Life is like a flash of lightning

Two ways of thinking about the same thing

Geshe Kelsang has said that “arising, abiding, and ceasing are justwalking in rainbows three different ways of thinking about the same event.” Even arising and ceasing (or cessation) are two different ways of thinking about the same thing. When we realize this, we begin to let go of grasping; and it is really a question of allowing ourselves to float into that space. (Carrying on from this article on subtle impermanence.)

How can arising and ceasing happen simultaneously? Well one question in return is how could they not? If something is the nature of change, how could it remain the same, even for an instant?

What is the option if arising really precedes cessation? Is there is a little bit in the middle where it has arisen but not ceased? In which case that moment has a degree of permanence there, and so there is going to be grasping at it. And where do you draw the line? A fraction or two fractions? It is only when you say completely there is NO remaining that it starts to make sense.

walking through doorwayI heard once that Native Americans call all objects “events” (though now I can’t find it on Google.) This I find helpful. Everything is fluid.

If arising and cessation are the same event that is distinguished differently just by thought, another helpful example I find is this. If someone is going through a doorway, are they entering or exiting? It depends on perspective, on mind. I think this is similar to arising and ceasing.

The only continuation is what we impute as continuation. For example, a rainbow arises and ceases newly moment by moment in dependence upon causes and conditions, and stringing its moments together is done entirely by our mind. It’s a bit like watching a movie of many stills.

By the way, why do things change?! Our mind changes, and different appearances arise due to karma, like waves arising from an ocean. We also impute all changes with our mind. For example, perhaps we fell in love with someone who was totally fantastic and then later, bewilderingly, they changed into someone who was a total (add your own description here). Where did the person we fell for go?! We feel deceived. But where did they go?! What actually changed? Did they change, did we change? A bit of both? I’ll leave you to answer that one for now.

The doorway to realizing emptinessflash of lightning 1

If we can wrap our minds around subtle impermanence, this will take us very close to Buddha’s teachings on the true nature of reality, emptiness. Understanding subtle impermanence is said to be the doorway to emptiness, and emptiness is said to be the doorway to liberation. Geshe Potowa said:

My main meditation on the middle way is meditation on subtle impermanence.

This indicated that, for him, meditating on subtle impermanence intuitively led him into emptiness.

What do the realizations of subtle impermanence and emptiness have in common? They both help us to stop grasping. Subtle impermanence weakens our tendency to grasp, and the wisdom realizing emptiness removes it completely.

Moment by moment things are gone. But they weren’t really there to begin with.

Everything is like a flash of lightning, and even that flash of lightning doesn’t exist from its own side.

real life permanent dreamsI also think that even if we have a good understanding of emptiness, contemplating subtle impermanence has very practical benefit. Perhaps we already “get” the dream-like nature of reality. But perhaps there is still some part of us that is grasping at our dreams as lasting and as abiding – sort of like permanent dreams!

This is one of the greatest gifts that subtle impermanence can give us – at the beginning it improves all aspects of our life by helping us naturally drop our attachment and aversion etc.; and eventually it leads us to the realization of emptiness.

Hope you enjoy this series of articles on subtle impermanence.

All the world’s a stage…

Do you ever feel you’re being manipulated when you’re watching something? Like it’s staged to make you think and feel a certain way?

Of course, all plays and movies are! But sometimes for some reason you see right through it.

Mad Men is a popular drama and several friends had recommended it to me so I watched some of it. Notwithstanding the intentionally annoying misogyny that pervades it, I enjoyed the fact that it was set not long before I was born but might as well have been made in the dark ages, so much has changed since then. Those telephones! I remember we had one as a child; it seemed perfectly fine back then, now it belongs in a museum. The whole way of life without cell phones and computers is entirely different. And yet this is only 50 years ago, and I was born pretty much into the tail end of it. This is the world of my parents. Mad Men and Buddhism

It also struck me that one reason there was no way out for these characters is because meditation hadn’t even arrived on the scene yet – they had to hit the bottle or the sack because they had no reliable sources of pleasure or satisfaction, especially as on the whole these were not church-going types and yet had few spiritual alternatives.

But for the purposes of this article I was interested in how much effort and how many causes and conditions were brought together to convince me, the viewer, that it was real. The telephones for sure, and all the design pieces. The Neanderthal attitudes, the drinking, the nervous reaching for a cigarette at times of the remotest stress or pleasure, the boredom, the futility… Thousands of people have engineered this reality for me, making it as real as possible, and a huge variety of causes and conditions have gone into it. Remove any of them – the hairstylist, the director, the camera man, the cigarettes, the clunky telephones, etc – and I may not have been as convinced.

A movie clearly depends completely on its causes and conditions. It is none of those causes and conditions either individually or collectively, yet take even one away and it disappears. It has no power to exist from its own side. The same is true of life.

When I was living in San Francisco I visited the set of Pixar with a friend, T., who was working on Ratatouille. My mind boggled at the number of causes and conditions going into producing a 90-minute animated movie – thousands of skilled people, several years, and seemingly never-ending still drawings and sculptures both traditional and computerized. In The Incredibles, there is a typical teenager called Violet, who is characterized by hiding behind a large fringe of hair, until she gains confidence (helped no doubt by saving the world with her superpowers) and the hair gets tucked back. During this whole eye-opening visit to Pixar, the thing that struck me most was learning that one of T’s friends had worked for three years on … get this… pretty much just Violet’s hair! Violet from the Incredibles and Kadampa Life

If we really examine it, we can see that our own hair has also risen and continues to arise in dependence upon numerous causes and conditions – both physical and karmic – going back a very long way. Even just one moment or freeze frame of our hair depends on genes coming from our parents and their parents etc, and karma we have created – and moment by moment these causes and conditions continue to evolve to produce moment after moment of hair (or hair loss).

Countless causes and conditions have also gone into the scene I am witnessing right now. I am sitting at my desk writing on a PC with a splendid cappuchino from the World Peace Cafe downstairs, looking out onto a park that is vividly green with flashes of rhodedendrom colour, half-sunshine/half clouds and a sky close enough to touch, magpies hopping about on the branches, goslings on the lake, and people kicking a football… Remove any one of these causes and conditions – the desk, the park, the sunshine, even the football — and the scene is a new one. If I was to look for anything really happening, from its own side, as in the movies, I would find nothing – none of the causes and conditions is this scene, but remove even just one of them and this particular scene dissolves.

goslings in Sefton Park Kadampa Meditation Centre Liverpool(In a few days, all the causes and conditions for my sitting here in Liverpool will have been used up. New causes and conditions will be kicking in to produce new effects as life unfurls … )

Everything is illusion-like according to the Buddhist Madhyamika view of reality. Even though it appears to, nothing exists inherently, from its own side. In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says:

Provided all the necessary conditions are assembled,
Even an illusion will come into being.

Illusions like movie characters appear in dependence upon causes and conditions, and so do we.

Different types of cause
Give rise to different types of illusion.

We take one rebirth after another in dependence upon particular causes and conditions, and Mad Men comes into being in dependence upon different causes and conditions. There is no single cause that can give rise to the infinite variety of different effects. A movie may not last as long as us, but this is no proof that we are more existent from our own side – or it would follow that a dream of long duration was more valid than one of shorter duration.

sowing seeds of love karmaI can tell I’m being manipulated by the acting in Mad Men — the fake smoking and the fake sex and the fake attitudes. Not that it isn’t well acted; it is just that sometimes you can’t help seeing through things, you can see they are staged. Just like a movie, all the causes and conditions of my life effect an appearance that I get sucked into as real, even though this reality is just a set-up, a projection of my ignorance. How great it will be to see through the seeming permanence of every scene in my life to see that it is changing moment by moment in dependence upon causes and conditions. How great it will be to see through the veneer of my current reality to see that it too is fake, artificial, Drapersmile-lg1appearances pretending to be something solid and “out there”. We already are the designers, producers, and directors of our own reality. Once we realize this, we can design, produce, and direct a life we actually want!

Postscript 3 years later: Who thought Mad Men would end with Don Draper meditating?! There is hope for us all.