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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

a reminder

I'm still on the mailing lists of Buddhist centers and organizations. One of the publications I get is the annual newsletter of the Nalanda Translation Committee, a group formed by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche to produce authoritative translations of Tibetan Buddhist texts for use by Western students. Last night while lying in bed I finished perusing this year's newsletter, a 22" x 17" sheet of bond paper folded in half to give four pages.

One of the articles is entitled "The Four Reminders", the label given to a list of four thoughts that, if brought clearly to mind, should focus the meditation practitioner on his or her desire to get on with the practice and put effort into it. Briefly, the Four Reminders are:

1. The Preciousness of a human birth

2. Impermanence and death

3. The Inescapability of karma

4. The Suffering of samsara (that is, the unenlightened state)

I spent a fair amount of time contemplating these as part of my own meditation practice over the years. They are indeed powerful once you understand them and take the effort to contemplate their significance for your own life. While reading the article I was struck by the paragraph on the second Reminder, impermanence and death. The writer of the article relates a couple of brief anecdotes about this Reminder. The first is about the Gyalwang Karmapa, head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism (analogous to the Dalai Lama, who is the head of the Gelug school), who visited the U.S. in the 1970s. The second is about the Japanese Zen master Suzuki Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind:

When His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa was attending a luncheon at the United States Congress, a congressman asked him, "If Your Holiness could summarize the teachings of the Buddha in one sentence, what would that be?" Without hesitation, the Karmapa replied, "Everything changes." Similarly, when a student asked Suzuki Roshi to put the entire message of Buddhism in a nutshell, he simply answered, "Everything changes."

A familiar chill passed over my scalp and the back of my neck--what I suppose might be called the chill of dharma. These two senior, authoritative teachers chose the same two words to summarize the vast ocean of Buddhist teachings. Everything changes. Lying there in my bed, I felt the two words float quietly into me like cinders settling on the tinder of my consciousness.

The two teachers, asked for something profound, gave their questioners a simple familiar statement, a kind of truism that we all have heard before. For me, anyway, this unexpected response yanked my mind back to consider what they meant. I had no doubt that the teachers were making a simple, literal statement--and the consequences of that statement are far-reaching indeed.

Everything changes. Whatever we think of as permanent, isn't. Anything that can be said to begin also ends. My house, my friendships, my marriage, my life--all will be gone in due course. Every last thing in my experience without exception has an end-point. New things will arise; they too will end. This thought, if you sit with it, creates haunting feelings, anxiety. It is the death-knell of security.

In my mind I saw dry yellow leaves blowing along an empty street in a cold gusting wind. They made a sweeping, clattering noise on the pavement. Life coming and going like the slap of a saloon door in a ghost town.

As I laid down the newsletter I felt great appreciation, affection, and gratitude for the teachings I have received in my life. I felt humility and awe in the presence of truth--the truth which is not for us or against us; it alerts us to the present moment, so we don't miss its brief life.

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