Longing for Certainty - Selections
1. Ice and Hope
It is one of those rare winter days that give rise to hope—a quiet, blue afternoon with the sun dazzling on thin snow. We are alone out here in the stillness of the hollow below the farms, wandering among big trees beside a creek, with no particular goal to excite us, no urgent duties, and for once no yammering misgivings to turn us back. We are roaming at will through this piece of woods, crossing the tracks of other creatures in a long excursion to who knows where. The snow lies on the hillsides shining and melting a little, and the creek runs brilliantly between edges of ice. How surprising, how amazing that we who long shrank stupefied under winter now expand so thoughtlessly at this least thaw and burn our hoarded energies in these unblossoming woods. What is to be gained from this whimsical exercise? What is this strange human hope that sets us walking and leads away from warmth and merriment into this out-of-
the-way, sunny desolation?
As we walk through the brambles and broken weed-stalks, getting farther from our usual preoccupations, something stirs like a fragrance from that childish past when we marveled without words or comprehension at the splendid, startling, echoing world. It is a readiness, perhaps, and a wish to go on toward a rightful destiny where doubt and fear will fall away. How long has this readiness slept in the snow, crushed by habit, nearly extinguished? Now we feel it again here in the snowy hollow where the winter is being cut down by the liquid creek and by our own impetuous footsteps, our own eagerness for action. In the cold, bright air our senses seem keener, catching small lights and motions in nature, as if we were looking for signs of a reality long suspected but never quite attained. We are encouraged even at this anticipation. For all the deadening years, for all the strife and self-importance, for all the error and grief of adulthood, still this implausible longing, this childish hope, enlivens us once again.
On either side the forest mounts steeply, broken here and there by ledges of gray limestone. Now in the light and silence it all seems perfectly abandoned, raw, and desolate, yet beautiful or something more than beautiful. There is a feeling of impending, epochal change, as if spring were about to happen and all the snow were soon to melt and show us an unimagined landscape. For a moment we pause, hearing our own breathing and looking around slowly on this enigmatic afternoon with the sun low but warm enough and the shadows of trees blue and vague on coarse snow. Maybe the abandoned valley reflects a possibility in us, a theoretical, unknown season; but if so we still lack the crucial understanding with which to bring it on, and while our breath holds out we must keep wandering with a ready mind.
We pass through withered undergrowth along the bank of the creek, where the ice gleams wetly and the channel of free water shows rippling trees and skies. Briars and dead wood block our way, but as we have left the faint path long before, we are not much bothered and only walk a little more deliberately, detouring where we must, turning, hopping, striding, adapting ourselves to the land. We have not expected a trail, in any case, and we derive a kind of gladness in making this roundabout tour whose goal is not efficiency but a gracefulness of mind as much as of body. Though the briars do not spare us and the silent trees do not welcome us or offer any fruit, yet we adapt, bend with the silent change in all these things, and use our eyes and ears to catch what is happening. There is, for the moment, a fitness just in watching and listening and walking with due care; and we wonder whether with energetic contemplation we could out-walk words entirely, leave them behind, and meet the world unencumbered.
We notice that we have not yet arrived at a perfect indifference to comfort, for we are keeping to the sunlit part of the hollow and feel no temptation to cross the creek to the shadowed, colder side. The tranquil air and the brilliant sun are keeping us cheerful after so much dreary winter, and this cheerfulness is a welcome sensation—so let us go on without worry and devote ourselves more fully to this quiet business of observing and keeping our balance. The snow, we see, has lost its uniformity and freshness. Now it is partly melted and mottled and sprinkled with pine needles, shriveled leaves, stems, and sticks. Indistinct footprints of animals run over the rough surface, and we press down our own tracks among them, reflecting on this impermanent history of the day. Stamp how we will, the snow takes all marks and melts away. Even the trees and the rocks seem oddly impermanent, now that we look: there are many rotten stumps and haggard standing trunks and fallen dead branches all around; and the jutting limestone, when we walk over to inspect it, is a puzzle of cracks and divisions. Even the magnificent sky is defaced by faint shreds of cloud. We find, more and more, not perfection but slow upheaval, an ever-aging panorama of transient, crumbling, recombining things.
Now we turn away, just at a whim, and wander up a little tributary stream that trickles out of the hillside. Here we come upon a half-frozen pool below a face of rock bulging with icicles. In other seasons this must be a splashing, enchanting little waterfall, but now the water is held back and transformed into strange, white, glistening stone, frozen in layer upon layer. It drips into the pool irregularly; but there is a great mass of ice hanging off the rock and we cannot tell whether this slow thawing will much diminish it or whether the water continually seeping and draining out of the earth will make it grow still greater in the night to come.
We shuffle around the pool, admiring the desolate beauty—if that is what it is—and listening to the splatter of water-drops and squinting into the icicles. The snow at our feet here has melted back to reveal a soggy, earth-colored mat of leaves with a few still-green tufts of grass. We know— in a distant, irrelevant way—that the spring heat will soon draw up a new generation of greenery and display to the wanderer a livelier, more accommodating scene; but what power do we have over that, we who live now and want comfort now? What do we really understand of the clash or blend of elements that makes possible the frozen waterfall? As for our own troubled hearts—what do we understand of how afflictions come and go? Certainly we respond by instinct to these tones struck by nature, but for all the resounding elation or gloom, we remain dependent, never fully knowing and never transcending the pageant of ceaseless change.
The ice has not spilled over the rough rock ledges for anybody’s good or pleasure, as far as we can tell. It simply swells in the silent hollow, arising out of unknown laws; and if we are like most sightseers we will admire it for a minute and maybe carry away a small sensation of awe or refreshment. Our experience will be briefly enriched, that is all. But what if, instead, we make our minds glide more intently over these surfaces, outlasting our casual curiosity? Let us perceive beauty—or whatever we choose to call these austere flourishes of winter—but let us think as well, taking from our observation, if we can, the matter for more durable reflection.
What shall we make of the frozen waterfall? Is it not a happy chance that has brought us, strangely hopeful, here to see it, outside the talkative world in the sunlit, silent theatre of the woods? We might regard the ice as a symbol of impermanence, or of the secret creativity of nature, or of some stern principle beneath the surface of existence, or of the right resolve too long frozen within us—but symbol or not, the frozen waterfall is certainly an outlandish presence that reminds us how little we have really explored, how seldom we have crossed habit into freer territory. If this afternoon we have wandered out to a country of contemplation, that is good; but will we ever get beyond mere miles, and beyond the limits of dreaming, to some brave and wakeful truth at last? The mechanical seasons around us, which we have long taken for granted, are capable, we see, of extraordinary creations; so what fine work might a conscious human being do? Although we have for so many years supposed that our lives can only flow on in one desultory, unsatisfying way, perhaps it is our own resignation or stubborn error that keeps the stream in its muddy channel. Desiring and hoping alone will surely not suffice to alter the current (for we have desired and hoped for ages). Some strong, coherent knowledge is what we need.
Now we wait uncomfortably, worrying that soon we are going to get cold and that soon we are going to feel reasons to shrug and hurry back to our routines. The sunlight, even now, is receding up the hill, leaving the waterfall in shadow. We wonder whether the dripping icicles will now freeze again and the whole strange construction will be preserved another night, or whether the definitive change in season has indeed come and the phase of solidity will end. And would that be good or bad? We hardly know; and anyway the crystalline waterfall keeps turning our wondering back upon ourselves. We have no certainty of a season to thaw our coldness. Nothing guarantees us the elimination of our burdens or the preservation of our delights. No fate that we know of ensures our betterment. From time to time, as today, a rare inspiration startles us, but we do not know where it comes from and we have no way to build upon it. There will be more change, certainly, as always, and in our ignorance of the laws of change how can we expect a perpetual happiness? Where is there a way out of ignorance?
Hope has risen in us as we have walked and watched and let the moving scenes go by, and we fear now that it will simply fall away when not sustained, not given substance by intelligent action—just another mood that briefly animates us and departs, as a breeze agitates grass but leaves behind no power. Surely there are laws, conditions, or causes here yet undiscovered by us, the knowledge of which would give us strength; but how shall we find them? After this lifetime of wandering and improvising we are still shivering inside our homemade philosophies—so ragged after so much knitting! Even if we think ourselves sensitive and capable, even if we are wishing for the good and would undertake some worthy work, still we lack the right means, the direction, the path through the mortal wilderness. Where is the firm ground to hold us up? Where is the spring breeze to urge us along?
In this hollow below the stark sky and the high, thin branches of the trees, we find ourselves deprived of distractions, and it seems right that at least we meet directly the central problem of our ignorance. If we had just a start, we think, just a promising goal, we might have a chance for progress into knowledge. Perhaps, then, it is time to set down our pride and admit our confusion (no one will laugh at us out in this fair solitude) and look for help in the example of an earlier wanderer. We can read footprints that time has not melted. If we cannot at once break out of the circle of our hungry thoughts, we can listen to a teacher who has gone further. We can remember what once surprised our browsing minds and bring it here, away from the libraries, out of the realm of theory, and try it against the actual winter.
It is not words, at first, that now comes to our aid, but the memory or imagination of a human figure—a man we have never seen in this life but yet, from legend, art, or intuition, we can almost picture. Maybe we have many times daydreamed back through centuries to imagine that majestic figure sitting immobile in the forest, or walking with slow, silent grace, or speaking, in absolute serenity, of solemn and wondrous matters. We envision the Buddha, the Enlightened One, the great teacher whose life and doctrine have so marked history that we today, perhaps even before we knew much of the doctrine he taught, have felt undeniable attraction. Some ideas, notions, wisps of teaching have floated through our minds; we have passed, in museums or in temples, tranquil images of the Buddha; we have thought wistfully of enlightenment and wondered whether we could ever reach it. We retain the still vague but lasting picture of a sage who knew the world through and through and had compassion for all living beings, a man perfected and at peace.
The fact that the Buddha was a mortal human being and not a god or a supernatural being of any kind interests us more, for it suggests that his splendid deliverance from ignorance and suffering was not the automatic fulfillment of a unique nature but rather something built, earned, and achieved, something attained by human effort in this thorny world. Once he was simply a young man alive and thinking amid the storms of birth and death; and later, after great striving, he overcame the ancient impediments to reach perfect enlightenment. By earnest investigation and effort the Buddha discovered the path to the ending of suffering and followed it all the way; then he taught, sharing his knowledge with the world. Might we then set foot on this path and follow it ourselves, for our own benefit? Is such a thing possible? We have heard, in his recorded words, that it is.
That, and whatever else we might have learned of Buddhist doctrine, was back in closed rooms—a matter to stimulate the mind, to aid philosophy—but have we ever till now, marching and surviving under the brilliant cold sky, fully breathed in the words and matched their meaning to what we see and hear and sense? The Buddha taught that all conditioned things—all objects, thoughts, and situations—are impermanent. They rise and fall, appear and vanish. Desired or undesired, they inevitably change and pass away. Well then, is this true? Let us look around us. Will this welcome sun stand ever burning just so? Will this snow last out the year or the week? How long does a single breath of ours float visible before us? What about the tall young trees, standing amid the old wreckage of their kind? We see a momentary sky, whose pure blue is now more and more streaked with cloud. We notice our melting footprints in the slush. We see the fractured limestone in the side of the hill. We see the shimmering stream and the ice that grows and melts. And in us, through us, gushes the current of feelings and intentions, too fast to hold onto. Where is there permanence?
If even rock—divided by ice, dissolved by rain—cannot hold together, if everything we can detect is on the move in some way, lapsing helplessly into some other form, on what foundation can we possibly base our happiness? What pleasure or consolation can we trust? Must all our satisfactions end in sad regret? That is how it seems now in this universe of hectic change. We stand rocking uneasily, hands in pockets, unable to reconcile the remembered smile of the Buddha with the unrest he saw and declared. For this is surely an unsatisfactory situation. Stone itself is crumbling in the depths of the hollow, while we have been trusting to airy sensations for our safety—to tastes, sights, sounds, and ideas with no more substance than blown ashes. Sorrows encroach on our dreams and we see no remedy but to dodge faster into diversions. In the pains of the moment, and under the shadow of imminent miseries, we hasten to entertainments, attributing to them a spiritual balm they do not have. Overloaded with worry, we take on a fresh load of excitement; but repeated burdening of any sort does not make for peace. Even in regular times when no peril threatens, when no illness, death, or other calamity seems near, we charge after unsubstantial things which have, at most, unsubstantial pleasures to offer—excitements which never stop the underlying hunger. And how these excitements die away! We are left, in the failure of grasping, duped and frustrated because nothing stays put together long, because object and desire alike are fuming, escaping, disappearing before we can settle into the imagined long enjoyment.
The impermanence of the melting snow, the dripping icicles, and our own tumbling thoughts implies, when we are willing to look, universal disquiet, unsatisfactoriness, and imbalance. And if there is ever to be peace in our minds of any lasting sort we have no reason to think it will come about from patience alone. Though we stand and stare hopefully at the blue, ascetic sky, still hunger and cold eventually creep over us; the winter shadows stretch out; regrets and wants renew their clamor. Indeed, we feel them now—the problems coming back like a wind, the sharp fears and restlessness, the projects and inconclusive ambitions, the charms of pastimes glimmering once again. To be ruled by these is familiar, ordinary, perhaps endurable, but we cannot call it satisfactory.
All craving is struggling on a hill of sand, which produces more weariness and suffering, not an ascent to peace; but we persist in spite of experience, because unexplained impulse drives us and because we simply do not see what else to do. Though we might even concede that the world is impermanent and liable to suffering, we wish to believe that, amid the boiling and subsiding of all phenomena, we at least have an indubitable stability, that we possess a self or ego which is superior to the surrounding flux and which we must exert all our strength to mollify, protect, and entertain. In Buddhist teaching, however, this self is nothing but a baseless concept, a mere device of language. A human being, like other creatures, is actually a dynamic pattern of mental and physical events shifting through time, without any unchanging part. It follows, then, that the ignorant compulsion to serve an imagined self can only deepen delusion and worsen error.
Now our hands and feet are getting cold. We hear no music in the waterfall and find no more beauty in the fantastic ice. Down here deep in the hollow, we see the sun vanishing behind the highest fringe of woods, and with it our rare sense of freedom is vanishing too. There is change happening and we do not like it. Shivering a little, rubbing our fingers, we look around at the way we have come with a sudden pang. Oh, let us turn back to home and warmth. Philosophy cannot stand the snow! But having come so far, having once made it to this strange place, we hold on a minute, for the remembered, lovely smile on a statue yet haunts us. How could he, the Buddha, seeing impermanence and suffering and the emptiness of the idea of self, still smile? How could he walk, unhurried and fearless, through a hopeless world? But maybe the world is not hopeless. And maybe he had found the cure for these dire conditions that assail us.
With our old human frailty beating within us, we try to concentrate, not stirring from our vigil beside the pool. Indeed, if everything in the world is impermanent, inevitably subject to arising and passing away, then it is unsatisfactory, untrustworthy, and prone to suffering. And if within this storm of transient feelings there is really no unique self to be found—no comfortable core of our personality to rely upon—then all our vanity is futile, for how should we ever feed an empty concept full with empty pleasures? And if all the objects we might crave are ultimately mist and illusion then we can never be satisfied, no matter how fast we labor. But if, by whatever happy means, we should cease to crave, would not the whole series of habit and affliction be broken?
We can scarcely imagine the consequences of such a relinquishment, such a release, but theoretically we can see that our ceaseless wanting, our insistence that things be this way or that, must always lead to sorrow. Still, it seems we want by instinct. We are born craving—how can we stop? Surely we would erase from our hearts all craving, hatred, and fear if we could, but we have no notion of how to do that. We lack wisdom.
The water trickles and gurgles over ice and stone and ruffles the pool before us, preventing any clear reflection. We lack wisdom, but the Buddha did not. Craving born and loosed leads on wretchedly to suffering; but craving, we must understand, does not erupt out of nothing; it is not inevitable and all-powerful. The Buddha traced down the fiery string of its causes and found its source at last in ignorance. By ignorance craving is fed; by ignorance the multitudes of living beings lose their way and fall to error and grief. And have we not been long in that company? Peering at the world through the mist of ignorance, catching blurred reflections, we misperceive, misunderstand, and take the illusory for the true, the trivial for the worthy. Not knowing, not understanding, not comprehending things in their actual nature, we succumb to flavors, colors, and fragrances, and give rise to craving and aversion again and again. Not questioning appearances, we pursue appearances and are deceived.
Whatever strength we have, whatever intelligence or will or nerve, will surely fail to bring us contentment if it is misdirected. Spiritual ignorance, this lack of true knowledge about reality, skews our faculties and sets us reeling, out of kilter, into the dangers of wrong perception. Taking the phantoms of the senses as real and true, trusting to baseless premises, assuming the unconfirmed, we reason, scheme, and strive, but never break finally free from suffering.
But if all craving could be abolished then our suffering would end. This thought, this memory of a teaching, stands out clear enough now against the pool, against the wasting snow, against the silent, uncomforting forest and the immeasurable heavens. Might it not also be true that our craving depends on the perpetuation of ignorance? Then our task must be to learn, to take such steps as will break down the wall of ignorance and let light fall into our confusion. If we could so train our minds as to look upon things without bias, then would not ignorance collapse and would we not escape the fatal sequence of wrong assumptions and wrong actions? Now, as anxious, guessing beings, we frown and tremble; but the Buddha’s smile was unforced, because that imprisoning ignorance was all gone from him. Seeing things rightly as impermanent, unsatisfactory, and empty of self, he was not bound to run and grasp at anything, and his step was graceful and sure across the troubled earth.
The wisdom that shatters craving and releases the mind from suffering is not some esoteric, fortuitous inspiration but the gradual, built-up, practical understanding of the experience that flies through the senses. Liberation is obtainable—so taught the Buddha. There is a means, a path available to all who will exert themselves properly. We have heard of such a thing, have heard that it lasted down through the riotous, forgetful centuries and survives even now, powerful and free.
Abruptly we look up, as if we might see that path suddenly and literally ahead of us among the trees—a smooth, unambiguous road to safety. But as before, there is only the dormant forest with loops of vines and the clutter of dead wood and the thin, slow-melting snow. The waterfall of white marble looms above us, and above that the rocky hill with patches of sunlight. We are alone, just as before. Or perhaps—not quite as before. For now with a rare diligence deliberately kindled against the cold, with a mind keen on the living moment, we find the barest smile at last bending our lips. Now, how might this be? we ask ourselves. Oh, small presumptuous creature, shall you take your little steps, shall you escape the labyrinth of time?
Well, we wonder, what about it? Alone in the maelstrom of centuries, shall we yet make an unpredictable move? Water at our feet is gleaming as it runs off through the still, snowy landscape—and with it somehow our indecision has departed. Thoughtful, faintly smiling, we turn now and step judiciously down the course of the rivulet. What a wonder that we restrained ourselves this long—and all to win this small smile! So will is not dead in us yet.
Down at the creek bank again, we turn upstream along the way we came, walking as steadily as we can, bowing and bending again through the underbrush. It is still quiet but for a small bird or two chirping brightly somewhere. It is cold in the shadows, and we are negligible creatures, but shall we not keep going by such light as we have? We plod through slush and mud a long way back toward the upper end of the hollow and then begin to climb slowly and indirectly through the hardwoods and the green pines, following eroded, rocky lines in the hills. There is no hurry, only a mild persistence. The lunch we ate hours ago is all burned up, spent to the last crumb in woodsy explorations, and warmth is draining out of this bumbling frame, but what does that matter? We are getting tired, and that is to be expected.
And now this fair feeling, this hope, has come again, much as when we descended into the hollow, but this time not born of a full stomach or a sunny prospect but of—what shall we say?—attention and thought and effort? May it be so. Then, with such good help as still survives in the world, we ought to be able to strike some chips from the wall of ignorance.
Up on the high ground again, with the strain telling in back and legs, we emerge with a sigh from the woods to enormous cornfields and pastures spreading away under an enormous sky. Here the sun we thought lost still blazes, settling toward the horizon, yellow and dazzling over miles of snow. Far across the rolling land we see fences, trees, roads, electric towers, barns, and houses in an almost legendary vastness. In these dimensions we make our life. Here we exist for a little time—must we dream on into oblivion? We see distances to cross, and we have lost our former track in the snow; and around us, as before, the seasons display their epic mysteries. But by reflection, by attention, by disciplined action, we hope to turn ourselves toward certainty. Is it there, beyond that pond, across that wandering river, along that highway curving far away? A remembered smile is echoing now in us—this will make a beginning. Now to choose our way. Now to take another breath and go on.
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© Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano, Longing for Certainty (Wisdom Publications, 2003)
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