Sunday, February 27, 2011


Even if my skin should parch
even if my hand should wither
even if my bones should crumble into dust,
until I have attained the truth
I shall not move from this seat

Thus spoke the Buddha on the eve of his awakening.

He had been following the example of ascetics and had endured five years of mental and physical deprivation, believing that austerity was the path to freedom. But it was not. He only became more confused and distraught. Then along came a woman by the name of Sujata who offered him milk and rice which he took to satisfy his hunger and, all at once, he was invigorated and, as the next day dawned, came to full awakening.

This story teaches us that perseverance is important but not to the point of extremism. Extremism is just another trap engaging the mind in battle and leading to more suffering. No matter how hard we try to free ourselves, trying is not the way out. The way out is the way out. Respecting our capacity enables us to find it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

my original face

Look at the theatre masks. The smile turned upside down is a frown, and the grimace a grin; the same muscles contract in different directions.

Now imagine the sound each makes; the sound of laughter or sobbing. They sound similar too except that laughing is “drier” like an explosion of fiery air, whereas sobbing is “wet” like the gushing of a dam when it breaks.

Although laughing and sobbing move energy in different directions*, they both release tension from the solar plexus and are accompanied by convulsions of the diaphragm and the shedding of heat and often tears.

They both split us open. That is why we say that something tragic causes us to “break up” or “burst into tears”, and that something very funny is “side-splitting”, or “cracks us up”. Like a kernel of popcorn that explodes with the heat, the fine shell that holds us together gives way. It is a form of deliverance or catharsis.

But what am I delivered from? What laughs when I laugh? What cries when I cry? And why is it that the same incident can bring both joy and sorrow?

Originally, Greek tragedy and comedy were performed around a ritual object of worship-- a deity, hero or phallus-- whose death and rebirth was enacted through song and dance. Northrop Frye situated tragedy and comedy on a continuous cycle of birth/death/rebirth, tragedy being the Fall (death) part of the cycle and comedy the Spring (birth) mythos where the tragic hero is reborn as a clown.

We laugh and cry for the same reason: because we are at the mercy of the circle of life or Bhavacakra in Sanskrit. That’s why sex and other bodily functions are the brunt of so many jokes; they are out of our control. Freud attributed the funniness of “dirty jokes” to their having mischievously transgressed the inner censor (superego) whose task is to hide our nakedness from ourselves.

Ultimately, however, even nakedness hides the emptiness from which the circle of life is born.

What laughs when I laugh and cries when I cry comes from beyond joy and sorrow, and can be no other than what is unborn and undying in me, the flow of emptiness behind the mask whose hollow face hides my true nature. This precedes my birth and death and will survive my own existence. It is my original face before even my parents were born (Huineng).

*In yoga, these alternating currents running through the body are called prana (the transmutive energy of the inhalating breath that moves upward) and apana (the evacuative exhalating breath that moves downward).