A Buddhist Analysis of Mayan Doomsday

Millions of tourists flocked to Mexico and Central America on December 21, 2012 to celebrate the completion of the 13th (and, some said, final) “baktun” or nearly 400-year period of the Mayan “long count” calendar. While doomsday profiteers peddled end of the world paranoia throughout cyberspace in an effort to sell books and videos to a global public, more sober minds countered the rhetoric. Dr. David Stuart, professor of Mesoamerican art and writing, explained that it simply marked the end of one period and the beginning of the next. “I think in our culture…or maybe globally — humans like to come up with excuses, sometimes, just to freak out,” said Stuart. “I think the Maya have become an excuse for something a bit larger. … It’s a reflection of a lot of tension, a lot of anxiety in our society.” [1]

Given the results of an international Reuters poll[2] that found that one in ten people believed that the end of the Mayan calendar could mark the end of the world, it would appear that December 21, 2012 had served as a global Rorschach test revealing that global spiritual tensions and anxieties had indeed infused the substance of a large segment of our collective lives.

In addition, it demonstrated how easily real global problems like climate change could be trumped by paranoia within global public discourse. As a result, I found myself compelled to reflect on the metaphysics of globalization and spirituality, and upon that foundation, offer a Buddhist perspective on effective symbolic systems of ultimate meaning that may help transform collective feelings of spiritual unease into feelings of hope. Such a transformation may prove indispensable in giving rise to the collective will necessary to face and overcome the transnational challenges of globalization in our interconnected era.

Some of the earliest philosophical work on globalization and spirituality emerged in the early twentieth century with Catholic philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky and Buddhist educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. Teilhard and Vernadsy in particular were pioneers in coining the term noosphere, a term derived from the Greek term noos, meaning mind, which theorized a layer of interconnected thinking and the synthesis of human consciousness encompassing the Earth.

In his lifetime, Teilhard viewed the development of the noosphere as a still emerging work in progress dependent upon humankind’s progress in undergoing spiritual evolution. His prediction of an evolutionary flowering of human consciousness has led some to today dub him the patron saint of the World Wide Web and interpret the modern network of cables and servers comprising the internet as the material infrastructure that will actualize the noosphere. Teilhard’s evolutionary spirituality predicts the reaching of an Omega Point which would mark the beginning of a new phase of humanization defined by the experience of a single global consciousness. However, exactly what this networking of imagination, creativity and consciousness would look like, how this intensification of communication would lead people to think and act together in harmony, and what it would take to bring humanity to the Omega Point was unclear.

Dr. David Sloan, professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University in New York, suggests that one key to reaching the Omega Point resides in cultivating a symbolic system of meaning that effectively motivates action. “Whatever goes on in the head is invisible to evolution unless it is manifested in terms of what people do,” said Sloan. “We want a meaning system that causes us to be highly motivated to act and, of course, do the right thing. And in modern life, that needs to be highly respectful of the facts of the world. And then we also have to have values that we’re more aware of than ever before and we must then use those values to consult those facts in order to plan our actions…in a world that’s increasingly complex and which requires management on a planetary scale.”[3]

In this regard, the Buddhist canon offers the concept of dependent origination which elucidates the inter-relatedness of all phenomena as a spiritual paradigm to understand the global community of life and the example of a bodhisattva as a global citizenship model of taking action for the happiness of others based on this worldview.

In a 1996 lecture delivered at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, Buddhist thinker Daisaku Ikeda identified wisdom, courage, and compassion as three core values that emerge from the dependent origination worldview of a bodhisattva, describing them as essential elements of global citizenship. Ikeda expanded on these three values as follows: “The wisdom to perceive the interconnectedness of all life. The courage not to fear or deny difference; but to respect and strive to understand people of different cultures, and to grow from encounters with them. The compassion to maintain an imaginative empathy that reaches beyond one’s immediate surroundings and extends to those suffering in distant places.”[4]

When it comes to employing such a symbolic system of values toward solving a real world transnational problem like climate change, “cultivating the compassion to maintain an imaginative empathy that reaches beyond one’s immediate surroundings” may prove most vital. As Andrew Revkin, Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding at Pace University has stated, “…if you’re not paying attention to the mind part, you could spend your life, whether as a journalist or a scientist articulating a problem and not have anyone actually engage with that problem. One of the other tough realities with issues like climate change is that it violates all the norms of the kinds of things that we actually pay attention to, which are usually near and now. You’re only going to have attraction when you have a true sense of a global community, you know, when you really do integrate that the atmosphere is a shared treasure…You’re not going to have that unless you have a planetary mind.”[5]

Image courtesy of WikiMedia.

[1] http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/12/20/167626648/maya-expert-the-end-of-times-is-our-idea-not-the-ancients

[2] http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/01/us-mayancalendar-poll-idUSBRE8400XH20120501

[3] http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/4967#main_content

[4] http://www.daisakuikeda.org/sub/resources/works/lect/lect-08.html

[5] http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/4967#main_content

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One thought on “A Buddhist Analysis of Mayan Doomsday

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, Danny. You write well.
    I agree that we must find a way to make something like global warming seem very relevant to each of us, aided by the awareness of our connectedness to each other worldwide.

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