In Buddhist tradition there are remembrance ceremonies at different times for many years after the passing of someone. They are called Hoji, and generally considered memorial services. Last Saturday we attended one such service for family friends who had passed several years ago. As part of the service, the reverend explained the meaning of “Hoji,” which he said really didn’t mean memorial service at all, but in Japanese more literally meant a “teaching event,” or in his words, a “teaching thing.” And to him, one of the most important aspects of Buddhism to teach is the interconnectedness of things.
I think this is why I am impressed with Buddhism. Unlike other religions in which believers can use God as a scapegoat on which to blame all manner of catastrophes, in Buddhism there is a strong sense of personal responsibility for the interconnectedness of things. Just as importantly, there is a near scientific insistence on the laws of causality. The toe bone is connected to the foot bone and so forth all the way through the body such that the effect of stubbing your toe is felt in the brain. Cause and effect or “karma.” Call it what you like, but it is the process through which the physical universe works.
Then on Tuesday the big oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico caught fire, and today sank into the water, still gushing out oil and probably the diesel fuel aboard. Several lives apparently have been lost. Some of the comments I have read have expressed fear that price of gas may rise in coming weeks and months, but the true effects are far greater, far more subtle. As the reverend said, not only humans, but all of the planet is interconnected, and a tragedy such as this ultimately affects us all. The pollution injected into the atmosphere pales in comparison to the volcanic dust from the Icelandic volcano, but the effects under the surface of the water may run much deeper. The quality, quantity and wholesomeness of seafood in coming years may be affected, along with many additional species we may never encounter or even consider.
In some ways it is a case of “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to environmental damage. Most of us express passing concern for the environment when something like this happens, but as the days go by and media coverage fades, we forget. We forget that every major environmental catastrophe, as well as every day to day indiscretion, waste or thoughtless action comes with a long term price tag. There are ripple effects that reverberate through both living and non-living systems. They may be small or unmeasurable individually, but they all add up.
Environmental effects add up, whether we want to believe it or not. Everything on our planet, living and non-living, is connected in some way. Sometimes the connections are obvious, and sometimes subtle, often unmeasurable or untraceable. But the connections are there, and often affect us in ways we may never know.
The beautiful red sunset here is from a set of gorgeous images I found online from an Arizona photographer named April Macholtz. (You can find more of her work here: Amach.) Undoubtedly, many of the beautiful sunsets people all over the world will enjoy during the next few months will be tinged by the dust and ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. But some of it will come from particulate matter thrown into the wind from human-set tropical fires, from car exhausts, and from a myriad of industrial pollutants. Thankfully, it doesn’t take a volcano or a diesel truck belching black soot to give us a beautiful sunset, but we cannot discount our own contribution and what it ultimately means.
So the next time you enjoy a sunset, listen to the wind, or just breathe, think about the many ways that all things on this planet are connected. Make each observation your own private Hoji, a teaching thing. We are as foolish as the ostrich burying his head in the sand if we continue to ignore the reality of global changes.
Larry Sessions has written many favorite posts in EarthSky's Tonight area. He's a former planetarium director in Little Rock, Fort Worth and Denver and an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He's a longtime member of NASA's Solar System Ambassadors program. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including Space.com, Sky & Telescope, Astronomy and Rolling Stone. His small book on world star lore, Constellations, was published by Running Press.