IA meditation on emptiness: This article was written by Richard Hayes
It would be better, monks, if the untutored masses saw this body, produced by the material elements, as the self rather than seeing the mind as the self. Why? Because this material body persists for two years, or for three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty years. Sometimes it persists for forty years, fifty years, a century or even longer. But, monks, this that we call thought, or mind, or consciousness, it arises as one thing and perishes as another all day and all nightlong. Just as a monkey travels through the jungle by grabbing onto one branch while letting go of another, so that which we call thought, mind, consciousness, arises as one thing and perishes as another in every moment all day and all night long. (Samyutta-nikaaya ii.94)
Last week I lay on an operating table in a local hospital. Because the operation was being done on my leg, the anaesthetist suggested a spinal tap that would make me numb from the navel down but leave me awake. It was much better, she said, than having a general anaesthetic, the toxic effects of which take up to four years to leave the body. I followed her suggestion, and so I found myself lying stark naked on a table, nothing covering me except for the straps around my chest securing me to the table. I lay stark naked, surrounded by three surgeons, a surgical nurse, an anaesthetist and an anaesthetist's assistant.
As I lay there, I imagined how I must appear to them. Then I imagined how I might appear to the students who take classes that I teach, and to the people with whom I meditate regularly. I asked myself "Which of these people sees me as I really am? These medical people to whom I am a slab or naked meat about to be carved up? The students for whom I am a source of information about the complexities of Sanskrit, Pali and Tibetan syntax? The students who turn to me as a guide through complex writings produced by some of the best minds that have ever applied themselves to Buddhist philosophy? The people who find it worth their while to sit in meditation with me and who tell me that they find my serene and cheerful friendliness a source of inspiration to them? My psychoanalyst, who knows all the ghosts who haunt my dreams and the goblins who jump me from the shadows, and has explored the many masks I have had to wear to get comfortably through life? Peter Hooper, who regularly says that I am an empty shell, a mere scholar devoid of moral integrity and wholly lacking in wisdom? Or do I myself see me as I really am, while all these others see only fragments that they glue together with their own private fantasies and projections?
No sooner did I formulate the question than I realised the various answers that could be given. In a sense, all of these people see me as I really am, for I really am nothing but what various people perceive. I am only insofar as I am a character in some play being watched by an audience who writes the very play it watches, even if the audience is only that lone inner coyote who sees me through my solitary meditations. In another sense, no one at all sees me as I really am, for there is no I for anyone to see as it really is. There is really no Richard, just a series of kaleidoscopic collage of constantly shifting images in a thousand different eyepieces, never the same twice to any one observer, never the same to any two observers, never purely an object but always at least in part a private fantasy in the mind of the beholder. This way of viewing things, of course, is what some Buddhists call anatta and what other Buddhists call emptiness. It is now the only way of viewing things that I know.
According to the Buddha, the intellect grasps the idea of non-self rather quickly, for it is not difficult to understand. It is, however, difficult to accept, because each moment of mind, that most transitory and unstable of all things in the universe, keeps saying, "I am the self. This body belongs to me. These precepts are mine. I am durable. I am running the show. This whole world was made for me to experience and to praise or condemn by my own standards of judgement." Each moment of thought tells itself this lie and then dies away, only to be replaced by another liar. Each liar refuses to acknowledge that "Consciousness arises as one thing and perishes as another all day and all night long."
As I lay on the operating table, I found it very hard to breathe. My chest was numb. My arms were numb. My throat was numb. My lower lip was numb. I could not swallow. I could not move anything but my head, and that only with great difficulty. "Breathing...very...hard" I gasped. The anaesthetist explained that the great slab of muscle on my back had made it difficult for her to find my vertebrae, and she had probably injected the anaesthetic a couple of vertebrae too high. "You'll be okay," she said. "I'm here monitoring everything. You're doing very well." Never in my life had I felt less okay. If asked to give a quick assessment of my current condition, the word "okay" would not have sprung readily to mind. But I trusted her. I had confidence that she knew what she was doing, just as I have confidence in my psychoanalyst, and in my Sanskrit teachers and in the many excellent meditation teachers I have had along the way. Even if I die, I thought, it will be quite okay. Either it will be all over or it won't. If it's all over, then I will have died as an Arahant. If it's not, I have no worries about my karma, for I have used my life pretty well and will probably be pretty well off even if Mark Rogow is right and I go to hell for making jokes about the Lotus Sutra. A line came to me, one that is often repeated in the Psalms of the Brethren: "I desire neither to live nor to die. I await my time as a servant awaits his pay."
Let me await my time by breathing, I thought. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Every phase of breath is a lifetime in itself. An hour passed. The feeling came back in my throat and chest. I could swallow again and breathe more easily. I began to chant. "Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammaa sambuddhassa." The anaesthetist's assistant asked me if I was okay. "Okay," I said. "Just singing a happy song." Her eyes twinkled behind her mask. I chanted the three refuges, the five precepts and the ti-ratana-vandanaa. Feeling was coming back to my legs. I could feel the surgeons tugging and pulling. I heard them grunt and curse. I asked the anaesthetist's assistant where she was from. Greece. We discovered that we both love Greek philosophy and whiled away the next half hour talking about classical Greece.
More and more feeling was coming back. "I think it would be good if those guys finished their work before the feeling comes back in my legs," I said. The eyes twinkled again. "They're almost done," she said. Fifteen minutes later the head surgeon peered down at me through his goggles and said through his cloth mask "I'm going to put a plaque on the wall. That was the most difficult operation of this type I have done in twenty-five years. I'm exhausted! God sends us cases like you to make all the others seem easy in contrast." His clothes were soaked in sweat. I thanked him for being so patient.
The anaesthetist's assistant took off her mask. She was stunningly beautiful. I felt like asking her whether she felt like having a cup of coffee a bit later, and then maybe running off to a Greek island together to write comedies in rhymed iambic pentameter. One of my many inner voices said "Coyote, you're incorrigible. When you're in the morgue, you'll be flirting with the mortician."
In the recovery room, I heard dozens of voices all around me, moaning and groaning and crying out in pain in French, English, Spanish, Greek, Yiddish. A nurse came over to me and chirped "Ca va bien, monsieur?" "Oui, ca va tres bien, merci. Et toi?" She laughed and said, "My, you are cheerful." "I like operations that I survive," I said. "It's nicer than dying on the operating table." Then I asked, "Is there anything I can do to help you? Can I get you something to drink?" She giggled and shook her head. "Coyote," said the stern inner voice, "you really are incorrigible."
For the next two hours, I did an intense mettaa-bhaavanaa. Every groan and cry of pain caught my attention and gave me another focus. I doubt that anybody other than myself was any better for all the mettaa I was broadcasting, and have continued to broadcast since the operation. But I am sure it has helped me to heal. I am grateful to Upatissa for writing the Vimuttimaggo, where I first encountered the meditation. And to Soma Thera, who translated it into English. And to Charley, the crazy Theosophist who lived on a diet of LSD and hashish brownies, who gave me a copy of the English translation of Vimuttimaggo in 1968 so I would believe that Edgar Cayce could recall his past lives and that a Yaqui shaman named Don Juan was an Ascended Master and that Atlantis really was rising. And to Venerable Mahaghosananda, whose beautiful gentle voice told me how in Cambodia he had come across the bodies of a hundred Buddhist monks butchered by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge; and how he responded by sitting with another monk and sending mettaa to the families of the murdered monks and to the soldiers who had killed them and the dictator who had ordered that monks be put to death for the good of the people, since all monks are parasites.
My day in the hospital was one of the best retreats I have ever had. There's a lot of old age, sickness and death there, a lot of fear, a lot of people separated from their loved ones, a lot of raw, unprocessed, undigested dukkha. Rarely does one find such a perfect venue for good practice. I am not eager to go back and would easily accept it if life works out such that I never need to go there again. But I am glad I was there. I am glad I was there as a Buddhist.
Being a Buddhist is not, however, lacking in its ambiguities. The reason this operation was so difficult for the surgeons (and for me) was because I had put it off for twenty years. I had been told twenty years ago that getting this operation would make me much more comfortable. That's a bad thing to tell a young Buddhist, who thinks "Pain is good, because it mortifies the flesh and weakens the desire to seek comfort in this foul-smelling bag of pus and blood and snot and bones. Pain increases disgust, and disgust is the fuel that drives the vehicle along the road to nirvana. The body is not the self. It is just a vehicle for the mind. The mind is all that really counts. As long as the mind is pure, who cares whether the leg is in pain." So for twenty years I lived with almost constant pain, until the condition had grown so serious that I was a prime candidate for cancer and probable amputation. And I lived with it because I was sure that's what being a Buddhist is all about. It took a good Jungian analyst three years to change that line of thinking.
It's a good thing the young man dies to make room for the old man. Because if I could get my hands on the young Buddhist whose thinking made this old man have to endure so much avoidable physical pain for so many years, I'd be tempted to slap him up side of the head. Might even say some harsh words.
The operation, I am told, was a big success. The leg is healing beautifully. In a few days the surgeon will pull all the metal clips from the twelve incisions. Then you won't be seeing much of me on this news group, because I'll be outside chasing my tail and running around for the first time in years. After a long time of being a three-legged coyote, I'll be running again on all fours. Better lock up the women.
With love to all of you,
Richard "El coyote gris" Hayes