anicca (impermanence)

Steve Jobs on death

Steve Jobs

I’m sad that Steve Jobs has died. No one has had as much effect on the computer industry as he has. His company, Apple, has transformed the way we relate to computers.

I only recently learned that Jobs was a Buddhist. According to his Wikipedia biography, he went to India in the 1970s and came back a Buddhist. In 1991 his wedding ceremony was performed by a Zen priest. He was a very private man, and I don’t think he talked much about his religion.

I thought a fitting tribute would be Jobs own words, from his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, in which he eloquently discusses how an awareness of death and impermanence inspired him to live life to the fullest.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

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Drops in the ocean: Buddhist reflections on David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas”

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cloud atlas book cover

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, is a ripping good read with plenty of action and suspense. It’s also a cautionary tale of karma-vipāka (how our actions set up complex results, short- and long-term) and how failing to choose is itself a choice just as much as a conscious decision is.

Populated by clever and colorful characters from different places, pasts and futures, the six stories making up this diverse sampling of human experience nonetheless weave together, surprisingly, into a poignant and epic tale of suffering and kindness. From the story of a rather naïve young man on a return voyage to San Francisco from the South Pacific, in perhaps the 1800s, to a nearly Lord of the Flies reorganization of tribal life in far-future Hawaii after humans have pretty well trashed the environment, the reader is zoomed from one kind of crisis–ranging from the personal to the global–to the next. Each of the characters have challenges unique to their time, place and situation. Yet these challenges, specific as they may seem, do not eclipse their all-too-human needs and desires, which all of us share.

Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-037-55072-5-0
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

When you have a landscape that covers this many diverse stories over such a sweep of time, the main point(s) of the overarching story could get lost. But Mitchell makes us care about the characters, and their grappling with their fates, not just by evoking all the richness of lived experience but by helping us connect our hearts to that of each character. In the end, what I was left with wasn’t just another display of the whole gamut of human cruelty, ignorance and greed. In each story, most of the characters realized something more about themselves and their world, prompting me to examine myself, my values, and the world around me. Putting myself in their shoes, I wondered: how can I better use awareness and kindness to respond to the confusion and unsatisfactoriness in and around me? A book that makes you question, maybe makes you squirm — that’s an excellent use of one’s reading time, no?

I felt richly rewarded with well-evoked characterizations, some who could rightly be called “a piece of work,” who employ all manner of picaresque language such as:

Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.

Agog is one of the basic human states, I think; it was a pleasure to live there while reading this book.

Though Cloud Atlas is not a Buddhist book, I found certain Dharmic themes reflected in the prose. The strongest of these is the Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence (impermanence, non-substantiality and unsatisfactoriness), which seem woven throughout the narratives. Or maybe, like when I first fell in love with old Volvos, I just see them everywhere. In one brief scene, from a time maybe 200 years from now, a humanoid fabricant being, somni-451, is being shuttled from safe-house to safe-house, avoiding the corporate/government authorities. She is being hunted down as the (reluctant) figure-head in an emerging revolution of the have-nots against their ‘beloved masters’. She is taken to what had been, centuries before, a monastic complex with many temples and shrines somewhere in Korea, perhaps. Visible across the river gorge is a carved, serene, seated, cross-legged figure, the worse for wear and tear, in huge bas-relief. Somni-451 comes out just before dawn, and sees the elderly headwoman who is sitting, contemplating this figure. She is the abbess, who, as a young girl, had trained briefly as a nun and is the only survivor from the time of rehabilitation (or death) of those who practiced the old, now-banned, religions. She tells somni-451 about this Siddhartha and how he taught freedom from suffering. But she can’t really tell her the stories, because they have all been lost. Nonetheless, she abides, and helps those who come to this place seeking freedom.

Cloud Atlas, written as a palindromic enigma, reveals itself gradually. Each chapter focuses on the story of a particular character, time and place, starting with the past (roughly the early 1800s). Working forward in time we reach a time in the far future (maybe 500 years?), and then the order reverses where we find the denouement of each character as we proceed, backwards in time. However, words, phrases, shadows of names, and roles of characters reverberate back and forth among the chapters. It’s exciting and also uncomfortable. I find myself once again sucked into the vortex of a dystopian vision, and find myself wondering why I am drawn to this. As the survivor of a personal apocalypse or two (although thriving now, thankfully) perhaps I can’t help being fascinated by fictional apocalypses. Even though I know there is no safe ground in saṃsāra (the world-as-we-know-it: the ocean of suffering and beauty we inhabit), and even though I deeply believe that no one is free until we’re all free and saṃsāra is emptied of the suffering of craving, aversion, and confusion, I can’t quite look away.

This is a book of disturbing conceptions, but of such conceptions that we ought, ethically, to be disturbed by. In the paired sections named “An Orison of Somni-451,” a dystopian future is presented wherein the population of “purebloods” exists by the caring grace of the “corpocracy” and cannot survive without their “franchises and gallerias.” Meanwhile, fabricants from corporate wombtanks live in complete servitude, unable to survive without a special nourishing but soporific substance , and poisoned by regular food. They labor, die, and then become — Soylent Green-style — the food that supports the whole enterprise.

This book has riled my inner revolutionary. I want the victims rescued, injustices revenged, and the evil punished. But also it takes genuine talent for a writer to make a reader care that all the villains, no matter how contemptuous and evil, are really just so sadly deluded. This makes for some painful reading in certain moments. The truest revolution is the wish for all villains to see with new hearts and be transformed.

There is a sad eloquence generated by beings not considered by others as sentient. Somni-451 is not alone. It doesn’t matter if that being is different by way of gender, age, color of skin, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or genomic construction. All of that is portrayed here and often it is wryly funny. As one character, the only slightly decrepit yet elegant Veronica explains, “Oh, once you’ve been initiated into the Elderly, the world doesn’t want you back… We–by whom I mean anyone over sixty–commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offense is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.” Ow. And I say this partly, yes, but not completely because I, too, am over sixty.

Another treat this book offers is a sort of comparison of technologies past, present, future. From our current vantage point, we can never see very far how our choices play out in the future, but maybe we should keep trying to see. Science and technology have brought wondrous things to pass. Many have been the entrepreneurs who by connecting dots have opened the way for people to make a better living for themselves and their families. Leaders and organizations can help whole communities flourish and creatively respond to challenges to the common good. And it can and has and will all go horribly wrong unless we’re smart about it and practice good ethics.

But what to do, as a practicing Buddhist, since I cannot look away–from this book, from ongoing life? I am riled, I am moved–but to what? How exactly, does the bodhisattva save living beings? I wanna know; I’m also afraid that the answer might be that it is beyond me. Truly, it does seem beyond the abilities of “me,” this un-Enlightened, ordinary, human woman.

Adam Ewing (our young guy from the 1800’s), who had both observed and suffered much cruelty from his fellows aboard ship makes it home to San Francisco determined to use his newly-awakened passion for justice for the abolition of slavery. He intends to spend his life

shaping a world I want Jackson [his son] to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit…[yet] I hear my father-in-law’s response: ‘Oho, fine, Whiggish sentiments, Adam, but don’t tell me about justice. Ride to Tennessee on an ass & convince the rednecks that they are merely white-washed negroes & their negroes are black-washed Whites!…You’ll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified!…He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’

Well, okay then; whatever! But the last line in the book, the son’s silent answer to his father-in-law is strangely comforting, and perhaps our next-step-clue: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

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Reflecting on death is oddly life-enhancing

dancing skeletons

Most people would tend to assume that reflecting on your own death is going to be a bit of a downer. Why think about that depressing stuff?

Well, there’s a good reason why. It can make you a happier and better person.

In an experiment in the UK, people were asked to reflect about death in an abstract way, were asked to imagine their own death, or (as a control) were asked to imagine toothache.

Next, the participants were given an article, supposedly from the BBC, about blood donations. Some people read an article saying that blood donations were “at record highs” and the need was low; others read another article reporting the opposite – that donations were “at record lows” and the need was high. They were then offered a pamphlet guaranteeing fast registration at a blood center that day and told they should only take a pamphlet if they intended to donate.

People who thought about death in the abstract were motivated by the story about the blood shortage. They were more likely to take a pamphlet if they read that article. But people who thought about their own death were likely to take a pamphlet regardless of which article they read; their willingness to donate blood didn’t seem to depend on how badly it was needed.

Thinking about death — your own death — can make you realize what’s important in life. That’s one reason why the Buddha suggested that we should reflect frequently:

  1. I’m going to get old
  2. I’m going to get sick
  3. I’m going to die
  4. I’m going to be separated from all that’s dear to me

There’s a fifth reflection that’s a part of this set as well:

  1. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’

To sum that up, life is short, and you’re responsible for what you do with it. The clear implication is that with all that in mind we’re more likely to live well, paying attention to those things — like helping others — that are really important.

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This precious human birth

When one of Sunada’s best friends from college lost her brother recently, it served as a wake up call for her. It was a reminder that life is short, and there really is no time to lose.

My friend Cecily recently lost her brother to illness. He had just turned 50 the week before he died. She is devastated.

Cecily is one of my best friends from college. We’ve known each other for 32 years. It’s that rare kind of friendship where even if months pass without connecting, we still pick right up where we left off. We’ve never lived anywhere near each other since graduation, but we’ve stayed in touch through all our ups and downs. It’s a friendship I treasure.

When she came to visit after her loss, there was something very poignant about it. It turned into something of a wake up call for me.

I’ve written here many times about my busy-holic tendencies. It turns out I’m in one of my legitimately busiest periods in years. I recently took on a new part-time job, on top of working to build my coaching practice, and teach meditation and dharma. This week, I start attending a training program one day a week. My husband wants to start some home renovations to prepare our townhouse for sale. And I’m keeping up with my singing engagements and voice lessons. I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again. Everything I’m doing is very important to me. I have a hard time seeing what to cut.

But sometimes I take things too seriously. I get so driven and sucked into my vision of where I want to go that I forget to live my life right now. And Cecily’s visit reminded me of that.

At my sangha group this week, it was timely that we discussed the traditional Buddhist teaching on the Four Reminders. Here’s one presentation of them, in verse form:

This human birth is precious,
our opportunity to awaken.
The body is impermanent,
and time of death is uncertain.
The cause and effect of karma
shapes the course of our lives.
Life has inevitable difficulties,
no one can control it all.

This life we must know
As the tiny splash of a raindrop.
A thing of beauty that disappears
Even as it comes into being.

Therefore I recall
My inspiration and aspiration
And resolve to make use
Of every day and night to realize it.

– Compiled by Viveka Chen, based on verses by Tsongkhapa (14th century Tibetan master)

What this teaching says to me is this. Of all the millions of different circumstances that I might have been born into, I was given this fortunate human birth. I have everything I need, and the freedom to choose how to live. How foolish it is to spend my life like a hungry ghost — constantly grasping after some elusive future.

See also:

Right Now is a good time to appreciate what precious gifts I’ve been given. And make the best use of them, both for my own benefit and for everyone else’s. When else could I do that? Besides, I don’t know how long my good fortune will last. Things could change tomorrow. I don’t know. And the opportunity might not come again.

For now, I’m not in a position to change my overloaded schedule. But I can change my mindset. For one, I realize how precious Cecily’s friendship is to me. Even though we’ve been friends for 32 years, there have been big chunks of time when we weren’t connecting. Now that we’re both in our 50s, I’m seeing more clearly how the time ahead of us is finite.

Seeing her and reflecting on the Four Reminders have given me my wake up call. There really is no time to lose.

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Everything is aging, all the time. We age from our first breath

Lewis Richmond

The emotional undertow of aging, I think, is a feeling of loss — Loss of youth, loss of dreams, loss of possibility.This quality is what used to be referred to as mid-life crisis. Other phrases have come into vogue now — such as the cheery “60 is the new 40” — but the undertow of such homilies is still loss. Is there some way out of this sense of loss, some fresh point of view that assuages the pain of it? Actually, there is. Aging is not a matter of years — forty, sixty, eighty — but of life process. Everything is aging, all the time. We age from our first breath. The problem is not aging per se, but our view of it.

It is natural to want to avoid pain and abide with pleasure. Even a sunflower wants to turn to the sun as much as possible. Why should it be otherwise? And yet this pleasure bias does not really maximize our pleasure. Even pleasure turns to pain as it fades. Though we want to maximize gain and minimize loss, gain and loss are actually interwoven in each moment.

In teaching Zen meditation, I sometimes talk about breathing in terms of gain and loss. We breathe in and gain a new moment of life; we breath out and that moment is gone, never to return. This is how our life is.

Or rather it is how our life actually is. How we want it to be is heavily weighted toward the in and not the out — we want more new moments, less old moments, more sun and less cloud. This is our bias, and yet there is something powerfully liberating to return to the actuality of just breathing in and breathing out. We imagine that there is joy in minimizing loss, of staying with gain. But strangely enough, when we just rest in the equality of gain and loss, of every cycle of time containing both in equal measure, there is a different kind of joy — fundamental joy, we might say.

The way Buddhism has often been taught in the West, it appears to many as a rather “down” or even depressing world-view. Friends of my son who know about his being raised a Buddhist say to him, “Oh, I could never get into that life is suffering Buddhist thing.” Well, they might be surprised to know that the Buddha never taught that life is suffering, only that it seems that way from a self-centered point of view. What he actually taught is that it is possible to transform and transcend both our moments of suffering and joy.

Loss is not really loss if we don’t hold onto it. Gain is not ephemeral if we do not continually invent strategies to make it permanent. Fundamental joy is somewhere outside of this loss/gain calculus. I think that the natural process of aging is also the natural process of wisdom about all of this. It is those of us who are older — who have, if you will, experienced many more cycles of breath than the young — who are the natural experiencers and teachers of joy.

This is our birthright.

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Buddhist Geeks interview with Bodhipaksa

living as a riverBuddhist Geeks is an insanely popular podcast, featuring in-depth interviews with some of the most influential Buddhist teachers around today. Recently the Buddhist Geeks’ Vince Horn interviewed Bodhipaksa about his new book, Living as a River, which explores how penetrating the truths of impermanence and insubstantiality can free us from fear and clinging.

The interview has now been transcribed, and is available online:

Vincent: Hello, Buddhist geeks, this is Vincent Horn, and I’m joined today, over Skype, with Bodhipaksa. Bodhipaksa, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I know that you’ve actually tuned in to Buddhist Geeks before, and I’ve been following you on Twitter. So, it’s really cool to connect with someone that’s kind of plugged in to what we’re doing here at Buddhist Geeks.

Bodhipaksa: Thank you, I’m a big admirer.

Vincent: Cool. Thank you. I just wanted to say a little bit about your background, and this is sort of new for me. Even though I studied Buddhism in college, I knew very little about the order that you’re connected with, and that’s currently called Triratna Buddhist Community. It was formerly known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. You were telling me before the interview that the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order is not a community that’s really that popular in America, but that it’s huge in other areas.

Bodhipaksa: Yes, it’s very large in Britain, in particular, it’s possibly the largest. It’s certainly one of the three largest Buddhist movements there.

Vincent: Nice. What was the deal with the shifting the name from the Western Buddhist Order to this Triratna Community?

Bodhipaksa: Well the Western Buddhist Order and Friends of the Western Buddhist Order started in London in the 1960s. It was initiated by a Buddhist monk who was from England who’d been practicing in India for 20 years. He came back and decided, for various reasons, to set up a new kind of Buddhist movement. He wanted, specifically, to set up something that addressed the Western condition. He didn’t think that either of the two main forms of Buddhism that were around in Britain in the mid-60s were particularly appropriate. There was monastic Buddhism, and there was kind of “hobby Buddhism.” People going to evening classes and learning about Buddhism but not really thinking of it in terms of a life-changing practice.

So he decided to start something that wasn’t monastic but was full on. Initially, actually, he called the movement Friends of the Western Sangha, renamed it, shortly afterwards, to Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, as that meant more to some people. But it’s grown since then. It started off in a little basement in London, and we now have a lot of order members, about a third of the Order, I believe, is in India. We have other members in Australia, in New Zealand, and a couple of people in Russia as well. Pitching yourself as being Western when you’re in those places doesn’t really work very well.

Vincent: Right.

Bodhipaksa: So, a name was picked, which is more universal. Triratna means the “three jewels,” of course, of the Buddha dharma and sangha. So we have a name that’s in Sanskrit and can be related to wherever you are.

Vincent: Nice. It sounds like this is a more progressive, looking it from the point of view of sort of spectrum of conservative to progressive, in the Buddhist tradition. So I think this is highly progressive type of movement.

Bodhipaksa: Definitely not conservative, more experimental. We have a lot of women order members. They’ve been smaller in numbers than the men, for example. Of course, as you know, in traditional Theravada Buddhism, in most forms of traditional Theravada Buddhism, there is no full ordination for women, so we’re progressive in that kind of regard. The women are catching up, actually. They’re going to be overtaking the men in a few years, I understand.

Vincent: I wanted to talk with you today about some of the things that you’ve written in a book that’s coming out right around now, which is “Living As a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change.” This book is coming out through Sounds True, where I worked for a few years, and your name definitely came up a lot while I was there.

I just wanted to say, first, that I really enjoyed reading it. It just flowed in a way that was really pleasant to read. I think it was the ideas, too, were very accessible. I’m thinking now, as you describe the Triratna Community, that there’s a connection here between the way that the ideas sort of just made sense immediately to my Western mind. Yeah, so I just wanted to thank you for that, because it’s not always common to read a book that’s both profound and also is really accessible and easy to read.

Bodhipaksa: Thank you very much.

Vincent: Yeah. I wanted to speak with you about one of the ideas that seem really central to the book, and of course, is central to the Buddhist tradition, which is the teachings on non-self. Could you say a little bit about why the teachings on non-self, or person permanence, are so central, so important in the way you talk about things?

Bodhipaksa: Well sure. I guess, the teaching of non-self or not-self is absolutely central to Buddhism. It’s seen as being one of the core delusions that we need to overcome if we want to achieve a deeper level of happiness and well-being. The idea that we have a separate and permanent self seems to be burned up with a lot of fear and confusion. It leads to defensiveness and to acquisition, a kind of overinvestment in materiality and then things like status, etc. So, it seems to be something that we really have to work at.

Vincent: There’s one piece where you talk about the mind and the brain and how we’re sort of wired for what’s called “change blindness.” What’s the deal with that concept, because that’s something that I found was a kind of a unique way of looking at this whole thing?

Bodhipaksa: Sure. Well, I try to think of some of the reasons for why we think we do have separate and permanent selves because we tend to, almost all of us, have this idea that “Yes, I am separate. There’s this boundary between me and the rest of the world, and I don’t really change that much.” Even if we can’t, exactly put our finger on it, even if we’ve seen a lot of change in ourselves, we think that there’s something permanent within ourselves. So, I try to look at some of the reasons for why is that we might overlook the change that is actually taking place in our experience. One very interesting thing that psychologists have been looking at is what’s called “change blindness.”

I describe a really interesting experiment in the book where people were invited to participate in a psychological experiment. They didn’t know exactly what the nature of the psychological experiment was when they were signing up. All they knew was that they had to turn up like it’s, for example, the fourth floor of the Psychology building in Harvard. They would be asked a few questions. So, you walked in, you got your letter saying that you’ve been invited to participate in the project. There’s somebody behind the desk who asks to see your letter and say a few words about what you’re going to be doing. You’re going to be going down the coordor here, take the second door on the left, but I need to give you this packet, first of all. He ducks behind the desk, stands up again, hand you the packet, and you go on your way. Most people, something like 80% of people don’t notice that the person who stood up with the packet was not the same person who ducks down behind the desk to get the packet, in the first place. [Laughter] They didn’t look alike, they weren’t dressed the same. They were of different heights, they had different hairstyles, they had different facial features. That’s a lot of change not to notice.

Vincent: That’s incredible.

Bodhipaksa: Some people noticed it, about 20% of people, I think, did notice it, but the vast majority of people don’t. It seems that we’re just not very good picking up on change. There’s various theories, I think, for why that is.

The brain can’t really process very much information at one time, so when you’re suddenly there in front of the desk and you’re busy thinking about all kinds of things, like, “Did he say the second door on the left or did he say the right? Am I going to get paid? I wonder what the questions are going to be like.” So, your mind is already kind of half-full of stuff. There’s not really enough mental space, as it were, to pick up on some other things.

So, we just end up screening out a lot of change. There’s a lot of the experiments like this being done actually. One of the most fascinating ones which I did was watching a video of people passing a basketball back and forth. You had to kind of how often the people dressed in white passed the ball to each other. What you didn’t notice until you watch the video again, that somebody dressed in a gorilla costume walked right through in the middle of the basketball court during the game. You just don’t see, you just don’t notice it. It’s hard to believe you wouldn’t, but it’s not.

Vincent: It’s amazing. I mean, I’ve heard about the gorilla experiment before, and I just couldn’t believe it. Yet, it seems really clear that, in fact, people didn’t see the gorilla.

Bodhipaksa: I think one thing that happens is that we just kind of label our experience. We have this kind of crude wordless labels almost. So, the guy behind the desk is just “the guy behind the desk.” We don’t need to know anymore about the guy behind the desk. If he was somebody who we thought we might need to remember, then we might put some energy into really noticing his facial features, of how he was dressed or whatever. But, he’s just “the guy behind the desk. “So, that label suffices, it’s almost like an icon that’s there, and we just continue on our way.

I’ve tried to integrate this into my meditation teaching, because I realize that the brain has a limited capacity for bandwidth. Our short-term memory, for example, can only usually hold about 5-7 things. There’s not really that many things that we can pay attention to at one time. So, what happens when you’re sitting, meditating just following your breath, is very often that a lot of thoughts are coming up and you start paying attention to those thoughts. And I found that, if you, as it were, choke the bandwidth of your mind by just paying a lot of attention to a lot of different stimuli at the same time, then you enter a state of a kind of open, expansive awareness, where there’s basically no room for thinking anymore. You’ve taken up all of your bandwidth. It’s a bit like there’s a bandwidth hog using your wireless internet connection, and everything’s going really slowly. That’s normally a bad thing, but here what we’re talking about going slowly is the discursive thinking that’s connected with stress and anxiety and irritability and wanting things. There’s no room for that anymore, so all we do is just notice our experience.

Vincent: And this is something that is really counterintuitive to the normal way of walking around, and I wanted to talk with you about one of the main practices that you present in the book, which is the Six Element practice. Could you say a little bit about where that practice comes from, and then also it’d be fun to get into how it works and how it’s related to what we’ve been talking about.

Bodhipaksa: Sure. It’s a practice that is found in the earliest strata of Buddhist teachings–that is the Pali Canon–and it’s found in a text called the “Middle Length Sayings.” And, it is a practice of reflection on impermanence and non-self. In a way it’s kind of a non-duality practice, because what we’re doing is we take each of the elements in turn, and the elements are: the Earth element, which is everything solid, both within ourselves and outside of ourselves; the water element, which is everything liquid within ourselves and outside; the fire element, which, outside of ourselves, is represented in terms of energy, and within ourselves is represented in terms of the energy that’s involved in life or living metabolism. There’s the space element, which is the space that contains our body, and the space outside of ourselves, and there’s the consciousness element, which is a bit different.

What we do, for example, with the Earth element, is we start off by reflecting on the Earth element that constitutes the body, so you become aware of everything that’s solid within your body, and you can do that in two ways. You can do that experientially by just accessing your experience of the body right now. You can feel some solid parts of the body. Your hands are in contact with each other, for example, or your feet are in contact with the floor, or your butt is in contact with your meditation cushion, or whatever you’re sitting on.

So you can feel some of the solidity, but the practice also encourages us to use our imaginations and connect with what we know is there and is solid. So, I can’t sense my kidneys and my liver, for example, or even my bones, except where they’re making contact with something, but I become aware that all of that solid matter is there.

You reflect on the solid matter outside of yourself, so having reflected on solid matter that constitutes you, you reflect on the solid matter that constitutes what you normally think of as being “other.” So you’re calling to mind all the solid matter in the outside world–the Earth itself, all the rocks, the soil, the plants, buildings, other beings, etc.

And then you’re reflecting that these two things are not separate. So, you can reflect, for example, on how everything that is within you, everything that is solid within you, has come from the outside world, and we don’t tend to think of this very much. We’re vaguely aware of the fact that we’re eating, and that’s solid matter, and it’s going to be incorporated into the body, but when you start thinking about it, there’s not a single molecule in your body that is completely self-generated. There’s not a single atom which you’ve created. It all comes from outside. Even when you were born–or before you were born–when you were conceived, you started off as being a cell from your father, sperm, a cell from your mother, an egg. They weren’t you; that was part of your mother, part of your father. They fuse. They start growing by absorbing the elements from the outside world, and all of that is borrowed, and that goes on through your entire life. Everything is borrowed.

And you reflect on how it’s all moving back, as well. So having reflected on how the Earth element has all come from outside of you, you reflect on how the Earth element is in a continual process of returning. So, right now, I’m exhaling carbon dioxide, which was carbohydrates, which had been part of plants in the outside world, so it’s all flowing through. I took a dump this morning, so that’s part of the Earth element returning. And losing skin cells–as I’m sitting here, hairs are falling out. So there’s all this Earth element returning to the outside world. And of course, when you die, ultimately, you give all of it back.

So, you reflect this way for the Earth element, for everything solid, for the water element, everything, liquid. I think I forgot to mention gas in the previous explanation. But the fire element, which is the energy taken from the outside world, and the air element, which I forgot to mention earlier, and is everything gaseous within the body and outside. And, you start to sense yourself not as being a thing, not as something separate and static, but you start to experience your body as being something in a process of flow. It’s like a stretch of river, which is not a thing. It’s an event, as it were. Things are flowing through.

You reflect on the space element, which in a way, it’s your appearance, which is continually changing. You reflect on the fact that all of these physical elements that we’ve been talking about have been passing through you, but this space that is you isn’t ultimately you either. It’s continually changing, and it’s also borrowed from the outside world. You don’t have any space that is just you.

So, what we’re doing is we’re looking at what we normally identify with as being ourselves, and realizing that there’s no substance there, there’s certainly nothing separate. There is nothing static.

I haven’t mentioned the consciousness element yet. That is the other thing that we identify with. We identify with our bodies, and we identify with our minds, and when we look at the consciousness element, all we see is a continuous process of change. There are various experiences coming into being, existing for a short time, and passing away again. There’s physical sensations of heat, pressure, etc. There are thoughts, feelings, emotions. They’re all arising and passing away again, so you begin to sense that, too, as being a river. And if none of these experiences that you’re having are, as it were, stuck inside you–if you’re not attached to them–if they’re not attached to you in some way, then in what sense are they actually you? You start to experience this sense of almost existential vertigo. All the attachments that you have to thinking about you are a certain way begin to get let go of.

Vincent: It sounds like, in some ways, the practice you’re describing is very similar to many types of practices, and yet there’s a difference that I’m also noticing. I’ve never done a practice quite like what you’re describing. And I was wondering, because it seems like you’re the type of person that can sort of take a step back from their own approach, if you could maybe say a little bit about what you found the strengths of this approach to be when compared to, maybe, other approaches and techniques, and also if you’ve noticed any weaknesses or limitations.

Bodhipaksa: Ok. In terms of strengths, I think it’s a very all-around practice. What I described in terms of the consciousness element, for example, is very similar to Vipassana meditation–traditional, classic insight meditation. In fact, it is traditional, classic insight meditation. But you’re also reflecting on your body, which is quite a powerful and grounded thing to do. You’re not just reflecting on your experience of sensations within the body, as you would tend to do with insight meditation, but you’re reflecting on your body as you are attached to it in your day-to-day experience.

So, I think it’s got that strength. It’s something that you can reflect on outside of meditation, of course, as well. When you’re eating, when you’re going to the bathroom, when you’re lifting the plug of hairs out of the shower and flushing it down the toilet, you can be aware of all these ramifications of what you are as a process. It does seem to be quite powerful.

On the other hand, well, that power can be unsettling for some people. When I was taught the practice, I was taught that it’s very important to do it in a metta-ful state–that is a state of mind imbued with loving-kindness. If you tried to, as it were, dismantle your sense of self when you’re not in a very positive state of mind, or if you experience self-hatred, for example, then I think that could lead to quite a disturbing and jarring experience. So it’s not a complete practice. I think it has to be combined with loving kindness practice, in particular. I’d say if it’s got a weakness, that’s it, but, in a way, it’s not really a weakness. It’s just how it is.

Vincent: Interesting. And one thing I was noticing is that there seems to be a real recognition just built in to the way that the practice is described–of this interdependence of things, that maybe is not as obvious in, for instance, some of the techniques that I’ve practiced.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. It’s definitely a practice of reflecting on interconnectedness. It can lead to very strong experiences of the dissolving of the sense of self and other.

Vincent: Interesting. And like you’re saying, sometimes that dissolving can also be disturbing, and so there’s a way in which it’s got to be balanced by something.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. Yeah. If you have that balance, though, if you have that sense of loving kindness so that it’s not so threatening anymore–and I have had experiences of feeling quite threatened during the practice–but if you do have that sense of confidence that comes from loving kindness, then that dissolving of the boundaries between yourself and others can be a really powerful experience. The practice leads, in fact, not to the dhyana that you often hear talked about, but to what’s often, in my opinion, erroneously called the arupa jhanas, the formless dhyanas, or higher dhyanas, which begin with a sense of the breakdown between the sense of self and other.

Vincent: Yeah, it’s interesting just the way you’re describing space and consciousness. Those are in the higher dhyanas or jhanas.

Bodhipaksa: They’re the first two.

Vincent: Yeah, they’re the first two.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. So, the practice segues into the experience of the so-called arupa jhanas. I say that “the so-called” higher dhyanas, because it turns out you don’t have to go through the dhyanas, the four dhyanas, in order to get to the so-called higher dhyanas, and in the Pali Canon, they’re never called dhyanas; they’re called ayatanas, spheres. So I think there’s a bit of mythology built up that you have to go through the dhyanas in other to get to these so-called higher dhyanas. You can do it that way, but you don’t have to.

Vincent: Cool, I love the Buddhist Geekiness coming through right now. It’s good.

Bodhipaksa: Me too.

Vincent: [Laughs] So, to take it even to, maybe, a next level of geekiness, there was one thing that I was struck by as I was reading “Living as a River,” and that was that in some ways, when I heard you talking about non-self or writing about impermanence, there’s a way it struck me that it could be interpreted as you describing what I want to call “ontological realities”–that in some way, impermanence and not-self are true in some ultimate sense. And, as you know, this is one of the big critiques that the Madhyamaka school, and particularly Nagarjuna, were making of earlier strata teachings. And I wondered if you could say a little bit about that, because it’s something that isn’t really entirely clear in reading the book itself.

Bodhipaksa: Well, I would have hoped it was clearer than it might actually be, so maybe that’s something for the 2nd edition. No, I don’t think of impermanence and insubstantiality in a way as being ontological realities. I don’t think the Buddha really talked in terms of ontological realities at all. I think he talked about how our experience is, and I think what he was saying was that within our experience–what he called “The All”–that is, the sum totality of everything that is possible for us to experience. Within our experience, everything is changing all the time, and that there’s nothing within our experience that is permanent enough or stable enough to be able to be the basis of a separate and defined self.

So, I don’t think the Buddha really was that interested in external reality. I mean, obviously he was, in a sense; he lived in the world, but he wasn’t a scientist in the sense that he was making a statement that all fundamental particles are impermanent, for example. Even if he was aware of that concept, that wasn’t his interest. His interest was in suffering and how to get rid of suffering, and in order to address that, you have to look at the nature of our experience.

When the Buddha said everything is impermanent, I don’t think he was actually talking in terms of the world–the physical world that we inhabit. It so happens that it seems that pretty much everything does change. I believe some fundamental particles–perhaps neutrons or something–don’t, in a way, change; they don’t mutate into other particles; they don’t decay, but of course it all was moving around and interacting with other things, so there’s some kind of change there. But I don’t think that’s what the Buddha was interested in.

The Madhyamaka got–well, the Mahayana, more broadly–got kind of caught up in the same kind of trap. I mean, they ended up having to. They tended to reify Sunyata, emptiness. It tended to be seen as being a thing, and so you have Mahayana teachers who are having to say, “Well, emptiness itself is empty.” You got to keep reminding people of this, because it’s just a natural tendency to see impermanence as being a thing, and it’s not a thing, it’s just a description of the way things change. Sunyata isn’t a thing, it’s just a description of how our experiences and how our experience doesn’t constitute anything that can be taken to be an existent, permanent, separate self.

Vincent: Cool. And I guess to sort of finish up or wrap up this conversation, which has been really fascinating, I wanted to talk about, the penultimate goal in some ways, of Buddhist practice, which is enlightenment. And, one of the last chapters in your book is called Entering the Stream. You talk about stream-entry, or what you call entry-level enlightenment.

This is something that I know some teachers do talk about. And then, a lot of teaches seem to shy away from this in some way and there’s maybe not a lot of awareness of this concept, hich is actually, if you look back in the early strata like you were mentioning the Pali Canon. This stream-entry comes up all the time. So many suttas have this as a mention of, this person got stream-entry listening to the Buddha or, or doing this practice, etc. So could you say a little about stream-entry, and also, if you’ve noticed that this is something that people may shy away from in their teachings?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah I’ve noticed that there are some teachers who definitely make a point of talking about enlightenment and that enlightenment is why we’re doing practice in the first place. But when the average person comes along to a Dharma Center, usually their motivated by, something along the lines of, their life sucks. Or there’s some element of their life that sucks. There’s stress and there’s conflict with other people. And they just want to be a bit happier. So they come along and they find that there’s these tools which help them to become a bit happier, at least. I mean the tools can do a lot more than that. But, meditating makes you happier. When you’re, experiencing a bit more loving kindness, you’re a bit happier. When you learn to let go of things, you’re a bit happier. When you’re paying more attention to your experience and experiencing the freedom that comes with that, you’re a bit happier. And people I think get kind of stuck in that. It’s like, “Oh, this is okay. Yeah I’ll just keep doing my dharma practice and I’ll just keep getting a bit happier.” Buy they’re not thinking in terms of making some kind of big breakthrough in the way that they see the world. There’s this incremental change that they’re bringing about in their mental state. But they’re, not fundamentally challenging the way that they see the world.

And I think even teachers can get caught up in that. I have, in the past. Several years ago I was talking with some fellow practitioners and teachers. And saying, “You know I realize I don’t think about enlightenment very much. [laughing] Do you guys think about it? Do you talk about it? Do you teach about it?” And everyone kind of sat there and realized, “Well actually we, we don’t.”

So I started making it a point, and this was probably about seven or eight years ago, I started making a point of being more up front about why we were doing dharma practice in the first place. And, thinking more in terms of aiming at stream-entry. And, in a way I had always thought about that. It was in the back of my mind. But it wasn’t so much a kind of, conscience goal. More something I assumed would just happen at some time.

Vincent: Interesting. And I’m wondering, do you think to some degree with teachers that there’s a way in which the path has become so integrated into their own lives and so normal in a certain sense, that it becomes, weird to think about those sort of things? Or not natural in some way, to think about that in terms of their own experience, but it might be, in some ways, really important for someone who’s just starting on the path? Do you think that’s a possible explanation for why you and those teachers weren’t sort of talking about it that much?

Bodhipaksa: I’m not really sure. I think there’s a number of things going on. One is that we have a tendency, I think because of, a lack of self worth, and because of the nature of our delusions, whereby we think we have separate and permanent selves. We tend to think that spiritual goals are very far away. My own teacher, the founder of the Western Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita, he’s talked about stream-entry a lot. Which is why I said it’s always been in the back of my mind, at the very least. And, he said stream-entry is attainable in this lifetime. If you do a good few years of solid, dharma practice, you can take it for granted that you’ll, at some point, reach stream-entry. And so stream-entry becomes the goal. So there’s a lot of people in the Triratna Buddhist Order, who talk about stream-entry and think about it, as the next goal. But it becomes kind of, elevated. In the same way that the Buddha’s attainment has become kind of elevated, it’s almost out of our reach.

The Mahayana did this a lot. They took the goal of the Buddha, of Buddhahood, and said, “You’ve got to practice for innumerable lifetimes. You’re going have to practice for hundreds of thousands of lifetimes in order to get enlightened. And the Buddha has all these amazing cosmic qualities and he can create entire universes and all this kind of thing.” The Buddha seems so far away. He’s remote. Totally remote.

And people start doing something similar with stream-entry. They start thinking of stream-entry as being, well it’s basically enlightenment isn’t it? And if you’re enlightened you’re basically perfect. So somebody who’s a stream-enterer is going be completely sorted. And it becomes another attainable goal. It’s a goal that’s been put in front of us and we’ve been told, “You can do this.” And we say “no, I don’t think so, not now, maybe sometime in the future.” That to me I think is the main reason that stream-entry gets pushed off is because well, we don’t think that we’re worthy, we think that there’s something inside of us that’s fundamentally flawed that’s going stop us from getting there, and so we make it unattainable.

Vincent: Interesting. And could you talk a little bit about why entering the stream is important; maybe kind of what it is, if it’s something that you can talk about.

Bodhipaksa: Okay. Why it’s important. Well, in the terms that the Pali Cannon uses, that is I think we can assume are the terms the Buddha used, there are a number of fetters holding us back. These are delusions and attachments that stand between us and full enlightenment, full Buddhahood. And if we break the first three of those we’re what’s called a stream enterer–we break the fetter of having a fixed and separate self, we break the fetter of doubt, and we break the fetter of dependence upon practices or inappropriate dependence on practices.

And all three of those are broken more or less simultaneously. I believe the teaching is they’re broken simultaneously, but I don’t know if you necessarily can experience them simultaneously. I think they’ll tend to be experienced in consecutive terms. And there’s just a breaking of a fundamental core delusion that there is something a separate and fixed about you. And that’s a liberating experience. When that core delusion dissipates and you realize everything that constitutes your experience is just changing all the time, and there is nothing else. There’s no hidden baggage that’s holding you back. Obviously, there’s the psychological baggage that holds us back and we have to transform, and dig up, and work with, and transform, but there’s nothing fundamentally holding you back from enlightenment. There’s an enormous sense of confidence, which emerges, which replaces the doubt.

Another thing that happens, which is related to the third fetter, is that you realize this is all actually very simple. When we’re caught up in the third fetter of inappropriate dependence upon religious practices, that tends to get caught up with our lack of self confidence. So, we think well, we need some special teaching, we need some special teacher in order to get enlightenment. We need to be doing something else from what we’re doing, so we perhaps wander restlessly from practice to practice, or we do our daily practice in a kind of semi-despondent way because we know it’s not really taking us all the way yet, and there’s an element of doubt involved in that.

But really what the Buddha was saying was something really simple. Look at your experience, right now. It’s changing all the time. It’s continually changing. All you have to do is look, and you’ll see that it’s continually changing all the time. There is no basis for a fixed, separate, permanent self.

And what tends to happen of course, with practices is that we talk about them, and think about them, and we sometimes over think things. An image I sometimes find myself using, a slightly absurd one, is that stream-entry is a bit like the Buddha having said, “Look, there’s a big pink elephant floating in the sky. Look at it.” And everyone says, “Wow, the Buddha says there’s a big pink elephant floating in the sky, I wonder what this elephant is like? I wonder how big this elephant is?” And then you get all the schools of thought about the big pink elephant, about whether it’s closer to being white, or closer to being red, etc., etc. So we talk about practice, we talk about impermanence. Ayya Khema made the point we sometimes talk about impermanence so much that we forget to look and see that every experience that we’re having right now in this moment is impermanence.

Yeah, it’s actually really simple in the end. Just look, just see, notice that everything is changing all the time. At some point you’ll get it. At some point it’s going to click and you’re going realize that yeah, everything I’m experiencing is completely impermanent. There’s no basis for a fixed separate me.

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“The Three Commitments: Walking the Path of Liberation,” by Pema Chödrön

The Three Commitments

It has taken me an age to write this, and I have only just realized why.

Pema delivers such ‘big’ ideas and concepts – and often all in the same breath! It has taken quite a few listens. Also, the opportunity to review The Three Commitments arrived when I was creating an event called ‘White Night – What is Enlightenment?’ for Brighton Buddhist Centre, tending to an allotment (community garden), and producing a BBC documentary series, as well as a short stint at Buddhafield. Listening to Pema became a multitasking affair – either while driving or whilst making decorations with my friends for White Night, while it really should have been a pen-and-paper, full-attention type of affair and is probably something I will revisit.

Title: The Three Commitments: Walking the Path of Liberation
Author: Pema Chödrön
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-775-3
Format: 7 CDs (7 hours, 45 minutes), 1 Study guide (14 pages)
Available from: Sounds True, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Pema Chödrön is an American born Tibetan Buddhist nun, who has authored several books including The Places That Scare You and The Wisdom of No Escape. She is resident teacher at Gampo Abbey monastery in Nova Scotia.

The Three Commitments consists of 7 CDs (7 hours, 45 minutes) and 1 Study guide (14 pages). With The Three Commitments, Pema Chödrön brings her unique blend of authentic insight with informal and accessible instruction to guide the listener through each of these vows.

  • The Pratimoksha vows–how we can find personal liberation through the inner work of letting go
  • The Bodhisattva vows–the way of genuine and compassionate service to others
  • The Tantric vows–how to accept impermanence with true equanimity and touch the underlying stillness from which all worldly forms arise

As Pema explains, suffering arises when we resist the law of impermanence—the fact that everything we know, including ourselves, will one day die. Here she provides teachings and practices for fully embracing life’s ephemeral nature using these three traditional monastic vows, or “commitments.”

She makes it all sound so easy, but in a good way! She talks from first hand experience; her authentic voice helps listeners discover how each of these sacred vows is not a burden or restriction but a guiding beacon on the path of liberation. The dharma can easily overwhelm me, but Pema keeps it real with humour and personal stories.

So what have I taken from listening to The Three Commitments and this search for ‘What is Enlightenment?’ Well, the question as to whether I ‘believe’ in “Enlightenment” plays on my mind, but I do want to ‘let go’ and accept that being human is ambiguous, uncertain and groundless and I know I will find peace. A starting point is, as Pema states “When you take a vow, it sows a seed in the mind and heart that never goes away.”

As much as this sounds quite simple, there is much work to do on this path, Pema says “It’s like someone played a joke on us, and programmed us the wrong way,” we have a huge task on our hands, but as Pema states “Life is dynamic and fresh…so enjoy it!”

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“All the elements of nature are interwoven and united with each other.” Gospel of Mary Magdalene

In this extract from his 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
Author: Bodhipaksa
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-910-8
Available from: 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 Magdalen

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.

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Bodhipaksa’s new book on embracing change now available in a Kindle edition

The Kindle edition of Living as a River is now available on Amazon.com.

From the back cover: To face reality is to embrace change; to resist change is to suffer. This is the liberating insight that unfolds with Living as a River. A masterful investigation of the nature of self, this eloquent blend of current science and time-honored spiritual insight is meant to free us from the fear of impermanence in a world defined by change.

“An interesting, lively, and genuinely illuminating teaching of dharma.”
—Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart

If you don’t have a Kindle, Amazon’s electronic reading device, there are Kindle applications for iPhone, Mac, PC, Blackberry, iPad, and Android.

Click here to see the Amazon.com Kindle listing for Living as a River.

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“Lessons For The Living,” by Stan Goldberg

lessons for the living

Given the fact that we’re all going to die, it’s remarkable how little thought most of us give to the actual process of dying. In Lessons For The Living Stan Goldberg seeks to illuminate this most universal of experiences by sharing the lessons he learned during his time as a hospice volunteer.

Title: Lessons For The Living
Author: Stan Goldberg
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-1-59030-676-5
Available from: Random House, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

What drew Goldberg into volunteering was the discovery that he himself was living with an incurable cancer. Part memoir and part practical guide, this book should be of interest to us all, and in particular to those of us wondering how to best help our loved ones as they approach the end of life.

By learning how to help others in the last days and hours of their lives, Goldberg discovered a blueprint for living which applies equally well to our entire lifespan, not just the end-point. Under such headings as “Forgiveness”, “Letting Go,” and “The Dilemma of Hope,” Goldberg describes the lessons he learned and applied, not only in helping others, but also while coming to grips with his own mortality: “I no longer invest energy in hoping that the cancer will remain under control — I’m too busy living.”

As Goldberg delves deeper into his own fears and uncertainties surrounding his own future he comes to understand the often illusive nature of hope: “The absence of hope isn’t a negative state. The disappearance of hope put me squarely into the present, since I know I can die at any time.” By being present and aware, both hope and fear tend to fade away, replaced by a clear and open mind. It is just such a mind which is best suited, Goldberg discovers, to attending not only to the actively dying, but to our own daily tasks.

During the course of more than six years as a hospice volunteer, Goldberg came to know hundreds of individuals facing their own deaths. When asked by one man dying of AIDS what possible motivation he could have for doing this, Goldberg cleared up the myth of selfless service with a touch of humor: “I do it because a day doesn’t go by when after I leave you I don’t learn something about myself. I’m with you every week, not because I like you, but because I’m a selfish son of a bitch.”

The tendency to view the sick, the dying, the elderly, as somehow “other”, as “exceptions”, obscures the fact that we are all subject to falling apart in one way or another. By being of service to others we can learn to dissolve this view and to accept our common bond. “Service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time … As I think about what I’ve gained by serving the dying, and how it gave purpose to my life and changed me, I realize I’m not paying enough rent.”

In closing, Goldberg describes a startling realization he has while guiding his family through the death of his brother-in-law, Tom: “We stood around him and reminisced about his life. It was only then that I realized I was wrong in thinking the goal of my journey was to prepare Tom and my family for Tom’s death. That was an offshoot. The purpose of the journey had always been to prepare my family for my own death.”

For Goldberg, the service rendered during his hospice career allowed a gradual softening of the heart, which in turn brought him closer to accepting his own eventual death. This, Goldberg realized, was truly a priceless gift, one which he generously passes on, not only to his loved ones, but to anyone willing to put aside their discomfort with death long enough to read his book . Whether your primary concern is for your own family, or for yourself in facing the eventual loss of a loved one, this book will provide a useful and poignant guide for traversing this final terrain.

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