This FAB advert appeared on one of the billboards on my street. The faces are startling and dreadful - transfixed by the lollies they hold. And when I first saw it I was horrified. I was horrified because in an instant it appeared to me as a gross symbol of the worst qualities of our age. I thought: ‘that’s what is happening to us!’ And in my gut I saw it as a caricature of our world.
Yesterday I read about the forest fires in Portugal, the news is almost always bad, and reading the right wing owned newspapers that are handed out free in London I tend to skip straight to the celebrity gossip section. We are drowning in plastic. Everywhere I see plastic and it breaks my heart. Even bananas are wrapped in plastic. When I started writing this I was in a cafe drinking iced coffee from a plastic container that will only be used once.
We know all the ways we are drowning. I watched Simon Amstel’s brilliant and very funny vegan documentary Carnage last week. Yesterday I skimmed an article a friend posted about widespread slavery and sweatshop labour. It reminded me of the Hunger Games – the labour camps in the 12 Districts that allow the unadulterated hedonism of the Capitol to continue – except it’s probably worse. But I will still continue to eat eggs and cheese – at least for a little longer – and quite likely will buy my next pair of trousers from H&M, same as the last four pairs cos they’re £15 and money is tight.
In the FAB advert a snake coils menacingly in the distance. The many maps of emotion found in Buddhism are the most intricate, well researched and nuanced that I know of, but at their core they all boil down to three basic emotions, or reactions to an external thing: grabbing, pushing away, and ignoring. These three, also known as desire, anger and ignorance, are traditionally represented by a cock, a snake and a pig. I suspect that the biggest problem we face is not the snake or the cock, but the pig.
I remember the English yogin Rigdzin Shikpo once saying that fascination is not a good thing from a Buddhist perspective. Our heroes in the FAB advert are completely fascinated by their lollies to the extent they have become gibbering idiots. It feels magnificent to be fascinated – if you look in their eyes you can see they are having a really fantastic time, a FAB time – but it’s a shame because soon the bubbling mud will cover them completely.
There’s a Buddhist story that is very similar to this advert, and when the billboard on my street caught my eye – when I was myself fascinated – I thought about this story and wondered if it is the same or different. It’s from the Zen tradition and tells of a man in an equally terrible situation. The man is hanging from a vine on the edge of a cliff. Above him a hungry tiger is snarling. Below him are two more hungry tigers. He can see that a black mouse and a white mouse are beginning to gnaw through the vine he is holding. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he notices a wild strawberry within arm’s reach. He eats the strawberry, which we are told tastes delicious, and because it is from the Zen tradition the story ends there.
Occasionally something punctures our self absorption and we are unable to ignore that the world is going to hell in a handbasket as they say. Rigdzin Shikpo wrote an excellent book called Never turn away. When we are reminded of how utterly tragic our world can be: the circling snakes, the rising slime and muck, the mice that inadvertently are helping the tigers get fed; it’s hard not to be utterly and completely heartbroken and it’s hard not to turn away.
And perhaps the most suffocating thing of all can be the apprehension of the enormity of the problems and the devastating sense of our own powerlessness to effect any reasonable change. The other day I watched a talk on YouTube by James Finley, a Christian teacher and student of Thomas Merton. He said something that really struck me and stayed with me for a long time afterwards. He told it much more eloquently than I paraphrase here, but the essence of what he said was that we do not need to help the whole world, we just need to help one person at a time.
As a tradition Buddhism is very explicit that the little things we do do matter. There is a vast and profound patience inherent in the Mahayana Buddhist teachings. In an old Buddhist text – The Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish – it’s said:
Do not take lightly small good deeds,
Believing they can hardly help:
For drops of water one by one
In time can fill a giant pot.
It may be too late for our drowning friends eating ice lollies in the desert whilst snakes circle, but as long as we have the option to do even the smallest kindness, it will never be too late for us.