Rummaging through thirty years of Mind-moments, I came up with a selection of excerpts from my regular column, “The Dharma and the Drama.” (In case you missed it, I used to have a column called “Quips, Quotes and Quantum Leaps.” I love alliteration.) Anyway, thanks so very much for letting me share with you over the years my thoughts, jokes, doggerel—and serious attempts to make sense of life and the immeasurable gift of Dharma.
Excavation of My Notebooks
THE CROWS KNOWS
Why do we exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why did consciousness happen? Why is there suffering and death? We keep asking these questions that begin with “why,” and everywhere we go in the world the crows are there, strutting around on the street or gazing down on us from the wires and branches, repeating the answer over and over again: “Be-CAWS! Be-CAWS! Be-CAWS!”
Please Identify Yourself
Recently I heard someone on the radio explaining the new crime of “identity theft” and I immediately thought, “Yes! Rob me, please! Take my identity and leave the cash!”
I can regard my entire Dharma path as a matter of shifting identities, and it all started with me trying to run away from myself—the sentimental, histrionic drama of me-ness. The Buddha says that the false conceit of “I” or “self” is the bane of our existence, and I was indeed relieved when I began to see through the various membranes of personal identity. But what really surprised and delighted me is what I saw on the other side. It turns out I am not who I thought I was—I’m much, much more than that.
For the most part, we each live in our own story, and it’s pretty much the only one we tell, as though we have a scratch in our mental record and the same lines get repeated, over and over again—about my finances, my friends, my family, my stuff.
It’s too bad, because while each of us is lost in our private drama, we don’t notice that we are taking part in grand epics and heroic, noble projects. For instance, even while reading e-mail or shopping for socks, we continue to operate as breathing cells in the great body of life on earth, part of a fascinating, multibillion-year experiment in biology and consciousness. Whether we know it or not, we are always playing a role in the story of evolution, and to recognize ourselves in that role can be a skillful means on the path of self-liberation.
Of course, in your own story you are always the star, but in the big story of life on earth, you are just a bit player. In fact, an itty-bitty bit player, just a walk-on part. But that is the point. “You” can disappear into this grand perspective, like walking into a Chinese landscape painting and getting swallowed up by the deep gorges of bamboo forest and eternal sky. You can move out of the personal into increasingly large circles of inclusion and identity until finally you can point in any direction and say, along with the great Indian mystics, “Tat tvam asi”—“I am that.”
Just Another Planet
One of my daily spiritual practices is to check on the condition of the universe. After all, that is where I live.
I get an update on the universe every time I turn on my Internet search engine, set to open on the “Astronomy Picture of the Day.” One day I saw a picture of a red dwarf star dying, consuming itself in a fireball similar to the one in which our own sun will eventually die. Another day I saw a simulated image of a newly discovered galaxy located a few million light-years from Earth and containing six hundred billion suns. Some days the picture elicits an audible gasp, and I immediately begin forwarding the link to friends. “Look! Stars are being born! Galaxies are spinning through space! The universe is a gazillion times more vast than we ever could have imagined!”
I suspect that the Buddha would have enjoyed the astronomy picture of the day and might have even advised his disciples to use it as a daily reflection, a way to bring some perspective to their lives. The Buddha wants us to sever our attachment to this individual drama, the “self,” and seeing the size of the universe could serve as a tool, a skillful means. It could help revise our belief that the Earth and the human species are the central focus of creation, bringing us some relief from our crazy self-obsession. We might even arrive at a new sense of co-arising and coexisting, a feeling that we belong to the universe, and not the other way around.
Excavation of My Notebooks
It is time for you to change professions. You’ve been a psychologist of yourself for way too long. If you were any good, there would be more people calling for appointments. So leave the psychology behind and become an anthropologist. Dig through the status symbols of your civilization; uncover the fashion trends that dress you; unearth the unique ways your society approaches sex and food and tribal configurations. From your studies you will know that these are all temporary appearances. You could also become a biologist of yourself and study how you came to have a spine, a desire for sugar, an innate ability to use language. From your studies you will know that no species remains a permanent fixture on the landscape of Earth. You might also become a cosmologist and investigate wormholes into other universes, or just count the galaxy clusters in this universe and then try to figure out your place in the scheme of things. Maybe all of that will help take care of any psychological issues you might be having.
Ancestors of Awakening
Our task in the coming era is to relocate ourselves in the cosmos and to renew our kinship with all of earth life. It is time to join again in the dance-drama of biological and cosmic evolution. —D. H. Lawrence
Reflecting on the scientific story of evolution we find a lineage of bodhisattvas, saints of compassion stretching back millions of years through epochs of geological time. We owe our existence to the struggles and sacrifices of uncountable numbers of beings; creatures who had to shape-shift to meet the ever-changing demands of natural forces; who suffered horribly through atmospheric upheavals, ice ages, comets crashing into earth, continents colliding, volcanoes erupting, floods and vicious plagues. Through their fierce determination to live, all those beings have brought us to this present moment of semi-awakened consciousness.
In order to honor those who made our life possible, I suggest that we go back to some form of ancestor worship. By ancestor worship I don’t mean just keeping a daguerreotype of Grandpa on the mantel. I’m talking about deep ancestor worship, which requires that we dig into our evolutionary past and evoke the spirit of those who made it possible for us to become the brilliantly befuddled humans we are today. We want to bring all the ancestors into our circle of reverence, and we can start by telling their stories. Here are a few.
We’ll begin, appropriately, with an acknowledgment of the very first living being, a single-celled organism that at least deserves a name: I suggest “Una.” Perhaps we should make a grand statue of this life form and place a replica in all the major plazas and malls of the world. Every living being on earth can trace its ancestry back to Una, the androgynous progenitor of us all.
The story is magical and inspiring. Just imagine the stormy beginnings on this fiery ball of cooling earth magma, out on the roiling, broiling seas, when a precision bolt of supercharged lightning hits a fecund blob of chemical scum and SHAZAM!—those newly energized elements begin bouncing around in a wild molecular dance, bonding with each other to create the first organic molecules that eventually, mysteriously, weave themselves into the complex spirals of DNA. The initial expression of all this mixing and matching of matter turns out to be little Una, a determined membrane-enclosed child of the mud. Suddenly, some of the substance of earth acquires a strange new condition—life.
I would imagine that in the beginning, 3.8 billion years ago, life was relatively good for Una, just bobbing around on the ocean waves all day, not a care in the world. No doubt Una was as happy as any being could be at the time, partly because there were no other beings around for comparison, and no other beings around who wanted to eat her. (We’re giving Una a female identity, even though back in her day there wasn’t any gender.)
As you might imagine, Una eventually became lonely and sad, unable to share this strange and beautiful existence (“Hey, look at that sunset—someone . . .”), and after a few million years of isolation, Una finally came upon a solution. Stretching the miniscule substance of her body to the breaking point, and then pushing outward even harder from the spiraling DNA core of her being, with a final spasm of energy Una split in two! The story of evolution had begun.
At last Una had someone to share the world with, and she started having twice as much fun, literally. What happened was that Una had found someone to love, and the being who she fell in love with was actually part of her self. You could say that Una fell in love with Una! (Masquerading as “Dos.”) There are those who might consider this a case of narcissism, but there is a profound spiritual message in this story, telling us to consider all other living beings as part of ourselves, which is the truth of the matter. We have very good reason to love all beings as ourselves.
New Animal on the Block
If we are here for any purpose at all (except for collating texts, running rivers and learning the stars), I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature. We are a gang of sexy, primate clowns. —Gary Snyder
In the early days of human speech it wasn’t so easy to tell stories because our lips and tongue weren’t coordinated enough to put a lot of sounds together. Back then it was basically “uh-huh” or “nuh-uh” and “yum” or “yuck.” But we quickly got good at talking and soon were saying things like “Let’s get something to eat” and “Your place or mine?” Et cetera.
Scientists believe that talking—sharing information with each other, gossiping, telling stories, kvetching—contributed to another large increase in human brain size. Proof of the importance of language is the fact that a large part of our brain is devoted to the movement of the tongue and lips.
An unintended consequence of having so much of our brain connected to the movement of our tongue and lips may be our love of kissing. The other primates don’t go around kissing all the time, puckering their lips when they meet each other. The origin of kissing must be in those extra nerve endings that enable our language. Simply put, we talk therefore we kiss.
Kissing, talking, telling stories—what a lovable species we are! With these lips and tongue I sing praises to Mother Nature for these lips and tongue.
The First Noble Kvetch
Generally speaking, I know of two kinds of Buddhists: those who feel the deepest resonance with the First Noble Truth and those who are drawn to the promise of the Third Noble Truth. The “firsters” are focused on the bottom-line dukkha of this incarnation, while the “thirdsters” believe in the possibility of complete liberation and the end of suffering. Crossover happens, of course, but many, myself included, feel that when it comes to truths, the first is number one.
I may be attracted to the First Noble Truth partly because it feels so familiar. It states a worldview that smoothly converges with my Jewish heritage, allowing me to continue kvetching, but with Pali words instead of Yiddish ones. Now, rather than complaining about the weather, or work, or the health, wealth and behavior of my relatives, I can combine all my tsuris together and simply moan about being incarnated.
The Practice of Geezing
Death is just infinity closing in. —Jorge Luis Borges
Two distinct moods seem to accompany my aging, both deepening with the passing days. One is poignancy, a sense of fragility and loss in the midst of all experience. I see a family playing with their children on the swings in the park and while I delight in the scene, I know how quickly those moments will evaporate. I also realize that I will not have those particular worldly joys again. And when I am laughing and joking with my daughter, I sometimes feel the grief of our parting. How does one “let go” of such worldly delights?
Wandering the hills of Northern California, I carry the realization that I will someday be leaving this place I love, forever. Never again will I see the great pines waving through the in-flowing fog, or the gnarled sculpture of the oaks standing firm, nor smell the vibrant decay of the woods punctuated with the tang of fennel and eucalyptus—all of it will vanish, along with my senses themselves.
(Lately I find that I am missing myself in the world—ahead of time.)
The poignancy that I feel is occasionally associated with my own diminishing possibilities. I don’t expect to become a whole lot happier or stronger or more successful than I am now, or even more enlightened. Okay, so I might be able to inch a little closer to “the deathless state.” But it better happen soon.
I know that this poignancy is a symptom of my love for the world and my attachment to being alive in it. Luckily, in counterpoint to the poignancy runs a growing disenchantment with it all. That feeling may simply be age-appropriate to older people, but it is also possible that the teachings of the Buddha have finally taken hold in me. I figure that either I am becoming enlightened, or just plain bored. Maybe a little of both.
Empty Thoughts on a Full Stomach
ON THE ROAD AND ON THE PATH
In case you haven’t heard, there is a new school of Buddhism in America. In Asia there are several branches of Buddhist thought, often divided into the Hinayana, which translates literally as the “lesser vehicle,” and the Mahayana, or “the greater vehicle.” Lately, however, some Western Buddhists have been feeling that neither of these two are appropriate for the Dharma in America, which requires a unique new form. So these pioneers have now broken away from both the Hinayana and the Mahayana traditions to form their own school of Buddhism which they are calling the Hahayana, or literally, “the funny vehicle,” also known as “the Edsel of the Dharma.”
The principle tenet of Hahayana thought is the belief in the “comic oneness” of all phenomena. Hence the teachers in this school transmit wisdom mostly through the use of knock-knock jokes, bursting into laughter when the student asks, “Who’s there?” During meditation sessions, if somebody is sleepy or slumping in their sitting posture, the teachers go and tickle them until they become upright again. Although the Hahayana canon is still being written, so far it consists of three main statements, The Sioux City Sutra, The Double-Breasted Sutra and the How Does That Sutra. These discourses explain that the goal of Hahayana practice is “to transcend the inexplicable nonsense posed by this human incarnation.” This is done by contemplating “the joke” until you “get it.” You will then experience the bliss of the big Buddha belly-laugh—Hahayana!
Inquiring Mind cofounder Wes Nisker will continue writing articles and blogs, which will be available on his website, www.wesnisker.com.
From the Spring 2015 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 31, No. 2)
© 2015 Wes Nisker