"What Buddha was before his insight was the same as what he was afterward, of course. But everything had fundamentally changed, not only in his apperception of it, but curcially, in his actions based upon his new identity."
Who, where, what, when, and why we are; and how we can live with not knowing.
Siddhartha Gautama sat down one day under the Bodhi tree some 2500 years ago and counting. He was at the end of his rope, and in humility, admitting that with all his vaunted intellect and training (not to mention inborn talent or reputed prior lifetimes of awakening), he did not really know what he really needed to know. He is said to have resolved to solve the problem of suffering in life, or to die trying.
Fortunately, he did not die in the physical sense, but instead “died on the cushion.” He survived the experience, and went on to teach others his approach to meditation. We are all beneficiaries of his compassion in doing so. It was not for himself that he shared his insight with others, but for their sake, instead. His was the first Bodhisattva vow.
Now we are facing not the same, but a situation similar, to what he did. Plus, of course, all the appurtenances of modernity that have accrued in the two-and-a-half millennia since. We should not be confused, however, that the basic rules of the sentient existence game have changed. Aging, sickness and death still trump whatever advances in the hard and soft sciences we may enjoy today.
That we all share in common this inevitable transition (Buddhism does not consider it an “end”) would, one would think, foster a compassionate embrace of all life, as being of the self, rather than of the other. However, those who have not resolved their own situation with regards to suffering tend to take it out on others, as if it is someone’s fault. Thus, we witness endless, unnecessary suffering—inflicted by ourselves upon ourselves, as well as on others—in addition to the natural and unavoidable suffering of aging, sickness and death. This latter class of suffering should be understood in the sense of allowing, rather than unnecessary. We allow change to take place, as we have little choice in the matter.
When we approach this conundrum on the cushion, in meditation, we have an opportunity to regard it with some dispassion. Suffering really doesn’t matter so much, if it is universal. It would be truly unfair if only some of us were subject to the laws of biology, and others were able to opt out; owing to their advantages, for example, in controlling great wealth. To some extent this imbalance in global society is true, the evidence for which being the rampant, inhumane harvesting and oppression of sentient beings for food purposes; as well as oppressing other human beings for purposes of domination, or even genocide.
You have to wonder what kind of thoughts run through the minds of these flagrant despots—who have spent their whole lives, futilely subjugating others to their will—only to succumb, finally, to the ravages of age. It must be much like a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum, when it does not get what it wants.
Any schadenfreude regarding the richly deserved comeuppance of others, if that is what we feel, will not last for long, however. We are all subject to the same rules and regulations as any other living creature. Inequality comes down to a question of “So what?” when we find ourselves at the end of our life’s journey. Even the popular meme of checking off our bucket list, to see if we have lived a “successful” life, begins to look a bit ridiculous in the context of what might have been—as opposed to what actually is—the ultimate meaning of our lives.
So, what to do? It occurred to me, that beyond Zen’s direct approach—of surrendering to this ultimate finality in our worldview, actualized in zazen—we might find a way to think about it dispassionately, by employing the so-called five W’s of traditional journalism. As explained on Wikipedia, the five consist of questions a reporter considers in filing a story:
• Who was involved?
• What happened?
• When did it take place?
• Why did that happen?
Some authors add a sixth question, how to the list:
• How did it happen?
Each question should have a factual answer — facts necessary to include for a report to be considered complete. Importantly, none of these questions can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no".
Note that last comment: none of these can be answered by a simple yes or no. This becomes more and more obvious when we consider these dimensions of the story from a Zen perspective: they take on a new and deeper meaning. Let’s consider them one at a time.