“The dharma seals are impermanence, no-self, and peace. Do you understand the plain fact of impermanence?”
When buddhists talk about impermanence they aren’t kidding, they aren’t taking it lightly. In one way, it is possible that they are referring to subatomic realms where particles are moving and transforming at furious speeds, in constant motion, endlessly “dying and being born” with nothing staying the same as it was, not even for a fraction of a fraction of a second. In fact, “according to Dogen Zenji, the founder of Japanese Soto Zen, Shakyamuni Buddha said that in twenty-four hours our life is born and dying, rising and falling, 6,400,099,980 times. So in one second our life is born and dies around seventy thousand times.” In other words, the solidity we feel and sense as our walking, talking selves in the world is an illusion. In one second we have transformed seventy thousand times, yet we cannot fathom any of it because we are too busy clinging to the ghosts and phantoms of dead moments, the ones that have passed and the ones that will be dead faster than we can experience them. It could be said that our minds are busy dancing with either long-dead, and, according to this scale of time, almost prehistoric ghoul-moments, or very sci-fi, futuristic, robot moments. In neither case are we engaged in the present (fleeting!) moment and are therefore not awake to any of its potentials. This lack of awareness creates a space for the illusory “separate” self to thrive, which leads to the ascendence of a dualistic existence.
Phantoms whisper in my ear:
“The Vast and Endless Sea”
When I first moved to Hawaii in 1995 it felt like a tiny little village compared to the broad sophistication of San Francisco where I had just completed a bachelor's degree in painting. By my third day in Honolulu, my conscious mind confirmed what my gut already knew: I was now living in a conformist state. Hawaii is ruled by strict patterns of thought and behavior which traveled here with migrant plantation workers from far eastern countries such as China and Japan. A convoluted mosaic of social customs derived from the mixture of predominantly Asian cultures plus the white “foremen” and, of course, native Hawaiians, still dominates and informs many of the cultural complexes here. There is an entrenched and often unacknowledged mistrust of the outsider, for example. Even being born here, but leaving to go to college, is seen as some sort of betrayal. Since I have never truly felt a part of any place I have lived, this fact produced in me a doubly powerful sense of loneliness and isolation (a secret reality that I carry around with me always). So when I discovered the ocean and began surfing it felt like being embraced by a community of beloved friends. In the ocean, solitariness and loneliness are encouraged, as though the ocean approves of this natural phase in a consciousness clearly in love with, and determined to reach, the distant horizon. She approves of the one who gladly travels the blue roads of emptiness.
Fighting in the sand,
Royal blue and turquoise
Kiss and make up
In old Hawaii the islands were socially and physically divided into strategic pie slices called ahupua’a, so that each tribe could access both the bounties of the ocean and the shade, agricultural space and seclusion of the tropical forests. The Hawaiians planted kukui nut trees all along the paths to the ocean so the men could easily find their way back because the leaves of the kukui have a silvery sheen and radiate light from afar. The nuts also produce an oil that can be burned to create light. Deep in the tropical jungles here the ghostly presence of Hawaiian ancestors can be felt, but only if inner silence and a sacred reverence is observed. Hawaii can be a cruel punisher to those who fail to show the proper respect. The land here is alive with a fiery spirit and one’s heart must be pure or the failure of any endeavor is assured, whether you are originally from here or not. I was called here across a vast expanse of time and space to find my true self. Despite the afflictions of modernity plaguing the people here, in the tropical jungles a serious commitment to the laws of nature and the oneness of all things reigns supreme, as though a powerful spell is being cast by the spiritual and terrestrial web of interconnectivity among the trees, a living net of energy which expands and encompasses all things, including me. My heart is drawn to this tender seriousness much more than it is drawn to other humans. I find the raucous self-centeredness of my species offensive, especially when 200 non-human species slide into extinction every week because of us.
Bowing to venerable old trees,
I say sorry
As I go.
In Zen books I observe a constant reminder that the idea of a fixed, separate self is an illusion. The continued obsession with the self and the mind attached to it, with its ceaseless production of useless thoughts, is seen as an affliction which divides us from the truth: that all things are interconnected, interdependent and impermanent. The farming out of the self into ever smaller identity subdivisions (as evidenced by the strange obsession with gender variations currently in vogue among a certain generation and fiercely protected with indignant rage) only reinforces this delusion and keeps us further away from liberation. The planetary crisis of anthropogenic climate change is ultimately the result of our inability to jive peacefully with this psychotic issue of duality. Me versus you, us against them, black, white, man, woman, love, hate, the list goes on and on. But all these divisions are arbitrary and intellectually derived, they have no basis in reality. The validity of this dualistic consciousness is challenged in ecological philosophy as well, but as I understand it, in Zen we go beyond planet earth in order to save it. We must go beyond our individual selves deep into an unshakeable understanding of the oneness of all things. At-one-ment is required. Feelings of isolation and loneliness can be powerful vehicles carrying us to this healing place where we can at-one and be responsible. Rather than suffocate these feelings with drugs, alcohol or busy-ness, we can make space for them, we can take a walk on a beautiful beach, letting go of the noisy subdivision of the Self, merging our consciousness with the truth: all things are one, there is no me and you.
A knock on the door
According to Plato’s Myth of Er, “The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth. This soul-companion, the daimon, guides us here; in the process of arrival, however, we forget all that took place and believe we come empty into this world. The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your daimon is the carrier of your destiny.” This does not stop us from complaining nonstop about our “lot” in life, but I feel that an awareness of having had a choice changes things. We do not helplessly endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, rather we actively curate our own realities according to a preconfigured purpose. We are born with an image or pattern by which we must live our lives but why must we forget this prior to birth? What purpose does the forgetting serve? Why must we forget and struggle, creating all kinds of havoc as we do? Mystics and poets have long held that one’s heart always knows its true purpose while the mind is generally responsible for the delusions which keep us from fulfilling it. Many of us go through the day betraying our heart’s true purpose, floating oddly in a netherworld of fear and isolation, grasping at solidity with aggression, dividing ourselves from the peace of oneness. If this forgetfulness had no negative repercussions for life on earth it could be tolerated as some kind of social experiment, but the division of oneness into the twoness of endless psychic and cultural fracturing is, in my opinion, the single deadliest affect of human consciousness.
Not me, not you.
Who am I today?
Not one, not two.
If the universe is infinite and eternal, why are we so obsessed with our one life on planet earth?* Can we not connect with the magnitude of eternity? Is it too big for us? From the point of view of eternity, what do our human and non-human ancestors represent? Are they real or just idealized phantoms, temporarily grinning in the dark corners of our minds? I suppose it depends how conscious we make them, how much "eternity" we sprinkle over their memory. I love the idea of the spirit taking flight after death, like a wild bird being released from a cage. In Edo period Japan, it was said that the spirit could travel a thousand “ri" in one day, and this was considered to be an immeasurable distance. In The Little Prince, death is what allows him to shed his body and return to his beloved. The body is a shell and it can merge with the spirit, be “one” with it, but eventually it must be discarded, while the energy of that infinitely unique sprit which inhabited the body unites with the great infinity and the great eternity, perhaps turning up again somewhere else in another form. According to buddhism it is not perhaps, but definitely. In this way my ancestors are the same as your ancestors- all things being interwoven in a great, infinitely complex and beautiful tapestry, where nothing is out of place, nothing is extra.
Mind, body, vessel.
I'm already on
The other shore.
* According to buddhism it is extremely rare to manifest a human birth where conditions are auspicious and liberation from the cycle of samsara may be achieved. A human life is just a fraction of a second in the scheme of things which is why practitioners are urged to take life and death seriously and to practice “as if saving your head from fire.”
What Time Is It?
“When we meditate on how we feel or what we think, we remain in a dualistic condition. In the Zen tradition, we avoid this kind of meditation because it is an endless process. When you pursue your thoughts, you can create all kinds of fantastic things. But then what? It doesn’t clarify the grave matter of life and death.”
I ponder these words deeply as I struggle with the guilt and shame of being a human being on planet earth at this particular time in our evolution when we are, quite literally, savagely butchering our earth mother and all her beautiful children into extinction. The grave matter of life and death seems so much graver these days, while us individual humans appear farther away from awakening then ever before. In place of the peace of our true oneness with all things we have created a horror show based on phantasmagoric ideas of duality, and we continue to suffer under the burden of these delusions while spreading them pell mell across all spectrums of existence.
What is to be done?
Time to sit.
Torn To Shreds*
When I was just beginning to speak around the age of two (so the story goes) I walked around the house repeating a poem I had made up about myself. I was born and raised in Tehran, Iran, so the poem was in Farsi, and in Farsi it forms a rhyming couplet, but when translated to English it sounds more like a haiku or a koan:
All torn to shreds.
Her bald head itches.
I’ve been mystified by this poem my entire life, but now that meditation practice has become more serious for me, I understand this poem as a sort of signal. I think I had a plan for my life and knew about it at age two. There are a number of other mysterious events from my life which I can only interpret in spiritual terms. Somehow now, at the time surrounding my 45th birthday, I can sense that I have a life path which I chose long ago. Does knowing this make the intense difficulties I have experienced (the many wounds that shredded my heart) less painful? I'm not sure. But I have a newfound respect for my past pain, especially as I begin to understand that my pain and your pain are not two separate things. “We have our intrinsic nature and our relative position.” These are not two separate things, but one. Dogen Zenji says this is the very koan of our lives.
Without a return to an embodied awareness of the oneness we share with all of existence, we will continue to destroy each other and all living things, including planet earth. It is this split consciousness that must be unified if we hope to stand a chance against what is waiting for us on the ever approaching evolutionary horizon. To what does “torn to shreds” refer? The countless psychological complexes? The personal wounds? The past or the future? We must become unified in every sense of the word, and fast.
Two years old.
For mother's milk.
* “When the invisible forsakes the actual world- as it deserts Job, leaving him plagued with every sort of physical disaster- then the visible world no longer sustains life, because life is no longer invisibly backed. Then the world tears you apart.”
Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Appreciate Your Life, 2001, Shambala Publications
James Hillman, The Soul's Code, 1996, Grand Central Publications