A Buddhist Guide to “Surviving” the Apocalypse

Akāliko Bhikkhu

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)

people film end of the world on phones as asteroids fly through sky

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?

this is fine meme of dog sitting in a burning house sipping coffee

Read the full Pabbatūpa Sutta, the Simile of the Mountain, on SuttaCentral.

The End of the World as We Know It

Akāliko Bhikkhu

“Should such a dire threat arise—a terrible loss of human life, when human birth is so rare—what would you do?” (SN 3.25)

Increasingly, as the effects of climate change become more widely known, it is easy to believe in a looming apocalypse; where rainfall patterns change, bringing droughts that gradually turn the earth into a desert, resulting in loss of crops and famine… Or, maybe there be a swifter end; a tsunani, or a flu or perhaps a war over resources, with a trigger-happy politician who decides to go nuclear and end it for us all?

When the End of the World is finally upon us, what will it mean to be a Buddhist?

The problem of what to do when the world is ending might seem abstract but it goes to the heart of our practice as Buddhists. If it’s hard enough to be a good person and practice the Dhamma when our external conditions are supportive, how much harder will it be then, when our way of life is shattered by rising sea leavels, food shortages, mass migration, or wars? Surely, as Buddhists, this is when our ethical conduct, our goodwill and our compassion will matter the most. But that is also the time when it will be the most challenging for us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these kinds of questions since arriving here at Lokanta Vihara. Endings. Apocalypses. Disasters. Hope. I wonder how I would behave at the end of the world? In the next few weeks I want to share with you some thoughts and feelings about these issues. I’ll also explore what we can learn from the Buddha’s teachings, to find out how we can best live our lives, both in the present and in an uncertain future.

Click the video below to get a feeling for what the End of the World looks like.

video

Interview with Bhante Sujato

Grumpy the Cat in front of a burning house

It’s the End of the World??

Bhante Akāliko wants some answers!

So here we are, two monks from the forest tradition, lost in the suburban jungle of Sydney’s Harris Park. What on earth are we doing? Let’s start with the basics…

Bhante Akāliko: What is the meaning of Lokanta Vihara?

Bhante Sujato: It literally means The Monastery at the End of the World in Pāli.

BA: What where you thinking about when you named it that?

BS: There are three different meanings I was thinking about. The first references the Rohitassa Sutta where the Buddha likens Enlightenment to reaching the end of the world. The second is that we are living in an age of climate change which means the world as we know it is pretty much ending. The third is about our location, in the Sydney suburb Harris Park, which many people might think is in the middle of nowhere; even the end of the world!

BA: Is this some sort of Buddhist Doomsday Cult type situation?

BS: No. Definitely not. Or maybe, perhaps… yes.

BA: Aren’t monks supposed to live a forest? Why are we in an apartment?

BS: I’ve lived in the forest for nearly 25 years, and now I’m not. We’re in a small 2 bedroom flat, and what do you know? I like it! It’s simple and easy.

Many times, when living in conventional monasteries, life is very beautiful, and the place is a delight and a refuge for many people. But there is also a cost, one that is not so obvious. Living in the forest, especially in modern times, takes a lot of time and effort and funding. At this time in my life, I want to put my main efforts into SuttaCentral.

BA: Tell us more about the vision for Lokanta Vihara.

BS: We want to make this a place we can practice and grow in our monastic life, while serving the Buddhist community.

We’re looking to keep the good traditions of Buddhist monastic life. We go for alms-round (piṇḍapāta) each day, accepting invitations to eat in houses only on the weekends. As far as possible, all the furnishings are second-hand, maintaining the paṁsukula tradition, of using robes from the rubbish heap. We will not accumulate belongings here, remembering that it is all impermanent, and we will be moving on.

BA: What types of things are we going be doing here?

BS: We have already started doing some teaching and now have a regular Friday night session at the Harris Park Community Centre. We have a Monday Morning Meditation by the Parramatta River down at Queens Park Reserve. We are looking at doing some activities for young people, too. I’ve been developing some different ways of presenting the Dhamma including Dhamma Drops which is a short form talk with a postcard to take away.

BA: How can people find out more about our activities?

BS: We have a lot of ideas for the coming weeks and months. We’ll be using this blog as a primary web hub, so check back in to see what we’re up to. People can also see our daily event listings on our Lokanta calendar

Harbingers—as the oceans heat up

Bhante Sujato

Five Hiroshimas per second.

That’s how much heat is being absorbed into our oceans. Dozens of thermonuclear bombs since you started reading this. More while you pause to take it in. More while you think, “Do I really want to read this?”

A recent article in the journal Science, “How fast are the oceans warming?” by Cheng, et al, says:

Climate change from human activities mainly results from the energy imbalance in Earth’s climate system caused by rising concentrations of heat-trapping gases. About 93% of the energy imbalance accumulates in the ocean as increased ocean heat content (OHC). The ocean record of this imbalance is much less affected by internal variability and is thus better suited for detecting and attributing human influences than more commonly used surface temperature records. Recent observation-based estimates show rapid warming of Earth’s oceans over the past few decades. This warming has contributed to increases in rainfall intensity, rising sea levels, the destruction of coral reefs, declining ocean oxygen levels, and declines in ice sheets; glaciers; and ice caps in the polar regions. Recent estimates of observed warming resemble those seen in models, indicating that models reliably project changes in OHC.

The rate of ocean warming for the upper 2000 m has accelerated in the decades after 1991 from 0.55 to 0.68 W m2. Multiple lines of evidence from four independent groups thus now suggest a stronger observed OHC warming.

Global warming is not waiting for us. It’s not sitting around, giving us a few years to get our policy agendas together. Scientists, governments, activists, and oil companies have known what is happening since the sixties. And this is where we are. The rise in ocean temperatures is tracking the rise in atmospheric CO2. And both of them are accelerating.

Graph of increase of oceanic heat from 1950 to 2020, showing continued acceleration

It’s horrifying and it’s getting worse.

The scientists keep their cool in the peer-reviewed paper, while their informal comments are becoming ever more desperate. Study co-author John Abraham, a professor of thermal sciences at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, said to Think Progress:

While there still is time to do something to slow this process down, it is too late to stop serious global warming, [which] is happening faster than we previously thought. We are also seeing the impacts, from superstorm hurricanes and typhoons, to drought and deadly wildfires. We are paying the consequences for ignoring the science for decades. What a terrible legacy the denialists have left us and our children.

With every message, every story, the same activist orthodoxy must be repeated, like a mantra, an attestation of a spiritual faith: we still have time, but we must act now. We have been saying the same thing for half a century, and this is where we are.

But we won’t act. This report will come and go like thousands have before it. Pale policies will limp into half-hearted deeds while the poor and the vulnerable suffer and we are distracted by the next shiny thing.

This is where we are. This is the world we have made. It is our home. And we are burning it to the ground.

It is time to accept what we have done. Time to treasure the fleeting days of summer. Time to wonder and time to rejoice. Time to breathe and time to love. For soon, there will be no time for any of this.

Make your choices, live your life. Do what is right, because it is the right thing to do. But don’t pretend to yourself that everything is fine. It’s not fine, and it’s not going to be fine.

This is where we are.

A New Home

Nine-headed elephant

Bhante Akaliko and Bhante Sujato have just moved into a new place in Harris Park. We’re setting this little site up so people can find out what we’re up to. But it’s new, don’t judge us!