Everything is changeable. Everything appears and disappears. There is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death. – Shakyamuni Buddha
Though they dispense universal messages applicable to all sentient beings, the wisdom traditions of the East are a hard sell to Westerners unless the truths contained therein are watered down to an acceptably comfortable level. Invariably, when attempts are made to do just that, the end result is a pointless re-rendering of ego-stroking Western thought at the expense of the very wisdom purported to be at the heart of these impotent translations. If this is the only presentation of these philosophies that we are willing to digest, then we aren’t ready to understand the most crucial points that form the basis of Taoism, Buddhism and Vedanta.
We cling to ourselves as if there was actually something inherent in our impermanent and interdependent lives worth protecting. That is the entire problem. I can and have dissected this succinct truth and viewed it from multiple angles in the hopes that one of my redundant screeds will break through the mental barriers of those who bristled at previous presentations of the same basic, uncomplicated problem. But I play the fool when I don my guru’s hat and attempt to convince others that I have even the slightest insight into the human condition. If I truly possessed such wisdom, it would be above reproach and the arguments raised in its wake wouldn’t be worthy of consideration. Yet, more often than not, the arguments raised are more worthy of consideration than my original point. So I continue to let others witness my habit of desperately trying to convince myself of the veracity of my own recently co-opted worldview. Yet I still feel there’s a method to my madness.
Ego is a Freudian and therefore Western concept. In fact, the solidification of basic ignorance into psychology’s premier bogeyman could only have been accomplished in a culture that refuses to differentiate between individual freedom and personal glorification. This is why an idea like that of enlightenment being a state of non-discriminatory awareness sounds like a contradiction to us. If a system of self-betterment fails to treat each of us as precious, unique and important, it offends our culturally selfish sensibilities. The lama says that attachment is generated by an erroneous view in the separateness of the person or thing we adore or covet. The Western student counters, “But what about my beautiful wife? My adorable child?” The lama stoically repeats, “avoid attachment”. The student rolls up his yoga mat and storms out of the temple, incredulous that such an allegedly wise man could dare question the worth of the key players in his little myopic world. The lama does not flinch because he realizes that the wayward student was not ready for what he had to offer. For some, unvarnished reality is just too much to handle. A philosophy that refuses to cater to our egos and justify our stories is often viewed as cold, cruel and inhuman.
But I am as sure as I can be that we are the ones who have it backwards. Real love does not engage in attachment. Real love does not fear the loss of its object because everyone and everything is included in its scope. If Eastern notions of interdependence don’t speak to you, perhaps discoveries in the field of quantum physics are a better place to gain the same insights. Buddhism approaches this truth through liberal use of the word emptiness, something that sounds fundamentally negative to our ears. However, what is meant by the word in this context is that nothing and no one has an inherent, independent existence apart from the interconnected whole. It does not imply that the seemingly separate people we meet on our journey are devoid of worth. That’s the view of nihilism. On the contrary, the understanding of universal interdependence is meant to increase our compassion for others by reminding us that they are not other than ourselves. This means, also, that we cannot discriminate with our love; those we like to view as evil in an effort to feel morally superior are also just us, essential interlocking gears in the mechanism of consciously apprehended phenomena.
When I say that our energy is indestructible, many misinterpret this as an allusion to a soul that will retain the predilections of its earthly ego. We think we want to live forever because we have never pondered the implications of such a nightmare scenario. Death is implicit in the word life. Just as there can be no front without a back, an eternal experience is an oxymoron. Pining for this sort of personality immortality is the tragic result of superstition born of selfish grasping and fear of non-existence. The Heart Sutra, one of Buddhism’s most famous and esoteric texts, asserts that there is no existence and no non-existence. This means that the Universal dance of the unitive Consciousness goes on in perpetuity but our terms of individual experience do not. So, yes, the energy that currently animates me is eternal, but when I draw my final breath, the experience of being Paul is over. We are all rivulets making our way gradually back to the river to rejoin our original source and forget our temporary and illusory roles as individuals.
When you catch a glimpse of a rainbow arcing its illumined beauty across a cloudy sky, you would be a fool not to stop and marvel at its ephemeral glory. But you would be just as big a fool if you tried to chase it and make it your own. With every step you take towards your goal, it becomes more and more insubstantial. This is true of everything. Retain your sense of wonder and joy, your bittersweet vulnerability in the face of heartbreaking beauty. But don’t seek to solidify the Universe’s sleight of hand lest you vulgarize the magic. You cannot possess a single thing, no matter how much you may yearn to do so. But you can dance with everything for as long as you are afforded the opportunity. The trick to this very serious business is to learn how to take none of it seriously. Unselfconscious laughter is the expressive vibration of divinity.