Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Reflections on Xena

My cat is dying. A little over a month ago, Xena was diagnosed with a cancer on her face. At first I couldn't see anything. By now I've seen some of her teeth fall out, leaving a gap that I have to rinse out after she eats since food gets stuck in there. Her eye started to bother her, and she scratched it so badly that we had to have it removed. Other than that incident though, she seems mostly unaffected in her mood and demeanor. The reason I'm writing about this is that I've never really had to watch someone die before. All my previous pets, as well as all the humans I've known who died, all died fairly suddenly or at least out of my sight. But I can see Xena deteriorating. I interact with her injuries on a daily basis. I know she will be gone soon.  I find that this makes me appreciate her at a whole new level. When she sits in my lap or curls up on me in bed, I'm much less likely to take her presence for granted than before. She has lived with me for almost 16 years now, and I feel much closer to her now than I did before I learned of this cancer.

Of course, one of the things the Buddha encourages us to pay more attention to is the fact that we're all subject to aging, illness, and death. So from this perspective, I've always been watching everyone die. But even though I've heard many times that I should reflect on this as a way to appreciate my own and others' lives more, I've never really been affected by these thoughts the way Xena's situation affects me. I suppose that's mainly because, when I do this, I never really take seriously that anyone I know is going to die. It always seems morbid or even shameful. Even though I claim not to believe in magic, there's a lingering superstitious sense that somehow thinking about people or pets dying will have an affect on the world. As if to imagine something is to wish for it, and to wish for it could affect the probability of it actually happening.

I'm not sure how or if I can use this experience with Xena to improve my appreciation of other living beings, including myself. But I do have a better sense now of what I'm aiming at in practices such as the meditation on the five remembrances. I can imagine what it might be like to have an enhanced appreciation of all the living beings in my experience similar to the enhancement that I've experienced with Xena. One more reason to appreciate her!

Another thing that I have been reflecting on with Xena's decay is what I can see of her response to it. As I said above, she mostly seems unaffected by what is happening to her. While she was clearly annoyed with her eye for a little while there, she has otherwise mostly been her normal, loving self. I like to think of animals as 'just living' in the sense of not struggling with their experience the way most of us humans do. If you go back to my first post, there seems to be no 'second dart' for Xena, just her direct experience of whatever is happening.

I can imagine a human, even myself, in similar circumstances being unable to enjoy what life they have left. "Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this? Why won't I be able to do all those things I still want to do?" etc. Whereas Xena just climbs into my lap with her missing teeth and missing eye and purrs. Of course, she probably doesn't understand that she is dying, but she certainly knows she's got a lumpy face with missing teeth and one eye. That would be enough to put most of us in a dour mood.

This is something I'll have to explore more later, as I'm not sure I'd want to say that we'd be better off without the capacity to reflect on our experience. But in the meantime I'm happy to observe and appreciate and take inspiration from Xena's example.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Uninstructed Worldling

When I went to name my blog, I always knew that it would have to be based on the Sutta about the two darts. If you don't want to go read it now, the basic idea is that in life we experience unavoidable pains, like getting hit with a dart (or arrow), but that everything beyond the basic physical pain we experience in these situations is of our own doing. If an arrow is too abstract for your experience, imagine stubbing your toe. Yes, it hurts, but is the cursing necessary? Must you involve everyone within earshot in your suffering?

When first reading the suttas in Bikkhu Bodhi's excellent anthology, I was put off by the abundance of otherworldy concerns, but a few passages really stood out as relevant to me, particularly this bit about our own self-inflicted suffering. I really identified with this 'uninstructed worldling' (Bodhi's translation) and yet could see that the path to the single-dart experience of the 'instructed noble disciple' was not only desirable but feasible. Here was something practical that I could strive for from these teachings that would really improve my experience in my daily life.

For me, a software engineer at the time, the most immediate application was in dealing with 'bad' legacy code. Whenever I had to implement a new feature or fix a bug, I had to deal with this 'ugly' legacy code.  In fact, these labels are often used by software engineers to refer to anything they themselves didn't write. And if it has been long enough since they wrote it, it may even apply to their own code.  I would often exclaim to my coworkers that this was "the worst code I've ever seen!" Then I would bemoan the decisions made by my predecessors and compare my state to that perfect world in which the code I was working with had been written in exactly the way I imagined that I would have written it given the level of expertise and judgment that I had acquired and developed at the time I was judging it.

How much did I suffer unnecessarily in this practice? How much less stress would my life have if I simply said "This is the state of the world in which I must now accomplish my goals"? Well, I never really accomplished that state of mind, but I did make some progress. I decided that I could still discern the defects in the existing code and work to make it better without all the drama. I did find however that I clung to the drama as part of the 'fun' of the job. I guess it was about demonstrating to myself and others that I could do better than whomever had gone before?  But one can do better without the drama as well. I never did manage to fully separate the necessary judgments about what needed to be done from the unnecessary judgments about the people who had created whatever I was working with and the desire not to have to 'fix' certain things that 'never should have been done that way in the first place'.

Anyway, back to the purpose at hand. The term that is being translated as 'uninstructed worldling' is puthujjano. But when I looked into this a little more, I decided I didn't want the URL for the blog to use that word, since it seems to imply someone who is still bound by the ten fetters. I don't mind identifying with an 'uninstructed worldling', since I will always have more to learn. But I would hope to make some progress with these fetters. Even if I never overcome any of them completely, it still seemed too 'permanent' to use as part of the URL. So I've made the URL upaasako (upāsako), which just means 'lay disciple'. I don't foresee becoming a monk, so I think that's a safe term to use.

Hopefully, this will be a good place to follow along if you're interested in my upcoming adventures and (hopefully) insights in Sri Lanka. Welcome!

Update: Whoops, puthujjano only corresponds to the 'worldling' part, the 'uninstructed' is actually assutavant, which literally means 'one who has not heard'.  Since we're dealing with an oral culture 'not having heard' is equivalent to 'unlearned' or 'uninstructed'. But that's ok, I still like upaasako for the URL.

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