The dhamma of natural disasters

By Kingsley Heendeniya, Buddhist Channel, Jan 3, 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Many natural disasters have affected the world from the time dinosaurs became extinct millions of years ago. They include drought, desertification, floods, tidal waves, tsunamis, landslides, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, fires, cyclones, tornados, avalanches, famine, pestilence, and epidemics.

Events such as wars, genocide, terrorism and economic disasters are also natural since they arise from the underlying tendency and obsession to greed, hate and views. They are the nature or dhammata of the structure of the world, within and external, affecting most of us from ignorance [avijja] of the fundamental structure of dependent arising and cessation or paticcasamuppada, the seminal discovery and insight of the Buddha.

Let me quote from the Mahahattipadopama Sutta - The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant?s Footprint ? delivered by the venerable Sariputta. ?What, friends, is the earth element? The earth element may be internal or external. Whatever internally, belonging to oneself is solid, solidified and clung-to ? that is, head hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver?or whatever and clung-to, this is called the internal earth element.

Now both the internal earth element and the external earth element are simply earth element. And this should be seen as it actually is with proper understanding thus: ?Not, this is mine, not, this am I, not, this is my self?. When one sees it thus as it actually is with proper understanding, one becomes disenchanted with the earth element and makes the mind dispassionate toward the earth element. Now there comes a time when the water element is disturbed and then the external earth element vanishes. When even this external earth element, great as it is, is seen to be impermanent, subject to destruction, disappearance and change, what of this body, which is clung-to by craving and lasts but a while? There can be no considering that as ?I? or ?mine? or? I am?.

This is at the deep end of the Dhamma. Everything in the internal and external world is matter ? carbon, sodium, potassium etc or simply, electrons. And its behavior profoundly affects us. Why? Matter cannot be said to exist until it appears even for a short time. The Buddha described this appearance of matter as having five characters: vedana [feeling], sanna [perception], cetana [intention], phassa [contact] and manasikara [attention]. Collectively, they are called nama or name, or appearance of the behavior of matter [mahabhuta]. This fathom long body and mind is simply namarupa and consciousness [vinnana] or, as a duality with the external world, it is the body and namarupa externally. Everything internal and external is namarupa where matter as such is bereft of consciousness. Matter [rupa] gets a footing in existence only when there is consciousness. When consciousness ceases ? with Nibbana ? it is the end of namarupa. Thus namarupa is dependent on vinnana and vinnana is dependent on namarupa. This is the teaching of the Buddha.

What has all of this got to do with the tsunami? Why did it cause so much sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair [dukkha]? Why did it produce dukkha in those directly affected and evoke dukkha also in those not directly affected? The Buddha gives the answer but it is very difficult to understand and accept. The uncompromising truth is given in four summaries the venerable Rathapala, the only son of a very rich merchant taught a king. ?Great king, there are four summaries of the Dhamma that have been taught by the Blessed One who knows and sees, accomplished and fully enlightened. Knowing and seeing and hearing them, I went forth from the home life into homelessness. What four? 1. Any world is unstable. It is swept away. 2. Any world has no shelter and no protector. 3. Any world has nothing of its own. One has to leave all and pass on. 4. Any world is incomplete, insatiate, the slave of craving?.

In short, there is no escape from dukkha other than from existence. Go to the beach now and look ? the sea is calm, nonchalant and indifferent. Why? Because that is how it actually is. When nama is detached from rupa, there is no dukkha.

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