Madison Boddhisattva

Every once in a while I get just a glimpse of the sublime.

Walking down Madison Ave. in Midtown one is surrounded by luxury goods shops, upscale boutiques, antiques and well dressed men and women going about their business. Among them I walked too, and thoughts of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s exposition of the “four seals” of Buddhism in “What Makes You NOT a Buddhist” resonating in my mind. The first seal says:

All compounded things are impermanent.

I looked at the people I was passing and thought, “Compounded… compounded… compounded…” Each person is made up of cells, molecules, atoms, quarks and wavicles. These have arisen, persist for a time and pass away. The people I was walking with were born, came into being; are now here on this street, alive, walking and persisting for a time; and they will pass away as well.

I looked up at the buildings of Manhattan and thought “Compounded… compounded…” I realized that though they were made very strong and solidly of steel, stone, concrete, and glass each one had been made by the hand of humans at some time and some were being built as I watched. And each would at some future time, perhaps altogether different era from my time here on this Earth, pass away and crumble to dust.

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
Genesis 3:19 King James Version

I then moved on to contemplating the third seal:

All phenomena are empty; they are without inherent existence.

Another shorthand way of saying this is that there is no ‘self’ in any compounded thing. I looked again at the people I was passing and thought “No self… no self…” And I was struck by the enormous contradiction this has for almost all of those people (including most certainly me!). Each of us truly thinks we have a self, we need to “find ourselves,” or “realize our true self,” or some other self centered preoccupation. We love ourselves. We loath ourselves. Perhaps we do both by turns. But we are convinced that there is something there that we call our self. Sometimes we call it, in a slightly self conscious and slyly denigrating way, our ego, or in a glorifying way our spirit or soul. But we do think of it as something with an existence. We are attached to it. And seeing this attachment I realized the second seal in a flash:

All emotions are painful.

I tend to think of emotions in the Buddhist psychological context as a continuum of attachment: aversion – neutral – attraction. We have negative and positive emotional responses to things. But as I thought about the emotion tied up in each of these people in their selves, I sensed the ignorance at work, the thrall that this held us all in, and I sensed this pain. I felt a wave of sadness overcome me as I walked. I thought of the compassion of the Buddha after he reached his enlightenment and the love of Jesus for all the lost. I realized then that there is nothing else to feel but a broken hearted tenderness for all these humans clinging to the self. My spine tingled and the hairs on the nape of my neck vibrated. These are a sensing, for me, of approaching the Awesome. I walked on and bathed each in a meditation of “Compassion…compassion…” And in this I thought of the fourth seal:

Enlightenment exists.

Enlightenment, or nirvana, or realization, exists not in time, space or power. But in going past things, self, and even the path one is on. And I wondered: “Will I ever become enlightened?” And I smiled.

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