Wait A Minute! ~ CONUNDRUM

From my early years in school, I dimly recall hearing or being presented with a conundrum, but do not remember the explanation of it, if I were ever given one. Apparently, it is quite well-known, but there would be more people who do not know it than those who do, and of those who know or remember the riddle itself, I would dare say that only few understand its meaning. For many years, it lay dormant in my subconscious, until a few years ago, when it surfaced again (though why, I cannot tell), and caused me to reflect on it. It seems nonsensical, but in fact, is pregnant with wisdom. It is this:

The child is the father of the man.

Should it not be The man is the father of the child? If it were, there would be nothing to ponder on, as that is obvious. So, it is clear that this is not something obvious, and that is why it is called a ‘conundrum’ or riddle. How can a child be the father of a man? In the conventional sense, it cannot be; it is simply impossible. So we must look at it in a different way: in terms of Cause-and-Effect.

Although we are unable to perceive or even to conceive of a First Cause of things (to imagine we can is only delusion), and decide, once and for all, such knotty questions as ‘Which came first: the chicken or the egg?’, we can see that in the natural sequence of things, adulthood follows childhood, never the other way around; no-one is born a fully formed adult and, growing younger, becomes a child. We all know this.

According to the Buddha, “we are the results of what we were; we will be the results of what we are” (though these might not have been the exact words, He probably said something like it numerous times, to many people and in various situations, as it forms an important part of His explanation of that aspect, department or dimension of the overall Law of Cause-and-Effect that Indian thought has termed ‘Karma’). This has been repeated by Buddhists for ages, and regarded by many and maybe most of them as true, simply because the Buddha is supposed to have said it, and not as the result of deep insight or realization on their parts. Now, we who live so long after Him cannot in any way be certain that He said it, any more than the followers of other religions can be certain that the founders of their religions said what they are supposed or reported to have said, and so we should not cling dogmatically to such sayings; it would be better to apply another saying ascribed to the Buddha: “You should test my teachings as a goldsmith would test gold”—in other words: do not simply believe, but strive to find out. This means that we’ve got plenty to keep us busy, and it’s not just a matter of memorizing texts either, no matter how well we can do that. There is no substitute for direct personal experience of Dharma, just as there is no way to know the taste of sugar than by tasting it oneself; it is not enough for someone else to tell us it’s sweet, or for us to read that it is.

If I often play the role of ‘the Devil’s Advocate’—the opposition party, as it were—it is because I feel that someone must, in order to try to counter the tendency in people to simply believe and accept things on the authority of others, which is just not good enough. Therefore, when people ramble on about unverifiable things, I might ask: “How do you know? Do you know this by your own experience, or are you merely repeating what you have read or heard elsewhere? If so, you should be honest and open about it and say so, instead of perhaps leading people to think that what you are referring to is something of your own experience”. We have a good precedent for this, in the person of the Buddha’s favorite and closest disciple, Ananda, who attended the Buddha for many years, and who had an extremely retentive memory. After the Buddha had passed away, Ananda was called upon to recite from memory what he had heard the Buddha say, and where and when and to whom He had said it; before reciting each discourse, sermon or sutra, Ananda began with these words: Evam me sutam (“Thus have I heard”), thereby leaving people in no doubt that he was reciting the words of the Buddha rather than his own.

Now, it is highly unlikely that the scriptures of today, in any language, are an exact record of what the Buddha said and did; it does not take 2,500 years for changes to be made, for editing, adding, subtraction and distortion to take place, intentionally or otherwise; it can happen within a very short time, even without translation, interpretation and the risks involved in these processes. Nor do the prefacing words ‘Thus have I heard’ of a text make it absolutely certain that the words that follow are the genuine words of the Buddha; there have always been unscrupulous people in the world who would not hesitate to use such words to authenticate their fraudulent works. It is useful—very useful—to keep in mind the distinction between the letter (or the literal meaning) and the spirit that pervades the scriptures, and recall the words of St Paul of the Christian Bible, which are not amiss here: “It is the letter that killeth, but the spirit which giveth life”.

I have been accused recently—though maybe ‘accused’ is too strong a word and ‘regarded’ might be better—of propagating my own teachings instead of the ‘pure Buddha’s words’, as I speak and write from my own experience and observation rather than from a scriptural point-of-view with lots of textual references to support me. This came from someone who considers his own talks to be ‘pure, unadulterated Dhamma’, in exact alignment with what the Buddha taught, but which I regard as dry, scholastic and hair-splitting, besides sounding presumptuous and arrogant.

I don’t deny that what I talk and write about is my understanding of the Buddha’s Way—in fact, I make it quite clear it is—and sometimes say that my religion is Life, rather than Buddhism, because Life, to me, is what Buddhism is all about, while Buddhism, the organization, is one of many religions in the world; it is not accepted by nor does it apply to everyone; moreover, Buddhism has lost much of its vitality these days and become largely formalistic. I do maintain, however, that ‘my teachings’—if they may be called such—are based upon principles that Buddhism terms The Three Characteristics (Anicca, or Impermanence, nothing lasts; Dukkha, or Suffering, Pain, Disease, Unsatisfactoriness; and Anatta, or No Self-existence, No-independence), which are of the Eternal Now that can be experienced and verified without requiring belief. It is on these things, and their obverse or positive counterparts, that I take my stand.

Care must be taken with phrases like ‘We are the results of what we were; we will be the results of what we are’ lest, in repeating them, we miss, overlook or misunderstand their meaning. If taken at face value, these words may mislead us, for the reality is not quite as simple as that, because a human being—or anything/everything else for that matter—is an extremely complex thing involving (by reason of the fact that we are interdependent and interconnected) literally everything. Therefore, we are the results not only of our personal past—the totality of our thoughts, words and deeds (karma)—but also of our environments, circumstances and times, which have contributed immensely, immeasurably, to what we have become. Consciously and by deliberate design or choice, we ourselves have had very little to do with it. Our will is conditioned and far from free and we are more the victims than the masters of our circumstances. And until and unless we understand this, we will continue to be blown hither and thither by the winds of change, unable to do much about it. It is all very well to talk about being ‘the architects of our future’, but if we have no plans, know nothing about building or the materials to build with, we won’t get very far, and may even make a mess.

I have had the good fortune to be able to travel widely, and I regard this to have been my education. But had circumstances outside and beyond my control not permitted me to travel, I would never have been able to. I had nothing to do with the invention of the automobile, the train, the airplane, road construction, the printing of passports, the setting up of border-controls, or things like that, yet it was only because of such things that I have been able to travel as I have done. I have become what I am now largely as a result of my travels. Our personal karma is not responsible for everything that happens to us; it simply slots in with something much bigger than we are; we share in the karma of others, too, just as we use the roads that others have made.

Generally, we think of ourselves as ‘self-contained’ and separate from what is ‘not-us’; we think of our self, our being, as delineated by our skin, which keeps the inside—the self—in and the outside—the not-self—out. But is this really so? Can we really draw the line there and say: “This is me, and this is not-me”? Are we really separate like that? Is not the ‘outside’ also part of us, and we part of it, simply because we depend so vitally upon it, and without which we cannot exist and would therefore mean nothing? We can live without food for some months, and without water for some days, but we cannot go without air for even a minute! So, are we separate from the ‘outside’ or part of it, and the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ not clear-cut after all? Who and what are we when we can no longer delineate ourselves so narrowly and separately? Obviously, not what we think we are, but much, much more. If we begin to follow up this lead and push back our limits—limits of ignorance—perhaps we will find that there are no limits; our ‘self-view’—opinion or understanding of ourselves—would necessarily expand and fall into line with reality.

The search for personal enlightenment and the practices designed to hopefully bring it about, is ironic and displays fear and the desire for separateness, which means ignorance and misunderstanding of how things are. The basis of Mahayana (which we may translate as the way of the Bodhisattva) however, is the understanding of how we are not separate from the rest of existence, nor ever can be; from this flows our living, which is not a set of practices designed to bring about more qualities or states deemed virtuous or desirable, but simply an expression of our understanding of Dharma—that is, of the way things are. How can Enlightenment arise when we are so full of thoughts about and for self? Some Buddhist practices are ridiculous and only further entangle us in the spider web of selfishness, from which they are supposed to liberate us! We are only making our jail more snug instead of escaping from it.

As an example of a practice gone astray there is the idea of ‘making merit’. If only we could get rid of this idea! It is really a hindrance and makes us self-conscious about doing what should be done spontaneously and naturally. There is a little anecdote to illustrate this. A man once said to a centipede: “How do you manage to walk with so many legs? I have only two, but even so I have difficulty walking at times!” The centipede stopped in its tracks, unable to move, and a look of stunned surprise came upon its face; when it was eventually able to speak, it said: “I never had a problem before, and walked perfectly well without even thinking about it, but now you have asked, my legs don’t seem to work anymore! You have quite disturbed me! Why don’t you leave people alone!?”

It has been said—I forget by whom, if I ever knew, and it doesn’t matter, as he, like I, was using other people’s words to say what he wanted to say; what matters is whether or not it rings true and is supported by facts—it has been said that “no-one can sin or suffer the effects of sin alone”. This can be said of anything else we do and that happens to us. If we understand this—deeply feel it and know it to be true on a mystical or transcendental level, rather than on a merely intellectual level—it imbues us with an unshakable sense of belonging and responsibility and leads us to do what is right and good simply because we know it to be so and not from consideration of what we might get as a result, just as a tree brings forth fruit, naturally and free of pride or thought of gaining merit.

We can and should be helped on the way to realization from a very early age. Even small children are capable of understanding the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would like others to do to you. It’s not hard to understand it if we are given examples of it in daily life.

No-one likes to be abused, cheated or mistreated, but many people think little about behaving badly towards others. This is probably because we were never shown how to learn from our experiences, particularly the painful and unpleasant ones, and so there is nothing within to restrain ourselves from doing things to others that we do not like others to do to us. Take muggers and burglars, for example: would they like to be mugged, or to come home to find it ransacked and burgled? How is it that so many people seem incapable of thinking clearly? Must we always wait for others to teach or show us?

I was out with some young people in a Melbourne park one day, when we came to a shelter that was uglified with graffiti, much of it in obscene language. When I commented on it, one of the youngsters, perhaps wishing to show how cool he was about such things, said, “It’s only words”, to which I responded, “Is it? How would you feel, I wonder, if and when you have kids of your own, and one of them were to say to you: ‘Daddy, what does that word mean?’?” We all know these words, of course—how can we not?—but that doesn’t mean that we have to use them, does it? We have the power of choice and discrimination over what to do and what not to do.

We must be practical and think not just about the present but about the possible effects of our living. Even plants seem to be somewhat aware of the future, for do they not provide for it by developing elaborate devices—colors, shapes, flavors and scents—to attract insects, birds and animals (beings very different from themselves) to help them in their need to spread their pollen, spores or seeds? How has Nature produced such systems whereby bees and other insects are induced to enter flowers in search of nectar and in the process unwittingly collect pollen on themselves, which is then rubbed off on visits to other flowers, thus fertilizing them if they are of the same kind, and so ensuring the propagation and survival of the species? The plants use the insects for their own purposes, just as the insects use the plants, each getting what they want from the arrangement. Faced by such facts, dare we say that plants are not conscious and cannot think or feel? Surely, there must be some awareness in plants, a sense of the importance of living not just for themselves in the present, but of trying to pass something on (and maybe there is also some fear of not succeeding in this). And, if plants have such an awareness, it’s not surprising that humans have it in a greater degree.

Jesus is reported to have said: “Take no thought for tomorrow; sufficient to the day is the evil thereof”, but what would happen if everyone lived by such advice? We would soon starve to death, as no-one would plant anything and there would be no crops; we plant seeds to get a harvest in the future. What he meant, of course, was don’t worry about the future, as each day has enough problems of its own, without worrying about the problems of tomorrow. But, although the only time we can live is now, we really must think ahead somewhat; it would be improvident of us not to do so; moreover, worrying about something is quite different than thinking clearly about it.

So, there are three periods of Time to be considered (if we may speak of Time like that without people becoming excited and shouting, “There is no such thing as Time; it’s an illusion!”): the Past, the Present and the Future. We will use these terms to illustrate a point and not as realities that everyone can and will agree upon. A seed comes from a fruit or flower, and the fruit comes from a tree. The seed, however, has the potential of giving rise to a fruit-bearing tree (“Great oaks from little acorns grow”), though for that to happen the seed must cease to exist as such, because a seed is not a tree, but only has the potential to grow into one. Likewise, although a man is—or may be—the father of a child, the child has the potential to become a father himself. And not just this, because our conundrum is speaking of only one person, not two, one person who is the same person (as a process spanning many years, over the course of which the potential becomes the actual), and also not the same, for the person has changed from child to man. According to the Law of Karma (or what we might translate loosely as the ‘Law of Deeds’), whereby each person receives the results of his own actions, we are, in a sense, our own ancestors and will be our own descendants; our parents are merely the channels through which we manifest physically, but they are not totally responsible for what we become or how we live our lives. Look at old photos of yourself as a child: you have changed, and are no longer a child, and might well have children or even grandchildren of your own, but you cannot deny that the child in the photograph was you, and you can trace your life forwards from that time; there is continuity, and you are neither the same person nor different—or we might also say that you are the same and different. It is because of the continuity that we feel remorse for things we did or didn’t do that we should not or should have done, and satisfaction over our positive achievements.

Perhaps some people will object to the grammatical inaccuracy of our conundrum, saying that it should be ”The child will be the father of the man”, as we are talking about the potential rather than the actual. Well, of course, we all know that this is correct (or might be), but were it to be stated thus, it would not arouse our interest or possibly yield some insight; in fact, it would not be a conundrum at all! Therefore, I have stated it as I heard it so long ago, and given my understanding or interpretation of it, and in doing so, have availed myself of opportunities to touch on other things.

Only the present is ours, and that is such a fine moment that we cannot even talk about it; it must be lived, wisely, if we are not to regret it later. Right now, and at any moment, all the time, we are engaged in creating our future, and the more we understand about it, the more we shall be able to make it as we want.

The Child becomes the Man.



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