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.