Apocalypse Sooner or Later. Probably.

The signs of the end times are upon us.

There are highways in southern California where the desert heaves itself up, a restless ocean of sand, and blows across the tarmac. The road is a tiny strip of solid, struggling to hold its own against the surging sandtides from beneath and the drifts above.

I have seen no starker reminder of the magnificent folly of human arrogance in the face of nature than the desert community of Palm Springs. Starting life as a ranch, then a haven for Hollywood’s finest, it is a pocket of extravagance carved out of an unforgiving wilderness of mountain and rock. We stayed with our good friend Alex Sebby and his mom in their old family home. They’ve been there 26 years, long enough to see a lot of changes.

In the drain that goes past the front of their house, water is streaming down. It streamed constantly for the two days we were there. The lawns are a psychedelic emerald, soaking in water. The main shopping mall is called “The River”, and has artificial lakes and streams. It’s not just making a home in the desert, it’s giving the desert the finger. Astonishingly, there’s never been water restrictions.

We went for lunch on a stunning, perfect day. Absolute sky, temperature in the low 20s. We sat outside in a Chinese restaurant, and I wasn’t quite sure I believed it when our waiter asked if we wanted the heater turned on, A heater, on a day like today?! But the next table arrived, and they actually asked for the heater, to “take off the chill”.

This is the end of civilization.

Why should we make an effort? Why bother trying to help, when our petty efforts are up against… this? Good, normal people. Not demonic evil. Just unthinking. Such a small thing.

Meanwhile, the media does its work of distraction, while the guardians of the people’s morality tie us up with non-issues: Do poor people deserve health care? Should people of various sexualities be treated as equally human? Should women be allowed to practice their religion on an equal footing as men?

As, day by day, apocalypse draws nearer.

Buddhism has a long and lively history of apocalypse. The Suttas speak of it, with the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta’s wrenching depiction of a future where even the word “good” has disappeared. Such “fears of the future” have inspired many Buddhist millennial cults, loosely gathered around the figure of Maitreya, the future Buddha.

In modern times, the Buddhist apocalyptic imagination draws on modern fears. I’ve heard several varieties from the meditation monks in Thailand. China will invade Thailand. There’ll be a nuclear war. Scientists will discover a new form of energy, a “passive radiation” (Thai: saeng chery), which will be used as a deadly weapon. More recently, an embarrassing amount of monks have jumped on the lame 2012 bandwagon.

The details are always changing, and often ridiculous. But it would be wrong to dismiss this strand of Buddhist consciousness. It is, after all, nothing more than an aspect of impermanence. Somewhere, lurking in the dark, is this inarticulate fear. A knowledge that it really isn’t going to end well. A victory can only ever be a temporary relief before the next storm.

I’ve always had this feeling that the world is going to end. I don’t know why. I’ve always, as far back as I can remember, looked at consumption and environmental destruction and thought that it cannot possibly just continue. I knew there had to be another way – and in Buddhism I found it.

Buddhism brings hope – but not hope for the world. Hope that there is something else, an escape; and that escape is so utterly wonderous beyond compare.

But it is always wrong to denigrate or despise our beautiful world for the sake of beyond. Samsara is always suffering; but it is our suffering, the world we have chosen to live in. Nibbana does not come about through destruction of this world, but by living well in it. This, precisely, is our practice of sila, the ground of the entire path.

Little people like you and I cannot ward off apocalypse. We may well be over the tipping point already. Yet still we try; not because we think we can succeed, but because it is the right thing to do. It may be doomed to failure, but we do anyway. In the end there is nothing else. We will die, the planet will die, the universe will collapse. And all that will matter is the quality of our choices.


16 thoughts on “Apocalypse Sooner or Later. Probably.

  1. One of my reflections is “How many times, in this samaric existence, must I have gone through ‘the end of the world'”. Whatever way you please to define it. Whether it’s ecological collapse of the biosphere, or realm-collapse, or universe-collapse… heck, I’m sure samsara even found a way to make a rapture or two happen. It’s the end of the world. Again.
    For me one of the most deep, profound and moving teachings of the Buddha is the “assu sutta”, the tears sutta, and I suppose that sutta-series in general. Just the vastness and weepiness of samsara, calamity after calamity with yet another calamity always waiting to happen, and it doesn’t even matter if you’re good, no more so than an ant can avoid being stepped on, or it’s hive being destroyed, by being good. The forces of nature are just much bigger than us.

    Indeed it’s enough to fade away, enough to become liberated…

  2. shake and bake bhante, is the world ending every day somewhere for someone or some being, and even the ending of this world is not ending of all worlds the continuation of samsara is the only thing that doesn’t change. so is it better to reflect on the ending of things or the vastness of samsara?

  3. I have read several of your posts and have concluded that buddhism is unhealthy. There is so much beauty and goodness in this world yet you continually find only negativity. Music, dance, humor, art, nature, love, etc. give us joy. I feel so sorry for you that you won’t just allow yourself to have good experiences. Your perception is off and it must be all that denial. People are complex, yes, but renouncing our humanness isn’t an answer. Human beings are wired to experience good and bad, it’s just how our brains work. It’s what made our species survive. It’s not some evil thing. You are not suffering. People in dire poverty or deathly ill are suffering. I think when you talk about suffering you are actually demeaning true suffering in the world. You are fine and don’t have anything to complain about. You are taking a nice trip across a great country. There is so much beauty here and yet everywhere you go you only find awful stuff. That says something about you and about buddhism. I think you are on some kind of head-trip. An ego thing of having people think you are so amazing in your thoughts. Can you be honest? Isn’t buddhism your excuse for being a complainer? The world has good and bad, that’s how nature is. It doesn’t mean we should renounce nature. It’s here, we’re here, no amount of renouncing or chanting makes a difference. The way you write about hope is terrifying. What are you saying? You sound like Jim Jones. Apocalypse, oh come on. You are risking hurting impressionable, vulnerable people with this nonsense. What choices are you making that are so great? This is illogical and potentially hurtful. Reconsider and get real. If people want to chant, or wear robes, or constantly talk about what some guy wrote and thought a thousand years ago, that’s their choice, that’s fine. You, though, are setting yourself up as some kind of sage. That is dangerous and you should be ashamed of yourself.

    • Dear Claudia Greve,

      I would like to mention that sampling is widely used for gathering information about a population or group of people. It is an important aspect of data collection because it helps to improve the accuracy and quality of the data.

      Claudia Greve wrote: ” I have read several of your posts and have concluded that buddhism is unhealthy.”

      It might be a good idea to check one’s method of sampling before arriving at a generalization or conclusion. That would only help to yield a more accurate outlook. Just like you say:

      ” Human beings are wired to experience good and bad, it’s just how our brains work………The world has good and bad, that’s how nature is. It doesn’t mean we should renounce nature.”

      Likewise, human beings are wired differently, it’s just how people are. There are countless of people with a positive outlook also if one takes the time to look before arriving at a hasty conclusion. Because a few people have a negative outlook does not necessarily mean that everyone who shares the same faith are also that way nor does it mean that it has to come from Buddhism. People who study Buddhism come from a variety of backgrounds, upbringing, and cultures. It is also possible that a person’s attitude/ disposition came from family upbringing. In every culture or religion you will find “pesimistics” and “optimistics”. Also, even if a person is optimistic there are always situations where he/she is not so optimistic. No one can be optimistic 100 percent of the time.

      Claudia Greve wrote: “If people want to wear robes……”

      These days the fashion change with the seasons. Some might use clothing for purposes such as: to appear trending , to fit in , improve self image by “dress to impress” , etc..

      We might wonder, why don’t the monks follow modern fashion ?
      I believe the reason might be that they were encouraged to use clothing solely for the purpose of covering the body and keeping it warm.

      Some might wonder, why not jeans and T-shirt ?
      Many organizations have some kind of dress codes or uniforms that remained the same since its establishment. We can’t expect the companies to change their uniform whenever a new fashion comes along. Similarly, monastics have their uniforms. This is not just found in Buddhism, but a number of faiths also have some kind of uniform . I believe for the purpose of covering and keeping the body warm, it does the job. Personally, I don’t see a need for the monks to alter their fashion. For some people, it might not might not be compatible with their tastes. But for others, it would appear just fine. I am glad we are moving beyond judging a book by the cover.

      Claudia Greve wrote: “……talk about what some guy wrote and thought a thousand years ago”

      The teachings of many religions originated from someone a long time ago . Not only that, “nearly 2500 years after the Buddha, quantum physicist seem to stumble upon the same truth” and found some parallels.

      “Where Science and Buddhism Meet ”

      Claudia Greve wrote: “…. that’s their choice, that’s fine. ”

      I fully agree on this. In essence, spirituality is an inner journey . As such, it is personal to each person. Everyone should be allowed to choose for themselves when it comes to the type of journey they want to embark on within themselves.


    • Dear Claudia,
      There are many dimensions to spiritual learning and I must agree with you that joy is so very important. At times I have felt that I was losing the joy in my spiritual practice, but I promise you it is very much there in the teachings. Thich Nhat Hanh spends a great deal of time encouraging us to connect with the joy and happiness that worldly existence offers us- what makes contact with our senses (those very things you have mentioned) can bring beauty and joy if we learn how to connect with that joy – and if we learn to put things into perspective.
      Part of that “putting into perspective” may entail looking deeply and clearly into suffering, its nature and its causes…provided we do not get lost in that…some take this search, study, exploration, adventure, practice rather seriously,because an awareness of the depth of suffering available to human life brings great urgency and commitment to practice. At times, one may find one practices “too seriously” …sometimes the pendulum swings before it comes back into balance…on Bhante’s blog my experience so far has been that one is free to share whatever point the pendulum is at…including where you are at…so thank you for your sharing…
      May I share two of Thich Nhat Hanh’s reminders on joy that I can relate to? The first is – how a smile can be a precious way to bring joy and to connect us with the present moment. ‘Because of your smile, you make life more beautiful.’ Thay encourages us to “Smile, breathe and go slowly…” and ‘Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.
      The second, is when walking, to imagine a beautiful lotus flower blossoming from every step; “When you step again, another lotus flower blooms. When we walk in such a way that fresh lotus flowers bloom under our feet, we enjoy our steps completely” – when watching the movement of other people, strangers, friends alike, imagine a lotus blossoming from every step…and we appreciate the steps of other beings…
      There are many teachers and many practices that emphasize connecting with joy…and most monks and nuns I have met are pretty joyful most of the time…

    • (For ’tis this joy that would enable us to live well in this world, caring for it with loving kindness)

  4. Wow, Claudia, have you ever stopped long enough to examine suffering and it’s causes? Please take some time out to do so, as what you are saying is surely from a busy and full mind. Not a place of stillness and clarity.



  5. Hi to all commenters, I’ll respond one at a time if that’s okay.

    Blake: whoa!

    Giles: the vastness of samsara jacks it all up to another level. The falling of a sparrow just doesn’t cut it next to the cycle of the universes. The problem is that ethics operate here, in this level, and they can seem irrelevant in the big existential picture. It’s like Einsteinian, Newtonian, and quantum physics: each works just fine in its own sphere, but it’s hard to bring them together. So the important thing is to keep it in context…

    Claudia: Thanks for the honesty, I’m glad you could get that off your chest. Forgive me if this is out of line, but I kinda get the feeling you’re taking my doodles very much to heart. Might I have I touched some kind of nerve?

  6. Ozymandias

    by Percy Bysshe Shelley

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

  7. We might imagine another version of Shelley’s poem, this one about the shattered remains of a sculpture of the Buddha (perhaps in Afghanistan), “whose smile/And focused gaze and unmarked brow/Tell that its sculptor well the dispassion read/Which yet survives, stamped on these lifeless things…”

    Some things will outlast us, and our lawns in the desert. (There is something at once fabulous and kind of heartrending about that image of the lawn…)

  8. Thanks so much, Juzzeau, that’s really beautiful – especially the Buddhist version.

    Pursuing my morbid fascinations, as it happens Chandra and I have just this minute come out of the lovely Old Holy Cross Cemetery in Santa Cruz. Just like the poem: the weathered words and crumbling stone preserve a fading memory of loved ones past…

  9. The end of civilization? Well Bhante you are not the only one taking notice. A few months ago an authority in extinction Professor Frank Fenner, emeritus professor in microbilogy at the Australian National University said in an interview that due to population explosion and unbridled consumption the human race will undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island.

    Fenner is pessimistic because of delays in firm action by nations to cut greenhouse emissions. He says that Homo sapiens will become extinct perhaps within 100 years and so would a lot of other animals too. Mitigation will slow down things a bit but he says there are too many people already.

    Fenner has his share of critics who chide him for pessimism but his contention of population growth and unbridled consumption is correct. The Earth has finite resources and there is a tipping point, a point of no return. The question is have we reached it? Fenner thinks so.

    My thinking is that barring an apocalyptic asteroid/meteorite strike the human race is highly vulnerable to natural disasters such as drought, heatwaves, famine and new epidemics which could wipe out a lot of the people as well as animals this century.

    The full press article in The Australian newspaper is reproduced below:

    Frank Fenner sees no hope for humans

    FRANK Fenner doesn’t engage in the skirmishes of the climate wars. To him, the evidence of global warming is in. Our fate is sealed.

    “We’re going to become extinct,” the eminent scientist says. “Whatever we do now is too late.”

    Fenner is an authority on extinction. The emeritus professor in microbiology at the Australian National University played a leading role in sending one species into oblivion: the variola virus that causes smallpox.

    And his work on the myxoma virus suppressed wild rabbit populations on farming land in southeastern Australia in the early 1950s.

    He made the comments in an interview at his home in a leafy Canberra suburb. Now 95, he rarely gives interviews. But until recently he went into work each day at the ANU’s John Curtin School of Medical Research, of which he was director from 1967 to 1973.

    Decades after his official retirement from the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, which he set up in 1973, he continued a routine established when he was running world-class facilities while conducting research.

    He’d get to work at 6.30am to spend a couple of hours writing textbooks before the rest of the staff arrived.

    Fenner, a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and of the Royal Society, has received many awards and honours. He has published hundreds of scientific papers and written or co-written 22 books.

    He retrieves some of the books from his library. One of them, on smallpox, has physical as well as intellectual gravitas: it weighs 3.5kg. Another, on myxomatosis, was reprinted by Cambridge University Press last year, 44 years after the first edition came out.

    Fenner is chuffed, but disappointed that he could not update it with research confirming wild rabbits have developed resistance to the biological control agent.

    The study showed that myxo now had a much lower kill rate in the wild than in laboratory rabbits that had never been exposed to the virus.

    “The [wild] rabbits themselves had mutated,” Fenner says.

    “It was an evolutionary change in the rabbits.”

    His deep understanding of evolution has never diminished his fascination with observing it in the field. That understanding was shaped by studies of every scale, from the molecular level to the ecosystem and planetary levels.

    Fenner originally wanted to become a geologist but, on the advice of his father, studied medicine instead, graduating from the University of Adelaide in 1938.

    He spent his spare time studying skulls with prehistorian Norman Tindale.

    Soon after graduating, he joined the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, serving in Egypt and Papua New Guinea. He is credited in part with Australia’s victory in New Guinea because of his work to control malaria among the troops.

    “That quite changed my interest from looking at skulls to microbiology and virology,” he says. But his later research in virology, focusing on pox viruses, took him also into epidemiology and population dynamics, and he would soon zoom out to view species, including our own, in their ecological context.

    His biological perspective is also geological.

    He wrote his first papers on the environment in the early 1970s, when human impact was emerging as a big problem.

    He says the Earth has entered the Anthropocene. Although it is not an official epoch on the geological timescale, the Anthropocene is entering scientific terminology. It spans the time since industrialisation, when our species started to rival ice ages and comet impacts in driving the climate on a planetary scale.

    Fenner says the real trouble is the population explosion and “unbridled consumption”.

    The number of Homo sapiens is projected to exceed 6.9 billion this year, according to the UN. With delays in firm action on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Fenner is pessimistic.

    “We’ll undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island,” he says. “Climate change is just at the very beginning. But we’re seeing remarkable changes in the weather already.

    “The Aborigines showed that without science and the production of carbon dioxide and global warming, they could survive for 40,000 or 50,000 years. But the world can’t. The human species is likely to go the same way as many of the species that we’ve seen disappear.

    “Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years,” he says. “A lot of other animals will, too. It’s an irreversible situation. I think it’s too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off.

    “Mitigation would slow things down a bit, but there are too many people here already.”

    It’s an opinion shared by some scientists but drowned out by the row between climate change sceptics and believers.

    Fenner’s colleague and long-time friend Stephen Boyden, a retired professor at the ANU, says there is deep pessimism among some ecologists, but others are more optimistic.

    “Frank may be right, but some of us still harbour the hope that there will come about an awareness of the situation and, as a result, the revolutionary changes necessary to achieve ecological sustainability,” says Boyden, an immunologist who turned to human ecology later in his career.

    “That’s where Frank and I differ. We’re both aware of the seriousness of the situation, but I don’t accept that it’s necessarily too late. While there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s worth working to solve the problem. We have the scientific knowledge to do it but we don’t have the political will.”

    Fenner will open the Healthy Climate, Planet and People symposium at the Australian Academy of Science next week, as part of the AAS Fenner conference series, which is designed to bridge the gap between environmental science and policy.

    In 1980, Fenner had the honour of announcing the global eradication of smallpox to the UN’s World Health Assembly. The disease is the only one to have been eradicated.

    Thirty years after that occasion, his outlook is vastly different as he contemplates the chaos of a species on the brink of mass extinction.

    “As the population keeps growing to seven, eight or nine billion, there will be a lot more wars over food,” he says.

    “The grandchildren of today’s generations will face a much more difficult world.”

    The link is: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/frank-fenner-sees-no-hope-for-humans/story-e6frgcjx-1225880091722

  10. There will come a time when the mighty ocean will
    dry up, vanish and be no more.
    There will come a time when the mighty earth will
    be devoured by fire, perish and be no more.

    But yet there will be no end to the suffering
    of beings roaming and wandering this round of rebirth,
    hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.

    – Gaddula Sutta “The Leash”, SN.22.99

  11. Claudia, it’s funny you read Bhante’s writing like this because I read it and took the overall message to be positive. I thought this especially prevalent in his closing paragraphs:

    “But it is always wrong to denigrate or despise our beautiful world for the sake of beyond. Samsara is always suffering; but it is our suffering, the world we have chosen to live in. Nibbana does not come about through destruction of this world, but by living well in it. This, precisely, is our practice of sila, the ground of the entire path.”

    Not knowing either of you personally if I can add some of my own words of wisdom and comments.

    All things in life caste a shadow. Where there is sunlight there is shadow. Free is the person who can look upon both light and dark, life and death, sunlight and shadow with equanimity for they know true peace.

    I feel Bhante speaks freely like a man noticing both good and bad on his journey, commentating as he goes and reminding us of the importance of our practice that can be found through contemplating each of these things. Whether there is sunlight or shadow he is reminding us that no matter how we live it is of uptmost importance to be mindful and be kind to each other.

    Try re-reading his post again in this light and see if the shadows in his words look different to you a second time around.

    With Metta,
    Dean Crabb

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