Out Of Your Mind 11: The World as Emptiness (Part 1)


The Essence of Hinduism


This particular weekend seminar is devoted to Buddhism, and it should be said first that there is a sense in which Buddhism is Hinduism stripped for export. Last week, when I discussed Hinduism, I discussed many things to do with the organization of Hindu society. Because Hinduism is not merely what we call a religion; it’s a whole culture. It’s a legal system, it’s a social system, it’s a system of etiquette, and it includes everything. It includes housing, it includes food, it includes art. Because the Hindus—and many other ancient peoples—do not make, as we do, a division between religion and everything else. Religion is not a department of life, it is something that enters into the whole of it. But, you see, when a religion and a culture are inseparable, it’s very difficult to export a culture because it comes into conflict with the established traditions, manners, and customs of other people.


So the question arises: what are the essentials of Hinduism that could be exported? And when you answer that, approximately, you get Buddhism. As I explained: the essential of Hinduism—the real, deep root—isn’t any kind of doctrine. It isn’t really any special kind of discipline—although, of course, disciplines are involved. The center of Hinduism is an experience called mokṣa—‘liberation’—in which, through the dissipation of the illusion that each man and each woman is a separate thing in a world consisting of nothing but a collection of separate things, you discover that you are, on one level, an illusion, but on another level, you are what they call the Self, the one Self, which is all that there is. The universe is the game of the Self, which plays hide and seek forever and ever. When it plays ‘hide,’ it plays it so well, hides so cleverly, that it pretends to be all of us, and all things whatsoever. And we don’t know it because it’s playing ‘hide.’ But when it plays ‘seek,’ it enters onto a path of yoga, and—through following this path—it wakes up, and the scales fall from one’s eyes.


Now, in just the same way, the center of Buddhism—the only really important thing about Buddhism—is the experience which they call ‘awakening.’ Buddha is a title and not a proper name. It comes from a Sanskrit root budh, and that sometimes means ‘to know,’ but better, ‘waking.’ And so you get from this root bodhi; that is the state of being awakened. And so buddha, ‘the awakened one,’ ‘the awakened person.’


And so there can, of course—in Buddhist ideas—be very many buddhas. The person called the Buddha is only one of myriads. Because they, like the Hindus, are quite sure that our world is only one among billions, and that buddhas come and go in all the worlds. But sometimes, you see, there comes into the world what you might call a big buddha; a very important one. And such a one is said to have been Gautama, the son of a prince living in northern India, in the part of the world we now call Nepal, living shortly after 600 BC. All dates in Indian history are vague, and so I never try to get you to remember any precise date—like 564, which some people think it was—but just after 600 BC is probably right.


Most of you, I’m sure, know the story of his life. But the point is that when, in India, a man was called a buddha—or the Buddha—this is a title of a very exalted nature. It is, first of all, necessary for a buddha to be human. He can’t be any other kind of being, whether—in the Hindu scale of beings—he’s above the human state or below it. He is superior to all gods, because according to Indian ideas, gods and angels—or, angels would probably a better name for them than gods—all those exalted beings are still in the wheel of becoming, still in the chains of karma; that is, action which requires the need for more action to complete it, and goes on requiring the need for more action. They’re still, according to popular ideas, going ‘round the wheel from life, after life, after life, after life, because they still have the thirst for existence. Or, to put it in a Hindu way: in them, the Self is still playing the game of not being itself.


But the Buddha’s doctrine, based on his own experience of awakening, which occurred after seven years of attempts to study with the various yogis of the time, all of whom used the method of extreme asceticism; fasting, doing all sorts of exercises, lying on beds of nails, sleeping on broken rocks, any kind of thing to break down egocentricity, to become unselfish, to become detached, to exterminate desire for life. But Buddha found that all that was futile; that was not the Way. And one day he broke his ascetic discipline and accepted a bowl of some kind of milk soup from a girl who was looking after cattle. And suddenly, in this tremendous relaxation, he went and sat down under a tree, and the burden lifted. He saw, completely, that what he had been doing was on the wrong track. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And no amount of effort will make a person who believes himself to be an ego be really unselfish. So long as you think and feel that you are a somewhat contained in your bag of skin, and that’s all, there is no way, whatsoever, of your behaving unselfishly. Oh yes, you can imitate unselfishness. You can go through all sorts of highly refined forms of selfishness, but you’re still tied to the wheel of becoming by the golden chains of your good deeds, as the obviously bad people are tied to it by the iron chains of their misbehaviors.


The Four Noble Truths


You know how people are when they get spiritually proud? They belong to some kind of a church group, or an occult group, and say, “We are the ones who have, of course, the right teaching. We’re the in-group, we are the elect, and everybody else outside is really off the track.” But then comes along someone who one-ups them by saying, “Well, in our circles, we’re very tolerant. And we accept all religions and all ways as leading to The One.” But what they’re doing is, they’re playing the game called ‘We’re More Tolerant Than You Are.’ You see? And in this way, the egocentric being is always in his own trap.


So Buddha saw that all his yoga exercises and ascetic disciplines had just been ways of trying to get himself out of the trap in order to save his own skin, in order to find peace for himself. And he realized that that is an impossible thing to do, because the motivation ruins the project. He found out, then, you see, that there was no trap to get out of except himself. Trap and trapped are one, and when you understand that, there isn’t any trap left. I’m going to explain that, of course, more carefully.


So, as a result of this experience, he formulated what is called the dharma, that is the Sanskrit word for ‘method.’ You will get a certain confusion when you read books on Buddhism because they switch between Sanskrit and Pali words. The earliest Buddhist scriptures that we know of are written in the Pali language, and Pali is a softened form of Sanskrit. So that, for example, whereas the doctrine of the Buddha is called in Sanskrit the dharma, but in Pali—and in many books in Buddhism—you’ll find that the Buddha’s doctrine described as the dhamma. And so, in the same way, karma in Sanskrit, becomes in Pali, kamma. Buddha remains the same. The dharma, then, is the method.


Now, the method of Buddhism—and this is absolutely important to remember—is dialectic. That is to say, it doesn’t teach a doctrine. You cannot find anywhere what Buddhism teaches, as you can find out what Christianity or Judaism or Islam teaches. Because all Buddhism is a discourse, and what most people suppose to be its teachings are only the opening stages of the dialogue.


So the concern of Buddha as a young man—the problem he wanted to solve—was the problem of human suffering. And so he formulated his teaching in a very easy way to remember. All those Buddhist scriptures are full of what you might call mnemonic tricks; numbering things in such a way that they’re easy to remember. And so he summed up his teaching in the form of what are called the Four Noble Truths. And the first one, because it was his main concern, was the truth about dukkha. Dukkha: suffering, pain, frustration, chronic dis-ease. It is the opposite of sukha, which means sweet, pleasure, et cetera.


So, insofar as the problem posed in Buddhism is dukkha, “I don’t want to suffer, and I want to find someone or something that can cure me of suffering.” That’s the problem. Now then, if there’s a person who solves the problem—a buddha—people come to him and say, “Master, how do we get out of this problem?” So what he does is to propose certain things to them.


First of all, he points out that with dukkha go two other things. These are respectively called anitya and anātman. Anitya means—‘nitya’ means ‘permanent,’ so impermanence, flux, change, is characteristic of everything whatsoever. There isn’t anything at all in the whole world—in the material world, in the psychic world, in the spiritual world—there is nothing you can catch hold of and hang on to for safety. Nothin’. Not only is there nothing you can hang on to, but by the teaching of anātman, there is no ‘you’ to hang on to it. In other words, all clinging to life is an illusory hand grasping at smoke. If you can get that into your head and see that that is so, nobody needs to tell you that you ought not to grasp. Because you see you can’t.


See, Buddhism is not essentially moralistic. The moralist is the person who tells people that they ought to be unselfish when they still feel like egos, and his efforts are always and invariably futile. Because what happens is he simply sweeps the dust under the carpet, and it comes back again somehow. But in this case, it involves a complete realization that this is the case. So that’s what the teacher puts across, to begin with.


The Cause of Suffering


The next thing that comes up—the second of the noble truths—is about the cause of suffering, and this, in Sanskrit, is called tṛṣṇā. Tṛṣṇā is related to our word ‘thirst.’ It’s very often translated ‘desire;’ that will do. Better, perhaps, is ‘craving,’ ‘clinging,’ ‘grasping,’ or even, to use our modern psychological word, ‘blocking.’ When, for example, somebody is blocked, and dithers and hesitates, and doesn’t know what to do, he is in the strictest Buddhist sense attached; he’s stuck. But a buddha can’t be stuck. He cannot be phased. He always flows, just as water always flows, even if you dam it; the river just keeps on getting higher and higher and higher, until it flows over the dam. It’s unstoppable.


Now, Buddha said, then, dukkha comes from tṛṣṇā. You all suffer because you cling to the world, and you don’t recognize that the world is anitya and anātman. So then, try, if you can, not to grasp. Well, do you see that that immediately poses a problem? Because the student who has started off this dialogue with the buddha then makes various efforts to give up desire. Upon which he very rapidly discovers that he is desiring not to desire, and he takes that back to the teacher, who says, “Well, well, well.” He said, “Of course. You are desiring not to desire, and that’s, of course, excessive. All I want you to do is to give up desiring as much as you can. Don’t want to go beyond the point of which you’re capable.” And for this reason, Buddhism is called the Middle Way. Not only is it the middle way between the extremes of ascetic discipline and pleasure-seeking, but it’s also the middle way in a very subtle sense. Yes, don’t desire to give up more desire than you can. And if you find that a problem, don’t desire to be successful in giving up more desire than you can. You see what’s happening? At every time he’s returned to the middle way; he’s moved out of an extreme situation.


Now then, we’ll go on. We’ll cut out what happens in the pursuit of that method until a little later. The next truth in the list is concerned with the nature of release from dukkha. And so number three is nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa is the goal of Buddhism; it’s the state of liberation corresponding to what the Hindus call mokṣa. The word means ‘blow out,’ and it comes from the root nivṛtti. Now, some people think that what it means is ‘blowing out the flame of desire.’ I don’t believe this. I believe that it means ‘breathe out,’ rather than ‘blow out,’ because if you try to hold your breath—and in Indian thought prāṇa, breath, is the life principle—if you try to hold on to life, you lose it. You can’t hold your breath and stay alive; it becomes extremely uncomfortable to hold on to your breath. And so, in exactly the same way, it becomes extremely uncomfortable to spend all your time holding on to life. What the devil is the point of surviving—going on living—when it’s a drag?


But you see, that’s what people do. They spend enormous efforts on maintaining a certain standard of living, which is a great deal of trouble. You know, you get a nice house in the suburbs, and the first thing you do is you plant a lawn. You’ve gotta get out and mow the damn thing all the time. And you buy expensive this-that, and soon you’re all involved in mortgages, and instead of being able to walk out in the garden and enjoy it, you sit at your desk looking at all the books and filling out this, that, and the other, and paying bills, and answering letters. What a lot of rot! But, you see, that is holding on to life. So, translated into colloquial American, nirvāṇa is ‘whew!’ Because if you let your breath go, it’ll come back. So nirvāṇa is not annihilation. It’s not disappearance into a sort of undifferentiated void. Nirvāṇa is the state of being let go. It is a state of consciousness, and a state of—you might call it—being, here and now in this life.


The Eightfold Path


We now come to the most complicated of all. Number four, mārga. Mārg, in Sanskrit, means ‘path,’ and the Buddha taught an eightfold path for the realization of nirvāṇa. This always reminds me of a story about Dr. Suzuki, who is a very, very great Buddhist scholar, and many years ago he was giving a fundamental lecture on Buddhism at the University of Hawaii. And he’d been going through these four truths, and he said:

Ah, fourth Noble Truth is called Noble Eightfold Path. First step of Noble Eightfold Path called shōken. Shōken in Japanese means ‘right view.’ For Buddhism, fundamentally, is right view. Right way of viewing this world. Second step of Noble Eightfold Path is—oh, I forget second step, you look it up in the book.

Well, I’m going to do rather the same thing. What is important is this: the eightfold path has really got three divisions in it. The first are concerned with understanding, the second division is concerned with conduct, and the third division is concerned with meditation. And every step in the path is preceded with the Sanskrit word samyak, in which sam is the keyword. In Pali: samma. And so, the first step, samyak drishti, which means—drishti means a ‘view,’ ‘a way of looking at things,’ a ‘vision,’ an ‘attitude,’ something like that. But this word samyak is in ordinary texts on Buddhism almost invariably translated ‘right.’ This is a very bad translation. The word is used in certain contexts in Sanskrit to mean ‘right,’ ‘correct,’ but it has other and wider meanings. Sam means—like our word ‘sum,’ which is derived from it—‘complete,’ ‘total,’ ‘all-embracing.’ It also has the meaning of ‘middle wade,’ representing, as it were, the fulcrum, the center, the point of balance in a totality. Middle wade way of looking at things. Middle wade way of understanding the dharma. Middle wade way of speech, of conduct, of livelihood, and so on. Now, this is particularly cogent when it comes to Buddhist ideas of behavior.


The Five Good Conducts


Every Buddhist in all the world, practically, as a layman—if he’s not a monk—undertakes what are called pañcaśīlā, the Five Good Conducts. Sīla is sometimes translated ‘precept.’ But it’s not a precept because it’s not a commandment. The formula when Buddhist—you know, these priests, they chant the precepts, you know?—panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. And that means: panatipata; pana is, in Pali, this thing, prana—life; tipata, taking away; ‘I promise to abstain from.’ So the first is that one undertakes not to destroy life. Second, not to take what is not given. Third—this is usually translated ‘not to commit adultery.’ It doesn’t say anything of the kind. In Sanskrit: kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami; kamesu micchacara means: ‘I undertake the precept to abstain from exploiting my passions.’ Buddhism has no doctrine about adultery; you may have as many wives as you like.


But the point is this: when you’re feeling blue and bored, it’s not a good idea to have a drink, because you may become dependent on alcohol whenever you feel unhappy. So, in the same way, when you’re feeling blue and bored, it’s not a good idea to say “Let’s go out and get some chicks and have some sex-fun.” That’s exploiting the passions. But it’s not exploiting the passions, you see, when drinking, say, expresses the conviviality and friendship of the group sitting around the dinner table, or when sex expresses the spontaneous delight of two people in each other.


Then, the fourth precept, musāvāda: ‘to abstain from false speech.’ This doesn’t simply mean lying. It means abusing people. It means using speech in a phony way, like saying ‘all niggers are thus and so.’ Or ‘the attitude of America to this situation is thus and thus.‘ See, that’s phony kind of talking. Anybody who studies general semantics will be helped in avoiding musāvāda; false speech.


The final precept is a very complicated one, and nobody’s quite sure exactly what it means. It mentions three kinds of drugs and drinks: sura, meraya, majja, pamadatthana. We don’t know what they are, but at any rate, it’s generally classed as narcotics and liquors. Now, there are two ways of translating this precept. One says to abstain from narcotics and liquors. The other, liberal, translation favored by the great scholar Dr. Malalasekera is, “I abstain from being intoxicated by these things.” So if you drink and don’t get intoxicated, it’s okay, you see? You don’t have to be a teetotaler to be a Buddhist. This is especially true in Japan and China—my goodness, how they throw it down! Once, a scholarly Chinese said to me, “You know, before you start meditating, just have a couple of martinis, because it increases your progress by about six months.” Well...


Now you see, these are—as I say—they are not commandments. They are vows. Buddhism has in it no idea of there being a moral law laid down by some kind of cosmic lawgiver. And the reason why these precepts are undertaken is not for a sentimental reason. It is not that they’re going to make you into a good person. It is that, for anybody interested in the experiments necessary for liberation, these ways of life are expedient. First of all, if you go around killing, you’re going to make enemies, and you’re going to have to spend a lot of time defending yourself, which will distract you from your yoga. If you go around stealing, likewise, you’re going to acquire a heap of stuff, and you’re going to, again, make enemies. If you exploit your passions, you’re going to get a big thrill, but it doesn’t last. When you begin to get older, you realize “Well that was fun while we had it, but I haven’t really learned very much from it, and now what?” Same with speech. Nothing is more confusing to the mind than taking words too seriously. We’ve seen so many examples of that. And finally, to get intoxicated or narcotized—a narcotic is anything like alcohol or opium which makes you sleepy. The word narcosis, in Greek, means—narc is ‘sleep.’ So if you want to pass your life seeing things through a dim haze, this is not exactly awakening.


So then… so much for the ‘conduct’ side of Buddhism.


Presence of Mind


We come, then, to the final parts of the eightfold path. There are two concluding steps which are called—I explained the word samadhi, but I’ll write it here again—smṛti; samyak-smṛti and samyak-samadhi. Smṛti means recollection, memory, present-mindedness. Seems rather funny that the same word can mean ‘recollection,’ or ‘memory’ and ‘present-mindedness.’ But smṛti is exactly what that wonderful old rascal Gurdjieff meant by ‘self-awareness,’ or ‘self-remembering.’ Smṛti is to have complete presence of mind.


There is a wonderful meditation called The House that Jack Built meditation—at least that’s what I call it—that the Southern Buddhists practice. He walks, and he says to himself, “There is the lifting of the foot. There is the lifting of the foot.” The next thing he says is, “There is a perception of the lifting of the foot.” And the next, he says, “There is a tendency towards the perception of the feeling of the lifting of the foot.” Then, finally, he says, “There is a consciousness of the tendency of the perception of the feeling of the lifting of the foot.” And so, with everything that he does, he knows that he does it. He is self-aware.


This is tricky. Of course, it’s not easy to do. But as you practice this—I’m going to let the cat out of the bag, which I suppose I shouldn’t do—but you will find that there are so many things to be aware of, at any given moment in what you’re doing, that, at best, you only ever pick out one or two of them. That’s the first thing you’ll find out. Ordinary conscious awareness is seeing the world with blinkers on. As we say, you can think only of one thing at a time. That’s because ordinary consciousness is narrowed consciousness. That’s being narrow-minded in the true sense of the word; looking at things that way. Then you find out that—as, in the course of going around, being aware of what you’re doing all of the time—what are you doing when you remember? Or when you think about the future? I am aware that I am remembering? I am aware that I am thinking about the future?


But, you see, what eventually happens is that you discover that there isn’t any way of being absent-minded. All thoughts are in the present and of the present. And when you discover that, you approach samadhi. Samadhi is the complete state; the fulfilled state of mind. And you will find many, many different ideas among the sects of Buddhists and Hindus as to what samadhi is. Some people call it a trance, some people call it a state of consciousness without anything in it; knowing with no object of knowledge. Some people say that it is the unification of the knower and the known. All these are varying opinions.


I had a friend who was a Zen master, and he used to talk about samadhi, and he said a very fine example of samadhi is a fine horserider. When you watch a good cowboy, he is one being with the horse. So an excellent driver in a car makes the car his own body, and he absolutely is with it. So also a fine pair of dancers. They don’t have to shove each other to get one to do what the other wants him or her to do. They have a way of understanding each other, of moving together, as if they were Siamese twins. That’s samadhi on the physical, ordinary, everyday level. The samadhi of which Buddha speaks is the state which is, as it were, the gateway to nirvāṇa, the state in which the illusion of the ego as a separate thing disintegrates.


Now, when we get to that point in Buddhism, Buddhists do a funny thing, which is going to occupy our attention for a good deal of this seminar. They don’t fall down and worship. They don’t really have any name for what it is that is, really and basically. The idea of anātman, of non-self, is applied in Buddhism not only to the individual ego, but also to the notion that there is a Self of the universe, a kind of impersonal or personal god, and so it is generally supposed that Buddhism is atheistic. It’s true, depending on what you mean by atheism. Common or garden atheism is a form of belief, namely that I believe there is no god. The atheist positively denies the existence of any god. All right. Now, there is such an atheist—if you put dash between the ‘a’ and ‘theist,’ or speak about something called ‘atheos’—theos, in Greek, means ‘god’—but what is a non-god? A non-god is an inconceivable something or other.


I love the story about a debate in the Houses of Parliament in England—where, as you know, the Church of England is established and, therefore, under the control of the government—and the high ecclesiastics had petitioned Parliament to let them have a new prayerbook. And somebody got up and said, “It’s perfectly ridiculous that Parliment should decide upon this, because, as we well know, there are quite a number of atheists in these benches.” And somebody got up and said “Oh, I don’t think there are really any atheists here. We all believe in some sort of a something somewhere.” Now again, of course, it isn’t that Buddhism believes in some sort of a something, somewhere—and that is to say, in vagueness.


A Finger Pointing at the Moon


Here is the point: if you believe, if you have certain propositions that you want to assert about the ultimate reality—or what Paul Tillich calls ‘the ultimate ground of being’—you are talking nonsense. Because you can’t say something specific about everything.


You see, supposing you wanted to say, “God has a shape.” But if God is all that there is, then God doesn’t have any outside, so he can’t have a shape. You have to have an outside, and space outside it, to have a shape. So that’s why the Hebrews, too, are against people making images of God. But nonetheless, Jews and Christians persistently make images of God, not necessarily in pictures and statues, but they make images in their minds. And those are much more insidious images.


Buddhism is not saying that the Self—the great Ātman, or whatnot—it isn’t denying that the experience which corresponds to these words is realizable. What it is saying is that if you make conceptions and doctrines about these things, you’re liable to become attached to them. You’re liable to start believing instead of knowing.


So they say in Zen Buddhism, “The doctrine of Buddhism is a finger pointing at the moon. Do not mistake the finger for the moon.” Or so we might say in the West, the idea of God is a finger pointing at God, but what most people do is, instead of following the finger, they suck it for comfort. And so Buddha chopped off the finger and undermined all metaphysical beliefs. There are many, many dialogues in the Pali scriptures where people try to corner the Buddha into a metaphysical position. “Is the world eternal?” The Buddha says nothing. “Is the world not eternal?” And he answers nothin’. “Is the world both eternal and not eternal?” And he don’t say nothin’. “Is the world neither eternal nor not eternal?” And still, he don’t say nothin’. He maintains what is called the noble silence. Sometimes, later, called the thunderous silence—because this silence, this metaphysical silence, is not a void. It is very powerful. This silence is the open window through which you can see not concepts, not ideas, not beliefs, but the very goods. But if you say what it is that you see, you erect an image and an idol, and you misdirect people. It’s better to destroy people’s beliefs than to give them beliefs. I know it hurts, but it is The Way. That is what cracks the eggshell and lets out the chick. Of course, if you want to stay in the eggshell, you can. But you’ll get addled.


This, then, you see, is why Buddhism is in dialogue form: the truth cannot be told. It can be suggested, it can be indicated, and a method of interchange between teacher and student can be arranged whereby the teacher constantly pricks the student’s bubbles. And that’s what it’s all about. And because that’s the way it is, we find that, in the course of history, Buddhism keeps changing. It develops, it grows. As people make all these explorations that the original Buddha suggested, they find out all kinds of new things, they explore the mind, they find out all the tricks of the mind, they—oh, they find out ever so many things, and they begin to teach these things; talk about them.


And some people, influenced by—in modern Asia—influenced by Protestantism, say, “Let’s go back to the simple, original teachings of the Buddha!” See, like people say, “Let’s get back to the simple teachings of Jesus.” Well, the simple teachings of Jesus are as lost as lost can get. Nobody can read the New Testament with a clean mind today, because, whenever you look at the Bible, don’t you hear some preacher’s voice in your childhood, reading those words? Hasn’t your culture taught you to interpret these words in certain ways? You can’t get back. And nobody can get back to Buddha. You can only go on to Buddha. So that’s why, in Zen, they just burn the books up. I mean, occasionally. Because to burn up books, you’ve got to have some books to burn up.


But when, you know, you can say, “The teaching of the founder is the thing.” This is terrible. It’s like the oak suddenly saying one day, “Hey, we oughtn’t have all these leaves around here. We ought to be just that simple little acorn.” No, a living tradition grows. And what it does is this: as it grows—say, it grew from a seed; an acorn—it keeps dropping off new acorns. You don’t go back to the old acorn, you get a new one. And that becomes a new seed for another tree. This is fine.


Now, let me just warn you: the scholarly study of Buddhism is a magnum opus beyond belief. There are two collections of Buddhist canonical scriptures. One is in Pali, the other was originally in Sanskrit, but we don’t have a complete collection of it in Sanskrit. We have these collections in Tibetan and Chinese. Bigger than the Encyclopædia Britannica, as a matter of fact. So it’s a formidable enterprise to get into the Buddhist scriptures, and what’s more, most of them are unbelievably boring. They were written by monks with plenty of time to pass on wet afternoons during the monsoon, and they repeat, and they elaborate, and they are full of kind of preparatory—you know how, in the silly trick in radio they have, in giving a fanfare to introduce the program—so in the same way, these scriptures have fanfares in which all sorts of buddhas are introduced, and beings, and they’re all described, and where they were assembled, and how many of them there were, and where they were sitting, and what kind of bows they made, and all this jazz. And then, finally, a few pearls of wisdom are dropped by the Buddha—or else, they sometimes go on for pages, and pages of—actually—very, very subtle and very profound discourse that is not dull if you have a penchant for that kind of thing. But I warn you: don’t try too hard to read the Buddhist scriptures. It’s alright to read the Dhammapada, which are sayings of the Buddha. It’s alright to read the Diamond Sūtra. It’s alright, even, to read the Śūraṅgama Sūtra or the Laṅkāvatāra, but when you get mixed up with the larger Prajñāpāramitā, and all those things, you’re in deep water.


So you see, from time to time, Buddhists get tired of the scriptures. Actually, they keep them in a revolving bookcase in some monasteries. A thing about so high, so wide; it revolves. And instead of reading all this stuff, you’re supposed to be able to acquire as much merit as you would from reading it all by twirling the bookcase around once. In Zen monasteries, they have an annual ceremony for reading the scriptures. But they are printed like an accordion. In other words, the pages are connected to each other zig-zag. And then they have board on the back and the front, so that you can pick one up and go, “Whrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” like that, you know? Like a slinky moves. And so, each monk is assigned a pile of the volumes—this happens once a year—and they all chant sections of the scripture. But very often, each monk chants a different one. And while they’re doing this they pick up a volume and go “Whrrrrrrrrrrrrr, click,” and put it down on the other side. Pick up the next one, “Whrrrrrrrrrrr, click.” And this is the annual reading of the scriptures. There’s a wonderful picture of this being done in Suzuki’s book The Training of a Zen Buddhist Monk.


So, you see, Buddhists are funny about scriptures. They don’t treat them the way Christians treat the Bible. They respect them, they occasionally read them, but they feel that the writing, the written word, is purely incidental. It is not the point. And, indeed, it can be a very serious obstacle. Zhuang Zhou, a Taoist sage, once said, “Just as a dog is not considered a good dog just for being a good barker, a man is not considered a good man just for being a good talker.” So we have to watch out for the traps of words.


The Nature of Change


You must understand, as one of the fundamental points of Buddhism, the idea of the world as being in flux. I gave you the Sanskrit word anitya as one of the characteristics of being, emphasized by the Buddha along with anātman, the unreality of a permanent self, and dukkha, the sense of frustration. Dukkha really arises from a person’s failure to accept the other two characteristics: lack of permanent self and change.


You see, in Buddhism, the feeling that we have of an enduring organism—I meet you today and I see you, and then tomorrow I meet you again, and you look pretty much as you looked yesterday, and so I consider that you’re the same person—but you aren’t. Not really.


When I watch a whirlpool in a stream—here’s the stream flowing along, and there’s always a whirlpool like the one at Niagra. But that whirlpool never, never really holds any water. The water is all the time rushing through it. In the same way, a university—the University of California—what is it? The students change at least every four years, the faculty changes at a somewhat slower rate, the buildings change—they knock them down and put up new ones—the administration changes. So what is the University of California? It’s a pattern. A doing of a particular kind. And so in just precisely that way, every one of us is a whirlpool in the tide of existence, and wherein every cell in our body, every molecule, every atom is in constant flux, and nothing can be pinned down.


You know, you can put bands on pigeons, or migrating birds, and identify them and follow them, and find out where they go. But you can’t tag atoms; much less electrons. They have a curious way of appearing and disappearing, and one of the great puzzles is, in physics, ‘what are electrons doing when we’re not looking at them?’ Because our observation of them has to modify their behavior. We can’t see an electron without putting it in an experimental situation where our examination of it in some way changes it. What we would like to know is what it’s doing when we’re not looking at it. Does the light in the refrigerator really go off when we close the door?


But this is fundamental, you see, to Buddhistic philosophy. The philosophy of change. From one point of view, change is just too bad. Everything flows away, and there’s a kind of sadness in that, a kind of nostalgia, and there may be even a rage. “Go not gently into that good night, but rage, rage, at the dying of the light.”


But there’s something curious. There can be a very fundamental change in one’s attitude to the question of the world as fading. On the one hand, resentment, and on the other, delight. If you resist change—of course, you must to some extent. When you meet another person, you don’t want to be thoroughly rejected, but you love to feel a little resistance. Don’t you, you know? You have a beautiful girl, and you touch her. You don’t want her to go, “Bleugh!” But so round, so firm, so fully packed! A little bit of resistance, you see, is great. So there must always be resistance in change; otherwise, there couldn’t be even change. There’d just be a “Pffft.” The world would go, “Pffft,” and that’d be the end of it.


But because there’s always some resistance to change, there is a wonderful manifestation of form; there is a dance of life. But the human mind, as distinct from most animal minds, is terribly aware of time. And so we think a great deal about the future, and we know that every visible form is going to disappear and be replaced by so-called others. Are these others, others? Or are they the same forms returning? Of course, that’s a great puzzle. Are next year’s leaves that come from a tree going to be the same as this year’s leaves? What do you mean by the same? They’ll be the same shape, they’ll have the same botanical characteristics. But you’ll be able to pick up a shriveled leaf from last autumn and say, “Look at the difference. This is last year’s leaf. This is this year’s leaf.” And in that sense, they’re not the same.


What happens when any great musician plays a certain piece of music? He plays it today, and then he plays it again tomorrow. Is it the same piece of music, or is it another? In the Pali language, they say nacha so nacha añño, which means ‘not the same, and yet not another.’ So, in this way, the Buddhist is able to speak of reincarnation of beings, without having to believe in some kind of soul-entity that is reincarnated. Some kind of Ātman—some kind of fixed self, ego-principle, soul-principle—that moves from one life to another. And this is as true in our lives as they go on now, from moment to moment, as it would be true of our lives as they appear and reappear again over millions of years. It doesn’t make the slightest difference, except that there are long intervals and short intervals, high vibrations and low vibrations. When you hear a high sound, high note in the musical scale, you can’t see any holes in it—it’s going too fast—and it sounds completely continuous. But when you get the lowest audible notes that one can hear on an organ, you feel the shaking. You feel the vibration, you hear that music going “dhun-dhun-dhun-dhun-dhun-dhun-dhun-dhun-dhun”, on and off.


So in the same way as we live now, from day to day, we experience ourselves living at a high rate of vibration, and we appear to be continuous—although there is the rhythm of waking and sleeping. But the rhythm that runs from generation to generation and from life to life is much slower, and so we notice the gaps. We don’t notice the gaps when the rhythm is fast.


The Mystery of Change


So we are living, as it were, on many, many levels of rhythm. This is the nature of change. If you resist it you have dukkha; you have frustration and suffering. But, on the other hand, if you understand change, you don’t cling to it, and you let it flow, then it’s no problem. It becomes positively beautiful, which is why—in poetry—the theme of the evanescence of the world is beautiful. When Shelley says,

The one remains, the many change and pass,
heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly.
Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
stains the white radiance of eternity
until death shatters it to fragments. (Adonaïs)

Now, what’s beautiful in that? Is it heaven’s light that shines forever? Or is it rather the dome of many-colored glass that shatters? See, it’s always the image of change that really makes the poem.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
creeps on life’s petty pace from day to day.

Somehow, you know, the poet has got the intuition. The fact that things are always running out, that things are always disappearing, has some hidden marvel in it. The Japanese have a word, yūgen, which has no English equivalent whatsoever. Yūgen is, in a way, digging change. It’s described poetically: you have the feeling of yūgen when you see out in the distant water some ships hidden behind a far-off island. You have the feeling of yūgen when you watch wild geese suddenly seen and then lost in the clouds. You have the feeling of yūgen when you look across Mount Tamalpais, and you’ve never been to the other side, and you see the sky beyond. You don’t go over there to look and see what’s on the other side, that wouldn’t be yūgen. You let the other side be the other side—and it invokes something in your imagination, but you don’t attempt to define it to pin it down. Yūgen.


So in the same way, the coming and going of things in the world is marvelous. They go. Where do they go? Don’t answer, because that would spoil the mystery. They vanish into the mystery. But if you try to pursue them, you’ve destroyed yūgen. That’s a very curious thing, but that idea of yūgen—which, in Chinese characters, means, as it were, kind of ‘the deep mystery of the valley.’ There’s a poem in Chinese which says, “The wind drops, but the petals keep falling. The bird calls and the mountain becomes more mysterious.” Isn’t that strange? There’s no wind anymore, and yet petals are dropping. And a bird in the canyon cries, and that one sound in the mountains brings out the silence with a wallop.


I remember when I was almost a child in the Pyrenees in the southwest of France. We went way up in this gorgeous silence of the mountains, but in the distance we could hear the bells on the cows clanking. And somehow those tiny sounds brought out the silence. And so, in the same way, slight permanences bring out change. And they give you this very strange sense. Yūgen: the mystery of change.


You know, in Eliot’s poem, The Four Quartets, where he says, “The dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark. Distinguished families, members of the book of the director of directors—everybody—they all go into the dark.” Life is life, you see, because—just because—it’s always disappearing. Supposing, suddenly, by some kind of diabolical magic, I could say, “Zzzzhip!” and every one of you would stay the same age forever. You’d be like Madame Tussauds waxworks. You’d be awful. In a thousand years from now, what beautiful hags you would be.


Peaks and Valleys Go Together


So the trouble is that we have one-sided minds. And we notice the wave of life when it is at its peak or crest. We don’t notice it when it’s at the trough; not in the ordinary way. It’s the peaks that count. Take a buzzsaw: what seems important to us is the tips of the teeth. They seem to do the cutting, not the valleys between the teeth. But do you see? You couldn’t have tips of teeth without valleys between them. Therefore, the saw wouldn’t cut without both tips and V-shaped valleys. But we ignore that. We don’t notice the valleys, so much as we notice the mountains. Valleys point down. Mountains point up. And we prefer things that point up because up is good and down is bad.


But seriously, we don’t praise the peaks for being high and blame the valleys for being low. But it is so, you see, that we ignore the ‘valley’ aspect of things, and so all wisdom begins by emphasizing the valley aspect as distinct from the peak aspect. We pay plenty of attention to the peak aspect. That’s what captures our attention, but we somehow screen out the valley aspect. But that makes us very uncomfortable. It seems that we want and get pleasure from looking at the peaks, but actually, this denies our pleasure because secretly we know that every peak is followed by a valley. The valley of the shadow of death.


And we’re always afraid because we’re not used to looking at valleys; because we’re not used to living with them. They represent to us the strange and threatening unknown. Maybe we’re afraid the principle of the valley will conquer, and the peaks will be overwhelmed. Maybe death is stronger than life because life always seems to require an effort; death is something into which you slide effortlessly. Maybe nothing will overcome something in the end. Wouldn’t that be awful? And so we resist change, ignorant of the fact that change is life, and that ‘nothing’ is invariably the obverse face of ‘something.’


Most people are afraid of space. They ignore it, and they think space is nothing. Space and solid are two ways of talking about the same thing. Space-solid. You don’t find space without solid, you don’t find solids without space. If I say, “There is a universe in which there isn’t anything but space,” you must say, “Space between what?” Space is relationship, and it always goes together with solid, like back goes with front. But the divisive mind ignores space. And it thinks that it’s the solids that do the whole job; that they’re the only thing that’s real. That is, to put it in other words, conscious attention ignores intervals because it thinks they’re unimportant.


Let’s consider music. When you hear music, what you really hear when you hear melody is the interval between one tone and another. The steps, as it were, on the scale. It’s the interval that is the important thing. So, in the same way, in the intervals between this year’s leaves, last year’s leaves; this generation of people and that generation; the interval is in some ways just as important—in some ways, more important—than what it’s between. Actually, they go together, but I say the interval is sometimes more important because we underemphasize it, so I’m going to overemphasize it as a correction. So space, night, death, darkness, not being there is an essential component of being there. You don’t have the one without the other, just as your buzzsaw has no teeth without having valleys between the tips of them. That’s the way being is made up.

Find out more