04 Jun 2019
Those among you who accept the probability of the coming climate collapse will know what I’m talking about. Acceptance is a long process, and a hard one. But to speak of it is still taboo: you will be attacked, dismissed, patronised, or at best, greeted with an awkward silence. Your friends will kindly wonder if you have a mental illness. They will, in all seriousness, tell you that they get by by simply ignoring the problem, and recommend this as a healthy option. I’ve experienced all these things, and everyone I have spoken to on this has experienced it too. Right at the time when you long for connection, when you feel the fragility of what we have and the need for understanding and support, the support you need is just not there.
Taking facts seriously is hard; and being put down for it is even harder. If you want to change my mind, don’t patronise me, give me a reason.
The forces of denial are not just external; they live in all of us. I know this, and it is why I put effort into overcoming it. Over the past decade or so I must have read thousands of articles on climate change; I read about it almost every day. The basic facts are clear: atmospheric CO2 continues to rise, recently passing 415ppm for the first time. Global CO2 hasn’t been this high for 3 million years. There is no downwards or even mitigating trend. On the contrary, the results from this year confirm that the rate of CO2 increase is steadily accelerating. In the 90s it was growing at about 1.5ppm/year, but today it is over 2.2ppm/year. This is driving us to a catastrophic tipping point in a decade.
Stress levels among scientists and activists are growing. Understandably so: billions of people are going to die, and all that you love will burn. What can more science do, except expand on what we already know, with new findings on a daily or weekly basis that things are, in fact, as bad or worse than we thought? What more can activists do, except the same things they have been doing for decades? Our strategies for change have manifestly failed, because, well, here we are. But this time, we must believe, it will be different. More people, with more energy, more focused. Meanwhile, the Australian people just elected one of the most denialist political parties on the planet. We gave the people the power to choose, and they chose the greater of two evils.
What do we, as followers of a teacher who spoke of the importance of contemplating death with every breath, have to offer? Well, for a start we could try listening to people’s worries and anxieties and not attack them or lecture platitudes at them.
No-one says it will be easy. I have my down periods. Sometimes I feel this sense of disconnect, like everyone is wandering around in a dream and I feel like screaming to wake them up. My community, the people I know and live and work with, are for the most part good and intelligent people. Yet it is rare to speak with someone who does not, in some way, fall back on the various strategies of denial. Heck, I do it myself, but at least I try not to.
And there are lots of you in this world going through the same thing, without even a fraction of this level of support. It is for you, in fact, that I write these articles. I want you to know that you are not crazy, not deluded, not suffering from depression. Reality is how it is, and what you are going through, I am going through too. I am trying to work out my response, bit by bit, and offer fragments of my journey in case they resonate at all.
It is perhaps the greatest emotional work that any of us will have to do; learning to cope with the fact that we, due to our laziness, greed, and ignorance, brought about the end of the world. Of course the forces of denial are super-strong, and anything that threatens them will be attacked and belittled. It’s one thing to know this, however and quite another to deal with it on top of everything.
I get it, the whole denialist thing, I really do. I’m not unsympathetic, because I know the cost. The whole Buddhist path is the journey away from denial towards acceptance. The Buddha constantly told us to see things as they are, not as we wish them to be.
This is one of the main reasons I became interested in the Dhamma. It was already my character, I had a burning wish to investigate and understand, to cut through the distortions and delusions. The Dhamma not only affirmed this, it gave me tools to do it. It taught me that I need a strong basis in conduct and learning, a community and a set of values. And it taught me that insight into the truth must depend on a deep level of emotional integration and stability. I by no means regard myself as someone who has fully learned these lessons; I have very far to go. But 25 years of practice, building on my earlier interests and character, has given me a certain ability to see things with an eye that is both compassionate and clear.
I see the books and articles written by Buddhists on the issue. There’s been a lot of work and attention, and on the whole, the Buddhists, especially in the US, have been one of the most vocal and progressive of the spiritual communities in their response. But I look at them, and they seem to have answers and solutions, and I wonder, if we know the solutions, how come nothing has worked? That’s why I shy away from giving slick answers and easy solutions: I just don’t think the facts bear them out.
There is something I believe in, though, and that is this: facts matter. If we are to make good choices we must have a good grasp of the facts. Facing up to the facts, no matter how dire, is the only way to do this. Without this as a start, how can we possibly ever respond to reality?
And this is the core of the problem with hope. Once we have an absolute commitment to hope—the idea that whatever happens, we must have hope—reality becomes a second-class citizen. But hope is a Christian virtue, not a Buddhist. There’s not even a word for hope in the Buddhist texts, not in this strong sense. This should be a strength of our Buddhist response: it is not based on a fantasy of the future, but on the reality of the present. Yet all-too-often, Buddhists insist on decidedly un-Buddhist ideas of hope or blissful ignorance, or worst of all, the horrifying belief that Buddhists shouldn’t even have anything to say about “worldly” issues like the environment.
If our response is predicated on the idea that we must have hope, it is only a matter of time before that hope is disappointed. Then we have doubled our work: we have to belatedly accept the reality (which by now has gotten even worse); and we have to deal with a loss of that which has sustained us. The longer we put off the work of acceptance, the harder it becomes.
Better to do the work now. Don’t worry too much about the whole “hope” thing, it’s just yesterday’s dream of tomorrow. I gave up hope years ago, and I’m doing okay.
How then do we live? Funnily enough, on the far side of hope the sun still shines, the rain still falls, you still get hungry, you laugh and drop things and get nostalgic over old photos.
And the question still remains: what kind of person do you want to be? If the world really is coming to an end, how do I want to live today? Do we really need a fantasy of the future in order to be decent people? Is it not enough to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do?
08 May 2019
When reading about the harbingers of the end of the world—climate catastrophe, biodiversity collapse, pollution crisis, and so on—if we listen closely to the language, we start to discern a pattern. With few exceptions, statements on crisis look for a balance: yes things are serious, but here’s what we can do about it. They want to position things such that a reasonable person would give equal weight to both sides.
The problem is, when you look more closely, these statements form a rather distinctive and somewhat disturbing pattern. In brief: bad things are facts; good things are fantasies. Let us see some examples of this.
On May 6, the Guardian carried a major article on the UN report on biodiversity collapse. This is an official UN report, backed by 450 scientists and experts, a global consensus document compiled over three years. Biodiversity collapse, while distinct from climate change per se, is very intimately linked, as global warming is one of the major drivers of extinction.
The headline is strong: “Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth’s natural life”. The facts bear it out: “nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10m years”; “biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%”; “a million species are at risk of extinction”; and so the facts march on, like a nightmare army rendered in cold statistics.
So then what is our response? How are we to paint the other side of the picture? Surely if we are to frame a positive response, it must be grounded on an equally strong basis of reality.
“We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” said Robert Watson, the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Ibpes). “We have lost time. We must act now.”
We must, must we? “Must” is an odd word when you think about it. It conveys an inevitability, a logical necessity. Who are we saying “must” to, exactly? And who is the “we”? Well, “we” certainly doesn’t include “me”. I’ve done what I can over the years, and it hasn’t made any real difference. What he means is policy-makers, corporations and the like: those who have the power to make a difference. But who are we to compel them to do anything? “Must” exists to convey a forcefulness, but it doesn’t correspond with any reality, because the people saying “must” have no power, and “must” only matters when the powerful say it. When a cop says, “You must get out of the car now”, it means something strong and specific. When an activist says, “We must fundamentally change our society now”, the form of the language is the same, but the meaning is very different. The reality is, of course, that there is no “must” about it. We can, in fact, simply keep on doing nothing, and all the bad things will just happen. Not only is this possible, it seems pretty gosh-darn likely at this stage.
What other positive news do we get? After the recent upsurge of climate activism—school strikes, extinction rebellion protests, and so on—the authors of the report “hope” this will push biodiversity into public awareness in the same way as the climate emergency.
“Hope”. There it is. On the one hand, a terrifying and extensive litany of devastating facts; on the other side, “hope”. And what are they hoping for: that biodiversity will get the same attention as climate change? For all the attention climate has got, global warming is still happening, just as bad as ever. We have no effectively no dent whatsoever on the steady increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. We have demonstrated zero ability to actually solve the climate change crisis. What, we are now going to add yet another equally bad crisis to the list, and “hope” that suddenly decades of precedent will be overturned and we’ll do something about it?
The article goes on:
David Obura, one of the main authors on the report and a global authority on corals, said: “We tried to document how far in trouble we are to focus people’s minds, but also to say it is not too late if we put a huge amount into transformational behavioural change.”
He invokes the stock “it’s not too late”, without, however, giving any reason for why it’s not too late. This is one of the most popular incantations of the climate activist, so self-evident it needs not concern itself with mere facts.
Again, see the language: the trouble is documented fact, the hope is fantasy. “If we put a huge amount into transformational behavioural change”. He’s right, no doubt. But the work that “if” is doing! Never in human history has there been anything like this. “If”, he is saying, we become effectively a completely different species. This is the nub of the problem: humans change, but they don’t change so far, so fast, in such numbers.
What kinds of change might such a transformation entail? One of the many facts that march in dark procession suggests one specific change: 18% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by cattle. This has a simple and obvious solution—ban cattle farming. There is no solving the climate crisis so long as we still eat beef. Yet who, even in the progressive parties, wants to come out and speak the simple truth? Banning cattle farming, and indeed all forms of livestock, is just one of the transformations that survival entails. Yet meat consumption continues to grow faster than the world population. We must stop eating meat; yet we are eating more and more.
The article acknowledges that emissions continue to rise, passing 415 parts per million of CO2.
Even if global heating can be kept within the Paris agreement target of 1.5C to 2C, the ranges of most species will shrink profoundly, the paper warns.
Again, that sneaky little “if”. Let’s be clear: it has been ages since a 1.5 degree rise was a plausible goal. The IPCC only includes it for hypothetical purposes. It’s not going to happen. 2 degrees is also pretty much in the rear view mirror, and almost everyone agrees that we’re headed far beyond that. So why do we keep discussing implausible scenarios as if they were reasonable? We don’t see astronomers saying, “If the earth doesn’t keep rotating around the sun”, or mechanics saying, “If cars were run on clown tears”. Sure, technically it’s possible we might keep to 2 degrees. It’s much more likely we’ll reach 6 degrees or beyond. Why are the upper estimates routinely omitted, while the lower estimates are endlessly repeated?
The reality is, species are becoming extinct with incredible speed right now, when global warming has barely got its britches on. When we hit 4 degrees or 6 degrees, most of the earth will be a fiery desert, and the seas will be wastelands. A Flinders Uni study last year showed that a 5 or 6 degree rise will cause an extinction collapse that will wipe out most life on the planet. To be clear: even under the conservative IPCC projections, we are currently on track for this kind of temperature rise by the end of the century. And of course, it doesn’t stop just because the century ticks over. It just keeps going up.
More horrifying facts:
Our species now extracts 60bn tons of resources each year, almost double the amount in 1980, though the world population has grown by only 66% in that time. The report notes how the discharges are overwhelming the Earth’s capacity to absorb them. More than 80% of wastewater is pumped into streams, lakes and oceans without treatment, along with 300m-400m tons of heavy metals, toxic slurry and other industrial discharges. Plastic waste has risen tenfold since 1980, affecting 86% of marine turtles, 44% of seabirds and 43% of marine mammals. Fertiliser run-off has created 400 “dead zones”, affecting an area the size of the UK.
But never fear, for:
Andy Purvis, a professor at the Natural History Museum in London and one of the main authors of the report, said he was encouraged nations had agreed on the need for bitter medicine.
“Encouraged”? Nations have “agreed”? By which he means, it’s on the agenda to be discussed at conferences, and there’s more reports on the way. Nice, that’ll fix it! If “must act now” is to mean anything, it cannot continue to mean “hold another conference and hope policy changes reflect reality”.
The article shares with us more words of hope:
Cristiana Pașca Palmer, the head of the UN’s chief biodiversity organisation, said she was both concerned and hopeful. “The report today paints quite a worrying picture. The danger is that we put the planet in a position where it is hard to recover,” she said. “But there are a lot of positive things happening. Until now, we haven’t had the political will to act. But public pressure is high. People are worried and want action.”
“Lots of positive things are happening”. Lots! And “people are worried”. Ooh, I can just see the Koch brothers tremble! Exxon is calling emergency meetings. The Saudis are urgently closing the oil plants. And the Liberal party is frantically figuring out how to stop Adani. Oh pardon me, I slipped into an alternate dimension for a moment there. In fact, we just saw the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo get excited at the trade opportunities opened up by the melting arctic. And as the Guardian’s follow-up article makes clear, the actual responses o the UN report by Australia’s political parties—even just the cheap words, not to speak of deeds—are “not adequate”; or as I would put it, “horrifyingly myopic”. So deep is the ingrained inaction, our Prime Minister has resorted to pretending to take action by making up legislation that doesn’t actually exist.
The article goes on, “values and goals need to change across governments”. I couldn’t agree more. But “needs” is another “must”. It implies necessity, but in the absence of power, it’s really just an “ought” in boots. Values need to change: but decades of experience shows us they won’t change. Is there any reason to think that this time it will be any different?
More expert advice from the article:
Josef Settele, an Ipbes co-chair and entomologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, said: “The situation is tricky and difficult but I would never give up. The report shows there is a way out. I believe we can still bend the curve. People shouldn’t panic, but they should begin drastic change. Business as usual with small adjustments won’t be enough.”
By now, we’re used to the language: “I believe”; “people shouldn’t”; “should begin drastic change”; “won’t be enough”.
“I would never give up” is a specially revealing turn of phrase. No matter what the facts, not matter what the reality, he would never give up; or so at least he says. What we will actually do in the uttermost of need is hard to say, hidden even to our innermost soul. But a realist would say, “I shall have hope so long as there are grounds for hope, and when hope is gone, I will prepare for what is to come.” For surely we can agree that in this world, there are things that we cannot change. When “hope” is an absolute virtue, to speak of reality is a sin. The activists become as priests, intoning a sacred doctrine whose persuasive power stems not from evidence, but from authority and the sheer constancy of repetition.
The facts are hard, huge, weighing down like a mountain in the sky. Next to that is the ritual incantation of the need for hope. Since this is mere positive thinking, there is no need for facts to back it up. It’s great poetry—the power of sheer faith, the Davids of the world righteously standing up to the Goliath of death—but I just don’t believe it any more. Any incantation of the need for change that does not acknowledge the reality of how hard and unlikely it is; that does not include facts on how change has occurred in the past; that does not deal the very real presence of massive, powerful forces that will combat any change at all; to me, these are just empty words.
I’m not meaning to criticise the Guardian or news media in general here. The Guardian has done a great job of climate reporting. It’s just a convenient source for the kind of language that is routinely employed by journalists, activists, scientists, and politicians. We are facing a crisis before which our beliefs and our language quail. “Crisis”, “emergency”, “collapse”; none of these are strong enough. How are we to speak of the coming times when our language was forged in plenty?
Religions take a longer view and have a word at the ready: apocalypse. All those facts that are listed in the reports, they are real. They’re not just numbers, not just ideas. They depict the fabric of our world as it unravels before our eyes. Look around you: this is what apocalypse looks like. It doesn’t come all at once. For the people of Puerto Rico or Mozambique it is the lived reality. For the lucky ones such as myself, it is mere rumours and fears. But it is coming, and if anything is to save us, it will not be the potted incantations of positive thinking mantras.
11 Mar 2019
There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, a second sun appears… (AN 7.66)
When it comes to doomsday prophecies, Buddhist texts might not immediately spring to mind. However, there are a few portentous suttas spoken by the Buddha scattered through the Nikayas that read like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie. There is a certain satisfaction in pondering the utter destruction of the world—hence the popularity of the apocalypse film genre—but what exactly was it that the Buddha was pointing to when he talked about the End of the World?
In the Sattasūriya Sutta, the Seven Suns (AN 7.66), we read about the slow, painful death of our planet. The beginning of the end is a long period of drought. In a cascade failure, even more terrifying than current climate change predictions, the lack of rain gradually causes the complete extinction of plant life on the planet:
…rain doesn’t fall. For many years, many hundreds, many thousands, many hundreds of thousands of years no rain falls. When this happens, the plants and seeds, the herbs, grass, and big trees wither away and dry up, and are no more…(AN 7.66)
Then a second sun appears in the sky, and another and another. All the rivers, lakes and oceans of the world dry up so much, that when a “fifth sun appears there’s not even enough water in the great ocean to wet a toe-joint”.
Then, parched and barren, the earth begins to burn. Raging flames cover the entire world, even huge mountains erupt in flames and crumble. The suns progressively heat up the earth, with even more suns appearing, until eventually, in total, seven suns sear the earth with their hot rays. The whole planet is consumed by fire, smoking and smouldering until there is nothing left at all:
There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, a seventh sun appears. When this happens, this great earth and Sineru the king of mountains erupt in one burning mass of fire. And as they blaze and burn the flames are swept by the wind as far as the Brahmā realm. Sineru the king of mountains blazes and burns, crumbling as it’s overcome by the great heat. And meanwhile, mountain peaks a hundred leagues high, or two, three, four, or five hundred leagues high disintegrate as they burn. And when the great earth and Sineru the king of mountains blaze and burn, no soot or ash is found… (AN 7.66)
It is truly frightening to imagine such a terrible, cataclysmic end to the earth; a literal inferno. However, this is not just the stuff of prophecy, nightmares, or movies. In the deep time, big picture future of our planet, this burning world is how contemporary science predicts things will actually end millions of years from now. All stars must die, including our own sun. When they have exhausted their fuel, stars begin to swell in size, becoming bigger and hotter, until eventually collapsing in a huge explosion that swallows planets, vaporising themselves in a massive supernova.
Did the Buddha really have a scientific insight into the complex cycles of deep space time, or is the apocalyptic scenario of the Sevens Suns more of a story to make a point? Certainly, the Sutta has a rather galvanic feeling about it. This is reinforced by the sobering didactic tone of the repeated refrain:
Mendicants, conditions are impermanent. Conditions are unstable. Conditions are unreliable. This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.
The Buddha uses the abstract idea of total and utter destruction on a cosmic level, to remind us of the essentially precarious nature of our existence on a personal level. As each new sun appears in the sutta, the very world we cling to for survival becomes less and less hospitable, until even the very idea of its permanence is destroyed. In the same way, our very own bodies will wither and die, to be consumed on by a cremation fire. There is no safety, no permanence, nothing to rely upon at all. By challenging us in this way, the Buddha appeals to the emotional side of ourselves, creating an urgency within us to recognise the truth of our predicament and then, use this knowledge to generate a strong desire to escape conditioned existence entirely.
This complex sequence of emotions and reactions is known as saṃvega, a term that describes “a state of shock, agitation, fear, awe, wonder, or delight induced by some physically or mentally poignant experience.” (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Saṃvega: ‘Aesthetic Shock’) Saṃvega is presented in several forms in the suttas, most commonly in relation to seeing the inescapable nature of old age, sickness and death, creating a sense of inspired urgency. The Buddha’s story of the Seven Suns, is not so much a scientific prediction of the end, or even a prophecy of doom, but rather an awe-inspiring shock tactic, told to stimulate us to practice the path of Dhamma right now. Only by turning away from the impermanent, unstable and unreliable conditions of the world will we truly have a chance to escape our suffering.
Elsewhere, the Buddha speaks of cycles of birth and death on a cosmic level, when the whole known universe collapses. Ajahn Brahmāli, in his recent essay on Buddhist Cosmology says:
The idea of a cycling cosmos is part of the fundamental Buddhist outlook that things don’t have absolute beginnings…. According to Buddhism, nothing arises without causes and conditions. There is no such thing as a first cause. Given this outlook, only a cyclic model of the universe makes sense.
In the Aggañña Sutta, the Origin of the World (DN 27), the Buddha speaks of this cyclic universe in terms of contraction and expansion, occurring in vast timescales and multiple world-systems. Radiant beings move through these realms, bright, steady and luminous, almost like the passage of stars through the night sky. Since ancient times, humans relied upon the predictability of stars to navigate and determine the seasons. For centuries, stars were regarded as an enduring and permanent part of our experience of the universe, regulating the planting of crops, or the timing of religious festivals. The stars above us provided a sense of ordered continuity.
However, through astrophysics, we now know that this sense of order and dependability is actually erroneous. We are, in fact, hurtling through space; our perception of steady permanence is an illusion. The movement of stars occurs in an ever increasing expansion. Spiraling outwards, whole galaxies are moving through space, and even collide with other galaxies. Whole stars systems are devoured and collapse into black holes, spectacular events that can only be described as apocalyptic.
Previously, scientists estimated that our galaxy, the Milky Way, would collide with the Andromeda galaxy in about 8 billion years, but, recently a more pressing cosmic danger has been discovered. Scientists now say that the Large Magellanic Cloud will crash into the Milky Way in a mere 1.5 billion years. Such a collision will bring a gigantic black hole into our galaxy and has the potential to knock our solar system out into interstellar space. This complex scientific information, gleaned through thousands of hours of telescope time, and complicated number-crunching by supercomputers, makes the Buddha’s insight into the unstable universe a reality an astounding feat of knowledge. Even if we don’t seem to experience cosmic change occurring here and now, it is inevitable that:
There comes a time when… after a very long period has passed, this cosmos contracts. As the cosmos contracts, sentient beings are mostly headed for the realm of streaming radiance. There they are mind-made, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, moving through the sky, steadily glorious, and they remain like that for a very long time.
There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, this cosmos expands. As the cosmos expands, sentient beings mostly pass away from that group of radiant deities and come back to this realm. Here they are mind-made, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, moving through the sky, steadily glorious, and they remain like that for a very long time. (DN 27)
Both the Sutta of the Seven Suns and the Origin of the World seem almost fantastical in their description of our universe. The cosmos falls apart and rebuilds over and over again, or our planet burns up and spectacularly explodes; it seems too farfetched to believe. It’s easy to dismiss ancient scriptures as fictional and take comfort in that. However, will we also deny the cold and factual rationality of science? The refusal to believe scientific data by climate change denialists today shows just how easy it is to ignore science, as does the recent phenomenon of believers in a Flat Earth. Even if we are convinced by a scientific version of the apocalyptic destruction of our planet one day in the far-off future, it is still very hard for us to make a jump from an abstract potential future to a reality that we might individually experience.
As with attitudes to climate change on our own planet, we might be tempted to take some solace in this impersonal and distant version of the universe’s demise, since we prefer to imagine a scenario that doesn’t include us personally. But thinking like this would completely miss the point of the Buddha’s teaching about our own impending deaths, let alone that of our planet. Further, it would be a missed opportunity to experience the potentially transformative mind of saṃvega. Instead of generating urgency and dispassion, we could easily fall back into that pleasantly habitual cocoon of delusion that we usually occupy; thinking we are safe and secure on our planet, that the universe will not end today or tomorrow, our own lives are predictable and permanent; that the environment we depend upon will keep on supporting us, that society will not collapse, we should not worry too much about our death, or the death of others…
However, as Buddhists, we believe in rebirth. So, even if the universe doesn’t end in this lifetime, we might be reborn in a future where our Earth— or even the universe—is a less hospitable place than it is now. In the appropriately named Bhayabherava Sutta, Fear and Terror (MN 4), the Buddha gives us a glimpse of the true scale of samsara over countless lives, and indicates the likelihood of us running into a cosmic apocalypse in one of them:
I recollected many kinds of past lives. That is: one, two, three…. a thousand, a hundred thousand rebirths; many eons of the world contracting, many eons of the world evolving, many eons of the world contracting and evolving. (MN 4)
Again, this sutta seems to show the Buddha had an extraordinarily revelatory understanding of the way our universe works. He describes it’s vastness in terms of time and space, and shows us the creative and destructive power of the cosmos. But why tell us about it? What does it matter to us? These suttas are a warning, an alert; there is great peril in this universe for us. Our safety cannot be guaranteed. We should be cautious about lingering too long in endless rebirths, unmindful of the suffering that we might experience in the future; disaster, destruction, desolation…
As with all prophets of doom, it might not have been easy for people to believe in the unseen danger. As the Buddha acknowledged himself:
Mendicants, who would ever think or believe that this earth and Sineru, king of mountains, will burn and crumble and be no more, except for one who has seen the truth? (AN 7.66)
Increasingly as the effects of climate change become more widely known, it is easy to believe in a looming apocalypse like that of the Seven Suns. A world where changing rainfall patterns bring droughts that gradually turn the earth into desert, where crops fail and people starve. When this banal and unspectacular sort of apocalypse is finally upon us, will we only realise too late? Will we believe the science? Will we believe it when it happens? Or will we continue in our coccon of denial? The world has already experienced incredible changes in the past; It is also happening somewhere right now! Is it so difficult to imagine it happening again; but bigger?
When the world begins to heat up, when it starts to burn, when there is not enough water to fill a cow’s hoof print, or enough food to feed your family… when society, civilisation, our whole world, even, our universe is ending—what will you do? It’s this question that I’ve been returning to over and over again. What does it mean to be a Buddhist at the End of the World? And how will the Buddha’s teachings help us then if we don’t practice now?
Read Bhante Sujato’s full translation of the Seven Suns Sutta on Suttacentral
Read Ajahn Brahmāli’s essay, Buddhist Cosmology and join in the conversation on Discuss & Discover.
28 Feb 2019
“Harbingers” is an ongoing series of articles, stories, and reflections by Bhante Sujato on living in the age of global warming.
Stories will be told, you know. As long as there are people, they will share their thoughts, their hopes, their fears. Of what happened this morning, or yesterday. Or last week. And as time trots by, the silly stories, the useless ones, are left by the wayside. Facts dim like the evening sun, losing their sharp edges and their details. In the night, facts turn into entities, taking on a life of their own. They glow from within, illuminated, as it were, in the soft light of the imagination. And the stories that survive are the ones that burn brightest in the mind.
There will come a time—and no long time at that—when there is no YouTube, no Facebook, no media, no TV. No cold blue flickering facts. People won’t be able to check the data or compare the sources. There’ll be no independent news, no experts to call upon. Just stories told the old-fashioned way.
Those stories will have one, and only one, theme: Who were the gods? And what monsters killed them?
The ruins of a lost civilisation evoke a sense of wonder like no other. The Buddha spoke of a forgotten city in the forest; it is the statue of Ozymandias, or the temples of Indiana Jones. For the people of the future, the lost civilisation will not be just a few ruins, a broken shrine, or a buried wall. They will live among the million acres of shattered concrete that we left behind. Bridges, freeways, skyscrapers, and the endless wastelands of the suburbs will be their jungle, their desert, and their home. There they will hunt and forage, find water, hide from the sun, raise families, and survive to do it all again tomorrow. The lucky ones will find their tribe. And their tribe will be bound together not by race or creed or politics, but by the stories they tell each other.
In the evening, when the scraps of food have been eaten, the people will gather around the fire to share what solace they may. For a while they will feel safe and loved. They’ll talk, the usual trivia of the day, chat about this and gossip about that. But in the back of their minds, the question whispers, like a shadow in the corner of the eye. They know it, they fear it, they cannot look at it. So they fill the space with chatter and noise and laughter, holding their children close, keeping the shadow at bay as best they can. But it does not take too long for the quiet to fall. And when all else is silent, the question is still there, prodding, like a needle in the back of your brain, never quite letting you rest.
Now, some questions cannot be answered because they are too difficult. Some, because they are not important enough. And some questions can’t be answered because you already know the answer.
So you don’t answer the question: you tell a story. You know the story, but you tell it anyway. It is the story of Icarus, the god who flew too close to the sun. Of Mandhātā, the king who wanted the heavens and fell to earth. The story of the gods who became too greedy. You tell it to the children, because it is all you have.
“But did they not know?” ask the children. “They were gods, they knew everything. They could just get any answers whenever they wanted.”
“Yes, they knew. The wise and the true among them told of what was to come. Their sages spent long years crafting stories, giving them wondrous names like ‘IPCC Special Report’.”
“How come they didn’t listen?”
“Some listened. Many, in fact. They knew and they watched with horror. They even did a little bit, here and there, to make a difference. They bought a different brand of chocolate, or they expressed their opinion in no uncertain manner, or they pressed a button on a screen in protest. But it was not enough. And there were … others.”
At this point in the stories, a chill would fall. No matter how hot the day, this was a cold that stuck in the marrow.
“Monsters. Not human, but passing as human. Vampires: respected noblemen by day, but by night, they changed into hideous blood-drinking bats. They descended on the poor folk of the villages and devoured their very life.”
Shivering, the children protested, “But there were only a few vampires.”
“It was not just vampires. There were zombies, mindless hordes of the undead, who prolonged their unnatural state by devouring the brains of the living. And trolls, ugly fiends who lurked under bridges, snatching up any fool brave enough to travel those perilous roads.”
“If the gods were so powerful, how could the monsters fight them?”
“It was the night. In those days, not like today, the night was fearful and the day was blessed and warm. The gods were strong in the day, but the monsters waited in the shadows and struck in the darkness.”
“So they killed all the gods?”
“That’s what some say. But others tell a stranger tale. They say that the gods ended up being consumed by their own fury. Infected by the reckless evil of the monsters, the gods came to hate them a boundless rage. They built their greatest machine, and flying in it, they left this world behind on a pillar of fire. Now they live in the sky. In the morning they rise and scorch the whole world. They are still trying to kill the monsters. But they don’t know that the monsters are long gone, and it is only us that they burn. So we hide in the day, like the monsters used to do, and come out in the night when it is cool and safe.”
“But what happened to the monsters? How could they really all just disappear?”
“Hush, child, sleep. The monsters are gone now. This is the world they left behind, and now there’s just people like you and me.”
But that last part was a lie. You know it, and I know it, and even the little children know it. The monsters are real. They hide in the coldness of the heart, in the cruelty of the passions. They are right there with you, even in the warm circle of the firelight. They have always been there, and we have always known them.
Is it really a question if we already know the answer? Or do we just pretend it’s a question so that the truth becomes a little easier to bear?
Those who tell the stories are our children. Those to whom the stories are told are our children’s children. Their world is the world we are making for them, right now. And for them, we are the monsters. We are the thing that will haunt their nightmares, down to the seventh generation and the seventy-seventh.
They will never understand, not really, why we lived the way we do, knowing what we know. They will fear that the same blank unconcern lives in their own hearts. And they will tell stories that turn us into monsters so that they can sleep at night. For all the sufferings and hardship they will endure—the hunger, the heat, the disease, the violence and devastation of a world from which all good things have fled—at least they are not monsters like us.
And it will work, for a little while. The little children will fall asleep, soft and sweet as a pigeon’s coo.
Until the sun rises once more, and the vengeance of the gods is laid in fire upon the face of the earth.
31 Jan 2019
I saw a huge mountain that reached the clouds. And it was coming this way, crushing all creatures… Should such a dire threat arise… what would you do?” (SN 3.25)
The End of the World is not likely to be an exclusive event. It’s true that some religions have their own VIP versions of the apocalypse, where the Chosen Few are saved and the rest are doomed (think; the Rapture, the Ascension, or, Judgement Day) but given the differing views on which religion is correct, it’s more likely that when the apocalypse comes, it’s coming for us all.
So, how should people of different religions prepare themselves for The End? Christians might pray to God for deliverance, Muslims might praise Allah, but what about people like Hindus or Buddhists who believe in rebirth? Surely, an event like the apocalypse is just another routine death and nothing to be too bothered by? Perhaps we don’t need to do any special preparation at all? We can just keep going about our normal business, doing our usual things; watching Netflix, arguing with our siblings, hating on politicians and going shopping… But if it really is The End, “situation normal” is not likely to be possible.
Even if the apocalypse comes without much fanfare or spectacle—a series of small environmental disasters that eventually lead to a cascade failure—we will still experience a slow-moving horror show for many years. There will be water shortages, droughts, failing crops. Hungry people, rioting for food, or looting what they need. There will be mass migrations as millions of refugees flee rising water levels to seek safety in overcrowded areas elsewhere. Competition for resources will bring violence and chaos, as people struggle for power and survival.
Perhaps, then, you think it will be better if the End of the World comes quickly; spectacularly—with little warning—due to something like nuclear war or an asteroid impact. However, this is not necessarily a better option. Imagine the terror of those final few moments. A lifetime of hopes and regrets flash before your eyes, no chance to say goodbye to your loved ones before they are vaporised. Gone forever. Worse still; imagine surviving. The chaos. The search for food. The grim, unbearable sadness of it all.
So, what will you do at the End of the World? If your family is starving, will you steal and loot to feed them? If hungry people armed with axes come to steal your supplies, will you share what you have with them or kill to protect yourself? What will you do as a Buddhist? Abandon your precepts out of expedience? Ditch spiritual teachings on kindness, compassion, and generosity because it is suddenly inconvenient?
The problem of what to do when the world is ending is answered for us in the Pabbatūpa Sutta, the Simile of the Mountain, (SN 3.25). Here, the Buddha meets with King Pasenadi who has been busy with the many distractions of running his kingdom. Perhaps hoping to re-orient the king’s priorities towards larger concerns and provide him with a sense of urgency, the Buddha presents King Pasenadi with an apocalyptic scenario:
What do you think, great king? Suppose a trustworthy and reliable man were to come from the east. He’d approach you and say: ‘Please sir, you should know this. I come from the east. There I saw a huge mountain that reached the clouds. And it was coming this way, crushing all creatures. So then, great king, do what you must!’ Then a second trustworthy and reliable man were to come from the west … a third from the north … and a fourth from the south. He’d approach you and say: ‘Please sir, you should know this. I come from the south. There I saw a huge mountain that reached the clouds. And it was coming this way, crushing all creatures. So then, great king, do what you must!
Having obtained the King’s attention with this inescapable disaster, the Buddha then poses a single question, loaded with meaning:
Should such a dire threat arise—a terrible loss of human life, when human birth is so rare—what would you do?
This is the same question that we, ourselves, would face at the End of the World. What would you do? The King’s answer is textbook perfect:
“Sir, what else could I do but practice the teachings, practice morality, doing skillful and good actions?”
The Buddha does not immediately praise the king for his response, however, and instead changes tack from an abstract hypothetical question to a matter-of-fact reality check:
I tell you, great king, I announce to you: old age and death are advancing upon you. Since old age and death are advancing upon you, what would you do?
This is our real emergency, our true predicament, the slow unfolding catastrophe of old age, sickness, and death. Yet, like King Pasenadi, we are so often distracted by other activities in our life that we forget that these big things will inevitably happen to us. Even when reminded of this certainty, we don’t want to think about it, we turn away and shut our eyes. It is for this reason that the Buddha used such a striking apocalyptic scenario; to break apart the layers of self-deception, cutting through our usual frivolous distractions, to issue an urgent reminder.
Seeing the futility of all his power, wealth and status in the face of old age sickness and death, in answer to the Buddha’s question, the king repeats the same response he made before:
“Sir, what else can I do but practice the teachings, practice morality, doing skillful and good actions?”
Adhivattamāne ca me, bhante, jarāmaraṇe kimassa karaṇīyaṃ aññatra dhammacariyāyasamacariyāya kusalakiriyāya puññakiriyāyā”ti?
Thus, the qualities that we will need at the End of the World are the very same qualities that we need in our ordinary lives; in both situations, we face essentially the same problems, just with different external conditions. It is not just in extreme situations that our ethics and behaviour will be tested but also in the ordinariness of here and now. If we cannot practice ethical conduct in our everyday lives in the present, what hope will we have in the future, when things get really tough?
So, how should a Buddhist survive the End of the World? Unfortunately, from the Buddhist point of view, “survival” is ultimately impossible; we are bound to experience old age, sickness and death eventually; unless we attain liberation, the cessation of all suffering, in which case there is no “survival” but total extinguishment instead. However, if we are still unenlightened when the End of the World is upon us, then—just as King Pasenadi realised—in times of crisis, we should not abandon our spiritual principles. Instead, in that moment, we need to cultivate the four things the king mentioned above; practice the teachings (dhammacariya); practice morality (samacariya); do skillful actions (kusalakiriya); and do good actions (puññakiriya). We keep practicing the Dhamma as taught by the Buddha, seeking to understand the teachings by living them (dhammacāriya) as much as possible. These teachings are what will continue to guide us, even in the direst circumstances. We should also aim to live justly, maintaining ethical conduct that leads to personal and social harmony (samacariya), such as keeping our precepts; not killing, not stealing, not committing sexual misconduct, nor lying or becoming intoxicated, even when faced with a catastrophic event like the disintegration of civilisation. It will be in this chaos that many people will abandon their ethics and decency, as people slide into survival mode, moral depravity and escapism. It is at such a time that performing good actions (kusalakiriya) will matter the most, when love and compassion will be most needed.
Even in a broken world, virtuous action is always blameless. As such, keeping up our ethical conduct will be a source of protection for us as well as others, and we will experience a sense of peace and tranquility as a result of our good actions. Even if it seems that all hope is lost, we can still perform meritorious actions (puññakiriya), such as practicing kindness to others through our virtuous conduct. We can still be generous, sharing what we have with others, and even—perhaps—continue developing our minds through meditation or contemplating the Dhamma. These kinds of actions are sure to bring good results for us now or in the future.
By understanding the Dhamma, and practicing in this way, a Buddhist at the End of the World—or even just in ordinary daily life, here and now—can be a beacon of goodness and a source of inspiration to others.
So, as the Buddha asked King Pasenadi; what would you do if the world were ending? And would that be so different from how you are living now, faced with old age, sickness and death?
Read the full Pabbatūpa Sutta, the Simile of the Mountain, on SuttaCentral.