Crazy wisdom always tries to tell the truth, so I’ll begin by saying that I don’t know what is going on here, in this life and in this world. I don’t know any more than anyone else about why we humans are here, or what we are supposed to be doing while we’re here, and I have no clue as to why we seem to be screwing things up so badly on our planet. My intuition is that we are being tested, perhaps by some god or goddess, Mother Nature, the great scientist in the sky, whomever or whatever—to see if we have the ability to override our instinctual programming and survive our own desires and fears. Maybe we are competing with the conscious life on other planets to see who can survive the longest, and the winner gets a big prize. If our Earth team is going to win, or if we simply want to keep going for a little while longer, we humans had better wake up and smell the CO2. The wolf is now at the door, stopping by on its way to extinction.
We are living in the midst of a biological disaster, one whose consequences will make our economic struggles and nationalist wars seem like petty diversions. When trying to convey the gravitas of the situation I usually point to research that says we are now going through the fourth or fifth largest species die-off in evolutionary history. The naturalists call it an “extinction spasm,” which conjures an image of the Earth itself shivering and convulsing from serious infection.
Recently I read an article on page six of the San Francisco Chronicle under the headline “Humans’ Basic Needs Destroying Planet Rapidly.” (The front page of that day’s Chronicle was devoted to more important stories.) The article cites the results of a four-year United Nations study, “The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,” which found that humans have “ruined approximately sixty percent of Earth’s ecological systems to meet our demands for food, fresh water, timber and fuel.” We have discovered a problem, and it is us.
When I reflect on our predicament, I think, We have to do everything in our power to stop the destruction of the Earth’s life and the biological systems that support it. At the same time, another part of me says, We have to learn to let it all go. I live with those two seemingly paradoxical impulses, just as I assume others do in this post-postmodern world. For one thing, we now have knowledge of hundreds of billions of solar systems like our own. So perhaps this planet, and our own existence, is not as significant as we have always wished and believed it to be. Besides, isn’t everything perfectly natural, part of the grand unfolding of cosmic karma? Or, as the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu once asked, “Do you really think you can take over the universe and improve it?”
The Buddha wanted us to break free of our attachment to this realm of samsara, and even to life itself. He proclaims that this human incarnation is indeed “precious,” but the main reason is because as a human we can become enlightened and escape another birth. If the Pali Canon can be believed, the goal of the Buddha’s path is to become a “nonreturner.” When it comes to life, the Buddha was no romantic, that’s for sure.
So what to do? Should we try our best to preserve the experiment of life on Earth, or just try to get ourselves off the wheel? What resolves the dilemma for most of us is Mother Nature herself, who boldly writes out directions in our DNA, the primary command being simple: “Survive!” We will struggle for survival—however we envision the necessary action—because that’s what we are built to do.
Ironically, for all of previous human history our survival instinct had us spending our time and energy trying to protect ourselves from nature, and now suddenly we are called on to protect nature from us. (But of course, we are nature, so who’s leading in this dance anyway?)
Meanwhile, some would even say we are lucky to have a planetary crisis on our watch. As my eco-Buddhist activist friend Joanna Macy says, “Rejoice! Opportunities to become a bodhisattva are extremely plentiful right now!” If you devote yourself to the cause of life on Earth, you will get to exercise your heart and learn how to love beyond the small circumference of self and family. Furthermore, becoming an environmentalist is a way of acknowledging our dependent co-arising and can therefore be seen as a path of self-liberation. So, you can help to preserve life on Earth and get off the wheel at the same time!
Of course, I can’t say specifically what you should be doing to help. Each of us has our own temperament and talent and has to decide how best to use them. However, while you try to save the world, I do suggest that you keep a big perspective in your pocket at all times, ready to be unfurled in your head at a moment’s notice. The big perspective is your view-glue, the spiritual stick-um that connects you to everything else and inspires both your effort and your humility. It carries your intuitive understanding that you are part of it all, and so are they, the people whom the Dalai Lama calls “my friends, the enemy.” If your big picture does not talk about the big love, then it won’t transform anything.
The big perspective also reminds us that nature is one tough mother, and that life has so far survived the collision of continents, mountain ranges erupting in volcanoes, murderously cold ice ages, the plague, Attila the Hun, and even Henry Kissinger. So there is reason for optimism. I also took heart the other day when a friend who is an expert on Hindu prophecy told me that there are only 470,000 years left in the Kali Yuga, the current era of destruction. Whew! We’ve turned the corner.
Meanwhile, I do have some specific advice for the politicians in Washington. For one thing, instead of trying to create a new “intelligence” agency, what they should be working on is a Department of Wisdom, a government agency that would be staffed by philosophers, anthropologists, historians, poets and even a few mystics—people who see the world in a different way than the economists, generals and senators. Although the political right may currently be in charge, our real oppressor is the “left-brain” government. A Department of Wisdom just might provide some critical balance of powers.
If I were in the Department of Wisdom, I would call for an immediate moratorium on progress, to last at least a half-century. We’ve had a whole lot of progress in the last couple of centuries, and although it brought us pain-killing drugs, space telescopes and Velcro, it appears we can no longer keep up with our own ingenuity. We need to relax, deeply, and let our hearts and minds catch up with our tool-making ability, which has gotten way “out of hand.” What we need is a century of less doing and more being. The next revolution is a big slowdown.
So keep sitting. That will keep your big perspective on active alert, and will also help to reduce global warming. And don’t forget to keep your sense of humor dry and ready. Otherwise, do what you can. As an old radio announcer used to say, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”