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Entering the Stream: Rethinking Apocalyptic Language
Buddhism offers a key for aligning words and actions—and reducing hateful rhetoric
A longer audio version of this article is available on Patreon, or listen to a sample here:
My questions do not aspire beyond the earth. They aspire toward it and into it. Perhaps they aspire through it. They are religious because they are asked at the limit of what I know; they acknowledge mystery and honor its presence in the creation; they are spoken in reverence for the order and grace that I see, and that I trust beyond my power to see. — Wendell Berry, “A Native Hill” (1968)
Moments before in this essay, Berry acknowledges his distaste for religion—both term and concept. He also recognizes language doesn’t provide the proper words to express the feeling of walking around his native Kentucky. Awe comes close. Reverence as well. Still, words slip emptily from the tongue in moments of quiet and profound contemplation.
At 88, Berry has spent most of his life farming and writing, turning over land with his hands and turning over ideas with one hand, writing only by pencil. He refuses the technology of a typewriter. Forget about computers.
Berry doesn’t romanticize the past, per se. A technology is supposed to make things easier. If you’re accustomed to and enjoy writing longhand, it’s of little use. A technology provides convenience. Too much makes us soft, disconnects us from what matters.
Again and again, Berry writes, we strive for convenience and ease instead of getting our hands dirty.
The writer’s ideas around religion aren’t new, either. In fact, they’re quite Buddhist.
They are religious because they are asked at the limit of what I know.
So nimble and light, unobtrusive. Devotional. Honest.
This line haunts me as I scroll through endless certainties expressed by apocalyptic language. Imagery of biblical fires, disfiguring plagues, giant locust parties, and satanic goblins have long been with us. But the marketing copy for the next Plandemic pseudodocumentary and grifters pimping “spike protein” detox supplements speaks of an eternal battle for the soul, and it all seems so…banal. Trite. Frivolous.
It often goes something like: Jesus™ is going to get you unless you buy (into) my product. Or: this is the greatest battle in the history of mankind and my god says you’re wrong.
Upping the ante is a common marketing technique, one that falls flat when an herb or course resides at the end of the downline. And the fascination over the past: A return to a—better time? When death rates from common viruses were sky high and the notion of equal rights was even more distant than today?
You would think we’ve grown suspicious of grifting enough by now, though perhaps not. People make millions from this stuff.
Still, none of the rhetoric coming from sovereignty-screaming influencers is uncommon. Religious fanaticism is having a mainstream moment.
JP Sears swears trans people are ignoble and fallacious, to be rooted out through the deity he invents in his skull, and oh, buy his Trump shirt.
Conspiritualists romanticize a past that never was while pecking out biblical gravitas over coffee enemas and IV drips.
Growing audiences consume it all in the belief that refusing modernity is a hall pass to eternity, they say while typing cataclysmic fantasies into cyberspace.
Another take on religion comes from American scientist and disaster studies scholar Charles E Fritz. Rebecca Solnit writes about his work in her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster:
Most religions turn their adherents toward the things we are afraid to face: mortality, death, illness, loss, uncertainty, suffering—to the ways that life is always something of a disaster.
Religion as “disaster preparedness.” Keep devotees on edge about potential dangers that may or may not exist, setting them up to fall victim to whatever propaganda the charismatic leader decides to instill in doctrine and ritual.
Wellness influencers have long stolen a page from this playbook: market the fear—getting fat, getting old, eating impure foods—then sell redemption: an online program, CBD oils, a book that’s no different than the last book, any of the million holistic tchotchkes on the market.
Solnit then introduces the interconnectedness of existence espoused by some religions, most notably Buddhism. While her focus is on disaster responses, our almost-mythic ability to rise to the occasion under extraordinary circumstances, she’s concerned with the fact that under such duress actions match philosophy. As Berry writes, actions are embodied thoughts, and when the two harmonize, magic is possible.
This is in contrast to a religion that, say, preaches love and compassion, while its adherents spread fear and disdain whenever something they don’t like appears.
To make her point, Solnit writes about the 2008 wildfire in the mountains of California’s central coast, which was right in line with the famed Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Everyone is evacuated. At the last moment, an abbot and four community members decide to stick it out.
They clear brush, keep sprinklers running, use generators to survive. They save the center even as 40-foot flames rage within feet of their territory. The entire perimeter burns, the grounds are untouched, a sea of green in an ocean of destruction.
As Solnit points out, disasters often bring out the best in people, especially those whose actions match their beliefs.
Their Buddhist practice had equipped them to respond calmly (many were distressed at the possibility of losing a beloved place but recognized that nonattachment and equanimity were other lessons that might have to be learned). And they benefited immensely from being a community, with the ability to organize responses and draw on support and resources close at hand and far away.
A little later,
Transcendence sneaks in everywhere as a survival response.
This transcendence doesn’t require leaving your skin. Rather, you’re fully alive inside of that skin.
The Buddhist response.
If your faith dictates charity and your words spew bile, it’s unlikely your actions align with your faith. Thus continues the disconnect between ideas and embodiment.
It’s not an inspiring road. Sadly, it’s one we’re inundated by in our modern discourse.
Buddhism offers a pathway out of this hatred.
Stephen Batchelor also has an aversion to the traditional definition of religion, though in his book, After Buddhism, he expresses a similar sentiment as Wendell Berry.
I do not envision a Buddhism that seeks to discard all trace of religiosity, that seeks to arrive at a dharma that is little more than a set of self-help techniques that enable us to operate more calmly and effectively as agents or clients, or both, of capitalist consumerism… Instead of imagining a dharma that erects even firmer barriers around the alienated self, let us imagine one that works toward a reenchantment of the world.
I’ve often been told that because I’m an atheist, I must not believe in magic. Depends on how you define the term. There’s a ton of magic and beauty that I can’t explain, but can appreciate. I just don’t believe there needs to be a metaphysical explanation, which lines up with Buddha’s thoughts on the topic.
Unlike mainstream Western religions, Gotama (the historical Buddha) never instructed anyone to find their salvation in him. He pointed a way for people to find their own path. After studying with two yoga masters in his native India, he ultimately rejected their views as they preached a form of yoga that put them at the helm. Gotama wanted to figure it out for himself.
What he eventually arrived at is pretty simple, and rather elegant, as broken down by Batchelor:
Suffering (dukkha) is to be comprehended
The arising (samudaya) is to be let go of
The ceasing (nirodha) is to be beheld
The path (magga) is to be cultivated
“Suffering” is the common translation of dukkha, though it doesn’t capture the totality of the word. It’s more like: I think the world should be this way, and when it’s not, I’m disappointed that reality has not met my expectations.
Fundamentalism creeps in: when someone says their god demands this or that, they’re holding a pre-existing belief of a supposed fundamental truth they believe captures the totality of reality. Yet it doesn’t. And they suffer because of their misperception.
Reality is what it is. The demand that it be something else is the error, not reality itself.
While Buddhism is not a self-help manual, Gotama dreamed up an eightfold path that leads to freedom from the bondage of delusion: the misperception that the world needs to be the way you think it should be. His is a balanced and harmonious model whose strengths are ambiguity and flexibility, an applicability to everything.
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While the terminology associated with his noble path is usually translated as “right,” Batchelor uses “complete,” which is more instructive.
“Complete” implies nuanced, critical thinking. An example common in fundamentalist circles now: transgender people are biological and philosophical aberrations, another way of saying evil because they supposedly refute nature’s (or a god’s) order.
If you take into account that gender identity has always been fluid for some part of the population, if you stop confusing gender identity with sexual preferences, and if you take into consideration that not everyone has the same identity as you, your view is a bit more complete.
You might not like it, but you won’t fall into the error of claiming that a divinity deemed it to wrong. And you won’t suffer from your misperceptions, or, worse, spew violence and hatred because of them.
In Buddhism, truth is an ethical practice, not a metaphysical exercise. The goal is not to cling to any one truth, but to free yourself from habitual thinking—to “enter the steam.”
By doing so, you understand that identity is a construct, fluid, changing from situation to situation and day by day. This has been born out in neuroscience research: our brains link moments to moments to give the appearance that this entity we call “I” continues, but that’s not actually how our bodies move through space nor our minds through time. I’m literally a different person when driving as when sitting here writing as when traveling to a different country. A static and unchanging “I” is an illusion.
That’s why Buddhists cultivate emptiness, which is simply a way of dwelling in every situation you arrive in without clinging to predetermined ideas. You meet the moment where the moment is, not where your perceived construction of what that moment “should” be.
This also informs a secular reading of reincarnation: it’s not about the next life, but rather overcoming the habitual patterns that produce reactivity. Overcoming those patterns and remaining open to other possibilities serves you in this practice.
And it is a practice—a really hard one. Our brains adore abstract truths. Overturning intuition takes time. Again, neuroscience steps in: the part of the brain that records and processes memories is the same region that contemplates the future. Intuition is the subconscious processing of experiences. You believe something will happen because it’s happened before and you’ve constructed part of your identity around this particular process.
Intuition is learned repetition. You extrapolate from one situation and apply it to the next. But the next doesn’t necessarily match the previous, and you’re caught off-guard.
There’s certainly a survival aspect to intuition. When it feeds biases, judgments, and hatred, the pull toward reflexive behavior and thinking is dangerous.
That’s why Gotama advocated for living moment by moment, to understand what’s arising now.
Your identity is defined by actions, not ideas — or at least putting your ideas into action. As Batchelor writes,
Gotama is interested in what people can do, not with what they are.
Buddha punted metaphysical questions, as they point toward some unfixed and immovable self, some permanent construction, which doesn’t exist.
Is the universe eternal?
Is the self finite or infinite?
Does one continue after death?
Gotama compares these questions to a person shot by a poisoned arrow. Would that person need to know the name and clan of who shot the arrow before removing it? The only true concern is pulling the arrow out.
Removing the arrow is analogous to the awakening of the self, which requires a realignment with how you move through the world. Batchelor puts this into perspective when writing,
Instead of grasping hold of the world in order to preserve it from falling apart, or recoiling from it in order to transcend it, someone who practices the dharma embraces the world in order to comprehend it.
Also uncomfortable. Imagining the future based on the past is what humans do. In fact, Batchelor speculates that Gotama wasn’t trying to start a new religion but a new civilization — a different way of being in the world with others. One that helps us deal with day-to-day interactions and challenges: wipe away metaphysics and speculation and deal with what’s in front of you.
And you might not like what’s in front of you.
In one of the more challenging sentences in Batchelor’s work, he writes that Gotama
wants his listeners to contemplate what it feels like to be embodied in a world that constantly intrudes into and threatens their comfort zone.
Thorny, in today’s climate. Trigger warnings are useful for the traumatized, but we can’t pad all the walls of existence. Plus, comfort is a relatively new concept for our species. Sure, we enjoy it, but we’re apt to crumble when our comfort levels are intruded upon.
Buddhism has devised a number of potential fixes to this problem:
See everyone else as immensely suffering. This opens you up to be more empathetic while reminding you that suffering is part of your inheritance as well. When you understand others experience sorrow and pain, you’re less likely to lash out and more likely to empathize.
Meditating on death (maranasati) is common in some Buddhist traditions. A culture that strives toward happiness will view this with suspicion, which is why Gotama never advocated for happiness. Contentment (santosha) is more fruitful. This includes being content with discomfort. Batchelor frames this when writing, “To be mindful of the body involves honesty and the courage to go beyond the revulsion one may feel about its constituent parts and the terror invoked by anticipation of its death and disintegration.”
Or, as Alan Watts writes,
A person who is escaping from reality will always feel the terror of it.
We’re all going to die. This recognition helps you appreciate life more. And when you recognize that others are also fearful of death, you might not demand so much of them.
Again: it’s really hard. It’s hard to look beyond yourself and step into other shoes.
But it’s possible.
Egos are real, and they can be formidable obstacles. Buddhism helps temper their fervor, provided you practice its formula.
Unlike Western religions, in which cults of personality are constructed around founders, the focus in Buddhism is on ideas, and turning ideas into actions. Sure, plenty of people have Buddha statues—we love our idols. Gotama tried to move out of the way of himself, however. That’s why you kill the Buddha on the road. It’s not about the person, but the practice.
The practice culminates (though never ends) with nirvana, a “blowing out” of the ego. Lots of mystical connotations surround this notion of enlightenment. The pedestrian version is most meaningful: upon attaining nirvana, you’re free to not act habitually.
The demon god, Mara, is the visual representation of reactivity. On the night of Buddha’s enlightenment, Mara attacked him with every possible vice, trying to get him to break his meditation and return to habitual behavior. He refused.
There’s nothing metaphysically transcendent about this achievement, especially because not reacting is a choice, and in the future you might choose to react in a way that doesn’t serve you. Mark it and try to do better next time.
Nirvana isn’t a static state, but an awareness that you’re free to not act, or act differently. It opens you up to the possibility of living without desire, hatred, or delusion.
Batchelor frames it all so elegantly:
One neither seeks nor expects to find some greater truth lurking behind the veil of appearances. What appears and how you respond to it: that alone is what matters.
A language that serves us much better than the binaries of apocalypse.