A Buddhist Depiction of Ecological Dystopia

This comment also appears in the issue “Dharma, Degrowth, and Climate Change” (Volume 5, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue

In “The Tale of Stormtamer,” the age-old jātaka tale of ancient India meets “cli-fi,” an emergent subset of science fiction dealing with climate change and its potentially cataclysmic effects.  Invoking the cadence of spoken word, Austin Pick transports us to a future urban dystopia, Chicago’s iconic Wrigley Field transformed into a shanty-town of climate refugees. Like the half-drowned city of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, Chicago is portrayed with tenement buildings peering out of the rising tides of Lake Michigan with a series of canals where roads once were. Presiding over this wasteland is the buddha ‘Treya, who transforms the shanty town into a place of refuge, a regenerated urban garden and buddha-field for turning the wheel of dharma once again.

A writer, outdoorsman, and contemplative practitioner, Austin Pick joins contemporary authors in adapting Buddhist genres to ecological concerns. As with Gary Snyder’s witty “Smokey the Bear Sutra,” Pick transforms the jātaka tale about the Buddha’s past lives into a penetrating reflection on the ecological challenges before us. To signal its Buddhist pretext, he leads with “This is how I heard it,” a slick rephrasing of “Thus have I heard” (evam mayā śrutam), the opening phrase of Buddhist sermons. As a twist on the classic jātaka, he casts the future buddha Maitreya (‘Treya) in female form, looking back on our own times as climate disruption intensifies and ordinary people watch the specter of ecological disasters unfold, too overwhelmed and paralyzed to mobilize. His tale draws attention to our collective failure to effectively confront climate change and, in spite of this, the enduring prospect of human heroism and resilience.

From an undesignated future time, ‘Treya narrates the tale of Stormtamer in “the Long Before, when the Great Panic was presaged everywhere but ignored by all but a wise and obstinate few.” The protagonist of the present-day story, Victor Demara, is a journalist who chases storms to deliver their harrowing images to a global viewing public. Mesmerized by the raw power of nature, Victor and his sidekick Marcus chase a tornado across the Great Plains to their own detriment as they get trapped in a small town being ripped apart by its fury. There is a hint that the tornado engulfing Victor is an allegory for humanity’s insatiable drive toward material acquisition. What tames the storm, as it spirals out of control destroying everything in its path, is an act of heroic self-sacrifice and insight. In this regard, “The Tale of Stormtamer” echoes the “gift of the body” motif in jātaka literature, as when the buddha-to-be offered his body to a starving tigress on the brink of eating her own cubs. Victor’s sacrifice is coupled with insight into the interdependence of all things, suggesting the need (in Buddhist terms) for humanity to reorient itself away from the individualistic presumptions undergirding hyper-consumerism in order to make a significant shift in our collective ways of life.

A key intervention in this cautionary tale is the ascription of buddha-nature to the natural elements, breaking down the divide between human and nature, inner and outer. This corresponds to the kind of “intra-subjectivity” articulated in Zach Walsh’s introductory essay to this special issue on “Dharma, Degrowth, and Climate Change.” It is only when Victor no longer sees the raging storm as something outside himself that he can tame it by stilling his own mind and heart. The collapse of inner and outer vantage points invites readers to reflect on our own emotional entanglement with consumerism and its connection to climate change.  If we are not fundamentally separate from our world, if the appearances are influenced by mind—as some Buddhism theories suggest—then what is called for is a new way of seeing and inhabiting our world. This is not so much an appeal for austerity measures as for a perceptual shift that can inform our approach to human flourishing and the stewardship of our planet.

In the end, Victor’s transformation from a “storm chaser” to Stormtamer through his heroic act of self-sacrifice did not prevent the dystopian future from which the story is narrated. His legacy nonetheless continues in his rebirth as ‘Treya, who transforms the wreckage into a buddha-field, suggesting that chaos and destruction contain the possibility of regeneration and human flourishing. In Pick’s vision, it is never too early or too late to attempt to tame the storm, shifting from an observer chasing after the news to an active agent for change, creating alternative horizons for the future. Yet there is also no guarantee that we can reverse the causes and conditions of climate change already set into motion.

Holly Gayley is Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on Buddhist literature in contemporary Tibet, including biographical writings, epistolary literature, and works of advice to the laity. She is author of Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet (Columbia University Press, 2016) and co-editor of A Gathering of Brilliant Moons: Practice Advice from the Rimé Masters of Tibet (Wisdom Publications, 2017). Her articles on ethical reform spearheaded by cleric-scholars at Larung Buddhist Academy have appeared in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Contemporary Buddhism, Himalaya Journal, and Journal of Religious Ethics