I recently finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. I had found Interpreter of Maladies to be unsatisfyingly bloodless; there was literally only one good sentence in the whole thing. Amazingly, it won a Pulitzer prize.
Nonetheless, I decided to give her novel a whirl and have the exact same opinion of it as of her short story collection. It’s like a synopsis of a story rather than the story itself. However, you’ll probably never see a better author photo—she’s utterly gorgeous.
I don't know if it's entirely good for one's character to be utterly gorgeous plus win a Pulitzer prize for one's first mediocre literary effort, but I guess I won't worry about it. Thank goodness I don't have problems like that.
I finished Steve Hagen’s book Buddhism Plain and Simple, which I had an ill feeling toward most of the time I was reading it. We got off on the wrong foot with the business about the cow picture. It’s also exceedingly dry in tone and it often sounds like he’s trying to hide something rather than reveal it. He’ll say, “You just have to see what’s going on,” but doesn’t give a hint in what direction to aim your eyeballs. It therefore came across as smug or almost coy.
However, toward the end of it, I was finding it more and more helpful, and I think it may actually end up being one of the most useful dharma books I’ve ever read, so I’ve decided to read it again right away, which is something I’ve never done before.
There is a very clear discussion of the characteristic of no-self (anatta), which took me years to begin to understand. I might have gotten it sooner if I’d had a more cerebral teacher, but then, if my teacher were more cerebral, he might not be such a source of warmth and kindness, so it’s just as well.
I came to understand that there was no unchanging thing that I could correctly refer to as my self, if for no other reason than that everything is changing constantly. Even if a thing doesn’t look like it’s changing at all, its electrons are dancing about madly and it’s made mostly of space. I could see for myself that there was absolutely nothing besides the six senses (mental activity is tossed in) and their objects: eyes and what is seen, ears and what is heard, and so forth. Nowhere to be found is a self.
Therefore, there is no such thing as getting rid of your self. The task is to realize it wasn’t there to begin with. It’s constructed out of our thoughts that use the words “I,” “me,” or “mine”—that is, about 99 percent of our thoughts. When I say, “Hey, that’s my cake,” it certainly seems like there’s a me.
I understood how things are connected to other things, how I can’t have the mango in my bowl without the dirt and the sun and the water and the mango-pickers and the parents of the mango-pickers and the food and water that nourished the mango-pickers and the person who drove the truck and the person who invented the machine that produced the mango crate and the parents of that person and so on and so forth: one enormous web that includes every last thing there is.
Yet every time I read something like “No one was born and therefore no one will die,” I found it not to be very comforting. It seems like I was born, and it’s going to seem like I’m dying (assuming I’m not hit by a truck). Even though I know I won’t be here to be aware that I’m no longer ruminating, it still seems like a bummer: “No more LWA. What a tragedy!”
But where did I begin? When the sperm met the egg? Is there really a clear dividing line? For the sperm to encounter the egg, certain things had to happen inside the bodies of my parents, and my parents had to have been sheltered from the weather and nourished by food and water and the sun, and their parents had to have existed, and so on back to the beginning of time.
By the time I was done with the book, I had a strong sense of myself as just a stream flowing along, and everyone else the same, and in fact it being all one big stream, constantly changing. Seen that way, it seems extra-ridiculous to think, “If I could just have that …” There is no I, there is no that, and if, relatively speaking, I could get that, it wouldn’t remain as it is for more than a millionth of a second, so which that am I even talking about?
I also much more clearly understood the “never born, never dies” thing, but the kicker was one sentence where he observes that consciousness is merely the thing that (seemingly) breaks the whole into pieces. Described that way, it doesn’t seem like something to hang onto.
It’s just the thing that divides the world into cake (which I want) and smoking neighbors (which I don’t want) and my acupuncturist (whom I adore) and my shiftless coworker (whom I dislike), etc.
Of course, cake and coworker are concepts. In truth, there is just a sound, a sight, a thought. They come by themselves, flowing inevitably out of what came before, and they leave by themselves. The suffering is caused by the, “That’s cake and I won’t be happy unless I can have it” and the “That’s my rotten coworker and I won’t be happy until I don’t have to work with him anymore.” Misery comes from believing those thoughts, and is exacerbated by acting on them. Freedom comes from merely seeing the thought as a thought.
Steve Hagen’s prescription is to observe what’s happening (just like he said every two sentences throughout the book, after all) and to notice if the mind is inclining toward or away from something. There is nothing to do but see, and see some more. I don’t even have to say, “If I could just get my mind not to incline,” because that in itself is inclining. All I have to do is notice what’s happening.
When the thoughts are noticed, their relationship to suffering is also considerably more obvious, and it becomes easier and more natural not to pursue what causes unhappiness. No effort to reform is needed. As Steve Hagen probably says somewhere in his book, the only effort that is needed is the same effort that is needed not to put one’s hand on a hot stove.