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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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Giving Heart (Part 2)

Our worries may zoom around the state of the world. “What happens if the economy plummets? If the ozone layer keeps decreasing? If we have more anthrax attacks? If terrorists take over the country? If we lose our civil liberties fighting terrorism?” Here, our creative writing ability leads to fantastic scenarios that may or may not happen, but regardless, we manage to work ourselves into a state of unprecedented despair. This, in turn, often leads to raging anger at the powers that be or alternatively, to apathy, simply thinking that since everything is rotten, there’s no use doing anything. In either case, we’re so gloomy that we neglect to act constructively in ways that remedy difficulties and create goodness.

Thubten Chodron, Taming the Mind, page 129


In Giving Heart (Part 1), I wrote about the importance of taking up your political privilege to vote for the candidate who will protect life through fighting climate change, social injustice, and other inequities. I argued that this is important and an act of affirmation rather than one of cynicism. This is how to get beyond thinking in terms of lesser evils.

Today is election day in the US. If you’re reading this, go back to the first entry and think about it. Then, go vote. This is important. You’re extremely lucky to live in a time and society in which you have the privilege to vote. Go do so with the bigger picture in mind.

However, in this post, I’m transitioning to give heart from the perspective of the quote above as promised in the last post; this post will be about how to “create goodness” in the interactions of your life to move beyond hoping for abstract ideals and leaders to provide the world you want to live in. You can do your own part.

You are always here, already in a world with other people and other life. What can you do to be at harmony with them and show them kindness, even in the smallest interactions? This is the question that should animate your interactions. However, it doesn’t mean being a pushover. Sometimes, the kindest possible thing is showing someone else how they are being selfish or harmful. Nor does it mean intellectually analyzing every choice you make; rather, respond to life holistically, trying to do so with openness and compassion. Try practicing that, and you’ll find your place in the unity that the poem points out: radiating wisdom and justice in your life rather than being lost in the deluded dreams of waiting for it to be realized in some system or political ideology.

As really analyzing this topic would take a lot more discussion, I’ll leave you with that question — “What can you do to be at harmony with the other people and other life you live with, with the universe, and show them kindness, even in the smallest interactions?” —  to point you along your own way, and I’ll add a few quotes from various sources to inspire you in your engaged practice.

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From the Tao Te Ching (Trans. Red Pine)

Thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the stomach
weakens the will
but strengthens the bones

This excerpt from Verse 3 inspires me, always. Ancient commentators take the full stomach as sated desires – ruling people in such a way that they aren’t driven by yearning that leads them to steal, harm, and trample. There is definitely validity to this, but isn’t this so to a certain extent because the sage makes sure that others are fed and healthy? Isn’t the most simple compassion a taking care of others’ well-being in the most basic ways? Not that I’m exhorting you to sacrifice yourself, enable others, or only care about creature comforts, but there is a basic concern that could extend as wisdom through our engagement with others.

From the Dhammapada (Trans. Easwaran)

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time:
hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.

There are those who forget that death will come to all.
For those who remember, quarrels come to an end. (Verses 5 and 6)

These lines come in the first chapter after twinned verses which explain that selfish thoughts and actions lead to suffering whereas selfless actions lead to joy. These lines both sum up the point and show that our time in life is short — there’s no time to lose in beginning to shape our selfless path of compassion right now.

Avoid all evil, cultivate the good, purify your mind: this sums up the teaching of the Buddhas. (Verse 183)

This summation is cryptic in its advice but when remembered in line with cultivating the path of selflessness, it becomes succinct and practical.

From Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (Trans. Robin Hard)

8.27. We have three relationships: the first to the vessel that encloses us, the second to the divine cause, the source of all that befalls every being, and the third to those who live alongside us.

This is key to all of these perspectives, I believe. The Buddha’s story is not one where asceticism is the answer: rather he reaches enlightenment after realizing that eating and nourishing his body is important too. Lao Tzu points out how feeding the bodies of all is important for the ruler. Last, Marcus Aurelius points out that we have to take care of ourselves, recognize our place in the big picture of what is, and realize that there are other people with whom we coexist — another relationship that deserves our care. All three of these sources would reverberate with this last set of reminders, and we might even question, to go very Buddhist, where the differences in these relationships arise. There may just be the one relationship of taking care, plain and simple.


May this give you heart to bring compassionate engagement to yourself, others, and life/the Universe as a whole.

Gassho!

Ayn Randian Dreams (Nightmares?) — A Philosophical Mosaic

I saw a clip–
A grey, hazy time capsule,
Chronicling our past
Yet so present…
Still a specter
Which dominates our minds

Ayn Rand on Johnny Carson???
She expounds,
In a gratingly brittle voice:
The virtue of greed
The reason in selfishness
Only a system
In which
Every man pursues
His own “Reason”
Is one
In which
Humanity can be
Actualized
Capitalism is this system?
Surely a jest!
Each man is not free
Nor guided by his reason
In our system
Of markets
Of money
Of subjugation
–All for profit…

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She says at the outset:

Man’s proper ethics, or morality, is a morality of rational self-interest. Which means that every man has a right to exist for his own sake, and he must not sacrifice himself to others or sacrifice others to himself (brief pause) that the achievement of his own rational happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life. As a consequence of that, the only system, the only political system, that expresses this morality is the system of laissez-faire capitalism, by which I mean full, unregulated, uncontrolled capitalism, a system based on the recognition of rights, including property rights…

Yet capitalism seeks
To subvert fellow men
Sacrificing others to one’s reason
Readily
Often
Systemically
In the name of Profit,
The almighty God
–The only self-interest
Which receives worship,
The singular idol
Sitting atop
The altar of industry
Do you not believe me?
The annals of history
Surely show
Such systemic sacrifice of others
Upon the altar of Profit

The “Reason” of true Philosophers
Would not aim at this
As Wisdom, the Good, or Love
Those are the true aims
Of “Reason”;
Not this solipsistically myopic,
Self-serving materialism
Should we see this
As worthy successor
To profound analyses of eudaemonia?
I laugh
What other response is fitting?
As Nietzsche once said:
“Not with anger, rather with laughter does one kill.” *

What of the “Reason” of the Stoics?
Would they not scoff as well?
Laughing at how poorly,
How childishly,
You, lady with delusions of grandeur,
Have misunderstood
The entire Universe
And our place in it
Those who vouch
For other such
Individualistic notions
Of Truth and Wisdom
Are equally lost.
No authentic seekers of Truth…
Merely idealistic demagogues
Preaching greed from soapboxes,
Rather than providing wisdom
Or anything of substance.
They are lost
Yet declare it insight
Seeing shadows on the wall
As deep, whole, and true
Rather than with the wise sight
That has seen the sun
The sight that sees them
As empty figures


The immature are their own enemies, doing selfish deeds which will bring them sorrow. That deed is selfish which brings remorse and suffering in its wake. But good is that deed which brings no remorse, only happiness in its wake.

Sweet are selfish deeds to the immature until they see the results; when they see the results, they suffer. Even if they fast month after month, eating with only the tip of a blade of grass, they are not worth a sixteenth part of one who truly understands dharma.

As fresh milk needs time to curdle, a selfish deed takes time to bring sorrow in its wake. Like fire smoldering under the ashes, slowly does it burn the immature.

Even if they pick up a little knowledge, the immature misuse it and break their heads instead of benefitting from it.

The immature go after false prestige – precedence of fellow monks, power in the monasteries, and praise from all. “Listen, monks and householders, I can do this; I can do that. I am right and you are wrong.” Thus their pride and passion increase.

Choose the path that leads to nirvana; avoid the road to profit and pleasure. Remember this always, O disciples of the Buddha, and strive always for wisdom.  — The Dhammapada; Chapter 5, Lines 66-75


A human being is a part of the whole called by us “the universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few person nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  — Albert Einstein, found in The Places that Scare You by Pema Chödrön

May this bring you to think differently about yourself and your place in society and the universe. May it bring you to desire authentic wisdom and reason. May it inspire you to the love of wisdom (philosophy) and lead you down the path of many questions and insights.
Gassho!

*”Nicht durch Zorn sondern durch Lachen tödtet man.” — Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra; Vom Lesen und Schreiben