The ecological crisis has sharpened my understanding of the buddhadharma’s teachings on impermanence. Usually we take this teaching on a mundane, everyday level–such as the inevitable rounds of birth, life, old age, and death. But what about the impermanence of the human species? Johanna Macy, in recent interview, makes some illuminating comments on this.
EB: From where do you derive the psychic resources to bear witness to all this, while keeping in touch with joy?
JM: There’s a lot of joy in it. I find myself very buoyed by the work I do. I call it the work that re-connects. It involves speaking the truth about what we are facing. I think it’s very hard for people to do that alone, so this work thrives and requires groups.
It needs to be done in groups so we can hear it from each other. Then you realize that it gives a lie to the isolation we have been conditioned to experience in recent centuries, and especially by this hyper-individualist consumer society. People can graduate from their sense of isolation, into a realization of their inter-existence with all.
Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure. In all great adventures there comes a time when the little band of heroes feels totally outnumbered and bleak, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. You learn to say “It looks bleak. Big deal, it looks bleak.”
Our little minds think it must be over, but the very fact that we are seeing it is enlivening. And we know we can’t possibly see the whole thing, because we are just one part of a vast interdependent whole–one cell in a larger body. So we don’t take our own perceptions as the ultimate. My world view has been so interwoven between the Buddhist teachings and living systems theory. They inform each other so powerfully.
“Beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them all”. This may be the last gasp of life on Earth, and what a great last gasp, if we realize we have fallen in love with each other. If you are really in the moment of experiencing our reality, you don’t say “Oh I won’t experience this because it’s not going to last forever!” You’ve got this moment. It’s true for now. We can have a reasoned concern about what is down the track, without necessarily getting hooked on something having to endure.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a few years back, made a similar point that went straight into my heart when I first read it. He said:
If 6C degrees take place, another 95 per cent of species will die out, including Homo sapiens. That is why we have to learn to touch eternity with our in breath and out breath. Extinction of species has happened several times. Mass extinction has already happened five times and this one is the sixth. According to the Buddhist tradition there is no birth and no death. After extinction things will reappear in other forms, so you have to breathe very deeply in order to acknowledge the fact that we humans may disappear in just 100 years on earth. You have to learn how to accept that hard fact. You should not be overwhelmed by despair. The solution is to learn how to touch eternity in the present moment. We have been talking about the environment as if it is something different from us, but we are the environment. The non-human elements are our environment, but we are the environment of non-human elements, so we are one with the environment. We are the environment. We are the earth and the earth has the capacity to restore balance and sometimes many species have to disappear for the balance restored. Maybe the flood, maybe the heat, maybe the air.
The teachings of the buddhadharma are unflinchingly honest and realistic in ways that stagger my mind. They are reality slapping you in the face–the real sound of one hand clapping.