Point Dume…

May 22, 2009 by  
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A small wedding party has climbed out onto a rocky promontory that overlooks the Pacific and offers a sweeping view of the Santa Monica Bay. From the beach a few hundred feet below I watch the windblown figures and imagine their vows rising above the ocean currents, and falling into the wind. The contrast between the fragility of these figurines, and the stillness and solidity of the ancient rock they have been momentarily set upon, is apparent on this windy day.

This rock was once a sacred site to the Chumash Indians who inhabited the region in another time. The body of water that lies between the Channel Islands and the mainland comprised the watery universe this people lived upon, adorning it with myths and ways that have been washed away, essentially without a trace. I wonder about the rituals that were enacted atop this rock as the Chumash and others before them made their passage through time.

Human beings tend to view their lives with a sense of ownership, an implicit assumption that we are permanent fixtures of the landscape we inhabit. We have been wired with a distinct preference for immortality and a strong distaste for its alternative. Our culture further barricades our sensibilities against the uneasy murmurings of impermanence that surround us. This leaves us unclear as to the terms of a natural contract whose only guarantee is that we are just passing through. It is an outlook that comes at a cost, as most delusions do.

Not long ago I listened as a Zen monk delivered a dharma talk that touched upon this delusion, and on the human capacity to pierce it. A consideration of the Buddhist idea of “insight” was central to this discussion. This is a term of particular significance in the Vippassana Buddhist tradition, whose central practices are referred to as insight meditation.

The definition of insight that was offered by this monk was unusual in its simplicity and directness. It did not elaborate on complex theories of mind, or offer sublime strategies to unveil the illusory and errant machinery of human consciousness. Rather, it defined insight in the following way: it is a recognition that we are all occupants of transient vessels, that each of us is confronted by the same fundamental circumstances, that the human lifespan is alarmingly short, that our passage through the world is a one-way, one-time trip, that we will all ultimately disappear without a trace. The natural consequence of such insight, the monk continued, is a disposition and an inclination to co-exist with our equally impermanent neighbors, in a manner that is conducive to peace and harmony. The attainment of such insight (which is tantamount to grasping the central Buddhist tenet of impermanence) yields an attitude of empathy and gentle regard. It generates a desire to maintain a consistent course of action in this singular life that is guided by an ethos of shared vulnerability. The inclination to over-power, to make trouble for ones fellow beings, is subdued by such a vision of life. It is a vision that situates each of us within a highly intricate and fragile ecosystem that is defined by its ephemeral beauty. Nevertheless, it is a vision rooted in hard reality, not  soft ideals and the benevolence it generates is a natural ethic that flows from an awareness of our mutual, magnificent transience.

There is a wistful sense of surrender in such an attitude towards ones own life and the lives of others. We have each been designed with the fatal flaw that insures our own mortality. In this, if in nothing else that may be apparent to us, we are undeniably and inescapably brothers. This recognition compels us to confront a simple and profoundly significant question: How do I wish to behave toward my brothers, what is the legacy I wish to leave when I too disappear without a trace?

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