Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Spiritual Pharmacology

It would be ludicrous to expect any person to voluntarily sign his or her own death warrant. And yet, that's what true Buddhist practice expects from us.

Of course, no one is ever going to do such a thing, and consequently we have this Buddhist practice that is put in place in order to slowly 'cook us' and prepare us for signing the much dreaded death warrant. In that respect, the Buddhist practice must be a bit sneaky, so that it can slowly and imperceptibly creep up on us and deliver the final blow when we least expect it.


According to the Buddhist way of thinking, everything is subject to cycles. When it comes to issues concerning the human predicament, these cycles appear to be determined by the particular quality of mind each individual brings into the game. For example, one observes people who are subjected to extremely short cycles. Such people can typically be found among acute addicts, such as gamblers or drug and alcohol addicts, violence addicts, etc.

Upon observing the behavior of such short-cycle bound people, one cannot help but be forced to conclude that such people are extremely selfish. For example, a serious gambler, when finding himself in a pickle, would think nothing of selling his own family's future just to have another go at it. In his mind, life is absolutely not worth living unless his selfish desire to go for a ride (meaning, to bet his money on a particular horse, for example) gets to be instantly fulfilled.

Similar observations and conclusions can be made about the drug addicts, for example. A typical crack-head or a heroin addict sees nothing, knows nothing when it comes to getting the next fix. The cycles that govern his existence are extremely short, and the selfishness resulting from such short cycles is extremely pronounced. It would be difficult to find more selfish people than among those who are ensnared by the extremely short and tight cycles.

Moving away from such extreme cases, we find regular, everyday folk who appear free from being enslaved from such short cycles. Instead of being governed by the cycles that keep rearing their ugly head every 20 minutes or so, common workaday folk are more enslaved by the longer cycles that could usually be described as 'from paycheck to paycheck'. It should not come as a big surprise to learn that most people today live their lives from paycheck to paycheck, consequently finding themselves ensnared by the weekly or biweekly cycles. Most of these people do not and cannot see anything beyond this one or two weeks horizon. And consequently, their mindset is also quite narrow.

Not nearly as narrow as the mindset of a serious gambler or a crack-head, of course, but nevertheless quite narrow. A person who cannot see beyond the two week milestone cannot possibly be expected to be very broad-minded.

Broadening our horizons, we may find another group of people, the business people or proprietors, whose cycles tend to stretch beyond the two week horizon. Typically, business people view their world in terms of quarters (which coincide with the quarterly financial reports). Such businesses live and die based on their performance tied to a particular quarter.

If we then leave the narrow-minded world of addicts, paycheck winners and business people, we may encounter people whose cycles get to be longer thanks to tying their horizons to the cycles found in nature. This mostly pertains to the natural seasons. These seasons govern the lives of farmers, fishermen, hunters, gatherers, etc. These people have somewhat less selfish outlook on life, thanks to their somewhat broader view on life's cycles.

Finally, it is possible to get in touch with people who have managed to leave even the world of seasonal cycles, and to arrive at the outlook which encompasses their entire lifetime. These are the people who have withdrawn from everyday affairs to devote their lives to serving some supernatural force, such as god etc. They typically belong to some community of priesthood or something similar, and are serving a very specific role in the overall structure of the society.

These religious devotees gaze at a much longer, wider cycle than most of their fellow humans. The cycle they are focused on encompasses their entire lifetime. Thus, their mindset is much broader than the mindset of an average person, and their level of selfishness is usually much lesser than that of an average person. They view their entire life as a journey which will culminate with their death, at which point their actions and deeds will get evaluated by some higher, supernatural being, and they will get rewarded/punished accordingly. This faith influences the outlook these people may have on the cycles of existence.

All of the above examples deal with cycles of existence that vary in length. The length of these cycles depend on the horizon any given person is engaged in. The narrower the horizon, the shorter the cycle, and consequently the harsher the selfishness.

However, regardless of the respective length of the cycle one is engaged in, there is a limit to that cycle. And that limit is determined by the longevity of that person's identity. At the minimum, it is driven by the immediate selfish impulse, which the person engaged in the cycle cannot perceive in any other way but only as something of utmost urgency and importance. At the maximum, it cannot exceed that person's physical existence.

A notable exception to this worldview is the Buddhist view, which helps stretch those cycles even beyond the boundaries of the individual lifespan.

The Maker and the Making

According to the Buddhist teaching, it is not possible to have an action without an agent who would execute such an action. And conversely, it would not be possible to have an actor, or an agent, who doesn't do anything. Action and actor performing it define each other and cannot appear independently, in a similar way that we cannot have 'left' without having 'right' at the same time, nor can we have 'up' without having 'down' at the same time.

Furthermore, in the Buddhist world there are no coincidences. Unlike the scientific picture of the world, which treats pretty much every occurrence as a mere coincidence until it can be demonstrated that such occurrence complies with some elegant underlying theory, in the Buddhist world every occurrence happens for a very good reason. There are no capricious, whimsical events, nor are there any events that would be a handiwork of some supernatural being (such as god).

How do things happen according to the Buddhist teaching, then? Simply put, things are governed by the Law of Causality. Anything that happens must bear fruit. There is no possibility of an 'orphaned' event, that is to say, in the Buddhist world every event results from some other event. And furthermore, every event will result in some other event. So, the Buddhist Law of Causality portrays the world as being one enormous Matrix.

But where is the Primary Mover, then? Where is the event that put all this matrix in motion? In the Buddhist teaching, there isn't such a thing as a beginning. In other words, the world is beginningless.

The most important outcome of this teaching is its ethical, or moral component. Since nothing happens without a cause, it is impossible to wiggle out of this chain of cause-and-effect. Any deed, performed by an actor (or, a doer), must, according to this teaching, bear fruit. But the crucial teaching is that this fruit cannot be tasted by anyone else by the original doer. Thus, there simply is nowhere to hide in the Buddhist world. According to the Buddha's teaching, it would be impossible to cheat the system and to duck the responsibility.

Another important aspect of this teaching is the fact that it is impossible for someone else to taste or experience the fruits of our actions. This then guarantees the absolute fairness of such Buddhist universe, where everyone reaps whatever they sow.

The Buddhist Cycles

Buddhist practitioners live in the Buddhist universe, as described earlier. They know that anything that happens in their lives is caused by something they did previously. They also know that everything they do right now is going to bear fruit, and that fruit is going to be experienced by them, and no one else.

Knowing this, they realize that, once they die, they inevitably leave behind the legacy of their own deeds. This legacy lives on, as the Buddha taught that there cannot be an 'orphaned' event, the one that will not bear fruit.

The only problem, then, is -- who is going to taste the fruit of such acts, once the original doer disappears (that is, dies)?

And the only meaningful answer to this question is that the original doer will continue to kick around, and will be brought by the Law of Causality to taste the fruits of his or her previous actions.

This being so, it becomes evident that the Buddhist cycles have the capacity to stretch beyond the limits of an individual lifetime. As such, these cycles bring with them an unprecedented broadening of the horizons. The trifle selfishness and the small-mindedness of the everyday person, who can barely see beyond his/her paycheck, let alone beyond his lifetime, now gets slowly replaced by the open-mindedness of the typical Buddhist practitioner. The broadened horizons help appease the innate fears that make most people completely incapacitated.