Is the Buddha Winking at Extinction?

Allan Hunt Badiner

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Worlds on worlds are rolling ever
From creation to decay,
Like the bubbles on a river
Sparkling, bursting, borne away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley

SO PROFOUND is the largely human-caused contraction of plant and animal life on this planet that biologists are now referring to the current period as the beginning of the Sixth Great Extinction.

In the recovery periods that followed each of the five earlier mass extinctions on earth, greater richness and diversity of life was the result. But, as renowned Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson explains, each of these recoveries took hundreds of millions of years. Parallel to this scientific view is the ancient pan-Indian notion of kalpas, periods of time divided into four stages: the birth, growth, and death of a universe, and its subsequent return to chaos. Buddhism and the scientific community converge in their assessment that the earth is impermanent, owing to, at least in the eyes of science, the eventual implosion of the sun. Perched as we are on the edge of a biotic holocaust, it has become easier for Buddhists and nonBuddhists alike to recognize the transitory nature of life.

Coming to terms with death, whether it is one's own, others', or that of a species, puts one directly in the face of primordial Buddhist truths: life is impermanent, without inherent or enduring substance, and it involves suffering. Ancient Buddhist theory posited that "real" objects are simply transient states, momentary links between illusions of the past and illusions of the future. And when this absolute view is applied to the current ecological crisis, certain questions arise: Does Buddhism have a problem with extinction in general or with the Sixth Great Extinction in particular? How does Buddhism inform our understanding of extinction? What is to be learned from living in the shadow of our own annihilation?

One way to start trying to find an answer is to determine whether Buddhism considers life to be at all sacred. In Sanskrit, nirvana, the goal of Buddhist practice, is defined literally as "extinction." The etymology of its Pali equivalent, nibbana, reveals two root words, one relating to the extinguishing of a fire: va ("to blow"), and the other to desire, vana ("weaving," or "craving after life"). Ni is a particle implying negation. Could the pursuit of nirvana be regarded as a kind of death wish? To escape samsara, the wheel of life and death, one tries to extinguish the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, and to break through the veil of illusion into enlightenment. With this achieved, promised the Buddha, there is no rebirth. Death is seen as a friend, teaching one to live completely in the present, full of confidence and free from fear.

The end of existence—at least from a Theravadin view—can be seen as a relatively good thing. But would it be considered good to actually desire nonexistence or consciously acquiesce to extinction? No; that would be vibhava tanha (Pali), a known barrier to the way. Suicide, for instance, is seen as something that does not free an aspirant but only produces more desire and can lead to the lower realms.

So life is precious, for it is only life—particularly the condition of human life—in which one can attain enlightenment. And animal life, as the ancient Jataka tales illustrate, is precious too, for it has clearly been a gateway to Buddhahood. In one of the earliest texts known, the Sutta-Nipata, Buddha urged his followers:

Know the grasses and the trees . . . then know the worms, and the moths, and the different sort of ants. . . know also the fourfooted animals small and great. . . the fish which range in the water. . . the birds that are borne along on wings and move through the air. . .

Buddhism emphasizes the community of beings over the individual. And yet the individual being is itself a metaphor for community. A series of conditions must come together for the individual to arise: water, air, fire, and earth link to create an interlocking community of processes. Inside the body itself live millions of communities of smaller beings, working together to ensure the host's survival.

And even if the actual rising and falling of life in the world is viewed in the light of Buddhism as not being a terribly exigent matter, compassion for the numberless beings that will inevitably undergo immense suffering upon their extinction is of great concern. Implicit in Buddhist compassion is a genuine awareness and deep acceptance of things as they truly are, painful as that may be. From this soil of clarity and connection, compassion is said to arise of itself.

Buddhist liberation is dependent on awareness of each of the twelve interlinking causes in the chain of being (paticca-samuppada). The attainment of this awareness (panna) is inalterably conditioned on the practice of ethics (sila) and the purification of mind (samadhi). Not killing, in light of the perception of the interpenetration of all beings, is as natural as not stabbing ourselves. This expanded sense of self, or what the Japanese call jibun no naka ni aite o ireru, or literally "putting other inside oneself," is a quality most revered in Buddhist ethics. A familiar line of inquiry in Buddha's teachings was: Do these actions produce suffering? Can we find other ways so that this pain and suffering do not befall sentient beings?

That seventeen animal species vanish every hour is in itself not nearly as startling as the fact that we continue to be so unmoved by its reiteration. We know that every species depends on many others, often in such complex ways that it is impossible to predict the chain of extinctions brought on by the disappearance of one lesser-known species. Extinction is ultimately a problem of human consciousness; to save the animals, we need to save ourselves.

One of the difficulties in grasping the enormity of the problem is its novelty: this is the first truly planetary ecological crisis in human history. Human beings have never experienced a three- to four-degree change in the average global temperature within one lifetime. There is little comprehension of what the repercussions might be in terms of agriculture, plant biology, and animal habitat. As Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once said, people, as well as nations, seem to behave wisely only after it is clear they have exhausted all other alternatives.

Governments of most nations are slow to acknowledge the extent of extinction and to plan for the environmental changes ahead. Those that are willing and able find themselves hampered by the rise of a global network of multinational corporations that are serving to effectively blur the meaning of nationstates, manipulating and packaging the information we depend on, and controlling the images that drive our vision of the future. The value system guiding their actions maintains that a country can cut its forests, erode its soils, pollute its air, and hunt its game into extinction without affecting its GNP. Impoverishment is taken for progress.

Clearly we will have to do more than keep our thermostats low in order to effect what has been called "the great U-turn" toward ecological sanity. To survive, our vision of the future must include building need-based sustainable economies to replace greed-based growth economies. Despite growing awareness that what we buy, where we shop, and what we eat has far more effect on the world than our votes, even more fundamental change is indicated. Finally, we come to terms with our complicity in the wanton devastation of nature—as well as the prospect of self-extinction—through the rigorous practice of self-transformation.

Witnessing death galvanized the Buddha's developing resolve to be awakened. Perhaps as human culture glides closer to the time when the full impact of our ecological decline must be faced, this same transformational process will occur on a global scale. But for the moment, our society functions as if this life is all there is and that death is the unspeakable end. All the goodwill and restorative work in the world will do nothing to stem the tide of extinction without modification in the way we frame our perception. The Buddhist remedy for this is the cultivation of mindfulness and the awareness that humanity is an inseparable component of the natural world.

Perhaps it is ironic that Buddhism, a practice and philosophy that so deeply challenges reified perceptions of life and self, may hold the most promise for effecting the change in psycho-spiritual consciousness required to make a sustainable future for all living things a real possibility. Buddhist practice prepares us to glimpse the preciousness and immediacy of life so that our oneness with nature can be a felt experience.

But the greatest irony may be that the most powerful teaching of Buddhist principles, as well as ecological ones, is the very instrument of our destruction: the poisoning of our mutual resources leads inescapably to the recognition of interdependence; the rupture of the atmospheric membrane between life and the solar inferno liberates us from the myth of our separateness. Confronting this extinction is the final opportunity to learn the dharma of interpenetration and impermanence.

Allan Hunt Badiner, a Consulting Editor to Tricycle, edited DharmaGaia: Essays in Buddhism and Ecology (Parallax Press) and is currently working on Pilgrimage: In Discovery of Buddha's India for Parallax Press.

Artwork by Candy Jerniagan.
Image 2: Chebek, 1990, colored pencil on paper


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Kenneth Daly's picture

What if the species facing extinction was humanity? (And that may not be a what-if question.) In his recent book "Death and the Afterlife", the philosopher Samuel Scheffler and respondents explore the implications of what it would mean if we were facing the end of any future generations of people. Their context is decidedly not Buddhist, very much about what the extinction of humanity would mean for "me" and whether "I" would care any more about accomplishing anything. But the question can be put skillfully by Buddhists, e.g., to consider how unaware I am of how much I am attached to the assumption that there will be future generations of people after I die. How much am "I" grasping at "my" views of kamma and rebirth when considering the extinction of the human species?

Dominic Gomez's picture

On a realistic level, how does my own imminent "extinction" (i.e. death) affect how I live each day till that moment? (For the wise Buddhist, getting depressed about it is not an option.)

wilnerj's picture

There is a difference, though hypothetical for us, between living a life that is eternal (Skt. amrita) and one that is mortal (Skt. mrityu). We have only this time on earth and it is rapidly passing. How will you act?

Dominic Gomez's picture

It behooves the Buddhist to do all he or she can in this life to impact society positively. Act to become indestructibly happy for eternity (enlightened) and teach others how to do the same for their lives.

wilnerj's picture

But happiness is the foundation of conscious existence. Just look at the antics of a typical two-year old. When upset she is like storm clouds obscuring the bright sun and deep blue sky. But the latter is unchanged -- just temporarily covered by storm clouds. When the tantrum abates she is cheerfully babbling and dumping on her grandfather her stuffed animals. The sky is always clear blue with a shining sun. Rather than becoming, it is the realization of whom we are -- our birthright as sentient beings.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Our toddler is in the world of rapture (relative happiness) which is dependent upon externals. Practice brings forth the life-condition of Buddhahood (absolute happiness) which sustains the individual as he or she goes through samsara (i.e. aging, illness or decline, and death). The two-year old, if typical, still has 80 or so more years of life's vicissitudes ahead to deal with.

wilnerj's picture

This threat to our very existence had come to the fore in the 1960s with the Cuban Missile Crisis. And perhaps even before when we began to learn about the devastation that two atom bombs dropped over Japan caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is very likely that we will eventually disappear unless there is a way to escape the death of our sun assuming we survive that long. And yet death is inevitable. Here, we are faced with the paradox to leave a living legacy for our children way into the unknown and uncertain future and the possibility that we too will sooner or later become extinct. And yet we carry on with concern for subsequent generations.

And the potential extinction of the human form does not necessarily negate the possibility of rebirth (Skt. punarjanma or punarbhava Pali punabhava) as there might be other life forms with the same opportunities for awakening. Rather than an attachment, this navigating the paradox is simply life perpetually asserting itself what in Latin has been termed conatus and what Hans Jonas defined as the fact of life willing itself. One need not be attached to a mere fact.

wilnerj's picture

What the buddhamarga prescribes for stemming the tide of mass extinction, I know not. Perhaps more than one perspective emerges from these traditions.

However in addressing this issue is the need to stem economic growth. That is, it calls for a paradigm shift from a growth economy to a sustainable one. It could constitute a movement from Keynesian and its marketarian hybrids which encompasses forms of monetarism as like from the Chicago School to that of physical economics perhaps based on the ideas of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. Or it can also entail revisiting the Austrian School Bohm-Bawerk, von Mises, and Hayek.

In the U.S.A. the implication would be that of encouraging savings in order to curtail consumption and thus aggregate demand. The way to encourage savings is for the Federal Reserve to raise the rediscount rate (lending rate to the banks). This would lead to higher interest in longer term savings accounts (i.e., CD's) and a rising cost of debt service for the government. The latter would put greater pressure upon the state to commence curtailing its spending. Also industry would begin to curtail current production and distribution for commodities and put their available funds into future investments. A supplemental approach to assist the government to curtail its spending is to revisit our defense needs. The Department of Defense comprises about one-fourth of the budget. Certainly not all of its spending is for defending our shores. A reassessment of our military involvement abroad and funding of arms to other countries is in order. And the ensuing cuts in DOD's budget should be applied against taxes to lower them and not reallocated to other government programs. Whatever has happened to our peace dividend?'s picture

Thank you for such a thought provoking article. I appreciate the debating conversation! Namaste.

Dominic Gomez's picture

That seventeen animal species vanish every hour is in itself not nearly as startling as the fact that...'a black person is killed by the state or by state-sanctioned violence every 28 hours.'
(according to data compiled by Malcolm X Grassroots Movement)

lindy.warrell's picture

I found this article edifying. The translation/definition of 'nirvana' as the extinction of 'greed, hatred and delusion' - desire, effectively, is great. It is a different sort of extinction to the extinction of species and I thought the author was advocating it as a means by which physiological extinction of things on our planet might be brought to a stop. It all depends how you read I guess.

Darrell Kitchen's picture

I believe this article portrays an incorrect understanding of Nibbana (Nirvana). It is not an extinction of life. The word "extinction" is in its own a product of Samsara. As all Buddhists know, Samsara and Nibbana are complete opposites of each other. Any words that can issue from our mouths are a product of thinking, and as such are a product of Samsara. If it can be thought, it is of Samsara.

Death is a product of thinking. Life is a product of thinking. Becoming, or existing is a product of thinking. Clinging is a product of thinking. Craving is a product of thinking. Feelings are a product of thinking. Contact with forms is a product of thinking. The six base are a product of thinking. Name and form (mental and physical aggregates) are a product of thinking. Consciousness is a product of thinking. And Thinking is a product of ignorance. Plain and simple, the Twelve Limbs of Dependent Origination.

There is no Annihilation or Extinction of LIFE, there is only the Annihilation or Extinction of ignorance. What follows is a total freedom from or removal of the chains that bind ignorance to death. When this state of annihilation is achieved, everything connected to what one is liberated from is no longer relevant. Words are no longer relevant and the meanings associated with them are also no longer relevant. Our description of a thing no longer applies. As a result, there is no more dying, there is no more birth, there is no more becoming, no more clinging, no more craving, no more feeling associated with contact, no more contact, no more six base, no more name and form, no more consciousness, no more mental volition, because the very conditioning process for all of these have been stilled, silenced, removed, annihilated, put out, extinguished. One neither exists nor not-exists because the ability to reference what is existence and what is not existence no longer applies. This does not infer extinction of life, only extinction of ignorance. Enlightenment.

My analysis of this article is a perpetuation of ignorance and fear. If one were to truly understand the teachings of a Buddha one would become completely aware that living in the present moment means not to act out of ignorance as all actions have results and in acting one creates results which define the next moment. As long as one is acting out of ignorance ones actions will have results which define future moments. And as long as one is fixating on passed, and passing moments, one is still not in the present moment as one is acting on the results of past actions perpetuating those actions into the present moment and into a predefined future based on the actions and results of the present moment. This only brings our awareness back to the aforementioned Twelve Limbs of Dependent Origination.

I'm not sure how the author actually came to the conclusion that "Death is seen as a friend." In the Theravada tradition (known as Hinayana to Mahayana practitioners) death is seen as a condition of ignorance and is understood as such. Death is not embraced as there really is nothing to embrace. Not a teaching of nihilism, but an understanding that as long as there is a conditioning factor, there is the conditioned, and when the factor no longer exists, then the conditioned no longer applies to any idea or understanding of existing/existence. There is no death to embrace. Understanding dispels ignorance. Nibbana is the extinction of ignorance. Once one has become liberated from ignorance, the conditioned as a result of ignorance no longer applies because that which conditioned it is no longer present.

This is why I see this article as perpetuating ignorance and fear.

kammie's picture

You're more learned in saying it than I could be, but I was so glad to see someone saying what you said. To add my two cents; somehow the author of the article went from the translation "extinction" to "Death is seen as a friend." Objections are: 1. Upon awakening death is seen as a concept and rejected (no birth and no death - where's the friendship?). 2. Death as used here is destruction of the physical body, which I hope to goodness this author isn't equating with Nirvana but he seems to be. 3. Extinction of a species in no way resembles or shares meaning with extinction of the sense of one's self as existing independently.

raymondtovo's picture

Your response is a classic example of denial . That is exactly why change will be tough. You take an adversarial position where the author, it seems is more reasonable and conscious.You focus on the unimportant.You look for the arsenest before you put the fire out.
What good is an existence if we have no air to breath?


Darrell Kitchen's picture

That's great. Thank you. At least you were being sufficiently accusatory. Thanks. I think!

sabina's picture

"Can't we all just get along?" as I seem to remember Rodney King saying some years ago?
I see this as the KEY thing that will prevent the world from being destroyed by the thoughtlessness
of mankind. Here we are, considering ourselves as the highest rung of the Living Ladder here on
Earth, and what are we doing? Destroying the Earth and ourselves as well--all because we can't
get along and solve the weighy problems that face us.
Are we going to destroy ourselves and this wonderful world BEFORE we are able to develop the
consciousness of what is needed to save it?

safwan's picture

It is true that all phenomena are constantly changing - as the article mentioned. However, Impermanence and Extinction are not the same.
I think that the author’s question "How does Buddhism inform our understanding of extinction?" - remained unanswered.

All phenomena of nature - including individual’s life, societies, planets, stars, galaxies etc... undergo the four phases of Emergence, Continuity, Decline and Disintegration - in an eternal cycle we refer to as the Cycle of Birth and Death. Perhaps the article was focused on the current indications of environmental decline leading to extinction. Extinction alone (or as a final step) does not fit in the teaching of Eternity of existence. Emergence after Extinction (or rebirth whenever the circumstances are convenient) is necessary to complete the view on life and existence.

While the physical aspect of existence undergoes the phases of birth and death, the mind does not. There is no cause or need for the mind to be exitnct ever. Nichiren quotes this wonderful passage from Mahavariochana Sutra (about the Bodhisattva-Buddha vehicle practice):

“Master of Secrets, these men in this way cast aside the concept of non-self and came to realize that the mind exists in a realm of complete freedom, and that the individual mind has from the beginning never known birth or death.”

joliminor's picture

There is studied evidence that a raise in consciousness on one affects the other, even in different areas of location, that is why its so important to be responsible for our own "progress", because yes one drop of water to another forms an ocean. So lets continue practicing mindfullness, awarness and compassion, we do matter, individually and in a group :) Thank you for this awakening reminder.

Dominic Gomez's picture

A good place to start would be a cultural movement to introduce Buddhist principles as bases for human activity, replacing greed, belligerence and stupidity with wisdom and compassion. Society can then begin to function as if this life is all there is and we had better create the greatest value while we can.

Alan Shusterman's picture

'Witnessing death galvanized the Buddha's resolve' is a profoundly moving thought. And yet, even in the Buddha's time (and ever since) witnessing death galvanized only the few, not the many.

Even though the signs of environmental 'death' appear around us on every side, it may not seem sufficiently immediate to galvanize us into action or awareness. We remain prisoners of culture, habit, grasping, and ignorance. But if there is a 'first step' that is always available, it is to resolve to look past our prison walls and to support anyone else who is willing to look and listen deeply.

Thanks for this inspiring article and the comments that it has generated.

eternallyperplexed's picture

Thanks for raising the parallels when we contemplate our individual demise (inescapable) and that of our species (ditto, but over a slightly different time-frame, unless we keep doing what we have over the past few hundred years). It is one thing to 'accept' that our sun will engulf 'us' in 4 billion years, quite another to think that our grandchildren may not live out anything like a natural lifespan, or even worse, do so without trees on the land or fish in the sea.
I am curious to know whether you and others find that the responses offered by Buddhist thought and practice to our individual suffering and transience are 'portable' to the contemplation of our self-destruction as a species. David Loy writes with great insight about how Buddhism offers an approach to thinking about the great poisons of our time (the Corporate-Military-Media complex) and how they perpetuate our collective greed, ill will, and delusion, but my curiosity is more about how one responds to everyday events emotionally and inter-personally, with the threat of extinction looming slowly over us, and likely to grow in everyone's awareness as catastrophes creep up on us.

jackelope65's picture

I am so glad that you pointed out that we as individuals in our own personal choices and practices have the greatest tools for change as governments and businesses only seek what they think we want. Our meditation develops the compassion that drives the changes for " Interbeing " as Thich Nat Hahn has so carefully illustrates. Thank you for this empowering lesson.