Institute Wisdom

Uncommon Wisdom, Gautama – Introduction

Long ago, when I was in a Boy Scout summer camp, we were making out way through a pack of candy that a few of us had pooled our money to buy (“Nerds”, I think) when we noticed that there was a prize competition. Thousands of dollars of prizes were there to be won, and to us, it was life changing money. We mused about the possibilities of the prizes at stake, and in our unrestricted childish imaginations the musings quickly acquired lifelike resolution, and we were nearly living in the new lives that Nerds were offering.

Then, suddenly, when our conversation had driven us to some new height of titillation, the question of sharing arose. Details are hazy, but it went something like: My friend Steve and I had split the cost of the pack of Nerds, and were planning on sharing the prize. Somebody else pointed out that he had shared much better candy that he’d brought from home freely, and thought that this should entitle him to a share of the prize others thought that we should just split the prize equally, for their various reasons. Ideas differed. I do clearly remember the instant when eyes shifted around our loose circle and souls coiled as us kids looked for a chance to make up winning sides in the argument. At some point, it occurred to me that this was all over some prizes that were a lot like the lottery tickets that my Auntie and mother usually bought and threw away with sighs that were small, and even then seemed half-feigned.

I blurted this out. We all realized immediately that we were being stupid, and passions fell, and we exchanged the sorts of apologies that our mothers had made us rehearse over the years, and we went back to being friends and went swimming, I think we threw out the prize mail-in form, in an act of solidarity. I think even then I regarded as this as a life lesson. It was one of those occasions where you watch your mind run away with reality. Looking back, I would call the lesson that was learned a lesson in attachment.

It is uncontroversially unwise to attach yourself to lottery prizes, adults played their own lottery with individual tickets, but generally, they do not care much when they lose. It seems to me that people are more attached to the small thrill that comes from the possibility of winning – this is regular and reliable element of the experience, the ritualistic part that you can hold on to, without being burned. Its a bit like how, when the ability to experience sexual desire is a new thing, we get infatuated with celebrities (or in some cases, porn stars,) but learn to just enjoy looking at them and vicariously experiencing their life. We are all intuitive experts in attachment, and the common wisdom is definitely to get attached, but to get attached to things that are sure or worth the risk. The uncommon wisdom of the Buddha is that since nothing is sure, there is only certainty of cessation, and so nothing is worth the risk, better to simply not be attached to anything, and that it is possible to live this way, though this requires total concentration. Undoubtedly this message always struck me strongly because of a more consequential childhood event.

I found out that nothing is a sure thing, nothing is forever, at a young age. When I was in the second grade my Dad had a seizure while driving on a late November day and lost control of his vehicle. His truck swerved into a lake and and he drowned. He worked two jobs, running a construction company, and teaching calculus in high school, and was not around too much, but when he was, he was a character. He was big and tall and garrulous and charismatic, and people loved him. A tough guy who was full of laughs and stories around the dinner table. He was smart and fierce, he also used to coach American football, leading his school, the St. Lawrence Vikings, which had no previous distinction in the sport, to four titles in eight years as coach before retiring to try his hand at construction. He walked like a guy who did that, and your silly inconsequential little chest swelled with pride being around him, you felt tough too. He was also sensitive, lying on the bed face down and crying when the family dog died. I don’t remember than much of our time together we really hung on those legs tight when he was around, literally attaching ourselves to him with a tight grip as our young bodies could muster.

We grasp onto reliable things, the big and safe embrace of a parent, our soft bed and drink in the evening. They make their impressions into our memories, and we turn memories into anticipations, anticipations beget cravings. Just look at your life, and you will see this directly. Cravings are fulfilled and strengthened over and over again, and over and over, establishing ever more well worn deep impressions of experience into our inner life, the habits of feeling that make up make up reality. We equate reality with the feeling of solidity and heaviness. If all goes well, these things don’t one day vanish and leave us with with our drives, our cravings calling out to be met in vain.

They had his funeral in the gymnasium of St. Lawrence High School and people filled past the casket in lines, and told us how sorry they were. Not as sorry as we were, I remember still the persistent shocks at realizing, time and again, that he wasn’t coming home tonight, again, as in the early evening according to schedule, anticipation of his presence arose. It was impossible to let go of the sensations that felt so real, the anticipation of the routine that had been so solid for so long is deep and unconscious and lawlike, and it is only at certain points in life, when suddenly it is yanked away, that you find out how deep. We foolishly made our mother and aunt to promise us that they wouldn’t die too. It was impossible to entertain the idea that something similar could happen again. Taking the view that God couldn’t possibly let this happen to us twice helped to chase this away, it helped reliably, I found myself quite attached to that one. But it was obviously untrue, and so we needed it to feel more real, and hearing things make them seem real, so we were in turn attached to asking again and again that Mommy and Auntie would not go and die, and hearing “no” in a certain voice.

Grieving, suffering, is the process of letting go of these built up attachments, and the more sharp and brutal the change in our situation the more searing the pain will be, the more resolutely we hang on to them the longer the pain will last. Of course, all good things come to an end, but if we are lucky things slowly fade away, the fire of new love, the vitality of a parent, or we know the end is coming like at the end of University or a trip, and we learn intuitively, to manage our attachments accordingly. When people suddenly vanish, however, we are brought into awareness of the gap of the world of the attachments, which is the world of the past, and the present actuality of the world.. And we are always aware, no matter how much we might prefer blissful ignorance that we and others, are impermanent, and so the truth of the world is always in tension with anticipations, and there is always fear tinging life.

The anticipated world that we are always expecting, every moment, and the cold colossus of actuality find themselves out of line, and the result is pain, just pain, that drives our mind to contort one way or another, till, perhaps, we find some way to feel about it. We find ways to feel about something by taking different views of it. He’s in a better place, it was God’s will, life goes on, time heals all wounds, and so on. These allow us to reflect on our loved one’s basking in the glories of eternal life or reappearing in a shiny new vessel just arising from a woman somewhere who we’ve never met, but who is no doubt lovely, or the ways in which this event must somehow add to the splendor of the world. Or, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that all things, even pain, are temporary, though probably not as temporary as we are attached to feeling that it is. We then in turn get attached to these views, and our take on reality is rigid, as pile views on top of attachments, and conversations must be cut off. With original attachment, such accumulation is inevitable, and so it has seemed to me, the Buddha was indeed wise.