The Buddha poses a simple but provocative question to us all when he asks in the Sunakkhata Sutta:
Suppose there were a bronze cup of beverage possessing a good color, smell, and taste, but it was mixed with poison, and a man came who wanted to live, not to die, who wanted pleasure and recoiled from pain. What do you think, would that man drink that cup of beverage, knowing: “If I drink this I will incur death or deadly suffering”?
–Majjhima Nikaya 105
The rational answer is, “No, of course not.” But we are not really rational creatures, are we? Often enough the actual answer is, “Yes, of course.” We are all going to die anyway, the rationale goes, so we might as well enjoy the sweet taste of life while we can, and never mind the consequences.
It seems to me that this closely describes the situation we are in regarding climate change. As inhabitants of the modern world, we all drink from the cup as we consume precious resources and spew waste into the air and water. The gratification of the lifestyle this enables is so compelling, we ignore the danger of the harm we are causing to ourselves and others.
Delusion is not exactly the same as ignorance. One might be ignorant of the fact that the cup is filled with poison, but in the scenario posed by the Buddha we are told of this fact. One might presume that as soon as we learned of the danger we would instinctively cast the cup down: this would show the triumph of wisdom over ignorance. But for those who continue to drink even while knowing the truth of the situation, a willful disregard is required. Delusion in this case might take such forms as refusing to acknowledge the effects of our actions; assuming that the consequences of our behavior will ripen in the distant future rather than sooner; believing that some miraculous intervention may appear to make it all OK; or impugning the veracity of the person who has informed us about the poison.
Four in ten Americans don’t believe that climate change is mostly human-caused. However, if accepting the science of it resulted in large tax breaks or some other tangible benefit, I’m willing to bet that people would line up to trumpet what the scientists are telling us. It is not the truth itself that is so unsavory, but the consequences of acknowledging the truth. We know well enough that the poison is killing us; we just don’t want to stop drinking it, because it tastes so good. Any remnant of “plausible deniability,” however slender, will suffice to ward off having to commit to behavior change.
It works in the other direction as well. There are some things so uncomfortable that we are simply not willing to tolerate them, even though we know they are good for us. The Buddha also asks if we’d drink from a foul-tasting cup (containing fermented urine, among other things) if we knew it would heal us. It is the foul taste of restraint that the climate change deniers are desperate to avoid.
This is the insidious power of craving that the Buddha exposes in his teaching. The pleasure/pain reflex is so strong in us that it overrides our reasoning and compels us to act against our own welfare. Between attachment to the pleasure and aversion to the pain, we are helpless in the grip of our desire. Like the lab rat at the opioid lever, we will gratify ourselves into oblivion.
Our emancipation resides in the ability to have the more evolved parts of the human psyche capable of wisdom override the more primitive elements driven by desire. Wisdom will tell us what is healthy and unhealthy, through a careful analysis of the way things are: understanding cause and effect; mapping out the interdependence of all events; acknowledging the ubiquity of impermanence; penetrating the origin and cessation of suffering; recognizing the liberating nature of nonself. But we need to give wisdom a chance.
The problem is that craving blocks out wisdom. It is not possible to see things as they actually are when in the grips of favoring and opposing things, for we will always project what we want onto experience and block out what we don’t want through denial. The immediate antidote to craving is equanimity, the neutral point between wanting and not wanting, which can be accessed through moments of mindfulness. When we are capable, even for an instant, of simply being with what is happening instead of being hooked onto it, we are capable of loosening the bonds of desire.
Science is a collective form of equanimity, committed to seeing things as they are objectively, apart from our passions. It offers our best chance of survival, not because it will invent a technological fix but because it can help us see what is really going on. As the Buddha sums things up:
There is a way of undertaking things that is pleasant now and ripens in the future as pain, and there is a way of undertaking things that is painful now and ripens in the future as pleasure.
–Majjhima Nikaya 46
Perhaps when we pause to catch our breath, between gulps of sweet poison, we may glimpse the peril into which we are willfully placing ourselves and choose a wiser course.
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