October 21, 2010

A flickering lamp

One of the three signs of being according to the Buddha was something called anatta, which is one of those great words that don't translate directly into English. It literally means something like "without self" but insubstantial might be closer to it. (The other two signs of being are suffering and impermanence, the subjects of the last two day's posts.)

Basically, it means that nothing is as solid as it appears and that all things are composed of other elements that rise and fall based upon changing conditions. He even took it so far as to mean that we don't have a lasting self but are rather a changing bundle of sensations, perceptions, form, consciousness, and mental reactions.

One of my favorite expressions of this idea from Buddhist scriptures has appeared here before. It's from the Diamond Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism and is incidentally the world's oldest printed book. Toward the end, the Buddha says,

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Believe it or not, that's another very practical Buddhist idea for those interested in social justice. It often seems like we are up against incredibly powerful opponents, be they institutions, corporations, regimes or whatever. But as political theorists of non-violence such as Gene Sharp, Robert Helvey and others have argued, social and political power is not monolithic; it comes from many sources and requires the cooperation of many disparate elements.

Powerful entities, in other words, are not as powerful as they may seem; they are themselves insubstantial and impermanent and require many sources of support. They come into being and pass away according to changing conditions. Change the conditions or remove the "pillars of support" on which they rest and things can change.

FUN, GAMES AND MAYHEM. This probably won't surprise many people, but research suggests that graphic and violent video games can desensitize players and encourage aggressive behavior at least among some people.


THE LONG WAY HOME. Homelessness is a growing problem for returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

WHITE TEA. A new report finds that some racist groups are seeking affiliation with the Tea Party, although party leaders have publicly repudiated racism.


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