L. Alan Weiss details how he began his quest to create his life narrative by utilizing Buddhist and Taoist philosophies and powerful tools that helped him define the nature of self through meditation, productive emptiness, and reflective thought processes. Weiss then turns the lens on his own life and thoughts as he sought clarity and understanding, searched for his back story, and explored his religious roots. Included are Weiss's reflections on his personal discoveries, the nature of change, and what he gained through the process of revisiting his life story.
Through a Lens of Emptiness shares a journal of contemplation as one man embarks on a critical search for the essence of a meaningful life.
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Through A Lens of Emptiness
Reflections on Life, Longevity and Contentment
By L. Alan Weiss
iUniverseCopyright © 2015 L. Alan Weiss
All rights reserved.
Human nature is a funny thing. Philosophers, scientists, and others have attempted to define the qualities that make us human, all through a filter of their own ideas. The diversity of commentaries on human nature can be perplexing. In general, human nature refers to those behaviors and inclinations of people that are independent of cultural influences, such as the desire to find a mate or the need to defend the family unit. One of these characteristics is an unconscious delusion of invincibility that begins when we are young, takes full flight in adolescence and young adulthood, and tempers as we age.
The sense that we are invincible and indestructible exists until life itself makes us aware of our mortality. The reality of the human condition replaces the delusion of invincibility—we are all going to die, and both the corporeal self and the autobiographical self will fade to black. Consciously or unconsciously, most people would like to feel their lifetime had some value to persons beyond themselves. The degree of personal interest in the quality of one's mortal existence varies from person to person, and to some it may not be important at all. The premise of this book is that one's mortal existence does matter, because we are part of a greater circle of life than we envision.
Mortality is neither good nor bad; it is just a reality of existence that does not discriminate based on gender, ethnicity, religion, race, or age. The only truth is that a lifetime is finite; the longer we live, the closer we approach the limits of mortal life. Different people engage with the idea of mortality in different ways. An individual with a strong sense of belief in a higher power usually comforts himself with the thought of going on to a better place after death—an idealized heaven. A spiritualist may embrace the idea of the human spirit living on forever after death in some way. A realist is likely to look at the idea of mortality as the simple consequence of living for as long as the body can sustain itself. These generalizations are indicative of basic ideas about death. The basic ideas about the significance of the self, while it exists in life, remain obscure. Meditation, a garden, and a pond are the keys to unlocking that obscurity.CHAPTER 2
The Pond Inspires—The Mind Inquires
The waterfall is small and artificial, cascading down a mere twenty inches onto the surface of a pond below its edge. As always, the sound of it quickly grabs my attention and focuses my mind. After four years of living just steps away from this garden pond and its waterfall, sounds of falling water splashing onto a pond's surface automatically stimulate my deepest thoughts. The setting is so familiar that the sound of a waterfall alone is enough to conjure up an image of the pond and the greater garden extending beyond its limits. The peace of this place enabled me to investigate the narrative of a lifetime thoughtfully.
The pond sits nestled in a park-like setting at the rear of the house where we now live. At first it was just another attractive feature of the property and nothing more. It took a full cycle of seasons of caring for the pond before it was transformed for me from a garden feature to a place for reflective and synthetic thinking.
Taoists identify a place like this as a sacred place and incorporate it into their ritual. They consider the time spent in ritual to be sacred time. The pond had become special to me before I fully understood the Taoist's idea of a sacred spot and its purpose, and it became a place of ritual as well. These are the rituals performed at my sacred spot in my sacred times: managing the health and balance of the pond, reflecting on the past, understanding the path to the present, and contemplating challenges yet to come.
Taoists believe a sacred place symbolizes the cosmos and the linkage between heaven and earth. This simple garden pond had become the symbol of a personal cosmos linking the heaven of life's high points and the earthiness of life's struggles. The goal to preserve life's narrative while adjusting to an inevitable decline in physical abilities and a possible decline in mental agility related to age took place on two levels: one external and the other internal.
1. The external process involved becoming familiar and remaining current with the literature and ideas related to the decline of the body and mind with advancing age and then applying that knowledge where appropriate.
2. The internal process involved time spent recalling and reflecting on life's pathway and progression, and on a lifetime of learning and experience. This process involved actions designed to sustain the integrity of physical and mental health for as long as possible.
The nature of time is worthy of our consideration. The waterfall and the pond bring Leonardo da Vinci's comparison between time and a flowing river to mind. The edge of the waterfall represents the present, the water flowing toward it represents the future, and the pond into which the water falls is the entirety of a lifetime passed. Observing the harmony and balance between living and nonliving elements of a pond in proximity to a peaceful and tranquil garden setting promoted an emotional relationship with the pond, a linkage that provided inspiration throughout the process of writing this book.CHAPTER 3
Gardens are traditional places of beauty and peace in both Western (European in origin) and Eastern (Asian) traditions. In Western culture, the feel of a garden is determined by its architecture, and the philosophy behind the creation of the garden is expressed in its aesthetic. Among these gardens, one finds all manner of designs, including the sanctuary garden, a space often associated with reflection and meditation. Any symbolism intrinsic to European-style gardens is a product of the design process.
Garden design in Eastern traditions incorporates elements that are of spiritual significance and rich in symbolism. These structural features serve as representations of sacred natural elements presented in their respective beliefs. Gardens in the Taoist, Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, and Shinto traditions are similar, although the symbols associated with each garden element will vary. Zen and Taoist gardens are the closest in form to my own sacred spot.
Debra Rigas describes six basic elements found in a Zen garden in her article "Elements of a Zen Garden and Their Meaning." The photograph of my own garden included in chapter 2, "The Pond," illustrates these features. In addition to becoming a place for reflective and synthetic thinking, each element of the garden has been viewed as an analogue of a facet of the essence of an individual. The six garden elements cited in Rigas's article are listed below with the keywords and ideas they bring to mind.
These are foundational elements in the garden representing mountains or suggesting strength and power. Large rocks near the garden entry are a sign of welcome. Rocks also form paths through the garden and near the water element. Ishi elements are analogues for the foundation for a lifetime. These are the rocks on which one builds a life and the determinants of paths followed in our early years.
Water elements include streams, ponds, and waterfalls, signifying purification and cleansing. Areas with water are calm and reflective, promoting contemplation. Water should also include living things like fish, frogs, aquatic plants, and insects living in a natural balance. The sound of dripping or falling water marks the passage of time. Mizu elements are analogues for the qualities that define an individual. These govern our actions in different situations and develop from processes of interaction and reaction. They are refined through filtration and distillation as a result of experience.
Thought and care goes into selecting the plants for a Zen garden. The result should be subtle and pleasing throughout the year, and have both strength and flexibility in response to the wind. The plantings selected should complement the ishi and mizu. Shokobutsu represents life choices carefully considered and carefully made. These are the people we add to our life, the opportunities we seize upon or pass over, the paths we follow, and the ethics we live by.
Shakkei (Preexisting Scenery)
The appearance of the Zen garden should also consider preexisting scenery as new elements are added. Shakkei represent positive actions. These show how one adjusts to external pressure, confronts challenge, and responds to changing life situations.
Lanterns are symbols of enlightenment as well as a form of ornamentation. Tenkeibutsu represent learning through adventures and discovery. These are the places we visit, the adventures we have, and the events in our lives that enlighten us, increasing our understanding of ourselves and humankind.
The bridge is a symbol of an individual's journey from one plane of existence to another, from the world of humans into a wider world of all living and nonliving forms. Hashi represent the potential for change and metamorphosis leading to different forms of enlightenment. These are changes that cultivate continual growth in mind and spirit and enable us to become part of something greater than ourselves. They help us face mortality and make the best use of the gift of time we are given.
These six structural elements of a Zen garden form the conceptual organization for restoring, revisiting and thinking about the narrative of a lifetime and the meaning of self.CHAPTER 4
Problem-Solving, Buddhist and Taoist Style
The search for self is an exercise in finding answers to questions that arise during the process of discovery. Buddhist and Taoist philosophies offer some useful problem-solving tools arising from the practice of meditation. The pond and garden described in the previous chapters are two of many appropriate settings for meditation.
Sakyamme Sambuddha Vihara's "A Buddhist Approach to Problem Solving" provides a succinct description that includes the following steps:
1. Establish conditions of quiet and peace for meditation.
2. Reflect on the problem.
3. Assess and analyze the problem.
4. Think of a plan and formulate a solution.
5. Assess whether the plan to solve the problem could be harmful to others. If so, reflect on the problem again and choose an approach that does no harm.
6. Implement the solution with skill and care in a way that causes no harm to others.
7. Review the outcomes and decide if any modifications are required.
8. Repeat the process until the problem is solved.
This process resembles the traditional scientific method with an emphasis on doing no harm, a point that is often ignored in contemporary research. Buddhist methodology differs from the scientific method in the lack of rigor applied to establish a testable hypothesis and analyzing data. Nonetheless, the Buddhist approach has merit.
The Taoist approach to problem-solving begins with achieving emptiness of mind, thought, and action. This approach is similar to the meditative system used by Buddhists. One contribution of Taoist philosophy to the search for self is not a process but the notion that humanity and nature exist in a state of interdependence and harmony. The following statements are an extrapolation of chapter 29 in the Tao Te Ching:
1. When humanity takes actions that impact nature, then nature is changed.
2. When nature's actions affect humanity, then humanity is changed.
3. When humanity induces a change in nature, the resulting change affects humanity.
4. If we take less and less action until we take no action, we will be in harmony with nature.
This idea applies to the quest to understand self because it imposes the consideration that each of us affects the world around us and is affected by it at the same time.
The idea of yin and yang (discussed in chapter 6) also affects the examination of a lifetime in search of the self. The balance between yin and yang is another factor in seeking a harmonious life, specifically harmony between two extremes, as in matter and energy, rarefaction and intensification, or rest and activity. Taoists consider illness and disease as a function of an imbalance between two conflicting yin–yang characteristics. A cure requires the balance to be restored. The effort to discover the nature of yin– yang imbalance and find a way to rebalance it is similar to the idea behind modern medical practice. This approach is also useful when trying to understand the balance or imbalance in the features and qualities of the self.CHAPTER 5
Building on Emptiness
Many aspects of Taoist and Buddhist belief are similar, but in the matter of emptiness they differ. The Taoist considers emptiness from three perspectives: the emptiness of action (wu wei), the emptiness of thought (wu nien), and the emptiness of mind (wu hsin). Each form of emptiness relates to the Taoist idea that the emptiness of something makes it useful—for example, the space inside a container (its emptiness) makes it useful in its ability to contain something, or the space in a wall cut for a doorway makes it useful as a passage.
1. If there is emptiness of action, there is room for purposeful action.
2. If there is emptiness of thought, there is room for new thoughts.
3. If there is emptiness of mind, there is room for reflection.
The Buddhist sees emptiness (also thought of as selflessness) not as a state of nothingness but as recognition that real-world objects cannot exist independently. This Buddhist idea, called dependent origination, states that the existence of everything depends on cause-and-effect relationships. They see dependent origination and emptiness as mutually supporting principles. Furthermore, Buddhists believe that there are an infinite number of cause-and-effect relationships possible, so it is difficult to know exactly which causes led to which effects.
A good example of dependent origination at work is provided by the butterfly effect, a term coined by Edward Lorenz to describe how a very small change in conditions triggers large and unpredictable differences in outcome, a fundamental idea related to chaos theory. Chaos in this instance does not mean pandemonium but rather the unpredictable outcomes of complex, dynamic systems of cause-and-effect relationships, which is the exact idea behind the principle of dependent origination.
The Taoist and Buddhist concepts of emptiness form an approach to thinking about the consequences of aging, mortality, and the course of one's life. Starting from a position of emptiness also facilitates thinking about and reflecting on a lifetime of experience:
1. The Taoist idea of achieving a state of emptiness of action, thought, and mind creates a useful space. Within this space, the importance of life's lessons and the meaning of life's experiences can be considered without mental clutter.
2. The Buddhist idea of dependent origination reminds us that every aspect of a lifetime is the result of one or more causal factors, either direct or indirect in action, which may never be fully understood.
The process of meditation becomes an essential tool for achieving a state of emptiness, from which all things are possible. Although Christians, Jews, and Moslems may all claim meditation in one form or another as part of their religious practice, they do not include emptiness as a means to enlightenment, nor do they consider the importance of that process. Taoism and Buddhism are all about becoming egoless, immersing oneself in emptiness, and seeking enlightenment.CHAPTER 6
No Black without White, No Dark without Light
Human nature gives us a sense of invincibility (immortality) in youth that transforms into a desire to maintain our physical and mental state as long as we are able (mortality). In light of the idea of dependent origination, we understand that our current physical and mental state neither exists nor can persist without a causal base. We also know from experience that our physical and mental state changes over time and that we are mortal beings who will eventually die. Meditation and emptiness are two important tools in the quest to understand the impact of aging and to address the fact of our own mortality. A sacred spot is a good place to engage in meditation and achieve a state of emptiness.
The idea of reciprocal dependency is another useful tool in exploring the meaning of life in search of the self. The concept of yin–yang derives directly from the idea of reciprocal dependency and is an extension of the idea of dependent origination. The Taoist symbol for yin and yang, the Tajitu, illustrates this idea. Each half of the symbol contains a small dot of the reciprocal color, illustrating that things are neither completely black nor white. The shape of one side of the symbol determines the shape of the other, making them interdependent. Trace the boundary between the black (yin) side and the white (yang) side; the proportion of black to white varies in the horizontal axis as the eye tracks along the curved interface, from very little black to a fifty-fifty balance and finally to very little white. Analyzing the Tajitsu along its vertical axis leads to a similar finding, except that there are times when it appears to be all white or all black, indicating that there is always the possibility for extreme all-or-none conditions to occur occasionally. We can see youth–old age, health–illness, or birth–death as three such reciprocal dependencies.
Excerpted from Through A Lens of Emptiness by L. Alan Weiss. Copyright © 2015 L. Alan Weiss. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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Table of Contents
Part One Focusing the Lens,
1 The Focus, 1,
2 The Pond, 3,
3 The Garden, 7,
4 Problem-Solving, Buddhist and Taoist Style, 11,
5 Building on Emptiness, 13,
6 No Black without White, No Dark without Light, 15,
7 Challenge, 19,
Part Two Emptiness and the Rudimentary Self,
8 The Buddhist View, 25,
9 The Taoist View, 27,
10 Autobiographical Self: The Basics, 29,
Part Three The Nature of the Self,
11 Body, Mind, and Self, 35,
12 Understanding the Corporeal Self, 37,
13 Understanding the Autobiographical Self as Different from the Corporeal Self, 41,
14 Psychological Factors Related to the Autobiographical Self, 43,
15 A New Yin–Yang Relationship Emerges, 47,
Part Four Understanding "I",
16 The Freudian "I", 53,
17 Buber and the Relational "I", 55,
18 The Intelligent "I", 59,
19 Preparing to Meet the Self, 65,
Part Five Ishi,
20 Dependent Origination and Ishi, 73,
21 Every Story Needs a Good Backstory, 75,
22 Russia and the Russian Revolution, 77,
23 Parental Units, 79,
24 An Armchair Philosopher, 83,
25 Humanism, Social Democracy, and Socialist Zionism, 85,
26 Religion, 87,
27 Tribal Influences, 93,
28 Time to Move On, 95,
Part Six Mizu,
29 Dependent Origination and MIZU, 99,
30 Achieving a State of Emptiness, 101,
31 The Mizu of Nature, 103,
32 The Mizu of Curiosity, 107,
33 The Mizu of Learning, 109,
34 The Mizu of Empathy, 113,
35 The Mizu of Freedom, 119,
36 The Mizu of Rebellion, 121,
37 The Mizu of Detachment, 123,
38 Mizu—A Powerful Symbol and a Symbol of Power, 125,
39 Mizu Explored, 129,
Part Seven Shokobutsu,
40 Dependent Origination and Shokobutsu, 133,
41 The Shokobutsu of a Life Partner, 135,
42 The Shokobutsu of Music, 141,
43 The Shokobutsu of Profession, 145,
44 The Shokobutsu of Ethics, 149,
45 Moving On to Shakkei, 151,
Part Eight Shakkei,
46 The Dependent Origination of Shakkei, 155,
47 The Shakkei of Socioeconomic Reality, 157,
48 The Shakkei of Social Justice, 161,
49 The Shakkei of Nationality and Nation, 167,
50 Motivation and Motive, 173,
51 Toward Enlightenment, 177,
Part Nine Tenkeibutsu,
52 The Tenkeibutsu of Intellect, 183,
53 The Tenkeibutsu of the Primacy of Nature, 191,
54 The Tenkeibutsu of Joy, 199,
55 The Tenkeibutsu of Suffering, 207,
56 The Tenkeibutsu of Satisfaction and Sufficiency, 211,
57 The Tenkeibutsu of Ornament, 215,
Part Ten Hashi,
58 The Hashi of Emptiness, 221,
59 The Hashi of Egolessness, 225,
60 The Hashi of Becoming Like Water, 229,
61 The Hashi of Oneness, 237,
Part Eleven Denouement,
62 Coming to Emptiness and Egolessness, 247,
63 The Value of Suffering, 253,
64 Zeitgeist, 259,
65 Conserving and Preserving the Autobiographical Self, 261,