The past, the present, the future… Me, you, them…
These are things, no ? Depends on who you ask.i
Men feel themselves to be victims or puppets of their experience because they separate “themselves” from their minds, thinking that the nature of the mind-body is something involuntarily thrust upon “them.” They think that they did not ask to be born, did not ask to be “given” a sensitive organism to be frustrated by alternating pleasure and pain. But Zen asks us to find out “who” it is that “has” this mind, and “who” it was that did not ask to be born before father and mother conceived us. Thence it appears that the entire sense of subjective isolation, of being the one who was “given” a mind and to whom experience happens, is an illusion of bad semantics – the hypnotic suggestion of repeated wrong thinking. For there is no “myself” apart from the mind-body which gives structure to my experience. It is likewise ridiculous to talk of this mind-body as something which was passively and involuntarily “given” a certain structure. It is that structure, and before the structure arose there was no mind-body.
When firewood becomes ashes, it never returns to being firewood. But we should not take the view that what is latterly ashes was formerly firewood. What we should understand is that, according to the doctrine of Buddhism, firewood stays at the position of firewood… There are former and later stages, but these stages are clearly cut.
It is the same with life and death. Thus we say in Buddhism that the Un-born is also the Un-dying. Life is a position of time. Death is a position of time. They are like winter and spring, and in Buddhism we do not consider that winter becomes spring, or that spring becomes summer.
Buddhism has frequently compared the course of time to the apparent motion of a wave, wherein the actual water only moves up and down, creating the illusion of a “piece” of water moving over the surface. It is a similar illusion that there is a constant “self” moving through successive experiences, constituting a link between them in such a way that the youth becomes the man who becomes the graybeard who becomes the corpse.
Connected, then, with the pursuit of the good is the pursuit of the future, the illusion whereby we are unable to be happy without a “promising future” for the symbolic self. Progress towards the good is therefore measured in terms of the prolongation of human life, forgetting that nothing is more relative than our sense of the length of time. A Zen poem says:
The morning glory which blooms for an hour
Differs not at heart from the giant pine, Which lives for a thousand years.
Subjectively, a gnat doubtless feels that its span of a few days is a reasonably long lifetime. A tortoise, with its span of several hundred years, would feel subjectively the same as the gnat. Not so long ago the life expectancy of the average man was about forty-five years. Today it is from sixty-five to seventy years, but subjectively the years are faster, and death, when it comes, is always all too soon. As Dogen said:
The flowers depart when we hate to lose them;
The weeds arrive while we hate to watch them grow.
This is perfectly natural, perfectly human, and no pulling and stretching of time will make it otherwise. On the contrary, the measuring of worth and success in terms of time, and the insistent demand for assurances of a promising future, make it impossible to live freely both in the present and in the “promising” future when it arrives. For there is never anything but the present, and if one cannot live there, one cannot live anywhere.
Whether or not Buddhism is “true” or “correct” is besides the point, in this line of inquiry as in every other. What matters is that it’s a useful, pragmatic framing, should you be so bold as to embrace it.
So what have we to fear ? There are worse things under the sun than being wrong. Like being useless, for one…
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- Excerpts from The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, 1957. ↩