Buddhism in an Age of Manufactured Impermanence
Beautiful iris. Soon this photograph will be all that is left. Some might say the same of the Earth itself. That because nothing lasts, we shouldn’t care that much if fracking has become a worldwide activity, or species extinction is happening at an alarmingly fast pace these days, or that the rainforests that many of these disappearing species live in are also disappearing, being shredded for profit. It’s all inevitable, some say. I even here this kind of thing from some Buddhist practitioners, using the absolute side of the teachings to justify not attending to the care the relative side is calling us to do, especially when it comes to the non-human life on this planet.
Greed and utilitarianism seem to compete on a moment by moment basis with the recognition that the poisoned water is us. That the murdered pelicans are us. That the oil soaked land cannot possibly be separated from the marrow in our bones.
Many of you reading here know this already, and yet are our teachings really helping us to the do work we’re called to do? In particular, what is the role of Buddha’s impermanence teachings today?
What most of us call “modern civilization” is in the business of manufacturing impermanence. We create purposely defective products. We kill far, far more than we need to sustain ourselves. In the name of security, we blow up and poison everyone and everything in sight that is deemed a “threat.” In this worldview, dandelions are terrorists. Children murdered in war zones are collateral damage. Endless hours and dollars are expended on creating technology whose sole purpose is to kill, eliminate, obliterate.
In the climate we live in, the impermanence teachings of the Buddha ancestors feel pretty impotent after a certain point. They might be of great help in creating a certain freedom of the mind. However, when applied too much to the social/world context, they become little more than reinforcement for the nihilism that’s behind all the murder and destruction. It doesn’t really matter that the teachings themselves are not at all nihilistic. The subtleties are too easily swamped, the raft too easily sunk.
This majestic oak tree has thrived in a park near my house for longer than most of the residents in St. Paul, myself included, have been alive. Someday, like everything else, it too will die. Will it die of natural causes, or will humans take its life for some mundane or sinister purpose?
There’s not enough love of the non-human world in much of modern Buddhism. Especially Empire Buddhism – that which thrives part in parcel with colonialism and the capitalist economies it spawned. Sure, we talk about love sometimes. But almost always with a healthy dose of non-attachment as a side dish, or even main dish. It’s as if we do not trust the process of learning and awakening that comes with the maturation of love. Instead of living through the needed ferociousness of passionate attachment during love’s formative years, too many of us opt either to be detached wallflowers or stunted puppies who endlessly miss the opportunities to grow out of infantile attachments that can’t possibly help us to serve the world.
Ironically, I think it’s time for some manufactured impermanence. Only instead of directing it at all the things that sustain life, let’s direct it at all the things that destroy life.
For Empire Buddhism, this might mean burning down some of the cozy huts and being willing to step into an attachment to the well-being of the planet that we accept is desperately needed, even if it’s a hindrance to “individual” enlightenment. It may also mean a need to tip the scales away from focusing on the impermanence teachings. Or to reconsider how to offer these teachings in a more targeted way, so that their profundity doesn’t just become another cliche in service of destruction. One way to begin to address this is to stop seeking balance. Perhaps emphasizing impermanence when speaking about mind states, for example, but emphasizing protective love when speaking about social concerns and the planet.
What good are the bodhisattva teachings if we aren’t willing to wildly apply them to the very Earth that gives each us our breath? Doesn’t it strike you that without a planetary focus, all our efforts to help other humans won’t amount to too much more than rearranging chairs on the Titanic?
Do not take that last question as minimizing human service and support of other humans. That, too, is always needed. And no doubt for many, it will be the main, if not sole focus of their efforts in life.
What I’m saying is that on a collective level, it’s necessary, but not sufficient anymore. We no longer can be a self absorbed species, endlessly living out a collective adolescence. That is, we can’t continue doing so without serious, most likely dire consequences as a result.
And in my view, this includes Buddhism itself. Which means not only doing the advocating for social and environmental justice issues we do here at BPF, but also taking a serious look at how we’re using the teachings, and also coming to an understanding that they, too, are probably not sufficient. That in order to awaken from this collective nightmare, we’re going to need to grow Buddhism itself. And by “we,” I mean anyone on the path around the globe.
True interdependence beyond lineages, partisan conflicts, and national borders is what is needed now. Even if, in the process, what we know of as “Buddhism” ceases to be.
*Photos by author