Some do not understand that we must die, But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.
~ The Buddha
On December 21st, 2012, it was predicted the world is going to end a violent death with asteroid impacts, tsunamis, and coastlines falling into the ocean. Or at least that is what the movies and conspiracy theorists want you to believe. The doomsday warnings based on the Mayan calendar are either a cause for real concern or laughter for people (as an update to this article, that obviously didn’t happen).
But for practicing Buddhists, we know the world is ending, but in a different way than you think.
The End Happens Slowly
The Buddha told us that our world, with all its attachments, is not permanent (a concept known as “impermanence” in Buddhism). It changes and ends all the time:
- Once powerful civilizations can slowly die off like a whisper or a gradual decline (the Romans, Aztecs, Mayans, etc., can all attest to this)
- The normality we expect of the world can change gradually (societal, political, cultural, geographical, etc.)
- Beings that have been around for thousands or millions of years go extinct
- Loved ones come and go
- Your health and wealth can fluctuate and eventually end
As the Buddha said:
All conditioned things are impermanent — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.
Essentially the Buddha is saying “things are gonna change no matter what…so fundamentally understand and accept that”. And if you can accept that truth, it goes a long way to reducing or eliminating suffering in your life.
Saving the World, Buddha Style
While the world is not permanent, this doesn’t mean we can’t actually do something to save it from ourselves. Because Buddhists believe in the “interdependent” nature of all life, we know that through “dependent origination” nothing can exist in isolation.
When we create a dam to create a power station, we know that it impacts the wildlife and plant life that lived off that water. This in turn impacts people who live downstream who need the water, animals, and plant life to survive.
By being aware that all our actions have consequences, we can learn to take better care of our planet, resources, wildlife, plant life, and especially each other. If we learn to protect what we have, and share, the need for many wars and destruction can possibly be averted. Often the struggle for resources and land causes conflict which is a very real ‘end of the world’ for millions.
How to Be Fearless of the End
While Buddhists are human just like anyone else, capable of fear and pain, they can often look at death differently. The Buddha had us look at the world in a different way, and in this way we can transcend death:
For consider the world – A bubble, a mirage. See the world as it is, And death shall overlook you.
But what does this really mean? The Buddha is saying:
- The ‘world’ is an analogy for your mind, you create the illusion (or mirage) of the world you want or expect due to our ignorance of the truth the Buddha taught, and the delusion that results
- For many, one illusion is that they won’t get sick or die for a very long time (even though they know deep down they might)
- By “bursting” this bubble (it may happen with something as small as a pin-prick), you can see the illusion for what it really is
- Death comes to everyone, but in reality, death only destroys your mind and the dreams and illusions you created
- If you are aware of this reality, eventually death cannot take away the illusion because you have already transcended what “death” can take from you
Pretty deep huh? Like everything in Buddhism, the Buddha doesn’t want you to take his word for it, but for you to discover (or “uncover”) them for yourself (click here to learn more about seeing the world as it truly is)!
A Sutta to Remember
Aṅguttara Nikāya (4. Book of the Fours – 45. To Rohitassa)
On one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi, in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Then Rohitassa, the son of a deva, in the far extreme of the night, his extreme radiance lighting up the entirety of Jeta’s Grove, went to the Blessed One. On arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, he stood to one side. As he was standing there he said to the Blessed One: “Is it possible, lord, by traveling, to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away or reappear?”
“I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear.”
“It is amazing, lord, and awesome, how well that has been said by the Blessed One: ‘I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear.’ Once I was a seer named Rohitassa, a student of Bhoja, a powerful sky-walker. My speed was as fast as that of a strong archer—well-trained, a practiced hand, a practiced sharp-shooter—shooting a light arrow across the shadow of a palm tree. My stride stretched as far as the east sea is from the west. To me, endowed with such speed, such a stride, there came the desire: ‘I will go traveling to the end of the cosmos.’ I—with a one-hundred year life, a one-hundred year span—spent one hundred years traveling—apart from the time spent on eating, drinking, chewing & tasting, urinating & defecating, and sleeping to fight off weariness—but without reaching the end of the cosmos I died along the way. So it is amazing, lord, and awesome, how well that has been said by the Blessed One: ‘I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear.’”
[When this was said, the Blessed One responded:] “I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering & stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.”
It’s not to be reached by traveling,
the end of the cosmos—
And it’s not without reaching
the end of the cosmos
that there is release
from suffering & stress.
So, truly, the wise one,
an expert with regard to the cosmos,
a knower of the end of the cosmos,
having fulfilled the holy life,
knowing the cosmos’ end,
doesn’t long for this cosmos
or for any other.
- Featured Image: CC photo by Vargo818 on Flickr
- This article was created before the 12/21/2012 “Mayan apocalypse/end of the world” fear that was occurring, and updated afterward as noted in the beginning.
- Recommended Reading: Happy (Buddhist) Impermanence Day! By Alan Peto, Impermanence in Buddhism By Barbara O’Brien, and Impermanence is Buddha Nature from Lions Roar.
- Recommended Books: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings By Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, and Unique Characteristics of Buddhism By Ven. Master Hsing Yun (free booklet)
The information contained in this article is for general information purposes only. Alan Peto assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this site. The information contained is provided on an as-is basis with no guarantees of completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or timeliness, and without any warranties of any kind whatsoever, express or implied. Read full disclaimer here.
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