Floating around in a world of burning houses? LEAVE NOW!

By Laura Sabia

I played in the snow with my dog as we walked around my neighborhood in Montreal at midnight.

Wisps of snow settle

Around her happy, wet face-

I let loose my grip.

This week, we were presented yet again with the rather bleak assertion that life is suffering. I was both puzzled and humbled by the analogy of this Buddhist truth offered in The Lotus Sutra of our mutable world as a burning house and us, as “children playing in it, unaware of the danger.” (Inouye 39) In this view, the home is a representation of how we measure our success in life. But as we place so much significance on the physical structure that is our house, we remain ignorant of the temptations and distractions of samsara or ukiyo (the disagreeable world) in which we live. Our ultimate task? We must awaken to the reality of the flames around us and relinquish our ties to everything that is impermanent and without substance to achieve full happiness, fulfillment and enlightenment. (Inouye 40) In Heian Japan, the concept of abandoning the “floating world” was expressed in the term shukke (leaving home)- the process of leaving life to live as a recluse in total isolation. (Inouye 40) There is no better example of the process that is shukke than Kamo no Chōmei’s An Account of My Hut (Hojoki) which traces the shift in power from wealthy aristocrat- to samurai-dominated Japan. Having lived as a courtier himself, Chōmei’s eventual distaste for aristocratic life lead him to chose a life of shukke as  “a wayfarer/raising a rude shelter,/an old silk-worm/spinning one last cocoon.” (Chōmei 61)

My favorite part of this brief work is actually its first lines: “the flowing river/never stops/and yet the water/never stays/the same.” (Chōmei 31) They elicit the now all too familiar two-pronged reaction from me (of admiration and simultaneous confusion). I am continually in awe of the way the Japanese use their lyrical relationship to the natural world to articulate the ultimate truths of life.  The literary ‘holy grail’ of Japanese culture (lecture 2/4)- The Tale of The Heike (Heike monogatari) begins in a similar moment of commune with nature with the words: “…the color of the śāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.” I understand this statement to be an example of another manifestation of evanescence but I fail to see how the color of a flower can be so directly linked to the almost religious conviction that failure always follows success. However, I am encouraged by the fact that the converse of this claim is also true- success always follows decline. Inouye makes the crucial point that “…being able to see our outcomes as both success and failure…follows from an acute awareness of change.” (Inouye 50) Our entire mental state is clearer and more stable because we are cognizant of the world’s instability. Vulnerability is particularly uncomfortable for me to feel. I am always trying to avoid it. But the notion that this humbling experience may be inevitable for me and for everyone else in the world is something that I haven’t spent much time thinking about. I’m beginning to feel a bit of comfort as I become aware of the work of evanescence at play here. Perhaps I will try loosening my grip on life a little- see what happens…

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