What a year it’s been—brimming with economic and political upheavals that historians will be debating furiously for decades to come! Many joke (with a hint of grim sincerity) that the world might have lost its moorings because of the string of deaths of beloved household names that punctuated 2016, from David Bowie to Muhammad Ali to Prince. There is also a growing awareness of the increasingly critical decline of the planet’s ecological health, which can only mean bad news for humanity. We are all living on borrowed time unless we take radical measures to slow such destructive trends as ocean acidification, the melting of the polar icecaps and Himalayan glaciers, and the rapidly accelerating extinction of species (at least 10,000 each year, by conservative estimates!).
Of course, there have always been terrible events to deal with, from natural disasters to disease to the convulsions of civilizations. It is thanks to our hyper-connected world of social media that we are much more aware of problems occurring in places in which we’ve never set foot. It is therefore much easier to stir up negative emotions with a simple tweet or a shared photo or video, and to feel agitated, depressed, or hateful over circumstances that we can do little to change.
It would not be fair to insist that zero ethical or social progress has been made over the past few decades. It would, however, be complacent to believe that we cannot regress, and even more mistaken to dismiss our problems as merely part of some boom-and-bust-like cycle that we can simply endure until the world is once again in better shape. Sometimes there is no turning back. Some events change our entire global context with repercussions that are felt far into the future and cannot be undone. The Spanish discovery of the Americas and the nuclear age that followed the Second World War are two such world-changing historical landmarks. Now, ecological catastrophe is the catalyst that is irrevocably changing the world in which we live and how we live in it.
In a recent conversation with Buddhistdoor Global, Theravada monk Ajahn Brahmali offered some advice pertinent to today’s societal instability and uncertainty: “If you’ve understood the teaching of anicca, which is translated as impermanence but also unreliability, then actually the things happening around us are to be expected! It’s not a surprise, but we tend to forget about this and assume that things are supposed to be stable, when in fact the rug can be pulled from under your feet at any time and you stumble or fall over and hurt yourself.” As he sees it, the unpredictable state of the world is simply a beginner’s lesson in a fundamental Buddhist idea: that compounded things are impermanent and unreliable.
To fear instability and to prefer steadiness and constancy is a deeply human and primal impulse. Our ancestors, from Babylon to China, worshipped the northern celestial pole as the abode of the gods because it was the only region in the awe-inspiring night sky that did not seem to shift and or change position. Even this astral dependability, however, was proved illusory by science. Dealing with impermanence, and recognizing the fact that all phenomena have no inherent essence and are intimately interconnected, can go a long way to helping us accept, peacefully and maturely, the inevitable changes we encounter in life.
Ajahn Brahmali also recommended that, as we navigate the ethical morass of contemporary life, we should not be afraid to appear political as long as our moral actions are anchored in the Dharma. “Don’t talk about politics as such, but talk about moral issues. You talk about things like climate change and gender equality, or a fairer society for everyone and non-discrimination,” he observed. “Some might then say that you are being political, but what you’re really doing is bringing up things rooted in Buddhist ethics, which then some people will read it as having a political slant. But that’s their problem, not ours.”
Certain moral issues might intersect with certain political positions—arguing for gender equality might coincide with a more progressive understanding of politics, while reservations about abortion might lean toward the conservative. However, Buddhists simply need to speak from an ethical point of view informed by the Dharma. The overlap with politics is irrelevant as we simply wish the Buddhist voice to be heard in the world. “In reality, it’s just talking about issues coming from a Buddhist sense of ethics and dealing with contemporary issues in a Buddhist way. Otherwise we’ll become irrelevant and left behind, and nothing will happen for the good,” counseled Ajahn Brahmali.
Finally, we should never forget to express our appreciation and gratitude as often as we can for our close relations and friends. The tribulations of 2017 and beyond will be much easier to navigate if we can meet them with the support of good friends and loving family.
As the Earth completes its most recent orbit around our life-giving star, the Sun, 2017 is certain to be a most fascinating year, with more people passionately engaged in the debates of our age than ever before and with the stakes higher than at any time in history. However, we can still feel content and joyfully at ease by reaffirming our refuge in the Triple Gem—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
A Happy New Year to all!