Signing My Will: Impermanence (Part II)

It’s not hard to understand the ordinary operations of impermanence. Things come & go, including people. Human beings are caught in “the relentless grip of time,” as the physicist Sean Carroll writes in The Big Picture.” And various versions of the self wax & wane over the course of an hour, a day, a month, a year, a lifetime. Most human beings most of the time are only minimally aware that they are so gripped by time & change. It’s that big change at the end that eats away at consciousness & that we try to forget about, though of course we can’t really forget about it fully. It’s a mistake to push awareness of mortality into the unconscious, though. It is bound to manifest elsewhere. For much of my life the attempt to suppress thoughts of death emerged in various forms of misbehavior that I’m too modest (or embarrassed) to report here. Suffice it to say I only made myself more miserable.

But my marker on the gameboard has suddenly been advanced by some invisible hand so as to make me acutely aware of my own approaching mortality. Timor mortis contrubat me, wrote the poet William Dunbar at the beginning of the 16th century. The fear of death confounds me. He was ill & thinking of all the fine poets who had preceded him into death; he lists them by name & how they were carried off. He repeats the line in every stanza of a twenty-eight stanza poem, hammering it home & near the end writes, “Sen he has all my brether tane, / He will naught let me live alane.”Dunbar has seen what’s coming & now knows that poetry will not protect him. Perhaps it’s silly to imagine it ever could, but those old Scots bards were said to have magical powers.

Last week I downloaded & completed three legal documents: Last Will & Testament; Healthcare proxy; & Power of Attorney, the latter two giving my wife C. power to act in my name when I cannot, the first instructing her how I would like my megre assets distributed after my death. Working on these documents projected me into the future with a strange, ambiguous affect. On one hand, I was extending my control into the future by telling others what I wanted in a legally enforceable way; but on the other hand I was projecting myself into a future in which only my ghost existed–in these documents. I felt a little like a ghost in constructing them. Once they were completed, of course, they had to be witnessed & signed.

It turns out to be fairly difficult to assemble three witnesses, a notary & the two principals involved. So I set up a meeting at the hospital where I am being treated. The notary (a vice-president in the hospital administration & a very friendly woman about my age) met us & we sat in an alcove of the lobby, signing & grabbing staff to serve as witnesses as necessary. All done in fifteen minutes, during which we made small talk & joked about this & that, knowing but ignoring why I was concluding this business at this particular time. (I was the one in a wheelchair.) I don’t think we were being dishonest. We were strangers, after all, dealing with reality. But I suspect there was just a touch of unease in each of those random witnesses, picked out today to be confronted with a reminder of mortality. A dark wing passing through the sunlight, trailing a shadow. That’s probably why we laughed so much. (They work in a hospital–maybe they don’t need to be reminded.)

Flux & flow are the way of the world, or so the most advanced physics attests, to say nothing of several sophisticated sacred traditions. But this condition is by no means all Whitmanian slip & slide & spiritual smooth sailing. Change–especially the big change at the end–will punch you in the head, knock your feet out from under you, frighten you out of your wits & rub you raw. These days, I live with the big change on intimate terms. My cancer could spread, or decide that the drug we are using against it tastes like candy & go wild. But I actually don’t think in those terms most of the time. Most of the time I talk with friends, or eat a meal, or read, or listen to music, or write this blog, or make poems, or practice Zen. In dreams the shadows will descend in a confused mass sometimes, without resolving into a pattern. A particularly sharp stab of pain, or a new pain anywhere, will produce a cry of anguish or pulse of anxiety

There are those who seek to mitigate the vertigo induced by this kind of radical impermanence by finding some sort of foundation–traditionally, something like God, but taking many other forms, from dharmas1 to selfish genes & blind watchmakers. At this point it would be simple enough to slide off toward a discussion of entropy & the arrow of time, but I’ll just stipulate that the physics confirms a more intuitive insight that Buddhists have been developing for two & a half millennia: Everything is changing all the time, but our perceptual & psychological systems smooth out change & seek patterns that allow us to function in the world.2 Normally, then, we see the world through a series of filters & reducing valves. “Through a glass, darkly,” as Corinthians has it. I’ve said in a recent post (“Reincarnation”) that the universe seems just strange enough to me to allow for some subtle flow of energy out of one’s consciousness at death. But what happens to it or where it goes I would not pretend to know.

 

 

 

Show 2 footnotes

  1. The word dharma comes from the ancient religions of India and is found in Hindu and Jain teachings as well as Buddhist. Its original meaning is something like “natural law.” Its root word, dham, means “to uphold” or “to support.” In this broad sense, common to many religious traditions, dharma is that which upholds the natural order of the universe. This meaning is part of the Buddhist understanding also. (Source: About.com)
  2. Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception makes this idea central to his thesis about psychedelic drugs.

“Reincarnation”

As a Buddhist, there is a sense in which I am “supposed” to “believe” in reincarnation, or, more subtly, rebirth.1 I certainly do not accept the picture of rebirth in which a person’s soul slips out of their nostrils at the moment of death & enters the body of a newborn human baby; nor do I accept the idea that one can recollect past lives as Shakespeare or Ulysses S. Grant. (Why, in this version, is the past life always a famous person?) Nor do I credit all the (mostly Christian) accounts in drugstore counter books about going to heaven & returning to tell about it. These have mostly turned out to be hoaxes anyway. This version of the soul & this sort of reincarnation is easy to dismiss as naive, at best.

But long before I became a Buddhist, I was not a good materialist, but more of an empiricist, & I had the sense even then that the fabric of the universe was far stranger than we had led ourselves to believe. Little hints or inklings of a greater mind during dreams or hallucinations, often revealing something about past events that later proved to be true, or future events that “came true” in certain ways. Perhaps this is just deja vu & can be explained physiologically or neurologically, but I don’t think this covers all the cases. Once I became a Zen student, different ways of thinking about rebirth became available to me. The metaphor I like best is that of lighting one candle from another just as the first candle gutters & goes out. Is the new flame the same flame? No. It is caused by the first candle but has no relationship of identity with it. There are just flames going out & flames being lit. One has to understand these “flames” & “candles” as representing in this metaphor any being in the universe, sentient or insentient.

I also think many of the accounts of Karma we find in popular Buddhism–to say nothing of the wider culture–are oversimplified & naive. You’re a bad person, consequently, you get reborn as a bug, or in one of the elaborate eschatological realms invented by Brahmin priests & taken over by early Buddhism. All my empiricist alarm bells start ringing at such a picture. Robert Thurman, in The Yoga of Everyday Life, argues for a kind of Buddhist Lamarckianism in which good actions here & now produce moral improvement later.

My own first impulse would be to imagine more randomness in the system–that which particular candle one lights as one’s own is going out is to some extent a matter of chance. In this way of looking at it, the universe is seething with possible connections & the person exiting this lovely scene of oceans & clouds gets plugged into the next available slot, which, statistically, most likely is the body of a bacterium, the most numerous life form on the planet. But I don’t rule out the possibility of moral improvement across space & time. Perhaps each helping action one performs “in this life” prepares one’s residual energy for more refined work in future rebirths, but I also have the sense that we live all our “births” at the same time. (Robert Thurman says this present life is a bardo,2 a transition stage from one life to another. I honestly do not know.

There is another problem behind these others & that is what gets transferred from one birth to the next. Is it a substance? A subtle form of energy? I’ve already rejected as naive the notion of a soul moving from one body to another but with little post-it notes of former identities stuck to its incorporeal carcass. In Zen & many other forms of Buddhism self or soul is a construct, without any permanent identity–just some temporary piles of different kinds of stuff hanging together–loosely amalgamated like the dust & stone of a comet. What part of that self gets transferred over to the other side? The very idea is incoherent.

Those piles of stuff are of course the skandhas of Buddhist psychology, which strikes me as very subtle. Those heaps that constitute the self have no metaphysical status, they are the results of conditions & cause & effect. When the constituted person ceases to exist, the heaps dissolve back into the flow of existence. So what little grain of identity gets reborn. I think it can only be the force of one’s moral actions in “this life” that goes forward.  If one performs good acts now & here, the reverberations of those acts continue outward infinitely, which is a kind of immortality. And there may be some kind of little boost that kicks in at the moment of death. Again, I don’t know & I refuse to presume.

But this doesn’t get me quite back to my starting point. Since I fell ill, I have naturally enough begun wondering what I will experience at the moment of death. Will my consciousness simply go out & the force of my accumulated actions jiggle the structure of the universe ever so slightly? That seems most likely. But it seems just barely possible that some flake of consciousness will detach itself from my identity & make a journey through some bardo to or toward . . . something else. I’d like to be awake for that, but of course there would be no “I” to be awake. I have to end by saying, again, I don’t know. One thing I do know, however, is that current science in its materialistic turn has missed out on the study of the world’s full range of phenomena. There is more going on in any part of this existence than we can begin to imagine.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. this is not actually true, strictly speaking, thus the scare quotes. As a Buddhist, I don’t have to believe in any particular doctrine.
  2. The intermediary stage between death and rebirth—where a soul who has just left its body experiences a . . . “virtual reality” where its life flashes before its eyes, and it gets to witness first-hand the karma it has accumulated during that lifetime.

John Donne: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (No. IV) & the Buddhist Doctrine of Dependent Origination

As part of my project to revisit some of my boyhood favorites (poets, novelists, ice-cream flavors, etc.) I’ve been rereading John Donne, though in this case I take up my project with a slight difference: Since I was in high school & began reading poetry seriously, I’ve admired & studied Donne’s poems, especially the lyrics & Satires. Those are the poems of a young man, bursting with energy & invective. But this week I’ve been reading Donne’s Devotions— a work I had no more than glanced at previously; written in prose, they represent the thoughts of a dying man. So I am revisiting the writer, not by rereading pieces I already know, but by taking up something new of Donne’s. The Devotions are written in a prose that could be cut into a block of granite:

It is too little to call man a little world; except God, man is a diminutive to nothing. Man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world; than the world doth, nay, than the world is. And if those pieces were extended, and stretched out in man as they are in the world, man would be the giant, and the world the dwarf; the world but the map, and the man the world. If all the veins in our bodies were extended to rivers, and all the sinews to veins of mines, and all the muscles that lie upon one another, to hills, and all the bones to quarries of stones, and all the other pieces to the proportion of those which correspond to them in the world, the air would be too little for this orb of man to move in, the firmament would be but enough for this star; for, as the whole world hath nothing, to which something in man doth not answer, so hath man many pieces of which the whole world hath no representation.

I offer this excerpt not only as an example of Donne’s mastery as a prose stylist, but because they suggest to me certain ideas familiar from the central Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination. As for the style, read carefully through the sentence that begins “If only . . .” & then look at the way it is framed by the three short sentences that precede it.

Everything is interconnected. Everything affects everything else. Everything that is, is because other things are. This is the teaching of Dependent Origination. [ . . . ] No beings or phenomena exist independently of other beings and phenomena. All beings and phenomena are caused to exist by other beings and phenomena. Further, the beings and phenomena thus caused to exist cause other beings and phenomena to exist.1 

99% of bacteria, by far the most numerous organisms on the planet, cannot be cultured in isolation in petri dishes for the convenience of scientists & graduate students. There is a microbiologist named Slava Epstein profiled in the June 20th, 2016 New Yorker, who is trying, with a few others, to study the 99%. In fact, I would argue, he is studying a concrete example of dependent origination, not just as empirical science, but as metaphysics.

Let’s step back & look at Donne’s metaphor, if that’s what it is, that links a person’s body with the earth. If we unwound the veins in our bodies, they would become rivers, our bones quarries. So far, this is only an example of the kind of elaborate extended metaphor Donne was & is well-known for. But a metaphor, to more than decorative, should plunge the reader into uncertainty, should point toward genuinely unsettling possibilities. Donne is considering his own approaching death in the Devotions, and with it the dissolution of his body. Part IV bears the Latin title Medicusque vocatur. (The physician is sent for). Renaissance scientists had begun doing actual post-mortems, so the imagery of veins & bones has an immediacy it would have lacked a couple of hundred years before Donne wrote. 

Buddhism famously sees everything in the universe as interconnected. Some misconstrue this as meaning there is no difference between one thing & another–a weird kind of epistemological relativism. All things are not one thing–just look around you. “But in their essence . . .” the guru objects. There are no essences; Buddhism insists on a profoundly existential way of looking at the world. And the world is staggeringly multitudinous. The doctrine of dependent origination teaches that the multitude of things, phenomena, processes, objects cause each other to exist. One might say that only the relationships between things exist, not the things themselves, in any essential sense. But even this is a hedge. Even the relationships are empty. From the Dhammapada:

When this is, that is.
This arising, that arises.
When this is not, that is not.
This ceasing, that ceases.

Donne clearly wants to demonstrate the deep interconnectedness of things, but he is caught in a hierarchical system of thought. It was the Renaissance (& A.O. Lovejoy) that gave us the Great Chain of Being, with God at the top & worms, I suppose, at the bottom. Beneath God are the Angels of various sorts, and then Man. Donne explicitly evokes this system of thought in the opening sentences of the fourth Devotion: “It is too little to call man a little world; except God, man is a diminutive to nothing.” This would seem to run counter to the idea of interdependence (Thich Nhat Hanh names it interbeing) so central to Buddhist teaching. So if I am asserting a similarity between the Great Chain & Dependent Arising, where do I see it & how do I surmount this particular difficulty?

First, the Renaissance was drunk on correspondences between the macrocosm & the microcosm. Ideas of this sort saturated the air Donne breathed. Even so, look how he slyly reverses the expected relationship: instead of Man the microcosm representing Earth the macrocosm, Donne writes, “man is diminutive to nothing.” This observation gives my assertion a little breathing room, at least in so far as it shows Donne willing to mess around with parts of the prevailing paradigm. But the poet is still stuck with two (at least) fundamentals that he cannot abandon:2 Those is stuck with his hierarchy & with an eternity in which things actually exist. It is only in the sublunary world.

In consequence, he cannot get to something like dependent origination, despite his metaphor’s demands–at least from the point of view of this reader. I haven’t proven my case, then. Donne’s metaphor is suggestive of interconnectedness & dependent arising, but he is blocked for approaching more closely by the fundamental structure of his society & in particular the intellectual climate of the aristocracy. We do not know what was going on in middle class households, or the huts of peasants. Locations for invention & change–especially the former–that should not be ignored.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Barbara O’Brien, About Religion. See also: BuddhaNet (1) & BuddhaNet (2).
  2. I’m not blaming Donne here; he could no more do away with these concepts than a leopard could change its spots.

Sesshin at ZMM

Note: I have moved this earlier post to the top because I have added a long update. I deeply, deeply miss not being at sesshin this week. I think that may come out in the way I track the first full day of sesshin–I like just going over in in my mind.

The Summer Solstice Sesshin begins tomorrow at Zen Mountain Monastery, my spiritual home. I have sat a couple of dozen of these retreats over the last three years or so: I always went in filled with trepidation & emerged at the end of the week (usually) filled with gratitude. How I envy my fellow sangha-members who will be beginning sesshin tomorrow with a reading of the Sesshin Precautions, a list of guidelines for maintaining the inner & outer silence of the retreat. Under different circumstances, I would be arriving at ZMM tomorrow. But since I have the circumstances I have, I will try to bear in mind the spirit of the retreat during the coming week. I will not be able to sit the long hours of zazen, of course, but I want to respect & bolster that silence as best I can right here in my perch beside the river.

Update: I am trying in imagination & home practice to go through each day of sesshin with my sangha at ZMM. Monday: People arrive & stow their gear in their rooms or cabins; the retreat silence has not yet begun, so people chat & bring each other up to date, new people are greeted; there is dinner at 6:00, with training for service positions; most people continue to chat in the dining room or go to their quarters to settle in; at 8:00 everyone is settled in the zendo for the reading of the Precautions–the guidelines for sesshin: Silence (except for giving or receiving instructions during work-practice); averted eyes (don’t look directly at anyone, focus inwardly; don’t exchange greetings when you meet someone in passing; be on time, stay on the schedule (or a senior monastic, even the abbot, my roust you out of bed); there are others about dressing modestly (not a problem is you are a formal student wearing a robe that covers you from shoulders to ankles), not sleeping naked, when & where to wear shoes, etc. After the reading of the Precautions, the Four Bodhisattva Vows are chanted, the gong is struck, and the sesshin is in silence. People go up to bed. Tuesday: Depending on the time of year, the jikido bangs the big drum in the zendo three times & makes the round of all the hallways ringing a bell to announce the beginning of the day at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning, though some people will have gotten up already in order to sit some extra zazen; there is a bit of a scramble for bathrooms & after that everyone heads for the zendo to sit two or three periods of zazen, depending on the season,which is followed by Oryoki, a formally organized breakfast in the zendo.1 After Oryoki, there are two hours of work practice. Then back to the zendo for two periods of zazen, followed by Oryoki lunch. Then there is an hour-long break, unless you have been assigned to the kitchen clean-up crew, which reduces this to about 40 minutes. A little before 2:00 pm, the drum sounds, students climb back into their robes & everyone goes again to the zendo, where everyone will now sit five half-hour periods of zazen2 broken by six or seven minutes of kinhin, walking meditation, either in the zendo or outdoors, weather permitting. At the end of this mental & physical ordeal, the gong is struck & everyone goes down to the dining room for informal (non-Oryoki) dinner, all in silence, with averted eyes, of course. (The food is universally excellent at ZMM, astonishing since the Head Cook & assistant are drawn from the residents & they have usually had no prior training as cooks. This is one of the central elements that support practice during a sesshin. People are very thoughtful about their food–or should be. Oryoki means “just enough,” by the way). After dinner, a couple more periods of zazen, then lights out.

Second Update: This post is becoming a little unshapely, but I want to give a much briefer description of the subsequent days of sesshin. After the long, hard Tuesday, Wednesday to Friday have virtually identical structures. Instead of the very long period of zazen that occurs on Tuesday, two of those periods are replaced by a teisho (dharma talk) from the abbot or one of the senior students. So the “container” remains much the same, but the daily experience of the middle days of sesshin follow–at least for me–a path that becomes familiar after having done a few sesshin. (I’ve talked to other students who confirm that I am not alone in the general outlines of my perceptions here.) Wednesday is hard because one is not quite ready, even yet, while at the same time knowing there is yet a long way to go. From Wednesday to Saturday, also, one meets with one’s teacher in dokusan, face-to-face teaching. You don’t get a lot of sleep during sesshin & you must focus to practice precisely, so you’re tired. Sometimes by late on Wednesday, I will have a couple of invigorating periods of zazen & energy comes flooding back. This can be a problem if it happens just before lights out. I usually have one night of sleeplessness during sesshin, often Wednesday. Thursday is my favorite day–at best I sail through it. Friday can easily turn ragged; if you are working on a koan, your teacher has probably rejected at least one of your presentations, which is frustrating. Also, by Friday, most people are bone-tired, except perhaps some of the monastics who have done this every month for years. Saturday is the last full day. Usually I get a second wind & feel happy, but it is inevitable that my thoughts begin to turn toward home. Instead of working on my koan, it will occur to me during zazen that I have to complete some task when I return home. Saturday follows the regular pattern, but the silence of sesshin is lifted just before dinner so that people may talk to each other.This first meal outside the silence can be joyous or difficult. If one has had a tough sesshin, bright conversation may not be so easy to take part in. But for the most part, sesshin participants laugh & talk, sometimes turning to serious matters, sometimes just joking around. On Sunday morning sesshin participants take part in the regular Sunday service at the monastery along with the public. There’s a big lunch after the service & then one does indeed drive home to take up the tasks of everyday life, “an ordinary person of no rank.” There is a real emotional arc to sesshin that serves psychologically to hear the teachings & to go deep into the emptiness of the self.3

I have written the above account as [two] single blocks because that is often how it feels experientially, though one makes little markers throughout the day & the week to gauge progress. It would probably be better not to do this, but I’ve always found it necessary to give myself little reassurances such as, “Lunch is finished, here’s rest-practice, half the day is past,” or even, glancing at my watch, “Twelve more minutes of rest-practice, ahh.”4 I deeply, deeply miss not being at sesshin this week.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. I’m going to write an entire post on Oryoki.
  2. This was always the hardest period of the whole sesshin for me. On subsequent days, two of those five periods will be replaced by a talk from the abbot or one of the senior students. During talks, one is allowed to discreetly shift from one zazen position to another. The mind during talks is facing outward.
  3. A note on the language of this paragraph: I found myself disconcerted to be jumping around the ragged collection of pronouns offered by English, especially those marking point of view, jumping from first to second to formal third person. Partly the is the result of forcing the pronouns to serve both the purpose of addressing the reader (“you,” “one”) & characterizing the experience of the participants, both singly & as a collective (“I,” “we”). A jumpy point of view.
  4. At ZMM, everything is a practice–something undertaken with conscious engagement, even a nap.

Sangha

I have been so calmed & uplifted just now by the visit with my North Country sangha1 this morning. The sangha is one of the “three treasures” of Buddhism, along with the Buddha & the Dharma. It is not impossible, but it is very difficult, to practice Zen outside the context of a sangha.

My friends came just before ten, we sat fifteen minutes of zazen, our dogs being remarkably & unusually quiet, then they went out & stacked our firewood for two hours in the pouring rain. After that samu,2 they came in again & we drank tea together. Doesn’t sound like much, you say? I cannot even begin to express how precious this contact with my fellow Zen students is at this time in my life. At any time, yes, it would be lovely; but given my pain & the lethargy that follows pain, the transformation of mind / heart / body I feel right here right now is almost unbelievable. One is not used to medicines that work so quickly & dramatically & to such good effect.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Sangha (Pali: सङ्घ saṅgha; Sanskrit: संघ saṃgha; Chinese: 僧伽; pinyin: Sēngjiā; Tibetan: དགེ་འདུན་ dge ‘dun) is a word in Pali and Sanskrit meaning “association”, “assembly,” “company” or “community” and most commonly refers in Buddhism to the monastic community of ordained Buddhist monks or nuns.
  2. Samu (作務 samu?) refers to physical work that is done with mindfulness as a simple, practical and spiritual practice. Samu might include activities such as cleaning, cooking, gardening, or chopping wood. Samu is a way to bring mindfulness into everyday life as well as to get things done. Samu is popular in Zen monasteries, particularly as a means of maintaining the monastery and as practicing mindfulness.

Medicine Buddha

It would be a comfort to believe that chanting the dharini of the Medicine Buddha Bhaisajyaguru could cure cancer. Seeking comfort, people sometimes cultivate such a belief.  To the extent that people gain comfort from such a belief & the practices flowing from it, I have nothing critical to say.  Sick people will find relief if it’s available. Call in mind-over-matter, or the placebo effect, it seems clear that comfort & relief. They will also look for it even if it is not available & this slips over into a distortion of reality, delusion. (“They?” I know this person–it is me.) That’s something we Buddhists like to avoid when we can. No doubt it easier to to maintain healthy, non-delusional belief within the context of a culture-wide belief system. Such cultural systems are disappearing from the world–and have been doing so for at least a couple of centuries–under the pressures of modernity.

The scholar & teacher of Tibetan Buddhism Robert Thurman does what is most difficult for a Western Buddhist: He adopts the traditional Tibetan worldview that Western Science is wrong in its most fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality. As far as I can tell from reading & listening to a number of Thurman’s lectures, he is completely sincere in this. He can say, for example, that the fundamental underlying force in the universe is bliss [nirvana] & that it was the Buddha who discovered it. Thurman follows this with the idea that the Buddha’s discovery constituted the founding of a “buddhist science.” Thurman follows this up with what I take to be a metaphysical or spiritual insight I find valuable. Referring to the Four Noble Truths, Thurman remarks that the big deal here is not the first truth, that our world is characterized by suffering, but the third, that there is relief from suffering. “Any fool can invent suffering,” he says–“it takes real genius to see that there is a solution, nirvana.” Like many other religious modernisers, Thurman wants to find a justification in science for his belief in “buddhist science.” I don’t really get this. I remember seeing the same phenomenon when my parents used to drag me to the Grace Brethren church in San Jose. A lot of those men were engineers & I used to think that was why they tried so hard to find ways to align their faith with science; unfortunately, this almost always meant distorting or misunderstanding science.

Thurman is such a fine & energetic explicator of Buddhism I wish I could join him, but I can’t. There is a kind of old-fashioned film called, Travel with Robert Thurman to Bhutan, in which a group of students does exactly that. Along the way he delivers a couple of dharma talks that are pitch-perfect & offer genuine insight into liberation; the film ends, however, with Thurman lecturing Bhutanese education officials on the need to oppose modernization. The logic of this, flowing from his initial assumptions, is flawless. As practical politics it leaves a good deal to be desired.

And yet, imagine a post-apocalyptic planet in which some small pocket have kept “buddhist science” alive & imagine that over centuries a new world culture emerging based on the idea of relief from suffering. Well, I never liked that John Lennon song anyway. For one thing, it’s not “easy if you try.”

Nevertheless, I love the idea of a medicine buddha & the images are striking. Bhaisajyaguru is almost always portrayed with deeply blue skin, much darker than the Hindu god Krishna, for example. In both traditions, a distinction is made between light blue, associated with turquoise, and dark blue, associated with lapis lazuli. One could get lost in the tangles of Indian color symbolism & never emerge from the tangles, but it seems safe to say that early Indian culture, both Vedic & (later) Buddhist, associated light blue / turquoise with the sublime & infinite. Just spend some time staring at the sky. So here I am out on the cutting edges of modernity, yet trying to find some use for these images from a traditional culture that retain something powerful for me. Perhaps I can only read & understand them in symbolic & aesthetic ways. But is that a diminishment? Isn’t that how the peasants have always understood such images?