I finally took the old food out of the fridge and cleaned the pots (or am in the process of cleaning them, now- one was washed and then used for cooking immediately, and another is soaking). So that’s a pleasant example of change: the refrigerator is cleaner, and will, I hope, smell better soon.
Could you say that sense perceptions themselves are a good example of change? I think so. Some seem more solid and definite (sights seem like the most solid to me, although touch might rival them for stability).
At the same time, the very change that sense perceptions embody is impossible to put your finger on. I find this with sounds especially. If you listen to a sound, it’s just a string of other smaller sounds. It spreads out over time and has lots of little elements to it. But they are so complex and varied that it is impossible (it seems) to isolate one. Is that because of my own lack of focus or clarity, or some essential part of experiencing a sensation? I don’t know.
At the same time, I experience the conceptualizing and labeling of those things as intertwined with the more direct experience of it. As soon as I hear a bell ringing outside, my mind is running along with it, describing each part of the sound, trying to understand and grasp and hold each part, to get it better. What goes on with this process of conceptualizing? Is it there because I am addicted to thinking this way? Is there something comforting about thinking things through? Am I just trying to hold onto a very rapidly shifting and moving thing, like when I was a kid and I wanted to hold a cat, and I would just grab them and hold them, as they squirmed? There is a small but constantly recurring battle between experiencing and trying to hold onto experience in various ways, and part of this is a healthy fight- to experience more directly, to feel more deeply.
I have so many ideas about what direct experience should be, based on my culture, my family, the writing of spiritual teachers and philosophers I’ve read, and so forth. Some of that is helpful, some neutral, some confusing, but all of it seems unavoidable. It’s there, in the “storehouse.”
In some way, “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” is the best instruction (that’s only part of the quotation, but I think it serves well enough). There’s a constant struggle to understand, work, complete, enjoy, and as soon as something is understood, done, completed, enjoyed, I’m trying to turn a ghost into a living person.
Some other examples of impermanence-
1. a big roach ran from the table, to behind the shelves, to behind the shrine, to menacingly on top of the shine, cleaning its little hands, then up the wall, where it was smushed (and later, the smush-mark partied about by a stream of ants).
2. trying to think of a less creepy example…. I discovered a new function on my ipod, that plays all albums in alphabetical order.
Two things spun off from that- one, that discovery is part of impermanence. However, I think Buddhists tend not to just emphasize the discovery part (it’s there, but there’s death too). Discovery can get too “love and light,” too easy, comforting.
The first example with the bug seems creepy to me now, and was similarly so when it happened.
What do creepiness and death have to do with impermanence? I think one advantage of talking about death in the context of impermanence is to make it less disturbing. It is happening all the time, it is a part of the living experience, and lots of people, myself included, are afraid of it. In a lot of ways, death is, in my culture, the culture of America, something to fear, something scary, something sinister, even associated with evil.
Talking about death in the context of impermanence reframes things. Contemplating death does necessarily involve some fear and disgust, I think (at least in the beginning stages). But these feelings aren’t necessarily associated with death. Seeing death as change, and change as death, puts a fresh view on things (and somehow does so in a deeper way than just thinking “death is a part of life,” or “in some cultures death isn’t feared or hated”).
I live in Thailand right now, and they show pictures of dead bodies in the newspapers sometimes. It’s not entirely taboo. In America, showing a body on the news is considered really shocking. Isn’t that funny? I find that really interesting and bizarre. Americans relax by watching heroes and heroines and police killing thousands of people on TV and movies. Americans pioneered the killing video games that are now a huge pastime across the world. But if an image of an actual, real dead body is shown on a TV, then we’re sickened. We can’t take it. It’s too much, somehow. How does that work? Death is fun, but somehow that fun is another form of warding off, of ignoring and avoiding? It’s like building temples to appease some fearsome deity, making offerings there on the appropriate days, and then running away, and avoiding any thought of the thing the rest of the time.
Well, I didn’t think my writing would take that turn today. Discovery and death go together. I feel like I’m treading on dangerous ground by writing about this:
1. Because my own experiences of death are limited and shallow (I’ve never been that close to it, never experienced the actual death from close up of a loved one)
2. Because there seems to be something sacred about it (and I think this has definitely positive and negative implications- that there might be something powerful about it, and we feel that instinctively, but also, that Americans tend to shy away from it, oversacralizing it, afraid to offend someone, like not walking on the graves in a graveyard).
The title? Well, I think it’s important not to sell the dharma (although I’d be thrilled to publish a book or teach it someday). Essentially, selling the dharma means not just taking money, or inappropriate amounts of it, for teachings- it means altering the teachings just to please and court an audience. Talking about change and death is a good example of this. Am I talking about death to be shocking, and thus, seduce a certain part of the audience? Am I sugarcoating some part of the truth of the death in order to make people comfortable, when the dharma is not a comforter?
In another sense, eternity and living forever are the biggest products out there. Not just health food, vitamins, skim creams, and insurance, but permanent things- things that will give us a ground to live on- are the best products. Habits and self, I think, are two big ways of promoting the illusion of eternal life. Whether there is some form of infinite life, “here” or after physical death, creating meshes of habit and solid self definitely promote a feeling of long life in the here and now.
Can I offer solutions? Is contemplating change and death a good thing (or limited to certain kinds of people)? How do consumer culture and materialism fit into the reality of change?
At this point, I will leave it, and suggest that the latter questions are ones readers can consider for themselves, and maybe ones that I will take up next time.