Now, Now, Now

Someone sent an email asking me, “If everything really is no self, Big Self, or Buddha nature, how did small self get started? Is it something that just happens because it’s part of the human condition like original delusion or sin? Buddhism has an origin of evil conundrum just like theism.  Or are we just the latest recipient of a karmic package from someone who didn’t get rid of the crap in his or her life and now it’s our turn. A ‘gift’ from a stranger. And where did that original crap load of karma come from that’s being passed down to chisel at over the ages? Where did the original crime happen that kicked delusion and small self into action?”

This reminded me of an exchange that takes place on page 113 of the book I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj. It goes like this (M is the Maharaj, Q is his questioner):

Q: But how did it come into being in the first place?

M: You will know when it ends.

Q: Will it ever end?

M: Yes, for you.

Q: When did it begin?

M: Now.

Q: When will it end?

M: Now.

Q: It does not end now.

M: You don’t let it.

Q: I want to let it.

M: You don’t. All your life is connected with it. Your past and future, your desires and fears — all have their roots in the world. Without the world, where are you and who are you?

Q: That is exactly what I came to find out.

M: And I am telling you exactly this: find a foothold beyond and all will be clear and easy.

We think we are living in a world with a past. We think we are independent beings in a world full of other independent beings. We think that this world was here long before we came into it. Therefore, if there is some basic problem — sometimes described as “original sin” — that problem must have been created by someone else in the distant past. Or else maybe it’s some basic flaw in the design of the universe or in the basic design of humanity. In any case, it can’t possibly be my problem because I just got here.

The conversation with Nisargadatta Maharaj sounds a lot like some of the conversations I had with my Zen teachers. We never had precisely this conversation. But we had conversations like this one. I’d ask my teacher what seemed like a straightforward question. He’d give me an answer that made no sense. I’d try again. I’d get another answer that I couldn’t understand. This would go a few more rounds. Then I’d give up.

When did humanity’s problems begin? Religions provide us myths to try to explain it, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But if we take those myths literally, they make no sense. My life is a mess because some lady a million years ago ate an apple? Yeah, right. If that was true, it sounds pretty messed up. God must really hold grudges for a long, long time and take his anger out on people who clearly don’t deserve it.

If you take the standard atheistic materialist point of view, you don’t have a problem explaining this. Things are crappy because natural selection and evolution can’t make a perfect world. It’s nobody’s fault. Not even God’s, since God doesn’t exist.

But there’s something to what the mystical traditions say. I don’t know about you, but I found this way of looking at things deeply compelling. Something seemed right about it to me even when I did not remotely comprehend it. 

Let me see if I can walk you through the dialogue by Nisargadatta Maharaj as I understand it.

Q: But how did it come into being in the first place?

The “it” referred to here is the problem that my questioner asked me. You can phrase it many ways. How did “small mind” come about as opposed to Big Mind? When did “original sin” begin? And so on.

The questioner is not dismissing the idea that atheistic materialism may be wrong. But he wants an explanation. This is perfectly reasonable. If we are to believe that there really is a Big Mind, a true Self, a God, or whatever, then we want to know the details. We want some sort of proof. Or, if not proof, something to make it make sense.

M: You will know when it ends.

I would probably have punctuated this, “You will know, when it ends.” The comma doesn’t indicate a pause. It’s just there to prevent the alternate reading, which would be something like “at the time it has ended you will know that it has ended.” Maharaj is saying that when the illusion ends, you will know the answer to your question. It will be clear how it began. The knowledge of how it began ends the illusion. But not the mere intellectual understanding.

Q: Will it ever end?

The questioner doubts that the illusion can end at all. He is asking for assurance. He has some small degree of trust. There’s hope for him.

M: Yes, for you.

Maharaj says that it will end “for you.” He is being as clear as he can possibly be. The problem is the “you” that the questioner assumes he is. As long as the questioner persists in believing he is “I” as opposed to everyone else, the illusion can never end. 

Q: When did it begin?

This is what the guy who wrote me that email wants to know too. Lots of people want to know. Lots of myths have been created to try to address this question. Some of those myths were based on a clear understanding of the matter, and some were not. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden gets a lot of bad press these days, but I suspect it originated as one of the myths based on a clear understanding. It’s a story that is trying to tell us something that cannot be expressed in ordinary language.

M: Now.

Again, Nisargadatta Maharaj gives as clear an answer as is possible. It began now. There is no distant past in which the problem started. As Kodo Sawaki said, “When we are born, our universe is born too.” We didn’t just arrive into a universe that was already messed up before we got here. We are the ones actively messing things up right this very minute.

Q: When will it end?

The questioner imagines that the problem will end in the future. But there is no future.

M: Now.

Once again, Nisargadatta Maharaj points out the obvious. There is no time other than this. This is when it will end.

Q: It does not end now.

The questioner points out what seems obvious to him. Nothing has changed. Nisargadatta Maharaj’s words did not magically end hunger, poverty, disease, death, and war. Nor did they erase the questioner’s personal issues. He still feels as crummy as he did when they started talking.

M: You don’t let it.

Nisargadatta once again is as direct as he can possibly be. “You” don’t let it. The thing the questioner identifies as “me” stands in the way and refuses to budge.

Q: I want to let it.

The questioner pleads that he really does want to let it end. He’s being sincere. But he’s doing the very thing that he is trying to find out how to fix.

M: You don’t. All your life is connected with it. Your past and future, your desires and fears — all have their roots in the world. Without the world, where are you and who are you?

Nisargadatta explains to him exactly how he gets in the way of his own salvation. He even gives the questioner the key to the problem; “Where are you? Who are you?” This is not a question Nisargadatta expects and answer to. It is what the questioner needs to ask himself. 

Q: That is exactly what I came to find out.

He still doesn’t get it. I know the feeling!

M: And I am telling you exactly this: find a foothold beyond and all will be clear and easy.

This is where the dialogue ends in the book. The phrase “find a foothold beyond” is odd. It makes me wonder what Nisargadatta actually said, since he didn’t speak English. “Foothold” and “beyond” are not ideal words to use. But, then again, no words in any language are really ideal in this case. Trying to use concepts to get past concepts is a losing strategy. It’s the old “finger pointing at the moon” thing. 

“Beyond” in this case means outside of concepts. It doesn’t mean something far away. “Find a foothold” means to find some way of staying with what is outside of words and ideas. Often some kind of faith or trust is required. I didn’t understand what my teachers kept telling me, but I had faith that they were not lying. I trusted them enough to do the practice they had done — zazen — long enough that what they said started to make sense.

I’m still working on it. Every day.

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