“Nothing is constant but change! All existence is a perceptual flux of ‘being and becoming!’ That is the broad lesson of the evolution of the world.”
- Ernst Haeckel, The Wonders of Life: A Popular Study of Biology Philosophy
For a moment I want to turn to a subject that might help to illuminate some conceptual underpinnings of subsequent posts throughout this blog, not to mention the cultural ethos of this country. It’s a subject deserving of much more thought and attention than I am going to give it now, but it is necessary to at least skim the surface and hopefully insight an interest on your part for deeper exploration for the spirit of this city cannot be fully appreciated without a basic understanding of the concept that lies at the core of what I have come to learn to be the pièce de résistance of human suffering.
Okay, whoa there! Back up. That’s way too heavy. Hold the thought and please and allow me explain. But be forewarned that this might get heavier before it gets lighter…
Impermanence: the concept has its roots in Buddhist practice but shares a universal truth with all spiritual belief systems, whether or not it has been concretized into an organized religion per se. Concretization is precisely what Buddhism seeks to eliminate, saying that if we examine our consciousness of the material world acutely and honestly we will see that everything is marked by impermanence – even our state of consciousness. It is in our nature, however, to seek permanence in the physical world so we invent the idea in order to secure ourselves in relationships with the thing, opinion, idea, person…
When the temporality of these things becomes clear we see that even our idea of “self" is speculative and in a continual state of change, even as we project notions of what we would like to be outward rather than focus our energy on developing an awareness within. (Woohoo Facebook!)
The irony of this – and the universality of Buddhist thinking – is that the greatest security of self-knowledge comes when we abandon clinging to things of the material world and seek only to understand at the experiential level that “it too shall pass”. Though this concept is more readily understood in the east, it is no stranger to the west (albeit more repressed given the prominence of institutionalized religious practices). The Danish philosopher/theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, dug into this through his attempt to understand human anxiety in, “Fear and Trembling”: a not-so-easy-to-read treatise on the Old Testament story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac in God’s name. The title is a reference to a line from Philippians 2:12, "...continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling " with the overly-simplified conclusion being that only through the “infinite resignation” of what is finite are we set free from anxiety and despair. Roughly put, the less we hold on to, the less we have to loose.
It may sound simple enough, but infinite resignation requires a lot of practice. And practice we do, in our own imperfect ways. But practice without faith is like walking without legs as I have came to learn through an immersive course in the practice of Vipassana meditation and in what I witness in the life of the city around me.
The faith in this country is palpable, like the air we breathe. If ever I have experienced the universality of faith it is here. Like the heterogeneity of class, cast, origin, and possessions evident in this city, the faith too manifests itself in a multiplicity of forms: practiced through ceremony, ritual, meditation, prayer, festival, dance, song, and celebrated with openness and fervor in the streets, in homes, in the markets, in nature. Faith is not something inclusive or practiced behind closed doors (I love it how street dogs walk freely in and out of mass on Sundays at the church I frequent because they are) It seems to be embodied everywhere you look, in the form statues, grotto’s, ganpati, crosses, mosques, temples, and churches – comingling with the dirt, grime, traffic, and ugliness of this place. The erosion of time and the forces of nature is not reproached as degradation or disrespect to the deity or religion as it is evidence of the very basis of the understanding that everything is impermanent. (case in point is the Hindu festival celebrating the re-birth of Ganesh – the elephant god – where ornately crafted clay idols are processed through cities across India and ceremoniously carried into the sea where they eventually disintegrate over time) It is truly a living faith that is not bound to the limitations of the physical world.
Bringing this back to earth (and hopefully back to my research) this concept presents a fascinating cultural attitude towards the role of architecture, urban form, conservation, and the value of the physical object. Not to mention the concept of shelter and the idea of home. Subject for future posts…