Earthquake – Buddhist Philosophy of Impermanence in Peruvian Practice


Some nights ago I experienced the first earthquake in my life. The epicentre was about two hours away by car and the seismographic measurements claimed the magnitude went almost as far as 6. People here have an app in their cell phones which helps them know whether the shaking is over when they get out of their houses – in their pyjamas or half naked, sleepy, this time at 4:45 in the morning.

I woke up to some serious shakes of my bed and as soon as I opened my eyes a stick fell down in a corner of my room. Later, when I returned to my room, I examined this stick to find out it was a rather powerful but badly damaged rain stick, almost as tall as me. Nobody knows how it got to my room… I repaired it, painted it, cleansed it and played it. The sound was magical. While doing all that, the water supply in our house was cut off due to some repairs and I realised (once again) how totally dependent we are as human kind on water, which we keep wasting and polluting… the earthquake, the water shortage… all that was mirrored to me through the rain stick made of a jungle-tree wood…

Once again in my life, I bowed to Pacha Mama with so much respect and gratefulness that she has preserved us yet, as humankind, that she feeds us, forgives us, loves us, gives us so many gifts… in a minute, if Madre Tierra decided so, humankind could be swept off the planet. Volcanic activity, earthquakes, floods, and we would be gone. Yet, we do not heed the call… and then cry over the fires in Australian bush and over the terrible damages in the Amazon… the rain stick from now own shall always symbolise to me the stark reminder I got when the earthquake arrived into my life.

It surprised me to see how calm the locals were. My boss who lives in the same house simply knocked on my door, just when I was trying to figure out what on earth is going on, and told me to come out. I was too confused at that point and just called out: “What is it?” But my basic instinct was already making me move, running out of the room, while receiving the answer: “It´s an earthquake!”

As we were running down the stairs, the shaking was already subsiding. When outside, I looked up to the moon and realized that it was over. We were fine. I felt it. In some minutes (perhaps ten), my boss checked the app on his phone to confirm my belief. It was over. By that time, I was lying in my short pyjamas on the ground (yes, the ground the locals don’t even want to walk on barefoot), concluding my prayer of gratefulness that we were spared – this time at least.

Feeling of appreciation that life goes on without any tragedies and destructions was running through my body like fresh waters of glittering waterfalls.

When I was living in Bali, I never experienced an earthquake, just massive tidal power – provoked by the activity of water connected with full moon arrival – bringing tons of plastic waste and other garbage as well as dead fish and other marine animals to the shore (more about that in my article here).

My first one here really worked out its magic…

These people here live in a seismic zone and take being exposed to the dangers of earthquakes simply as a fact. They are in peace, though some of them lived through the 1970´s when Chimbote was massively destroyed by a strong earthquake and all of them know about Yungay. As wiki says: On May 31, 1970, the Ancash earthquake caused a substantial part of the north side of a mountain, Nevado Huascarán, to collapse and an unstable mass of glacial ice about 800 meters across at the top of Nevado Huascarán to fall. This caused a debris avalanche, burying the town of Yungay and killing 20,000 people. More than 50 million cubic meters of debris slid approximately 15 kilometers downhill at an angle of about 14 degrees. Most of the survivors were in the cemetery and stadium at the time of the earthquake, as these zones were the highest in town. The Peruvian government has forbidden excavation in the area where the old town of Yungay is buried, declaring it a national cemetery. The current town was rebuilt 2 km (1 mi) north of the destroyed city. Still, the people here did not move away, did not escape the dangers of the seismic zone, but simply accepted life as it is, for what it is… Every day, their possessions and their lives are under a huge threat. But they take this perfect example of impermanence as a standard situation, as part of life.

In Europe, schools and other institutions practise evacuation in case of a fire. Here, they practise evacuation in case of an earthquake. Daily bread.

This really made me think… We Europeans are attached to our expensive apartments and houses, our cars, all our possessions. We pay the mortgage on our homes till we retire. We keep on planning, scheduling, calculating… yet, in several minutes, even in our lives, even without living in a seismic zone, all could be lost.

People here do not own much. Their possessions often do not even include a washing machine. I have to do my laundry here by hand and wash dishes in a cold trickle only. Yet, these people here do not take antidepressants, they almost never go to the doctor, they are amazingly fit and healthy though they live in very dirty environment and eat fascinating amounts of meat, fish (which the Western world claims to be unhealthy due to heavy metals) and sugar. They drink a lot, don´t know what a non-alcoholic beer is and still – they are just fine. The people here don’t worry much about tomorrow. They live now.

To me, they are a perfect example of the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence and “live now” concept in practice. What I know from Europe is constant fear and panic about “what will happen”. We save up for our pension though we get governmental support. Peruvians get basically no pension, they do not save up for their elderly age, there are no kindergartens, no elderly people´s homes, no asylums, no maternity/parental leave (just six weeks after the birth and hurray back to work). In my country we get a minimum of two years parental leave but can legally prolong it to four too.

Where the system does not work, the family as such helps. Grandparents look after their grandkids while the parents go to work, the kids looks after their parents when they age. I am not saying it works perfectly well and always, but it somehow does. And people do not complain. A fact is a fact.

It is us, Westerners, who complain. We claim we are not happy and miss something essential in our lives we send our parents to specialized institutions when the time comes, we leave our kids in the care of strangers. We pay and pay and pay and work and work and work. Hard to say what was first: the hen or the egg…

The earthquake did not shake much my body. But it did my mind and soul… I guess I am going to look at things differently now… at people, earth, life… especially with the rain stick in my room…

Thank you to Instituto de Estudios Chamánicos for this wonderful and apt photograph.

4 thoughts on “Earthquake – Buddhist Philosophy of Impermanence in Peruvian Practice

  1. Souhlas s tím, že Západ neumí žít přítomností, ale zas je tu pak druhý extrém: smysl pro zodpovědnost, který s sebou nutně nese určitou dávku plánování, hlídání termínů, starání se o budoucnost, materiální zajištění rodiny atd. Chce to, jako ve všem, rovnováhu. Člověk není jen duše, ale také tělo.

    1. Dekuji za zpetnou vazbu, bezpochyby mas pravdu, ale v tom se mi prave libi tady ten fakt, ze lide si system, ktery vlada neumi zajistit, zajistuji zkratka sami. Malokdo z nich je zadluzeny na dome, v nemz bydli. Rodina je zvykla navzajem si neuveritelne vypomahat a rozhodne si nemyslim, ze by zdejsi lide byli nezodpovedni… a samozrejme, rovnovaha telo, duse, mysl je nutna, ani jedno nelze opomijet.

  2. Otazka je, jestli by tak chteli zit, kdyby dokazali pojmout, ze jsou jine moznosti. s tim jsem se setkal skoro vsude, kde je chudoba, lide vyrustajici v oblastech, kde nejsou moznosti jako v zapadnich zemich, proste nemaji vetsinou vubec zadnou predstavu, ze je nekde neco jinak a kdyz jim o tom povis, tak to vubec nechapou, nedokazou si to predstavit, ten koncept takoveho premysleni tam vubec neexistuje. je to takova sladka nevedomost. a je sladka nevedomost lepsi? ja si myslim ze ne, i kdyz to samozrejme ma negativa, ktera spravne popisujes.
    na druhou stranu ten hon za uspechem, predhaneni se kdo ma vic, kdo je lepsi v zapadnich zemich je presne duvod, proc se zapadni civilizace v cele s Evropou rozvinula v velmi kratke dobe (relativne samozrejme) a ziskala tak ohromny naskok pred zbytkem sveta. vse to zaclo nekdy v 15. stoleti, do te doby byla Evropa prakticky peklo, kde zit bylo naprosto desive strasny. a zaclo to tim, ze portugalci chteli vic, chteli ziskat naskok pred konkurenci a objevili novou trasu kolem Afriky do Asie odkud dovazeli koreni. diky tomu se z totalne zbidaceneho kusu sveta behem pouhych 5 stoleti stala velmoc, jaka Evropa (a descendenti z Evropskych civilizaci) je dnes a mame takove moznosti jake mame. kdo vi, nebyt toho, treba bys dnes absolutne nemela moznost cestovat do Peru a poznavat tyto veci, mozna bys zila nekde na venkove v podobne sladke nevedomosti, ze nekde existuje neco jineho…
    ja se drzim principu yin yang. nic neni cernobile a ackoliv ja osobne se za hypotekami vubec nezenu, jsem rad ze jsem prave z Evropy, kde se zije takhle. Je to konkurencni prostredi a konkurence tvori progres, kreativitu…

    1. Super, diky za komentar. Myslim, ze muj clanek neni o tom videt veci jednostranne, jen se zamyslet, ze to opravdu jde I jinak. Nema smysl vylevat vanicku I s ditetem, jen si mozna vzit kousek toho stoickeho klidu s sebou… I kdyz to neznamena stagnovat, nerozvijet se… kazdopadne velmi dobre postrehy, diky Honzo.

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