A difficult life is better for someone who truly wants to learn. Comfortable lives always end in bitterness.—Rumi
Life is too tragic for sadness. Let us rejoice.—Edward Abbey
The late twentieth century is a dark and foreboding time. The litany of ongoing disasters is familiar and overwhelming: wars and militarism, global warming, ozone depletion, deforestation, desertification, droughts, famines, toxic pollution, economic recession, and the growing realization that Elvis is truly dead. Postal rates have also gone up again.
Confirming our darkest visions are the religious fundamentalists who turn to their holy books and cite passages proclaiming the end of days. The prophecies of many cultures will tell us that the apocalypse is here, right on schedule. According to the Hindu scriptures we are in the Kali Yuga, the age of destruction. The Book of Revelations, the Mayan codices and the sayings of the Hopi elders all give startlingly accurate accounts of today’s headlines, and the world seems to be acting out Nostradamus’s dire predictions as if they were a script. Is it just coincidence that brings these ominous warnings together, or is somebody trying to tell us something? Maybe it’s not so wise to try to “be here now.” Maybe instead we should be trying to get the hell out of here—now!
It is certainly possible that we have come to a critical turning point in human history, but I also believe that many of us are suffering from a case of what I call millennial fever. In the West, where our own history has become our religion, we give great importance to divisions of time (eras, decades, centuries), and we give special weight to those dates ending with three zeroes. In the years approaching the last millennium, 1,000 A.D., there were also dire warnings of the end of days, a response which now seems like nothing but superstition. Although we might think we understand the psychology of millennial fever, we are probably suffering from it just the same, and many of our gravest fears may simply reflect another cycle of human doomsaying. Maybe there is really nothing to get so upset about. After all, we survived the last ice age, Attila the Hun, the bubonic plague, countless thousands of wars, volcanoes, tidal waves, hurricanes, and, so far, the nuclear arms race. Why should the species fail now, especially when we are at the height of our tool making abilities? Do we face a crisis so different in scope and kind that our past record does not apply? Can we no longer rely on our accumulated skills and knowledge to figure out how to save ourselves?
I am of two opinions about our fate, and my views probably fluctuate according to my own personal circumstances and brain chemistry. Sometimes after listening to the radio and hearing about the onslaught of environmental disasters, especially while caught in traffic, I become convinced that the human species is on its way to extinction and the only question that remains is whether we will bring the rest of nature down with us. At other times, usually after a good workout or an hour of focused meditation, I start to believe that there is really nothing to worry about, and that we will awaken to our dilemmas and adjust our behavior in plenty of time to save ourselves. I feel certain that our grandchildren will be having healthy grandchildren someday, Mother’s Day will come and go for millennia to come, baseball salaries will keep going up, and the human race will continue along on its bumpy path toward some still undetermined future. Chances are, I think, we will collectively make it.
Unfortunately, even in the best of moods, I am convinced that it will take a major trauma to set us on a course of sanity. Sometimes I even find myself hoping for a cataclysm just strong enough to wipe out the old order, so that humans would be forced to reorganize society from scratch. As it is, much of the time I don’t hold too high an opinion of our so-called civilization, although I do love my juicer and flush toilet. But I seriously doubt whether humans are any happier now than those who lived in ancient Mesopotamia say, or those who lived in tribes on the great plains of North America two thousand years ago. At least those cultures had their belief systems intact and felt certain about the meaning of life and death. Besides, in every age expectations are scaled to possibilities, life is a mixture of joys and sorrows, and one god seems to be no better than another when it comes to handing out justice and mercy.
Although I am usually motivated (or forced by instinct and conditioning) to try to preserve myself and my species, there are times when I would gladly sacrifice humans for the sake of the rest of the life of the planet. Certainly we are the most destructive of the life forms, and furthermore, we put ourselves through the most unnecessary pains of any species, at least as far as we know. Does the slug suffer frustration from the slowness of its pace? Does your dog ever worry about death or whether or not his license should be renewed? Does a bear or a salmon ever yearn for transcendence? Of course other animals seem to feel fear and hunger, the basic forms of dissatisfaction, but we humans have made suffering into a motto. Like a security blanket, we cling tightly to our sorrow.
Nonetheless, without us the earth would surely lose its beauty because there would be no one around to proclaim it beautiful. Let’s face it, the other animals are not romantics. If humans were gone, who would adore the seashore or gaze lovingly at the sunsets or groom the horses or hug the dogs or write odes to the lilies? Without us the earth would just be itself and nothing more. Of course, the earth would benefit in some ways. For instance, without humans there wouldn’t be any need for life insurance. However, as some pundit once pointed out, humans are the only species that laughs. And that is reason enough for us to try to prolong this wonderful show, the longest running comedy of errors in the cosmos.
Lately I find myself regarding humans, myself included, as a species of clowns. While reading Gary Snyder’s book The Practice of the Wild, I was charmed to find him referring to us as “a gang of sexy primate clowns.” That is to say, we are quite lovable and entertaining, but nonetheless clumsy, and often downright stupid, tripping over our own shoelaces as we climb up the ladder that happens to be leaning against the wrong wall.
I envision a contemporary scene for a great clown to enact. Charlie Chaplin as “everyman” would do it best, if only he were around for these latter-day modern times. The scene opens with the clown in a room, enthusiastically building an engine. He is happy and proud as he dances around his invention, deftly putting the final pieces in place and tightening up the screws. At last, with a flourish, the clown pushes a button and the engine springs to life. But the elation only lasts for a few minutes because suddenly the machine begins a jerking motion and starts belching out smoke. The room quickly begins to fill with smoke and the engine starts lurching and moving about on its own. The clown runs over to the window but discovers that it is stuck. He then rushes to the door, but that won’t open either. Suddenly, the engine jerks forward and catches on the clown’s pants and begins dragging him around the room. The smoke is thick by now and the clown is simultaneously coughing and flailing as he tries to break free. Finally, when the engine passes by the window, the clown makes a desperate leap and crashes through, tearing off his pants in the process. In the end we see the clown sitting on the sidewalk in his undershorts, giving us that forlorn half smile and a shrug, admitting that the universe has defeated him again.
As the French philosopher Diderot once said, “What a fine comedy this world would be, if one did not have to play a part in it.” Unfortunately we are not in the audience for this show. We are the clowns, getting ourselves into deep trouble with our so-called ingenuity and our unjustifiable pride. “Hey, Rube! The engine’s out of control, and the smoke is getting thicker!” We are destroying our own atmosphere, our oxygen, our very medium of life.
We clowns don’t catch on too quickly. Instead of trying to turn the engine off, we keep building more engines, burning more oil, and creating more and more smoke. And more and more people want to own their own engines so they can burn oil too. Some scientists point to human overpopulation as being the primary environmental problem. But what about the ominous proliferation of our oil burning vehicles? In 1950 there were fifty million cars and trucks on the planet, and today there are five hundred million! The human population has only doubled since 1950, but the vehicle population has increased by a factor of ten. (Cars breed like Volkswagen rabbits!) And now the Chinese and the Eastern Europeans and the South Americans all want private cars. Are you going to be the one to hop in your Chevy or Honda and go tell them that it’s too late, that we Westerners have already used up most of the oil on the planet and most of the oxygen as well? “Sorry folks, from now on everybody will have to learn how to skateboard.”
Our oil-burning engines are creating many problems. No matter what gets said in official circles, I am convinced that the Persian Gulf war was fought primarily for the sake of cheap oil, with a few minor political reasons thrown in. Of course we were told that we were fighting to liberate Kuwait, but if freedom is the guiding light of American foreign policy, then why didn’t we help save Tibet from Chinese aggression? Kuwait’s major export is oil, but the only thing Tibet has to export is the dharma. I guess most American politicians do not consider the dharma to be part of our vital national interests. Too bad about that.
Of course health is the vital interest of everybody, and in that context, the Persian Gulf war was the ultimate irony. The industrialized peoples of the world went to war for the very oil that is destroying our atmosphere. We were essentially fighting for the right to asphyxiate ourselves.
Yes indeed, there certainly does seem to be some glitch in the old survival brain. The war against Iraq proved that we can manufacture smart bombs, but we just can’t seem to fit human beings with any intelligence. Actually, even the smart bombs aren’t that smart. The real definition of a “smart bomb,” is a bomb that refuses to go off.
Okay, I’ve convinced myself of the problem. Now, the question is, will I give up my own car? Not until everybody else does too, and we get some decent mass transit around here. Then we’ll all get in line to hand in our keys. You first, fellow clowns . . . .
Perhaps one of the best moves that environmentalists could make would be to send an envoy to the OPEC nations to try to explain how the burning of oil is destroying the atmosphere which sustains everybody, believer and infidel alike. Maybe the owners of the oil aren’t convinced of the poisonous side-effects of their black liquid gold. Someone ought to tell the OPEC ministers how unlivable their deserts will be if global warming continues, and suggest that it might be wise if they cut back on production for a while. “Just dole out that ole dinosaur juice slowly, boys, or else we will all be following those tiny-brained giants down the road to ruin-car-nation!”
Let’s face it, we aren’t going to voluntarily give up our oil addiction and oil-based lifestyles. (Isn’t it appropriate that we call our credit cards plastic?) The pictures of the dead birds and marine mammals after the Exxon Valdez oil spill didn’t get us out of our cars; the scientific reports on global warming don’t seem to effect our driving habits; and the Persian Gulf war doesn’t seem to have rung many bells in the old human belfry. I’m afraid it will take even more traumas to wake us up. The economic recession might be a partial antidote, a kind of compulsory eco-consciousness. Let’s euphemize (and alliterate) and call it “economically enforced evolution.”
A deep recession will be difficult for many, but it may be just what we need to sober up from a few decades of deregulated greed. A slowdown seems like the only thing that will slow us down, and unless we slow down now we may never be able to stop. Any sensible environmentalist and many good Buddhists will view the arrival of recession as a necessary adjustment in the larger balance of things. Nature needs a respite from unbridled human growth and development, and we humans need to pause long enough to reassess our needs and desires. An economic recession would mean receding levels of speed, consumption, and production; the receding of unconscious and unhealthy habits; and maybe even receding illusions about what brings security and happiness. None of this, of course, hardly ever seems to take place by choice.
If you remember, back in the 1970s there was a short-lived New-Age idea called “voluntary simplicity.” Well, not enough people volunteered. Instead most of us embarked on an orgy of speed and complexity. California Governor Jerry Brown tried to promote the idea of voluntary simplicity for a while but it didn’t fly, maybe because people didn’t perceive simplicity as being any fun. If only the lifestyle had been marketed as a path to more intense pleasure, emphasizing that simple living leads to full enjoyment of each moment of sex, eating and sunbathing. Maybe our task is to promote a sustainable lifestyle as sexy.
Ironically, we are now being threatened by our own speed and acquisitiveness, qualities which once may have served our survival needs, but now seem to be working at cross purposes to both our happiness and our survival. Let’s face it, over the centuries we’ve gotten too good at what we do—this building up and hoarding and armoring—devising brilliant, elaborate protections against the elements and our perceived enemies. Our greed for more material possessions and our passion to develop more and more destructive weaponry both arise out of the deepest primal insecurity. In this light, nuclear bombs can be seen as one of the most basic of all survival implements, the threatening stick or the firebrand writ large.
Now, at last, some people are beginning to understand that more than anything else, our survival might depend on our ability to calm our fears; to relax and slow down. As the Tao Te Ching says, “Yielding is the way of the Tao.” The great sage puts it another way:
Blunt the sharpness,
Untangle the knot,
Soften the glare,
Merge with dust.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter Four
These days it is especially important to keep a cosmic perspective in your pocket or up your sleeve at all times. A cosmic perspective can be very comforting, and is guaranteed to contribute to both personal and planetary harmony. We all need to take an occasional break from this harsh twentieth-century reality, and putting on a cosmic perspective allows us to get away from the close-ups of tree stumps and bombed out cities, at least for a while.
Cosmic truth tells us that the universe has its own intelligence far beyond our ability to understand, and its own destiny far beyond our ability to control. Hard as it may be to accept, this moment in history is also part of the divine plan. The current mess is nothing less than the Tao revealing itself in all its glorious, inscrutable perfection. Even calling it a “mess” is a narrow, human-centered view. The flux and flow of matter-energy through the space-time continuum has brought us to this moment, and it will take us wherever it wants to go from here. Our struggle and despair over the way things are is ultimately futile, a waste of cosmic time and energy. As the Tao Te Ching says, “Heaven and Earth are impartial. They see the ten thousand things as straw dogs.” From some vantage point, whether or not we can save ourselves is not even a question. It is completely out of our hands.
But there is another side to the story, as usual. Even those sages with a well developed cosmic perspective understand that there are two levels of human understanding. Many old Taoists and Zen Buddhists with an unobstructed view of the big picture still talk as if our actions matter and we do control our destiny, at least to some degree. For example, while the Tao Te Ching constantly reminds us that we can never hope to improve the universe, it also gives advice to politicians and rulers on how to keep the empire in harmony with the Tao. In chapter 30, the Tao Te Ching counsels a ruler not to use force because “thorn bushes spring up wherever the army has passed. Lean years follow in the wake of a great war.” And when war becomes absolutely necessary, the Tao Te Ching says there should be no rejoicing and that “a victory must be observed like a funeral.” Obviously, Americans have not been reading the Tao Te Ching lately.
Staying in harmony with the Tao can lead to the best kind of social action. Working for peace or for the environment can also arise out of the Hindu-Buddhist understanding of nonduality which, when coupled with the Bodhisattva ideal, says that you’ve got to try to save it because you are it. Another way of saying the same thing is what Krishna told Arjuna in the famous scene from the Bhagavad Gita. “Here’s the battlefield, and you were born a warrior. You must fight.” In the same sense, we were born as humans and must struggle for the survival of our species. It is a deep loyalty, or perhaps a genetic program, that most of us cannot deny. We must try to survive, at least until the sun explodes or some other cosmic catastrophe comes along to end the show.
But how should we go about trying to save ourselves—that is the question. At least one good answer is to keep sitting. In a very real sense, our Buddhist practice is environmentalism in that it fosters a way of life that takes up a little less space, both in terms of the amount of ego and the various entrapments thereof. One of the best ways we can help the environment is to sit on our cushions and be still. There is much too much waving of hands going on, and that only leads to more global warming.
What else can we do? As I read the world situation, I see the current order—the culture, beliefs, and institutions of the West—crumbling around us, and I believe that there is very little that can be done to either hurry or slow the demise. The “system” will collapse of its own weight, in its own time, and perhaps the wisest thing we can do is to stay out of the way of the falling debris, and prepare for a different kind of “new world order.” It could be that we waste too much of our energy opposing the juggernaut, and just as we relate to negative thoughts in the mind, it might be best for us to just let the old order pass by without feeding in more negative energy. Perhaps our immediate task is to develop our communities, pockets of sanity that emphasize sharing and simple living, and to take compassionate care of each other. While we are creating alternative lifestyles and technologies, we are also living our truths and rejoicing in our lives. If we can make our own lives work, as the old capitalist saying goes, the world will beat a path to our doorstep.
Recently in the dharma community there has been a decided turn outward, and that movement seems destined to continue. Many spiritual sanghas have started neighborhood development projects and AIDS hospices, while other Buddhist groups are very active in the peace and environmental movements. At insight meditation retreats there has been a new emphasis on metta bhavana, the development of compassion and loving kindness, another sign that our awareness is becoming more inclusive. Maybe after a couple of decades of self-absorption, we have finally realized that there is no self to be absorbed with, and so we now can get on with the healing of the collective mind/body.
So the meditation period has ended and it’s time to sweep the zendo. While we are sweeping let’s remember that it is all perfect, even the dirt, and that the path is bound to get dirty again. Like clowns, just when we finish sweeping we will turn around and discover that it is time to start over. This is simply the human condition. We might as well do the work with joy, or at least equanimity, knowing that this is the story we were born into, the plot of this incarnation.
What else can we do? Whatever we can, is the answer. Perhaps a better question is, what can we be. As Gandhi said, “My life is my message,” and although few of us will achieve his level of purity or a life that resonates with that kind of power, the goal is clear. Gandhi also said, “Full effort is full victory.”
Finally, just in case the apocalypse is closer than we think, I would advise everyone to make their peace with the Tao (choose your own creator, sustainer or container). Then, with a cosmic perspective in our pockets, nonduality in our hearts, and harmony as the background music, we might all try our best to bring peace and simplicity into our lives and the lives of those around us. And every now and then we should remember to look in the mirror and laugh.