Monday, December 3, 2007

Head-bones and Tail-bones; Life and Death


Life is suffering: The first of the Buddha’s Four Nobel Truths. The question is “which life?” In yesterday’s post we examined two different kinds of life: ego/soul life and essential life. As Meister Eckhart rightly stated, divine essence can’t suffer. The Buddha lived a long time before Eckhart, on the other side of the world, but I think they would have liked each other and agreed on this point: divine essence can’t suffer. So which life does suffer and why?

In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra—which the Buddha said was the most important teaching of all—this matter was addressed in a causal relationship way which is counter-intuitive to normal everyday thinking. We are not so good at examining causal links. Our approach is to leap across vast boundaries without looking at the links. A young person becomes involved in drugs or crime and we leap to the conclusion that they are flawed, or maybe their parents are to blame. Seung-Hui Cho shoots and kills his classmates at Virginia Tech and we begin to lock the barn door without looking to see why this happened. We rush to war without understanding how we got to the brink in the first place. We leap from head-bones to tail-bones with no consideration of the bones in between linking causes with effects. We are after-the-fact band-aid people looking at effects.

Why do we suffer? What is the causal link between life and death? It is impossible to answer such questions without first defining “which” life and looking at the links joining the different kinds of life. What is the link between the cause and effect of drug addiction and crime? What is the link between the cause and effect of the Virginia Tech massacre? What is the link between the cause and effect of war? What is the causal link between life and death? What is life? What is death?

The Buddha would say that genuine life is intrinsically essential and that ego life is fleeting and non-essential. These are connected. They arise together and we experience both. The problem is that unless we awaken to the illusive nature of ego life we never become aware of essential life. Ego life commands our full attention. At that level of existence we are so busy fighting off the alligators we forget that we’re here to drain the swamp. It’s a full time job because ego life is responsive (100%) to temporal existence which is fleeting. They are twins of one another. Someone sends a missile your way and you first defend and then you attack. The ego is absolutely convinced of independence and isolation. To the ego, independence is myth. If we are attacked we never consider what we did to provoke the attack. We just blame the attacker. The ego’s job description is (1) defend, (2) defend, (3) defend. And the best defense is a good offense. The only relevant question is who attacks first?

Seung-Hui Cho did not suddenly turn into a deranged murderer. He had a long history of issues and his condition was the result of many contributing forces. We may never know what those forces were nor how they collaborated to produce the tragedy. But one thing is for sure: he was a walking-talking suffering machine. He had no clue who he really was, at the essential level. He was a damaged ego: walking death—which he then actualized, and so are all people who suffer. The effect may take the form of drug addition, killing people on campuses or in Iraq but the cause is fear and a bone deep sense of emptiness.

Ego life is connected (linked to) with essential life. These two are also a partnership. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra this link is spoken of as SELF and nonSELF meaning that one is essential (and never suffers) and the other is illusive (and always suffers). Genuine life is essential. Fake life (otherwise known as death) is non-essential and they both exist in us. When people are in pain and are suffering they are completely consumed with nonSELF and are totally asleep to the existence of essential life. The nonSELF is who we think we are, but like all thinking, the nonSELF is a mirage. Thinkers think thoughts. Thoughts are about reality but thoughts are not real. The nonSELF is a thought, but you are real. Your reality, ALL reality—is transcendent to thinking. If you have not experienced essential reality, you are asleep; dreaming about reality and are walking with death. 
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