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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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Intricate Interdependence

Thich Nhat Hahn, the renowned Zen teacher, has described the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and interdependence (which he calls “interbeing”) by saying that to examine a flower, you have to see the existence and interconnection with the entire universe, indeed see its history as well:

A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower has to “inter-be” with everything else that is called non-flower. That is what we call inter-being. You cannot be, you can only inter-be. The word inter-be can reveal more of the reality than the word “to be”. You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else. So the true nature of the flower is the nature of inter-being, the nature of no self. The flower is there, beautiful, fragrant, yes, but the flower is empty of a separate self. To be empty is not a negative note. Nagarjuna, of the second century, said that because of emptiness, everything becomes possible.

So a flower is described as empty. But I like to say it differently. A flower is empty only of a separate self, but a flower is full of everything else. The whole cosmos can be seen, can be identified, can be touched, in one flower. So to say that the flower is empty of a separate self also means that the flower is full of the cosmos. It’s the same thing. So you are of the same nature as a flower: you are empty of a separate self, but you are full of the cosmos. You are as wonderful as the cosmos, you are a manifestation of the cosmos. So non-self is another guide that Buddha offers us in order for us to successfully practice looking deeply. What does it mean to look deeply? Looking deeply means to look in such a way that the true nature of impermanence and non-self can reveal themselves to you. Looking into yourself, looking into the flower, you can touch the nature of impermanence and the nature of non-self, and if you can touch the nature of impermanence and non-self deeply, you can also touch the nature of nirvana, which is the Third Dharma Seal.
– Thich Nhat Hahn, The Island of Self; The Three Dharma Seals (retrieved here)

These concepts are so profound and simple yet so difficult to express. I feel like conceptual thought experiments can get us partway there, but to really feel the wonder of it takes some extra insight that is honed through meditation, as the consistent experience of seeing ourselves as separate things in a world of objects separate from ourselves limits and guides our normal, everyday perception. Meditation is needed to shake us out of this frame. In a sense, it takes a slowing of the discursive mind’s analytic thought processes to really just sense things as they are.

An example from my recent life: I came down one morning to make some coffee after having finished a morning meditation session. I picked up a knife from the drawer to scrape the coffee grounds off the sides of the grinder, and as I saw the knife and touched it, I suddenly was aware of its intricacy and the long history of civilization, development, and design behind it. Small bubbles protruded out along the edges of the hilt; these caught my eye, and I thought of the aesthetic design and metallurgy behind these decorations as well as how this wouldn’t have been mass-produced only a few generations ago. My mind exploded even further, thinking of recent books I’ve read about the history of the Earth’s mass extinctions and the epically long oceans of time that are behind the world we live in/on and the species that currently inhabit it, as well as how they’re related to this momentary brilliance of tool-making. These results of eons of evolution are both creator of the tool and the food for which the tool is utilized — neither of which would be without everything that came before. Even just a simple knife in my kitchen drawer implicates the entire history of the creation of knives, of buildings, of drawers, and other cultural conventions/industrial standards around design, metallurgy, and culinary etiquette as well as the entire development of civilization, the evolution of the human race, and all the forgotten biological and cosmic events that led up to now.

A few years back, I read a book that described the symbolism of the famous calligraphy circle from Zen Buddhism: the enso. The zen monk explained that it isn’t showing a border between inside and outside or a process of completion; rather, it’s supposed to indicate everything. All is buddha-nature. All is included. All is interdependently shown in the circle.

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A fractal enso? Cosmic interdependence?

These concepts go against so much of our standard operating procedure of discernment, but there is great wisdom in the flash of insight that our independent distinctions are cuts between the intertwined chiasm (to borrow the wonderful term from Merleau-Ponty) that is existence (note: the etymological roots of “de-cide” are to cutting off or cutting away. The same applies to the German: “ent-scheiden”).


May this offer a flash of insight into interdependence to all who read it.

Gassho!

Shadow

Shadow
Wispy lack – a “no-thing”
Not solid, no entity
A lack, a hole – privation
It is where the light does not go
Not the opposite of light
Rather light’s non-being
Intimately entwined
A chiasm

The fact that existence
Remains always
A potentia – a becoming
And an unfolding
Not Static – Dynamic!
Likewise, our darkness –
Not a thing
Not a reflection of “Me”
Seen as more solid,
Stranger
And more powerful (?)
Rather, the wispy lack of certainty
That bubbles with our attempts
To solidify “Identity”

Just as Self is a construction
So is Shadow a dynamic engagement
Of Being’s Non-Being

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Rebirth

From dead earth
Life springs anew
Green stalks grow
Bright flowers bloom

Nature’s cycles
Birth, growth, death
Unfolding
In every breath

Before & after
We conceptualize
But Now is
Presence of our lives

Be with this
Each moment – rebirth
This emptiness –
Celestial mirth…

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May this inspire you to presence in the rebirth of every moment. May spring’s blooms help with this inspiration.

Gassho!

Dreams and Waking Life

Fantastic places
Strange situations
Wonder & Terror
Exquisiteness & Hideousness
Uncanny: familiar yet foreign

Yet, all of it,
Ephemeral
Wisps of nothing
Real?–Yes
Rife with meaning & emotion
But also,
Empty

The secret?
Waking life is the same
Transient, in flux
Not concrete,
An unfolding of myriad magnificence

The dream yogi begins,
Repeating a reminder:
“This is just a dream”
Both while awake
And while asleep

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Facing the Blank Page–The Unfolding of Tao

Here’s another interesting set of thoughts from my Morning Pages. It speaks to creativity, wu wei, and insight around our interdependent arising with everything.


Eating brunch–well, soon to be. It’s been a couple days, journal. I hope that this day is beautiful for all sentient beings out there and that those going through the wakes of storms and disasters suffer not at the misfortunes of the world’s changes.

Anyway, I don’t know what to write about again. That’s the first time I’ve said that in a while. Isn’t that wonderful: the thrill and anxiety of the blank page? What will come out? Who knows! As long as one resides in this appreciative, open view, it’s truly a joy to face the blank page. Then it becomes an act of faith in the process, a creative lightning bolt of positivity, and an easy flow along with the unfolding of what is in this moment. That’s right (write? 🙂 )–it’s an action of wu wei. Mastery is only important insofar as to have the skill to flow along without resistance.

So the question is not: what do “I” create (i.e. what do “I” as masterful agent do?)? Rather, it is a letting be of the creative process.

My thoughts and easy smile seem at odds with the liveliness of the little cafe right now, but that just invites me to smile wider. How many creative moments will unfold today as I go through the ebb and flow of deeds and feelings? How many people’s lives will I come into contact with, even just in passing as two apparent egos passing in the night? Such moments of pause are truly a wonder–if thoughts about consumption, desires, aversions, etc. don’t pull you away from the thought experiment.

Stop. Contemplate: how many myriad lives are in this room with me right now? Don’t stop at the obvious–you and other people. There are bacteria, insects, dust mites! Billions of little specks of life pop in and out of existence around and inside of you all the time. They come and go–emptiness manifested and reformed to another manifestation. This is Tao–the 10,000 things and the mother of the 10,000 things. On a larger level, there are 100s, 1,000s, 1,000,000s of people in your city, state, country, and 1,000,000,000s around the world. Then, there are countless planets, stars, galaxies. Don’t worry about your little passing desires. Stop and see your unfolding in this miracle, and hold this insight in your engagement with all of the unfolding. One mind–no separation.

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“It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling and choice which you call your own should have sprung forth into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings. But not in this sense–that you are a part, a piece, of an eternal, infinite being, an aspect or modification of it, as in Spinoza’s pantheism. For we should have the same baffling question: which part, which aspect are you? What, objectively, differentiates it from the others? No, but inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you–and all other conscious beings as such–are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but it is in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in a single glance. ”

The universe implies the organism, and each single organism implies the universe–only the “single glance” of our spotlight, narrowed attention, which has been taught to confuse its glimpses with separate “things” must somehow be opened to the full vision, which Schrödinger goes on to suggest:

“Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she, indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely as she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not once but thousands upon thousands of times, just as every day she engulfs you thousands of times over. For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.”

–From Alan Watts’ The Book pp. 98-99; Quoted sections herein originally from: Erwin Schrödinger’s My View of the World pp. 21-22.

May this help you see beyond you as an island, an ego amidst all–controlling creativity as a forceful act of “I”, “me”, and “mine”.

Gassho!

Compassion Can Save Your Life

Compassion can save your life
Deliverance from struggle and strife
No longer living on the edge of a knife
Compassion can save your life

Open eyes–that empathize
Open heart–that can impart
Open mind–judgments unwind
Openness–knowing emptiness

Karuna inspires–not about “me”
Holding wisdom’s hand–All that be
The Way–infinite, nothing outside
No longer separate–in peace “I” reside

Waking up is difficult.
It is realization that peace and happiness were not some distant accomplishment.
They were here all along.
The Buddha resides in the burning house.
The other shore is right here, right now.


May this inspire you to compassion and presence.

Gassho!

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