Dark Ages, Golden Ages
Without quite intending it, we find ourselves over the years burdened by more and more responsibilities, difficulties, and doubts. It seems practically a consequence of growing older. Time passes like a river — so smooth to our puzzled eyes — but leaves, as if by magic, these boulders on our backs. All of us but the very young sense this weight and wonder why, since we asked for none of it, it settles on us and will not be shirked. Troubles old and new bear on us despite all the care we take to persevere ourselves and to build our castles against a turbulent world. We will all, of course, acknowledge the possibility of catastrophes which could plunge us into genuine grief at any moment, but why now, as we live in relative comfort and health, should we feel this weight on the heart, this strain of apprehension?
Little annoyances and thorns of worry are just part of life, we tell ourselves as we make our way between the twin imponderables of birth and death. If we are brave, determined, and optimistic, that should be enough, should it not? Yet even in our joys there falls the shadow — the menace of great forces around us, the obscure sadness looking back at us from the mirror, the occasional sense of overwhelming futility and frailty. We look around, wondering who is to blame? If no culprit is forthcoming, we may turn with suspicion to the great, grim world at large and wonder if its influence goes deeper than the indigestion occasioned by the evening news. Even if we are personally healthy and prosperous, perhaps malaise of the times has subtly infected us. If the age we live in is corrupt and decadent can we remain altogether uncontaminated? What sort of age is this, anyway?
Probably all but the most fanatical optimists have from time to time, while hearing of the latest crime or war or degradation of human decency, considered the proposition that the world has gone screaming mad. The iniquity of mankind these days seems to surpass the merely incidental and to approach willful dementia. Moral values retreat before the onslaught of hysterical cruelty and lust, and everywhere we see wicked fantasy enthroned — mankind and nations having lost faith in the god and the right. Science, once hailed as our deliverance, labors mightily and produces bombs and video games to pacify — in one way or another — the frenzied multitudes. But there is no peace. Drugs, alcohol, and insanity hang on the communal body like leeches, draining what life remains and imparting a fever of nihilism that burns fearfully bright with decadent delights. There is a murmur of woe but little resistance, for who can turn the trend of history? The honest man — never easy to find — fades from view as evildoers are first excused, then celebrated by the timid and the envious. Like a worn-out carousel, our society jangles, and wheezes toward collapse.
The instinct of most of us in times such as these is to keep our heads down and hang onto our pleasures and possessions and bear our pains as best we may. We wish to run no risks in a world with chance so badly skewed against us. The result is that we are trapped, closeted with our fears while the storm rages worse outside. Here in this tight space dread grows, and the possibilities for remedy are few. On television maniacally cheerful people contrive to sell us happiness. Buy! Enjoy! Experience! Out on the streets glowering zealots paste up posters urging struggle, war, confusion, and the death of their enemies — after which, presumably, mankind will enjoy bliss. Civilization appears to be spiralling down into awesome decadence, and the fall of Rome comes to the minds of those not altogether oblivious to history. It’s an unpleasant thought, so we take shelter in our small delights or else in the blandishments of psychological and religious quacks who — for a fee to defray the costs of their own indulgences — will tell us anything we want to hear. Do we feel guilty? It’s probably someone else’s fault. Are we tempted by vice? Go ahead, fulfill yourselves! Will we have to give up anything to achieve happiness? Oh, never! Perish the thought! A golden age is dawning.
Most of us avoid the worst excesses of the age — not out of sturdy virtue so much as out of a trembling sense of self-preservation. But all of us, Buddhists included, feel the sickness in our surroundings and grow fearful, hiding where we can. In a dark age, who can blame our caution?
Yet the trouble with such caution is that it may mask mere cowardice or sloth. Let us examine the matter a little closer. Does this hobbling, failing century really qualify as a dark age? Without pressing evidence to the contrary, we are apt to regard our own woes as the worst ever endured by the race. (Self-aggrandizement comes in curious forms.) But if we read a bit of history we will be hard put to champion the depravity of our own age against the past. If we define dark age as a period when the light of understanding is eclipsed and evils multiply, what age of history may not be called dark? The perfidy and wretchedness of our ancestors must give us pause and take the edge of our own complaints. Wars, plagues, persecutions, and crimes abound in every era. There’s plenty of horror to go around, and the special poignancy of the present version is only that it’s happening to us.
However dark the world may appear to us, we are not justified in retreating to the extremes of hedonism or nihilism. There is a task to be done, and that task is not — as many people believe — to readjust self, society, or world to fit our blind desires. Rather it is to train ourselves to the point where we know reality for what it is and free ourselves of the burdens of passion that now oppress us. This task faces all Buddhists, though we are reluctant to admit it and tend to excuse ourselves on the grounds that the times are so bad and responsibilities so weighty that we cannot — most regrettably — take on the additional project of earnest Dhamma practice. The woes of nations and the afflictions of persons are thereby perversely made reasons for not doing anything, and the way of Dhamma is implicitly called a burden. As if it were not suffering that first impelled the Buddha toward liberation. As if the Dhamma were not the means to that liberation.
Some of us may even rationalize to the extent of believing that since the times are too difficult for us to make a genuine effort toward emancipation, they are probably too difficult for everybody. The days of high attainment are gone, and with them any reason to exert ourselves beyond a modicum of morality and ritual observance. With war, crime, and madness round about, we have enough trouble just saving our skins. Better to keep our heads down and (over another glass of wine) lament cruel fate.
Yet to look honestly at ourselves and the Dhamma must bring us to another conclusion. One era may be better or worse than another — as the world goes — but old age, sickness, and death come to all. Anxiety, depression and grief come to all. If we cannot overcome them now, how should we ever face them in heaven or a golden age when we are swimming in bliss? What motivation would we have then? A dark age will pass in five years or five hundred, the age of dukkha never. This pervasive suffering, coarse or fine, settles like dust on us — swiftly or slowly with the winds of circumstance. We can’t outwait it, yearning for a golden age which, if it ever came, could only enervate us and leave us none the wiser. Let it rain champagne, the heart will still thirst.
No time is worthier than now, for we have no other time. The past expires at our feet; the future is being wrought for our present action. We need not pretend that the world is good or evolving toward an age of light, or deny the dangers that beset us in this savage century, but we should rouse ourselves with the knowledge that the serenity and happiness preached by the Buddha remain as accessible now as ever, transcending and abolishing the jungle of the years. A thorn in the mind is the father of all griefs. The Buddha teaches us to pull it out.
The Author-Leonard Price
The author, an American from Louisville, Kentucky, graduated from Dartmouth after majoring in English. An actor and a writer, he spends his free time in reading, meditating, and Dhamma-activities.