Are We Doomed? Yes! No! Don’t Know!

A ‘Bad Buddhist’ Manifesto

Wen Stephenson
Oct 6 · 7 min read
Photo by VanveenJF on Unsplash

(Adapted from remarks given at the Rubin Museum in New York City for the program “We Are Doomed. What Would Buddha Do?”)

Speaking honestly about the climate catastrophe is hard. One reason for this at times excruciating difficulty is that it requires us to acknowledge and to live with what we know — as well as what we don’t know.

As one who writes and speaks about climate and politics, perhaps I’m not supposed to admit this, but the fact is, most days I don’t know what to say — much less do — as I stare into our climate and political abyss. Frankly, I wonder if any of us really do. The situation is unprecedented. It’s overwhelming. All bets are off. And for a lot of us who are trying to face this, there can be a kind of paralysis — a blank, frozen, deer-in-the-headlights feeling.

Which, as it turns out, is a pretty good description of how I oftentimes feel when I’m sitting face to face with my longtime Zen teacher — a respected Zen master whose own teacher, Seung Sahn Soen-sa, always emphasized what he called “don’t know mind.” (“What am I? Don’t know! What is the meaning of my life? Don’t know! Only go straight — don’t know. Try try try, ten thousand years non-stop. Save all beings from suffering.”) And so I’m sitting there, and my teacher has given me a kong-an, or koan, one of those Zen riddles or impossibly paradoxical questions that the student is supposed to answer without hesitation — and I’m stuck, unable to answer, unable to move or speak, until after several seconds, as is the custom, I hit the floor with the palm of my hand — boom! — and grunt, “Don’t know!” And my teacher smiles at me compassionately and shakes his head. “You think too much. You read too many books. Put it all down. You already have the answer. Show me. Teach me.” Which, of course, is no help at all, given my attachment to words and thinking — and, yes, knowing — and I fail again. (I don’t always fail, but mostly I do.)

I’m still relatively new at this. I’ve only been a student of Zen Buddhist teaching and practice for about a dozen years, and I hasten to add, not a very “good” one. I’m a “bad” Buddhist. In fact I’m such a bad Buddhist that I’m actually — dare I say it? — a Christian, of sorts. (The not very “good” sort.) Like other spiritually restless types — Thomas Merton comes to mind — I find the two traditions, when held in balance, to be mutually supporting.

So it’s with a keen awareness of my own attachments and limitations and constant failings that I approach the topic at hand and the whole question hanging over it — itself a kind of koan, an unanswerable question that nevertheless demands an answer: Is it too late? Are we, to put it politely, doomed? And what would Buddha do?

First of all, what does “too late” even mean? Too late for what? And what is “doom”? And who’s the “we” in that statement? In what sense have “we” — as humans, as living creatures — ever not been doomed? Isn’t “doom” just another word for impermanence? I mean, the Earth itself will someday no longer exist.

But even if we’re only speaking specifically in terms of the topic at hand, climate catastrophe, is “doom” really the word for it? Is it really a simple binary, doomed or not doomed? Of course, according to most climate scientists, it’s almost certainly too late to prevent “catastrophic” climate change on some scale, at least by any humane definition; indeed it’s already happening in many parts of the world, starting with the poorest, most vulnerable, and least powerful. But the same scientists tell us there’s still a wide range of possible outcomes within this century and beyond. Just how catastrophic the human situation will get, and how fast, is unknown — and still depends a great deal on what human beings do, most importantly what we do politically, right now and in the coming years. And no matter what happens, many billions of human beings, and countless non-human, will live into the coming decades and centuries, however catastrophic they may be — and precisely because of that, our choices and actions still matter a great deal. Perhaps more than we can imagine. Perhaps more than ever before in human history. Because we don’t know exactly when it will be “too late” (again, too late for what?), or what may prove to be possible — politically, technologically, humanly — if enough of us have the resolve to keep pushing hard enough, relentlessly enough. We simply don’t know. That’s the point.

Perhaps, then, it’s better to say that we’re both “doomed” and “not doomed,” that it’s both “too late” and “not too late” — or, at least, not entirely too late, quite yet.

What, then, would Buddha do? It’s a question that might interest anyone, not only Buddhists, but in order to answer it, one needs to know what “Buddha” is. I don’t mean the Buddha, the quasi-historical figure who sat beneath a tree, woke up to the morning star, and founded Buddhism, but rather, Buddhism’s ultimate truth, the ineffable essence of its teaching. And, as it happens, the question “What is Buddha?” turns out to be one of the oldest of koans in the Zen (or Chan) Buddhist tradition — which means, admittedly, that we may not get very far with this line of inquiry. When a monk asked the great Chan master Yun-men, who lived a thousand years ago in China, this very question — “What is Buddha?” — Yun-men answered: “Dry shit on a stick!”

OK. But maybe that’s not all Buddha is. Hopefully not.

Maybe another way to pose the question, “What is Buddha?” — and here I go thinking too much again — is simply to ask, “What is compassion?” After all, no compassion, no Buddha; no compassion, no Buddhism. What is Buddha? What is compassion?

Surely compassion is more than just a word, more than just an abstract concept. What is it, then? Don’t know? As my teacher would tell me, just saying the words “don’t know” won’t cut it. “Show me. Right here in this moment. You already have the answer.

Even a child knows what compassion is. Someone is sad and needs a hug, you give them a hug. Someone is thirsty, you give them something to drink. Someone is sick, you tend to them. Someone is in danger, you protect them. Someone is suffering as a direct result of your actions, or inaction, you change your behavior so that they will no longer suffer. Someone is suffering because of your government’s actions or inaction, or because of the oppressive political system under which you live, you work with others and try to change your government or your whole political system.

Maybe Buddha is simply compassionate direct action. Maybe compassion is as easy as a hug and as hard as a revolution.

There’s an old saying: “Zen is sitting, Zen is walking, Zen is lying down.” So, what would Buddha do? Don’t know. But maybe Buddha would be sitting-in. Maybe Buddha would be walking, marching, in a crowd. Maybe Buddha would be lying down — or locking down — in front of pipelines and bulldozers and militarized police. Maybe Buddha would be shutting shit down. Maybe Buddha would revolt.

Maybe Mahatma Gandhi, and everyone with Gandhi, was Buddha. Maybe the Reverend Dr. King, and everyone with King, was Buddha. Maybe everyone at Standing Rock was Buddha. Maybe Black Lives Matter and the Poor People’s Campaign and #AbolishICE — maybe all the kids walking out of school to join the climate strikes and demand that we face up to the facts — are all Buddha. Maybe all of us, including the police, are Buddha — if we only wake up and realize it.

Are we doomed? Yes! No! Don’t know! What would Buddha do? Don’t know! But as my teacher would tell me, just saying “don’t know” won’t cut it. “Try try try, ten thousand years non-stop. Save all beings from suffering.”

Near the end of my book about the climate-justice movement, I note how the American poet Gary Snyder, a Zen Buddhist, wrote a short prose-and-verse piece in 2001 called “After Bamiyan,” about the destruction of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. In this piece, Snyder recalls his correspondence at the time with a fellow Buddhist who remarked that since Buddhism teaches the impermanence of all things, what did any of it really matter?

To which Snyder replies, “Ah yes… impermanence. But this is never a reason to let compassion and focus slide, or to pass off the sufferings of others because they are merely impermanent beings.”

And then Snyder quotes a famous haiku by the Japanese poet Issa, which he translates:

This dewdrop world

Is but a dewdrop world

And yet —

Snyder adds: “That ‘and yet’ is our perennial practice. And maybe the root of the Dharma.”

Is it too late? Are we doomed? What would Buddha do?

[Boom!]

Don’t know!

And yet —


Wen Stephenson is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon) and a contributor to The Nation, The Baffler, Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. In a previous life, he ran/edited TheAtlantic.com and the Boston Globe’s Sunday Ideas section. Twitter: @wenstephenson

Wen Stephenson

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Journalist, essayist: The Nation, The Baffler, LA Review of Books, etc. Author, What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other: bit.ly/1dg37OB. wenstephenson.com

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