The continuity of catastrophe

Ego seeks to impose order; accordingly, people employ a variety of creation myths to establish an orderly narrative about existence and human life, such as imagining the universe atop the shell of a monumental turtle to immortal gods able to create life at the snap of their fingers. These myths are an understandable response to human awareness of the catastrophic nature of being; mythical gods, or for that matter monumental turtles, represent an ultimate order not subject to catastrophe. In a similar vein, modern science posits the ultimate order of a unified initial singularity that existed before the Big Bang’s cosmic catastrophe created time and space.

Catastrophe, from our perspective, is unanticipated chaotic disordering. Each of us in our own way are a catastrophe in progress, apocalyptic harbingers of doom to the garden’s ripening sugar snap peas and tomatoes, for example. And the universe is catastrophic, so it’s little wonder that human life is constantly filled with catastrophe. Everything falls apart, eventually reabsorbed into the boundless continuity of inconceivable energy and information of which all and everything are made.

Chinese Hua Yan Buddhists of the 4th to 8th centuries A.D. viewed existence as a continuous process – integration and disintegration, order and catastrophe – interpenetrating, simultaneous and all pervasive. Scientifically, biologically and empirically, this is undeniably true. To wit, as we absorb and integrate the digestible parts of a three-cheese pizza into our bodies, we disintegrate and eliminate the otherwise indigestible remains of yesterday’s mushroom and sun-dried tomato omelette. In the drama of life and death, we play the part of beggar and borrower; everything we are, right down to our very last molecule, is on loan.

But catastrophe has another meaning: denouement, “the climax or end of a chain of events.” In our attempts to find and impose order we create rational narratives of cause and effect. When myopic, these narratives narrowly assign blame, creating the delusion that we can identify, then eliminate, forces of disorder. But every moment is a denouement, each ending simultaneously a beginning; the truth of being is too complex to possibly understand.

We inhabit a universe of inconceivable complexity, a constantly churning maelstrom of space-time filled with galaxies of visible matter and energy fields, knit together by forces we cannot see nor entirely fathom. From the summit of the ant hill of human civilization the view of our petty affairs dominates all else, but as climate change and pandemic reveal, we are – and have always been – subject to a continuous process of catastrophe far greater than we can control.

The continuity of existence is anything but orderly, which creates uncertainty and anguish among us; to calm ourselves we invent names and nouns. Nouns are unquestionably convenient to describe objects we rationally separate and identify, but they also support an illusion of fixity and permanence, qualities of human order we use to relieve our anguish. As human beings, however, we are inseparably immersed in the process of continuity. Seen this way, the the universe is constantly becoming, an active, dynamic flux appearing to us as matter and energy. In Hua Yan terms, existence has no nouns, only verbs.

Try to relax. Human catastrophe is just that; the disordering of ego’s imagined order. As my wise friend the honorable Mr. Peach says, “Did you really expect the dissolution of ego was going to be easy?”

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