Sunday, August 17, 2008


Saturday morning, I finally finished reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (reading in bed on weekend mornings is one of my favorite self indulgences). Near the end of the book, as Dawkins describes his source of inspiration in the absence of a theistic faith, he writes about:
". . . how lucky we are to be alive, given that the vast majority of people who could potentially be thrown up by the combinatorial lottery of DNA will in fact never be born. For those of us lucky enough to be here, I pictured the relative brevity of life by imagining a laser-thin spotlight creeping along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything before or after the spotlight is shrouded in the darkness of the dead past, or the darkness of the unknown future. We are staggeringly lucky to find ourselves in the spotlight. However brief our time in the sun, if we waste a second of it, or complain that it is dull or barren or (like a child) boring, couldn't this be seen as a callous insult to those unborn trillions who will never even be offered life in the first place? As many atheists have said better than me, the knowledge that we have only one life should make it all the more precious."
This is not at all inconsistent with my understanding of Zen. In his aptly named book Appreciate Your Life, Taizan Maezumi Roshi writes, "Please enjoy this wonderful life. Appreciate the world of just this! There is nothing extra. Genuinely appreciate your life as the most precious treasure and take good care of it."

No one can live your life except you. No one can live my life except me. You are responsible. I am responsible. But what is our life? What is our death?

To answer this, Maezumi turns to the transmission of "the treasury of the true dharma eye and subtle mind of nirvana" from Shakyamuni Buddha to his successor, Mahakasyapa, the one who smiled. What is this "treasury of the true dharma eye and subtle mind of nirvana?," Maezumi asks. "All of the Buddhist teachings deal with this most precious treasure," he writes. "It is your life. It is my life."
"We do not see that our life right here, right now, is nirvana. Maybe we think that nirvana is a place where there are no problems, no more delusions. Maybe we think nirvana is something very beautiful, something unattainable. We always think that nirvana is something very different from our own life. But we must really understand that nirvana is right here, right now."
I'm fascinated by the parallels between the very humanistic and atheistic outlook described by Richard Dawkins and the non-theistic teaching of Maezumi Roshi. Zen and Buddhism are not atheistic but rather non-theistic - they don't maintain that there is no God, the teachings are simply not about, and independent of, the existence or non-existence of a God. Dawkins acknowledges this early on in The God Delusion, noting, "there is something to be said for treating (religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism) not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life."

But in a note, he observes "Just as Christianity is sometimes thought to be a nicer, gentler religion than Islam, Buddhism is often cracked up to be the nicest of all. But the doctrine of demotion on the reincarnation ladder because of sins in a past life is pretty unpleasant." He goes on to quote the comedian Julia Sweeney: "I went to Thailand and happened to visit a woman who was taking care of a terribly deformed boy. I said to his caretaker, 'It's so good of you to be taking care of this poor boy.' She said, 'Don't say "poor boy." He must have done something terrible in his past life to be born this way.'"

I think Sweeney (and Dawkins) miss the point. The woman was, in fact, taking care of the poor, unfortunate boy, and was humbly dismissing pity as the motivation for her care. She was motivated by genuine compassion, not a desire for merit, not empathy or pity, not for her own salvation. The fact that she misinterpreted karmic consequences, causing Dawkins to imagine a "doctrine of demotion on the reincarnation ladder," takes nothing away from her genuine compassion.

It is too late to worry about past lives, or even if there are such things, just as it is pointless to plan for future lives. What matters most is this precious life, right here, right now. Whether you think of it as your moment in Dawkins' laser-thin spotlight on the ruler of time or consider it the treasury of the true dharma eye and the subtle mind of nirvana, what is important is to appreciate your life right here, right now, even before finishing this blog post.

1 comment:

GreenSmile said...

we apes seem to live at one of a small number of levels, as measured by these insights.

for some of us, our place is one where Nirvana and "just here, just now" are equally remote, equally shrouded by the haze of desire and fear.