It is very early autumn here in the north country, the tops of the maples just beginning to change color while the lower branches remain green. The days are warm, the nights cool. This morning after Carole left for work I took the dogs out on the deck with me and sat for a while enjoying the still-cool morning air, the warm sun, the breeze. The sky was an expanse of pure blue beyond description & the river picked up that color, the surface broken by small wavelets that sent points of brilliant silver light in every direction. It occurred to me that, despite everything, this was the most beautiful morning of my life. Or perhaps it was because of everything. The ten-thousand things in perfect harmony, so that even the sound of a truck grinding its gears as it rattled over the bridge fit perfectly into the music of the morning.
I didn’t mention my relatively recent conversion1 to Zen in the previous parts of this account because, going back to the San Diego days at least, I knew a little bit about “cultural zen,” or “literary Zen” & had even tried to meditate a bit in order to address long-running problems with anxiety. But lacking a teacher or even a context, my approach to Zen remained theoretical.
But after I quit drinking a second time ten or eleven years ago, I still needed to deal with massive waves of anxiety. Funny thing about anxiety of this sort is that one is not anxious about anything in particular–that is, the anxiety is not a reaction to some particular event or situation; instead, the anxiety precedes particular events & simply attaches to this or that particular as necessary, though often enough it remains unattached to particulars, resulting in states of derealization. In my case, certain antidepressant medications helped to address this, but nothing was as effective as beginning a meditation practice that involved sitting up to two hours a day. At this point I was using Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s books on mindfulness as guides. For a while, I thought I could be a solitary practitioner, but the more I read & the more I sat, the more it seemed I needed an institutional context. That’s when I began looking around on the internet for a Buddhist group to join.
In the background of this search was my knowledge, however intellectual, of Vietnamese Buddhism as lived & practiced by the people I had lived among off & on since the mid-1990s, when I first traveled to Vietnam. I was attracted to the aesthetics of the liturgy & ritual practices, which seemed deeply integrated into the daily life of the Vietnamese in a way that I had never seen with Christianity in the US. I had been raised by fundamentalists, but had happily & mostly without trauma left it behind when I graduated from high school & went off to college. Even though I had tried as a kid to “believe,” Christianity as I saw it practiced was never as real to me as the “foreign” religion I saw practiced in Vietnam.
It did not actually take me long to settle on long to settle on the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen, partly because it was reasonably close to home, partly because it seemed welcoming, but mostly because of the founder’s emphasis on the arts as an important part of Buddhist practice. This is not the place to go into detail about the Order where I have now been a formal student for four years, so I’ll just comment that the impact on my life & teaching were almost immediate. No doubt that for a while I exhibited the annoying habits of a recent convert among my friends & colleagues–another example of my hard-wired enthusiasm, I guess. As for teaching, I think the main shift that becoming a Buddhist precipitated was that it gave me a more spacious sense of time, especially in the classroom, where, I realized, there was always the right amount of time, if one could only find the right clock. I slowed down & fit more in. I forgot, even more than usual, the impression I was making & focused on the ten-thousand things of a particular class period.
That phenomenon in the classroom–of time expanding to encompass whatever really needs to be accomplished–can be generalized & applied anywhere. It is perhaps the practical essence of Zen. Surely, may final years in the classroom were made more spacious by my Zen practice, as my life continues to be. Indeed, I cannot think how I would go about understanding my current illness without my Zen practice–not Zen as an institution, just my day to day understanding of what presents itself before me, including even pain & boredom. To say nothing of the satisfactions I have been finding in my recent writing. My Zen practice needs to be big enough to encompass the whole spectrum, which only practice will accomplish. How’s that for a Zen tautology? I tell ya, I got a million of ’em!
Following on from my post about rebirth, it seems necessary to comment on the very great differences between Western ideas of “reincarnation,” in which coming back again & again into samsara is seen as an endless amusement park ride, and the Eastern view (which is not at all monolithic, it should be noted), in which the whole point of rebirth & the accompanying theories of the functioning of karma is to get off the wheel of samsara & enter nirvana. (These are subtle ideas & come in many variations across Asia & now the globalized West as well.) Zen, specifically, drives up the level of difficulty by asserting that samsara & nirvana are one & the same thing. (The hell realms are right here with us, as well as the paradise of the gods & the animal realm, etc. Moment by moment we choose which realm to inhabit.) There is also a split within Buddhism itself as to the desirability of nirvana, or extinction, as the final goal of religious practice. The split is both historical & philosophical & manifests along the Theravada / Mahayana fault line in the history of Buddhism, with the Theravada emphasizing extinction & the Mahayana emphasizing the Bodhisattva ideal of continuing rebirths for an enlightened being until all beings are liberated. This is the Zen way & it involves being deeply engaged with the world as it is as part of one’s practice. The reality of actual conditions needs to be confronted in a spontaneous moment by moment experiencing of the various realms of existence as we traverse them in our lives.
Extinction, then, in my practice, has not been central, has not been a motivating factor; rather, it has been the bodhisattva ideal of helpfulness that has motivated my practice. Neither has my practice been worried about tracing out my “past lives”–if such things can even be said to exist.1 If the Buddha experienced his past lives at the moment of liberation, it was clearly not in narrative form. He may well have come through his enlightenment experience with the sense of his eternal aliveness, but just going over the narratives would have taken much too long, & he had other things to work out that were far more important to the initial turning of the wheel of the dharma he was about to undertake than whether he had been a lion in a previous existence, or a snake. (See the post on Reincarnation.) As for future lives, I have no senses that another “life” awaits me, as I have already said, though I leave room for the possibility of some bardo state I cannot even conceive of here in my human form.
So if nirvana is now & samsara is now, how should we comport ourselves in carrying out the Four Bodhisattva Vows? The Five Remembrances might be a good place to start. As of today I am incorporating them into my daily liturgy along with the Heart Sutra. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s version:
- I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
- I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
These are not morbid unless reality itself if morbid. They stand as a reminder for everyone–not just sick folk & old folk. You can recite them in sunlight & in a driving rain. They stand up to scrutiny either way. What I particularly value here is the way the Remembrances reinforce the simultaneousness of nirvana & samsara. They are equally of use in sunshine & in rain, in suffering & in pleasure. Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.2 I do not know how extinction will happen or if anything follows it. I know that it follows naturally from all that has gone before it, that it should be met with equanimity. And that is my practice now, to go down into the cave of despair without despairing.
- The Buddha is said to have experienced all his past lives at the moment of awakening, but the narratives of those lives are clearly a later addition to the canon. ↩
- This is a famous koan in both Soto & Renzai schools of Zen. Here is one taisho on the koan. There are many others on the internet, including one by my own teacher, Shugen Sensei. ↩
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.
- 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). ↩
- Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception makes this idea central to his thesis about psychedelic drugs. ↩
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.
- this is not actually true, strictly speaking, thus the scare quotes. As a Buddhist, I don’t have to believe in any particular doctrine. ↩
- 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. ↩
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.