Reflections on the Moon in Bangladesh

Glen T. Martin

Journal, 7 January 2004

As we ride north from Chittagong to Dhaka City on this intercity bus, I have been watching the full moon rising in the east.   The moon, low on the horizon, is still larger than it will appear later as it rises in the sky.  In this land of water, even in this dry season, we are passing many fields full of shallow water.  The moon follows the bus, and the reflection of the moon, also very beautiful, follows the bus through the watery fields.

Do people really see the moon?   In Zen, they say the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.  The moon for most is a word, a concept, a familiar object in the sky.   It is part of the furniture of the world, familiar, unseen.  The philosopher Henry David Thoreau says “to really see the sun rise each day would keep us sane forever.”  To really see the beauty and suchness of this astonishing world would transform our lives deadened by habit, routine, and dullness of perception.

Today, I saw the most astonishing sight.  My hosts took me to a fishing village near Chittagong.  The village, once on the seashore, is now three to four kilometers in-land due to the silting on the southern coast of Bangladesh.  Between the village and the sea is open land turning gradually to tidal flats.  We walked with the fishermen who were carrying two baskets hanging from a bamboo pole over their shoulders.

A fishing boat was coming in with its catch.  There are no docks or wharfs here.  The boat comes into shallow water, and the fishermen, after walking in their bare feet through the mud of the tidal flat, continue to walk into the water out to the boat, some three hundred meters from shore.  They crowded around the boat, baskets thrust forward, for a few small fish to fill the bottom.

As their baskets get some fish, they rush back to the village, walking very rapidly because the fish will rapidly lose its freshness and then begin to spoil.  Fifteen years ago, they told us, their baskets were full of fish after the boat came back with its catch.  But the fish are disappearing due to the collection of prawn eggs in the shallow water for sale, due to the gas and oil pollutants from the nearby ship-breaking industry where used ships are scrapped, and due to the pollution in the many rivers that flow to the sea in Bangladesh.  The fishermen live in great poverty, clinging precariously to existence, as they walk back and forth from their village to collect their tiny harvest of fish.

As we walked toward the sea, we crossed an embankment between the silted land and the tidal flats.  Suddenly, the landscape became surreal, like the alien landscape of another planet.  There appeared before us a vast army of giant trucks, bulldozers, and earth-moving machines, roaming like giant insects back and forth in the tidal flats.   Vast pits were being dug in the mud, and vast mounds of mud and dirt were being piled here and there by the busy monstrous machines.

A commercial shrimp farm was being constructed.  The contrast between the poor fishermen walking barefoot in the mud with their bamboo baskets on their shoulders and the platoon of giant machines reconstructing the landscape could not have been more stark.  The gasoline burned by one of these machines in a day was likely two months income for each of these fishermen.  A vast commercial investment was in operation to create a huge shrimp farm.

The coasts of Bangladesh are periodically lashed by cyclones, furious storms with high seas and terrible winds that drive many miles inland, destroying the tree canopy, the coastline, and the lives and homes of thousands of people.  At one time, mangrove forests covered the shoreline.  In the distance in both directions from the shrimp farm under construction, we could see mangrove tangles along the coastline.  The mangrove tangle, which grows naturally and rapidly in these countries of the global south, holds the mud in place and buffers the coastline from the fury of ocean storms.

But the commercial shrimp farms plow down the mangrove growth along these coastlines, replacing them with vast pits, dug by huge machines, in which shrimp will be farmed.  One the one hand, food will be produced in the form of shrimp that will be shipped to commercial markets worldwide.  On the other hand, tiny groups of wealthy investors will grow wealthier while these poor fishermen sink ever deeper into poverty and hunger.  But like all enterprises under the capitalist system, some of the profit will be made by externalizing costs to Bangladesh and to nature.

The destruction of the mangrove swamps along the coastline makes the people more vulnerable to the fury of cyclones.  The investors in the shrimp farm may live in Dhaka City, Europe, or the United States.  The billions of Takas in destruction caused by cyclone destruction as the mangroves are plowed under for commercial shrimp farms will be borne by the poor.

The orange full moon continues to follow the bus in the waters along the road and in the sky above.  Is the moon reflected in the waters, incredibly beautiful, less real than the moon in the sky above?  The moon truly fills the soul with astonishment and joy.  The same moon is seen everywhere on Earth, a testimony to the smallness of our planet and the oneness of humanity.  Yet habit, dullness, and convention keep the moon veiled in illusion.  We do not see that divine and priceless gift of beauty and unspeakable suchness.  We see only an object, part of the furniture of the night sky.

Similarly, the commercial habits and conventions of our planet make us see the gigantic commercial enterprises reconstructing the landscape and plowing under natural barriers against disaster as “development.”  We believe the commercial promise of prosperity if we let the few invest in a reconstruction of our world in pursuit of ever greater wealth.  Like the moon, we see only objects and live in a world of objects.  Our habit and dullness obscure what is there to see clearly for those who break out of the hypnotic trances that crush our sensitivity and humanity.

For all commercial enterprises, like this surreal, gigantic shrimp farm under construction near this tiny fishing village in southern Bangladesh, make their profit by externalizing their costs to nature and to society.  The commercial spirit, distorting its countless victims into dullness and insensitivity, is destroying our precious planet and the lives of the poor majority who only wish to dwell simply on the Earth, with peace and a little prosperity.

The poor crave a life of decency and peace.  The greed and callousness of the commercial spirit has not yet corrupted their humanity.  They desire a better life that lifts them out of poverty and misery.  They desire, everywhere I travel on this Earth, to dwell in peace, performing some decent, useful work, and living within the love of family and the embrace of community.  They do not know how they might achieve this, nor where to turn.  For their longing is only confronted by callous images of mindless wealth and pleasure as the commercial onslaught penetrates every town and village on Earth.  They do not know how to relieve their poverty and misery while dwelling in peace upon the Earth.

The sky is dark now, the moon risen higher and to the south.  As we near Dhaka City, the waters no longer appear along the roadside.  Now there are buildings, villages, gas stations, factories, and construction sites.  Outside the window of my bus, the world appears very dark.