Saturday, July 9, 2016

Save Your Apocalpyse

Apocalyptic mythology permeates nearly every aspect of American culture. Our obsession with guns, militias, and zombies all subscribe to the idea that the world is going to end, or nearly end, leaving a chosen few to inherit the earth. In Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, the universe has a definitive beginning and end. This is inherent inside of a religious system with a Creator.

Buddhism isn't concerned with beginnings and ends; it's concerned with now. In Buddhism, history is beginningless and endless. There's no need for a God if Creation is not a concern or priority. The present moment becomes the focus of our attention, not the past or present.

This tacit assumption that the universe began and will end influences the way that people live and view themselves. For instance, if the world will someday end--either by divine decree, solar flash, or human destruction--then the present can easily devolve into a field for salvation or hedonism. After all, if God is going to end the world and judge all of us (as Christianity asserts), then I had better get working on saving my soul lest I wind up in hell.

(On the other hand, if we think that the world is wrecked, dying, and will someday be dead--a secular, apocalyptic view--then I might as well enjoy the time I have remaining. This is a form of solipsistic nihilism in which nothing really matters because it's all going to end, and by "all" I mean the world, civilization, the collective human party.)

These doomsday scenarios often lead to the belief that we need saving. Of course, salvation is a common theme because of Christianity's emphasis on it, but it also pervades secular mythology. It's in the water supply, so to speak. Take popular culture's obsession with superheroes. In most of these stories, humanity relies upon some exceptional individual to save the planet. This is a direct variation of Christ's Second Coming--the savior who redeems us all.

I reject this idea, both on a collective and individual level. Not only do we not need some god-like person to lead or save us, we don't need saving!
It's precisely the idea that something is wrong with us--that we are lacking something--that leads us away from this present moment. People speculate on a remote, hypothetical past and dread (or prepare) for an equally imagined distant future because they assume that there is more to life than what's in front of them.
Deferring the present moment marks the introduction of religion and metaphysics, both of which Zen can be seen to eschew. Zen doesn't posit some theoretical substratum like Plato's forms; what you see is what you get. Reality is immediate and intimate, so much so that even one moment of mindless thinking can lead you miles away from what's actually in front of you.

People posit metaphysics when they too busy thinking to pay attention to what's in front of them. What do we hear, see, smell, taste, feel? These are real. Notions of souls, gods, Creation, and the apocalypse are beyond the sphere of experience (at least mine), and therefore are speculative.

There's nothing wrong with speculation or imagination (it's one of the wonders of the human brain), provided we know that we are doing it. I enjoy a good film or book as much as anyone else; however, when I put the book down or turn off my TV, I know that what I have read or seen is fictional.

The problem occurs when people don't realize that they have subscribed to belief systems. Genesis, apocalypses, sin, and salvation are can be un-examined assumptions that many people take for granted as given facts. It's those givens that can be the most dangerous.

As a people, we don't need saviors or a single leader to lead us to an imagined promised land or Eden (think Trump's "Make America Great Again"); we need engaged citizens. We don't need saving; we need fair political change for all members of society. We mustn't prepare for some imagined doomsday with assault rifles and bulletproof vests, but build and repair economic, political, and social infrastructures that will insure a better and fairer world tomorrow.

For more on this subject, see Kurt Spellmeyer's Buddha at the Apocalypse 

1 comment:

  1. Great post! This has been weighing on my mind, as I've spent the last few years going back and forth, from Buddhism to Christianity to Athiesm and back again. Fear and overthinking of the unknown get me every time. But there's something so simple yet so compelling about Buddhism that brings me back again and again.I am really hoping to attend zazen in Princeton soon!!