Life Is Contradictory

July 5, 2009 at 6:13 pm Leave a comment

In his commentary on How To Cook Your Life, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi gives a very profound analysis of two contradictory ways of contemporary life. He begins by quoting two passages from the Soto Zen Master Dogen. The first is a passage about the impermanence of life,

‘Since everything is impermanent, there is nothing that can be relied upon. Like a dewdrop on a blade of grass along the path that vanishes quickly, who knows when this life will end. This body is surely not my possession. Life, changing in time, does not stop even for an instant.’

The second passage is about karma, the law of cause and effect,

‘Ultimately, the law of cause and effect operates clearly and impartially apart from my will. Without exception one who commits evil action falls, while one who performs good, prospers.’

Uchiyama says that these two views are completely contradictory. The one on impermanence says that since everything is constantly changing, it is impossible to accumulate anything, whether it be wealth, health or children,. If you have these things as your goal, life will be disappointing. The law of karma says that a good cause will yield a good result and a bad cause a bad result. The result of one action influences the next one. How does he interpret these two and find a satisfying solution?

To illustrate he gives a very melodramatic example of someone following the path of impermanence. A young man who thinks that life is short, is going to end in death and there is no life after death, may decide to just have as good a time as possible and not worry about the future. Since life has no purpose or meaning, he sets no direction, and just follows a desire to sample as much of life’s pleasures as he can. In Uchiyama’s story the young man eventually runs out of money, gets VD and tuberculosis, and in desperation, decides to commit a robbery. He is caught, gets sent to jail, and on release is a wrecked man.

Uchiyama points out that although this man decided to live a life constructed from a belief in impermanence, it was the action of the law of karma that came along and destroyed him. His health, finances and crime all resulted from his own actions. From bad causes came bad results.

Uchiyama then gives an example of someone who decides that the law of cause and effect is the basis of life. This person may well follow a path of acquisition, seeking wealth, power and health as the way to ensure security and longevity. But this person may die in a car crash. No matter how strong and wealthy you are, impermanence can come along in an instant and wipe you out. Or cause and effect can work out in some weird and unexpected way, since life’s variables are greater than our mind can imagine. So this path is also not the answer.

Both of these views- impermanence and karma – are both one-sided, and it was the understanding that they were contradictory that brought about the idea of the Middle Way. The Middle Way means that you learn to accept this contradiction of impermanence and cause and effect in your own life. As Uchiyama says,

‘To accept this contradiction means to forbear and overcome it without trying to resolve it. At its very essence life is contradiction, and the flexibility to forbear and assimilate contradiction without being beaten down by it nor attempting to resolve it is our life force.’

What this means is that you can’t project future goals for life without becoming disappointed when they don’t come true. At the same time you need to have a direction in life to avoid becoming completely hopeless. As Uchiyama says,

‘Much too often we go about our lives holding on to some future goal without thinking much about our present direction, or about the direction of our lives as a whole. When we stop projecting goals and hopes in the future, and refuse to be led around by them, yet work to clarify our lives, that is, the direction of the present, then we will discover an alive and dynamic practice.’

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Entry filed under: Thoughts.

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