel?—chattered away at me from the bank. As I drove away, I saw a doe move silently away from the road and into the woods.
For those moments, the environment and the elements seemed in balance. And while I’d love to bask in that feeling, I know that to do so—to turn away from what I know is happening around me—would simply be giving in to illusion, making believe all is right with the world when clearly, it is not.
There are many good articles about living in a world in which the elements are out of whack, and encouragement about what we can do, at the Ecobuddhism web site. Karmapa, who is in the United States visiting as I write this, has his own environmental web site as well.