Buddhism - Resounding Silence
by P.S. Vasu
What am I doing here? These and similar questions have baffled man since ages.
Trying to find the answers, you run in circles, come to a dead-end or get lost
in a maze. You visit gurus. After imbibing their speculative theories you yourself
become a guru. The search continues. But the meaning remains ever elusive. You
ask the meaning of life only because life runs through you. So your being alive
itself is the meaning. Anything else is speculation, a mere contrivance and a
shadow of the real thing. To the extent that the meaning of life becomes more
important than living it. The more you seek the answer, the more you get away
THE PEAK EXPERIENCE
There is a story about a mountain that when you scale its peak, you'll meet an old man who has the answers to all the questions. As you begin climbing, you look forward to meeting the old man as much as you want to make it to the top. Finally, reaching the summit is a great feeling. Time comes to a standstill as you drink in the view. Your heart expands. You are alive as never before. In that wonderful state, all questions disappear. The old man grins. You grin too. But no questions are asked. Because the meaning of life has already been glimpsed.
THE GREAT FLOW
Panna Lal was greatly bothered about the meaning of life. He approached a wise man for guidance. The wise man took him to a stream and filled a pitcher with stream water.
Wise man: (Pointing to the stream) What is that?
Panna Lal: A stream.
Wise man: (Pointing to the pitcher) What is this?
Panna Lal: A pitcherful of stream water.
Wise man: Why don't you call it a stream?
Panna Lal: The water doesn't flow in the pitcher. So it's not a stream.
Wise man: How can it be a stream?
Panna Lal: When you let go of it.
As Panna Lal made the gesture of letting go, he understood what the wise man was driving at. Life is like a flowing stream and the meaning of life is only a pitcherful of water.
THE PERSIAN RUG
In Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915), Cronshaw gifts an intricately woven Persian rug to Philip Carey, telling him that it might answer his question about the meaning of life. Philip can't make out anything initially. Later the message of the Persian rug dawns upon him.
Just as the weaver makes patterns for the joy of doing so, a man too can look at his life as a pattern. There is as little need as use for a particular kind of pattern. It's the uniqueness of the pattern that counts. Out of the manifold events of his life, his deeds, his feelings, and his thoughts, a man creates a design, regular, elaborate, complicated, or beautiful. Philip is thrilled by this new way of looking at things.
To quote from the book: "His (Philip's) life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness, but now he seemed to gather strength that it might be measured by something else. Happiness mattered as little as pain. They came in, both of them, as all the other details of his life came in, to the elaboration of the design. He seemed for an instant to stand above the accidents of his existence, and he felt that they could not affect him again as they had done before. Whatever happened to him now would be more motive to add to the complexity of the pattern, and when the end approached he would rejoice in its completion. It would be a work of art, and it would be nonetheless beautiful because he alone knew of its existence, and with his death it would at once cease to be."
JUST PLAY IT
A new monk in a monastery had just finished his breakfast. Finding the master alone, he approached him and asked: "What is the meaning of life?" The master said: "Have you had breakfast?" "Yes," the monk replied. "Then go and wash your bowl," said the master.
When a ball comes your way, you play it. Life is also a ball game. It's about doing what needs to be done here and now. When you finish your breakfast, you wash your bowl. The bowl washed, there's another ball to be played.
The unknowability of the next moment is intrinsic to the nature of life. You never know what is going to come your way. If you knew that, it would be no fun playing.
THE SILVER PLATTER
Speculating about the miracles that people look forward to all their lives, Henry Miller says in Tropic of Cancer (1934): "What if at the last moment, when the banquet table is set and the cymbals clash, there should appear suddenly, and without warning, a silver platter on which even the blind could see that there is nothing more, and nothing less, than two enormous lumps of shit.
"That, I believe would be more miraculous than anything which man has looked forward to. It would be miraculous because it would be undreamed of...
"Somehow the realization that nothing was to be hoped for had a salutary effect upon me. For weeks and months, for years, in fact, all my life I had been looking forward to something happening, some extrinsic event that would alter my life, and now suddenly, inspired by the hopelessness of everything, I felt relieved, felt as though a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders."
It would be a mistake to look at the hopelessness of Miller as despair. For him, hopelessness is a positive factor. It consists of, to borrow from Ana´s Nin, "a wild extravagance, a mad gaiety, a verve, a gusto, at times almost a delirium." His hopelessness is about savoring life as it unfolds instead of waiting for something to come your way on a silver platter. It is about abandoning the dream of a magical future and waking up to the magic of this moment.
Hira Lal had heard that there was a place called Buddha Nagar where everyone was enlightened. He set out looking for this mythical town. After years of wandering, he came to a river. Across the river was Buddha Nagar.
Hira Lal got onto a boat. The cool breeze felt so good. A wave of joy swept through him. At last, he had made it to Buddha Nagar. He congratulated himself on the success of his mission. His patience, his struggles had borne fruit. As he looked around with a sense of satisfaction, his eyes fastened onto a corpse floating away. He looked carefully. Why, it was his own corpse. In a single moment, all his achievements, his virtues, his spirituality, even his making it to Buddha Nagar were gone forever. What a loss!
In deep sorrow, he started crying, first slowly and then uncontrollably. Then through his tears, he looked at the corpse a second time only to find that his sorrow and sense of loss too had floated away. An all-enveloping peace descended on him. He was liberated from joy and sorrow. So, when you can see your own corpse, when you can see your judgments floating away, every place is Buddha Nagar. Then you come alive for the first time.
Gautam Buddha is said to have been the greatest chatterbox of all times. For forty-nine years, he went from place to place and gave thousands of discourses. And yet there were moments when he was dumbstruck. He just wouldn't open his mouth. This happened every time he was asked metaphysical questionsabout God, about the unknown, about the purpose of life. Buddha maintained that life was too short to bother about these questions. The closest he ever came to answering these was when he said, "When a poisoned arrow pierces your flesh, you don't bother about where it has come from. You take it out and dress the wound."
If you lived in Buddha's time and were tired of his continuous chatter, you only had to ask him the meaning of life and the chatter would come to a stop.
ALL SAID AND DONE
Life is an imponderable puzzle, the mother of all koans. All other koans have, in fact, been derived from this one. Anything that can be stated about life can be contradictedincluding this statement. So if you think you understand the meaning of life, you don't. If you think you don't, of course, you don't. If that leaves you without a choice, that's perhaps it.
At a prayer meeting after the death of my grandmother, the priest explained the evolution of two very commonly used words. He said: "Our body is just a vehicle for the atman (soul) and that is why it is called the sarathithe pilot-cum-navigator-cum-controller of the chariot-like body. When the spirit passes on, the body loses the rathi and becomes arathi (funeral bier). That's why though we grieve for the loss of the person, we go through elaborate rituals of cremation and pray for the spirit to soar and attain moksha."
I always had an intuitive faith in the river of processor "behavior in motion", as termed by an expertthat we humans are constantly a part of. This fondness is like a phobic need to liberally interpret all happenings in terms of whatever is forming the submerged seven-eighths of any experience.
The introspective flashes that I have had recently have a common trigger: the vehicle I was traveling by forced me to pause from the routine of hectic activity. It is often said that your vehicle ought to remain under your control and not vice versa. The priest's words echo in my mind and I tell myself: "If you are not the sarathi, you may end up accelerating your movement towards your own arathi!"
For some time, my scooter's horn was on the blink. I was denied the opportunity of adding to the decibel level and had to evolve alternative ways of signalingespecially in the daytime. Not only did I find myself taking lesser risks in terms of overtaking other vehicles, but I began to drive at a lower speed.
The link with my attitudes followed suit. I found myself introspecting about the occasions I chose "not to blow my own horn" in meetings. This helped me listen more and interject less and I was able to put my points across more precisely rather than "shooting my mouth off". Wonder of wonders, I was listened to with far greater attention!
Coming back late one night, I saw a bunch of buffaloes crossing the road. I pressed the brake pedal. Nothing happened: the car cruised along. Fortunately, I could maneuver it without hitting the buffaloes.
Later, I found that the car's brake fluid had leaked away. Subsequent movement was in fits and starts, until the car was safely ensconced at a workshop.
The message to self was that one needs to keep the "brake fluid" reservoir at an appropriate level. If I do not stay in touch with my feelingsand suppress them for too longmy responses would no longer be in control. At that instant my damage potential would be defined by whoever is in front of me. The obvious corollary is that the onus on undoing the damage would be on me alone. This also brought home the significance of "periodic preventive maintenance of my own self". Yoga and other stress management techniques help in understanding, tapering down and resolving the issues that I may be struggling with.
I found the mileage my scooter gave dipping. Yet I kept on postponing the trip to the mechanic. When I did make it, his comment was: "It's a wonder that you have not taken a spin yet. The rear wheel brakes were almost fully jammed."
On identifying the scooter with myself, I realized that I also go on for long periods with my brakes getting stuck-up, that is, I put so many self-effacing and martyring restrictions on myself. And indirectly on those around me as I pass on signals regarding my expectations, both overt and covert. These internal brakes put my relationships with others to test, almost to the breaking point.
My preoccupation with my own self usually led me into a self-created maze, to get out of which I would seek help of some near and dear ones (without bothering about other commitments and duties). Wandering in the maze presented an opportunity of introspecting and once I released the self-applied brakes I would ultimately find my way out. Unfortunately, the frequent occurrence of this is akin to crying, "Wolf! Wolf!!" with the fallout that when I may be in need I may not be able to access support of any kind.
The mantra of the day is environment-friendly. It has made periodic emission checking and control mandatory. This highlights the importance of the individual's contribution to the work place. If I am able to limit/control the effluents I am adding to the organizational settingwhich calls for joint efforts towards a shared purpose and goals-at least I am doing my bit "to reduce the number of scoundrels present"! I am also reducing the frequency of backlashes from my colleagues that would occur in reaction to my own "irresponsible" behavior.
So, the message is to stay tuned to one's own behaviorabout which a steady stream of feedback is constantly available from otherswhich could be verbalized or needs to be inferred from the outward response to oneself and importantly from within one's own self. The latter is important as we begin to get the feeling of "something not being in place" and if understood in its nascent state we can prevent major damage at an advanced stage.
We can see ourselves in an organizational set-up as being on a typical Indian road. We have all sorts of vehicles and all kinds of driversboth licensed, unlicensed (as well as the incensed ones)and many pedestrians too. In this chaos we need to follow the traffic rules (norms of the organization) and drive along in a concerted manner taking due care for those who might overtake us from the left; stop their vehicle in the middle of the road; ducking all the potholes; avoiding being rammed into by the belching buses and trucks. So we have to own constant responsibility for our own well-being; no amount of cribbing can sort out all things amicably.
The state of the vehicle is important in the present moment. The vehicle is under use now and has to function properly. If the rath is malfunctioning in the present its very performance is at stake; rather its existence can be wiped off if it misbehaves on a highway. Minor ailments such as knocking, low levels of oil, coolant, air pressure have human metaphors and one leaves their interpretation to the reader.
One thing is clear: I as an individual am going to be responded to and understood only with respect to the immediately visible behavior (except for some minor aberrations I get a chance only once). How do I take care of my own self, taking care of my physical self or my own rath and how well am I in touch with and responding to the needs of growth of my spiritual self? Only if I have concern for myself, and exhibit it, would my concern for others be understood and reciprocated.
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