The Dread and the Awe
Presented New Year's Day, 2002
- The Buddha from The Diamond Sutra
Place me firmly in the group of dreadful non-achievers. No matter how carefully they’ve been buried in The Diamond, The Heart, and in every exegesis I’ve ever come across, I can unearth the kind of existential elements that give rise to dread. I think the angst is intentionally embedded. The Buddha was not one to do a diverting soft shoe shuffle or to peddle snake oil hope to the unsuspecting sick and dieing. He was, on one level, downright frightening. To follow the Buddha into Emptiness (Sunyatta) or The Void is a journey of ego smashing wars fought on the boundaries of reality itself. Right to where it really hurts. Down to the birthplace of fear.
His thoughts and teachings breach the walls of our false “Holy of Holies.” Our innermost Sanctum Sanctorum collapses. In the recesses of our individual “Arks of the False Covenant” he reaches in and withdraws that which had hidden itself in those sacred spaces, thinking itself safe. Before his touch, it was unconcerned; for it had remained unassailable during all the previous years of our life. “It” is the small dark mass that contains the “I, me, mine” of our existence. “It” has tentacles that entwine and interlace with every thread of our life’s web. Not even when it is brought into the light of the true Covenant is it easy to untangle and remove.
Begin to remove it and the philosophical critic within each of us begins to stir, sometimes to scream,sometimes to cajole and sometimes pleadingly to warn of the dangers of messing around down there in the depths. We may hear the sarcastic chant, “If not I, who? If not this, what? If not now, when?” As if the Cartesian dictum of “Cogito ergo sum” really was the Summa Philosophica it purports to be. Yes, there is a primal yearning for thought to establish our existence, to define us. But the quality of our thoughts is usually such that we could just as easily have said, “I belch therefore I am,” So much for our air-headed, gaseous cogitations.
But for common folk like me, untrained in the arcane arts of philosophers and theologians, this is pissing in the wind. None of us would give two nickels for an irrefutable proof that we now exist. We accept that as a given. On the other hand we would give all our treasures for proof that we will exist in the future. We yearn for a way to bring the then to the now or vice versa. To conceive of Emptiness as nothingness is nihilistic. No point in that. To ruminate about the things to come in some Panglossian Garden of Eden is to revel in our own devices and illusions of eternity painted in the pretty colors of our respective societies. The dream will not materialize.
There is another way; and yes, it passes through the portal of death. But death should not be mistaken for the dissolution of the body. As all of our myths and stories reveal, the greatest ones among us did not fear death at all. They didn’t have to fear it because they had already passed through that portal. It isn’t necessary to wait for the body to die to know death. Only if we love our material self and are obsessed with the need to “take it with us” will the body’s decay finally cure us of such delusion.
The trick is to clearly identify just what “it” is that we can’t take with us. It is our ego “I, me, mine.” We can’t take ourselves with us. The self I mean is that commonly defined entity that we describe when one of our friends in a philosophical fever one night asks, “Who are you?” If we are of a normal sort, we’ll begin to describe our dreams and visions and characteristics, our fulfilled and/or unfulfilled desires, our accomplishments, our career, our marital status, our financial position, our social position, our hair color or even our hair, ad nauseum. This is the self that we can’t take with us. And if that’s all the self we have then Emptiness can be equated with nothingness and nihilism is as good a philosophy as any to live our life by.
If we go on and describe ourselves as mini-saints in waiting, suffering tragedies in benign resignation in order to land a better job in the world beyond, then there are many banners we can pick up and carry, even those that promise us eighty virgins upon arrival. (Although for the life of me I cannot imagine what kind of god would send me to a hellish paradise populated with thousands of virgins.)
But it is all too easy to mouth these words and pontificate on what does not pass through. The thought of losing that which doesn’t make it is what fills us with dread. But then we remember that the Buddha also mentioned “awe.”
So, the second and greatest trick is to understand or glimpse what does pass through the barrier or rather perhaps what exists on both sides of the gate. The awe with which we view what is in essence Salvation.
To be valid Salvation must contain something that is saved. John Donne in his For Whom the Bell Tolls meditation speaks eloquently about death. Here is one analogy he uses:
…shall lie open to one another. In order to be open to one another we need the commonality and unity of God, our Buddha Self. So we must rid ourselves of those elements that differentiate us, that separate us, those things that make distinctions between us - our egos, our sense of personal self. Can we logically determine, a priori, what it is that does pass through the portal of death, that does emerge to lie open as a Chapter that has been translated into a better language?
The best proof is the direct experience of that eternal reality which is within us. This reality cannot change and cannot be bound by death. But death is the key that opens it to us. It is Death of the self that brings the Birth of awareness of the Real. It is an experiential thing not a theory, containing its validation in the experience of it. In true meditation we transcend the barrier and experience now what awaits us then.
Once we understand and know reality from our own experience of it, we can accept the natural order of life. Now or then is always a good time for dieing. Eternity is an experience, but not of place and outside of time. After the dread comes the awe.
Here and now. Gone, gone far away, far to the other shore, to the place where the light shines in and of itself.
Hosanna in the Highest.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
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