November 1, 2013
We are addicted to hard, rigid, stony memorials. Yet the 2,000+ year old silk and bamboo on which the poems attributed to Lao Tzu were recorded survive today and are perfectly legible, while the carved scribbles memorializing the legacy of George Fry at the close of his 66 yrs. and 3.5 days — they are mostly washed back into the stone.
Lao Tzu himself delivers the best comment on this impression, in the 78th poem of his collection:
Is there anything in all of Nature as adaptable and as shapeless as water? But for wearing down what’s fixed and rigid, no power on earth can match it. Thus, it is unique.
When an amorphous presence meets adamantine resistance, the amorphous prevails. When the supple meets the obdurate, suppleness prevails.
There are none who can deny this, but no one seems able to live by it.
We know the truths of Nature, for they are all around us; and still we deny them in the way we live. We go on making monuments of stone and steel, even as we run out of space to put them. We are obsessed with Eternity: though we have little idea what it is, we want it so badly that we will carve bromides onto rocks as stakes upon our claim to Forever. As another great poet once told us, the delusion of Ozymandias grips us all.
Many years ago, I went to a public lecture given by an astronomer. His topic had to do with the meaning of Einstein’s concept of Time, and during his talk he mentioned in passing that the Earth would be destroyed by our sun in about 3, maximum 5 billion years. During the Q&A session that followed the lecture, a woman raised her hand and asked, “you said the Earth would be burnt up by the sun — was that in 5 million or 5 billion years?” The astronomer replied, “about 5 billion years.” The lady sighed in obvious relief: “oh, thank God, I thought you’d said 5 million years.”
It was an amusing moment — even The Learn’d Astronomer smiled. Yet I thought that woman had unwittingly delivered a crucial teaching on the meaning of the Buddhist notion of impermanence: for despite the thousand-fold difference between the number spoken and the number she thought she had heard, both lack duration. The Forever of linear time is an illusion at best, and more commonly a lie. What we carve into these stones is gone even before the first drop of rain begins to erode its pompous rigidity with the laughter of Nature.
What Einstein actually said, by the way, is that Time does not exist — not in the way we think we experience it; that is, not in the way we imagine it. But we don’t even need to understand Einstein’s equations to perceive the weakness of our time-minds and the fears that feed our blindness. Our corporate society’s language exposes the folly of the linear fantasy. In every sphere of our lives we create and confront deadlines. Dead lines: the linear’s existence is based purely on a single lie — that death is terminal, that the line of life meets an ending, beyond which nothing exists.
Curiously, that lie is itself revealed by the invention of a man whose astrophysical work was overthrown by Einstein’s: Newton, the inventor of calculus, whose formative insight springs from a thought experiment on how joined lines are transformed, their true natures implied if not revealed, through the application of limits:
For a more contemplative example, gaze at a sequence of regular polygons: a hexagon, an octagon, a decagon and so on. I can almost imagine a yoga instructor asking a class to meditate on what would happen if the number of sides kept increasing indefinitely. Eventually, the sides shrink so much that the kinks start flattening out and the perimeter begins to appear curved. And then you see it: what will emerge is a circle, while at the same time the polygon can never actually become one. The realization is exhilarating — it lights up pleasure centers in your brain. This underlying concept of a limit is one upon which all of calculus is built.
Calculus works upon the linear in the same way that the forces of Nature work upon the carved stones in the cemetery. The line is a lie, albeit an occasionally useful one. But so is the circle, to the extent we imagine it as the true shape of Reality. There is no fixed shape to the unity of being; God has no face, no body, no substance, and certainly no law — not in the permanence of linear Eternity — for again, there is no such thing.
We may think of the laws of being — if you like, of Spirit — in the same way we think of the law of limits within calculus or of the laws governing quantum states: as conditioned truths that have practical meaning to specific circumstances, but ultimately with no greater claim to reality than the faded carving on George Fry’s stone. For as the Buddhists saw so long ago, only the moment is eternal, only presence has permanence — everything beyond that is a whirl of delusion, a blur of change, a superficial game of belief, attachment, and death.
So how do we obtain this moment; how can we nail down Presence and hold onto it? By giving up on our claim to it; by releasing the attachment. The Zen folks talk of “killing the Buddha” — a famous maxim urges: “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Imagine how different our world would be now had a similar saying been written into the Bible or the Koran.
That is, if you grip the moment or hold your God like a sword or a belief or a fixed symbol — a cruciform shape, the name of a prophet, or even the image of an awakened being holding a flower before his followers — in that very act of grasping you are broken, blinded, and deadened. If you cannot “kill the Buddha” (or Christ, Yahweh, or Muhammed), then it will kill you.
Truth does not come with a handle; there is no stone onto which it may fit; it can only be discovered and rediscovered — like the polygon shrinking and transforming under the gaze of the calculus. This is the foundation upon which every great and, for our purposes, enduring teaching arises. Experience this but once, in and for yourself and no other, and you will need no stone, no legacy, no God, no Eternity.