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Living in the Light of Death

In a few days, it will be a year since my dad died. It’s been a very interesting and ponderous year. I’m reminded of the first book I read about existentialism, which explained the idea of an existential crisis in relation to Heidegger’s Being and Time as an event bringing a heightened awareness to our mortality in such a way that the experience of life is fundamentally altered for a period. That’s what this has been.

Of course, I have meditated on change at length prior to this. It’s evident in a large number of the posts here over the last few years, but being confronted with the situation of having to personally sort out one’s own story and relationship with mortality is different than cerebrally breaking down the sweeping, subtle, and slow changes of matter, mind, and heart.

Ironically enough, recently, I’ve been reading chapters in a meditation manual about meditating on change and death, and the writer/teacher emphasizes two phases to the sessions — one for thinking on ideas or images about change/death and the other to let the emotional depth of meaning really sink in and be understood, not just conceptually. This experience has been something like the second part of that process. For the last few years, I could have quoted on a whim a passage that struck me in the first translation of The Dhammapada that I read: “All states are without self*”, but what does that mean when a life ends? I’ve been slowly piecing that together over time.

I dream of him often. In the last few weeks, I can think of a time when he appeared in our lives again — a Doppelgänger, and I was the only one in my dream who remembered he had died and didn’t trust this imposter, and yet, I didn’t want to inflict loss on my family again by convincing them of the truth. In another, he wandered around a former city I lived in with me, but he had some sort of handicap and lacked the wit and mental acuity he had in life. I think I was imagining what his survival might have meant as a tradeoff, and it was tragic in other ways — “he” was still gone, but then again, all states are without self. Finally, I had a dream where he was a cold, heartless man, driven by greed. He was an ambitious entrepreneur, somewhat like the small business owner from my childhood but fully consumed by it as his only pursuit. He seemed dead to me in his cold grimace and methodical drive. This made me realize that there are other ways we describe people as dead — when their emotions seem to lack the humaneness of connection, of the passion and compassion of a beating heart, thumping out a song with the lives of others, always already around us. Just as change is a constant and identity is an abstraction, rather than an essence (“All states are without self”), we are always already born into a universe, billions of years old, on a small rock populated with other humans — as well as all their culture, history, language, minds, and hearts…

My dad in life was a warm man, very much unlike the cold, driven, hyper-capitalist in my last dream, but at this point, I don’t know how much more there is left of him other than the stories of those who remain. I hope to still learn from him like this in dreams and musings, and I hope that these thoughts of him continue to bring insights into what it means to live and how death is related to that living presence in this world. I can’t claim to understand what the process of life is about, as I’m convinced there isn’t some permanent essence, a soul, behind it, but going through all this has sharpened the sense of mystery to existence. In many ways everything has felt just as hazy and ethereal as a dream, and sometimes, I feel that I’m not sure if I’m dreaming of a butterfly or if I’m the butterfly dreaming of Z, so to speak, but I do as that meditation teacher suggests: rest in the looking — look in the resting. What else is there to do? I’m already in the thick of the mystery and there’s no way out. There’s only the ongoing path of being on the way.


A much more succinct passage from The Dhammapada’s opening chapter could get at the heart of all this much more quickly:

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.**
This is an ancient truth.

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.
– Chapter 1, (5-6), trans. Fronsdal

Maybe we’re better served by a statement about the nature of that mystery from The Heart Sutra:

‘Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.’

– Gone, gone, beyond gone, completely beyond gone, great awakening.***


May this provide comfort and camaraderie to others who experience the mystery of being.

Gassho!

*The point of this quote is that everything lacks essence. Another way I say this, riffing on Buddhism, is: “All composite things are impermanent, and all things are composites.” Our greatest spiritual battle is overcoming an unreflective, ego-protective sense in which we posit some permanent essence behind us, an unchanging self. I take this quote to mean that everything lacks essence and that “the self” is an emergent process, not a set entity. Here are a couple other translations of this passage to compare:

“All things in the world are insubstantial.” – trans. Ananda Maitreya

“All things are not-self.” – trans. Gil Fronsdal

The second translation is particularly exciting because one could possibly see the way that the Prajna Paramita tradition of emptiness (shunyata) is already indicated in these pithy remarks, and this particular quote also points to interdependence — if all things are not encompassed as a static entity in and of themselves, they’re in relationship with everything.

**Most translations say “love” or “loving-kindness” here instead of “non-hate”, and while those are more poetic, I prefer this more literal translation. The word has a negative prefix on hate, meaning the negation of hate, not another word that means the opposite. Negation in language can mean a returning to zero, so to speak, and I think that fits the meditation practice and ideas in the early texts better rather than telling people to react in the opposite. One must let go of the clinging and reactivity that gives rise to hatred. Only then can loving-kindness be cultivated as a new relationship with the world.

*** I pieced this together from reading several commentaries and translations.

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Life, Death, and Change

Last night, I had a dream in which I went to the doctor and asked him to examine a deep groove in my skull – beneath the hair on the top of my head. It had always been there (in the dream) – a weakness in the shape of my head. He felt it and immediately became concerned. He started telling me that this could have some dire effects, but it was very unclear what kind of prognosis to expect. He sent me home, but on the walk home, I had a group phone call with him and my parents. He explained to all of us the potential medical difficulties that could arise from my particular brand of weak-headedness, and they were potentially sudden and fatal. He started explaining some of the most common and most severe difficulties, but as he started explaining, the phone connection dropped, and I didn’t get to hear any further explanation about what I was facing and what could happen. I felt that I was left hanging – uncertain and confused.

I awoke from this dream feeling pensive about mortality. In the dream, I had my demise placed right before me, but it was wrapped in a ball of “ifs” and “maybes” with no certainty about what would happen or when. The initial revelation of this felt quite shocking and scary, but as the dream went along, it felt much more subdued and distant. The question I awoke with was: “How is this different than day to day life?” I could very well go to the doctor today and be told the same thing – you have this weird condition that could be fatal, but we have no way of knowing. Isn’t that really just a metaphor for all the things that could possibly, maybe go wrong on any given day? Traffic accidents? Food poisoning? Random violence? A sunburn that gives rise to melanoma? The huge earthquake that will devastate the Pacific Northwest? This may sound dramatic, but our demise is always already sitting right in front of us as a potentially sudden and unforeseen event at any time. We can’t really plan for it. However, we go through life mostly unaware that this potential  is always there. We live blithely ignorant of it – fallen.

To extend further – we don’t see that we are always “dying” already. I am not the same person I was a year ago (definitely certain of that!). You might tell yourself that you are, but if you really sit with yourself in this moment and then remember how you felt, said, did things a year ago, five years ago, in your childhood, etc., you’ll find that you are not the “you” that you thought continued through all these. You’re a changing set of conditions and experiences. I find this clearest when I think back to my ideas and projects of childhood. I was obsessed with certain toys and pursuits – building up so much and putting so much effort into some interest. Then a year or two later, it was gone from my mind, almost never thought of again except in this activity of retrospective examination. Where did that passionate engagement go? It moved. It died. It changed into something else. We’re always changing into someone new. From a universal perspective, that’s all the larger death that this post discussed is: “I” cease to be, but my body’s energy/matter goes back into the systems and cycles of the universe’s ceaseless unfolding changes – just as it already is throughout my life, just more thoroughly, completely, and intimately.

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How do we face up to all of this with awareness? How do we be present to the change that happens in this very moment and in all moments? How do we let go of our fear of death so that we can face it, face living, with authenticity?


May this give you new perspective on your relationship with death and change in your life.

Gassho!

Grasping at Sand – The Pursuit of Happiness

We pursue happiness,
grasping onto desires–
Justifying this as wisdom, as nature, as fact–
Fulfillment + gratification = happiness!!!
Yet we don’t see…

The heart grasping onto desires
Is like a hand grasping
Onto grains of the finest sand.
No matter how hard we
Try to hold on,
It slips out,
And what remains
Tickles and scratches,
Holding onto the hand
Even if the hand lets go.
Yet we don’t see…

Sand flits out of the hand’s grasp
Blowing away in the wind
Lost, gone, vanished
Like a dream
As though the grains were never there
Just like this
Desires arise and disappear
Ephemeral phantoms taken as solid
Yet we don’t see…
Is there a better way to be?

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Without desire, without distress
we keep to our empty heart.
The beauty of the Way is that there is no
“way”.

No self
No this, no that

Everything, everything is simply emptiness.
– Loy Ching-Yuen The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao (On Tao, §10)

Desire that has no desire is the Way
Tao is the balance of wanting
and our not-wanting mind

Travelers know that steep cliffs mean a long, hard
climb.
Just so with Tao:
No smooth roads without first a few ups and downs.
-Loy Ching-Yuen The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao (On Enlightenment, §1)

May this help you balance your wanting and not-wanting mind, finding the desire that has no desire. May this help you slowly open the heart that grasps onto desire, one that seeks happiness in selfish fulfillment. May you instead find your way onto the selfless path that brings true happiness: an open heart of bodhicitta (have a look at my discussion of the first chapter of the Dhammapada for more on the selfish and selfless paths, and have a look at this one for more discussion of bodhicitta).

Gassho!

Nothing to Do…

If, if, if…
A set of checkboxes
Mark them all, and…
Get happiness?
Even a spiritual path–
A pursuit of spiritual materialism
An accumulation of ego
The doing of an “I”
“My attainment”
A misperception
Of Truth
“I” am not solid–an illusion
The word, a placeholder,
A Transcendental Unity of Apperception
My “Higher Self”?
Not like anything conventionally conceived:
The ebb and flow of everything
Not separate from it-
A divine chaos–unfolding
The beautiful, empty, mysterious Tao
Emerging-abiding sway of all difference
The path: There’s nothing to “do”
Nowhere to “go”
Enlightenment is here: in this moment
Nirvana in samsara
Just live: realize this one step.

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Inspired by a wonderful meditation this morning and all the wise things I regularly read: in this case, I’ve been particularly moved by Dainin Katagiri’s You Have to Say Something. This passage clarifies some of the final lines:

So, how can we practice zazen as an end in itself? All you have to do is take a step. Just one step. Strictly speaking, there is just one thing we have to face, and nothing else. If you believe there is something else besides this one thing, this is not pure practice. Just take one step in this moment with wholeheartedness. Intellectually, we think about the past and the future, but if we take one step, this shore and the other shore are now. Taking one step already includes all other steps. It includes this shore and the other shore. This one step is zazen.

I’ve also been amazed by a recent find of Loy Ching-Yuen’s The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao. I would put it up alongside the Tao Te Ching and the Dhammapada; it’s a beautiful intertwining of Taoism and Buddhism written by a true master from about a century ago. I plan on writing about several passages in the future. For now, enjoy these selections from the sections On Tao:

3. Life is a dream,
the years pass by like flowing waters.
Glamour and glory are transient as autumn and smoke;
what tragedy–for with the sun set deeply in the west,
still there are those
lost among paths of disillusionment.

Our heart should be clear as ice.
Forget all the worldly nonsense.
Sit calmly, breathe quietly, heart bright and spotless as an empty mirror.
This is the path to the Buddha’s table.

5. What labor we expend sorting out our mundane chores year after year.
But doing them without regret or tears,
without resistance,
that’s the real secret of wu wei
like the mountain stream that flows unceasingly:
Elsewise, all we do goes for nought.

We can hold back neither the coming of the flowers
nor the downward rush of the stream;
sooner or later, everything comes to its fruition.
The rhythms are called by the Great Mother,
the Heavenly Father.
All the rest is but a dream;
We need not disturb our sleeping.

To see his brilliant fusion of Buddhism and Taosim better, compare this quote with my analysis of wu wei here and my analysis of the famous lines about flowers falling in Dōgen’s Genjōkōan here.
Finally, my words here make subtle references to Chögyam Trungpa, Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, and Gilles Deleuze, and this meditation and wordplay would never have come to be if I hadn’t recently read the Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really Are, all of which (these myriad sources!) I highly recommend to anyone willing to begin a spiritual path with heart.


May this inspire your own investigations and journeys along the path, fellow wanderers. May you find ideas to play with and solace in the beautiful words of all these masters who have brought these insights into my life.

Gassho!

Just Be

This moment
Arises & Disappears
Like a soap bubble
Blown by a playful child,
Shimmering with rainbows,
Floating gracefully
Or awkwardly,
Popping suddenly,
With only the trace
Of memory

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Each moment,
No matter the agony
Or ecstasy,
Is just like this.
With each,
Let it just be.
Trying to hold onto the bubble
Pops it sooner
Trying to pop it,
Leaves soapy hands.

Just be in every moment
Those bubbles come and go
Shining luminously
Then disappearing
Just as in a dream


See also:

Water’s Flux
Tao a Day: Verse 16 – Emptiness
The Practice
The Waking Dream
Suffering and Sweetness

The Waking Dream

We grasp
Unrelenting
This cannot go…”
“Please…”

Yet every moment
Comes & Goes
Seasons change
The world turns
Days are born & die
Everything passes

Like a dream,
The substantiality
–an illusion
With focus
This ephemeral emptiness
Shines

Figments of experience
Life = Dreaming dreaming dreaming
(That is: dream dreaming itself)
Ironically
There is nothing to grasp onto
Not even yourself
What security do you seek?
Certainty in the face of death?

Even those
Embracers of “change”
Declaring its greatness
Its wholesomeness
Move on only
To their next set of certainties
Another structure
To cling onto
A shelter in the storm?
There is no storm.
That fear
–just another part of the dream


One line above reminded me of this song:

pablo