Identity and Change–An Impersonal Philosophy

Here’s another philosophical jaunt through the open writing of Morning Pages.

I’m sitting here dazed. I was blinded by light as I stood in line. My eyes are still swimming from it.

What if Plato’s metaphor for seeing the truth is singularly inept? By this, I refer to walking out into the light of the sun and escaping from the cave of ignorance in The Republic. What if it’s closer to bad faith? The truth of things is always right at hand, but we don’t want to look at it. Fearing the truth of death, we instead cover it over. We build up the soul in counterpoint to the ultimately impersonal–Death. Death comes for all in every moment. It does not respect us as individuals. Every moment dies. The secret here is that Death has a Janus-mask which has opposite faces–the old, stern, grinning skull alongside the crying baby’s soft face full of potential. Death is a Janus-mask with Birth as Birth and Death come together. Separating them is impossible. Each arising signals an eventual departing. Each departing brings a new arising. The Janus-mask covers the true face: Change.

All of this, Birth, Death, Change, is utterly impersonal. It all happens no matter what we want and, sometimes, despite what we want! However, these events don’t happen due to the consideration and judgment of our personal circumstances by some divine personage who denies or accepts our pleas. They simply happen. It’s nothing personal.

We try to cope with these changes by finding meaning behind them. We ascribe some personal consideration behind them that explains them away. These prayers were answered because God had mercy, but those weren’t because in his infinite wisdom He knew better than I did and is teaching me a lesson, etc., etc., etc. With such explanations, these events have a personal story rather than the mysterious unfolding of a cosmic emergence. They become known to me rather than questions, difficulties, problems that I have to grapple with. It’s a lot easier to cover over the difficult truth–Being is mysterious, and “I” am just another dying process in the middle of it that doesn’t know/understand the significance of the whole thing–than to face it. Facing it takes an existential courage: resoluteness. It takes a willingness to look at it directly and continue despite all the niggling stories, thoughts, and ideas that come up and try to make us look away. These thoughts and ideas churn on in desire, aversion, and ignorance, and they try to make the ultimate counterpoint to this Truth; they aim at building an edifice that will provide undying security from the impersonal cosmic process of Birth/Death/Change. The ultimate security?–A stronghold, a cut off piece of territory from the whole that asserts its independence from the process of change–the sovereign nation of “Self”. It is “identity” in the strong, logical sense of “A = A”. Here Death is denied and fought off, again and again, as the attempted castle crumbles day by day, made of sand–constantly built up anew while denying that this never-ending rebuilding occurs. Identity–a form of bad faith? In a sense, the ultimate form: that which chooses to misunderstand being by overlooking the ongoing impermanence of everything.

It’s been a while since I wrote the entry above. It came out so powerfully, much more charged than many of my posts while riffing off of Plato, Buddhism, Sartre, and Heidegger all in one go.

Please don’t misunderstand, however. I’m not saying that we aren’t individuals. If I eat, it doesn’t fill your stomach. However, we grab onto our bodily existence as separate and emphasize this over and above the elaborate interconnectedness and interdependent nature of everything about existence. Your body is a product of an elaborate history that goes back to the Big Bang. Exploding stars, crashing asteroids, mass-extinctions, forgotten civilizations, and so many more moments have factored into your existence, and you breath air, shed skin, and digest other organic and inorganic matter that recycles into the Earth. Light from a nearby star powers your entire physical existence, directly or indirectly-it warms your planet, makes plants grow which feed animals (including you), and makes life on this planet possible. Furthermore, your body releases heat–IR radiation–some small amount of which vibrates out throughout the greater planet and universe. You are part of the cosmos. You aren’t separate at all. Not really. You are like a flower–growing from a seed, turning into a bud, blossoming into a wondrous natural emergence, slowly withering away, and falling off the plant. However, just like the flower, the flower is not separate from the sun that nurtures its growth, the water that falls as the rain, and the dirt which holds the rainwater for the roots and provides nutrients as well, also offering a place for the fallen flower to be shuffled back into the cycle of life. It’s all one interdependent arising. You are a process, an unfolding of the universe–a human becoming–not a thing, not an it, not a permanent identity.


Our identities are concepts, impermanent by nature. Such concepts are clearly known in the cessation of ignorance. One does not enhance the happiness or compassion of the “I”; instead one sees through the “I” concept entirely. The Buddha said, “The tides of conceiving do not sweep over one who stands upon these foundations [of wisdom, truth, relinquishment, and peace].” In the moment when conceiving stops–especially self-conceiving–we are freed from the selfish hungers, because we are freed from the constructed self-concept that sustains them. In this moment we are freed from what practitioners of Ordinary Mind Zen call “the self-centered dream.” This freedom is possible. Indeed, if we are attentive, we will notice that freedom visits us each time the mind relaxes out of self-sustaining tensions.

These specks of liberation multiply and link together as understanding grows. This is the alchemy of non clinging. Sometimes, too, there is an avalanche of awakening, which may be sustained by the steadiness of mind engendered by meditation. In the moment of liberation, we cease to cling to an imagined stability or security in what is always changing. We cease our quest for pleasure in what is painful and for an enduring identity in the flux of personal and social fabrications. In the absence of clinging something wonderful is possible.

Beyond the hungers and ignorance is a very high happiness. The self is no longer birthed, in this life or in others. More simply, we cease to believe in the dream of “me” that the mind continually weaves. In this joy, rapture and equanimity conjoin. Wisdom vanquishes constructed identities which liberates generosity and love from the anchors of self. There is acceptance without greed, discernment without rejection, and stability without the illusion of permanence. This is an ongoing moment in life’s process that the Buddha described as “beyond reasoning” and “sorrowless” and “the stilling of the conditioned–bliss.” Nirvana is also called the deathless. It is what my teacher Ananda Maitreya simply referred to as coolness. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American Buddhist monk and translator, refers to nirvana as unbinding.

It is tempting, almost unavoidable, to idealize this unbinding. We take it to be inhuman, almost sterile in its purity. But logic and the very earthy stories of the Buddha’s later years tell us otherwise. Even when ignorance has vanished as a dominating force in our lives, we still have bodies, and they still defecate, age, and hurt. We still engage in relationships, and it is still complex. The body still hungers, and the mind still constructs. The key difference is that we do not react to the hungers of the body and heart, and we do not believe the constructs of the mind. We remain human–just not ignorant.

–Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, Gregory Kramer, pp. 67-69.

May this help others see Truth without being blinded by their own stories.


Reiki: The Five Precepts (Gokai – 五 戒) – 3rd Precept: Gratitude

Just for today:
Don’t hold on to anger
Don’t focus on worry
Honor all those who came before
Work hard on self-improvement
Be kind to all living things
– Reiki Center App, Windows Phone

– My shortened mantra of the precepts

“I want”–there may be no more fundamental aspect of our psychology, or at least, our standard psychology of samsara. Freud placed the wanting aspect of the self as the original identity of the psyche. In doing so, he hardly broke the mold (no matter what the psychology or literature textbooks might lead you to think)–stealing from and echoing his precursors in Western philosophy, reaching all the way back to Plato. No, this position is not new or radical. Reading Plato’s “Phaedrus” will quickly disabuse the reader of any notion that Freud’s positions regarding the systems of the tripartite psyche or the driving nature of desires were revolutionary. He took a lot from Nietzsche, Plato, and his mentor, Charcot, at the very least. However, Freud succinctly identified a part of our experience with his descriptions of the id as primary: we feel driven through life by desire. In a certain sense, how could it be otherwise?

On another philosophical note, Aristotle’s entire system is about the becoming of things into their end product (a woefully quick and dirty summary that does not do full justice to this dynamic thinker). His physics and his understanding of behavior are teleological–that is, everything is oriented toward its telos: its goal, its fruition, its end. Desire drives us towards ends. For Aristotle, the end that all behavior aims at is happiness (eudaimonia–which is not quite the same as our standard understanding of “happiness” now; just as one swallow does not make a spring, for Aristotle, a fine moment does not make eudaimonia. Rather, eudaimonia is always in action, always in development through a well-lived life by sets of standards that cultivate excellence requiring an ongoing examination and engagement). We desire happiness and we act to move toward it.

Buddhism actually agrees that we all aim for happiness. However, and in a certain way Aristotle would agree: Buddhism thinks that we misunderstand happiness and its pursuit. True happiness is not to be found in the neverending chase of desire. As Zen Master Dainin Katagiri said, “Desires are endless.” How could we ever think that we could pin them all down just right to get an ongoing sensation of tickled nerves? It sounds silly, but that’s precisely what we do when we seek “happiness” as it is standardly understood. No, happiness is not that, Buddhism reveals; rather, it is finding joy in this moment, whatever arises. This doesn’t mean that we obliterate desire, as some people imagine when they envision a Buddhist monk. Hardly. Meditation and mindfulness are not about blotting out every thought and desire. That’s precisely why Katagiri Zenji said that desires are endless: it would be ridiculous to even posit blotting out the flow of thoughts as a path. Instead, we are supposed to see them arise one by one without investing in them and getting entangled with attachment. From a related perspective:

Desire that has no desire
is the Way.
Tao is the balance of wanting
and our not-wanting mind.
-Loy Ching-Yuen, The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao

Such a path takes a lifetime of training the mind, or rather, it’s an ongoing engagement of a present mind in every moment. Every moment is a journey, walking the way with mindfulness. With cultivation, the happiness of being simply what one is comes forth instead of the ongoing chase after what one wants to be (or have), the anxious flight from what one does not want to face, and the hazy-eyed ignorance of the ways of the universe. As Dōgen Zenji would remind us–every moment is a miracle; miracles are not the grand, crazy moments when huge desires are fulfilled, fears avoided, or laws of nature superceded. On the contrary, every moment is a miracle–even the mundane annoyances like washing the dishes.

A key first step to finding the miracle that is in every moment is cultivating gratitude. Usui-sensei’s 3rd precept tells us to be grateful, and perhaps, its position as the 3rd of 5 precepts, the middle precept, is no accident, as it is the heart of practice. In fact, the precepts are meant to be recited while holding the hands together in the pose of “Gassho” (have a look at my original post on the Reiki precepts for a refresher on this). This gesture is an expression of gratitude. So, as we recite all the precepts, they are framed by this gesture, and this precept of gratitude stands in the middle of each recitation–its beating heart.

The Reiki center app translates this precept as “Honor all those who came before”. True gratitude does not lie in the hazy avoidance of averting your gaze from that which you don’t want to see/admit. That’s merely bad faith. Instead, gratitude sees this moment in all its particulars, all of the conditions at play in it–arising and disappearing, just as they are. “Whatever arises”. True gratitude honors all of these current conditions as well as all of the conditions that came before–the causes and precursors to now, necessarily entangled with this moment. True gratitude is grateful for this unfolding karmic situation, no matter whether “I” like “it” or not.

Again, the moment of washing dishes deserves our gratitude just as much as the moment of a bite of ice cream that made those dishes dirty. Seeing the entire karmic unfolding of each moment and smiling at it, whatever arises, that’s our true path to happiness. If we can even begin to do this for just a few minutes a day as Usui prescribed (30 minutes in the morning and the evening: “Do gassho [the hand position of gratitude and blessing in Buddhism–hands held in front of neck/face with palms together] every morning and evening, keep in your mind and recite” (Steine, The Japanese Art of Reiki”)), we’ll find that there is truth to what he said about the precept recitation practice: it’s a key to health and happiness. This practice can truly grant “happiness through many blessings”. The heart of this happiness beats with the pulse of gratitude.

Buddhist lore states that the Buddha taught the precious opportunity of having a human life. His parable: imagine a planet that is covered by one giant ocean. On the ocean, a wooden yoke floats in the water, tossing violently to and fro with the ebb and flow of the ocean’s waves. A blind turtle swims in the ocean and rises to the surface once every 100 years. Being born as a human being is even more unlikely than the blind turtle rising to the surface and sticking his head through the hole of the yoke by “blind” luck. The conditions of your life are greatly precious, and each moment is an opportunity to take up a path of enlightenment and compassion for all. If you see this preciousness instead of your myriad stories of “me” which are intertwined with a neverending web of desires, gratitude can open to the way things are, and action can be taken to walk this path with open eyes, knowing that the opportunity of this life–the chance to cultivate wisdom and compassion–is not permanent and could end at any time.

May this inspire you to gratitude for your precious life, and through the regular practice of reciting these precepts, may you find gratitude for the way things are as well as the true happiness that goes beyond the eternal game of fulfilling selfish desires.


Previous Reiki: The Five Precepts Post – 2nd Precept: Faith


The telling of our own stories—
we’re experts at this.
Narratives twist and unfurl,
in our minds and from our mouths—
Arachne’s weaving on an equally epic scale,
the scale of our lives.

Yet no matter how exciting,
or depressing the tale,
the big picture is the same—
All is.
All changes,
and I am not separate from All.

My life, like the waves in the ocean,
rises and falls,
ceases to be distinct
as it crashes down into the water of the whole.

No matter how good the yarn,
how dashing or clever I may be as a hero/ine,
such is life.
Such is the Universe.
I can either see this with gratitude,
affirming every moment of this eternal return,
or continue to wrap myself
in the blanket of story.