Category: Buddhism

Swimming to Nonself

Swimmer in space

Change is an axiom of life. The Buddha extends this concept to say the “I” doesn’t exist because the self is constantly changing and doesn’t have any inherent characteristics of its own. This is what the Buddhist concept of emptiness refers to. I thought I understood nonself until my swimming career, something I was passionate about and proud of, ended due to the pandemic.

I shouldn’t have liked swimming as much as I did. When I dove in for my first race, my goggles fell off and I got dead last in my heat. But the electricity of competition and the fire to improve kept me in the sport. As my swimming times got faster and the years went by, three times a week practices became six times a week and one hour practices became three. Before I knew it, swimming took over my life. And it was hard not to have life revolve around it. From the people I met to the opportunities I got to the lessons I learned, the sport shaped me into who I am today.

The greatest privilege from my talent and hard work has been swimming in college. If “who you are is what you do” is true, I was a swimmer. Everything I did revolved around training and meets. I fit classes around my practice schedule. I forwent late night suite hangouts because of morning practice. There wasn’t much to my extracurricular life because swimming dominated so much of it. That was until the pandemic.

Quarantine was a weird time for everyone, but I was still training out of the pool hopeful for some semblance of an athletic season. Then, in November 2020, news headlines flashed: Winter Sports Canceled due to Coronavirus Pandemic. My athletic career was done. At first, not being a swimmer anymore was fine – I still had my fitness. And I could maintain and improve it by running and going to the gym.

More than two years later, due to travel, work, and now a grad student schedule, even my fitness is slowly going away. My arms aren’t as muscular, running is harder, and my fitness isn’t as infallible as it used to be. As my name in the swimming world fades to a memory and my body loses its tone, the “proof” I was a swimmer is disappearing. It’s at this time that I’m reminded of the Buddha’s teachings about impermanence and non-self. Just as starting swimming was a turning point in my life, the end of it has marked another one.

In my meditations, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I cling so much to swimming and fitness. As a Buddhist and minimalist, I never thought of material attachment as all that hard to let go of. But in a world where your achievements and the answer to “what do you do?” come to define you, I’ve found it’s been much harder to shake attachment to the self. Slowly, I’ve been learning not to cling to someone I once was, or something I once did. I may not be a swimmer anymore, but nowadays I swim on occasion and it doesn’t frustrate me that I’ll never be as fast as I used to be. Ideally, I wouldn’t need to attribute anything to my identity, but I haven’t gotten to the point where I can completely accept nonself. For now, my weekend swims in the pool serve as a reminder of the impermanence of all things and an admonition to practice nonattachment.

Ice Stupa

An ice stupa in Ladakh in summer 2015
An ice stupa in Ladakh in summer 2015.
Credit: The Ice Stupa Project

The Tibetan Plateau is a known for many things. Culturally, it’s the birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism and has been likened to the mythical Shambhala and Shangri-la. Geographically, it’s the largest and highest plateau in the world and the nearby Himalayas have the world’s tallest mountains. Due to its altitude, thousands of glaciers have developed on the Tibetan plateau earning its nickname “The Third Pole”. In fact, these glaciers are the largest reserve of fresh water outside the poles and supply many of Asia’s great rivers. The region’s unique geography has made the Tibetan Plateau particularly vulnerable to climate change.

In summertime, the Himalayan mountains serve as a barrier for clouds to induce rainfall in a process known as orographic lift. As a result, the Indian subcontinent experiences a monsoon climate characterized by a dry winter season and a rainy summer season. As global average temperatures rise, climate models predict that this variable precipitation will become more extreme.

Farmers in Ladakh, a territory within the larger Kashmir region of northern India, are already experiencing these effects of climate change. They suffer from acute water shortage in April and May, the last months of the dry season. However, come June, the combination of monsoon and glacial melting leads to flash flooding. Sonam Wangchuk has developed an innovative solution that takes advantage of the Tibetan plateau’s unique geography and the region’s religious culture – the ice stupa.

What is a stupa?

In short, a stupa is a Buddhist monument used for Buddhist meditation. Traditionally, they served as shrines for Buddhist relics. Stupas are a focus for Buddhist circumabulation meditation, done in the clockwise direction. In the Himalayan region, stupas have a characteristic bell-like shape and are typically white in colour. Stupas are common in Buddhist countries because building stupas generates Buddhist merit for one’s next life. Fun fact: Dagoba, the planet where Yoda trains Luke Skywalker, comes from the Sinhalese word for stupa!

Boudanath in Kathmandu, one of the world's most iconic stupas.
Boudhanath in Kathmandu, one of the world’s most iconic stupas.
Credit: Nabin K. Sapkota, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Solution

In Ladakh, the growing season is rather short and ends in mid-September. Further, water is the most constrained right before the rainy season in April and May. How can you allocate water resources to times of the year when demand is the highest and supply is at its lowest? Sonam Wangchuk’s idea was to construct artificial glaciers to remedy the water issues. By freezing stream water in the winter, water can be stored for the spring season when water resources are the scarcest.

This solution is low tech and easy to set up. Water uphill is piped to a base made from a cell phone tower and wood. At night, the pipes are opened and the extreme cold freezes the water almost instantly. The gradual accumulation of ice on the metal and wood base forms a conical shape resembling a stupa. These ice stupas have even been adorned with prayer flags just like their mud counterparts.

The team behind the Ice Stupa Project and two ice stupas in winter.
Credit: The Ice Stupa Artificial Glacier Project via Facebook

However, it should be noted that this isn’t a complete solution. First, there are complaints from downstream farmers that they are being deprived of water for their winter crops. This is a diificult debate – right to water between upstream and downstream agents is one of the main challenges in water management law. Second, the infrastructure needs to be improved to better distribute and collect water more efficiently.

Faith and the Environment

Still, I’m a big fan of projects that combine faith and environmental action. I think this project is a perfect example of that melding. Ladakh is about 40% Buddhist so there is a considerable population motivated to construct ice stupas to generate good karma. The project is also partnered with the Drikung Kagyu (འབྲི་གུང་བཀའ་བརྒྱུད) Order and a local rinpoche has blessed these ice stupas.

Many religions around the world advocate for a connection with and a love for nature. Although faith around the world is decreasing, I think there’s great value in taking advantage of this advocacy to help fight climate change and environmental damage. Environmentalism and sustainability are inherently interdisciplinary and faith can be used to complement these pursuits. For example, prayer and meditation may help to aleviate eco-anxiety and a religious flavour to conservation may help mobilize people to act in a more environmentally-conscious way.

With a changing climate, ice stupas will become more and more important. These ice structures have great potential to help other high altitude desert communities such as those in Peru. But more importantly, they bring about collaboration between the spiritual and physical worlds.

For more information, please check out the Ice Stupa Project.

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