Are we living in end times? Is the human race at a point of no return? Will ever-escalating global temperatures set off an irreversible cascade of climatic feedback loops, leading to an unlivable habitat for our children? If so, how soon will it happen? How much time do we have left?
As I ponder these questions, there is a part of me that thinks they are ridiculous. “Don’t exaggerate,” this part says. “Things aren’t that bad. The human race has survived worse in the past, and nature is resilient. We will find new ways of growing food and surviving extreme weather. We will take belated action and our carbon emissions will drop.” This voice may have a point. Perhaps the estimates are over-cautious? Perhaps the scientists haven’t included human creativity in their calculations? Maybe there’s nothing to worry about at all?
This last statement triggers another part of me. This part of me reads what climate scientists say on a daily basis and it takes note of the news. This part of me understands the complicated interdependencies between our cost-of-living crisis, the war in Ukraine, and the climate crisis. This part of me knows how human beings behave when they feel desperate—how they might act when they run out of fuel or run out of food for their children. This part of me has watched our temple garden dry out and die during the recent heatwaves in the UK, and it is under no illusions. This part knows that things are bad.
Whether or not the human race is on its way out, we certainly have challenges ahead—as individuals and as a world-wide community. What can Buddhism offer us in these unprecedented times? Are the Buddha’s teachings still relevant in these times of polycrisis? What advice would the Buddha have for us as we continue to behave in ways that threaten our very existence?
I don’t think that the Buddha would be surprised to see our current circumstances. The Buddha taught that we are swept along by our greed, hate and delusion, and that our compulsive avoidance of suffering is the cause of further suffering. The Buddha understood the mechanism of addiction, and the depth of our foolish natures. I am sure that they would offer a spiritual solution to our current predicament—one that connects us back to something eternal. They would remind us that our hunger for status, praise and objects can only really be quenched with spiritual food. They would inspire us to venture forth, against the stream, and make brave decisions about how to live. The Buddha would bring us comfort.
In my own life, I have increasingly relied on my faith to help me navigate the choppy waters of the climate crisis. The teaching that has been the most useful to me is one that will be familiar to all Buddhists, regardless of tradition or lineage: refuge. My experience of refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha isn’t reliant on the unpredictable conditions of this impermanent world. Whatever is in store for me in my future, I can trust that the Buddha will be there as a source of wisdom, love, and consolation. I can continue to rely on the thousands of teachings we have received from the Buddha, and on the wisdom inherent in the world. I can also lean into the community of people who tread a spiritual path, imperfect as they are—just like me.
Alongside this general sense of consolation are certain Buddhist teachings that have felt especially relevant and that have brought me new insights. I have certainly come to know the poison of ignorance, both in myself and in others—how easy it is for us humans to pretend that the worst isn’t happening. I have mostly shaken off my delusion about the climate crisis, but I recently fell prey to it once again over the cost-of-fuel crisis here in the UK. For a long time I thought that this would affect other people but not me. When I realized that the temple had narrowly avoided energy charges in the tens of thousands of pounds and that we are in danger of not being able to pay our energy bills when our fixed rate runs out, I wondered how I had been able to avoid thinking about it for so long. Denial, of course!
Something that grounds me when I begin to feel overwhelmed is to remember the vast spans of time the Buddha speaks of in the sutras. A kalpa is a very long measure of time. One of the analogies the Buddha used to give us a sense of the length of a kalpa is this: imagine a gigantic rocky mountain at the beginning of the kalpa, approximately 16 cubic miles—much bigger than Mount Everest. Take a small piece of silk and wipe the mountain once every 100 years. According to the Buddha, the mountain will be completely worn away before the kalpa ends. That’s a pretty long time!
When I set myself against these timescales, I remember how tiny I am, how little I know, and how brief the span of my life. Who knows what is in store for our little planet over the next few hundred years—the blink of an eye in the Buddha’s timescale. My worries seem to recede a little in the face of these timescales, much as when I look back at things that deeply preoccupied me a year or 10 years ago, and that now seem like nothing to worry about.
The reality of impermanence—the impermanence of the world around me and my own impermanence—is also something I find helpful to remember. My father is unwell and may or may not die as a result of this illness. He may have many years of life left, and he may not. I remind myself that this is also true for me, and for every person I know. We may have a greater probability of being alive in 10 or 30 years, but there are no guarantees. Rather than making me feel worse, this realization frees me up to enjoy each day that comes, and to hold my future plans lightly. I am more able to lean into the flow of life, as if bobbing along a river, rather than putting fruitless effort into controlling things that I have no control over. I should take the actions I can take to mitigate the climate crisis, of course, but it’s also helpful to remember how vast and complicated the problems are, and how limited my capability is to effect change. I can simply do the small things I can do, and then hand the rest over—what a relief!
I could go on. As we live through these challenging times, we are all offered an opportunity to “refresh the precious Dharma”—as individuals and as Buddhist communities. How can we make use of the Buddha’s words to keep us steady when all around us is wobbling? How can we inspire people to make the most of the time they have, and to be kind to others and to the planet? How can we find the courage, patience, and wisdom that we’ll need as circumstances around us unravel further? I feel blessed to be connected to an ancient tradition containing so much wisdom. I feel blessed to be guided by the Buddha and by all the teachers who came after them. I even feel blessed to be alive today, in these times that contain so much suffering and also so much opportunity and so much joy.
Are we living in end times? Who knows? I will finish with a bow of kindness for all those who are suffering, and with a bow of gratitude to the Buddha for all that I receive. We have this moment, and we are surrounded by beauty.
Related features from BDG
The Practice of Nonviolence
The Future Is Canceled Until Further Notice
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Buddhism in a Divided World
Building a Climate Crisis Toolkit with Buddhist Wisdom
Dharma in Action: Tackling the Climate Change Crisis
Buddhistdoor View: The Dharma’s Place in the Global Climate Change Crisis
Contemplating the Kalpa in the Art of Hirokazu Kosaka