Learning from the non-self to #StandWithAleppo in the Dholpur wilderness

Learning from the non-self to #StandWithAleppo in the Dholpur wilderness

According to Buddhist belief, three karmic poisons – symbolised by a pig, bird and snake – power the revolutions of Samsara. These poisons are moha (delusion or ignorance), raga (greed, sensual attachment), and dvesha (aversion, hatred). And the mechanism by which they turn the wheel of life is in building the illusion between them that we’re here for the duration. The way this works is that, because we allow ourselves the idea that our beliefs are truth, that our loves were made before time and will outlast it, and that our hatreds are undying also, it’s no great leap to believe that there are parts of us (our souls) that are eternal too. The poison in this is that, frankly, we’re not here forever: nothing is. And if we imagine that we are, then it’s going to sting every time life brings us up short by showing us that, actually, all is flux.

Foundationally, say the Buddhists, ignorance is the most insidious of the three poisons and its only antidote is wisdom. The wisdom they speak of is a particular sort. It is the knowledge that there is no permanent essence underlying human existence. In other words and in respect of yours truly here, there’s no Helen-essence held inside this vessel I call my body. Instead, I’m a Helen-shaped accumulation of experiences existing only for the space of one breath. Now, as I breathe, another Helen-shaped accumulation has taken my place…and another…

The point is that I just am and there is nothing to add to me – neither what I might become nor my possessions. And there is nothing to subtract either – neither what I used to be nor anything that I’ve lost. I simply am…and then I won’t be.

Pure Buddhist pain-free wisdom is holding this knowledge of impermanence in the consciousness constantly – and I hope you noticed that non-sequitur…Ridiculous! Hold knowledge of impermanence permanently?! LOL!

Of course, the standard religious discourse is now to argue the equivalent of how many angels dance on a pinhead: “The soul is immortal!”; “No, you lie!” and so on and so forth. But I’m not going to do that because I consider it far more interesting to enter the void of Śūnyatā and explore the wisdom of the non-self in context.

This exploration will have to take place by means of a thought-experiment. So, now, indulge me by pretending that you’re starving and lost in some Indian wilderness in, say, Dholpur. I’ll give you some background so you can better feel your way into your role:

You’ve been wandering for days without food or water; the rivers boil with crocodiles, angry rhinos are beyond every bush, families of warthogs regard you ominously with beady red eyes… You’ve picked up some bug and have vomiting, diarrhoea and sweats and really can’t afford to lose all these fluids. The nights are so cold they freeze crystals into your marrow as you huddle on the ground with the tics and biting mosquitos. The days are hot as hell – maybe 50c. Your mind is sometimes clear, mostly foggy and misted and you’re so weak that you can barely walk a mile a day. The population in this area is sparse and mostly suspicious of you but, some days, some poor farmer will share a meal with you, offer you chi, or give you a spliff or a biri, a poor man’s cigarette. And, so, somehow, you walk on. Maybe tomorrow it will all get too much and you’ll die. Maybe tomorrow you’ll reach a town or city and there will be a Missionary of Charity where you can beg for help. Maybe…

When you started out and were strong, you woke to the golden sunrise with a leap of joy in your heart. This heart would also swell with gratitude for humankind when someone, obviously very poor and hungry too, broke their chapatti to share with you and invited you to dip in their dahl. But your heart would sink with the sunset and the onset of dark. And when you first got sick, you were afraid that you’d die without medical help.

But, now, you’ve learned something that eases all the pain: if you greet the sunrise with joy, you’ll mourn its setting; if you look forward to receiving tasty food from some humanitarian farmer, you’ll regret when it doesn’t come and you have to chew indigestible leaves as the only alternate; if you decide you want to find medical help, you’ll despair that there isn’t any. So you teach yourself to remain unmoved by any of it. You become strategically depressed because what this Advanced Lesson in Insecurity has taught you is that things like anxiety, joy and attachment are a great drain on resources you do not have. You know that the greatest likelihood is that you’ll die but, just now, you are not dead and that is that.

What this means is that you have reached your destination. It is a place called Dhyāna(translated into English as “No Hope, No Sensual Attachment and No Aversion”; also “meditation”) and it has a tranquil beauty. It is culturally very different from our own society since, even despite that we may dwell there, we’re not expected to contribute anything. Actually, this is what makes it such a popular spot and many of us will make our journey’s end there as we disengage from life in the weeks, days and hours before death. Its peace is due to the fact that it is a place of limited mortality and, thus, there is freedom from long-term consequences. It’s the only earthly dwelling-place we’ll ever inhabit where we can be authentically ourselves without worrying about being amenable, working, making a living, caring for relatives, curing our sicknesses or any of the other obligations we have if we’re living in normal society.

In mindfulness, we all journey always towards Dhyāna, the illusive home of the non-self. But our progress is inevitably slow. The fact is, the better fed we are, the more secure, the more sparkling our career and healthy our drive, the slower our progress will be. We can only hope to reach that state of perfect equanimity and awareness when we have the end of our line clearly in view.

But that’s not to say that mindful contemplation of our arrival at Deaths Door after much suffering (even if this is imaginary, as above) is wasted effort for all but itinerant Buddhist monks. Not at all! Compassion is learned by connecting with our own pain and fear of mortality; we have to understand the nature of suffering in order to know how to cure it. This being so, a second but more apposite thought-experiment might be to imagine in the fullest sense possible, sparing ourselves nothing, what it might be to be in Aleppo just now #StandWithAleppo