Thanks to Tom Valovic for submitting this Buddhist-leaning piece to the WwW blog for your consideration. – W
We are now deep in the midst of a transformation with no known outcome, often described in spiritual shorthand as simply “the shift” or by Buddhist Scholar Joanna Macy as “the Great Turning”. In today’s stranger than strange world, it seems clear that many of the things that have been talked about in Mayan and other spiritual traditions have proven to be true in a broad sense. The world as we know it is being radically changed and re-shaped, and one can only hope that it is a “creative destruction” taking place and not something else. The operant phrasing is “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”
What we are now experiencing has moved beyond the seemingly vague gestures of prophecy and towards harder evidence from the scientific community wherein scientists are now talking openly about the possibility of a “Sixth Extinction”. Sad to say, this one doesn’t involve meteorites and dinosaurs: it appears to be one of our own making. Climate change is the media shorthand for one set of changes; people can argue how much of this is man-made or not. The term even seems fairly tame in comparison to the other ecological disasters that we do know are caused by our own lack of mindful stewardship of earth’s finite resources. Oceans teeming with plastic is just one of the stark realities that spring to mind.
Of equal concern is the “viral” wave of negatively and fear sweeping across our new unified global awareness, constantly fed and stoked by electronic media. It seems impossible to get away from this unless one “lives off the grid” either figuratively or otherwise. This represents a truly disturbing downward spiral and race to the bottom as we are seeing played out in the political realm. World events now seem to be shaping up along the lines of previous World Wars I and II. Using the I Ching as source data and a computer, scientist/mystic Terence McKenna brilliantly traced these historical patterns in his Time Wave Zero experiment and found similar energetic patterns between this time period and that of the previous two world wars. What goes around, comes around.
There have been many discussions in spiritual venues about whether we are now living in the age of the Kali Yuga, the most difficult of the four world ages described in the Vedic tradition, characterized by the most widespread levels of human ignorance. In contemporary Mahayana Buddhism, the three kleshas of ignorance, attachment, and aversion are considered the source of all other kleshas. A klesha affecting all of humanity is a daunting problem indeed.
As the Emergence Project continued its work, we found that the yugas were not widely discussed in the contemporary Vedic circles and even less so by Buddhist teachers. We did find that the popular Vedic teacher Yogananda and his own teacher Sri Yukteswar had done extensive exploring of this topic and the nature of the four yugas: iron, bronze, silver and gold. There are also descriptions of the Kali Yuga to be found in various Vedic texts but you have to do some pretty extensive digging.
In contemporary Buddhist teachings, it’s even harder to run across discussions about world ages apart from the prophecies of Padmasambhava. In our time, the foremost and most visible teacher addressing this notion that I know of is the well-respected Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy who, as mentioned, talks about it as “The Great Turning”. A prominent Tibetan teacher, Lama Migmar Tseten, has been addressing the Kali Yuga in his talks. Lama Migmar is the author of “The Tibetan Book of Awakening” and has been the Buddhist chaplain at Harvard University for many years. Both he and Joanna Macy often speak of the spiritual challenges that we all face during this extraordinarily complex time in the arc of deep history. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the Bhutanese lama, filmmaker, and writer, has also addressed this topic in some of his talks.
Why isn’t there more mainstream discussion of the world ages in Buddhism? I surmise that a primary reason is that many of us in the Western Buddhist tradition are uncomfortable with the notion of prophecy. Often students seem to be attracted to Buddhism because of its empirical nature and the fact that it doesn’t contradict or collide with the fundamentals of Western science. However an important distinction needs to be made in that, while this is by and large true (and has been discussed by the Dalai Lama), Buddhism should not in any way be construed to be supportive of Western scientific materialism. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a greater appreciation for mystical traditions and realities because of its shamanic roots.
Many associate prophecy with Christian traditions and New Age spirituality and this seems to be a fair association. In general, it is with both of those sources that the greatest amount of discussion about deep historical cycles and the Shift have surfaced over the last twenty years or so, although much of the material in Christian tradition has been widely interpreted to be apocalyptic in nature which is to say, in simpler terms, doom and gloom. The problem with this, of course, is the possibility of self-fulfilling prophecy as opposed to a “hope for the best but prepare for the worst” approach in which it’s understood that the outcome of world events isn’t determined by forces of history or destiny but rather by the collective evolution of mind, the grand consensus that we all participate in, knowingly or not.
However, prophecy also exists within the Buddhist and Vedic traditions, although this does not seem to be widely known. You have to do some digging to find it. From a wider perspective, it could be argued that the study of world ages is not prophecy at all but merely the result of extended empirical observation about universal truths and fundamental human realities. And that, further, a number of spiritual traditions and indigenous cultures have done this amazing work and then handed down the resultant wisdom through a process of institutional memory so vast in scope as to be almost unimaginable. Sadly, aside from those dedicated to specifically preserving it, this “deep history” then fades into the oblivion of forgotten truth, given the eve- shortening attention spans now dominant in our Western world. Our own culture has not only forgotten these truths but unfortunately seems to have learned how to actively suppress them rather masterfully, declaring such matters to be outside the scope of science and hence the acceptable boundaries of reality itself.
Then there is the question of what to do about this morass we seem to be mired in, apart from work on the self which is more a less a given. There is much discussion of politics these days but, in a way, political solutions are the tail wagging the dog. As the French Poet Peguy said, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” It’s really in culture where deep transformation begins. Then and only then do those changes become expressed and implemented as an expression of any given political system. The illusion is that we can change culture by changing politics but, in fact, that change has to be deeper and more systemic. That said, I do believe it’s true that high-profile mindful activism and Engaged Buddhism can help change the deeper structures of culture.
The good news out of all of this is that deep cultural change usually happens when human ignorance, as the Vedic texts refer to it, has hit a low point. As we look around at the chaos and absurdities of modern life, we can see many instances of positive change growing like flowers through cracks in a brick wall. The Great Turning is a slow and gradual mega-event of unmistakable transformative power. It’s happening in the midst of what looks to the untrained eye like an existential train wreck. This long predicted transformation in fundamental human values and endeavor will require, above all, a spiritual response from each of us to not only work through the seemingly endless shadow material now surfacing but also to help give birth to another far more positive and unprecedented vista of joyful possibility in the ongoing evolution of mind.
Tom Valovic is a freelance writer based in the Boston area. He is the author of “Digital Mythologies” which discusses the relationship between spirituality, technology, and science. He co-founded the Emergence Project, a non-profit organization that researched the many traditions associated with the Great Turning. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.