An extract from Embracing Extinction

An essay by Stephen Batchelor

Being in lockdown during this pandemic allows us a breathing space to consider the tragic absurdity of our existence. By letting the chatter of our fears and anxieties subside, we can hear the inner silence of our soul. As we breathe more easily, we can re-examine our lives from a space of non-reactive awareness.

Do we really want to be complicit in a consumerist lifestyle that is driving thousands of species to extinction? Do we wish to be part of an economic system that condemns millions of people to repetitive, meaningless work? Do we need even a fraction of the items we are daily encouraged to purchase, briefly enjoy, then discard? Do we like living in a world where a tiny minority control most of its resources and wealth, condemning millions to social exclusion and poverty? Do we want to contribute to making this planet uninhabitable each time we board another long flight to an overhyped tourist destination? If the answer to these questions is “no,” then we face the most challenging question of all: How are we to live together in this world?

From the perspective of Gaia, human beings are like a virus infecting the Earth. They replicate remorselessly, then strive to occupy every habitable niche on the surface of the planet. Their insatiable desires lead to the razing of rain forests, the destruction of coral reefs, the contamination of the oceans with plastic waste. Even when humans realize they are poisoning the environment, they continue to do so, their actions as detrimental to the Earth as the coronavirus is to the human body.

The word “virus” comes from the Latin virus, which means “poison.” When a virus penetrates a living cell it transforms that cell into a factory to reproduce itself, thereby “poisoning” the host organism. Buddhism often describes the fires of greed, dislike and stupidity as three poisons. As soon as one of these poisons gains a foothold in one’s mind, it too proliferates and overwhelms. Like physical viruses, these mental poisons keep replicating themselves. From Gotama’s perspective, the most insidious pandemic is the one that has always been with us but which we fail to notice.

The complete essay will be published by Tricycle magazine in August 2020.