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January 19, 2021

We are Living in an American Samsara.

Like many friends I’ve talked to in the last few months, and especially the last few weeks, the news had me in tears this morning before I’d finished my first cup of coffee.

The state of our country, once a bastion of democracy for the world to admire, now on the brink of tumbling under neo-Nazi domestic terrorists, is more terrifying for many of us than 9/11 because the threat comes from within and is so widespread and seemingly entrenched in all levels of society.

Over the last few days, I’ve repeatedly found myself in something of an out-of-body experience, watching the world from somewhere beyond, looking down on the earth to witness with horror the violence and fear, grief and anger that envelops us in this moment and seems to threaten our very existence. I think these fugue states are a coping mechanism, a way to distance and detach from the pain of the world we’re living in.

But they also help give us perspective.

Watching from a distance, the human story becomes more clear, and I am reminded that we are living in what the Buddhists call samsara, a world of suffering, or in Hindu cosmology, Kali Yuga, the last stage of a four-stage cycle of moral deterioration the world goes through before being destroyed and then reborn.

Kali Yuga is characterized as a dark age, an era with decreasing morality. The stages are depicted as a bull—the Dharma bull—which starts out with four legs in the first golden era of Satya Yuga. The four legs represent four pillars of morality: truth (satya); purity (saucha); simplicity (tapas); and mercy, kindness, and compassion (daya). In each subsequent age, the bull has one less leg, as humanity becomes increasingly disconnected from virtue, from the Divine.

By the last phase, the era we are in now—Kali Yuga—the Dharma bull struggles to stand on one leg. Humanity is immersed in ignorance, ruled by greed, ego, arrogance, and lust. It is a time characterized by violence, murder, and consumption of animals.

The last leg standing is Satyam (truth), but this too is destroyed by deceit. And when the last leg has been diminished by lies and fraud and corruption, our society is finally destroyed. In the mythology, after our destruction, the earth and human civilization are reborn. And we start the cycle over again—we return to Satya Yuga, the Dharma bull standing solidly on all four legs.

In many ways, I wish we would just get it over with and end all the suffering we have caused: to other humans, to the animals, to the earth.

I don’t know how to respond to a story like the one I read this morning about a Florida manatee being mutilated by having the name Trump carved into her flesh, or how to respond to Nazis storming the capital and half the country supporting them. It’s hard not to feel powerless and helpless, to wish that Shiva, the God of Destruction, would hurry up and put an end to the pain and fear and suffering. But the end will never be so merciful, or easy. And I don’t have faith we will be reborn if we destroy ourselves.

And so I believe we have no choice but to try to save ourselves, to save this civilization, to save the world.

I don’t know if the world we’re living in can literally be explained by the Yugas, or the Dharma Bull, or Shiva and Kali, but I do know with absolute certainty that the antidote to all of the abject depravity, cruelty, and violence that seems to be taking over is love and compassion and connection with each other and all life.

And so in the face of Confederate flags, nooses, Nazi paraphernalia, animal mutilations, ignorance, and darkness, we must strive to be the antidote, to be truth, to be light, to be mercy and compassion and love—to restore the Dharma bull to stand on all four legs and recreate a world that is just and merciful, where truth and goodness and compassion are valued over wealth and fame and brute force.

Because as the Buddha (maybe) said, “Hatred can never put an end to hatred. Love alone can.” And similar words from Martin Luther King Jr., “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”


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