I have been fascinated by religion and its associated mythologies, philosophies, and practices for well over half of my life now. I was raised Catholic, but a very liberal Catholic, and when – around the age of 12 or 13 – I was given the choice of going to Church or not, I chose not. Fast forward a few years, and I created a very small community of non-believers, dubbed the “Helena Heretics.” I think I still have an unused email address at yahoo with that name. Then I expanded out to “Montana Freethinkers,” which attracted a few more people. Keep in mind that Montana even now has only around one million people and is geographically larger than Germany.
Then I found philosophy. Can I get an amen? Then the study of religions, including Buddhism. Hallelujah.
That’s where I am today, a firm believer in the salvific power of education with all of its contemplation, discussion, debate and so on. Whatever we choose to believe at the end of the day, we’re all immeasurably better off if we understand the history of those beliefs, the people who originated and promulgated them, the way that wars, disease, ecology and invention shaped them, and how they fit in to the world we live in today. And so, when I was invited to join fellow Patheos writers in screening forthcoming episodes of “The Story of God” and sharing thoughts each week, I was delighted.
For those unacquainted with the show, it is produced by the National Geographic Channel and features Morgan Freeman who has–appropriately perhaps–played God in two feature films: Bruce Almighty (2003) and Evan Almighty (2007).
The “Story of God” series premiered on Sunday with “Beyond Death” and follows up with “Apocalypse,” airing April 10. It is the second of these, on the apocalypse, that I viewed (though I tracked down “Beyond Death” and will dive into that shortly…
In this episode Freeman takes us through Jerusalem (for Judaism), Rome (for Christianity), and a Mosque in New York City to talk with a formerly radicalized Muslim who spent time in an Egyptian prison and left a changed, newly liberal, man. The footage is information-dense and cinematically beautiful. Each of these religions shares a common idea of an end time, though the details vary in interesting ways. (Update: I owe it to former Patheos Blogger Rabia Chaudry for pointing out “The Story of God”s massive missteps with Islam in this episode. See her on twitter here.)
We are taken next to a psychology lab in Chicago, where an experiment called “shock at any time” is used to measure startle responses on subjects who either know about and anticipate a coming electrical shock or do not. Those who can anticipate the coming shock are startled much less, suggesting that anticipating any kind of negative life-experiences might help us cope with them better. Extrapolating out a bit from anticipated pain to anticipating the end of the world might suggest that apocalyptic stories are a common human coping mechanism.
Next, we visit a Mayan temple where one of those famous calendars is examined and we find out that December 21, 2012 is just the end of one particular epoch or age, a time which, had the Mayans still been around, would have been celebrated with one giant party, and maybe a human sacrifice or two.
And finally -almost- we get to the best part, imho: India.
There we are introduced to Hinduism and Buddhism, but the majority of the discussion is around Buddhism and the time Freeman spends with the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. As an instructor in Buddhist Philosophy for the Antioch Education Abroad in India program in 2010 and 2014, I had the pleasure of meeting with the Karmapa each year with students in Bodhgaya.
Born in 1985, he is still a young man and was barely older than our students in 2010. Yet, as Freeman notes in the episode, he is a remarkably humble man, tasked as the recognized reincarnation of the previous Karmapa, with leading millions of followers in their spiritual journeys. The Karmapa also has a great sense of humor, and when Freeman asks if he can ask “a philosophical question” the Karmapa’s face distorts this way and that before replying, “I’ll try.” That question is about the idea of “the end” and the Karmapa quite wisely responds that in a sense every day is an end, but there is no concept in Buddhism of a “final end,” that we live instead in a perpetual cycle in which every ending is a new beginning.
However, as I wrote in this 2012 post, Buddhism does have a story about an end-time:
Buddhism has always held that all phenomena are transitory, including both the teaching of Buddhism as we know it and the world itself. While the Dharma -speaking of the Truth [the Buddha] came to understand – is universal, eternal, and uninfluenced by particular human circumstances, the sāsana, or lineage of teachings handed down for the last 2400+ years, will come to an end.
Likewise, Buddhism inherited the cosmology of Proto-Hinduism (Brahmanism), which held that humans today are living in an age of decline. Part of this sense of decline is the belief in growing immorality and warfare. Conversely, the level of emphasis this belief has taken on in Buddhist cultures often reflects a world around them engulfed in war or simply persecution. The belief exists in all schools of Buddhism, though it took on heightened urgency in China. There the idea that the decline would have a phase of “final dharma” (mofa), starting in 552 C.E. was established, and in Japan the same belief, termed mappō was transmitted with the updated start-date of 1052 C.E.
So there is sort of a vision of apocalypse in Buddhism, and it was taken very seriously in some Buddhist cultures at certain times. The idea seems out of favor now though and, as the Karmapa instructs Freeman, the important thing for many Buddhists is meditation as a process of “personal revelation” or enlightenment.
The final scenes of the show take us to New Orleans where a couple has established their own church in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. When one of them tells Freeman that he thanks God for the storm because without it, they wouldn’t have started the church or met the people around them now, Freeman responds with a smile, “you know, that’s very Buddhist.”
The episode airs Sunday; you can see the trailer here and as they say, “check your local listings.”
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