Sunday, March 27, 2011

Step by step

"Passo dopo passo." So reads today's entry (March 27, 2011) in my calendar of everyday Italian phrases. It translates "step by step"--or to put it in the inimitable words of my stepson Eric, "One fucking thing at a time."

And it is a good Dharma lesson always--to stay in the present moment, and do what needs to be done--one step at a time--regardless of how many obligations are closing in on us at any time. This also means, for me, subduing the various Maras that afflict me on weekends: internet addiction, dissipation, torpor, and avoidance or procrastination.

A few days ago, I was invited to give a talk on Buddhism to a group of high school kids over in Chesapeake, who were taking an Advanced Placement class in world religions. Most of my talk was "Buddhism 101"--going through the basic teachings with them--the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Jewels, the Five Precepts, the Four Brahma-Viharas, and of course the essential discipline--Breathe, Observe, and Let Go. But in the course of my talk, while describing the Second Dharma Seal--interbeing or nonself--I stumbled on a potentially useful metaphor for this difficult-to-grasp concept.

When discussing the essential unreality of the separate self (Anatman) I compared it to a rainbow: something you see clearly, as if it were real, but if you move toward it, it recedes--and if the sun disappears behind a cloud, it vanishes altogether. It is, in effect, a perceptual artifact--something whose "existence" depends on a particular conjunction of causes and conditions that includes angle of sunlight from one direction, rain in the opposite direction, and of course the location of the perceiver. As Thay would say, "When conditions are sufficient, we see a rainbow; when conditions are no longer sufficient, the rainbow disappears"--even though the latent preconditions are still there: sunlight, clouds, rain, and perceiver.

The point is, our notion of "self" is more like a rainbow--a perceptual artifact--than it is like, say, a rock or even an animal. If we look deeper, of course, people, animals, and ultimately rocks are perceptual artifacts as well--all depend on the conjunction of certain causes and conditions, including the eye of the beholder.

But there is a danger--an ethical danger--in going too far in this direction, for if we persuade ourselves that everyone and everything is illusory--that is just an artifact of our own perception--then why should we care whether or not they suffer? This is the danger, as I see it, in certain "mind-only" schools of Buddhist thought--they are an invitation to complacency and smug indifference to others--and "by their fruits shall ye know them."

So how do we avoid this trap, once we grasp the notion of the separate self as a perceptual artifact, of simply concluding that everyone and everything else is as well, and that we can do as we please?

The Dalai Lama points one way, in this regard, in enjoining us to recognize what we have in common with everyone else we see out there: we all want happiness, and none of us wants to suffer. And this is the key: the ultimately illusory nature of the separate self simply indicates that everyone else is, deep down, the same as we are, and as we do for ourselves, so we do for them as well. This is also the inner logic behind the law of Karma as well--whatever we do to and for others, we also do to and for ourselves, for ultimately there is no difference at all between us and them--even if we fear and despise them. Hence our only recourse, as Lao Tzu says, is to "take care of everyone and abandon no one; take care of everything, and abandon nothing."

But back to my calendar lesson for the day: How do we go about dealing with all the things we've failed to do thus far--all the people and things we have not yet taken care of--due to the various Maras of dissipation, internet addiction, torpor, and procrastination--like grading my weekly papers--in order to resume taking care of everyone and abandoning no one? Passo dopo passo.