‘Everything,” declared Gotama at the opening of the Fire Sermon in the 5th century BCE, “is burning.” On reading these words today I cannot but think of the steady warming of the delicate atmosphere that envelops this planet. Disquietingly prophetic, Gotama understood how the forces that drive most human endeavor are like consuming fires. “Burning with what?” he asked. “With the fire of greed, the fire of dislike, the fire of stupidity.” And he understood a world ablaze with these fires to be barren, arid, a wasteland where nothing grows or flourishes.
Until the advent of modern industrial technologies, the destructive impact of these fires was largely contained within human lives and societies. In the struggle among species for survival and dominance, greed, dislike, and stupidity contributed to the extinction of other human and animal species but did not yet threaten the biosphere as a whole. That started to change in late 18th-century Europe, with the beginnings of modern capitalism and the industrial revolution. Human craving and fear were now able to employ increasingly efficient and powerful technologies to achieve their goals. Coupled with colonialism, legitimated by the biblical injunction to “subdue” the earth and “have dominion over every living thing,” their impact became global. Today, “Everything is burning” is no longer a metaphor but a reality.
It is easy to be dazzled by space probes that photograph the rings of Saturn or computers that perform two hundred quadrillion calculations per second. These technological feats, however, can blind us to the nature of technology itself. For the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, the essence of technology lay in the particular way human beings have come to frame their relationship with the natural world. Writing in 1955, Heidegger described this framing as “a completely new relation of man to the world and his place in it. The world now appears as an object open to the attacks of calculative thought, attacks that nothing is believed any longer able to resist. Nature becomes a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.”
This technological mindset requires us to imagine ourselves as disconnected from the natural world in which we are embedded. Such alienation allows us to regard the world either as a resource for the gratification of our longings or as a set of problems to be solved for the alleviation of our discontents. The machinery of technology—from Internet shopping to jumbo jets—provides the tools needed to achieve these goals with maximum speed and efficiency. Yet according to Heidegger we live in a technological age not because these tools are so widely available but because our minds have been taken over by a way of thinking to which we remain largely oblivious.
It does not strike contemporary Buddhists as strange to think of meditation as a spiritual technology or a science of the mind. Many do not seem to register the intimate connection between the words technology and technique. The website dhamma.org, that of an influential and respected Vipassana movement, presents vipassana as “one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation,” then defines it as a “non-sectarian technique that aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation” (my italics). The natural world from which the meditator distances herself through mindfulness is now that of her own physical, emotional, and mental experience. She is then in a position to identify the “mental impurities” that generate her unhappiness and apply an efficient technique for their “total eradication.” Human suffering is thus conceived as a problem to be solved through the correct application of an inner technology.
The Burmese Buddhist reformers who developed the techniques of vipassana meditation at the beginning of the 20th century adopted in part the rationalistic language of their British colonial rulers. They would have found such a way of thinking well adapted to their own understanding of the path to enlightenment. The doctrine of the four noble truths also presents suffering as a problem that can be solved by the application of spiritual techniques. Buddhist traditions conceive of the practice of the dharma within the frame of medical treatment. The doctor (the Buddha) diagnoses what is wrong with you (birth, sickness, aging, death), determines its causes (craving and ignorance), offers a cure (nirvana), and prescribes a course of therapy (the eightfold path), which, if successfully followed, leads to the complete end of suffering.
Buddhism may ring true for many today because it is seems so well suited to a technological mindset. It can thereby also serve to blind us further to the nature of technology and its hold over us. Heidegger would not have been surprised by the commodification and instrumentalization of mindfulness. “Yet it is not that the world is becoming entirely technical which is really uncanny,” he remarks. “Far more uncanny is our being unprepared for this transformation, our inability to confront contemplatively what is really dawning in this age.”
As he witnessed the nuclear arms race in the 1950s, Heidegger admitted that his deepest concern was not the outbreak of nuclear war. For him the greater danger was that the calculative thinking of technology would one day come to prevail as “the only way of thinking.” Were this to happen, he argued, we would lose what is most essentially human about us: that we are “contemplative beings.” The most urgent task of humanity at this time of crisis was, for the philosopher, that of “keeping contemplative thinking alive.”
To think in a more contemplative way means to slow down and recover our rootedness on Earth, which allows us to ponder and question what kind of beings we are and how best to live in this world. Heidegger called this kind of questioning the “piety of thinking.” At the heart of such contemplation lies the need to become more aware of our technological relationship to nature. This technical approach has proved so successful in everything from building skyscrapers to eliminating polio that many today regard it as simply the most reasonable way to conduct their lives. As a result, they find themselves treating life itself—and their own lives in particular—as problems to be solved by application of the right techniques.
For another 20th-century philosopher, the French writer Gabriel Marcel, our existential condition of having been born and being subject to death is not a problem to be eradicated but a mystery to be embraced. A problem, for Marcel, always stands apart from the one confronting it, whereas a mystery is inseparable from the one who embraces it. As the person who falls sick, ages, and is destined to die, I cannot stand outside these processes in order to treat them as problems to be solved. Instead, I can open myself to the mystery of being here and embrace it in wordless astonishment. Unlike a problem, which vanishes as soon as it is solved, the more deeply we penetrate a mystery the more mysterious it becomes.
In coming to view life through the lens of technology, we risk losing a sense of our unfathomable poignancy and strangeness. In order to manipulate technically the physical and mental elements of our world, they need to appear to us as discrete, definable, readily graspable objects. Only then can we confidently embark on bending them to our will. “A world where techniques are paramount,” remarked Marcel, “is a world given over to desire and fear; because every technique is there to serve some desire or fear.” Heidegger was concerned that a world dominated by technology would accelerate out of control and overwhelm us. In the 1950s he hoped that humanity might wake up to this danger and recover a more contemplative relationship with life before it was too late. As the power and reach of industrial technologies expanded relentlessly, he lost this hope. In an interview conducted in 1966 that was published after his death in 1976, he remarked: “Now only a god can save us.”
Three years later, in 1979, the first governmental climate study reported that, at current rates, carbon emissions from human activities would increase the average surface temperature of the globe by between 2.0 and 3.5 degrees Celsius, doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2030, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
‘Whoever would tend to me,” said Gotama to a group of followers who had neglected one among them suffering from dysentery, “he should tend to the sick.” On arriving at the community, Gotama and his attendant Ananda had entered a lodging to find a mendicant lying alone on the floor in a pool of his own excrement. They bathed and cleaned him, lifted him up and laid him on a couch. Gotama then reproached the other mendicants for failing in their ethical obligations to one of their own.
In identifying himself with the sick mendicant, Gotama implies that the awakening he embodies and advocates is rooted in our capacity to care for the specific suffering of others. The episode shows this care to be a spontaneous, empathetic, and heartfelt act. It demonstrates how a healer would respond to the urgency of another person’s suffering rather than provide an abstract diagnosis of why that person is in pain. In his discourses, too, we often find Gotama evoking the hands-on skill of a physician to illustrate how to practice the dharma.
Gotama invited his followers to engage in an interconnected set of four tasks. These tasks challenge us to embrace suffering, let our reactive emotions be, see the stopping of reactivity, and respond with care. When facing a climate emergency that threatens the viability of intelligent life on Earth, this would entail embracing the possibility of extinction, not being paralyzed by the fear of extinction, dwelling in a space of fearless awareness, and, from there, responding appropriately to the threats that face us and future generations. The four tasks flesh out what it means to care. For Gotama, care is the cardinal virtue that encompasses all others. His final recorded words were: “Things fall apart; tread the path with care.”
To practice such care does not require believing in rebirth and the law of karma, or insisting that craving is the cause of suffering and nirvana its cessation. Such beliefs can stand in the way of a wholehearted engagement with the threat of ecological catastrophe. During an interview in 1989, when asked whether a Buddhist would be concerned about environmental destruction, the Dalai Lama replied: “A Buddhist would say it doesn’t matter.” For even if the world were to become uninhabitable and mass extinction ensued, the sentient beings who perished would be reborn according to their karma in another realm in this or some other universe. Buddhists may well feel deep compassion for those who suffer the consequences of climate change and may do their best to alleviate that suffering, but in the end some form of consciousness will survive death and be reborn. What really matters is to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth and attain the eternal peace of nirvana.
For orthodox Buddhists (like Hindus and Jains), not to be born and not to die are preferable to birth and death. As the end of suffering, nirvana, therefore, is also the end of life. While Mahayana Buddhists renounce nirvana and vow to be reborn out of compassion for others, they do so only as long as there are sentient beings still trapped in the cycle of birth and death. Once the bodhisattva has liberated all these beings, she too enters nirvana and is born no more. Although this may take an immeasurably long time, the same underlying principle holds true: not-life is preferable to life.
The four tasks, by contrast, demand direct engagement with life itself irrespective of any a priori beliefs about the origins and end of suffering or the nature of the self. By entering into a contemplative, empathetic, and existential relationship with the pain of the world, one seeks to respond with situation-specific compassion. The challenge is to tackle the crisis at hand, which may be unprecedented, and find imaginative responses that may not have occurred to anyone before. Taking into account the causal role played by psychological factors such as greed, dislike, and stupidity, one’s primary concern is to arrive at a response based on an understanding of the full range of particular conditions—biological, social, economic, religious, and political—that underlie and contribute to the crisis.
A traditional Buddhist meditation on death requires that you contemplate the certainty of your own death and the uncertainty of its time, and then dwell on the question of how, given this mortal condition, you should live now. Expanding this personal reflection to include Homo sapiens as a species, the meditation would look like this:
Extinction is certain;
The time of extinction is uncertain;
How should we live now?
Extinction is certain. Either the human species will evolve into a form of life that we cannot now even imagine, or, if we manage to survive in a more or less humanoid form, we will be wiped out when the sun becomes too hot to sustain life on Earth in around a billion years’ time. Yet neither of these scenarios is certain. A massive meteor impact, a highly virulent disease, volcanic eruptions, nuclear devastation, or the repercussions of climate change could terminate human existence much sooner, possibly within this century.
Just as death focuses attention on what matters most for you as an individual, extinction focuses attention on what matters most for us as a species. In embracing extinction, we become intensely conscious that we are complex thinking, feeling, sensing, caring creatures who emerged from millions of years of evolution by natural selection. For self-aware animals like you and me, to contemplate extinction can open up an astonished, quasi-religious wonder at the grandeur of being alive at all.
Yet for Buddhists, is life worth living for its own sake? Is the emergence and evolution of life, from a tadpole to a silverback gorilla, to be cherished as a good in and of itself? Or is this “precious human rebirth” to be cherished solely because it enables one to break free from the meaningless repetitions of samsara (from hell to heaven and back ad infinitum) and attain nirvana, at which point birth and death are no more?
In his recent book This Life, the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund distinguishes between “secular faith” and “religious faith.” These represent two radically different conceptions of what matters most to human beings. “The most fundamental form of secular faith,” writes Hägglund, “is the faith that life is worth living, which is intrinsic to all forms of care.” To embrace such faith is “to be devoted to a life that will end, to be dedicated to projects that can fail or break down.” It entails recognizing that what we most care about might be lost, thereby causing us grief and pain. The religious conception of faith is the opposite of this. It requires that the object of faith be something that can never fail you or let you down. “To have religious faith,” explains Hägglund, “is to disown our secular faith in a fragile form of life. Religious faith holds that our ultimate aim should be to transcend the finitude we share.”
For Hägglund, what unites the faiths of the world’s religions is not belief in a personal or impersonal God but the ideal of “a peaceful state of eternity,” where you are “liberated from the risk of losing what you love.” Hägglund regards the Buddhist goal of nirvana, where one is freed forever from birth and death, as “a clear and consistent version of the religious ideal of eternity.” Were one to attain such salvation or liberation, then nothing would matter any more for either the Christian saint or Buddhist arahant. They “literally would not care.”
His analysis of faith leads Hägglund to conclude that “our ecological crisis can be taken seriously only from the standpoint of secular faith,” for secular faith alone “can be committed to the flourishing of finite life—sustainable forms of life on Earth—as an end in itself.” But if Hägglund is right, how then does one account for the presence of Jewish rabbis, Christian priests, and Buddhist monastics, people of deep religious faith, at the forefront of campaigns to save the planet from ecocide?
Rather than view secular faith and religious faith as irreconcilable opposites, we could consider them as the two poles of a spectrum. In practice, the yearning for transcendence is quite able to coexist with a passionate love of the world. In the course of a single day we may find ourselves shifting back and forth between our secular and our religious concerns. At times of a health crisis or ecological emergency, the nun may leave her silent prayers to heed the call of a secular faith that is rooted in her body, emotions, and instincts. Yet to justify this behavior in terms of her religious faith may not make much sense. Her outward actions alone will not magically absolve her from underlying contradictions in her thinking.
If I am to take this crisis with the seriousness I feel it deserves, then I need to align my thoughts and actions. I require a coherent worldview to provide a rational and ethical foundation for my behavior. Otherwise there will always be room for escape clauses—If the campaign fails, the good karma of having been part of it will lead me to a better rebirth—that can excuse me from commitment to the survival of life on Earth.
Since I began this essay in early 2020, the world has been engulfed in the coronavirus pandemic. I am confined to my home in the French countryside. The streets of my village are deserted. Each time I leave the house I must fill out a form to explain where I am going and why. As a 67-year-old male, I am in a high risk group: were I to be infected by the virus, I could soon be dead of pneumonia or organ failure. (As I type these words, the invisible enemy may already be multiplying inside me. COVID-19 is utterly indifferent to my needs and desires.)
Amid all the fear, contagion, and death, I am overwhelmed by the silence around me. With the abrupt halt of economic activity, the distant background thrum of traffic and industry has ceased. Every morning I awake to an eternal Sunday. I hear the blackbirds sing more sweetly. It is as though nature is able to breathe again. On paying closer attention, I notice how something has quieted down inside me too. I realize how the vast technological apparatus that drives global capitalism had me firmly in its grip. As my teaching engagements are canceled and the planes that would fly me to their venues grounded, I find that I am released from that relentless urgency to be going somewhere to do something. I had justified my busy schedule as an altruistic commitment to serve others. Now I can see how it also served to keep the wheels of global capitalism in motion.
The emergence and rapid spread of the novel coronavirus are consequences of the same human behavior that is causing the heating of the biosphere. The capitalist demand for endless economic growth, the industrial-scale technologies that enable such growth, the ever-increasing populations of workers packed into megacities, the continuous expansion of globalized transport, and the craving to eat the flesh of other species have all contributed to the ease with which this virus has infected humans and proliferated worldwide. One can no more blame the virus for the thousands of deaths it has caused than one can blame the carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere for the climate crisis.
Lockdown allows a breathing space to consider the tragic absurdity of our existence. By letting the chatter of our fears and anxieties subside, we can hear the inner silence of our soul. As we breathe more easily, we can reexamine our lives from a space of nonreactive awareness. Do we really want to be complicit in a consumerist lifestyle that is driving thousands of species to extinction? Do we wish to be part of an economic system that condemns millions of people to repetitive, meaningless work? Do we need even a fraction of the items we are daily encouraged to purchase, briefly enjoy, then discard? Do we like living in a world where a tiny minority control most of its resources and wealth, condemning millions to social exclusion and poverty? Do we want to contribute to making this planet uninhabitable each time we board another long flight to an overhyped tourist destination? If the answer to these questions is no, then we face the most challenging question of all: How are we to live together in this world?
From the perspective of the ancestral mother goddess Gaia, human beings are like a virus infecting the Earth. They replicate remorselessly, then strive to occupy every habitable niche on the surface of the planet. Their insatiable desires lead to the burning of rain forests, the destruction of coral reefs, the contamination of oceans with plastic waste. Yet even when humans start to realize how much damage their actions are inflicting on the environment, they continue to generate actions as detrimental to the Earth as the coronavirus is to the human body.
The English word virus comes from the Latin virus, which means “poison.” When a virus penetrates a living cell, it transforms that cell into a factory to reproduce itself, thereby “poisoning” the host organism. Buddhism often describes the fires of greed, dislike, and stupidity as three poisons. As soon as one of these poisons gains a foothold in one’s mind, it too proliferates and overwhelms. Like physical viruses, these mental poisons keep replicating themselves. From Gotama’s perspective, the most insidious pandemic is the one that has always been with us but that we fail to notice. As a physician, Gotama treats this viral reactivity by prescribing the “medicine” of the dharma and establishing a mutually supportive community of carers.
In 1998, the Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Buddhadasa wrote an essay entitled “Nirvana for Everyone.” His aim was to dislodge nirvana from its lofty spiritual pedestal and bring it firmly back down to earth. “Nirvana,” he said, “has become a secret that no one cares about . . . buried away in the scriptures, to be paid occasional lip service while no one really knows what it is.” Buddhadasa insisted that even the temporary cessation of a reactive emotion is nirvana. Such nirvana is available to all, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. It is where we naturally come to rest between moments of stress and turbulence. It sustains life itself. Even animals, Buddhadasa claimed, experience it. These unorthodox ideas echo Gotama’s own declaration that nirvana is “clearly visible, immediate, inviting, uplifting, and personally experienced by the wise.”
The temporary cessation of what drives the global economy is thus also a form of nirvana. Lockdown becomes an opportunity to dwell in the still, nonreactive awareness it renders possible. By coming to rest in a space that is emptied, even briefly, of the viruses of attachment, fear, and entrenched opinion, we glimpse the freedom to respond with care rather than merely react to the existential challenges facing us.
Secular faith calls for a secular nirvana, a nirvana for everyone, a naturalized and democratized nirvana, a nirvana that is not the end of suffering—but the beginning of human flourishing. To respond to the unprecedented challenge of climate change may require turning Buddhism on its head in order to rethink the dharma afresh. In exposing us to the threat of death while granting us free time to contemplate what human life is for, the coronavirus pandemic may inspire a heartfelt commitment to a more collaborative, caring, and sane way of living together on this Earth. We may have entered the chrysalis of confinement as caterpillars, but might we emerge with wings?
The dharma calls for us to leave behind the consolations of metaphysics, to embrace life in all its complexity, agony, and beauty, to immunize ourselves against the viruses within our own minds, and crucially, to imagine how human communities might come to flourish in a radically changed world. It calls for the recovery of our nature as contemplative beings, open to the mystery of being here at all, acutely aware of our inseparability from the biosphere that sustains us and all other life forms. Such a perspective might lead, in Heidegger’s words, to “a new ground and foundation upon which we can stand and endure in the world of technology without being imperiled by it.”
The coronavirus pandemic reminds us of the impressive ability of medical technologies to identify the virus, contain its spread, treat those infected, and ultimately find a vaccine to immunize us against it. As Heidegger himself noted: “It would be foolish to attack technology blindly. It would be shortsighted to condemn it as the work of the devil. We depend on technical devices; they even challenge us to greater advances.” The danger lies not in the tools themselves but in our slipping unaware into a technological mindset to which we become enslaved without realizing it. Before it is too late, can we learn to employ these tools as ways of helping us care for the natural world rather than exploit it?
Despite his prescient insights into the role of technology in causing environmental destruction and the need to recover a contemplative relation to the natural world, Heidegger failed to reflect on how we as ethical beings should respond to the looming global crisis he predicted. The pessimism of his final years is symptomatic of a philosopher who throughout his life did not develop an ethical and social dimension in his thinking—a task that was taken up by his students Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt. The urgent challenge now facing Buddhists worldwide is to articulate a rigorous social ethics that translates their core values into forms of collective action that can respond to the climate emergency that threatens life on Earth.
The saving power of secular faith lies in its being grounded in our bodies, emotions, and instincts rather than a longing for transcendence and eternity. In A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, the 8th-century Indian Buddhist poet and philosopher Shantideva anticipated secular faith in recognizing how a buddha’s compassion would necessarily entail his or her experiencing the suffering of the world:
Just as one whose body is on fire
Finds no pleasure in sensual objects,
The compassionate ones feel no joy
When a sentient being is in pain.
While orthodox Buddhism maintains that a buddha has gone beyond suffering, Shantideva realized that this is impossible as long as a buddha continues to care for others. “There can be no doubt,” he concluded, “that the compassionate ones regard all beings as themselves. So why do I not revere these buddhas who appear in the form of ordinary creatures?”
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