In annoyingly paradoxical Buddhist style I will now talk about how Everything Forms Every Thing, even though I just got through talking about how No Thing Exists. How can there be things that form when no things exist?
No Thing Exists is a statement about the true nature of the Universe. Everything Forms Every Thing states the same thing, but from the point of view of we symbolically thinking creatures. And therein lies the paradox. Let’s explore this paradox by first revisiting the statement of No Thing Exists then followed by our gift of sentience.
On one side of the coin, the Universe is a Mega Process churning away on its own, not much different from how on a smaller scale our bodily animal functions churn away. Our heart beats, blood rushes around, cells give and take things to the blood, food is metabolized, bad stuff and waste is gathered and expelled. Aside from our brain and breathing (to a limited extent), there are no organs in us that wistfully long for a time in the past or aspire to or fear some special future. It just does what it does – no questions asked, no whining, no procrastination, no fear. Which is why our conscious mind really has no control over those processes. If our conscious mind could control all of that, it would make a mess out of things.
There are no inherent things in the Universal Process. Whatever seems like a thing is just a snapshot taken in our heads, like a photo encoded in a JPG file on our laptops. Whatever things we think we recognize are no more real than what we see in our photos, a temporary phenomenon, ethereal ghosts, caught at an instant of the constant churning.
What can trick us into thinking that there are indeed consistent things is that things change at different rates, some so slow our brains don’t notice, like rocks. Some in an unimaginable instant such as an explosion and the aftermath. Even as you may sit in front of me talking, your mind doesn’t think of me as changing, but my blood is in different places, I learned something I didn’t know a second ago, probably forgot something, both which alters my immediate motivations.
However, there is a level of order even in the constantly churning process of the Universe. Although change is constant, so are the underlying laws of physics constant, at least in the realm in which our human bodies are manifested.
On the other side of the coin, we are symbolically thinking, sentient creatures. We’re able to manipulate the world around us. Over our lives we observe things, building a vast library of tactics in our heads. With that vast library, we slice and dice those things into simpler pieces, and construct from those pieces some image we desire, and proceed to manifest that image in the real world.
In order to manifest those images that exist only in our heads, we need to move things around that are outside of our heads. Manifesting those images we construct in our heads is done in steps, a process. To grow crops, we must gather seeds, fashion tools, prepare the soil, plant the seeds, care for the plants (water, fertilize, protect from weeds and pests), and harvest the plants. Each of those steps are in themselves a hierarchy of sub-processes. However, until we actually accomplish those goals, it’s just a theory in our head because the Universe churns away and whatever happens is what happens.
How did we humans break out of the Oneness with the Universe becoming these symbolically thinking, sentient, designing creatures? No human really knows for sure, although there are many very plausible theories in the fields of Artificial Intelligence (close to what I do for a “living”), archaeology, neuroscience, sociology, evolutionary psychology, mimetic theory, etc.
But The Eternal Fishnu constantly reminds me that sentience is a continuum and that our sentience is just our human brand. Meaning all creatures of Earth are sentient to some extent, mice more than cockroaches, dogs more than mice, chimps more than dogs, and us more than chimps. Additionally, Fishnu reminds me that there are many kinds of sentience for which we are not aware or at least choose to ignore. For example, Life of Earth is sentient in a different way.
What we can state from a Buddhist and Zen perspective is that the great gift of the ability to design and manifest our designs is also the great curse for the unenlightened. These symbols, the things we know of which exists only in our heads, are things in the past which no longer exists. And our desire to manifest our designs based on these things break our hearts when they either don’t work and begin disintegrating even as we’re still building it.
There is nothing we build that lasts without our becoming a slave to it. In other words, we cling to a past that doesn’t exist and we strive for a future based on designs dependent upon a Universe that has no notion of cooperation. This is dukkha, the side-effect of our great gift which the Buddha has taught us to smooth out.
For we sentient beings the phrase Everything Forms Every Thing is the enlightenment that the Universe is One big process. Saying it “backward” makes sense too: Every Thing is dependent upon everything. Our sentience is based on the pitifully inadequate model of the Universe in our heads. We try to impose our desire (our will) in the Universe with varying success but our plans are based on future conditions we cannot possibly predict. Even a tiny thing we fail to consider will grow over the time it takes us to execute our process to manifest our vision.
Dukkha is that gap between what we want and what the Universe just does anyway. So is the answer to our suffering, our dukkha, to shut off our ability to design and manifest those designs? Are you crazy? This is our great gift!
Sure, simply letting go of all our desires would make us One with the Universe. But that’s not our nature, it’s our schtick, no less than an eagle is a perfect eagle. We have a duty to exercise our ability to design and manifest those designs. That is our schtick, our way to contribute our Yin to Yang, or the other way around. It’s no different from the array of schticks of among all other creatures. If any species in an ecosystem just gives up, it’s all thrown into a tailspin.
We evaporate dukkha by practicing the lessons in the three Zen stories I wrote about:
- Empty our cup – We really don’t know anything because everything we know (in our brain) is something that no longer exists.
- 100% Acceptance of What Is – We don’t cling to a past that no longer exists, run or hide from a future that probably won’t come, or even enslave ourselves to “dreams” which are nothing but arbitrary things we see someone else has. We 100% accept what is in front of us, right here, right now, and that’s where we focus our attention.
- Continue on the Path – We recognize that the Universe is constantly in motion, even when it may not seem like it, whether we like it or not. There is no destination on this path. The Path of Enlightenment means that as the Universe moves in time, we move along with our attention here, not back there, nor way up there.
Think of the sand mandalas of the Tibetan Buddhists – so intricate, so much human effort to build something of such beauty, so delicate. But instead of attempting to preserve something so incredibly beautiful and delicate with Herculean effort, they let go of it. It freely returns to the chaos from which it came. We simply enjoy it, no remorse, no guilt. We appreciate that thanks to our sentient design and manifest capability, we didn’t need to wait the vigintillion years it probably would take before clumps of sand spontaneously to fall in that pattern.
This post is Part 3 of a 3-part series on the Heart Sutra:
Lastly, on a completely unrelated note, Happy Birthday to our friend, the uber-wise Ringo Starr, who turns 78 today.