You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind. The future
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
Not taken in, unshaken,
that’s how you develop the heart.
Ardently doing what should be done today, for — who
knows? — tomorrow
death. There is no
bargaining with Mortality & his
mighty horde. Whoever lives
both day & night, has truly had an
auspicious day: so says the Peaceful Sage.
In our attempt to be non-violent and practice sammasankappo (“Right,” or even better, Harmonious Resolve also called Effort) it is helpful to remember the Buddha’s words, “Whatever quality is present you clearly see right there, right there.” What he is telling us is this is the only moment that there is. There is past and no future. Any past that you remember is being thought in the present moment. Any future you plan is being planned in this present moment. The past does not actually exist nor does the future.
This is a hard teaching for we in the West. I began my academic life as a historian. Telling me the past does not actually exist was a harsh blow to my ego and sensibility. Yet, on reflection I could see it was true. I have no current experience of the past except what I remember. Remember actually means to construct again. It’s a mental process. The things we remember are abstractions and not really the past any more than a photograph of my mother is my mother, it is only a photograph that represents “mother” to me. In and of itself it has no meaning until I give meaning to it. Rewriting and revising history is not an anomaly. We do it all the time. The events we remember are colored by our moods and what we wish to emphasize.
The only part of the past that is real is our kamma. It travels with us. What we have experienced cannot be un-experienced. It is always there. It is simply that it did not happen the way I think of it. This leads to cognitive dissonance. Reality does not meet our expectations. This is because our kamma causes us to view life in a certain way. They view is not very clear. Because of the clouded view we have we often lose sight of the peace we hope to attain. The memories of events that live in our imagination lead us to anger, resentment and fear. We begin to see ourselves as other than we are. We identify with our emotions, with thoughts, and with our fears. As we create these identities we lose ourselves by trying to create a self that suites us. Put another way, we wear masks and believe that we are the masks.
In the same sutta the Buddha describes how the unskilled person fools himself into believing this identity is real. Somehow we construe the experience of an event, even a series of events occurring very rapidly, as being an autonomous existence we call our self. We come to fool ourselves that we are four of the five aggregates, thekhandhas.
“There is the case where an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person who has not seen the noble ones, is not versed in the teachings of the noble ones, is not trained in the teachings of the noble ones, sees form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form.
“He/she sees feeling as self, or self as possessing feeling, or feeling as in self, or self as in feeling.
“He/she sees perception as self, or self as possessing perception, or perception as in self, or self as in perception.
“He/she sees thought-fabrications as self, or self as possessing thought-fabrications, or thought-fabrications as in self, or self as in thought-fabrications.
“He/she sees consciousness as self, or self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. This is called being taken in with regard to present qualities.”
Logically, we can see that the whole process is illusionary, yet we seldom use logic when it comes to our self. For example, we come into contact with something, say an episode of a TV show. Let’s say it is a crime show. An innocent is murdered and we find ourselves outraged. We might even consider buying a gun to protect ourselves from such a monster as we saw on TV; after all, it could happen to us. We begin to have feelings about what we are seeing. There is both pleasure and loathing operating at the same time as we watch the action. We identify these feelings as “our feelings” and see them as unique to us. This is even built into our language. “I am sad.” “I am happy.” We ought to be saying things like, “there is sadness” or “there is happiness” because we do not actually own those feelings. They are just feelings and mean nothing in an or themselves, but we give those feelings meaning and believe that we are in fact generating them because they are a part of us.
As the Buddha outlines the process we have a perception after the initial contact. What is perception? Perception is little more than pattern recognition. We see people on the TV. We know what people look like. The innocent victim is attractive. The killer has a sneer on his face. We know that attractive people are good and sneering people are bad. We have learned this in our past experiences. After all, we too are attractive people not given to sneering and murder. We too are victims just like the person about to be murdered. We have seen this before in our own lives. We may even think, “I am a victim of the Federal Reserve Board because they control my money and I am poor. It must be their fault.” Along with these feelings and perceptions arises a feeling of displeasure as the perception of fear arises.
We can take this line of thinking further. Suppose there was a certain kind of music playing in the show when the killer appears. “Ah! I know that music. Only those people that live on the other side of town listen to it. We all know what kind of people they are.” The image of “those people” has been burned into our memory through media and news reports, our parents and other people. “If the victim only had a gun they could have protected themselves against the killer. You can’t even depend on the cops to help you. You have to help yourself!” The patterns become a self that we either identify with or eject. These lead to other patterns we continue to fabricate to satisfy the desire to be a particular self, a special kind of a self. In this case it is a self that is afraid of a nebulous concept called “the other”.
What we are doing in this case is creating a mental fabrication. We can go on in this fashion for hours, even days recalling the feelings each time we experience the same patterns. The intensity of feeling grows because we are manufacturing thoughts are the feelings. Eventually our kamma drives us to form conscious intentions. We may formulate the intention to by a gun and then wait patiently, or maybe not, for someone to come in and rob us. We have formulated the intention to kill someone who sneers at us. Lucky for this person there are thousands of others who will support them in their fabrication because they are driven by the same kamma. Any sign of regulation of these guns leads to greater fear. They have seen regulation before. It curtails their sense of freedom. The fear grows that their freedom to have a gun will be taken away from them. The intention to stop the government from doing that arises. This, by the way, is called “treason”. Now the intention is to have a gun to commit treason so they can have a gun, which is the patriotic thing to do. Go figure.
This scenario is not far fetched in America; it is the norm. We are not a very mature society as societies go. It’s the same formula as the 40-something year old rock and roller, which is also common here. The same kammic formations that worked in puberty are still working in adults today. We resent what we think might have happened in the past and fear the uncertainty of what has not yet happened. Since we are living in the past or the future much of the time, we are avoiding the present, literally letting life slip by us.
Perhaps we are too afraid to face the present or do we not know that is what is actually happening.
In looking at how violence arises in the mind we see how peace also arises. Peace is the act of not getting locked into the illusion of day-to-day thought.
Not taken in, unshaken,
that’s how you develop the heart.
Ardently doing what should be done
It is only this moment that can actually be said to exist. The past does not exist and the future does not exist. Now is all there is. If we can live this way then we do not have to be afraid, not of boogey men, not of tyrants, not even of losing ourselves. We can take responsibility for our lives rather than placing blame on others for our feelings of lack.
When I was a younger teacher I used to use a cool new car as an example. It was fun and always led me to Selma Hayek and Mexico. That was easy to explain and fun, but our world is not so much fun any more and the gun issue looms large in our lives as we descend further into senseless paranoia. Because our khandhas are interrelated with the khandhas of other sentient beings we are also affected by those other beings. Personally, I would rather be affected by Selma Hayek in Mexico than an AK-47 in Chicago.