Sunday, February 12, 2006

Words of Power #12: The Fallen Tree (Spiritual Challenges of the 21st Century Global Security Crisis, Part II)

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Words of Power #12: The Fallen Tree (Spiritual Challenges of the 21st Century Global Security Crisis, Part II)

We, this people on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through causal space …
It is possible and imperative that we discover
A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking…
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils or divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
And without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonders of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
Maya Angelou, A Brave and Startling Truth, written for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations

Several years ago, at three a.m., after a fierce winter storm, I came upon a huge old oak that had just fallen across an unpaved road through the forest. Sprawled out in the heavy mist, the gnarled, thick-hided tree was blocking the route down to the valley and the highway beyond. I got out of my vehicle, in awe, and placed my hands on the trunk of the great tree. It was super-charged with power, memory and sacrifice. It seemed to speak from inside my own consciousness: “No one is getting by me. You’ll be the last one.” And indeed, the tree had fallen in such a way as to leave an archway with only an inch or two of clearance for the roof and girth of my economy-size care.
I got back into my car, asked the tree for permission and drove through the archway. Miraculously, I passed under it without getting stuck.
Later, after sunrise, the few neighbors stretched out along that remote road got out there and took their chainsaws to it. They could not believe that I had gotten my car under that tree. They were convinced I had turned the car in the opposite direction and gone down the long way around instead.
Weeks after the incident, I remembered a Late Tang dynasty poem that I had loved as a youth. It was about an old tree with a gaping hole in its trunk, which “cared not yet to become the void at its center.”
Now whenever I drive by the massive chunks of that dismembered oak piled up alongside the gulley, I wave. I am somehow bound to it. Like the tree in the poem I cherished decades ago, I do not want to succumb. Like the tree in the road, I want even my fall, when it comes, to have meaning.

21st Century Security Crisis
In the 21st Century, humanity confronts an unprecedented security crisis, one that involves every aspect of life and indeed threatens the survival of the species.
There are numerous contributing factors, including:
Global warming and environmental destruction: A double blow which means that in coming years we will not only be living within a planetary environment very different than the one within which human civilization has evolved, this new environment will also be toxic and dysfunctional.
Over-population: The rise of Mega-Slums (particularly in the East and the South, but also in the West and the North) where basic human needs, e.g., livelihood, education, health care, sanitation, and especially water and food distribution, have either failed or soon will.
Struggle for geopolitical hegemony over oil and natural gas reserves: The "Great Game" exacerbated by the end of peak oil production and significantly increased demand to fuel the accelerated economic growth of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) while continuing to sustain the already established G-7 economies.
Religious fanaticism: A curse that closes minds and cheapens life, particularly in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, not only threatens the lives and cultures of those that are ensnared, but also the lives and cultures of those who are simply different.
Orwellian societies: The suppression of freedom of thought and freedom of expression, i.e., press, Internet, and artistic freedom, whether by religious power, state power, corporatist power, or the fusion of all three, is perhaps the single greatest threat to our common humanity -- because just as religious fanaticism closes minds, freedom of thought and expression opens them, and when these freedoms are suppressed, the inspiration and imagination required to overcome all the other challenges is inhibited and impaired.
The challenges of this global crisis, this “perfect storm,” cannot be overcome without a holistic approach that integrates practical security with a sustainability economy and a spiritual renaissance. We cannot provide security without addressing the issue of sustainability, and we cannot accomplish either without drawing on untapped spiritual power within the human psyche.
Of course, there are specific actions that would be of great benefit. For example, the U.S. and the Western Alliance would be in a much better position to do good if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were impeached and their policies repudiated and reversed. Furthermore, all of the innocents, everywhere in the world, who live in the cross hairs, whether they know it or not, would be safer if Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri were killed or captured. But even if Bush and Cheney were impeached, and both bin Laden and Zawahiri were killed, humanity would still be confronted with this global crisis.
Perhaps you noticed that terrorism, the shared obsession of Bush, Cheney, bin Laden and Zawahiri was not on my list of the top five challenges that face us. Why? Because the terrorism which has taken so many innocent lives around the world since 9/11 is a sub-set of other problems: e.g., the struggle over oil and natural gas reserves and the curse of religious fanaticism. Unless these problems are understood and overcome, this form of terrorism will continue. (But, of course, perpetual war seems to be another shared notion of these four men.)
There is a great danger, however, in thinking that because terrorism is a derivative threat that it is not grave and imminent to your person, your family and your organization. In my travels, I have encountered this view all too often.
Many innocents have died in hotels in Jakarta and Amman, in office buildings in Istanbul, in the subways of Madrid and London, in nightclubs in Bali and Casablanca, and on the streets of Mumbai.
My message is “Anywhere, anytime…”
I remember briefing the responsible person within an organization headquartered in a great city at the edge of the Middle East. He said, “You don’t have to worry about us. We’re in the IBM building, and we’re across the street from the Israeli embassy. We’re in a really safe place.” Incredible.
The Tibetans have a great teaching: “As a thing is viewed, so it appears.”

Two News Items That Haunt Me
There are two news stories that have haunted me for the last few weeks.
One involves a people that the great nations have forsaken; the other involves a strange bird that fouls its own nest. One involves the horror of Darfur; the other involves the Clemenceau, a decommissioned French warship.
In Darfur, where close to 400,000 people have been killed, as part of a government-sponsored program of ethnic cleansing, the brutal rape of women and children has become a weapon of war. Sexual violence is now an integral and devastating part of the conflict aimed at breaking the will of the local people, humiliating them so that they will abandon their lands and weakening tribal ethnic lines. Every day women in Darfur face the prospect of being raped and beaten when they leave their homes to find food or search for firewood. They face this prospect even though the international community claims that it is protecting them. Even if they survive this trauma, as I learnt when I visited the region last year, their prospects are bleak. Many of them have had their homes destroyed and their male relatives killed. Their villages are burned to the ground; they are forced to walk for days, carrying their children through baking heat and dust storms, to insecure refugee camps. Here, instead of finding safety and comfort, they must build their own shelters, and they are still vulnerable to attack.
Glenys Kinnock, The Rape of Darfur, Guardian, 1-20-06
A toxic disaster of about 500 tons may strike India's western shores in less than a month and a half, if environmentalist warnings are lost on ostrich-like authorities and entrenched vested interests. Decommissioned French warship Clemenceau, carrying a horrifyingly heavy load of asbestos by all accounts but that of French officials, is heading for India after getting the green signal from initially demurring Egyptian authorities. The ship, with its deadly cargo, is expected to reach the Alang shipyard in India's state of Gujarat by February's end, if it proceeds at a speed of four nautical miles per hour…The greater apprehension of environmentalists, however, is that the government of India may just prefer the tactic of turning the other way…An asbestos-laden Danish ship was making its way to India in April 2005, and Danish environment minister Connie Hedegaard wrote to her Indian counterpart offering to take the ship back. The later "feigned ignorance" first, and then gave his open approval to the ship's entry. When Clemenceau left Toulon harbor on December 31, 2005, it did so amidst a fierce controversy in France itself. Yann Wehrling, head of France's Green Party, said it was "scandalous to endanger the health of Indian workers who would be forced to deal with asbestos-contaminated materials on the ship." He added. "We should be doing this ourselves."
J. Sri Raman, Will 'Clemenceau' Hit India's Coast?,, 1-16-06
Neither of these news stories cross the threshold of strategic importance for inclusion in my bi-weekly GS(3) Intelligence Briefings, but both point directly to the spiritual dimension of this global security crisis, and so I bring them to your attention in this Words of Power commentary. Both the rape of Darfur and the last voyage of the Clemenceau highlight the fundamental spiritual problem before us – the failure to acknowledge the oneness of all life and accept the responsibility that such acknowledgement demands.

Two Tales from East Asia, and a Common Purpose for All Humanity
Acknowledging the oneness of all life, and accepting the responsibility that comes with it, lead us into a very different world-view and value system.
Consider the tales of “Tosui’s Vinegar” and “The Useless Tree.”
“Tosui was the Zen master who left the formalism of temples to live under a bridge with beggars. When he was getting very old, a friend helped him to earn his living without begging. He showed Tosui how to collect rice and manufacture vinegar from it, and Tosui did this until he passed away. While Tosui was making vinegar, one of the beggars gave him a picture of the Buddha. Tosui hung it on the wall of his hut and put a sign beside it. The sign read: Mr. Amida Buddha: This little room is quite narrow. I can let you remain as a transient. But don't think I am asking you to be reborn in your paradise.” (Mu Mon, “The Gateless Gate”)
“Tsechi of Nan-po was traveling on the hill of Shang when he saw a large tree which astonished him very much. A thousand chariot teams of four horses could find shelter under its shade. ‘What tree is this?’ cried Tsechi. ‘Surely it must be unusually fine timber.’ Then looking up, he saw that its branches were too crooked for rafters; and looking down he saw that the trunk's twisting loose grain made it valueless for coffins. He tasted a leaf, but it took the skin off his lips; and its odor was so strong that it would make a man intoxicated for three days together. ‘Ah!" said Tsechi, ‘this tree is really good for nothing, and that is how it has attained this size. A spiritual man might well follow its example of uselessness.’” (Complete Chuang-Tzu, Translated by James Legge)
Not only does Tosui turn his back on fame and comfort to live under a bridge and eke out a meager existence, he does not even desire to be reborn into some paradise after death. What wisdom could this tale offer to an upwardly mobile or already well-established denizen of the 21st Century? Furthermore, what wisdom could there possibly be in the uselessness that Chuang-Tzu extols in the tale of that tree that Tsechi of Nan-po encounters?
In ways that contradict so-called “conventional wisdom,” both Tosui and the Useless Tree symbolize freedom from avarice and greed, integration into the whole and the awakening of the altruistic impulse. Mysteriously, paradoxically, they call us to the common purpose for all humanity.
Toiling for the achievement of the U.N.’s “Millennium Goals” should be one of the central focuses of all governments, organizations, families and individuals:
Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Achieve universal primary education
Promote gender equality and empower women
Reduce child mortality
Improve maternal health
Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
Ensure environmental sustainability
Develop a global partnership for development
A group of German rap stars (Clueso, Culcha Candela, Curse feat. Gentleman, Eins Zwo, Die Fantastischen Vier, Gentleman, Kool Savas, Nneka, Nosliw, Patrice, Samy Deluxe, Seeed, Toni L & Torch) have released a charity CD entitled “No Excuses 2015: Your Voice Against Poverty, The German Contribution.”They understand the importance of achieving the Millennium Goals.
It is unfortunate that Bush and Cheney do not. But, of course, indifference to the real plight of humanity is something else they share in common with bin Laden and Zawahiri. You probably have more in common with those German rap stars than you do with Bush-Cheney or bin Laden-Zawahiri anyway.
Working within your governments, organizations and families, you can participate in overcoming the spiritual challenges of the 21st Century’s global security crisis.
As inconceivable as it is to you at this moment, in a decade or two, it could be you who fears for your life or your sanity as you gather wood, or your children who cannot wade into the bay anymore because it has become a dead zone.
And, as inconceivable as it may be to you at this moment, your action and the reorientation of your consciousness can influence the future.
That huge old oak that fell across the road knew this "brave and startling truth."

Richard Power is the founder of GS(3) Intelligence and His work focuses on the inter-related issues of security, sustainability and spirit, and how to overcome the challenges of terrorism, cyber crime, global warming, health emergencies, natural disasters, etc.
You can reach Richard Power via e-mail:
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