We are vortices. To be a human being is to be a human vortex.
From ultra-large black holes to the water swirling down a sink drain, vortices are common. They are composed of a still center around which stuff swirls.
BEING AND BECOMING
Every human being instantiates two dimensions: Becoming and Being. (It’s wonderful that the two-word phrase ‘human being’ in English captures both dimensions.)
Becoming is composed of all forms (objects, things). To be a form is to be part of Becoming. Whether existent or nonexistent, a form is anything that may be thought about (made an object of awareness, singled out for attention). If we think of ourselves as like tornadoes, our forms are all the swirling, moving stuff on the outside of the tornado: all thoughts, perceptions, emotions, bodies, and so on.
All forms are temporal. All forms are impermanent. Whether they in fact change or not, all are subject to change or flux.
(The only exceptions may be abstract conceptualizations that are necessarily true or necessarily false propositions about relations between properties such as “red is a color” that are true whether or not any red or colored individuals exist. Philosophers have debated about the existence and meaning of such propositions and the existence or nonexistence of the properties they are about. Outside philosophical disciplines such as ontology and the philosophy of mathematics, nobody pays much attention to “conceptual” forms.)
Being is formlessness. There are no forms in Being. It is emptiness (stillness, void, “silence”).
Being is eternal.
[For another post on the Being/Becoming distinctions, click here.]
A human being is often called a “person.” So, a person as human participates in Becoming and as being participates in Being. We humans are both temporal and non-temporal (eternal).
This is a familiar idea. Many sages and thinkers have stated it in various ways.
Please do not make the common mistake of confusing what is immortal with what is eternal. To be immortal is to be non-mortal, in other words, to be something that will not die. To be eternal is to be non-temporal, to be “outside” time (perhaps, like a number [not a numeral]). So, for example, an entity that existed at all times would not be eternal.
What, though, about the instability of being a human being? Since a human being is partially form and since all forms are impermanent, a human being must be impermanent or unstable.
Death is the end of a human being’s instability.
The important confusion about death is the belief that death is the opposite of life. It’s not. Death is the opposite of birth. The birth of a human being is the temporal beginning of that person and its death is its temporal end.
Life is Being. Because Being is eternal and life is Being, life neither begins to be nor ceases to be; it is subject neither to birth nor to death.
The important clue here is the redemptive quality of death or, even, of little deaths such as important losses like the loss of a parent, loss of a child, loss of a lover, loss of a friend, loss of a fortune, loss of health, or loss of a home. There’s always a silver lining accompanying any loss.
When we think we are something, we identify with it. It’s natural to identify with our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, our experiences, and so on. Yes, they are parts of us. Each of us human beings has a particular “form identity.” Each of us is a set of unique forms in Becoming.
We also have an “essence identity,” in other words, we should also identify with Being becasue each of us is also Being. There’s no separation (and, so, no dissatisfaction or suffering) in Being.
Those persons who do not identify with Being are spiritual zeros who just believe themselves to be nothing but a particular set of forms. It’s not that believing “I am a unique set of forms” is wrong; as far as it goes, it’s true. It’s just that it’s radically incomplete. Why? Whether human or nonhuman, each unique set of forms is also Being. Because that is so, our selves or egos are really delusions.
Believing ourselves to be only forms is like identifying a vortex only with the swirling stuff while ignoring its center. Without the center, there’d be no vortex. It’s essential.
Actually, it’s primary. Without Being, there could be no human being.
The idea of spiritual awakening comes from identifying with (usually with an intensity called “realizing”) our essence identity as well as with our form identity.
As Panayot Butchvarov argues in Being Qua Being), material identity judgments, which have the logical form “this is that”, are not made on the basis of evidence. So, if you question it (as you should!), there is no evidence, either demonstrative or nondemonstrative, that could be marshaled here or elsewhere to support the identification of a person with Being. (Don’t let such questioning degenerate into mere negativity; instead, find out for yourself.)
On the other hand, a nonconceptual realization of Being is as much direct proof as anyone could ever want. Since all conceptual thinking is discursive and Being is unitary, conceptual thinking cannot think Being. (Actually, Being is beyond all conceptualizations such as unitary/nonunitary; language here is just a pointer.)
Our only apprehension of Being can be nonconceptual, which is why some contemporary sages such as Eckhart Tolle emphasize dropping all thoughts in favor of thoughtless awareness.
Thoughtless awareness of Being is not something that needs to be gained. It’s always been “beneath” conceptual awareness. Obviously, it’s impossible to have an intelligible thought of thoughtless awareness.
The only way to apprehend it is to drop all thoughts (conceptualizations, judgments). Dropping all thoughts even momentarily provides a sufficient glimpse.
If you doubt your essence identity, simply drop all thoughts and that doubt will disappear. Either you’ll do that or you’ll never apprehend your own nature.
[For another post on realizing essence identity, click here.]
Without apprehending your own nature, your life will never be very satisfactory. No matter how much worldly success you may enjoy, a sense of completion or fulfillment will always elude you.
After apprehending your own nature, life will be much easier and peaceful as well as more loving, joyful, and creative.
Realizing essence identity is the end of ego delusion. Since all dissatisfaction requires ego delusion, wholly realizing essence identity is the end of all dissatisfaction.
Recommended reading: Are You Living Without Purpose?
Related website: ConsultingPhilosopher.com
This simile from The Buddha comes from “The Division at Davadaha” translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and revised and edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (Boston: Wisdom, 1995).
[A bhikkhu (pl. bhikkhus) is a wholeheartedly committed male practitioner of The Great Way of Buddha. Here’s it’s a monk in The Buddha’s sangha, community of practitioners. (The female equivalents are bhikkuni and bhikkunis.)]
Although this simile is not well known, The Buddha is here making an important and counter-intuitive point about how to live better.
When we follow the very popular and initially easier path of pursuing pleasure, fame, gain, praise, and other egocentric desires, we find life more difficult; however, when we follow the initially harder path of detaching from those desires, we find life easier.
For example, think of doing strength training to become stronger and doing interval training to become fitter. Proper physical exercise is hard, yet exerting ourselves doing it is worthwhile in the sense that it’s fruitful because life is easier when we are strong and fit.
Similarly, following the spiritual way of ego reduction is initially harder, but it’s fruitful because it makes life easier. Wisdom, living well, is the reward for doing the hard work of ego detachment.
Let’s use this simile to explain the central concept of The Buddha’s Way:
Nirvana is the extinction of the fires of lust, hatred, and delusion.
Dukkha, the pervasive unsatisfactoriness of our everyday lives, is replaced by its opposite sukha. The troubles and difficulties of ordinary life are replaced by the ease and peace of nirvana.
The three poisons of lust [infatuation, passion], hatred [hostility, aversion], and delusion are replaced by clarity, insight, and present-moment awareness.
Nirvana is not an object. It has no composite parts. It’s independent of any external causal factors, which is why The Buddha calls it “the unconditioned.” It’s the destruction of the three poisons.
Cruelty has been replaced by its opposite compassion. Discontent has been replaced by its opposite altruistic joy. Aversion has been replaced by its opposite equanimity.
This transition doesn’t just happen. Think of The Buddha as a spiritual physician who understands the human disease and offers us a diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription. The prescription must be followed for the disease to be cured, but it is possible to cure the disease.
A buddha, such as The Buddha, has the wisdom to be a spiritual physician because he or she has awakened, has successfully done the work of ego detachment. (Both in Sanskrit and Pali the word ‘buddha’ simply means ‘awakened.’ The Sanskrit verbal root is ‘budh’ of which ‘buddha’ is a past passive participle. The noun ‘bodhi’ means ‘awakening.’)
So there’s a further important implication of this simile, namely, that there is an end to spiritual practices or training. When the arrow is finished, the arrowsmith stops working on it. When the work of executing The Buddha’s prescription is finished, there’s nothing more to be done.
The Buddha’s parable of the man who had been wounded by a poisoned arrow may be his best-known story. This translation of “The Shorter Discourse to Malunkyaputta” comes from The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Kikaya by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and revised by Bhikkua Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom, 2005 [Third Edition]).
Understanding the context is helpful in understanding The Buddha’s point. Malunkyaputta was one of the Buddha’s followers. His practice was disturbed by speculative thoughts about the answers to questions such as “Is the world finite?” or “Is the soul the same as the body?” After meditating alone, he later asked The Buddha about speculative views, which is when The Buddha gave him the parable.
To ensure that Malunkyaputta did not miss the point, The Buddha continued:
“Whether there is the view ‘the world is eternal’ or the view ‘the world is not eternal,’ there is birth, there is ageing, there is death, there are sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, the destruction of which I prescribe here and now.”
This translation of this well-known story is from The Lotus Sutra, Burton Watson, tr. (N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1993). Enjoy!
Do you think or believe that you have a priceless jewel hidden inside you? Even if you do, that won’t do you any good until you “realize” your divine, eternal nature for yourself.
That realization of our essence is the greatest human experience. It’s called by various names including “spiritual awakening.”
Realizing it is simple: just drop all thoughts in favor of thoughtless awareness. It’s the common addiction to compulsive thoughts that blocks Self-apprehension.
Typically, however, dissolving that blockage is difficult and requires a lot of practice. That’s why The Buddha’s last words were an admonishment to keep striving tirelessly. It’s false that ego reduction is easy, but, until we rid ourselves of ego delusion, which is attachment to all thoughts about ourselves, we remain poor and impoverished.
Do you want genuine wealth?
The good news, which can seem utterly unbelievable, is that we all already are everything we need to be to live wisely or well. Living wisely or well is living wholly without dissatisfaction. So, spiritual practices are not about gaining anything; instead, they are about “realizing” our true nature, which we already are.
Right now, at this very moment, you need nothing else to complete or fulfill you. You already are as “wealthy” (fulfilled, complete) as possible. Therefore, no future moment can be better than this moment.
Anyone unable to live well in this moment will never be able to live well at any future time.
The takeaway: Since completion or fulfillment does not lie in the future, drop the quest to live better tomorrow and focus on “realizing” the Being that we already are in the present moment. Spiritual awakening, which clear and direct nonconceptual apprehension of our own nature, is now — or never.