The Doomsday Clock at the University of Chicago is a symbolic timepiece that estimates how many “minutes” remain before the “midnight” of a global catastrophe. Calculations for the clock’s reading were once based on how many nuclear weapons existed in the world, but have more recently been expanded to reflect the potential repercussions of climate change and other life-threatening phenomena wrought by science and technology—whether by design, miscalculation, or accident.
The most recent adjustment to the countdown was made on 22 January 2015, when the hands of the clock were advanced to three minutes before midnight. Sadly, this may well be an accurate indicator for the world in which we live. But while man-made ecological disasters or world wars could be the means by which we destroy each other, as a Buddhist apocalyptic prophecy warns, it is our own complacency that enables such horrific acts of misjudgment and imprudence to take place (or allows others to exercise such misjudgment and imprudence).
No terrorist organization has captured the apocalyptic imagination of the public more than ISIS/ISIL/Daesh/Islamic State. This is not so much because of its conquest of territory, but due to its role in the proxy wars fought by regional and global powers, including the US and Russia. As 2016 begins, the military group has been battered by bombing by Russian and Western air forces, defeats at the hands of Kurdish Peshmerga Shiite militia, and the retaking of Ramadi by Iraq’s army. However, the movement has not been destroyed, and there are strong indications that it hopes to use the failed state of Libya as a new base should it be ousted from Mosul and Raqqa.
More worryingly, there are pressing questions concerning the future of Syria and Iraq after the organization’s defeat: what will happen to the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia (which have, as of 4 January, severed diplomatic relations)? Will the interventions of the US and NATO in the Middle East compel Russia to draw a line in the sand? Will the Middle East be engulfed by the sectarian and fundamentalist violence that is already spilling into Europe and China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region?
These are all practical concerns, but the sadder, broader truth is that the Middle East is in this sorry state because of hubris, self-satisfaction, and self-righteousness. Many other potential catastrophes are marked by similar complacent inclinations among the powers that be, some of them guiltier than others. The ideal Doomsday Clock, therefore, would not calculate the remaining minutes before midnight based only on physical evidence. It would also measure the degree of danger based on mankind’s vigilance against the thought patterns that lead to war: arrogance, ideological fundamentalism, and demagoguery. We can confidently say that by this measure alone, we are in unprecedented peril.
To be sure, this insidious brand of intellectual and moral degeneration creeps up on us stealthily. It is not easy to predict or stop—especially when there are so many causes and conditions in place to nurture it (a failure of critical thinking, a dismal educational culture, and questionable mass media practices among them)—just as how on the eve of World War I, few in Europe could have predicted the extent of the far-reaching and devastating struggle that emerged. Often, it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can look back and rebuke ourselves for not detecting the signs of impending disaster earlier.
These are the lessons highlighted in the haunting Buddhist tale known simply as the Kosambi story. More than two decades ago, Jan Nattier wrote a seminal book called Once Upon a Future Time (1991) about this story, which concerns a prophecy set in the kingdom of Kosambi in ancient India.
The Kosambi “apocalypse” is preserved in languages such as Chinese, Khotanese, and Tibetan. In the oldest version, the Prophecy of Katyayana, which was translated into Chinese during the Western Jin (265–316), the Buddhist king of Kosambi repels a group of foreign invaders (they are variously Greeks, Central Asians, or Persians). To celebrate, he invites the entire monastic sangha to a great feast. The sangha of this story, however, has degenerated in conduct, ethics, and wisdom to the point that even laypeople and celestials are admonishing its members.
At the banquet in the king’s palace, a dispute about the Buddhist monastic code of conduct (Vinaya) arises between a complacent group of monks and a righteous monk, who rebukes his colleagues for their arrogance. He is injured when one of the angered monks attacks him, and in response, a Dharma-loving demon kills the Tripitaka master of the haughty monastics (Nattier 1991, 159). In later versions of the story, the righteous monk becomes the last living arhat and is not injured but murdered outright, possibly to accentuate the drama of the only realized presence in the world being extinguished and ending any possibility of the Dharma surviving.
The monks then descend into an all-out orgy of brutal violence until the king is left lamenting his good intentions amid a sea of corpses. Great earthquakes follow, ill omens appear, and the divine guardians of the Dharma return to the heavens as there is no more Buddhism left in this world to protect. The prophecy then ominously exhorts the reader or listener to work hard at their Dharma practice and do their best, “remembering the great danger and fear to come” (Nattier 1991, 159) so that Buddhism will not be wiped out.
Buddhists have not only preserved but also enthusiastically transmitted this horrific prophecy, seeing a valuable moral in the dark tale. Something even more terrifying than non-believers or war destroys the sangha in the form of selfish arrogance, which tears apart the Buddhist community from within until there is no one left to transmit the Dharma. This prophecy lays the blame squarely at the feet of the sangha itself. Its radical lesson is that humanity’s true existential threats come not from without but from within, and that complacency, fueled by greed, hatred, and delusion, will have catastrophic consequences.
It is a similar sense of complacency that has infected us all today, and we find that we simply do not have the time, energy, or expertise to absorb and address all the channels of news about conflicts that could destabilize the world. Our collective consciousness is lulling us into ignoring the reckless grabs of power by the greedy or forgetting the arrogant crimes of the overly ambitious. Driven by ego, we all too often overlook our state of mind, which can lead us to unleash great violence with unintended consequences.
While it is true that this interconnected age of globalization can make another global war seem unlikely, this has not prevented countries from teetering at the brink before (Germany and Britain were very close trading partners on the eve of World War I). If we are to recover an awareness of our real proximity to man-made cataclysms, we need to pay close attention to the stark, prophetic warnings offered by the Kosambi story. Historical criticism should be a compulsory part of the curriculum for students at all levels as a safeguard against human arrogance and conceit. There are shared lessons to be learned for the end of the Dharma and the minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock. We need to be vigilant of the dark tendencies within us that could lead to global war and catastrophe. We need to remember the great danger and fear to come.
Nattier, Jan. 1991. Once Upon A Future Time: Studies in a Buddhist Prophecy of Decline. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press.
IT IS 3 MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)