Let one’s thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world — above, below, and across — without any obstruction, without any hatred, without any enmity. ~ Metta Sutra
We are featuring some of David Loy’s recent writing on our website to introduce you to this thoughtful and brilliant Zen teacher, writer and environmental activist. David will be offering an Eco-Dharma lecture and Workshop at Mountain Cloud, May 18-20. Click here for details about the Eco-Dharma weekend.
There is another implication to be highlighted: the most important thing that humans create is meaning. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, famously claimed that “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” But to examine the universe objectively and conclude that it is pointless misses the point. Who is comprehending that the universe is pointless? Someone separate from it, or someone who is an inextricable part of it? If cosmologists themselves are a manifestation of the same universe that cosmologists study, with them the universe is comprehending itself. Does that change the universe? When we come to see the universe in a new way, it’s the universe that is coming to see itself in a new way.
Weinberg’s bleak scientific conclusion is very different from the traditional mythologies of perhaps all ancient civilizations. For them the world was objectively meaningful in the sense that humans are a part of a larger pattern and that we have an important role to play in maintaining that order. In ancient Egypt, rituals were necessary to keep the sky goddess Nut separated from the earth god Geb, or chaos would overwhelm the earth. Mesoamerican civilizations believed that human sacrifices were necessary to sustain the cosmos, the most famous example being the Aztec practice of cutting out the hearts of war victims as offerings to the sun god.
Few people still believe in such mythologies, fortunately, yet belief that the universe is ultimately pointless is problematic in a different fashion. From one perspective meaning is inescapable: it is built into our priorities. If my focus is “looking out for number one,” the meaning of my life becomes the promotion of my own best interests. If my own well-being cannot really be separated from the well-being of others, then that basic orientation may be based on a delusion; and if that delusion is widespread, the meaning built into the functioning of a whole society can be self-stultifying and even self-destructive. Such a motivation may nonetheless seem appropriate if the universe is pointless and our species is nothing more than an evolutionary accident. But if we are a way that the generative cosmos becomes self-aware, there are more interesting possibilities.
One uniquely human characteristic, emphasized by Buddhism, is that we can develop the ability to “dis-identify” from anything and everything, letting go not only of the individual sense of separate self but also of collective selves: dissociating from dualisms such as patriarchy, nationalism, racism, even species-ism (“we’re human, not lower animals”). Meditation develops such nonattachment, yet the point of such letting-go is not to dissociate from everything but to realize our nonduality with everything.
That human beings are the only species (so far as we know) that can know it is a manifestation of the entire cosmos opens up a possibility that may need to be embraced if we are to survive the crises that now confront us. Instead of continuing to exploit the earth’s ecosystems for our own supposed benefit, we can choose to work for the well-being of the whole. That we are not separate from the rest of the biosphere makes the whole earth our body, in effect, which implies not only a special understanding but also a special role in response to that realization. As the Metta Sutta declares:
Let one’s thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world — above, below, and across — without any obstruction, without any hatred, without any enmity.
To ask whether the universe itself is objectively meaningful or meaningless is to miss the point — as if the universe were outside us, or simply there without us. When we do not erase ourselves from the picture, we can see that we are meaning-makers, the beings by which the universe introduces a new scale of significance and value.
The Responsibility of Being Special
If we are special because of our potential, we must choose. We are free to derive the meaning of our lives from delusions about who we are — from dysfunctional stories about what the world is and how we fit into it—or we can derive that meaning from insight into our nonduality with the rest of the world. In either case, there are consequences.
The problem with basing one’s life on delusions is that the consequences are unlikely to be good. As well as producing poetry and cathedrals, our creativity has recently found expression in world wars, genocides, and weapons of mass destruction, to mention a few disagreeable examples. We are in the early stages of an ecological crisis that threatens the natural and cultural legacy of future generations, including a mass extinction event that may lead to the disappearance of half the earth’s plant and animal species within a century, according to E. O. Wilson—an extinction event that may include ourselves.
What needs to be done so that our extraordinary co-creative powers will promote collective well-being (collective in this case referring to all the ecosystems of the biosphere)?
Must we evolve further — not biologically but culturally — in order to survive at all?
From a Buddhist perspective our unethical tendencies ultimately derive from a misapprehension: the delusion of a self that is separate from others, a big mistake for a species whose well-being is not separate from the well-being of other species. Insofar as we are ignorant of our true nature, individual and collective self-preoccupation naturally motivates us to be selfish. Without the compassion that arises when we feel empathy — not only with other humans, but with the whole of the biosphere — it is likely that civilization as we know it will not survive many more generations.
In either case, we seem fated to be special. If we continue to devastate the rest of the biosphere, we are arguably the worst species on earth: a cancer of the biosphere. If, however, humanity can wake up to become its collective bodhisattva —undertaking the long-term task of repairing the rupture between us and Mother Earth — perhaps we as a species will fulfill the unique potential of precious human life.
Are Human’s Special was originally published in Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2017. We obtained a pdf of the article from David’s website, davidloy.org. Click here to download the full article.