The Eight Similes of Illusion

Mirror image
Mirror image

This is a photo of an illusion; the table and cards are reflected in an old mirror. The objects may be real, which as you will see is debatable, but the reflected image does not exist.

In an attempt to understand what is and what is not real, I give you The Eight Similes of Illusion by Patrul Rinpoche. These should be taken seriously, and with careful contemplation, you may be able to use your illusion.

“As in a dream, all the external objects perceived with the five senses are not there, but appear through delusion.” This explains all those times I couldn’t find my car.

“As in a magic show, things are made to appear by a temporary conjunction of causes, circumstances and connections.” It’s an illusion Michael; a trick is something a whore does for money.

“As in a visual aberration, things appear to be there, yet there is nothing.” I can easily observe this by looking deeply into my checking account.

“As in a mirage, things appear but are not real.” If you have an illusory royal flush you may want to bluff.

“As in an echo, things can be perceived but there is nothing there, either outside or inside.” Note to self-test for echo.

“As in a city of Gandharvas, there is neither a dwelling nor anyone to dwell.” Fun fact: while Gandharva literally means smell eater, it’s also a term for singers in Indian classical music.

“As in a reflection, things appear but have no reality of their own.” See mirror image.

“As in a city created by magic, there are all sorts of appearances but they are not really there.” This is Disneyland in a nutshell, but you don’t have to tell the kids until they get older.

The Buddha said: “We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality. We are that reality. When you understand this, you see that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That is all.”

Deal me out, I got nothing.

From the Boat to the Box

Death
Death

One of the mind training slogans called Lojong, brought to Tibet by Buddhist teacher Atisha is: “Regard all dharma as dreams.” Well that’s nice isn’t it, it’s like rowing your boat gently down the stream, but what exactly does this mean?

Pema Chodron explains it like this: “Simply, regard everything as a dream. Life is a dream. Death is also a dream, for that matter; waking is a dream and sleeping is a dream.” As simply as she put it, we just went from the little man in the boat to the old man in the box.

Eckhart Tolle said: “Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to die before you die-and find that there is no death.” This is the type of thing that every junkie will understand clearly, but what about those rare people that aren’t leading lives of quiet desperation?

The way I see it, at the end of our life we will realize that we could have done things differently, we could have done more with the time that we had. We don’t have to wait for that day.

Sh-boom, sh-boom, ya-da-da-da-da-da. Sh-boom, sh-boom, ya-da-da-da-da-da. Sh-boom, sh-boom, ya-da-da-da-da-da, Sh-boom.

The Charnel Grounds of Columbia

Motorcycle Charnel Grounds
Motorcycle Charnel Grounds

Sometimes you find yourself in a strange place, and then try to figure out if there’s a deeper meaning to be found in the experience. So it was when I found myself in the motorcycle charnel grounds on the second floor of The Cycle Den in Columbia.

It was a depressing place, as I imagine the charnel grounds in Tibet are with the giant vultures, but depressing in a different way. I looked at those old machines and saw the people that once owned and loved them.

These now decaying bikes represented freedom, adventure and escape. I remembered the quote by Hafiz: “Stay close to anything that makes you glad you are alive.”

It is said that the Buddha encouraged his students to meditate in the charnel grounds as a way of releasing the ultimate attachment: the attachment to one’s body and to this life itself. So despite the overwhelming sadness, I stayed to reflect on the impermanence of all things, and how the pursuit of pleasure is a paradox.

Dan Aykroyd once said: “You do not need a therapist if you own a motorcycle, any kind of motorcycle.” This may or may not be true, but having sold mine last fall I am now back in therapy.

I drive there in my SUV with the radio on and the feeling of safety that comes with four wheels and airbags. It’s as close to feeling alive as playing virtual golf, with a virtual caddie and drinking a virtual martini.

Be a Lamp unto Yourself

See the light
See the light

Be a lamp unto yourself were the last words and final teaching that the Buddha gave to his monks. This often-repeated saying of the Buddha is well known but not well understood, and rarely is it put into actual practice.

This quote is by Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho:

“Be a light unto yourself. Do not follow others, do not imitate, because imitation, following, creates stupidity. You are born with a tremendous possibility of intelligence. You are born with a light within you. Listen to the still, small voice within, and that will guide you.

Nobody else can guide you, nobody else can become a model for your life, because you are unique. Nobody has there been ever who was exactly like you, and nobody is ever going to be there again who will be exactly like you. This is your glory, your grandeur – that you are utterly irreplaceable, that you are just yourself and nobody else.”

We Would Rather be Ruined than Changed

Change machine
Change machine

I was discussing change with my friend Debra the other day, and mentioned this quote by Sheldon B Kopp from his book If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him:

“It is not astonishing that, though the patient enters therapy insisting that he wants to change, more often than not, what he really wants is to remain the same and to get the therapist to make him feel better.

His goal is to become a more effective neurotic, so that he may have what he wants without risking getting into anything new. He prefers the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity.”

To my own astonishment, she had never heard that, and while I understand that she’s not a Buddhist, she is a therapist. So I threw out another one I would have bet my last Xanax that she knew.

From W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety: “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread, than climb the cross of the moment, and let our illusions die.”

She never heard that one either, which completely blew me away. I mean, I’m open to change and I’m willing to listen to her point of view, but what I really want is to remain the same and get her to make me feel better. Wait a minute, I think I’ve heard that somewhere before…

Note: if you walk into a Laundromat to photograph a change machine, make sure you adjust the white balance, because changing things later can be hard.

Right Thinking on the Path

On the path
On the path

Right thinking is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, and is a way to achieve spiritual enlightenment and end suffering. But there is more than one kind of right thinking.

I used to hear people say: “Just expose to the right, everyone does it.” Well, everyone does not do it, and when someone says this in the shower room at the gym it can be confusing.

So I’m on the path photographing white flowers, and I start thinking about ETTR (exposing to the right). Briefly, the concept is to overexpose a bit and fix it later in post processing. Many concepts, like riding your motorcycle at twice the speed limit seem to make sense, but end up backfiring. So it is with ETTR.

Another thing I used to hear people say is: “The histogram is your friend.” He might be, but he reminds me of the friend that used to show up at my house on Friday nights, with very expensive plans and a very empty wallet.

The important thing is to stay on the path and learn these things for yourself. The Buddha said: “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

As you walk the path take time to shoot the flowers, in any way that makes you happy.

Photographic Memories

Circa 1962
Circa 1962

This is a photograph of my mother in her early thirties on a trip we took to Taconic State Park in 1962. She is not that person now at 86, and in a way she is.

In her dining room there is another old photo of me at age 2 and a half. I’m sitting with my favorite teddy bear, wearing a sailor suit, and look as happy as a clam, and I ask myself who that person is.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh addressed this in his book No Death, No fear: “I have a photograph of myself when I was a boy of sixteen. Is it a photograph of me? I am not really sure. Who is this boy in the photograph? Is it the same person as me or is it another person?”

“The body of the boy in the photograph is not the same as my body, now that I am in my seventies. The feelings are different, and the perceptions are very different. It is just as if I am a completely different person from that boy, but if the boy in the photograph did not exist, then I would not exist either.”

He goes on to say: “You would not cry if you knew that by looking deeply into the rain you would still see the cloud.”

Note to self: reread this book and get a new rain jacket.

A Mushrooming Perspective

Enoki Mushrooms
Enoki Mushrooms

These are Enoki mushrooms I shot one day experimenting with still life photography. If you’ve never seen them, it’s hard to appreciate just how small they are, the whole package easily fit in the palm of my hand. Up close though they look very different, which brings up the matter of perspective.

We think that things such as birth, old age, sickness and death are a big deal, but of course those things are unavoidable. Now I’ve already been born, many times I was sick, and at 57 I’m rounding third base into old age, but death I’m not too comfortable with.

So I ask myself, self, how can I put everything into perspective? How can I accept the four noble truths, my own mortality, and the fact that I didn’t win Powerball again?

Michael A. singer, author of The Untethered Soul wrote: “You’re just standing on one little ball of dirt and spinning around one of the stars. From that perspective, do you really care what people think about your clothes or your car?”

He makes a very good point, but that philosophy goes out the window when you’re flirting with the gorgeous blonde at the Mercedes dealership.

Many, many years before that, before people had cars, or even paperback books, Marcus Aurelius, an Emperor of Rome, is reported to have said: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

Well you really can’t argue with that kind of clarity, but he wasn’t photographing tiny mushrooms from two inches away, trying to get everything tack sharp, properly exposed and correct the white balance because he used the wrong color lights.

Note to self: buy bigger mushrooms next time, daylight balanced bulbs, and learn to use the perspective warp tool in Photoshop.

Wabi-Sabi

Wabi-Sabi?
Wabi-Sabi?

Wabi-sabi represents Japanese aesthetics and a Japanese world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence, specifically impermanence, suffering and emptiness or absence of self-nature.

In this case, it’s a broken piano that was left outside the old Weavertown one room schoolhouse for over a year. I felt it was beautiful, imperfect and incomplete. As for it being impermanent, the schoolhouse is now an antique store and the piano is no longer there. Time marches on.

Games People Play

Cash4Life
Cash4Life

I’ve been playing the lottery more than usual lately but strictly for mental health reasons; I want a new motorcycle. I didn’t say that I need a new motorcycle but I want one. Will a new bike make me happy? Will $1000 a day or $1000 a week make me happy? Maybe.

Yesterday I played Cash4Life and surprisingly did not win. The odds of winning $1,000 a day for life are 1 in 21,846,048, but, and this is a big but, the odds of winning $1000 a week for life are only 1 in 7,282,016. Ridiculous yes, but I’m not the only one playing this game.

I used to wonder why older people stood in line to play these games, and by older I mean 70 and up. I guess that they, like everyone else think that money will change everything. And it will, but not always in a good way. So what is the point you might ask?

I think my point is that people spend a lot of time dreaming about the way things could be, how much better life would be if only…the list goes on and on. In Buddhism this is the essence of the Second Noble Truth, which says that getting what you want does not guarantee happiness.

I told the girl at the store that I would be better off giving the money to charity than wasting it on lottery tickets. Now I know that the lottery helps older Americans in many ways but I have an alternative plan. I’m going to take that money and donate to a charity called Ride for Kids with all proceeds benefiting the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

As selfless as this might sound, they have a raffle where every five dollars donated enters you in a sweepstakes to win a custom motorcycle. And I might still occasionally play the lottery, maybe once a week or so, but only because I can use a new pair of sneakers. And a car, and a motorcycle, and a mansion and a yacht.

Read more about the Ride For Kids Project Here