At the beginning of the new millennium, I would like to ponder what the world will be like hundreds, if not thousands, of years from now. With the world getting smaller in time and space, it should not be very difficult to think long-term about its future — to say nothing of the future of our own country.

I don’t think it is far-fetched to contemplate the next 1,000 years of human existence. I’m inclined to think that it can be predicted relatively easily from what is happening around us. I say this because many people seem to believe it’s no use thinking about what may or may not happen in the next 10 centuries. They apparently feel that our planet won’t last very long as a habitat for human beings.

I remember hearing a lecture by Stephen Hawking, the genius physicist who developed a groundbreaking theory about black holes, during his visit to Japan. Afflicted with a chronic muscular disease, he was unable to speak. But using a voice synthesizer, he delivered a great lecture and answered questions from the audience.

Someone asked how many Earth-like, “civilized” planets exist in the universe. Hawking instantly replied there are “aearthbout 2 million” as far as he and his colleagues know. Another asked why, then, humans never get to see real extraterrestrial beings or space ships and why they appear only in fantasy novels and movies or are rumored only in connection with UFOs. To this, Hawking replied that a planet with a civilization as advanced as that of Earth becomes unstable at an accelerated pace and eventually extinguishes itself. I was deeply moved by his answer.

Taking a closer look at the planet we inhabit, we see that it is beset by a host of serious problems, such as global environmental deterioration, the population explosion and seemingly endless ethnic conflicts stemming from religious faiths that are supposed to save people. However, these are problems that can be solved one way or another if we exercise self-restraint and address them from the fundamental viewpoint of humanity or the earth as our habitat. For now, however, there are no solutions in sight.

Existence, of course, is the primordial theme for humans, yet human existence seems threatened in the not-so-distant future, a time frame that is predictable only by our gut feelings. This is not an apocalyptic prophecy of the doomsday variety.

We have seen vivid images of faraway corners of the universe being born or dying billions of light years away, thanks to the state-of-the-art Hubble telescope mounted on a satellite. What are we to make of this? I wonder if those images represent some divine revelation or a warning to humankind.

That aside, why can’t we solve the serious problems we face? Consider, for example, the bloodshed between Christians in Ireland, the religious conflict in the Balkans and the clash between Islamic fundamentalism and Western civilization. To outsiders, these problems may seem rather strange, but the parties involved have clear reasons to fight that stem from their past and present.

In the meantime, the population explosion threatens to drive humanity to extinction. As if to defuse the bomb, mysterious diseases — malicious byproducts of our civilization — are beginning to take a terrible toll of human lives in the developed countries. Perhaps only God can truly punish or amend these human failures.

A resident of Tokyo, I often see flocks of crows causing a public nuisance. Sometimes these sinister-looking birds create something close to an apocalyptic scene. They are so numerous that they exceed the limits of coexistence with urban residents. Yet attempts to get rid of them are bound to meet strong protests from animal-rights groups. How, and on what grounds, should we resolve such conflicts or differences in value judgments?

Our value systems are based on our inner wishes or desires — in other words, the ego in ourselves. But what is the intrinsic desire of humanity — the desire that all people have in common, regardless of the differences in position? It is time now to rethink the question.

It’s not very difficult to find the answer. Man’s fundamental wish is for survival. It is a concern as well as a wish for existence, the basic theme of philosophy, which is the most fundamental branch of learning.

Documentary records of living animals, such as those broadcast on television, tell us in vivid detail that they have a strong instinct for survival — that they do everything they can to protect and maintain their species. Humans are no exception.

We live in this world not merely to satisfy our egocentric desires, but to remind ourselves constantly that we owe our ancestry for what we are and that we also live for our posterity. Buddha taught us the deep meaning of the great “existence” and the great “time” that flows through it. On the cusp of the new millennium, it may be worthwhile to reflect on these teachings.

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