If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot. stamping on a human face—forever. — George Orwell, 1984
If you’re experiencing deep anticipatory grief about the state of the world these days, it’s not hard to figure out why. We are living in an age of intense violence, fake virtue, and rampant delusion. And as if that weren’t enough, now we are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. In ancient Hindu and Buddhist mythology, this state of affairs was called the Kali Yuga, or Age of Struggle. Samsara is indeed vicious and this is not unique to our era. The 11th–12th century Tibetan Buddhist teacher Gampopa devoted an entire chapter of his Jewel Ornament of Liberation to it almost 900 years ago.
For those with an apocalyptic bent, that may be enough to confirm any notions about how we’ve gone from the Age of Aquarius to the End of Days, all within our own lifetime. Nevertheless, we have to play the hand we’re dealt. Our path, like Ksitigarbha’s, takes us through Hell.
As I have become old, I have had more occasion to ponder the kōan of death. In the conventional realm, the suffering of death is portrayed as sadness at leaving all our family and friends behind, and no longer being able to enjoy the sweetness of life. It has been portrayed as an individual journey and presupposes that the world we leave behind will remain. Sometimes, less frequently, when we hear of foreign wars or catastrophes, we try to imagine what it must be like for those for whom death includes the destruction of their society, of everything in their world as they knew it. For them, death is much more than a personal departure. Syria and Yemen come to mind.
Not too long ago, I was apprised of a new book, a bestseller I’m told, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. It had been gleefully heralded as a profoundly grim view of our impending doom. This is only the latest in a series of jeremiads on the subject (to which I am no stranger, since I moderate a global ecoBuddhist Facebook group, Plot to Save the Earth), but reading an excerpt really shook me.
It is worth noting here that when we talk about the climate crisis, that is only one of nine planetary thresholds we are crossing. The Stockholm Centre for Resiliency also draws our attention to: biodiversity loss, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle, ocean acidification, land use, freshwater, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosols, and chemical pollution. We’re over the line on many of them. The only vector we’ve been able to get a handle on so far is repairing the ozone hole caused by CFCs in the stratosphere. On others, such as freshwater use, we’re very close to the tipping point. In other words, even if we have global warming under control, all these other challenges remain. Focusing exclusively on climate change is missing the point, the integrated system (which also includes novel zoonotic pandemics as we push closer to the extinction threshold with the world’s remaining animals).
And so, I have been contemplating how it feels to know with some degree of certainty that not only “I” am about to die, but that our entire world is on the same road. Embracing that larger death, I am drawn into the mystery of being, to experience a new awareness of loss and grief that my privileged upbringing has denied me. The inevitable dissolution predicated on impermanence even at the grand scale of the planet has suddenly telescoped from some distant point in the future or some abstract philosophical teleology into a disturbingly immediate and concrete transition.
The question then becomes, what is the bodhisattva’s path on death’s road? It makes vivid the urgency of questions such as: “What if this day were my last?” What are the wisdoms I can only now enter? How must I prepare for the darkness? Of what value is my work (and this column) if we have already passed the tipping point? How do we practice the Dharma in the End Time?
Is there hope for the future? Of course. But before we get to a stable world there is going to be a lot of suffering. According to a number of experts, our planet’s carrying capacity is vastly lower than our current 7.8 billion people. A future of sustainable ecovillages and permaculture is achievable through regenerative design. It’s just not going to happen tomorrow, and it’s not going to look much like today.
How does this violence manifest in our world? In a breakdown of social systems through wars, guns, racism, gender prejudice, the war on women, watcher states, corporate oligarchies, government corruption, and so on. I don’t think the eight billion people who aren’t going to make it through the eye of the needle are going to go gently into that good night. Which means: we may hope for the best, but a good bodhisattva plans for the worst.
Finding the right balance between activism and disengagement is difficult. Situations are fluid and fast-moving. It’s easy to get caught up in the current and difficult to stay focused on deeper systemic causes and conditions. In the Kali Yuga, every problem is a wicked problem (or, as Peter Herschock would define it, a predicament over a clash of values). To put it another way, suffering is like a many-headed dragon. You can’t cut off all the heads; but if you pick one and concentrate on conquering that one, you’re more likely to see positive results.
Some say, for starters, be the change you want to see in the world. Walk the walk. Sometimes all that is needed is for someone to model a more enlightened way of life and a welcoming attitude. This does not necessarily mean retreating to a monastery, cave, or hermitage. It just means that sometimes, striving to create your own bodhimandala is more productive than arguing with idiots, who will drag you down to their level and then best you with their experience (as Mark Twain notably once opined).
Others can write more eloquently than me about the minutiae of death (of an individual, a society, or an ecosphere). Others can teach and preach about living our best lives. I’m still left with the kōan of what it all means, knowing that when the Buddha said everything is impermanent, he really wasn’t kidding or making some inspirational meme. And somewhere in all of that, it feels as though I have been handed a gift of immeasurable value: an invitation to an ancient ritual—the tantric completion stage. It comes as a puzzle that must be solved in order to activate the empowerment. Ironically, it can only be solved in the last seconds of life.
Herschock, Peter. 1999. Reinventing the Wheel: A Buddhist Response to the Information Age. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
_______. 2014. Valuing Diversity: Buddhist Reflection on Realizing a More Equitable Global Future. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Wallace-Wells, David. 2019. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. New York: Penguin Random House.
The Nature of Kaliyuga, Tibetan Buddhist Altar
Spiritual Practice in the Kali Yuga – Working With Your Speeded Up Karma, mommy mystic
Planetary boundaries research, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Plot to Save the Earth (Facebook)
How many people can our planet really support? (BBC)
7.5 billion and counting: How many humans can the Earth support? (The Conversation)