Friday, December 30, 2011

Reflections on the End of the World

Ayya Tathaloka Bhikkhuni ( edited by Yogi Seven (Wisdom Quarterly)

Without having reached the world’s end
There is no release from disappointment.*

*The Buddha defined "the world" as the Five Aggregates of Clinging within this "fathom-long" [6 foot long] body, for it is the world we experience, the world we are born into, the world we know in consciousness, the world we cling to, even as these painful and impersonal bodies (forms) and other aggregates go on altering.

The Buddha's meaning here is different than similar sayings. It is very important to grasp things in context. This line is part of a discourse with a literal skywalker who is interested in reaching the "end of the world" by walking. The Buddha answers him as to whether it is possible:

The end of the world can never
Be reached by walking. However,
Without having reached the world’s end,
There will be no release from suffering.

I declare that it is in this fathom-
long body, with its perceptions
and thoughts [and other aggregates],
that there is the world,
origin of the world,
the cessation of the
world, and
the path leading to the cessation
of the world [the
Four Noble Truths].
-Numerical Discourses (AN 4:45)

This is a very interesting and very different statement. For it is this end, this "cessation," that the Buddha experienced in his great awakening then taught for the rest of his life. But a cessation of what?

The answer is the cessation of the suffering that arises out of the way we give rise to the "the world" in our minds and hearts when under the influence of hatred and fear, under the influence of painful desires, longing and craving, and under the influence of ignorance, delusion, confusion and doubt.

[These are the Three Poisons of the heart/mind.] Whether gross suffering, or the underlying tendency to dissatisfaction, to never having quite enough, to never being fully and completely satisfied and content.

If the end of the world were really tomorrow, what would we consider important? What would we consider worthwhile work left undone?

These questions can be very useful to help discover what is most important to us, what we need to do -- to illuminate our real values, the work of this lifetime, however long or short.

The Buddha encouraged living each day, in a sense, as if it were our last. Not only this one day, but even each morning, each afternoon, each evening should be lived to the fullest. Not only each part of the day, but each moment, each breath should be lived fully. We should be right here with it, on top of it right now.

There is a discourse in which the Buddha asks a group of recluses if they know how long they are going to live. They give various answers. One does not know how many years, another how many weeks or days, another if he might live through the night, and finally another if he might live through the next breath or even this very breath. The last was applauded. The Buddha recommended the importance of being fully mindful of each moment, fully mindful of each breath.

When we are fully mindful of the moment -- the stretching out of the mind, its tipping into the past or future and coming back to rest, centered here in this very moment -- we can live it fully. A pervasive underlying dissatisfaction, always subtly driving us, steps back and lets go then calms.

By becoming present and aware, a lot of life energy becomes available. It is refreshing and rejuvenating, clearing the field of the senses. It clears, strengthens, and lightens the heart/mind.

Those living a monastic life are advised to live each day as if it were our last. When we leave our lodging in the morning, we are advised to look at it and reflect that we may never return. We ask ourselves, Is anything left undone, is everything in order?

At the end of the day, we reflect on what passed and put it in order so that there is nothing left scattered about. Then with love and blessings, we let it go and move into full mindfulness of the body, breath, and mind before sleeping. In this way sleep is good, clearing because the night secretary does not need to come out and work under cover of darkness. All is in order.

It is a clean way to live, without regrets, without many things hanging on. Yet we plan, we engage in long term efforts, we think and act for the welfare of the world out of love and compassion for one another. But when we do, we do our best and do it fully, then, having done it fully, we are free to let go and give each effort to its moment.

In another teaching in the Longer Discourses of the Buddha (Aganna Sutta, DN 27) "On Beginnings," the Buddha speaks of human origins. Earthlings were not always human beings as we now exist on the planet. We were not always terrestrials. In several discourses, he speaks of seeing many mega-aeons (maha kalpas) of world expansion and world contraction, Big Bangs and Big Sinks, with myriad forms and dimensions of life.

Beings of endless variety are born here, born there, as this and that. Our identity and the timeframe is not small but greatly expanded.

In the discourse called "Expanding Aeons" he speaks about cycles of this planet and of humanity over the ages and epochs. There are upheavels, many natural disasters, times of famine, drought, fire, and flood, times of great destruction. There are times when humans treat one another well and poorly, coming and going in a great cyclical rhythm that is mind-expanding, almost beyond comprehension.

And this world like every world and every other (compounded) "thing" (dhamma, phenomenon) changes. It transforms and eventually becomes other. The end of all things as we know them is a continual process occurring every moment. It is subatomic -- incessantly arising, turning, and falling -- a constant flux, a manifestation of universal impermanence.

It all comes to an end, the Buddha pointed out, here and now, in this very life, in this very body, in this "world."

It is an amazing thing: We actually only live, and will only ever live, in this moment. This breath is all we have, and it is slipping away. We do not know what the next will bring, so all we can do is live this one fully, freely, and right NOW. Living well means living with a clear and balanced mind/heart filled with loving-kindness, compassion, empathic appreciation, and equanimity -- fully, to everyone as to oneself.

For here with the breath, equanimity comes, and with equanimity comes joy, and with the deepening of that joy comes rapture, with rapture comes fearlessness... The blessed miracle of deepening meditation (absorption and insight) through which the heart becomes free. And having reached the world's end comes the end of all the suffering of rebirth.

In this very fathom-long body
there is the world,
the origin of the world,
the end of the world,
and the path leading to the end of the world
[the ennobling truths that lead to final liberation].

For this reason I wishing all well at the end of the world -- in each moment of life, in joy, rapture, and tranquility, in perfect peace, when the heart walks the sky (space), the water, or the Earth, or realms (dimensions) beyond imagination, all free from fear.

Further Reading
"This Fathom-Long Carcass" by Andrew Olendski, Tricycle
"Beginnings" (DN 27), translated by Ven. Bhikkhu Sujato
Cakkavatti Sutta - "On the Ups and Downs Longs and Shorts of Human Life"
"The Beautiful Breath" by Ajahn Brahm on the Absorptions (jhanas)

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