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Lewis Richmond

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Buddhist Thoughts on Impermanence, Plutonium and Beauty

Posted: 04/05/11 10:09 PM ET

One evening, after my Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki had finished his talk, a student raised his hand. "You've been talking about Buddhism for nearly an hour," he said with some agitation, "and I haven't been able to understand a thing you said. Could you say one thing about Buddhism I can understand?"

Suzuki waited patiently until the nervous laughter died down and then quietly said, "Everything changes."

A scientist might say, "Gold does not change, plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. Not everything changes; some things change very slowly." But Suzuki was speaking not as a scientist, but as a religious teacher. From his religious point of view, "everything changes" means that everything and everyone we love and care about, including our own precious selves, is bound to age, pass away and disappear. Because we cling to what we love, we suffer. This is the First Noble Truth, and the starting point of all Buddhist teaching.

But there is another, more positive aspect of change. In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki also says:

"'That things change' is the reason why you suffer in this world and become discouraged. [But] when you change your understanding and your way of living, then you can completely enjoy your life in each moment. The evanescence of things is the reason you enjoy your life."


What a startling thought: that the very evanescence of things can be a cause for joy, and a way to see this ever-changing, ever-aging world as a thing of beauty. A plastic flower is superficially pleasing, but only the living flower, shedding its petals and fading away at the very peak of its blossoming, is truly beautiful. This insight is the aesthetic dimension of Buddhist teaching and also a source of its ethics. When we appreciate every person and thing as fragile and precious, we don't want to hurt them. Instead, we practice the first precept -- non-harm -- and aspire to be more careful and kind.

In this regard, I am reminded of the legend of King Midas. According to Greek myth, Midas, granted one wish by the god Bacchus, wished that everything he touched might be turned to gold. He soon discovered, of course, that this gift was really a curse. He couldn't eat or drink; the food and water turned to gold as soon as he touched them. Even the thing he loved and cared for the most -- his own daughter -- turned to gold when he touched her. "Midas' touch" was really the touch of death. Gold has been a standard of wealth and value from ancient times to the present day, precisely because it seems never to change. But it isn't alive.

In that sense, when Suzuki said that "everything changes," he simply meant that everything is alive. Midas, like each of us, wanted wealth, security and happiness, but he was looking in the wrong place. He didn't understand that the "evanescence of things is the reason you enjoy your life." In the end, Midas gave up his power to make things unchanging and permanent. He realized that true happiness could not be found there.

I reflect on all of this as I read with fascination and horror the daily reports from the damaged nuclear reactor in Japan. Plutonium, these news stories reminds us, remains radioactive and dangerous for tens of thousands of years. It is a gift, but like Midas' touch, also a curse -- capable of poisoning our food and drink and taking the lives of those we love. I'm not sure what the Buddhist attitude might be with regard to this or any of the myriad technological miracles we have created, often with the best of intentions.

Does Buddhist teaching imply that we should go back to living in huts or caves, with none of the marvels of modern life that have made us so much more comfortable? Indeed not, we would say, but the deeper answer remains elusive. We are all in the process of working it out. I love living in a house with electricity, and I have made my living designing computer software; what's more, I would not be here at all but for modern medicine's cancer treatments, which included radiation. But one day my beloved wife will die; one day so will I. Neither gold, nor plutonium, nor any other clever invention will change that. The truth of universal change and passing away is timeless; so is the need for human beings to treat each other with kindness and respect.

 
 
 

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