The Darkest, Starriest Skies

Every night of the six-week backpacking trip I took through the backcountry wilderness trails of Montana and northwest Wyoming I slept in a tent with a friend – except two. Those two nights still stand out in my mind as they were both unique and adventurous, but in very different ways. We were a group of twelve students and backpackers who had signed up for a combination ecology course and backpacking trip (four separate backpacking trips to be precise) during the summer of 1990. We shared tents, water, food and equipment, so no one went without the basics. We supplied our own clothing for obvious reasons.

The first night we slept without tents was during the third week of our wilderness adventure. It was a warm, quiet night somewhere in rural Montana. Our six-week trip was split into four separate backpacking trips, each of varying lengths. We had just returned from our second backpacking trip, a five-night trek into Montana’s Bitterroot Wilderness. We followed our instructor’s lead and hiked up and down steep mountain terrain where the trails were barely visible beneath our hiking boots. We never lost the trail and our two instructors, Mary Beth and John, carried USGS maps of wilderness areas they were already familiar with. Upon re-entering civilization, we were usually dirty, smelly, unkempt, and in desperate need of real showers. In the backcountry, we bathed (with or without biodegradable soap) in the nearest river or lake. Upon leaving the wilderness, we took care of personal hygiene, restocked our food supplies, and found dinner. This particular evening, rather than setting up camp at the nearest campground, we simply pulled off the side of the highway and found a place to park. Since we had come down out of the mountains and were in closer proximity to civilization, there was an absence of both mosquitoes and dangerous wildlife that made it safer for us to sleep under the stars that night. It was a special night for all of us.

The sun had already set as we clambered out of the white, Dodge van the UC Extension program had lent us for the trip. I jumped out the van’s back double doors and grabbed my sleeping bag, following fellow backpackers Mark and Elizabeth across the parking lot to an open field. There were a few trees lining the parking lot, but not much else. A river ran a dark course a few hundred yards behind us, and I could hear its soft gurgling as we arranged our sleeping bags in a few long rows. It was late and we were tired. I shoved a t-shirt and a pair of shorts into a small stuff sack to use as a pillow, zipped myself into my purple sleeping bag, and lay on my back staring at the multitude of twinkling stars overhead. We were hypnotized by the thousands of tiny, glimmering points of light in the night sky above us as one by one we drifted off to sleep.

The night reminded me of an afternoon science class I had with UC Santa Cruz professor, Dr. Jim Pepper. During one lesson, Dr. Pepper described a place in Northern California where you could look up at night and see the darkest, starriest skies. I was mesmerized listening to his voice as I sat in my movie-theater type chair, slightly reclined, and imagined what that night sky might look like – thousands of bright, glistening stars overhead set against a backdrop of inky blackness that stretched on forever. This was that beautiful night. The night we slept under the stars, mid-summer, somewhere in Montana. The night with the darkest, starriest skies.

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The only other night we slept without our tents was our “solo night.” During the last of our four backpacking trips, we each had to go off on our own and spend one night by ourselves in the wilderness. Our instructors picked our third night out of the last, six-night trip in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The solo night was part of the ecology course, and we received college credit for successfully completing the required coursework. We also carried a few small course books and a journal in our backpacks, along with our camping equipment, clothes and food.

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Our assignment was not as easy as it sounds. The instructors, Mary Beth and John, were very straightforward with us. After dinner, we each had to hike far enough away from their base camp so that we could not see or hear them, or each other. We were to hike through the forest, pick a spot, spend time writing a journal entry, and finish the brief animal-study report that was also required for the course. We were not allowed to pair up for the night or to form groups. To get credit for the ecology course, we were required to spend the entire night away from camp – alone.

I was nervous. I didn’t think it would be a big deal, but as soon as I started hiking away from our instructors’ base camp and the rest of the group, I realized how quiet the forest was when no other people are nearby. People seem to make more noise than any other creature. I hiked for a few minutes, but I didn’t go very far. I hiked just far enough to make sure I was out of sight and sound of our base camp and the rest of my backpacking companions. I found shelter under one of the larger, taller pine trees, and sat down to write with my back propped up against the tree for support. I listened for a few minutes, but I couldn’t hear anything or anyone else around me – only the silence found in the absence of people talking, the absence of civilization – of car horns and traffic, of television and radio, of all the noises that make up our people-filled world. A few birds chirped, and a slight breeze rustled the leaves in the trees above me, but that was all I heard that night. My soul found little comfort in the tall, silent pine tree I had chosen to lean up against. The forest obscured the night sky, and I couldn’t see any stars. I felt very much alone.

Fortunately, I survived the night and was extremely grateful to return to my instructors and my camping buddies early the next morning. I realized then that I never wanted to live as a hermit. As shy and introverted as I was, I would always desire the company of other people. Nature, however, still provides me with the thrill of a wilderness adventure, even near my current suburban home.

World Peace – The Democratic Path of Dialogue

In Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism, kosen-rufu or world peace “includes the struggle to transform the realm of the environment…using the democratic path of dialogue.” Dialogue and communicating with other people is important. I’ve realized this tremendously over the past few years after realizing that most people don’t have the ability to read my mind, and extended silence makes people uncomfortable. Interpersonal communication is a skill that I’ve been working on, mainly because I don’t find it all that enjoyable. I’m not sure why.

Communicating with and talking to other people is the best way to build relationships, learn about our differences, and discover what we have in common. This is true not only for individuals, but also for the U.S. government. It seems that over the past few years, our government has substituted capitalism for democracy. A Bernie Sanders quote clarifies this more succinctly:

Democracy is one person, one vote and a full discussion of issues that affect us. Oligarchy is billionaires buying elections, voter suppression and a concentrated corporate media determining what we see, hear and read. 

The U.S. is slowly shifting from a democracy into an oligarchy, and it is not simply due to a lack of dialogue. It is due to rampant greed and a complete lack of compassion and concern for other people.

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Daisaku Ikeda states:

Democracy is definitely not simply a matter of setting in place certain forms and institutions. Without content, democracy is an empty vessel that is easily crushed. What is this content? It is individual self-reliance and self-improvement. It is individual happiness. Democracy must enable each person in society to live to the fullest. Without valuing the sanctity of the individual, democracy is a mere shell.

President Toda said that individual happiness and social prosperity must go hand in hand. It is a grave mistake for society to neglect the well-being of the individual while striving only for economic growth. Individual happiness is not self-centered; rather, it is the process of solidifying one’s humanity, of developing wisdom and compassion in both oneself and others.

– The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra: A Discussion Volume V p39 – Daisaku Ikeda, Katsuji Saito, Takanori Endo, & Haruo Suda

This is what has happened in our society. We have focused almost entirely on economic growth at the expense of the health, well-being and happiness of the individual – including public education, health care, wages, immigration and the environment. We have confused capitalism with democracy and knowledge with wisdom.

Magic In the Moonlight

I saw Woody Allen’s new film Magic In the Moonlight this past week with my mom when I visited my parents in Colorado. The movie was funny, charming and a little silly, but the one line that struck me the most was Colin Firth’s lament about death and unhappiness. Firth’s character Stanley complains bitterly, “I’m a very unhappy man. To be born, to have committed no crime, and then to be sentenced to death? Happiness is not the natural human condition.” What an unusual perspective to have on death – and life.

“…to have committed no crime, and then to be sentenced to death.” If we look at it from this perspective, all of us are in the same boat. No one can escape death, and yet viewing death in this manner – as a punishment without a crime – as Stanley suggests, is mere folly. It was meant as a joke. Yet Stanley was a very cynical magician who hadn’t discovered his true purpose in life. He saw no reason to be happy.

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Death, like life, has a purpose. We die for a reason, and we also live for a reason. Life is no accident, but we were not born with a sign on our forehead dictating the purpose of our birth. That is up to us. A profound Buddhist quotes states:

Looking back, I have been studying the Buddha’s teachings since I was a boy. And I found myself thinking, “The life of a human being is fleeting. The exhaled breath never waits for the inhaled one. Even dew before the wind is hardly a sufficient metaphor. It is the way of the world that whether one is wise or foolish, old or young, one never knows what will happen to one from one moment to the next. Therefore I should first of all learn about death, and then about other things.”

The Importance of the Moment of Death – The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin Vol II p 759

How profound! How often do we take the time to study death? It isn’t a popular subject, and yet it provides us with a more deeply fulfilling perspective on how to live. I disagree with Stanley, I believe happiness is a natural human condition, it’s just something that has to be learned and not taken for granted.

A Humanistic Philosophy of Life

In Hillary Clinton’s recent review of Henry Kissinger’s latest book, “World Order,” she quotes John F. Kennedy’s observation that peace and progress are “based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions…a process – a way of solving problems.”

I believe that peace and progress are based on a revolution in human nature, just not one that is sudden. Human institutions are just that – institutions comprised and run by people. Institutions themselves have no way of evolving or transforming their nature, any more than an international corporation can change its ways. It is up to the men and women who run these institutions to change the way they work (or don’t work). If people themselves don’t change for the better, nothing else will either.

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SGI President Ikeda states in his ongoing novel The New Human Revolution, “Social systems and institutions are necessary, but even more important are the hearts and minds of the people who operate those systems. No matter how ideal a system may be in theory, there is always the possibility that people will abuse it, or that it will devolve into mere formality. It comes down to whether we can establish a philosophy of life that teaches that the lives of all human beings – both the rulers and the people – are equally noble and respectworthy; whether we can make compassion central to our way of living, empathizing with others and seeking to relieve their sufferings; and whether we can overcome our selfishness and insatiable greed.”

 – The New Human Revolution Vol 26 Chapter 3

This is what society needs, a compassionate and humanistic philosophy of life. A philosophy that teaches respect for all people, including both men and women, gays and lesbians, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Africans. This is what is meant by Buddhist humanism or compassion. We are not all the same, but we all deserve the same respect.

Changing as a person is no easy task. It takes courage and strength and effort. It doesn’t happen overnight. When Kennedy says it won’t be “a sudden revolution in human nature,” he is right. Peace and progress require a gradual revolution in human nature – one brought about by a more compassionate and humanistic philosophy of life.

SundanceKid Press

I am still working on promoting my memoir. I am slowly but surely making my way around to local bookstores in the South Bay. Yesterday I donated a copy to NAMI Santa Clara and gave them a few flyers for the Gilroy Barnes & Noble book signing. I’m also hoping to organize a similar book event at the Stevens Creek Barnes & Noble in San Jose later this fall. Please feel free to download or distribute the flyer for the October 11th book event at the Gilroy Barnes & Noble.

GilroyBNFlyer

In the meantime, I’ve been working on an idea for a children’s publishing company, SundanceKid Press. SundanceKid Press will be a multi-lingual, multi-cultural children’s press. I believe it is very important to start reading to children at an early age. I also believe that literacy is necessary to foster an educated citizenry. The U.S. is made up of people and cultures from all over the world. We are unlike any other country in this respect, and it represents our greatest challenge, but also our greatest strength. If children are taught from an early age to appreciate other cultures in addition to their own culture, then as adults they will be much less likely to discriminate against and disrespect people they view as “different.”

SundanceKid Press will publish children’s literature in two languages – English and the author’s native or chosen language. The idea behind this is to help both children and their parent(s) learn English as well as the second language. Parents who may not speak English fluently will be able to read to their children in their native language while improving their English skills at the same time. Children will learn English and their parents’ native language, or a second language.

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Speaking more than one language is a valuable skill in our shrinking world. In many other countries, children learn a second (and sometimes a third or fourth) language as part of both their elementary and secondary education. This is true for children in India, most European countries, as well as Japan and others. Understanding another language and culture other than one’s own is critical to building a more compassionate and peaceful society. I am very excited about starting SundanceKid Press!