This column written was written in the spring of 1999, shortly before the end of the world.
These days there seems to be more than a whiff of apocalypse in the mass consciousness. We can see it in the popularity of movies about asteroids hitting the earth and other end-of-the-world scenarios. Even the film "Titanic" has been seen as a parable for the collapse of a civilization based on technological hubris. Everything from climate change to the Mayan calendar is being cited as evidence of impending doom.
Much of this, of course, is based on what may be called the "odometer effect" of our calendar reaching the year 2000, with all those ominous zeroes. I am reminded of a Dilbert cartoon of a couple of years ago in which the super-intelligent rat character started his own religion, as a money-making scam. He went around preaching that the end was nigh and every better give him all their money before it was too late. When Dilbert expressed skepticism, the rat replied that "the ways of the Almighty are mysterious indeed, but some things we do know. He is fond of big round numbers and uses a base-ten counting system."
This points out in a droll way the arbitrary and conventional nature of our calendrical system, and that year with all the zeroes. We should also remember that not everyone on this planet uses the same dating system. Among others, Jews, Moslems and Buddhists all have their own calendars. In Buddhist countries, the years are counted from the parinibbana (death) of the Lord Buddha, traditionally dated at 543 BC. This makes next year 2543 (by Thai reckoning,) comfortably mid-millennium.
Buddhist scripture also does not support a prophecy of impending doom. Eastern religions in general do not have a linear historical view of time progressing from an ultimate beginning (creation) through to a predetermined end. Instead, Indian thought has always favoured a view of beginingless and endless time moving through immensely long cycles.
However, although the universe as a whole is seen as beginingless and endless, in Buddhism we do have a cosmological tradition dealing with the origin and fate of this planet earth. The primary sources are the 26th and 27th suttas of the Digha Nikaya. From a careful reading of these texts, it would appear that, according to Buddhist tradition, this age is one of slow decline with centuries to go before the next major crisis, and millennia before the end.
It is not my intention to argue for a literal interpretation of this mythological material, but it is instructive to consider the mechanism seen in these writings as driving the decay of the age. The decline is seen as primarily a moral one;
"Thus from the not giving of property to the needy, poverty becomes rife. From the growth of poverty, the taking of what is not given increases. From the increase of theft, the use of weapons increases. From the increased use of weapons, the taking of life increases - and from the increase in the taking of life, people's life-span decreases, their beauty decreases..." (Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, M. Walshe trans.)
Space prevents a proper analysis of this interesting material, suffice it to say that life spans will decrease very gradually until beings live an average of ten years only, reverting to an animalistic state. Then after a period of great strife known as the "sword time" the survivors will begin to reform their morals and begin a slow progression of increasing life-span. This up-cycle will reach its climax when beings live an average of eighty-thousand years (!) at the time of Maitreya, the coming Buddha.
The point I would like to make with this example is simply that not all the world's prophetic traditions point to an imminent crisis in this age. Of course, it will be pointed out that there are objective factors in the current scene threatening the survival of our civilization and perhaps of life itself. Indeed, modern man has developed several ways of destroying himself; ecological collapse, nuclear or biological war and a host of other potential disasters. All of these stem from our technological cunning outstripping our moral and spiritual development. The human race is like a gang of naughty boys playing with matches in a shed full of gasoline.
Both panic and complacency are states of mind to be avoided if we are to make it to 2100. What is the right way to live our lives in this time? It is no different from the right way to live in any age. The first thing is to live our private lives in a decent and humane manner. For Buddhists, this means following the Five Precepts (not killing, not stealing, not committing sexual misconduct, speaking truthfully and refraining from intoxicants.) Furthermore, it means following the virtues of generosity, compassion and contentment and avoiding the evil states of greed and hatred.