Sunday, August 5, 2007

the relief of impermanence

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
Ecclesiastes 1

Pope John Paul II got in a little bit of trouble some years ago from something he wrote about Buddhism in his book “On the Threshold of Hope.” He said that it (Buddhism) was basically a nihilistic religion, implying that for the Buddhist nothing is real and life is meaningless. (He later nuanced what he had written when he realized that he had offended some Buddhists by not really understanding their philosophy.) What he said was based on his interpretation of the Buddhist concept of anika, which means “impermanence,” meaning that nothing lasts forever, that all things are constantly changing. From that concept of anika the Buddha taught the second of what he called the Four Noble Truths, that suffering is caused by clinging. If everything is impermanent, then clinging to anything is eventually going to cause suffering when we lose that thing to which we are attached. The Tibetan version of the metta sutta that I use even goes so far as to say, “May they leave attachments to dear ones" as well as "aversions to others.”

Oddly enough, when I first learned that concept of impermanence, I actually felt this huge sense of relief. Oh, I thought, so that is why I have been suffering so much. I am attcahed to so much.

The other day I went canoeing on the Animas River. As you know, it can be a pretty good effort to row upstream, which we did for about half an hour. But, after landing on a little sandy beach upriver for a while, when we headed back downstream it was such a relief to just lay back in the canoe and let the river carry us back to where we had put in. This is to me a good image of impermanence, of the flux of life. Whether I want it to happen or not the earth turns on its axis and orbits around the sun; and summer is going to be followed by autumn and autumn by winter, and winter by spring, and day gives way to night and sunrise gives way to noon. Whether I like it or not there are thunderstorms and earthquakes and freezing rain, the leaves turn beautiful colors for a little while and then fall to the ground. Whether I like it or not, there is sickness, old age and death; and I am getting older and some day I am going to die and return to the dust from which I came. I/we spend so much of our lives paddling upstream, going against the current; it’s such a relief at some point to lie back in the canoe and accept that this is what life is like. This is not to say we should not do everything we can to improve our lives while here, and help relieve the suffering of others, but ultimately, “All things must pass.”

And I remember some years ago when I was reading the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity…” I thought to myself, "This is a very Buddhist teaching." You go through the whole Book of Ecclesiastes and you never get any relief. It ends 12 chapters later by saying, “… the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” And so, the point is according to Quoheleth (“the Teacher”), “fear God and keep God’s commandments.” You can see why the church pairs it with the story from the Gospel of Luke (12:13ff.) about the man who built the towers for his extra grain, not realizing (“You fool!”) that he was going to die the next day, so he decided to “relax, eat, drink and be merry!” Vanity of vanities! “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God!” St Paul goes so far as to call this greed and grasping "idolatry," worshipping something that is not God.

But actually not all things do pass. There is a unity and stability underneath the flux of things. This is the basis of the Perennial Philosophy, articulated by contemporary philosophers such as Alduos Huxley but going back as far as the ancient Hindu teaching on the sanatana dharma––the eternal religion, that some thinkers consider to be the basis for all religious instinct. The founding premise of it is the existence of a unity and stability that lies underneath the flux of things. As Sri Aurobindo says, nityo nityanam: the one Eternal in the many transient. Later on in the same chapter in the Gospel of Luke (12) Jesus will teach, “Do not worry, do not be afraid!” concerning clothes or food. It’s as if he is trying to convince his audience that the Universe is benevolent, and pointing them toward that unity and stability that lies beneath the flux of things, which I think of as being kind of like that river. Floating down that river the other day really reminded me of this quote from Ptolemy Hopkins, in her essay entitled “A Small White Book on the Way of Life” about the Tao:

Before everything, there was the Tao.
Subtle and silent, void of all form or extension
and yet at the same time immeasurably vast,
it held the noise and pandemonium of the entire universe within itself,
like a mother awaiting term.
It was from deep within the boundless watery hush of the Tao
that the world and all the things within it were born,
and once it had given birth to them,
these things became like objects moving downstream in a giant river.
In this great drift, nothing stays as it is for long.
Trees, animals, entire civilizations:
all of this material is like the scrim of twigs and litter you see on the surface of the water,
on a day after there has been a lot of rain.
Sometimes bobbing at the surface,
sometimes sinking out of sight,
drifting and bumping and turning in the dark, downward-moving water,
all things flow in the Tao without knowing it.
Beyond all thought and action,
beyond life and death,
the Tao is the one constant,
the sole aspect of all the universe that is entirely beyond change.
It is the ultimate source,
the ultimate support,
and the ultimate destination of everything that is.

Strive for the kingdom, Jesus says, strive for the Spirit, strive to attain the will of God, strive for the Tao, strive for that unity and stability that lies beneath the flux of things, and the rest will given to you as well. If we keep ourselves close to that one permanent thing, all things will be well. If we stop clinging to the things that pass, and if we stop trying to paddle upstream, if we can find our way back to the way the earth was set up to run, then the Universe will take care of us; as a matter of fact, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Universe is conspiring to your happiness,” because that unity and stability that lies underneath the flux of things is what we call God. God is the ground of being, God is what we call the source of all creation, and that source has an intentionality about it, like a parent toward a child, so Jesus calls it “Daddy–abba.”

I marvel sometimes when I look at pictures of myself when I was younger, a teenager. Or even if I think about the kind of boy I was or the kind of young man in my twenties or thirties compared to who I am now and how I live now. I can hardly believe that I am the same person. But even though all the outer things have changed, I know that the essence of who I was at six, at 16, at 25 and at 30 was the same as it is now. From that I learn that not only is there a permanent something underneath the flux of things, but also our own deepest self, a our real self––which Paul says is hidden with Christ in God––is permanent too, no matter how the outside changes.