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Series III - Chapter 45 - ‘Is There Anything Permanent?’
Series III - Chapter 45 - ‘Is There Anything Permanent?’
THE HOUSE STOOD on a hill overlooking the main road, and beyond the road was the dull grey sea, which never seemed to have life. It was not like the sea in other parts of the world – blue, restless, immense – but was always either brown or grey, and the horizon seemed so close. One was glad it was there, for a cool breeze generally came from it when the sun was going down. On rare occasions there would be not a breath of air, and then it was suffocatingly hot; the smell of tar would come up from the road, along with the exhaust fumes of the ceaseless traffic.
There was a small garden below the house, with many flowers, and it was a delight to the passers-by. From the overhanging bushes, yellow flowers fell on the roadside, and occasionally a pedestrian would stoop to pick up a fallen blossom. Children went by with their nurses, but most of them were not allowed to pick up the flowers; the road was dirty, and they mustn’t touch dirty things!
Not far away there was a temple by a pond, and around the pond there were benches. people were always sitting on those benches, and on the brick steps leading down to the water. From an open space at the edge of the pond, four or five steps led up into the temple. The temple, the steps and the open space were kept very clean, and people removed their footwear before coming there. Each worshipper rang the bell that was hanging from the roof, placed flowers near the idol, folded his hands in prayer, and went away. It was fairly quiet there, and although you could see the traffic, the noise didn’t come that far.
Every evening, after the sun had set, a young man would come and sit near the entrance of the shrine. Freshly bathed and wearing clean clothes, he looked well-educated, and was probably an office-worker of some kind. He would sit there cross-legged for an hour or more, with his back straight and his eyes closed; in his right hand, under a newly-washed cloth which was still damp, he would be holding a string of beads. His covered fingers would move from one bead to the next as his lips pronounced the words of each prayer. Apart from this, he never moved a muscle, and he would sit there, lost to the world, till it was quite dark.
There was always a vendor or two near the entrance of the temple, selling nuts, flowers and coconuts. One evening three young men came and sat there. They all appeared to be under twenty. Suddenly one of them got up and began to dance, while another beat out the rhythm on a tin. He had on only a singlet and a loincloth, and he was showing off. He danced with extraordinary agility, moving his hips and arms with easy grace. He must have watched not only the Indian dances, but also the dancing that went on at the fashionable club near by. Quite a crowd had gathered by now, and they were encouraging him; but he needed no encouragement, and the dance was getting rather crude. All this time the man of prayers was sitting there, his body erect, with only his lips and his fingers moving. The little temple pool was reflecting the light of the stars.
We were in a small, bare room overlooking a noisy street. There was a mat on the floor, and we all sat around it. Through the open window could be seen a single palm tree on which a kite was perched, with its fierce eyes and its sharp, overhanging beak. There were three men and two women in the group that had come. The women sat on one side, opposite the men, and never spoke; but they listened attentively, and often their eyes would glisten with understanding, and a slight smile would appear on their lips. They were all quite young, and all had been to college, and now each of them had a job or a profession. They were all good friends and called each other by familiar names, and they had evidently talked over together a great many thing. One of the men had the feel of the artist about him, and it was he who began.
“I always think,” he said, “that very few artists are really creative. Some of them know how to handle colour and brush; they have learnt design and are masters of detail; they know anatomy to perfection, and are astonishingly capable on canvas. Equipped with capacity and technique, and moved by a deep creative impulse, they paint. But presently they become known and established, and then something happens to them – money and flattery, probably. Creative vision is gone, but they still have their superb technique, and for the rest of their lives they juggle with it. Now it’s pure abstraction, now it’s double-faced women, now it’s a war scene with a few lines, space and dots. That period passes, and a new period is begun: they become sculptors, ceramists, church builders, and so on. But the inward glory is lost, and they know only outward glamour. I’m not an artist, I don’t even know how to hold a brush; but I have a feeling there’s something enormously significant that we all miss.”
“I’m a lawyer,” said one of the others, “but the practice of law is to me only a means of livelihood. I know it’s rotten, one has to do so many dirty things to get on, and I would give it up tomorrow were it not for family responsibilities, and one’s own fear – which is a greater burden than the responsibilities. From childhood I have been attracted to religion; I almost became a sannyasi, and even now I try to meditate every morning. Most definitely I feel that the world is much with us. I am neither happy nor unhappy; I just exist. But in spite of everything, there’s a deep yearning for something greater than this shoddy existence. Whatever it is, I feel it is there, but my will seems to be too weak and ineffectual to break through the mediocrity in which I live. I have tried going away, but I had to come back – because of the family, and all the rest of it. I am inwardly torn in two directions. I could escape from this conflict by losing myself in the dogmas and rituals of some church or temple, but all that seems so silly and infantile. Mere social respectability, with its immortality, means nothing to me; but I am respected in my law practice, and I would go ahead in that profession – but that’s even a greater escape than the temple or the church. I have studied the books and the double talk of Communism, and its chauvinistic nonsense is a terrible thing. Everywhere I go – at home, in court, on solitary walks – this inward agony is with me, like a disease for which there’s no remedy. I have come here with my friends, not to find a remedy, for I have read what you say about such things, but if possible to understand this inward fever.”
“When I was a boy, I always wanted to be a doctor,” said the third one, “and I’m a doctor now. I can and do make quite a bit of money; I could probably make more, but what for? I try to be very conscientious with my patients, but you know how it is. I treat the well-to-do, but I also have patients without a penny, and there are so many of them that even if I could treat a thousand a day, there would still be more. I can’t give all my time to them, so I see the rich in the mornings, and the poor in the afternoons, and sometimes far into the night; and with so much work, one does tend to become somewhat callous. I try to take as much trouble with the poor as with the well-to-do but I find I am becoming less sympathetic and am losing that sensitivity which is so essential to the medical practitioner. I use all the right words and have developed a good ‘bedside manner’, but inwardly I am drying up. The patients may not know this, but I know it all too well. I loved my patients at one time, especially the wretchedly poor; I really felt for them, with all their filth and disease. But over the years I have slowly been losing all that; my heart is becoming dry, my sympathy withering. I went away for a time in the hope that a complete change and rest would kindle the flame again; but it’s no good. The fire simply isn’t there, and I have only the dead ashes of memory. I attend to my patients, but my heart is empty of love. It has done me good to tell you all this – but that’s only a relief, it’s not the real thing. And can the real thing ever be found?”
All of us were silent. The kite had flown away and a large crow had taken its place on the palm tree. Its powerful black beak was shining in the sun.
Aren’t all these problems interrelated? One has to distrust similarity; but these three problems are not essentially dissimilar, are they? “Come to think of it,” replied the lawyer, “it looks like my two friends and I are in the same boat. We are all after the same thing. We may call it by different names – love, creativity, something greater than this tawdry existence – but it’s really the same thing.”
“Is it?” asked the artist. “At moments I have felt the astonishing beauty and vastness of life; but those moments soon pass, and a void is left. This void has its own vitality, but it’s not the same as the other. The other is beyond the measure of time, beyond all word and thought. When that otherness comes into being, it’s as though one had never existed; all the pettiness of life, the tortures of daily existence, are gone, and only that state remains. I have known that state, and I must somehow revive it. I am not concerned with anything else.”
“You artists,” said the, doctor, “think that you are set apart from the rest of us. You are above other men; you have a special gift with special privileges; you are supposed to see more, feel more, live more intensely. But I don’t think you are so very different from the engineer, or the lawyer, or the doctor, who may also live intensely. I used to suffer with my patients; I loved them, I knew what they were going through, their fears, their hopes and despairs. I felt as intensely for them as you might feel for a cloud, for a flower, for a leaf blown by the wind, or for the human face. Your intensity of feeling is not different from mine, or from that of our friend here. It is this intensity of feeling that matters, not what one feels intensely about. The artist likes to think that his particular expression of it is something far superior, nearer heaven, and I know the world holds its breath when it utters that word ‘artist; but you are as human as the rest of us and our intensity is as keen, alive, vibrant, as yours. I am not belittling the artist, nor am I jealous of him; I am only saying that intensity of feeling is the important thing. Of course, it may be wrongly directed, and then the result is chaos and suffering both for oneself and for others, particularly if one happens to be in a position of power. The point is, you and I are after the same thing – you in wanting to recapture what you call the beauty and vastness of life, and I in wanting to love again.”
“And I also am seeking it, in wanting to break through the mediocrity of my life,” added the lawyer. “This ache which I feel is similar to yours; I may not be able to put it into words, or on canvas, but it’s as intense as the colour you see in that flower. I, too, long for something infinitely more than all this, something that will bring peace and fullness.” “All right, I yield; both of you are right,” admitted the artist. “Vanity is sometimes stronger than reason. We are all vain in our own peculiar ways, and how it hurts to admit it! Of course we are in the same boat, as you say. We all want something beyond our petty selves, but this pettiness creeps up on us and overwhelms us.”
Then what’s the problem we want to talk over? Is it clear to all of us? “I think so,” replied the doctor. “I should like to put it this way. Is there a permanent state of love, of creativity, a permanent ending of sorrow? We would all agree to this statement of the question, wouldn’t we?”
The others nodded in assent. “Is there a state of love, or creative peace,” went on the doctor, “which, once having been attained, will never degenerate, never be lost?”
“Yes, that’s the question,” agreed the artist. “There is this extraordinary height of exhilaration which comes unexpectedly, and fades away like a fragrance. Can this intensity remain, without the reaction of dull emptiness? Is there a state of inspiration which does not yield to time and mood?”
You are asking a great deal, aren’t you? If necessary, we shall consider later what that state is. But first of all, is there anything permanent? “There must be,” said the lawyer. “It would be very depressing and rather frightening to discover that there’s nothing permanent.”
We may find that there’s something much more significant than permanency. But before we go into this, do we see that there must be no conclusion, no apprehension, no wish which will project a pat- tern of thought? To think clearly, one must not start from a supposition, a belief, or an inner demand, must one? “I’m afraid this is going to be exceedingly difficult,” replied the artist. “I have such a clear and definite memory of the state I have experienced, that it’s almost impossible to put it aside.” “Sir, what you say is perfectly true,” said the doctor. “If I am to discover a new fact, or perceive the truth of something, my mind cannot be cluttered with what has been. I see how necessary it is for the mind to set aside all that it has known or experienced; but considering the nature of the mind, is such a thing possible?”
“If there must be no inner demand,” said the lawyer, thinking aloud, “then I must not wish to break through my present petty condition, or think of some other state, which can only be the outcome of what has been, a projection of what I already know. But isn’t this almost impossible?”
I don’t think so. If I want to understand you, surely I can have no prejudices or conclusion about you. “That is so.”
If for me the all-important thing is to understand you, then this very sense of urgency overrides all my prejudices and opinions about you, doesn’t it?
“There can of course be no diagnosis until after an examination of the patient,” said the doctor. “But is such an approach possible in an area of human experience where there’s so much self-interest?”
If there’s the intensity to understand the fact, the truth, then everything is possible; and everything becomes a hindrance if this intensity is not there. That much is clear, isn’t it? “Yes, at least verbally,” replied the artist. “perhaps I shall slip into it more as we go along.”
We are trying to find out if there is, or is not, a permanent state – not what we would like, but the actual fact, the truth of the matter. Everything about us, within as well as without – our relationships, our thoughts, our feelings – is impermanent, in a constant state of flux. Being aware of this, the mind craves permanency a perpetual state of peace, of love, of goodness, a security that neither time nor events can destroy; therefore it creates the soul, the Atman, and the visions of a permanent paradise. But this permanency is born of impermanence, and so it has within it the seeds of the impermanent. There is only one fact: impermanence.
“We know that the cells of the body are undergoing a constant change,” said the doctor. “The body itself is impermanent; the organism wears out. Nevertheless, one feels there’s a state untouched by time, and it’s that state one is after.”
Let us not speculate, but stick to facts. Thought is aware of its own impermanent nature; the things of the mind are transient, however much one may assert that they are not. The mind itself is the result of time; it has been put together through time, and through time it can be taken apart. It can be conditioned to think that there’s a permanency, and it can also be conditioned to think that there’s nothing enduring. Conditioning itself is impermanent, as is observable every day. The fact is that there’s impermanence. But the mind craves for permanency in all its relationships, it wants to perpetuate the family name through the son, and so on. It cannot abide the uncertainty of its own state, and so it proceeds to create certainty.
“I am aware of this fact,” said the doctor. “I once knew what it meant to love my patients, and while love was there I didn’t care two pins whether it was permanent or impermanent; but now that it’s gone, I want it to be made enduring. The desire for permanency arises only when one has experienced impermanence.” “But is there no lasting state of what may be called creative inspiration?” asked the artist.
Perhaps we shall understand that presently. Let us first see very clearly that the mind itself is of time, and that whatever the mind puts together is impermanent. It may, in its impermanence, have had a momentary experience of something which it now calls the permanent; and having once experienced that state, it remembers and desires more of it. So, from what it has known, memory puts together and projects that which it calls the permanent; but that projection is still within the scope of the mind, which is the field of the transient.
“I realize that whatever is born of the mind must be in a constant state of flux,” said the doctor. “But when love was there, it was not born of the mind.”
But now it has become a thing of the mind through memory, has it not? The mind now demands that it be revived; and what is revived will be impermanent. “That’s perfectly right, sir,” put in the lawyer, “I see it quite clearly. My ache is the ache of remembering the things that should not be, and longing for the things that should be. I never live in the present, but either in the past or in the future. My mind is always time-bound.”
“I think I am getting this,” said the artist. “The mind, with all its cunning, with its intrigues, its vanities and envies, is a whirlpool of self-contradictions. Occasionally it may catch a hint of something beyond its own noise, and what it has caught becomes a remembrance. It is with these ashes of remembrance that we live, treasuring things that are dead. I have been doing this, and what folly it is!”
Now, can the mind die to its remembrances, its experiences, to all the things it has known? Without seeking the permanent, can it die to the impermanent? “I must understand this,” said the doctor. “I have known love – you will all forgive me for using that word – and I cannot ‘know’ it again because my mind is held by the remembrance of what has been. It is this remembrance that it wants to make permanent, the remembrance of what it has known; and remembrance, with its associations, is nothing but ashes. Out of dead ashes, no new flame can be born. Then what? please let me go on. My mind is living on memories, and the mind itself is memory, the memory of what has been; and this memory of what has been wants to be made permanent. So there is no love, but only the memory of love. But I want the real thing, not just the memory of it.”
Wanting the real thing is still the urge of memory, isn’t it? “You mean I mustn’t want it?” “That’s right,” replied the artist. “Wanting it is a craving born of memory. You didn’t want or cling to the real thing when it was there; it was simply there, like a flower. But as it faded, the craving for it began. To want it is to have the ashes of remembrance. The supreme moment which I have been longing for is not the real. My longing arises from the remembrance of something that once happened, and so I am back in the fog of memory, which I now see is darkness.”
Craving is remembrance; there is no craving without the known, which is the memory of what has been and it is this craving that sustains the ‘me’, the self, the ego. Now, can the mind die to the known – the known which is demanding to be made permanent? This is the real problem, isn’t it? “What do you mean by dying to the known?” asked the doctor.
To die to the known is to have no continuity of yesterday. That which has continuance is only memory. What has no continuity is neither permanent nor impermanent. permanency or continuity comes into being only when there’s fear of transiency. Can there be an ending of consciousness as continuity, a dying to the total feeling of becoming without gathering again in the very act of dying? There is this feeling of becoming only when there is the memory of what has been and what should be, and then the present is used as a passage between the two. Dying to the known is the complete stillness of the mind. Thought under the pressure of craving can never be still.
“I followed with understanding up to the point when you mentioned dying,” said the lawyer. “Now I am confused.”
Only that which has an ending can be aware of the new, of love, or the supreme. What has continuance, ‘permanence’, is memory of the things that have been. The mind must die to the past, though the mind is put together by the past. The totality of the mind must be completely still, without any pressure, influence or movement from the past. Only then is the other possible. “I shall have to ponder over this a great deal,” said the doctor. “It will be real meditation.”