Thursday, November 19, 2009

Day 56 (Round IV) "In the trenches": hit-by-a-bus edition

The universe can be a motherin' cold and hard place, full of suffering. There's a reason that the FIRST of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is "Life is suffering", though I prefer the slightly more nuanced "All lives contain suffering".

One of the reasons that I follow the Eightfold Path ("right view, right intention; right speech, right action, right livelihood; right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration") is because of the bedrock practicality and realism of its teachings. In Buddhist wisdom, bad things happen, not because somebody is a "sinner", or an unbelieving "infidel", or "non-Galt inferior", or not "one of the Chosen," or any of the other bullshit reasons which the world's wisdom traditions have sometimes tried to employ to explain-away suffering as something that "doesn't have to happen" or that "only happens to people other than we true believers."

That's bullshit.

The First Noble Truth says that "all lives contain suffering." This isn't pessimism or masochism: it's wisdom, because it acknowledges that suffering is inevitable, unpredictable, and inexplicable. That suffering is not tied to "goodness" or "badness".

Buddhism teaches that the cause of suffering is desire--unexamined, unthoughtful, desire. Especially to hold on to thing: the desire to try to make permanent that which is, and must be, impermanent.

Absolutely nothing in this Universe is permanent. All is in flux, every natural or created phenomenon is simultaneously arising AND passing-away. All is mutable, everything changes.

This is the fundamental teaching of the universe: that all things--love, wealth, health, joy, and life itself--will end. Seeking, in ignorance, to make these things permanent, when this is impossible, is what causes suffering.

When Allen Ginsberg visited the (then very young) 14th Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in north India, he asked--with typical, lovable, open-hearted impatience--what he should do about the frightening visions he was having while tripping on the hallucinogens which he had convinced himself could provide a short-cut to insight. His Holiness said, simply, "If you see horrible things, don't cling to them. If you see beautiful things, don't cling to them."

The great insight of this statement is the same as those above: the recognition, the deep, practiced, calm, "awake" realization, that both horrible things and beautiful things are impermanent--that both joy and suffering will end.

When you come to believe this, you come to a place in which living or dying begins not to matter quite so much.

Quite often, I will say to my students and younger colleagues, about a new/positive possibility, initiative, or idea, "Well, I'll make that happen. If I don't get hit by a bus first." Typically, the Texans are quite shocked--there seems to be an ethos that it is in bad taste, or bad luck, to mention the reality that you're going to die. Sooner, or later. Or sooner.

But I'm OK with being reminded of it. It reminds me that I don't really give a shit about eternity, or about a legacy, or a "lasting reputation", or the plaudits of my colleagues (though I sure do appreciate those last).

What I care about is making a positive impact on lives while I can--recognizing that this "while" represents a very, very, very brief time.

I want a life in which, as I lie down at the end of the day, or drive to work in the morning, or cross the street at noon in the face of a barreling bus, I'm OK with dying the next minute--knowing that day was a day of constructive, positive action. A day in which, as I've blogged before, I've made something and taught something...and ideally both

How do I make sure of this?

I'm a teacher.


Anonymous said...

That you are, sir, that you are.

sunshine said...

and boy, am I missing my copy of Japanese Death Poems right now. It's what November should be: a hot cup of tea, fire (turf if available), and a healthy reminder from Bassho of our mortality. :-) Beautiful post, Sensei.

Sarai said...

I loved this post.