Three Things I Don’t Know For Sure (August 12, 2007)

May 21st, 2009

I mentioned last week that I teach freshman English at a university.  And I’ve noticed–anyone else who’s worked with teenagers might notice this–but this particular generation of teenagers is a little bit conventional minded.  They like knowing what the expectations are and knowing how to follow them.  I find that my students often go for what I call “commonplaces”; they want to write essays about something that everyone will agree about.  So when we talk about democracy, they might want to write arguing “Voting is important, and everyone should vote.”  Or about education: “Everyone should stay in school.  Dropping out is a problem.”  Or about diversity: “We need to commit to encouraging diversity.”  Everyone knows that.  You won’t find people writing “Reasons Not to Vote.”  They want to stick with something that everyone will agree with.  A commonplace.

We also have commonplaces as a community.  These are the beliefs that everyone in a community is supposed to agree on.  They hold a community together.  So students try to find the beliefs that are encouraged in an academic community.  In their personal lives, they probably enjoy television more than they enjoy books, but they know that, as members of the academic community, they are supposed to believe that books are beneficial and television is harmful.  They think that’s what the teacher wants to hear.  They think that education is a process of coming to agree with the teacher, to find the beliefs that let you in to the academic community.

In both academic teaching and Buddhist teaching, I come up against the same thing.  In my academic philosophy and my Buddhist philosophy, I don’t claim that you need to believe in anything in particular.  Neither one says that I want you to agree with me on everything.  I want to teach a process of inquiry, a process of learning that everyone can use to examine their own lives.  If their conclusions end up being the opposite of mine, it’s okay.  They use the teaching to reach their own conclusions, rather than having conclusions handed to them.

Sometimes people ask these questions about Buddhist beliefs.  “What does Buddhism say about homosexuality?”  “What does Buddhism say about abortion?”  The answer?  Nothing, really.  Buddhist practice is a process of exploration, a way of seeing.  If you can see that an element of your life is causing you suffering, then you know what to do about it.  If you can see that an element of your life is not causing you suffering, then you know that you don’t need to seek out the beliefs, find someone’s judgment about it.

But if you have a limited view of a commonplace community, it can be difficult to conceive of the practice.  People are skeptical when I say that Buddhism is not about beliefs.  We’re used to communities that include people or exclude people based on beliefs. “We believe in this.  If you don’t believe this, you’re not one of us.  If you say this isn’t true, you offend our community.”

I had to look up a story from Buddha’s life, because it’s not one that’s repeated often.  One time, someone asked Buddha, “Where do human beings come from?”  Other times when he had been asked this question, he sometimes said, “We don’t know.  No one knows.  We’re here now, to practice now.”  But this one time, he said that there was a race of beings living in the heaven realms–devas, or angels.  They were immortal, and they never had misunderstandings.  They were pure beings of love and energy, and they had no wordly needs.

Then some of them started walking on earth, and noticed the plants growing on the ground, and fruit hanging from the trees, and they decided to taste this food.  When they ate, they got heavier.  With heavier bodies, they got tired.  Because they had heavy bodies to carry around, they had to sleep every day.  Then they got used to the food, and they had to worry about who owned the food and how to keep it.  And then they had to reproduce, and they couldn’t reproduce angelically; they had to go through this whole business with the human reproductive system.  They became humans.

I hope when you hear this story, you understand why Buddha taught it.  It’s meant as a teaching to examine what we are as human beings.  There’s something about these desires that makes us human.  But it’s a metaphor; it’s a story.  If the story helps you, then it’s good.  But if you’re taking a science class, please don’t tell the teacher that you won’t learn about evolution because you’re Buddhist.  And if your children are in science classes, don’t demand that the teacher present it as an alternative theory.  We don’t need to say, “There’s the theory of evolution, the theory of intelligent design, and the theory of angelic gluttony.”  They can respect you as Buddhists by teaching you science in science class.

We can say that there’s nothing you must believe to be a Buddhist, but people still get skeptical about it.  It’s a religion.  Surely there’s some level of faith in it, right?

At one point, Buddha did address this.  He said that there are exactly three things that all Dharma teachers should teach.  If it doesn’t fit these three things, it’s not Buddhism.  These three claims were called the Dharma seals, or the marks of existence.  Buddha called them anicca, dukkha, and anatta.

Anicca means impermanence.  It could be the easiest one to understand, because we have proverbs in our culture that relate to it.  We say, “Nothing lasts forever.”  We say, “The only constant is change.”  We say, “This too shall pass.”  There is nothing permanent.

Of course, we sometimes are deluded and act like things are permanent.  This is because we give things name and form.  When we give things name and form, we create things with mind.  One example of this is the name Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple.  Still Point has had services for the last seven years–the name and form have continued, and will continue.  And yet, is there anyone here who was at the very first service seven years ago?  It’s the same thing, but a different thing.  Different name, different form, nothing permanent.  We have delusion when we claim that any name or form is permanent.  No conditional thing is permanent.

The general translation for dukkha is “suffering.”  Buddha got this term from the trade of pottery; if a potter’s wheel was crooked or squeaky, they would say, “This wheel is dukkha.” It meant that it was unbalanced.  Buddha took that term to say, this is what life is like.  We try to use this thing to create something useful and solid and satisfying, but it’s wobbly, and the things we create don’t turn out perfect.  You can also think of dukkha as “unsatisfying.”  We look to conditional things for satisfaction, but Buddha taught, that’s not where satisfaction is.

We can agree with this in theory, and yet there are so many times in our lives when we forget this, and act like something conditional is going to make things okay.  I have no money now, but when I get paid I’ll be satisfied.  I would be okay, if only…

Anatta is the third Dharma seal, and it means “no self.”  For some people, it’s the toughest one to understand.  Identity–who you are, what makes you you, what makes up a person–is not intrinsic.  All the things you identify yourself with now might not have been you twenty years ago.  They won’t be you a hundred years from now.  You used to be a student, and now you’re a doctor.  You used to be a child, and now you’re an adult.

There is a tricky relationship with the teaching on anatta and the teaching on rebirth, perhaps because we have a different view of rebirth today.  I think the original teachings on rebirth (this is just my interpretation) came from the teachings of anatta.  If you think, “I, myself, am a human being,” the teachings on rebirth say, “Not necessarily so.  You used to be a pigeon.”  This self that you’re calling “myself” right now is just a blip in the endless stream of things that you used to be and that you might become.  Anything you identify as “myself” is not necessarily true.  Teachings on rebirth can help you see no-self in your own life.  If you have a child, you can think, “Maybe last time I was the child and you were the parent.”  Going to the doctor, think, “Maybe last time, you were the patient and I was the doctor.”  “Maybe last time, you were the victim and I was the mugger.”  There’s no inherent self putting you in the relationship; it’s just where you happen to be right now.  The teachings on rebirth become corrupted when they enshrine this sense of self: “I am important in this life, so I must have been important in a past life.”

The thing I love about these Dharma seals is that they are all negative.  None of them is an affirmative claim that we need to buy.  There is nothing permanent; there is nothing satisfactory; there is nothing inherent.  These three seals break down any delusion we might have.  These are the three things that I don’t know for sure.  Another way to put this: there’s no condition that’s unconditional.

If anyone presents something as a Buddhist teaching, you can hold it up to these three seals and question it.  There are different schools of Buddhism in the world with different applications of these three Dharma seals, but they all should fit the seals themselves. If someone who claims to be a Buddhist teacher tells you that you will be happy if you use the power of positive attraction to get what you want, you can tell them, “No, it’s dukkha.  Not satisfying.” If some Buddhist teacher tells you that gay people can’t be Buddhists, or that women are better Buddhists than men, say, “No, it’s anatta.  There’s no self.”  If someone says, “I know my teaching comes directly from the Buddha, and everyone else gets it wrong,” say, “No, it’s anicca.  You don’t know of anything permanent that came directly from the Buddha to you.”

Once we break through our delusions, at least a little of our delusion (I’m sure we all have plenty left), we can practice.  We don’t have to know.  We’ll say, “Since I don’t know this, I don’t know this, and I don’t know this, I might as well sit.”

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