what to do next

February 1st, 2017

Never underestimate the power of a single monk on a mountaintop. He alone is transforming the universe.


A terrible forest fire broke out one day, and all the animals fled their homes. But one hummingbird zipped over to a stream, got some water in its beak, and rushed back to the raging fire. The little hummingbird tried to douse the flames with a few drops of water, then back to the stream it flew to retrieve more water. The other animals watched in disbelief. They asked the hummingbird what it was doing—one tiny bird would not make a bit of difference. The hummingbird replied, “I’m doing the best I can.”


On a winter day 56 years ago, Edward Lorenz, a mild-mannered meteorology professor at MIT, entered some numbers into a computer program simulating weather patterns and then left his office to get a cup of coffee while the machine ran. When he returned, he noticed a result that would change the course of science.

The computer model was based on 12 variables, representing things like temperature and wind speed, whose values could be depicted on graphs as lines rising and falling over time. On this day, Lorenz was repeating a simulation he’d run earlier—but he had rounded off one variable from .506127 to .506. To his surprise, that tiny alteration drastically transformed the whole pattern his program produced, over two months of simulated weather.

The unexpected result led Lorenz to a powerful insight about the way nature works: small changes can have large consequences. The idea came to be known as the “butterfly effect” after Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado. And the butterfly effect, also known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” has a profound corollary: forecasting the future can be nearly impossible.


It seemed to be going one way, and it turned out to go the opposite. The disaster is overwhelming, and you are powerless to change the tide. What do you do now? Be a hummingbird, be a butterfly. Do your best against impossible odds.

The hummingbird and the fire is a Japanese folktale, but you might like to hear it told by a masterful storyteller, political activist and Nobel laureate.

The story of Edward Lorenz is quoted from this article by Peter Dizikes in the MIT Technology Forum, Feb. 22, 2011.

And impossible things? They are happening every day.



  1. We have a book of “Buddhist” tales, and this is one of my daughter’s favorites. I’m flapping my wings hard. Enough of us doing that will generate a great wind.

    Comment by Kathryn — February 1, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

  2. ?????

    Comment by Mary — February 1, 2017 @ 3:33 pm

  3. And thank you again.

    Comment by Gretchen Staebler — February 1, 2017 @ 5:00 pm

  4. Oh, this is wonderful! And so encouraging.
    Thank you. ?

    Comment by Marcea — February 1, 2017 @ 6:47 pm

  5. I just love this so much. I used to wait for this show every year as a kid. Only now, as an adult, do I recognize what a critical message was coming through. Thanks for reminding me about such a small good thing. Cheers to doing what we can !

    Comment by Bonnie Nygren — February 2, 2017 @ 5:47 am

  6. Thank you for this. 🙂 Feeling more helpless by the day, so this is excellent timing.

    I hope someday to understand the sentiment of the single monk on a mountaintop. I first heard it when I took a Buddhism class in college many years ago, and it’s been kicking around in my head off and on ever since.

    Unfortunately, even after all these years–and without invoking the supernatural–I still completely fail to see how it relates to actual action, or does the slightest bit of good (for anyone other than the monk). Unless there’s an assumption that the monk eventually engages with others?

    Maybe someday I’ll understand. Maybe.

    Comment by Chris — February 2, 2017 @ 8:41 am

  7. It is the absolute reality, Chris. The world of oneness, which is Buddha’s enlightenment, and the realization of complete engagement with all others. You’re right: it goes beyond intellectual understanding but it is imminently true and verifiable. Ask youself at this moment: who is reading this comment? Your answer is right there. You contain the universe, so take responsibility for it.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — February 2, 2017 @ 10:44 am

  8. Dear Chris, I think essentially the question is whether you have an understanding of being connected to other people, to the world. If you feel that connection then how someone else feels will touch you. How we all feel will touch you.
    There is an absolutely beautiful (prizewinning) movie about a group of peaceful French Catholic monks in Algeria who stay despite the danger and threats around them since a war started in Algeria. They are scared, but they stay because they feel that connection with the people and the land. (The ending is not good I’m afraid, but you’ll see that that is not really the point).

    Comment by Simone — February 10, 2017 @ 7:12 am

  9. PS here is a review:

    Here you can find the text of Dom Christian’s last will; it’s especially poignant given the times we live in today. Part of it is about how to reconcile Christianity and Islam, another part is about how to be at peace with your fate.

    Comment by Simone — February 10, 2017 @ 7:30 am

  10. A single monk on a mountaintop is not inert, or blind, and may not even be meek. You will only see this, and understand this, when you know who the single monk on the mountaintop is. When you realize the identity of the single monk on the mountaintop you will know that he or she does everything and is everything. Until then, you wonder what things mean.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — February 10, 2017 @ 7:40 am

  11. “…the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado.”

    I love this. It makes me think of the power of a funny pink hat with ears. How silly it seemed at first, and yet how it ended up defining and symbolizing the Marches. Crafters all over the world made them! I made 18, and they were worn by loved ones all over the country. And when I wear mine even now, I get knowing smiles and thumbs up from total strangers.

    The movement is strong and I don’t think it will go away. And it is just one person multiplied over and over and over. Keep up those calls, those letters, those emails, those intentions. Thank you, Maezen. XO

    Comment by Clare — February 2, 2017 @ 7:06 pm

  12. Thank you, Maezen. ❤

    Comment by Deirdre — February 9, 2017 @ 4:35 am

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