Cloud’s Illusions

In The Art of Living, Thich Nhat Hanh says,

“We should not be afraid of suffering. We should be afraid of only one thing, and that is not knowing how to deal with our suffering.  Handling our suffering is an art.  If we know how to suffer, we suffer much less, and we’re no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by the suffering inside.”

I don’t feel I am afraid of suffering.  I just don’t like it.  Suffering sucks.  Especially physical suffering.  I used to think I knew how to deal with suffering.  I am not so confident about it right now.  I am not sure I have yet mastered the art of suffering,

As I write, a dull pain is throbbing through my left leg.  My knee feels as though hot needles are piercing it.  This is my “normal.”  Constant pain has been my reality for over two years now.  It’s called lymphedema and has been described as “swelling in one or more extremities that results from impaired flow of the lymphatic system.”  There is no medical cure.

According to legend, the Buddha’s first teaching was The Four Noble Truths.  The first truth is sarvam idam duhkham: “all this is suffering.”  It’s important to understand that the truth of suffering is based on the two principles of interdependence and impermanence.  With regard to the former, this is why I have always maintained that Buddha could have easily said, “all this is happiness.”   As for the latter, suffering or the “the unsatisfactoriness of life, its pain, its malaise, its inherent ‘ill’-ness” has as its primary cause our inability to find complete and lasting satisfaction.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Shunryu Suzuki puts it much better than I can:

“In Buddhism it is a heretical view to expect something outside this world. We do not seek for something besides ourselves. We should find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering.  This is the basic teaching of Buddhism.  Pleasure is not different from difficulty.  Good is not different from bad.  Bad is good; good is bad.  They are two sides of one coin.  So enlightenment should be in practice.  That is the right understanding of practice, and the right understanding of our life.  So to find pleasure in suffering is the only way to accept the truth of transiency.  Without realizing how to accept this truth you cannot live in this world.  Even though you try to escape from it, your effort will be in vain.  If you think there is some other way to accept the eternal truth that everything changes, that is your delusion.  This is the basic teaching of how to live in this world. Whatever you may feel about it, you have to accept it.  You have to make this kind of effort.

So until we become strong enough to accept difficulty as pleasure, we have to continue this effort. Actually, if you become honest enough, or straightforward enough, it is not so difficult to accept this truth.  You can change your way of thinking a little bit.  It is difficult, but this difficulty will not always be the same.  Sometimes it will be difficult, and sometimes it will not be so difficult.  If you are suffering, you will have some pleasure in the teaching that everything changes.  When you are in trouble, it is quite easy to accept the teaching.  So why not accept it at other times?  It is the same thing.  Sometimes you may laugh at yourself, discovering how selfish you are.  But no matter how you feel about this teaching, it is very important for you to change your way of thinking and accept the truth of transiency.”

I accept the truth of transiency.  Somehow it doesn’t make things much easier.  It’s still difficult.  I am not afraid of the pain, but I am sick to hell of it.

The question is how deeply inside I accept impermanence.  There is no cure for lymphedema, except in my mind.  Right now, my mind is depressed and I lament at the thought that this chronic pain is going to be the reality of the remainder of my life.  But that’s because I am viewing what I am experiencing in the present moment to be permanent.

All this, our perceptions, thoughts, feelings are like clouds in the sky.  They change shape, they move, appear, and reappear.   I guess it’s like Joni Mitchell wrote, “It’s cloud’s illusions I recall.  I really don’t know clouds at all.”

That’s something I need to change.


Castles Made of Sand

Building sand castles is an activity associated with summertime and the beach.  Most people think of it as a kid thing, but there are adults who engage in this pastime and sand castles can range from the very simple to the amazingly elaborate.

The term ‘sand castles’ can also refer to a notion or scheme that has little substance, or be a metaphor for the transitory nature of things.

kids at beachIn the Edward Conze edited anthology, Buddhist Texts through the Ages, published in 1954, Albert Waley translated this parable from the Yogacara Bhumi Sutra :

Some children were playing [on a beach].  They made castles of sand and each child defended his castle and said, “This one is mine .”  They kept their castles separate and would not allow any mistakes about which was whose.  When the castles were all finished, one child kicked over someone else’s and completely destroyed it.  The owner of the castle flew into a rage, pulled the other child’s hair, struck him with his fist and bawled out, “He has ruined my castle! Co and help me punish him as he deserves.  “me along all of us The others all came to his help.  They beat the child with a stick and then stamped on him as he lay on the ground. . .  Then they went on playing  in their sand-castles, each saying, “This is mine; no one else may have it. Keep away!  Don’t touch my castle!”

But evening came; it was getting dark and they all thought they ought to be going home.  No one cared what became of his castle.  One child stamped on his, another pushed his over with both his hands.  Then they turned away and went back, each to his home.

As Jimi Hendrix wrote, castles made of sand fall into the sea eventually . . . and so, everything we perceive is a castle of sand, impermanent, fleeting, transitory, and yet, even as we know this aspect of existence, we find it difficult to refrain from grasping, seizing, clinging . . . these tendencies are the causes of suffering; suffering is craving, produced by ignorance . . .

In the Samyutta-Nikaya III, the Buddha is reported to have said,

When boys or girls are playing with little sand castles, so long as they are not free from lust, desire, passion, feverish longing and craving for those little sand castles, just so long do they delight in them.  But . . . as soon as those boys and girls are free from lust, desire, passion, feverish longing and craving for those little sand castles, right away they scatter them, break them up, and cease to play with them.  In this way, you should scatter and demolish form, apply yourself to destroying attachments and cease clinging to objects of desire.”

All existence, said the Buddha, has the nature of impermanence, constant change . . . nothing is the same right now as it was a moment ago . . . understand this ‘truth’ is the first step toward understanding the true aspect of things, the way things really are . . . When we see reality as it truly is, then we are empowered to sever the binds of attachment and cease clinging . . .

And then, the wonderful Tibetan sand mandala . . .  The Sand Mandala is a tradition in Tibetan Buddhist tradition where mandalas are painstakingly made from millions of grains of colored sand . . . for hours on end, monks will bend over the mandala, placing one grain of sand after another, creating intricate symbolic patterns. It typically takes anywhere from 75 to 125 hours to create one of these mandalas . . . and when one is created, it is destroyed . . . swept up, handfuls of sand given away or thrown in a stream or river . . . gone . . . impermanent.




Neuroscience and The Circle Time Parade of Changes

Dogen, the 13th century Zen master, said, “Impermanence is a fact before our eyes.” All things in the universe are a temporary combination of elements and they are transitory, constantly changing. Because of impermanence (anicca), and interdependence, Buddhism says there is no inherently existent self (anatman), a soul or own-being (svabhava) that is independent and permanent.

With regard to the mind, we see that thoughts come and go; they are neither stable nor lasting. As far as the body is concerned, it is obvious that it changes with time and many other factors, for these changes are most definately before our eyes.  It is irrational then to stand upon notions such as “I, Me, Mine” for it is so difficult to determine what “I” or “Me” is, or what can be “Mine”, belong to something that in the ultimate sense is an illusion.

Beyond what is obvious, or theoretical, there is scientific evidence which shows that the body-mind is ever changing.

An academic journal, CellPress, published a new research paper that found as people change, their brain undergoes physical changes and that there is no one location in the brain that is responsible for the ability to change what we call our ‘self’.

The paper says,

Scientific research highlights the central role of specific psychological processes, in particular those related to the self, in various forms of human suffering and flourishing. This view is shared by Buddhism and other contemplative and humanistic traditions, which have developed meditation practices to regulate these processes.”

The digital news outlet, Quartz, reporting on the new paper noted,

Neuroscience and Buddhism came to these ideas independently, but some scientific researchers have recently started to reference and draw on the Eastern religion in their work—and have come to accept theories that were first posited by Buddhist monks thousands of years ago.”

Some readers will find the paper interesting, particularly since it focuses a great deal on Buddhist meditation.

As all things are changing, they are ultimately unreal, including our own minds and bodies. The Buddha taught impermanence to awaken people to the folly of seizing and clinging to transient things, the root of human suffering.

Green leaves of summer turn red in the fall
To brown and to yellow, they fade
And then they have to die
Trapped within the circle time parade of changes

Phil Ochs, Changes