Out of the Frying Pan

“This suspense is terrible,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “I hope it will last.”

When we practice mindfulness meditation we leave the known world of our habitual thoughts and emotional reactions for the wide open territory of NOW. Returning to the body and the breath is a quiet but radical act. Opening up to a moment-by-moment awareness of reality is leaving the map for territory. Yet we also need to KNOW. We humans long for freedom yet we can only take so much uncertainty. We need ideas and images and memories to hang on to. They may give way under examination like the rungs in a ladder that can’t hold our weight. But we need them to lift us above rush of experience.

The maddening and promising thing about the Buddha was his refusal to give answers or even hints about the things we long most to know, say, whether there is a soul that outlives the body. The Buddha wanted us to leave the map for the territory, to know the thing and not the story of the thing. He wanted us to stay open and intensely alive. He wanted us to stay in a state of suspense.

According to the Buddhist tradition, the Brahma, the Lord of Creation (not to be confused with Brahma, the divine force in all things) appeared to the Buddha. After his enlightenment, the Buddha had no plans to teach. Brahma, who is part of a Hindu triumvirate that includes Vishnu, the maintainer of life, and Shiva, the destroyer and transformer, implored him to teach on behalf of all of creation. The Buddha bowed to his request, setting the wheel of the dharma in motion. Yet the Buddha himself refused to speak of god (or gods), of the nature of the soul. He stubbornly maintained that he taught one thing (or two things) only: suffering and the end of suffering. He wanted us to fry in the great frying pan of no answers.

The English root of the word “suffer” means to bear or hold. The Buddha was intent on having us hold our questions, holding our state of uncertainty under our gaze, observing and sensing and wondering about our experience. Another meaning of mindfulness is to investigate—not to assign ideas but to pay attention. If you dwell in uncertainty long enough, life can light up and buzz with energy. Life can shine with mystery and a sense of the miraculous. There may be no place to stand, no certainty, but possibilities abound.

This week, if you wish, notice moments of uncertainty and possibility.

Comments

  1. Interesting; qualities/intentions ascribed to “the Buddha” here, were, for me, evocative of the “God will reveal that to you when you die” reply used as a foil for unanswerable or uncomfortable questions children have a way of asking. Funny how when one ‘dies’ those questions and concerns lose relevancy.

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    • Hi Finnom, I used to think this, that it was a way of dodging tough questions. Now I think the Buddha was redirecting academic and philosophical questions (and he was surrounded by philosophers and yogis of all kinds). I think he was directing people to a truth that can’t be thought, a truth that expresses itself in a living moment. “Great truths express themselves in silence.” –Goethe

      They express themselves in life.

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      • Thank you, yes, Truth is in each moment and when Silence is the operational paradigm it is open but in effect one is disappeared, has ‘died’; sublimated one’s perspective as it were (though not really).

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  2. Again, your writing has touched me. Certain circumstances in my life have left me standing in uncertainty for a longer than I’m use to. I am learning to embrace this wondrous place. Your words, ” life can light up and buzz with energy. Life can shine with mystery and a sense of the miraculous.” describe at least a portion of each day. As an artist, it is like learning to see in a new way. This time has also served as a great teacher in my practice of mindfulness.

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  3. “He wanted us to stay in a state of suspense.” More likely, the Buddha, who was a mere mortal like the rest of us, didn’t answer simply because he didn’t know what happened to our soul after we die.

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    • This may be so–and it’s liberating to realize he didn’t know. Yet according the the tradition, he had cosmic vision after his enlightenment. He was an ordinary mortal who was paradoxically all seeing.

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  4. In certainty the known, in shelter of a port our ship is safe. Here we exist with few possibilities, hence without a profit. Restraints of the shore, we cast first, to know the unknown seas.

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