Saturday, February 21, 2015

Time is an Illusion, so Can I Have a Beer?

I had intended on making blog posts about the Chico Taoist Study Group's discussions of the Tao Te Ching when we started again with Chapter 1, but as luck would have it, a combination of illness and weather prevented me from going over to Chico until the group was on Chapter 4. I don't intend for these posts to be a in-depth analysis of the text, but rather a report of the kind of discussions we have in the group, along with my own thoughts.

After meditation,the Front Cushion (i.e. the guy who leads the group) read a koan from the Rinzai Zen tradition which, as far as I understand it studies koans as a means for sudden enlightenment. (There is more than a dollop of Buddhism in this Taoist group.) Koans are designed to stop logical thought; they don't make sense, so they kind of make you crazy trying to figure them out. Part of this one goes “Knowing is delusion. Not knowing is confusion.” So . . . we're royally screwed, right? No, it's that enlightenment is transcends knowing and not-knowing. As long as we think we know, we don't. As long as we keep things open, we have a shot at real understanding.

Now, here is Chapter 4 of the Tao Te Ching, Derek Lin translation:

The Tao is empty Utilize it, it is not filled up So deep! It seems to be the source of all things
It blunts the sharpness Unravels the knots Dims the glare Mixes the dusts
So indistinct! It seems to exist I do not know whose offspring it is Its image is the predecessor of God

We usually look at more than one translation, but always include one from Derek Lin's Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained, which is said to be the most literal interpretation of the Chinese text. I'll only give one translation here, to save space.

One lady in the group said she's so fond of this particular chapter that she has it posted on her refrigerator. I have no idea why this particular one stands out to her, but why a text strikes one person and not another is just one of those mysteries. After all, I was a Baha'i for around 27 years largely because I was attracted to the Baha'i Writings and I'd be hard put to explain exactly why.

Getting down to basics, a young woman who I had not seen before asked the Front Cushion what the Tao is. “Is it life? Is it energy? Is it spirit?” The answer to all of those questions is “Yes.” He explained that it is as vast as the Universe and as minute as atomic particles. “It is a universal concept.” And, in any case, as another new member of the group pointed out, if you can explain what it is, you have missed it entirely. My own contribution was to refer to my previous blog post and to explain the idea that the Tao is essentially a moving target that you can't pin a precise label on. Another lady elaborated on this determined imprecision of language by talking about the word “seems” in the translation. It seems to be the source of all things rather than “It is . . . .”

Yet another woman talked about how she came to grips with her health difficulties when she simply gave up – when she stopped fighting the illness, she felt peaceful about it. These personal stories have only the most tenuous relationship to the text, but it's fairly common for people to share this way. They need to, and we all listen. In fact, there are times when I feel like my whole presence there is an exercise in listening-- something we could all do a bit better. It's not uncommon for me to say nothing at all.

Another man talked about the recent science questioning the Big Bang theory, saying that he found a certain comfort in the beginnings of the Universe being a complete mystery. He related this to his trip to Macchu Picchu and how he looked down at a blanket of fog covering the ruins, which he poetically described as being “like the Mother's nightgown”, that he really didn't want to peek behind, but to leave it obscure.

The final bit of wisdom was from one of the older members who said, “If there's no Big Bang, then time doesn't exist. So, can I have a beer?” We all laughed, of course. Now that I've had time to think about it, the comment sounds very much like a koan, and thus the perfect way to end, as we began the discussion.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?

One of the teaching of Buddhism that I've struggled with from the very first time I ever heard of it is that of anatta, or “no self”. That is, the perception we have of the existence of a permanent self is an illusion. Nothing about us at all is permanent, not even the “soul” or whatever it is you want to call what survives of us into the afterlife. I really have a tough time wrapping my head around the concept that something of us reincarnates according to our karma (meaning our actions), but it isn't anything permanent. (I'm not sure I believe in reincarnation anyway, but that's an entirely different blog post.) The classic explanation is that we are like a candle flame that lights another candle – the flame is the same, yet different. Yeah, I don't understand it, either – a lot of Buddhism is like that. You aren't really supposed to understand it logically; real understanding transcends logic.

Even though we think of ourselves as being a permanent thing, our impermanence is pretty easy to demonstrate. First of all, our bodies are continually changing. I think most of us are familiar with the old saying that every cell in our body will be different once seven years has past. I don't know if that's true, but I know my body is very different than it was ten years ago – more weight, more aches and pains, fewer teeth, more gray hair, different lenses in my glasses, more medication I have to take. It's not all bad – I have less pain from TMJ, less trouble with allergies, fewer hot flashes, better muscle tone. Ten years is easy, but if we look at ourselves our bodies change even from moment to moment. We're hungry, we eat, and then we're not hungry. Our body tightens with tension over something, then relaxes. Our organs silently perform functions as needed, changing without our even being aware of it, We think of our bodies as being part of “ourselves”, but it certainly is not a fixed entity at any point in our lives.

Our minds change even faster than our bodies do. For one thing, the mind is influenced by how our body feels; it's not really a separate thing at all. Thoughts flow in and out. New impressions and memories are constantly put into the brain. Memory, especially, contributes to the illusion that we have a permanent existence, but memory itself is not a concrete thing. Everyone is familiar with the “Roshomon” scenario, where several people describe the same event very differently. Sometimes we completely forget events that someone else who was present remembers vividly. Our past is not static; memory changes as we change, and events look differently as we grow and learn. And if memory is erased because of injury or illness, who are we then?

Sometimes you'll hear people say about an earlier time “I wasn't the same person then as I am now.” In fact, if we're honest, we are different, even in the present, with different people. Don't most of us lose a few years (or a few decades) when we visit our parents? We are different when we are with coworkers than we are with family members. The local Baha'i community knew an entirely different Karen than the online Baha'i community did. I know I'm a different person with Jeff than I was with my ex-husband. My children would probably describe me in yet a different way than my students. Which one of these is the “real” Karen? Truth is, none of them. The real Karen is the person who is thinking and typing right now in the present moment, but when the circumstances change, so will I.

Now, there are certain patterns to our lives that tend to repeat themselves. Some tendencies we are born with – even tiny infants will have distinct personalities, with some being fussy and needy, others fairly placid. That's just a matter of heredity and is probably the most permanent thing about us in this lifetime. I don't think anything will change my natural inclination to be introverted, for example. Then, on top of that basic heredity, we have the psychology, which is emotional behavior learned in our earliest years – defenses against pain, ways we seek love and attention, the things which provoke fear or anger. Those things that Buddhism calls “mental formations” that are really tough to change unless and until we become consciously aware of them. But I don't think any of us thinks “I am my behavior patterns” – these are just characteristics of the person we think we are.

So, what does all this mean? Well, it can be sort of depressing, at least I thought so when I first heard the idea years ago. So,we aren't who we think we are and our existence is an illusion? Bummer. I wouldn't blame you if you chucked this notion entirely. But trying to prove the existence of a permanent self is pretty difficult, and the evidence for our impermanence is right there in our very nature.

However, there's a positive side to it, too. We can lay down the need to defend who we think we are, because there's really nothing to defend. We can realize that even if this moment is horrible, the bad feelings won't last forever. We can stop beating ourselves up over past mistakes, because every moment in our lives is an opportunity to be something different. You can't pin a label on a moving target. The classic philosophical question of “Who am I?” should more rightly be asked as “Who am I at this moment?” So, who do you think you are now?