The Impermanent Self:
Buddha and Jesus at the Baseball Game
When the Buddha achieved his enlightenment, he was quietly seated under a tree. He made certain that his everyday was free from distractions. He found a quiet grove. He was alone. He was not in a workplace, a household or a theatre. He did not have to contend with cranky children, dirty dishes, telemarketers or other everyday events. He staged the event for himself, much life a golf course where the variables of life are reduced to a club, a ball and a hole. His enlightenment was already well manicured like the golf green. Perhaps this is the reason stressed out executives enjoy the game so much.
Phillip Simmons has written a remarkable book. From the perspective of one’s approaching death, life takes on a wondrous quality that may not have been previously evident. While I appreciate many of his insights, I disagree with his analysis. Death is not good for me. Perhaps it does come as a welcome relief for those who are in extreme pain or for those who are bored with what is on television; drama that never moves far away from the police station, the emergency room, the bar or bedroom. However, today, when the sunshine warms my skin, when I am playing squirt guns with Noah and Holly, death is not a good that I desire. To be human for me means to learn how to stand. It means to take a stand, rather than cower and crawl.
Of course, I am aware of impermanence. I see it every moment. I see it when I look into the mirror and see a face that has shifted with the decades. While I find Buddhist thought to be insightful, I have difficulties accepting its metaphysics. It is a given that we must work on ourselves, sort out our minds, learn to dance with our emotions and finally step out of ignorance. However, we can acknowledge our egolessness without sacrificing the haecceity that informs us. I do not think that this is self-righteous which Chogyam Trungpa defines as pretending “that things are what we could like them to be instead of what they are” 74 (The Myth of Freedom). It is quite clear that something must contain the desire to see things as they are. When Trungpa argues, “you need discoloring, depersonalizing of your individuality” 129, I become suspicious.
Imagine the Buddha at a kid’s softball game saying, “the ball and the bat are merely manifestations of your karmic deeds, nothing has existence from its own side, so give up on the idea of a home run, for when you swing, you are swinging at the emptiness that is your true nature.” Then Jesus interrupts the dharma coach and shouts, “the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who strike out.” The pure play of life does not take place in the staged field where adults have orchestrated their patchwork game. It takes place after the staged game when pinecones become rocket ships and twigs become pirate swords.
Phillip Simmons teaches us how to “live richly in the face of loss” xi He writes that we should stop “seeing the world as a problem to be solved” xiii instead, we should “open our hearts to the mystery of our common suffering” xiii I think there is no mystery here. Suffering is not a mystery. It is what flesh does. Flesh suffers. It can also experience joy, pain and pleasure. Simmons is on the right track when he attempts to rescue “ joy from heartbreak” xiv Those who practice the martial arts learn how to fall. However, they do not remain on the ground even when they are grounded through their one point. Simmons believes, “ in the way of our falling we have the opportunity to express our essential humanity” 4 What is this essential humanity that the world’s religions choose to fight over? Simmons writes that life is not a problem but a mystery. Then he argues that if we want spiritual growth we should not ask for more strawberries but more tigers. Therefore, the tiger is a problem. There is nothing mysterious here. The history of our species shows that love and compassion are not our highest human endowments. Ask those who escaped from the killing fields of modernity if they like living with tigers and I doubt they will tell you that this is just the way life dances.
In an attempt to understand, their suffering many will claim that suffering is redemptive. While it is true that “to be human is to suffer” 30 the opposite is also the case. To be human is to joy. All life suffers. Suffering does not make us unique. Taking a pill because one suffers does. Those who suffer often take solace in the Book of Job. This literary account urges us to surrender to a universe that does not give us reasons. Instead of surrender, I think we should be joyfully defiant. We should not poetize like Wallace Stevens and claim, “the imperfect is our paradise”
Simmons writes, “ the challenge is to stand at the sink with your hands in the dishwater, fuming over a quarrel with your spouse, children at your back, clamoring for attention, the radio blatting out the bad news from Bosnia and to say, “God is here”, now in this room, here in the dishwater, in this dirty spoon” 37 Such lines get great reviews. Positive thinking gurus will love its affirmative message. I was in Bosnia during the war, so kitchen sink enlightenment rings hollow especially when your problems are as mundane as sink full of dishes, a dirty spoon or a spouse who is being far too literal when arguing that the children’s eyes are really blue-grey and not blue. The imperfect may be a paradise for Simmons but the imperfect is not paradise.
Simmons is right to believe that we will always live in unfinished houses. I have a hard time wanting to sell our first house. My father helped me to renovate its many spaces. In a rootless culture, this house is a root. It is where Suzanne grew the grass, where Joe and my brothers put on a new roof, where Vlado pulled out the knob and tube and re-wired the house with 200 amps of power, where Mike plastered the walls, where Joannie and my mom cleaned the rooms and where Karen, Kat and Dan scraped wallpaper for four days. I want to keep this house as a memory even though I know there is no finishing. I know that I will leave this house even if it will never really leave me. I have carefully placed treasures for others to discover, little traces of our time there hidden in the walls. I found the treasures left by the first owner. Pictures of his son and tools that he had hidden in the walls of the coach house that my father and I restored.
Simmons writes, “ all religious feeling begins with the sense that our true home lies elsewhere….the unsettling news is that we will never each that elsewhere our longing as long as we remain in this life, as long as we remain human” 47. Yet, what else can we do but remain human? This search for elsewhere is another insurance policy that has already been cashed out.
Simmons believes that we can take our inspiration from wild animals. He writes, “What you observe most often in wild animals is a quiet but purposeful awareness, an enviable sort of alert calm” 55. What is the lesson here? That we should be as fierce as predators when we need to be, laze about like lions and have have sex only at certain times of the year? This recovery of our inner wildness does not resonate with me. Perhaps this is the reason so many cartoons have animals as moral exemplars, showing us a better way of doing things as long as this better way runs through a Disney filter.
The Zen frog on Little Bear may sit better than a Buddhist monk but the monk does not desire to eat flies. The animal quality that Simmons favors is criticized in the Buddhist tradition. The animal realm is associated with stupidity. As Chogyam Trungpa writes, “animals do no really smile or laugh: they just behave” 33 (The Myth of Freedom) I can appreciate Thoreau’s words that “the most alive is the wildest” along with Ozzy Osbourne’s barking at the moon. I do not think that the answer involves “claiming more ground for our wildness.” Yes, civilization is a civil lie. It has made us sick. Perhaps we could learn to become fully human, that is neither god, nor animal, nor hungry ghost. Yes, Curious George is smarter than the man with the yellow hat, but this does not mean that we should all become monkeys.
In terms of our relationships with others, Simmons offers great insights. Living with others forces us to improve ourselves. We see how fallible we are and how petty, impatient and angry we can become as we guard the space of our old stories. We evade genuine contact as we search the online real estate listings to find houses with more square footage. When we avoid others, our small mind takes control and the selfish aspects of ourselves emerge. My daughter is having a tantrum because I allowed her to nap too long. She teaches me that sleeping too long is not a good spiritual practice. When she wants to hug five dolls all at once and wants me to hold her hand in a way that only the gods have the secret code, while screaming louder than the lead singer from MegaDeath, I learn the lesson about being in the unfathomable presence of another. Simmons is correct. We try to pave over the muddy parts of our lives. To pave means to stamp or to make things smooth. In this sense, the ideal house is found at IKEA where all the cereal and cracker boxes have their tabs neatly tucked in with the plastic wrapper cut off exactly at the right angle. Unlike the Buddhist monks at the IKEA kitchen center, I have not learned to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. I really prefer paper plates. Simmons is clear that to learn to live joyfully we need to learn how to let go. This is like Tony Hawk’s advice to skateboarders learning to ride the vert ramp. If you are going to drop in on the vert, you cannot wait and stall. You have to slam your board down and go. You either end up in the hospital or elated. Life is like that.
Simmons argues, “we need not believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead to grasp the spiritual significance of such a resurrection” 87. I am still caught within the religious because I have to believe that he rose bodily from the dead. The Gnostic version is just a phony elixir. I have the resurrection while I am alive. The only thing to know is whether I will have it after I am dead. I suppose this means I do not really like the mud. I can appreciate Simmons insights when he writes that to taste the sweetness of the berry is to taste the Divine. If this is true then it must hold that to taste the poisonous is to experience the Divine as well. In choosing the world, Simmons believes that we must choose all of it both “the tall maple and the severed stump” 93. Perhaps this choice works in the natural world, but how far are we willing to go to accept absolute evil? After all, the maple tree did not grind itself down into a stump. I have a difficult time with the concept of choosing the world, since I find much in the world that is not worth choosing. The I-Pad will not help me to clean up the messiness of being human. If science fixes the world, the mystical vision equally fixes it like a bug on pin. One look at Bernini’s Statue of St. Teresa in Ecstasy shows where she is fixated.
Simmons believes that “we must love the world as new lovers do each other” 104. However, this vision is short lived as erotic surfaces give way to cluttered tables. It is easy to choose a world where blueberries provide sweetness and where black flies are the only torment. The world I saw was far removed from my sheltered Canadian existence. The world I experienced was one where murder went unpunished and where killers were protected by so-called human rights organizations, by judges and politicians.
I suppose that spiritual books written by those close to death receive great praise because we expect those who are dying to give us great insights. This is why books like Tuesday’s with Morrie and The Last Lecture find a wide audience. Simmons tells us, “we’re not in charge here….we learn that many of our most important events can’t be predicted or controlled”131 Simmons argues, “ Life throws things at us that we cannot predict and cannot control. What we can control is who we are along the way” 137 Here the question of anxiety raises itself out its slumber.
How is anxiety kept at bay? Some mow their lawn into a perfect grid making sure that each blade of grass is two inches high. Others get a brazillian, a pedicure or their belly button pierced to blend in with the well-manicured landscape of the backyard pool. I have seen others ingest their favorite pharmaceuticals; dark chocolate, ativan and a red wine chaser.
Like Ruby Gloom, Simmons attempts to show us the bright side of the dark side, but I can only follow his insights so far. What he has written is admirable. It is an eloquent testimony of how he made his stand.
Holly and I are on the porch. We are playing with her Little People dollhouse. She enjoys putting the people in the various rooms, but then she throws the blue birdie over the railing. In her world, it is supposed to fly. It does for a few seconds as it disappears into the bear grass. The truth here, in this game that I am playing with her is that we are all falling. It is not a big deal to experience emptiness. What intrigues me is the hypocrisy of those who teach the doctrine but fail to follow their teachings. For example, if nothing exists from its own side, why did the Tibetan Buddhists flee from the soldiers of the People’s Republic? The AK47 round cannot do any harm if everything abides in the great perfection. We can apply the same insights to the doctrine of Karma. I do not recall the Dalai Lama ever saying thatTibet has suffered because of Karma. It is easy to preach these doctrines to North Americans who are hungry for some new and exotic experience, but it seems contradictory to claim that there is suffering and yet because of emptiness, nothing really suffers. Tell this to yourself the next time you are in pain. The Buddhist reply will be that you have not penetrated the teachings deeply enough.
When I first experience what Simmons calls falling I was standing at the edge of a mass grave in Vukovar. Suddenly the ground disappeared. It was as if a trapdoor had opened. I felt myself falling even though my feet were firmly planted on the ground. My first reaction was to flee from this feeling. Now, years later, I realize that I should have gone deeper as my friend Jason likes to say and allowed the event to wash over me.
Let us accept Simmon’s insight that ‘each dislocation gives us a chance to renew the journey” 135. There is no journey without death. I know that to look into the night sky is to look into multiple pasts, but it makes no sense to say that we are living in eternity now. The shaman’s magic mushroom is a moldy shift in consciousness. Yes, the scientists tell us that “we’re nothing more than temporary arrangements of atoms forged in the depths of distant stars, consisting mostly of empty space” 151 but this great scientific insight has the best of them scrambling for government grants.
We may have experienced what Simmons calls “living at the edge” 152. It happens when time slows down and you see things with wonder. It happens in ordinary moments. I am dropping Noah off at school. Before he shuts the door he says, “I love you Daddy.” He smiles and his eyes sparkle. Such moments are redemptive. They are a way through sorrow to the core of joy.