Last week I had my first introduction to the layered world views of Buddhism. Apparently there are six of them, each one introducing a little more more enlightenment than the one before. Those aspiring to inner peace can ease themselves along the way by meditating on each worldview in turn and practicing its lessons in everyday life.
I got to hear the first two during a yoga class Dharma talk. I apologize to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike if I’m paraphrasing poorly:
Worldview one: Everything changes, or nothing stays the same.
Worldview two: The present moment is what it is and we can do nothing to change it. (Although how we respond to the present moment affects the next moment and the next.)
If something can immediately start to be dwelled upon I immediately began to dwell upon the practice of these worldviews. They seemed to have something to say about every frustration or concern traveling through my mind at the time and about every tricky situation I encountered from that point forward.
I was anxious, for instance, about the ongoing process of approvals at the New York City Department of Buildings (for our renovation) — the Buddhist worldviews helped me realize that I could not change the delays and hurdles, but that they would change with time. My daughter failed her chemistry regents and had to sign up for summer school — I was able to reassure her that this was not the end of the world, as it might seem, but just a modification to her plans for the summer, and a chance to get to learn a bit more about chemistry. And the England soccer team were knocked out of the World Cup after playing several lackluster games of soccer — a mediocre performance for my home country’s national squad; something of a tradition of late.
But while watching a PBS documentary about Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens as he was born) I realized that not only frustrations and hurdles but successes and satisfactions are fleeting and illusory.
Mark Twain’s life story provides a template through which to understand the weaknesses of the capitalist, consumerist worldview that we generally find ourselves stuck in: The perceived rightness of our aspiration for wealth, power, leisure, fame.
Twain denounced and reviled at these aspirations through his words but sought them endlessly in his deeds. He was not a hypocrite, I think, but a man conflicted, unable to reconcile his pleasure in material success and its trappings with his philosophical wisdom about the ultimate futility of striving mercilessly to fix anything that would inevitably change.
He made a fortune, built a beautiful home, surrounded himself with his loving and beloved family, and in the process set the seeds for losing it all (by financial overreaching).
The first two Buddhist worldviews teach us that not only must we practice acceptance and humility in failure and frustration, but also in success and satisfaction. Once I have succeeded in surmounting the feudal bureaucracy of the NYC DOB I will become a landlord and a homeowner with all of the challenges and hurdles that will bring. Once my daughter has passed her chemistry regents she’ll be focused on getting into college. Once England has a successful soccer team again… OK, if England ever has a successful soccer team again its successes won’t last forever (that privilege is reserved for Brazil).
Near the beginning of the PBS Mark Twain documentary we learn that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) started his adult life working on steamboats up and down the Mississippi river. He loved it. He was diligent. He worked his way up to the position of pilot. He earned more than the president. Each day on the river opened up new worlds for him and he never tired of the 1200 mile weeks-long trip ferrying passengers and cargo. It was all he wanted to do. Life on the river was like living a dream.
After 12 years on the river the civil war intervened and Twain was forced to move on for a while. He never went back. The rest of his life was full of ultimately frustrated striving.
Twain’s life can be viewed as the mirror image of Siddhartha’s life. Twain started from humble origins, achieved great satisfaction and happiness as a young man traveling up and down the river, but left that behind for a later life of fruitless searching for happiness in wealth, fame and comfort. Siddhartha began with wealth and comfort and moved on to strive for happiness and satisfaction, finding it as a ferry pilot on the river.
If only we could reach back in time and introduce Twain to the first two worldviews of Buddhism. Read the rest of this entry »