In this extract from his new book, Living as a River, Bodhipaksa discusses how we have mistaken views that limit our sense of who we are.
In 1911, a 32-year-old sportsman and daredevil called Calbraith Perry Rodgers, with a scant 60 hours of airtime in his logbook, set off to cross the United States from coast to coast in his specially modified Wright airplane—the first in private ownership. His dream was to win the $50,000 that tycoon publisher William Randolph Hearst was offering to the first person to fly across the continent within 30 days, but Rodgers, as much a canny businessman as an adventurous pioneer, had a financial backup plan in case the trip took longer than the month allowed. He’d persuaded J. Ogden Armour, a Chicago entrepreneur, to underwrite the costs of the mission in exchange for the words “Vin Fiz”—Armour’s brand of grape-flavored soda—being emblazoned on the tail-fin and wings of the craft. And so, The Vin Fiz Flyer became the name of Rodger’s airplane.
Title: Living as a River
Publisher: Sounds True
Available from: Wildmind, Sounds True, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, and Apple’s App Store.
The Vin Fiz took to the air from a field in Sheepshead Bay, near New York City, late in the afternoon of September 17, its pilot swaddled in layers of sweaters and sheepskin to provide warmth in the unheated cockpit. Seven weeks and almost seventy landings later the craft touched down at a racetrack in Pasadena, California. Sadly, Rodgers failed to win Hearst’s prize. For all his courage and persistence, his flight had taken far longer than the 30 days allowed, and as a further blow to Rodgers’ hopes, the year-long window for participating in the competition had expired before the Vin Fiz reached Pasadena. But a week later, buoyed by the glory of having made aviation history with his epic voyage, Rodgers set off to cover the remaining 20 miles to Long Beach and the Pacific Ocean. In retrospect that was not such a good idea. The last leg alone took almost a month, with two crashes, one of which was serious enough to result in a broken ankle. All for a distance could be comfortably cycled in two hours.
All that is born, all that is created, all the elements of nature are interwoven and united with each other. All that is composed shall be decomposed; everything returns to its roots; matter returns to the origins of matter.
—Gospel of Mary Magdalene
Although he didn’t win Hearst’s $50,000, for Rodgers to cross the country in such a primitive aircraft was an astonishing achievement. The Vin Fiz was a fragile thing made from a spruce frame covered with linen, its body looking more like a box kite than a modern plane. It was powered by a tiny 35 horsepower engine: no more powerful than some modern lawnmowers. Rodgers had no navigational instruments, and he found his way across country by the simple expedient of following a train, which also pulled a boxcar packed with spare parts for the journey. And Rodgers was to need a lot of spares. The doughty Vin Fiz malfunctioned, crashed, or was damaged in rough landings so many times during the 84-day crossing that by the end of the journey only one wing-strut and a rudder remained from the original machine that had left New York.
Without in any way undermining the magnificence of Rodgers’ achievement, when I first heard this tale many years ago, I found myself wondering in what sense The Vin Fiz had actually completed the journey. Only two components survived the trip, and given a few more miles it’s possible that even those remaining parts of the original airplane would have been replaced from the dwindling supply of spares in the white railroad car, in which case nothing would have remained of the original craft. In a sense, one plane took off from Sheepshead Bay and another landed in California. With each repair, the machine had become in some sense a new aircraft. The Vin Fiz struck me as being a perfect example of the Buddhist teaching of anatta, or the non-permanence and insubstantiality of the self.
Flight of imagination
Compressing time and space in the theater of the imagination, let’s visualize the cross-country flight of the Vin Fiz. Let’s see the frail craft at the mid-point of each of its hops across the country, suspended in mid air, the images strung together to form a brief movie. Squeezing the entire journey into the space of a minute, notice that the craft is continually changing. In a sudden jump of perception a tattered wing becomes whole again. A rattling bolt falls to earth and at that same moment is replaced. A propeller, a wing-strut, a stretch of linen, a wheel, an entire engine—each vanishes and is instantaneously regenerated. As we watch the Vin Fiz in this way, it is a plane that is forever in the process of becoming another plane. And when at last we visualize the final touch-town, only that stubborn wing-strut and hardy rudder remain unchanged. And we can, if we wish, imagine one more frame of this imaginary movie and see even those components being replaced.
So what was it that flew across the United States? What was the Vin Fiz? The craft that arrived in Pasadena was not physically the same one that had departed New York. The form was the same, the name was the same, but almost everything constituting the aircraft had changed. No one component was the Vin Fiz. No single component contained the essence of the aircraft: certainly not the wing-strut and rudder that happened to survive the journey, and which were merely accidental survivors. The Vin Fiz was also not the entirety of its components, since they were forever changing. When we try to look for the Vin Fiz it becomes mirage-like, its “thingness” vanishing under scrutiny.
The Vin Fiz clearly existed. But it was a process rather than a thing, an ever-changing assemblage of parts functioning in a particular way, rather than a static object. It was a process that had continuity rather than identity. It had no essence, but consisted of a series of ever-changing components that were brought together in a manner that allowed an ever-changing form to cross a continent. What arrived in Pasadena was not identical to what left Sheepshead Bay, but there was a continuous process connecting the various iterations of the craft as it evolved over the course of its journey. The continuity of the Vin Fiz is also maintained in the mind. Had the Viz Fiz suffered only one devastating crash half-way from coast to coast, and had a new craft been assembled from the parts in the railroad car (including only one wing strut and a rudder from the original aircraft) and continued the journey, would Rodgers be credited with the first continental crossing by air? Naturally not. We would not have believed that one craft had made the crossing. It would seem like a stunt had been pulled. And yet an assemblage of replacement parts (including one wing strut and a rudder from the original aircraft) was precisely what did arrive on the West coast. What held together the Vin Fiz, just as much as the rivets and bolts, was the sense of continuity that the mind sees, which allows us to say that a process had continually functioned as an aircraft, despite modifications. When we look for a “thing” called the Vin Fiz, it now seems mirage-like, and undefinable.
The same is true of the human body. As the body makes a journey across the continent of life, from the coast of conception to the far shore we call death, it too is continually changing, the physical and mental components forever being replaced. What arrives at the final touchdown is a far cry from what originally departed at the beginning of life. The body you’re born with is not the one you’ll die with. Looking at the body in the same way as we looked at the Vin Fiz, we can see there is similarly no essence within it. There is no locus within the body where a self can be found. Our physical selves seem mirage-like, held together not so much by chemical bonds but a physical process of continuity and by an idea of selfhood.
Our ideas of what constituted the boundaries of the Vin Fiz are also limited. At some point after its historic flight, the Vin Fiz was broken up, its parts dispersed to rot or burn. We no longer have the sense that there is a thing or process that we can label “Vin Fiz,” and yet the continuity has simply taken a different form. Parts of the aircraft – the ash from burned wood and linen, metal parts that long ago turned to rust – have become soil, supporting manifold forms of life. The carbon dioxide from its burning has become plants, which have since been eaten and transformed into uncountable living things. Just a few years before it crossed the continental Unites States, the Vin Fiz had not yet come into being; it was trees, flax, soil, and ores buried deep underground. We could look at these things and never dream that they would one day fly across a vast continent. When we look in this way we can see that there was no beginning to the Vin Fiz. Nor was there an end of it. But the mind tries to impose boundaries on processes that in essence are boundless. We think of the Vin Fiz beginning and ending. We see the craft in the air as being the Vin Fiz, but the components on the train as not being the Vin Fiz. We impute to the Vin Fiz a false sense of separateness.
We impute the same false sense of separateness to ourselves as well, and the purpose of reflecting on the elements is to dispel the mistaken assumption that the self is a thing—static, separate, and enduring. The purpose of reflecting on the elements is to see the truth of flow, of impermanence, of insubstantiality, and of interconnectedness. And on the way to seeing this truth we have to let go of the idea that the body is a thing – that it is separate and that it has some kind of permanent essence. When we do that, we start to realize that we can’t “own” the body. The body is not ours in any real sense, nor is the body “us” in any real sense. The self cannot be found within it. This, as we’ll see, isn’t to diminish ourselves. Rather, it’s to free ourselves from a limited way of seeing the self so that we can appreciate that we’re much, much more than we habitually assume.