I was in the middle of Baja Mexico the weekend before last watching whales frolic with new babies or mates in the remote Pacific lagoon they nestle in as snowbirds escaping the dark cold of Alaska’s winter. I went to celebrate the birthday that officially made me elderly by re-assuring myself I am still nimble enough to climb over rocks into a skiff, and also to fulfill a lifelong dream of feeling thin. With time running out, I figured being surrounded by so much blubber would finally make that dream come true. And yes, of course I wanted to see whales.
It was an expensive and energetic four days in a desert encampment off the grid, reachable only by a tiny prop plane, two bus rides and the inevitable hassles of crossing a border infamous for drug smugglers. Going out twice daily in the wooden skiffs required a special wardrobe of waterproof clothes and going out many times a day to the marine toilets almost 150 yards from the camp or a five-minute walk from the boat landing required Olympic medal muscle control. So the inevitable existential question behind all the effort became: why don’t whales go through all that money and machination to see me?
They weren’t even interested when I was yards away. Since, the naturalists assured us, nobody knows what will lure them, we were free to try whatever we thought might work. I seemed to be the only one in our boat of six with a bright idea. Lamentably, chanting Om Mani Padme Hung over and over in the lowest vocal range I could plummet to, and even trying just Om om om until it became a constant drone of mmmmmmmm didn’t attract a cetacean. It just got the guy sitting behind me to admit he’d been studying vipassyana meditation, opening up a whole new discussion at happy hour.
The adult whales just kept doing their own thing—snoozing, dating, breathing, snacking on krill from the shallow bottom—unfazed by the flat-bottom, white panga bobbing in the near waves. As the Zen roshis might say, when they swam they just swam and when they breathed, they just blew out heart-shaped air that was breathtaking. Those living submarines were so complete within themselves, so focused on being whales, they turned us humans with our phallic foot-long camera lenses and come on splashing or chanting into a laughable bunch of Peeping Toms. They were a rebuke, a reminder that Buddhist teachers say we human beings are so unwilling to look inside at what we are, we keep seeking satisfaction in outer distractions, like watching whales being whales.
Happily, our presence did at least turn out to be kid stuff. The cetaceans curious enough to swim over were the ten-ton, month-old baby whales for whom our 23-foot skiff was a playpen toy, or more probably a rubber ducky. There were reportedly eight newborns in the lagoon, the lowest number on record and thus worrisome. On three occasions, one of them—since they are not yet bulbous, they look eerily like gigantic snakes-- swam toward our frantic hand splashing, swam under or around us and popped up to say hello or even to be petted before Mom swam in between her calf and us to end the love fest. Nobody wanted to argue with a 45-foot long 200-ton whale with all the makings of a gargantuan torpedo. And anyway we’d had the potential interaction that magnetized twenty of us to this lagoon on this February Olympic weekend. One guy flew all the way from Amsterdam.
Remembering the story of how Kalu Rinpoche refused to leave the Boston aquarium until he had tapped on the glass and chanted Om Mani Padme Hung to every single creature in the tank to propel them toward a high incarnation, I madly tried chanting at the baby whales. I hung over the gunnels like a crazed guru frantically dispensing blessings in a rockabye empowerment. Then back on the rocks where the beer and tequila were, I realized those whales were higher on the incarnation chain than I am and had actually been blessing me.
Except for orcas, whales live in friendly social pods, frolicking with and protecting each other, passing along vital survival information gleaned from their experience. They understand generosity, exertion, patience and discipline—which I could see in a mother teaching its calf to move its considerable tonnage gracefully through the chop. The whales were more relaxed than I was slamming against the planked seats of that skiff, didn’t need to change or add clothes, and had absolute equanimity about rain or shine weather. They also had focus, concentration and contentment-- components of what my teacher Thrangu Rinpoche calls “a good mind.” They don’t have the human need to plunder and own, to wreak the havoc of remaking that lagoon to suit their ego, convenience and bank account. They just swam around enjoying it as it was.
The real shining glory of those gray whales, their ultimate blessing, was that while they didn’t rush over to see me, they also didn’t rush to get far away when they had every reason to do so. Part of my baggage to this lagoon was a newly published book called The Whale, an eloquent meditation by English author Philip Hoare on the bloody horrors of the four-century long holocaust schemed by human beings, for these peaceful leviathans. It was Nantucket Quakers, the profit-grubbing owners of whaling ships and the history we glorify, who went about preaching nonviolence while they ruthlessly pursued the whales. It was their money-motivated violence against these creatures minding their own business that taught whales aggression, for they quickly learned to stove ships and bite men in order to free their tortured kin. This valiant nobility and compassion for each other, the sight of female whales surrounding a calf and baby whales clinging to the boats bearing the harpooned carcass of their mother, made the equally abused ship crews, cramped and cheated by those same Nantucket grandees, heave into madness or drop away in guilt and shame--something not saved to show in scrimshaw museums.
Arguably—and certainly Melville argued it in Moby Dick—America was built on destroying Nature whose largest symbol is the whale. This country has been built on shameless desire and greedy aggression riding the back of the gentle cetacean giant, all the evil that men do exposed in its lamp oil, corset stays and scrimshaw. Gotta have it. "By 1833, seventy thousand souls and seventy million dollars were tied up in whaling and its associated crafts; ten years later that figure had nearly doubled. The United States exported a million gallons of oil to Europe each year." Whereas more than one million sperm whales swam the world's oceans in 1712, by 1992, only 360,000 of these long lived creatures were thought to exist. Some species are an inch from extermination.
A whale never did anything to bother a human, but Hoare points out how we treated them exactly like our captured slaves, slaughtered aboriginal Indians, exterminated buffalo and plundered Arabian oil wells--all in one. Whales were pitifully caught in the carnage of World War II, bombed from above on being misidentified as enemy submarines, hunted ruthlessly by both sides for meat and oil. How many whales died in that war nobody knows, but it was the beginning of their end. Even now, when we call ourselves “civilized”, Navy sonar destroys migrating whales in the Pacific, and century or even two century old whales ice bound in the Arctic are being pursued and bombed, or melted out of existence by global warming. “So what if there aren’t any whales left in the world,” shrugged the Scarsdale financial person in our group. “What difference would that make?”
Every page I read, sitting in the camp with my beer and nachos, made my heart heavier but my awe stronger for these creatures of such trust and forgiveness, these Bodhisattvas of now. Hoare writes that humans are doing everything in our power to make Melville’s subtle prophecy of the whale triumphant come true. Our greedy desires continue melting the ice that increases the oceans that decrease the land we need to breath on. Because we have no will to change, this will go on until we are all gone in the scorch of the sun, with only whales left on the last watch, finally liberated from suffering, maybe even the thinnest creatures on a planet where their good minds made them the only ones fit to stay. Do you think that is their dream come true?
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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