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?
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