Often, what is deemed “practical” goes against our aesthetic values. When that happens, I believe we lose a sense of the spiritual.
And so, I contemplate this water bottle I hold in my hand, trying to find some beauty in its thin clear plastic surfaces.
I’ve considered everything that went into the creation of that plastic bottle. The resources, the science, the engineering, the labor—all the energy. But it’s no use…
Once we’ve emptied the contents of our plastic containers, they appear null, void, ugly. No wonder we reject them so casually. When they are empty, they are also empty of any type of value, practical or aesthetic.
It’s a serious problem.
In the north Pacific Ocean there exists a floating continent of plastic debris. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex. Size estimates vary. It may now be larger than the continental United States.
Beyond the environmental concerns, this growing colossus of tiny plastic particles disturbs my sense of the aesthetic. When I think of this wound on the planet, my feelings exceed coherent expression and all I can do is ask myself, “Is this it? Is this our choice, our final decision?—to maintain the status quo, to continue this way of life until we‘ve smothered ourselves under a garbage heap?”
The answer to our problem is literally right in our hands. But I believe recycling these cheap water bottles isn’t enough. The plastic remains with us. We can’t expect to return to using earthenware jugs. So, as silly as it sounds, I need to see this bottle as sacred, as sacred as anything else—even that ocean I wish to protect.
Shouldn’t I be able to find some beauty in it? Isn’t everything of this earth sacred?
Moreover, any vessel of any material can be see as an archetypal form—a spiritual expression. A vessel of clay and a vessel of plastic both express the same form.
But though I can think of the bottle as a thing of spiritual beauty, I‘ve yet to experience it as such.
Thought is not enough. I need the experience.
Perhaps I can take a clue from this story found in Prayer: A History by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski…
…a story that shows how any object can be used to express our spirituality.
A friend of the Zaleski’s had just returned from a visit to his Tibetan homeland, in the tradition-oriented, rustic, high plateau region of Gelok, a place far from the tourist center of Lhasa. As he was showing them his slides…
“One photograph in particular caught our fancy, for it seemed to capture best the spirit of these eastern Tibetans. It depicted a wooden framework, looming above the tallest monk (and the Tibetans are a tall people), and consisting of two massive uprights of rough-hewn lumber supporting four long crossbars.
“Upon each crossbar stood nine or ten prayer wheels, each containing a bit of paper inscribed with the traditional Buddhist prayer om mani padme hum (Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus). As the wind blows down the mountainside, each wheel spins madly, and the mantra is flung into the universe like a message in a bottle, drifting on celestial currents until it reaches its heavenly destination.
“Of what, we asked, were these glistening wheels made? At a glance they seemed carved from crystal or jade, or were they globes of delicate brown glass?
“ ‘Oh no,’ Dechen explained, refocusing the slide projector for a better look: the wheels were nothing more than cast-off Pepsi-Cola bottles.”
© 2010, Michael R. Patton
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