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.

Fly Me

Clouser Crayfish
Clouser Crayfish

“Really, the only thing a psychiatrist can do that a good fishing guide can’t is write prescriptions.” John Gierach

I found this beauty at Susquehanna Fishing Tackle in Columbia. It’s the best bait and tackle shop I’ve ever been in since the Rocky Point Fishing Stop on Long Island, which sadly is now closed.

Thoughts Are Not Real

Thoughts
Thoughts

You may have heard it said that our thoughts are not real, and you may have thought about it until you became as confused as Schrodinger’s cat. In Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck said that a thought in itself is just pure sensory input, an energy fragment. But wait, there’s more.

Eckhart Tolle spent almost two years sitting on park benches in what he says was a state of intense joy. So what was he thinking about all that time, and did he realize that his thoughts weren’t real?

Eventually he ran out of bird food or whatever and wrote an excellent book called The Power of Now, which began with a chapter called you are not your mind. He wrote: “To realize that you are not your thoughts is when you begin to awaken spiritually.”

But there is a difference between knowing that you are not your thoughts and knowing that thoughts are not real. A good example is when you see what looks like water on a hot road and you know that it’s not real, yet you still see it. You’re seeing an illusion; you can even take a photo of it, but it’s only an illusion.

The Buddha said: “A wise man, recognizing that the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it is real, so he escapes the suffering.” Yes, so tell me again about the imaginary cat in the box Erwin.

Maybe Albert Einstein had it figured out when he said: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

So are some thoughts real and others only partially real? Are there good thoughts and bad thoughts? What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? Who’s on first?

Lao Tzu said: “Stop thinking, and end your problems. What difference between yes and no? What difference between success and failure? Must you value what others value, avoid what others avoid? How ridiculous!”

Think about that.

The Stories We Tell

What's your story?
What’s your story?

Sometimes people want to know your story, it could be a partner, a friend or an employer. Growing up in New York, I learned at an early age that the best answer to this is usually: whatareya writing a book?

But sometimes that may not be in your best interest. As anyone who goes into therapy discovers, questions are asked about your story not to find out who you are, but to find out who you think you are. This is a good time to be as honest as possible since you’re paying them, but spilling your guts to a complete stranger is not easy.

The thing is, our stories are fragments of memory and imagination, they are only as real as the ones in the book on our nightstand, and still we sometimes hesitate to tell them. Depending on who’s asking, we may skip over some parts and even leave whole chapters out completely.

In Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky writes a rambling memoir of a bitter, isolated man, which is depressing and at times funny, sublime and yet ridiculous. He writes:

“Every man has some reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has others which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret.

But finally there are still others which a man is even afraid to tell himself, and every decent man has a considerable number of such things stored away. That is, one can even say that the more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind.”

OK, that is a bit depressing, how about this one by Ken Kesey: “To hell with facts! We need stories!” Let’s go with that.

The Illusion of Security

The Illusion of Security
The Illusion of Security

Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravada Buddhist monk wrote an article called The Search for Security on a website called Access to Insight. This is from the first paragraph:

“We only feel at ease when we are sealed off from manifest danger, comfortably at home with ourselves and with our world, snugly tucked into familiar territory where everything seems friendly and dependable.”

Probably the best perspective on this, as well as one of the most intelligent things anyone has ever said is by Helen Keller:

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

You cannot win, if you do not play.

The Razor’s Edge

Razorblade Suitcase
Razorblade Suitcase

The Razor’s Edge is a book by W. Somerset Maugham and its inscription reads, “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”

Charlotte Joko Beck, author of Everyday Zen wrote: “When we walk the razor’s edge we’re not important; we’re no-self, embedded in life. This we fear-even though life as no-self is pure joy. Our fear drives us to stay over here in our lonely self-righteousness. The paradox: only in walking the razor’s edge, in experiencing the fear directly, can we know what it is to have no fear.”

“Still, it is necessary to acknowledge that most of the time we want nothing to do with that edge; we want to stay separate. We want the sterile satisfaction of wallowing in “I am right.” That’s a poor satisfaction, of course, but still we will usually settle for a diminished life rather than experience life as it is when that seems painful and distasteful.”

Put another way by Eckhart Tolle: “The whole essence of Zen consists in walking along the razor’s edge of Now – to be so utterly, so completely present that no problem, no suffering, nothing that is not who you are in your essence, can survive in you. In the Now, in the absence of time, all your problems dissolve. Suffering needs time; it cannot survive in the Now.”

So you gotta ask yourself one question, how soon is now?

Still Life with Eckhart Tolle

Still Life with Eckhart Tolle
Still Life with Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle wrote a book called stillness speaks, it’s about stillness (obviously), life, and in its own way it’s about still life photography. So since we’re having a blizzard today, I decided to look into his theories and see if I could discover some stillness with a still life.

My first thought was that taking a photo of a needle and thread is stupid, it’s not creative and it’s certainly not art. Then I remember E.T. saying: “All artists, whether they know it or not create from a place of inner stillness, a place of no mind.” Oh.

My second thought was that I needed to find a way to make this interesting, and I was having some problems because of thought one. But E.T. said: “Stillness is where creativity and solutions to problems are found.” So I think that meant to tighten up my tripod.

I was really trying to make this work but was getting more frustrated by the minute. To this E.T. said: “Suffering is necessary until you realize it is unnecessary.” That’s slightly confusing but probably true.

Later, I went through all the photos to see if there was one worth keeping, and I started having some crazy thoughts; the needle and the damage done, the needle and the spoon, and the fact that I’ve never been to the Space Needle in Seattle.

So once again I looked to E.T. for help, to which he said: “Here is a new spiritual practice for you: don’t take your thoughts too seriously.”

Right then, now if I can just sit still until it stops snowing I can go out and get some great winter shots. I will look at things in the most unserious way I can, maybe even shooting only JPEG, but I doubt it.

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.

Beginner’s Mind

Simple pleasures
Simple pleasures

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes; “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

What he calls beginner’s mind refers to doing something without thinking about achieving anything, which could be recognition, likes on a Facebook page, or a tweet by the President and a free room for life in one of his hotels.

Last night I spent two frustrating hours taking photos of colored pencils for a piece I wanted to write called selective focus. It was to be about the way we get caught up in our own bullshit by the way we think, and what we think about. So of course the photo had to be tack sharp, it had to be perfect.

Finally I decided the whole thing was pointless and gave up, putting the pencils in an old cigar box along with some crayons I had for another project on color. I looked over and saw something that was random and perfect and nothing special (also the title of a fantastic book by Charlotte Joko Beck).

I took six photos for the simple reason that I thought it was cool. Yes, I shot RAW and JPEG in manual on a tripod, but people don’t change overnight. And it was absolutely perfect in its own way! It’s a simple photo of crayons in an old cigar box given to me by my father 20 years ago.

So at 2 am last night I had an epiphany and it was free, there is true joy in doing something just because its fun. I can’t wait to tell this to my therapist next week when I pay my bill. She might tell me that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I have a feeling she’ll read more into this than there really is.

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.