Living amid the destruction of everything we knew
The forest’s silhouette, running from peak to peak, is no longer soft and verdant.
1. I look out the window at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Recent floods have scarred their flanks. Deep pine forests that once cascaded luxuriantly over the crests are thinning out. Now patches of pine trees attacked by the mountain pine beetle die and turn a strangely violent rust color. As if burned, they turn black and ashy. The forest’s silhouette, running from peak to peak, is no longer soft and verdant. Spikes of skeletal trunks and branches scratch at the sky. It’s a sign: the world we know is moving to its end.
The warmer weather, scientists say, the diminished periods of deep cold. More larvae of the pine beetle now survive. And now, if we drive deeper into the mountains, we pass through vast swaths of dead forest, brittle, gray and black, almost indistinguishable from the acres and acres decimated by summer forest fires that recently lit up the night skies. I cannot bear to drive there now.
These phenomena mirror the great changes we see on television and read in the papers: melting polar caps, sea glaciers breaking apart, mountain glaciers shrinking; the expanding deserts, the ferocious territorial wars, people in hazmat suits helping those stricken with new diseases, streams of desperate migrants by the millions. Scientists predict worse to come. The civilization we inhabit is beginning to break. We have all heard this. Assumptions and certainties are caving in.
There is a feeling of being slowly swallowed, anesthetized. We cannot think how to resist. We watch, horrified, spellbound.
2. Cold prickles my scalp.
It’s forbidden to speak out.
Time cuts me off
As your heel grinds me down.
Life turns against life.
Sound slowly breaks up.
Things drop out of sight
Past remembering in no time.
Oh yes, it once was better.
Please, you can’t compare:
Oh my blood, what stirred you then;
Oh blood, what stirs you now.
Plainly there’s some design
Now playing on these lips:
Winds are playing in the treetops
Doomed to be chopped down.
—trans. Deborah Marshall and Douglas Penick
The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam wrote these lines in 1923, as the jaws of terror that would consume millions began to open.
1. There is a vast invisible blade of glass; it cuts through the world and
beyond the world. On the surface of this thin transparent plane, we see all that is conceivable, imaginable, perceptible. We are looking at a vast, shimmering mural. Its beginning and end are unknowable.
We may think of this transparent plane as consciousness or as awareness or as any other way of knowing.
What appears on this plane is a reduction of vaster and more unknowable realities for which our mind provides no set of references. These are sights beyond the spectra we can see, music beyond sounds anyone can hear and patterns anyone can comprehend, harmonies
beyond form, language beyond grammar and words, knowing beyond consciousness, intensities beyond the framework of heart, brain, senses, and nerves. The Buddha pointed at this and beyond.
A consort of Emperor Sushun sang:
Higher than the king’s house,
Finer than silk.
Ungraspable as smoke.
1. Stories from many cultures tell of a moment when the presiding deity wearied of the greedy, self-centered dealings of men and women, of the corruption they had inflicted on society and the world. The deity, whoever she or he might be, then sent a great flood to purify the earth. Rains descended, rivers and lakes overflowed, oceans and seas covered the land. Humanity with all its spoiled and ungrateful megalomania was washed away.
And though humanity has repeatedly returned, whether to flood or drought, fire, war or plague, it has always again fallen. Now the landscape of our passage on the earth is a diorama of ruins of great cities, strange funerary monuments, half-forgotten philosophies, outlines of gardens, broken amphitheaters, nameless corpses, ruined palaces, fragmentary poetry, lyrics without music, spiritual paths without practitioners, libraries without books. Our time on earth is recorded in what remains of histories and countless epics where kings, heroes, and warrior queens lead their people into battle, fight to conquer or resist conquest, enslave or become enslaved, destroy worlds and see worlds destroyed.
2. In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, it is maintained that existence moves repeatedly through cycles of increase and decrease, expansion and contraction, waxing and waning. These cycles are divided into four eras, or yugas. The first, the Satya Yuga, is the longest and most ideal, a time of inner and outer beauty, purity, and perfection. Desires and their fulfillments arise simultaneously. This era is said to last 1,728,000 years. Next is the Treta Yuga of 1,296,000 years. In this era, perfection begins to wane slightly. Longings, paths, and goals begin to unravel. In the Dvapara Yuga, which lasts 864,000 years, desires, intentions, actions, and social classes become ever more distinct and varied. Finally there is our era, the shortest, the Kali Yuga, an era that lasts 432,000 years and ends in utter destruction. Now, in the Kali Yuga, desire and the objects of desire have separated. We struggle to bring them together, but the results are temporary. Even our cravings are themselves momentary, marked by anguish, longing, rage. Spiritual, moral, and ethical life degenerate. Material advantage becomes our only value. Pollution, corruption, disease, degeneration, violence fill our minds and poison the world. The only virtue that still can be practiced is compassion. We are moving into the end of time. Everything will end before another cycle begins.
3. And indeed we feel the end approaching. The tempo of mass destruction has increased. The last century saw unparalleled slaughter, destruction, dislocation: two world wars, internal slaughters in China, Russia, Cambodia, Uganda, the atom bomb, the Holocaust, and innumerable smaller episodes of mass violence. Dread and a sense of unreality now pervade the mindstream of the age.
1. Jorge Semprún, a Spanish resistance agent in Paris, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943. He spent the remainder of the war in the kingdom of the dead known as Buchenwald. Upon his release, he found the world of normal living to be an alien terrain.
Death loomed up once again in my future, cunning and inevitable….I would then have the precise and crushing impression of living only in a dream. Of being a dream myself. Before dying in Buchenwald, before drifting away in smoke across the Ettersberg, I’d dreamed of this future, this deceptive incarnation.
–trans. Jorge Semprún
2. In the 1970s, Li Zhiwu recounted a fever dream he had experienced as a youth of 19, lying in bed during the famine precipitated by the Great Leap Forward. His limbs were heavy with edema:
I saw two villages, one on this side of a ravine, one on that side. The one on this side looked like my home village. There was a bridge from this side to that side, a single log, narrow and slippery. I was ordered to walk to that side, but I was afraid, and halfway across I fell off. I woke up alive. If I had made it to the other side I would have died…for that other side was the land of death.
–trans. Erik Mueggler
3. In his harrowing account after the 1943 Hamburg bombing, The End, the German novelist Hans Erich Nossack wrote:
The little garden, once hidden and remote in the middle of the city and between tall buildings, was rimed with gray dust. ...My friend spoke incessantly. Here, he said, lay 37 bodies that had burned to death in the cellar. “And look, there’s a bloody boot.” It was a bomb-proof cellar but the doors had jammed. And because the coal bin next to it had caught fire, they had all been roasted alive. They had all fled from the hot walls to the middle of the cellar. There they were found pressed together, bloated from the heat—“And come up here!” He helped me to climb a hill that had formed there. From the desert that lay beneath us, only the portal of the Konventgarten still stood out. We had heard the Brandenburg Concertos there in April. And a blind woman had sung: “Die schwere Leidenszeit beginnt nun abermals.” (The time of suffering now begins once more.) Simple and self-assured, she stood leaning against the harpsichord, and her dead eyes gazed past the vain things for which we were even then already trembling; perhaps they were gazing at where we were now.
–trans. Joel Agee
There never was a golden age in this, the Kali Yuga. There has never been a life of enduring attainments and lasting peace. Our time, our sense of the passage of time in this era, is defined by a struggle to exist, by impermanence, repeated loss, by constant termination. From the beginning, our world has been ending. End over end. Individuals and populations have always and still experience the destruction of the world. This is the meaning of the Kali Yuga.
The Algerian-French writer Hélène Cixous does not hold back when she says: “Death gives us the essential primitive experience, access to the other world, which is not without warning or noise...it gives us everything, it gives us the end of the world; to be human, we need to experience the end of the world.”
Now indeed we may be in the most global and final version of our repeated extinctions. The earth can no longer endure the burden of overpopulation, the industrial production that provides an ever-larger population with ever-higher standards of material life. Now, perhaps more clearly than ever before, we are looking at the end of humanity, and thus, of time as measured in terms of a human generation or lifespan.
But Cixous continues: “We need to lose the world, to lose a world, and to discover there is more than one world and that the world isn’t what we think it is.”
1. Cheng Man-ch’ing (1902–1975), renowned for his mastery of tai chi,
calligraphy, medicine, philosophy, and poetry, lived through the unimaginable and final destruction of an imperial system that had lasted 5,000 years. He witnessed the birth of the Chinese democratic republic, which ended as China was devoured by warlords and invaders. He escaped the mainland when the Communist Party undertook the complete recreation of culture. He lived the latter part of his life in exile, teaching what he could.
Once, when teaching martial arts, he paused and said: “If you are standing at the edge of a great precipice, and someone is trying to push you off this cliff, and, if you think you have an enemy, you have made your last mistake.”
2. The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi endured the destruction and rebirth of his homeland. He once instructed his meditation students in this way:
Don’t move. Just die. Over and over.
Don’t anticipate. Nothing can save you now, because you have only this moment.
Not even enlightenment will help you now, because you have no other moments.
With no future, be true to yourself—and don’t move.
3. One of the first fully empowered Western Buddhist teachers contracted a fatal disease. He knew that when it was revealed, the scandal would destroy his reputation.
Talking with a concerned friend, he smiled and said, “Love never dies.” As he was wheeled into the hospital to die, he looked up at one of his few remaining supporters, smiled, winked. “Is this the sad part now?”
1. It was an unusually warm day in late fall. I was having coffee with an elderly friend whose death had been expected a year ago, who had almost died a few other times, and who was still subject to recurrences of a rare, lethal, and incurable cancer. Though she was now reliant on the oxygen tank she carried with her, her directness, humor, and momentum were uncompromised. I wanted to ask her about something that she, more than anyone else I knew, could address.
For some time, she and I had shared a curious space. My melanoma has been quiescent but it is still the most lethal kind of skin cancer. I had, from the beginning, accepted the worst. So I wanted to know what she made of having accepted the immediate likelihood of being dead but finding oneself continuously and actively alive. I thought the question might interest her.
“Your situation is a lot more immediate than mine, to say the least. But here we are. Living. What do you make of it?”
“It’s—it’s so odd, really, isn’t it? I’m here. I do things I’ve always enjoyed. I go to concerts, I like this coffee, the yellow leaves—and yet, it’s somehow, maybe…not part of things. I don’t know. There’s nothing to think, is there?”
A memory suddenly came to mind about my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who had lived more than half his life in exile. I was sitting in the back row. It was shortly before Rinpoche died, and he spoke slowly and deliberately. He ended the talk, saying that the teachings could “resolve the basic duality of human existence.”
“And what is the basic duality of human existence?” an alert young woman asked. Rinpoche answered with careful emphasis.
“The basic duality of human existence is...cheerful...and...strange.”
The young woman hesitated: “What do you mean, ‘strange’?” Trungpa Rinpoche smiled warmly.
“Oh you know…étrange.”
My friend looked at me, paused a long time, and said, “I don’t know why, but that’s actually quite helpful.” She took my hand, gave a little laugh, squeezed, shrugged, looked away.
1. Do you think this moment is forever gone?
Or was it just an echo of a different time and place?
Do you remember/dream: walking down a corridor. When was that? Where?
Do you see an elegant old man, silver-haired, dancing across the stage;
Elegant, ardent, determined.
A woman cries, her face crumples.
On a cold winter day,
The smell of early spring,
Pink-tinged silver clouds,
The dawn and love.
Do you know
If a painter will pick up a brush.
Paralyzing August heat. The whole city is sweating. Pedestrians avoid the sides of the street with direct sunlight. I’m in the shadow of an awning, drinking iced tea. Across the street in the glaring heat, an old white man in rags, drunk, rummages in a trash bin, looks up, stares at me, furious, insane.
“Hey man.” Even from the other side of the street, it’s as if he’s seeing something in me I don’t want to know about. “Yes, you, fucker. Now what are you gonna do, huh? It’s over. Finished. What you gonna do?”
I want to look at something else, but I can’t. The old man gives me a demented, toothless leer. He reaches down into the trash and his hand comes up filled with some lumpy white semiliquid that might be yogurt. It drips between his blackened fingers as he stuffs it in his mouth, watching me all the while. The white goo runs out of the corners of his mouth. His grin turns again to fury. “Don’t look away.”
Douglas Penick is a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and author. His many novels include Journey of the North Star, Dreamers and Their Shadows, and, most recently, From the Empire of Fragments. Reprinted from Tricycle (Summer 2017), an independent voice of Buddhism in the West.