Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ripples in the Water

To what
Shall I compare the world?
It is like the wake
Vanishing behind a boat
that has rowed away at dawn.
-Sami Manzei

For the past several days, I have been listening to CDs of a book by Jack Kerouac, Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha. It was billed on the cover as Kerouac's version of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become the Buddha. I was expecting a novel, something along the lines of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, but in Kerouac style. Nothing prepared me for what I heard.

Apparently, Kerouac used ancient texts (or translations of them) from various sources, piecing together an almost Biblical-style life of the Buddha. The language is formal, stylized, reminiscent of Old Testament translations. The story line was there, sporadically, but much of the book is focused on sermons, teachings of Buddha, rendered in mind-numbingly repetitive and convoluted form, so that my head was swimming as I tried to make sense of all of it.

Listening to the Buddha trying to explain to his disciples the inconstancy of mind, the impermanence of the world, the unreliability of the sense perceptions, in words that turned around and around in circles, for five hours - I feel as if everything I ever knew about Buddhism has been lost in a whorling vortex of confusion. Much of the discourse is directed to Ananda, Buddha's principal disciple and devout follower. I was heartened by the fact that in the midst of the teachings, Ananda said, over and over, "But, Blessed One. How can that be?" or some such statement, always asking for further clarification. However I was disheartened by the fact that eventually it all seemed to become crystal clear to him, while I was still lost in the fog.

I am wondering if some of these teachings are similar to Zen koans, riddles with no answer, that must be answered anyway. Is it simply the contemplation, the applying of one's mind to the task, that eventually bears fruit, giving you an understanding that is beyond logic? Or am I just woefully inadequate for the task?

There were, thankfully, a few crystalline moments. One was when the Buddha was comparing life and the world to a ripple in the water, saying that it arises from nothing, returns to nothing, and cannot be defined since it dissipates almost as soon as it appears. Which led me to the poem copied above...

Anyone out there able to offer enlightenment on the subject of central Buddhist teachings?

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