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February 6, 2007

A work in progress:

I have a class in my schedule this semester called Thinking About Not Thinking: Approaches to Buddhist Meditation.  It’s another discovery course, like Physics for Future Presidents last semester, and like that course, this one is proving to be among my favorites.  The hour-and-a-half lectures seem to go by in a flash, and I already feel like I’ve learned a lot.  Going into the class, I was expecting to be surprised (paradoxically enough) by how different the Buddhist way of thinking is from what we’re used to in the western world.  And it is different, quite different.  But what surprised me most was how very much the same it is.

Back when I used to go to youth group, the new youth pastor, Jeremy, who was around for my last year or so of high school, was giving a sermon in front of the group one day.  He was talking about the afterlife and how inconceivably wonderful it is in heaven and how everything on earth cannot possibly compare to the fruits of the afterlife.  I believe his words were, “If this, here, is all there is… just end it now.  It’s not worth it.”

Now, in my Buddhism class, I am learning about the idea of dukkha, or the suffering that is the one constant of existence.  This suffering is caused by the fact that everything is impermanent, everything passes in and out of existence, and our happiness depends on a level of permanence–in relationships, in job security, in health–that ultimately is never there.  Even our bodies are being constantly replenished with new cells, so that we don’t have a single part of our body that was there several years ago.  Everything else is the same way.  You may be temporarily happy in your relationship, in your successes, in your good health, but somewhere deep inside you realize that this is only temporary, that your relationship will end, that you will be sick again, that your fifteen minutes of fame will fade away and you will again feel the sting of failure, and most importantly, that you will finally die and leave everything in this life behind.

In the former case, the ultimate goal is to perform good works so that the impermanence of the material world will be replaced by one of eternal happiness, and a level of permanence is finally reached.  In the latter, the ultimate goal is to achieve enlightenment of course–but do you know what enlightenment entails?  (I sure didn’t.)  Enlightenment is becoming so aware of everything about the material world–the suffering, its cause, and then its cessation and the path leading to it–that you can detach yourself completely from the world, unaffected by the karmic flow that affects all beings.  And then, instead of being reborn into another life of impermanence and strife as you normally would be, you simply cease to exist.  You have left the world and its impermanence behind.  It’s not suicide; suicide is for people who think they have no other option.  You do not make suicide a goal.  Enlightenment–complete detachment from the world– is eternal peace, a level of permanence that can only be achieved through nonexistence.

Yet, why does this prospect of impermanence bother us so much?  Isn’t this a bit of a one-sided view of things?  Impermanence means that nothing good will ever last, but it also means that nothing bad will ever last either.  There’s a silver lining.  It’s

In the chapter on the universe last semester in Physics for Future Presidents, Muller noted that it is unsettling for some people to think that the universe is finite, while it is just as unsettling for others to think that it is infinite.  I suppose I would put myself in the first category.  What if it were, at least in theory, possible to discover everything in the universe?  Wouldn’t that be terrible?  Where would the excitement be then?

What I’m trying to say is, I like to have the void there.  People are so obsessed with being satisfied, with finding some meaning to life that will give them satisfaction.  People are so consumed by the need to know what is going to happen to us, to know what the point is.  People need to know that there is a way to get rid of that void, and get rid of it for good.  Both approaches, the eastern and the western, attempt to prescribe
order to a world of chaos, because we cannot handle a world that has no
meaning.  And me?  I revel in meaninglessness.  I think chaos is
another one of those words that has undeserved negative connotations to
it.  All chaos is, really, is randomness, not being able to predict
anything.  All it means is that nothing is predetermined.  I love the idea that there is no ultimate goal, that there is nothing the cosmos has set out in front of me as my purpose, nothing the universe expects of me, no correct path to take.  I create my own purpose.

One last note: I shouldn’t have to be insecure about being selfless, so enough.  Until you start enjoying everything–from writing to video games to board games to football games to basketball to hiking to singing and playing piano to running to politics to skiing to Internet surfing to literature to swimming to meeting new people to conversation with the same people to people-watching to traveling to goofing off and joking around to holding serious philosophical discussions to walking around to standing around to sitting around to lying around to drinking to staying sober and laughing at drunk people to just staring off into space to all types of food to all types of music to all types of movies, books, TV shows, art, school subjects and classes and majors, colors, cultures, personalities, people, and most of all, to trying out new things–until you enjoy all of those, we will do whatever you want to do.  Because odds are there are quite a number of things on that list that you don’t care for, and I’ll be damned if that’s at all my fault.  If you’re the one who feels guilty or anxious, you’re the one who needs to change the way you think, not me.  (As long as you don’t make me go clothes shopping; then all bets are off.)

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