I am preparing myself for another post, which I intend to offer on Casey’s 24th birthday. It’s a commentary I’ve known is coming since last July, when Casey’s parents (me and Ken) sat down to hear The Apology. So this might be considered my little practice session for what I’ve been avoiding for over six months now, but which I must contend with, for Casey.
So I call this one of my “meditation 101″ posts, though I’m not sure where it’s headed. I’ll sort of jump in with some of the comments about Buddhism that my favorite commentator, Sharon Salzberg, and her partner-teacher Joseph Goldstein, have inspired. I am too much a rube to speak on my own about Buddhism or about meditation, though I am convinced enough of the truth of the lessons to plow ahead. For instance, here’s one notion that rings true, that “the great awakening happens when we realize that everything is empty phenomena rolling on.” I don’t know if that’s a better song title or bedtime mantra, “everything is empty phenomena rolling on.” Can you hear “Proud Mary” in the background, “rollin’ rollin’ on the river”? or the sound of the waves hitting the dock, “Sittin on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away”?
When I think about these “empty phenomena rolling on” in the context of “great awakening,” it’s not the sound of “rollin'” or “sittin'” that I hear. In fact, in Disc 9, Goldstein is teaching about the content of “the self.” What we think of as “I” is really a catalog of repetitions that have stiffened into something we think of as solid. We are “empty in the sense of empty of self, no one behind the experience to whom the experience is happening. Everything is arising out of conditions.”
In reality (as opposed to the illusion in which we live day by day, beginning, for instance, with the idea of “time” as something we can “pass” or “buy” or “budget”–isn’t it crazy how many of our metaphors for time are related to money?) . . . as I was saying, In reality, our selves are as mutable as the ocean waves. What’s good about me, or annoying, what constitutes me as “a personality” depends on repetition, basically. I can think of a number of examples, but one comes to mind especially, and that is defensiveness, that knee jerk tendency to react, to metaphorically protect our vulnerable parts, when some judgement comes down. I remember my high school counselor telling me I was being defensive. “I am not!” I said immediately. Right.
“What we call self is a constellation of changing experience, of elements–elements of body, elements of mind, and each of these elements is insubstantial. . . . We rely on a superficial understanding of experience.”
What strikes me over and over as I listen and reflect on just how superficial our understanding (mine) might be is how similar these ancient (or at least old) Buddhist principles are to post-structuralist thought. Ever since Old Freud denied us the truth of our own feelings and Einstein denied us the reality of time, we’ve been struggling to reclaim our old certainty about our purpose here. . . .
Which, according to the Buddha, is simply to be happy. “All beings just want to be happy.”
I think a lot about that when I hear some more disgusting piece of news–another war, bombing, rape, attack, lies covering up abuses: how did that person get from “just wanting to be happy” to this or that violation? I think about this at odd times, riding in the car, listening to NPR. Or when someone acts out in a rage and we are stunned with the magnitude of what just got revealed.
It probably explains why I don’t like the news, why it doesn’t feel like a dereliction of my responsibility to feel ambivalent about knowing what’s going on. Not that bad things are just “empty phenomena rolling on” at all. They’re “reality,” some persons’ reality, and they’re hurting. There’s a lot of bad phenomena rolling on, and increasingly I want to respond by thinking instead about what great awakening might bring a little peace here, close at hand, a little peace, far away. Am I numb? Is this avoidance? or does reckoning with the reality of bad things mean in part recognizing that there’s “no one behind the experience to whom the experience is happening,” no one fixed statue of a person. “Everything is arising out of conditions.”
Another way to think of it is to consider who it is we finally are, in that last moment, when in the next we are no more. Did we find happiness? Did we give it? If yes, then maybe we are finally “empty” of self, but “great” with awakening.
Okay, time for night-night.