Originally posted on 05-18-07:
When I was 17, I read a book by Philip Wylie that changed my life. Why an adolescent would be attracted to a book named, An Essay on Morals, is a little mysterious, and how such a book came to be available to me in a small Southern town is equally strange. Recently I bought a copy and re-read it, and was gratified to find how relevant it still was, and how the intervening years’ experience allowed me to appreciate so much that at the time had escaped me.
A tidbit: “The educated American who turns from religion does so not because of the Marxian discovery that it has been used as opium for the people through millenniums of serfdom, but because he has gained knowledge of the origin of his species and, with that knowledge, some comprehension of how all religion came into being, how it evolved, by what historic psychological processes it reached its present many forms. He sees that its ritual is sprung from savages, its doctrine from medieval debate, and the dogma of its sects, frequently, from the mere bumptious disagreement of neighbors.”
While he had in mind Western religion particularly, the same is true of Eastern religion, but I think Eastern religion has the advantage of being less about deism and more about exploration of the mind. If you can see through the overlay of archaic concepts, there is some useful information underneath.
In that Fall, 2006 issue of Tricycle—again—there is an article called “Nirvana: Three Takes,” which illustrates how the teachings of one guy can diverge over 2500 years and several cultures, and how difficult it can be to sort through the clutter for useful information.
Gil Fronsdal, speaking from the Theravadan tradition, makes the point that happiness, freedom and peace are not dependent on external conditions.
Tulku Thubten Rinpoche, from the Tibetan, wants us to know that love, wisdom, and ecstasy are available.
Roko Sherry Chayat, from Zen, says that we’re already there if we just stop striving intellectually, sit down, and stop the chatter in our heads.
All that is too much to sort through in one post, but I’ll spend a little time on “impermanence,” a key concept in the Theravadan approach, since I alluded to it yesterday. As the Theravadans see it, if we can realize the impermanence of everything, it will help clear the way to the end of clinging to our desires, which prevents our experiencing nirvana.
Once I went up to the teacher after a dharma talk on impermanence and noted that for the last few days, every time I looked out there were daffodils growing beside the driveway. “Not the same daffodils,” he snapped, to which I responded, “Maybe, but they haven’t become roses, either.”
Of course, everything is ultimately impermanent—the sun will someday go supernova, and life as we know it on this planet will be over—but as I mentioned yesterday, there is some continuity in our everyday lives. We don’t have to re-learn our native language every day, for one thing, so to say, “everything is impermanent, you can’t step in the same river twice, etc.,” are true, but rather useless in understanding the ordinary reality of our situation.
I think it is more helpful to realize the degree to which the various aspects of our lives are impermanent. Some things last longer than others, and the real problems that this variable impermanence creates arise from our wanting things to last beyond their normal span, or in dealing with them as if they were longer-lived than they actually are. It is our disconnection from the reality of things and the resulting reification of our fantasies that bring unhappiness and discontent. (Sound familiar?)
It is more demanding than memorizing a “sacred truth,” but one of the requirements for happiness is to take note when our fantasies diverge from reality.
This View Will Not Last Forever