Sunday, October 31, 2004

Fake Halloween Tombstones and the Brevity of Life

One bore the inscription:

Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Life is short
So party we must.

But why not:

Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Life is short
So work out your salvation with diligence.

These are two diametrically opposed responses to one and the same admitted fact, the brevity of life. The worldling, to give him a name, take the shortness of life as a reason to make the most of it, to "grab for all the gusto you can," in the words of a 1960's beer commercial since, in the words of the same commercial, "you only go around once in life." The idea is that since our days are few, our pleasures and experiences must be many, so that we may ‘get the most out of life.’

The seeker, however, rejects this merely quantitative solution to what strikes him as a qualitative problem. Fundamentally, the problem is not that our time is short, but that we are in time in the first place. Let me try to make this clear. For the person I am calling the seeker, the problem is not that our days are few in number, a problem that could be solved by having more of them, but that each day, each hour, each minute is defective in it mode of being, so that even an endless supply of days would not solve the problem. The problem is that the world of change is a scene of unreality. Desire seeks a satisfaction it cannot find in any transient object so that piling one finite satisfaction upon another does nothing to yield true satisfaction. Among the seekers we find:

Buddha: "Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!" (Supposedly the Tathagata’s last words.)

Plato: "nothing which is subject to change...has any truth" (Phaedo St 83).

Augustine: "Things that are not immutable are not at all."

Should we take the side of the worldling and view impermanence as a reason to enter into this life more appreciatively and to live it more fully, without hope for anything beyond it, or should we take the fact of impermanence as a reason to seek salvation from this world? Should we seek the deepest and richest satisfaction of our earthly desires in the brief time allotted us, or should we curtail or perhaps even renounce these desires in the hope of satisfying a higher desire? Should we party more or meditate more?

The answer depends on the answer to this question: Does impermanence entail relative unreality?