Our next offering, in the Ebb Tide series, is a feature in three parts by Anna Aysea. In these articles, Anna asks these questions: What is the reality of life and death in direct experience? What is the self? And how can they be made to disappear? She illustrates this very personal interpretation of the teachings of the Heart Sutra, through the use of artworks made from gold. Look out for Part 2 on Wednesday and Part 3 on Friday.
After dinner, as we were sitting at the table having tea, R. seemed to be in a philosophical mood. He looked up at the ceiling, a furrowed brow, head slightly tilted to one side.
“So… when you are.. 130 years old… how old will I then be?”
“Er.. lemme see… you are now 13, that would be 13 plus… 73, then you would be… a grown man. But I am not sure I am going to be able to make it till 130, sweetheart.”
For R. the concept of time doesn’t mean much, as of yet, so an age of 130 years did not strike him as extraordinary.
“Okay, when you are… 90… how old will I then be…”
“Then you would be… also a grown man.”
“Hm.. it would be nice if you could see me grow up…”
“Well, you never know how life is going to turn out but I am very much planning on seeing you grow up sweetie. And since I am in excellent health there is no reason to believe that that cannot happen.”
“Hm” R. nodded.
Fear of death does not depend on age. The movement of the tides, birth and death, according to the Buddhist teaching, disappear when we study them, the scripture states that when we study the self, we forget the self.
So, what is the reality of life and death in direct experience? What is the self? And how can they be made to disappear? For most of us, we grew up with the belief that “I was born and I am going to die”. And for most of us, this inherited belief was taken at face value. The Buddhist teaching invites us to challenge this long-held belief. What is the supporting evidence for the belief that the self, “I” was born and that it is going to die? To answer this question, first, we need to examine what we mean by the self.
The common term used to refer to the self is the first person, the pronoun “I”. We say “I” all day, every day. What exactly is it we refer to when we say “I”? There are several referents in fact. Consider the following.
- “I need new tyres ” Here, “I” refers to my car. An accepted use where there is no confusion involved: I know I am not my car.
- “I have an infected leg.” Here “I” refers to the body.
- “I am 36 years old.” Here “I” refers to a thought, a concept, that is, “I” refers to the mind.
- “I understand. I see. I hear. I feel”. Here “I” refers to that which perceives, which knows experience, that is, “I” refers to awareness, to Being, the true self as the knowing faculty of experience.
While the first instance is fairly clear, most of us do know we are not our car, what may not be so apparent are the two following referents of “I”: the body and the mind. The dominant belief is: I am this body-mind, this collection of thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions. In fact, many people will not recognize the last reference, awareness – the space within which mind objects of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and sense perceptions arise and are known – as something that is independent of the body-mind and so believe that body-mind and awareness are one and the same. Not only that, the common materialistic belief is that awareness, Buddha Nature in Buddhist terms, depends on the body, is generated by the body, resides in the body, and therefore shares the limitations of the body. Most, unfortunately, it is supposed that ”I awareness” will cease to be at the demise of the body. Hence the belief: I am finite and limited; I am subject to impermanence.
To investigate the reality of the body mind and awareness in direct experience, we need to establish what we mean by reality. A straightforward definition of reality can be as follows. The reality of something is that which it is made of, it is the unchanging aspect of something which cannot be removed from it, in other words, it’s the true nature of something. For instance, the reality of a golden ring is the gold it is made from. The ring can be melted, so the form can be removed, but its essence, the gold, cannot. When the temporary form “ring” disappears, its reality, the gold, can take the shape of another form, like a necklace, a bracelet, etc.
Similarly, the reality of a wave or a current in the ocean is the water. The current can cease to be, its reality, the water, remains and can exist without any activity. The same water that formed the current, can, after the dissipation of the current, take the form of ice, snow, steam, or one of the many other manifestations of water.
In short, reality is that which is, in and by itself, not dependent on anything, it is that which cannot cease to be. You could say that reality is that which is unchanging and ever-present, and manifestation is the temporary name and form reality intermittently takes.
The Heart Sutra, also known as The Scripture of Great Wisdom describes reality as “increasing not decreasing not”, meaning it is unchanging. The Buddha describes reality as unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, and unformed, meaning it has no cause, it is not subject to birth and death, it simply is by and of itself and is the true source of all phenomena that arise and disappear within it.
The investigation of the reality of the self will be continued in part two.