Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Is that all there is?

“Is that all there is? Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing.
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is.”

These words might very well be the mantra for today. They were however, sung by American singer Peggy Lee and an award winner from her album in November 1969. When your life seems surrounded with corruption it is easy to become disillusioned. Peggy Lee’s song was written by the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and based on the existential philosophy expressed at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th-century. More specifically the writers borrowed the idea from the 1896 Disillusionment written by Thomas Mann who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. Mann was a big fan of Goethe, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, all of whom, in one way or another saw life as meaningless and were considered either implicit or explicit nihilists.

Without plumbing the depths of consciousness it seems logical that life is indeed meaningless. The words of the song keep changing but the message appears to be the same. Even among mainline Buddhism that message was first resonating with what was known as “The Three marks of existence.” The Buddha was thought to have taught that all beings, conditioned by causes (saṅkhāra) are impermanent (anicca) and suffering (dukkhā) while he said not-self (anattā) characterized all dharmas meaning there is no “I” or “mine” in life.

If that was the end of the matter, Buddhism would  more than likely, have lasted about twenty minutes. But fortunately that was not the end of the matter. It took some time for Mahāyana Buddhism to emerge, which told the rest of the story. In Chapter 3 (On Grief) of the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra the Buddha taught, about what he called “four perversions.” He said that the true Self signified the Buddha, the eternal signified the Dharmakaya (the Mind), Bliss signified the lack of dukkhā and Nirvana/the Pure signified the Dharma. He went on to say that to cultivate impermanence, suffering, and non-Self has no real value/meaning. “Whoever has these four kinds of perversion, that person does not know the correct cultivation of dharmas. Having these perverse ideas, their (the lost) minds and vision are distorted.”

When life seems to be characterized by violence, political shark-man-ship, power through money, injustice, a growing wave of corruption, despair, apathy and hopelessness, it’s easy to wonder, “Is this all there is?” And while we may not yet be able to find our true Selves, we don’t need to see life through the lens of a victim. A man who waits for enlightenment before being a balm to others is like waiting for the ocean to warm before taking a bath. While facing such obvious adversity in the present moment, it may require strength, endurance and keeping a level head. But of equal importance is the clear understanding that the only way to have better “nows” for tomorrows is by making those betters today. A single match can either ignite a blazing inferno of hatred or light a lamp of love that shines brightness into the darkness. Whatever we do in the never ending “now” will make our world of tomorrow. We don’t need to be a Malālah Yūsafzay or an Edward Snowden to make a difference. A single act of kindness in whatever sphere we live turns adversity into joy. A single drop of rain waters 10,000 pines.

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