Artwork by Candy Jerniagan.

Worlds on worlds are rolling ever
From creation to decay,
Like the bubbles on a river
Sparkling, bursting, borne away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley

SO PROFOUND is the largely human-caused contraction of plant and animal life on this planet that biologists are now referring to the current period as the beginning of the Sixth Great Extinction.

In the recovery periods that followed each of the five earlier mass extinctions on earth, greater richness and diversity of life was the result. But, as renowned Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson explains, each of these recoveries took hundreds of millions of years. Parallel to this scientific view is the ancient pan-Indian notion of kalpas, periods of time divided into four stages: the birth, growth, and death of a universe, and its subsequent return to chaos. Buddhism and the scientific community converge in their assessment that the earth is impermanent, owing to, at least in the eyes of science, the eventual implosion of the sun. Perched as we are on the edge of a biotic holocaust, it has become easier for Buddhists and nonBuddhists alike to recognize the transitory nature of life.

Coming to terms with death, whether it is one’s own, others’, or that of a species, puts one directly in the face of primordial Buddhist truths: life is impermanent, without inherent or enduring substance, and it involves suffering. Ancient Buddhist theory posited that “real” objects are simply transient states, momentary links between illusions of the past and illusions of the future. And when this absolute view is applied to the current ecological crisis, certain questions arise: Does Buddhism have a problem with extinction in general or with the Sixth Great Extinction in particular? How does Buddhism inform our understanding of extinction? What is to be learned from living in the shadow of our own annihilation?

One way to start trying to find an answer is to determine whether Buddhism considers life to be at all sacred. In Sanskrit, nirvana, the goal of Buddhist practice, is defined literally as “extinction.” The etymology of its Pali equivalent,nibbana, reveals two root words, one relating to the extinguishing of a fire: va (“to blow”), and the other to desire, vana(“weaving,” or “craving after life”). Ni is a particle implying negation. Could the pursuit of nirvana be regarded as a kind of death wish? To escape samsara, the wheel of life and death, one tries to extinguish the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, and to break through the veil of illusion into enlightenment. With this achieved, promised the Buddha, there is no rebirth. Death is seen as a friend, teaching one to live completely in the present, full of confidence and free from fear.

The end of existence—at least from a Theravadin view—can be seen as a relatively good thing. But would it be considered good to actually desire nonexistence or consciously acquiesce to extinction? No; that would be vibhava tanha (Pali), a known barrier to the way. Suicide, for instance, is seen as something that does not free an aspirant but only produces more desire and can lead to the lower realms.

So life is precious, for it is only life—particularly the condition of human life—in which one can attain enlightenment. And animal life, as the ancient Jataka tales illustrate, is precious too, for it has clearly been a gateway to Buddhahood. In one of the earliest texts known, the Sutta-Nipata, Buddha urged his followers:

Know the grasses and the trees . . . then know the worms, and the moths, and the different sort of ants. . . know also the fourfooted animals small and great. . . the fish which range in the water. . . the birds that are borne along on wings and move through the air. . .

Buddhism emphasizes the community of beings over the individual. And yet the individual being is itself a metaphor for community. A series of conditions must come together for the individual to arise: water, air, fire, and earth link to create an interlocking community of processes. Inside the body itself live millions of communities of smaller beings, working together to ensure the host’s survival.

And even if the actual rising and falling of life in the world is viewed in the light of Buddhism as not being a terribly exigent matter, compassion for the numberless beings that will inevitably undergo immense suffering upon their extinction is of great concern. Implicit in Buddhist compassion is a genuine awareness and deep acceptance of things as they truly are, painful as that may be. From this soil of clarity and connection, compassion is said to arise of itself.

Buddhist liberation is dependent on awareness of each of the twelve interlinking causes in the chain of being (paticca-samuppada). The attainment of this awareness (panna) is inalterably conditioned on the practice of ethics (sila) and the purification of mind (samadhi). Not killing, in light of the perception of the interpenetration of all beings, is as natural as not stabbing ourselves. This expanded sense of self, or what the Japanese call jibun no naka ni aite o ireru, or literally “putting other inside oneself,” is a quality most revered in Buddhist ethics. A familiar line of inquiry in Buddha’s teachings was: Do these actions produce suffering? Can we find other ways so that this pain and suffering do not befall sentient beings?

Chebek, 1990, colored pencil on paper


That seventeen animal species vanish every hour is in itself not nearly as startling as the fact that we continue to be so unmoved by its reiteration. We know that every species depends on many others, often in such complex ways that it is impossible to predict the chain of extinctions brought on by the disappearance of one lesser-known species. Extinction is ultimately a problem of human consciousness; to save the animals, we need to save ourselves.

One of the difficulties in grasping the enormity of the problem is its novelty: this is the first truly planetary ecological crisis in human history. Human beings have never experienced a three- to four-degree change in the average global temperature within one lifetime. There is little comprehension of what the repercussions might be in terms of agriculture, plant biology, and animal habitat. As Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once said, people, as well as nations, seem to behave wisely only after it is clear they have exhausted all other alternatives.

Governments of most nations are slow to acknowledge the extent of extinction and to plan for the environmental changes ahead. Those that are willing and able find themselves hampered by the rise of a global network of multinational corporations that are serving to effectively blur the meaning of nationstates, manipulating and packaging the information we depend on, and controlling the images that drive our vision of the future. The value system guiding their actions maintains that a country can cut its forests, erode its soils, pollute its air, and hunt its game into extinction without affecting its GNP. Impoverishment is taken for progress.

Clearly we will have to do more than keep our thermostats low in order to effect what has been called “the great U-turn” toward ecological sanity. To survive, our vision of the future must include building need-based sustainable economies to replace greed-based growth economies. Despite growing awareness that what we buy, where we shop, and what we eat has far more effect on the world than our votes, even more fundamental change is indicated. Finally, we come to terms with our complicity in the wanton devastation of nature—as well as the prospect of self-extinction—through the rigorous practice of self-transformation.

Artwork by Candy Jerniagan.

Witnessing death galvanized the Buddha’s developing resolve to be awakened. Perhaps as human culture glides closer to the time when the full impact of our ecological decline must be faced, this same transformational process will occur on a global scale. But for the moment, our society functions as if this life is all there is and that death is the unspeakable end. All the goodwill and restorative work in the world will do nothing to stem the tide of extinction without modification in the way we frame our perception. The Buddhist remedy for this is the cultivation of mindfulness and the awareness that humanity is an inseparable component of the natural world.

Perhaps it is ironic that Buddhism, a practice and philosophy that so deeply challenges reified perceptions of life and self, may hold the most promise for effecting the change in psycho-spiritual consciousness required to make a sustainable future for all living things a real possibility. Buddhist practice prepares us to glimpse the preciousness and immediacy of life so that our oneness with nature can be a felt experience.

But the greatest irony may be that the most powerful teaching of Buddhist principles, as well as ecological ones, is the very instrument of our destruction: the poisoning of our mutual resources leads inescapably to the recognition of interdependence; the rupture of the atmospheric membrane between life and the solar inferno liberates us from the myth of our separateness. Confronting this extinction is the final opportunity to learn the dharma of interpenetration and impermanence.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .