Friday, April 24, 2009

wise words

In the front of my book, Water from a Skull, I quoted my favorite snippet of the Tao Te Ching:

Try to make this sacred world
into more than what it is,
and you ruin it.

Try to grasp it,
and you lose it.

To me, this verse expresses what religion is all about. First, see things for what they are. Second, don't try to possess, because possession is impossible. Try as you might to hold on to the things you think you possess, and you'll lose them eventually, if for no other reason than because the notion of possession implies the notion of loss, and reality is always moving out from under you.

This desperate grasping, this vain attachment, isn't the proper way to relate to reality. What's more proper is to remember that nothing you have is yours. You can't even control the ebb and flow of your own cells-- how do you expect to control the things around you? No: real wisdom comes first from acknowledging this state of affairs. You're not powerless, you're not helpless, but you do have to understand the basic nature of things if you want to know happiness and share it with others. Far less eloquently than the writer of the above verse, I put it this way in my book:

"Mastery" in calligraphy is like "mastery" in other pursuits, such as surfing: it's less about controlling outside circumstances and more about mastering oneself. The surfer doesn't seek to subdue the wave; his mastery involves an understanding of and harmonization with it. By the same token, the calligrapher can't alter the physics of ink's interaction with paper, but he can alter his own technique to produce the desired effect. As the ink is absorbed into the paper, so the calligrapher is absorbed into the work he creates.

Such activities point us to a way to conduct our own lives: not attempting to control what we can't control, worrying about what we can't change, but working instead to change how we move through the world, and therefore how the world moves through us.

So I string these words together for the first time: my mom has a tumor. But even if she didn't, it would still avail me nothing to try to grasp her, to halt her eventual disappearance. This is because we all disappear; it's in the nature of all phenomena to go places. Even when we're still as statues, we're moving on. Handling what's happening now requires recognizing this basic fact.

None of this implies giving up (sometimes fatalism is another word for laziness), but it does mean that, whatever we do, we don't give in to delusion or false hope: we should see things as they are, and however our love for others expresses itself, that love should never be grasping. That sort of attachment is ultimately selfish, and it goes hand in hand with fear, panic, and a general inability to function as we should. Especially during the coming months, I and the rest of my family will have to proceed with clear minds. This won't be easy, but it's what we have to do.


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