Skip to main content

The Accident: Kindness and Impermanence

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 01/05/2002
In Topics: Everyday Zen

Rooted in the marvelousness nature of all impermanent things, Norman discusses the deep affinity and intimacy we experience when the chips are down. And yet why do we have such trouble getting along?This probably happens to some of you near the new year. You are writing something and you date it: January 4, 01. And you catch yourself and you change it: January 4, 02. This happened to me and I thought, who can believe that it is the year 2002? It seems so strange and exotic. I was born in the year 1946. That seems like a more reasonable year. I can remember in about 1960 or so thinking about the year 1984. It seemed impossible. The year 2000, or 2001, which you noticed because of the movie, seemed just like a dream. But, very soon, it was 2000 and 2001 and now it is 2002. I wonder how much longer this sort of thing will go on, one year following the other in order, with no end in sight. But actually I think there is an end in sight, even if we can’t see it.

There’s a line in a William Carlos Williams poem that I have always liked. It goes, “in my life the furniture eats me.” I don’t know exactly what Dr Williams meant by that, probably many things, but one thing I am sure he meant is that objects are eating us, our own lives and bodies are eating us, time is eating us. Life is eating us- we are literally being eaten up alive by our lives, by time, by our experience. Every day we are eating, this we know. But we are also just as surely being eaten.

When I made my version of Psalm 90 I found this there, in that old poem:

A thousand years to you are like a yesterday Like a lonely hour in the middle of the night You rush them away like a flood Like a long sleep Like grass That rises up fresh in the morning And in the evening withers I am consumed by you Terrified by time And my despair is all too clear In the light of your face All my days pass In the your midst All my years reverberate Like a solemnly spoken word The years of our life number seventy If we are uncommonly strong maybe eighty Yet they only bring trouble and sorrow For we can’t forget how soon they pass How swiftly they fly by Who knows your power? I can only fear it in the darkness of every night Help me understand how to count my days How to embrace my life That I may nourish a heart of wisdom

Usually we don’t think about these sorts of things. We go through our days and nights without stopping to think, who am I? why was I born? what am I supposed to be doing? Mostly we haven’t got time for that. We have so many problems to solve, so many- as they say now- “issues” to confront. We are busy, we are doing many useful and important things. But while all that is going on time still is passing, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, where does it all end?

How can it be that we are all present here? How did we get here? Where did we come from? Where were we before we were present and where will we be when we are no longer present? The only thing more strange to me than presence- (presence, what is that? who can find the measure of what it actually means to be present, to be conscious, to be a living being?) is absence.

What is absence? When you are with someone and then you are no longer with that person, and they are absent, what sort of a state of being is that? We take such things very much for granted but how can we do that? Being present, being absent, none of us really have a clue about what these words actually mean, although, if you think about it for a moment, it is clear that the capacity to be present depends completely on the capacity to be absent, for that which can’t be absent, also can’t be present. How strange a thing that is. That life ends, and that its ending is so much ingrained in what life is- almost is what life is. Who can understand that? But it is marvelous- it is literally a marvel, a miracle, like a magician’s illusion- that we are here, that we are not here, and that despite many religious and scientific explanations no one can really say where we came from or where we go when we are no longer here.

I am speaking of course of the Buddhist teaching of impermanence, which mostly we don’t understand. We think it means “things are here for a while and then after a while they wear down and go away- probably later on, but not now.” But actually impermanence doesn’t mean that. Impermanence really means that things are marvels, that they are here and gone all at the same time, that none of the ways we have of thinking of and describing our life and our world actually make sense. We are living lives of non sense and we don’t know it.

On Thursday night I was in a terrible auto accident. I was driving up the coast highway at night and coming around a curve in the road and all of a sudden there was a car coming straight at me and I knew it was going to hit me pretty much head on. There was no place to swerve to so I just braked and tried my best to turn away from the car, and the car also tried to turn away from me but we did hit each other pretty hard. The air bag popped open on impact and saved me from smashing into the steering wheel, and since I had my seat belt on and neither of us was going very fast I hardly moved in my seat. There was a lot of acrid smoke in the air and I thought my car was on fire. But it was just the air bag deploying- they do that. I had never experienced this before and didn’t know that, but now I know. I hope you have never experienced it before either- now you know too, and you didn’t have to be in an accident to find it out. I got out of my car right away and went over to the other car. The young woman inside was trapped in there and her car was also full of smoke. There was a man also going to her at the same time I was. Quickly we saw she was all right, and she got out of the passenger side of her car. And the young woman and I hugged each other right away and said how glad we were that we were both all right, how lucky a thing it was that we were both fine. She was a very nice young woman, about the age of my sons. An art student. We were crouching behind her car using the flashing taillights to exchange information when a car coming down the highway too fast almost smashed into us. The car screeched on its brakes and stopped about two feet from us. That was actually more dangerous than the initial crash. But again we escaped harm. It took about an hour for everyone to get there- two fire engines, four tow trucks, the Highway Patrol, and the Mill Valley Police. It was quite a show there on the road.

I don’t like to tell things about myself in Dharma talks because I am not so interesting and you did not come here to hear about me. But I tell this story because what is remarkable about it is how warmly this young woman (Jill is her name) and I felt toward one another right away – two human beings who had never met and might never have met but for this sudden karmic moment. Both of us had just experienced the supreme oddness of impermanence together, so naturally we felt close. We were two vulnerable marvelous human beings, and all of a sudden we understood that. It was a comfort to stand together in the cold while we waited for our rescuers to come.

In Zen, as in all spiritual traditions, there is much emphasis on compassion and love and friendliness. It’s because we are all in the same boat, or, as the case may be, the same car. We are all extremely intimate with one another because we share the same life, the same destiny, the same reality, the same presence and the same absence. We all share the nature of being impermanent, and in this sense we are almost exactly the same. Two people may seem to be completely different, but really the are almost the same, almost the same person. They have arms and legs and a nose and eyes. They have ears that hear and a mind that can think and feel. And they have the capacity to experience each other’s presence, such a strange and marvelous thing in itself, simply to know that there is another within one’s field of presence, and to feel that person’s presence. This is astonishing. And it’s all because of impermanence. Thanks to impermanence we are all merged in an embrace of friendliness. We all understand each other very well.

Of course I am very well aware of the fact that it is very difficult for people to get along together. Even close friends, spouses, families- maybe especially them!- have trouble getting along together. Also strangers, enemies, opponents of course have great trouble getting along. People are so annoying. So irritating. And then there is too the tremendous human legacy of hatred and violence. This is something we have to live down but we seem to be such a long way from that, and, in fact, whenever difficulties arise politically with each other, it seems far more likely that we will act so as to create more and more hatred and violence where there is already so much, rather than a little bit less. So we have a lot to live down and it will take a long time.

But if you contemplate it for a while, you will feel that this human propensity for violence is really strange. It is so obvious that we are all very close, all of us literally sisters and brothers, literally from the same family with the same needs and desires and hopes and fears. Frankly, although I know people are not usually very nice to one another I cannot understand why that is. It never fails to amaze and shock me. It is a phenomenon, like a waterfall or a sunset, something truly prodigious.

Mostly when people act on the side of violence it is not because they love violence or are bad people. Mostly it is because there is a good reason for it. They look at the world and see a harsh and difficult place where people are mean and there are enemies, and where it would be absolutely foolhardy and stupid not to defend yourself when you are attacked, to uphold your position and advantage against the marauding others. People look out and they see a world like this and they know they have to fight. There is no choice.

I heard a man on the radio the other day- I think Christopher Hitchens was his name. He had written a political book about Mother Theresa, debunking her [The Missionary Position : Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, 1997 – ed.], and had also written about Dalai Lama. He was, he said, not an atheist but an anti theist. In other words, he said, not only did he not believe in God and religion, but he believed God and all religious beliefs and feelings were really pernicious and stupid. He used the word contempt- he said he had contempt for such beliefs and feelings, and so, being honest, he had to admit that he had contempt for those people who held such beliefs, including Dalai Lama. About His Holiness he said, “what he says is nonsense. This idea that we are all alike because we all want to be happy- this is nonsense. It is simply not true. Most of what the man says is banal and naive. Like a cartoon. People who believe it are foolish and their inaction and wrong vision will make the world a worse place.”

Actually, he made many good points, I thought. It is true that religion can easily be too sweet and too easy. I have always had that feeling about Christianity especially, or, at least, the way Christianity seems often to be presented. From what I have read in the Bible, Jesus is a very complicated and ambiguous character. As much powerful and dangerous as sweet and light and good, though sometimes preachers make him look entirely sweet and good. And the same happens with Buddhism too- reducing it to something too easy. Life isn’t all that easy.

Still, though, in the end I could not agree with the man because he seemed to be saying that there is a view of reality that is really right and a view that is really wrong- that the right view matches how the world actually is and the wrong view doesn’t. I don’t think it’s like that at all. I think the world, whatever it is, supports many, many views. In fact the world is those views- at least as far as we are concerned. As I was saying earlier, life is a marvel. We don’t understand it. Knowing this, we feel accord with others who share in it with us. But when we don't know this, when we hold to a view, say the view that there are bad people who are trying to get us and against whom we must defend ourselves- even if we have much evidence to support this, it isn't entirely true. Whatever we think, whatever we see, whatever we experience, is dependent on our attitudes, our assumptions. If you don’t realize this then for sure you will be fighting and having many enemies.

The first verses of the Dhammapada say this:

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday
And our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow:
Our life is the creation of our mind
If a person speaks or acts with an impure mind
Suffering follows, as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that pulls it

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday
And our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow:
Our life is the creation of our mind
If a person speaks or acts with a pure mind joy will follow as a
shadow follows the body

“He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me”
Those who think such thoughts will not be free from hate

“He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me”
Those who think not such thoughts will be free from hate

For hate is not conquered by hate
Hate is conquered by love
This is the eternal law

Many do not know that we are here in this life
to live in harmony
Those who know this do not fight against each other

What is wonderful about our practice is that you don’t have to believe what I have been saying- and you should not believe it. And even if you did believe it, that belief would be very wobbly. As soon as someone attacked you you would forget about this beautiful belief and get ready to fight. What’s wonderful about our practice is that you discover on your cushion at first, and then later on also in the events of your daily life, what is really true. You feel it for yourself. And it is not so much a matter of insight or understanding as simply a process over time of loosening your grip on your own thinking and feeling- allowing your thinking and feeling to find its own true course, like a stream flowing out to the sea, rushing along in its channel naturally. And then what I am saying does become clear to you after a while in your own way. And you understand that you are life, you are presence, you are absence, and that everyone else is too, so it is impossible to wish harm to another.

When I was in Mexico in December one of the Mexican women in our retreat presented me with a wonderful challenge. This is why I love to practice in Mexico. People there take the practice at face value, exactly as it is, and they are willing to question it. She said to me, you are talking about loving kindness and closeness to each other and yet I watch many of the students who are very experienced and I see that they are not kind or happy. Some of them are mean and seem angry or depressed. And then she told me of several encounters she had had with very experienced students who were in fact short tempered or mean. So this was a good challenge.

I remember in one sutra the Buddha said to a king, Look at my disciples. They are relaxed and friendly, they are happy and full of ease. That’s how you can measure my teaching.

This is true. You can judge a teaching by the people who practice it, how they are. But this is not a perfect way to judge the truth of a teaching, first, because sometimes karma is strong, stronger, at least in the short run, than our effort in practice. So yes, sometimes there are experienced students, even teachers, even great teachers, whose conduct and way of being is sometimes, or even often, not good. But also looking at others is not a perfect way to judge because we don’t look with an unprejudiced eye. We look with a prejudiced eye and we see what our conditioning shapes, what our assumptions and ideologies dictate. I am sure that if Christopher Hitchens could spend a week with His Holiness he would find many things to be critical of, just as he found many things to be critical of with Mother Theresa. As I said before, there is no objective view. All views and conditioned views. So the best way to test and see is with your own experience, going deeply and sensitively into it. As I said to the woman in Mexico, you should see for yourself. Does the practice seem to help your life? Does it seem to bring more happiness and inspire more kindness? Does it bring some calmness and stability? These qualities don’t have to be with you all of the time – or even at all. But if you feel in your heart of hearts that practice is moving you in that direction, even if you are not there yet, even if you never get there- is there any other way to live? But you decide. And I say the same to all of you.

® 2002, Norman Fischer