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The Future Is Canceled Until Further Notice

A view of San Francisco, California in 2020 as wildfires filled the air with smoke. Photo by Patrick Perkins

Over the past couple of years, I have been thinking about the future and wondering if humans are up to the challenge of keeping our planet and its inhabitants from the tipping point into irreversible climate and civilizational catastrophe.

Until Russia’s unprovoked and savage attack on Ukraine—with the ensuing disaster for billions of people who depend on Ukrainian wheat and sunflower oil, making it a global crisis—I was cautiously optimistic that Greta Thunberg’s dire predictions for the future of humanity might be avoided. I no longer believe that.

Similarly, when I read about the ecocide taking place on the Tibetan Plateau and its impact on the billions of people who depend on water from its major rivers, or the impending collapse of pollinator bees as a species, or. . . . In fact, the list of crises we face is too long to include in this article. Fill in what you know from your own experience and newsgathering.

From the perspective of strategic foresight, we don’t know what the future holds. But we can generate some reasoned, detailed, and holistic potential scenarios. In the spirit of hoping for the best but planning for the worst, I’m going to talk about the direst probable outcome: we have already failed.

There is now no way we can avoid climate disaster and the concomitant social chaos. The workings of cause and effect, demographics, and human nature are maintaining our inexorable momentum toward collapse. The best we can hope to achieve is accommodation and some mitigation. Of course, the outcomes will be a messy amalgam of horrible tragedies and oases of not-quite-so-bad-for-now scenarios. As usual, those with privilege will fare better than most.

This is a difficult point of view to bring up in polite society. It’s like telling the family that their loved one has a terminal illness and not much time left. And that they caused it.

Still, from a Buddhist perspective, facing reality is always the starting point for transformation. No wonder Siddhartha Gautama freaked out when he first witnessed sickness, old age, and death!

The problems we face now are bigger than our Buddhist practice can solve. We can’t assume that Green Buddhism will be taken up universally by global communities in some kumbaya interfaith revelation. In fact, it has barely been taken up by mainstream Buddhists! In some perverse spiritual version of elite capture, much of contemporary Buddhist discourse is still stuck in nostalgic “personal enlightenment” narratives that do not address the underlying social karmic causes of our current crises, and hence are powerless to effect any real solutions.

The two most recent books I’ve published, from the Dark Mountain collective of writers and artists bravely attempting to give voice to those future scenarios—After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time (Sumeru 2022) and Loss Soup and Other Stories (Sumeru 2022)—are not Buddhist books. Are they post-Buddhist? Am I?

As noted above, the fundamental premise of Zen is directly facing reality without filters, in all its immensity: the suffering, the beauty, the mystery, the ever-evolving impermanence. Bodhidharma slicing off his eyelids.

So, then, enlightenment must be ever-deepening too. If we are alive, we are learning.

As of yet, I have not found any way of life other than Dharma practice that better suits the clarity, renunciation, or social relations required for our current moment. To be a bodhisattva now is to strive to be useful.

Perhaps it is hubris to think of any of us as teachers. After all, what are we teaching? It’s a performative role that can only be bestowed, never claimed. At best, we are simply sharing our experience with those who choose to listen or who, by some chance, have found themselves in our presence. I certainly have no magic potion to share.

A fundamental premise of the Nyingma terma tradition is that enlightened teachers plant sacred treasure texts to be discovered in the distant future by seekers of the Way. Perhaps that is what we are all doing here? Writing down the flower of all we know for generations hence, whose circumstances, culture and values will be incomprehensible to us. A roadmap? A memorial tablet?

One thing I think we can say with some certitude is that our global human civilization has reached a tipping point in the past decade toward acknowledging the ever-present shadow of death. The timing is unknown, the trajectory is opaque, but the outcome is suddenly clear to billions of us. We are smack dab up against the reality of impermanence on the planetary scale of deep time. Suddenly, we can recognize and inhabit the thoughts and feelings of living on a dying planet. Suddenly, we are aware that what is euphemistically called “climate change” and the disintegration of our global civilization are inextricably entwined—not two, but one. This ripping away the veil of denial is a tipping point of epic proportions.

So . . . what is a Buddhist to do?

As someone of a particular age and culture, I see that I am merely part of a huge cohort. My experiences, thoughts, and feelings mirror those of countless others in Indra’s Net. That’s what the work of the Dark Mountain collective tells me. In this new uncharted landscape just now beginning to be mapped, I find myself ever more alienated from what passes for normal. The television ads, the organized spectator sports, the frenzied tweets, the false optimism, the propaganda, the trivial. A further experience of what we Buddhists call “leaving home.” I will be dead long before all of this plays out, but I feel it in my very bones every moment: the Kali Yuga.

In the eight great charnel grounds, the yogis and yoginis have gathered around a crystal chorten that has miraculously appeared in each, pulsating with prismatic rainbows from the setting Sun. Night is coming, and the New Moon. In the heart of each chorten, a celestial mansion of inestimable beauty. Vajrayogini dances amid the fiery light. Ksitigarbha strikes the Earth with his staff and gravitational ripples spill out into the three times and ten directions. The eight rings on his staff peal the deep knell of refuge. Usnisha Chakravartin performs the phowa transference of consciousness for the 84,000 members of the Guhyasamaja, the Secret Assembly.

In the morning, they disperse, out into the world, each a person of no rank, doing the Buddha’s work.

Beyond the ring of iron vajras, the ring of fire, the ring of roiling waves, they manifest the mudras, speak the mantras, living testaments to the Way.

Related features from BDG

Buddhist Predictions for the Future
Buddhistdoor View: Remembering the Basics of Buddhist Practice as we Imagine our Future
Sanghas in the West: Looking to the Future
Scaling Intelligence in an AI-dominated Future
No Poverty: The Sustainable Development Goals and Buddhism
Buddhistdoor View: Fostering Friendship to Overcome Global Challenges

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