One day, the Chinese monk Fazang (Fa-tsang) was delivering a talk on the Avatamsaka Sutra (lit. The Flower Ornament Sutra) in the court of Empress Wu (624 – 705 CE). He explained a universe with many dimensions of consciousnesses, many realms of existence that were not just interconnected but mutually contained each other.
“I get it, but I don’t get it,” the empress said. “I understand interconnectedness but how can two things contain each other?”
It was well known that the law of interconnectedness was not only the primary but just about the only insight Fazang used to make sense of everything around him. He was an eloquent orator and was engaged by Empress Wu to do translations of many sutras. Impressed by his versatility, intelligence and political acumen too, she had grown increasingly fond of him.
He tried explaining how interconnectedness worked but the empress remained unimpressed. “Can you demonstrate?” she asked to which Fazang replied that he needed some resources and one week’s time.
Seven days later, in the evening, he invited Empress Wu to a large hall adorned with numerous mirrors. The soft rays of twilight filtered through large shears and fell on many mirrors making it an unearthly sight. Right in the middle of that hall was a huge chandelier that sported an unlit candle.
“It’s very calming and surreal to be here,” the empress said.
“With Her Majesty’s permission,” Fazang said, “I’d like to light that candle as soon as the sun goes down completely.”
Dusk turned to night, the hall turned dark, the only source of light being the guards standing outside with spears and flambeaus. Fazang had the candle lit and asked for the door to be closed.
“See, Her Majesty,” he said taking the empress around the mirrors, “one lighting of the candle and the entire hall is illuminated. The light of the flame is bouncing off the mirrors multiplying the effect of that one candle. You see a flame in every mirror. The source flame is only one but here every mirror is showing it. Put out one and all go out.”
“I understand,” the empress replied. Twinkling lights from the multitude of reflection of flames could be seen in her eyes, jewellery and in the goldwork on her dress. “But, how does that demonstrate things containing each other?”
“Aha!” Fazang exclaimed. “Please walk with me and observe carefully any mirror.”
“What about it?” she said standing in front of one.
“Not only does each mirror carry a reflection of the source candle but also the flame from every other mirror here. Each mirror has infinite flames from all the others. This is the law of interconnectedness.”
So it is with us and everyone around us; we are karmically interdependent and interconnected. We carry within ourselves the untold and immeasurable glory of the universe and the eternal impressions of collective consciousness. What you do, say and think has an impact on others and vice-versa too; it creates karma. That’s what I mean by collective consciousness. Ever changing and transforming. Buddha called this world anitya and anataman; these words encapsulate the whole gamut of his teachings. That, the world is impermanent (anitya) and ever-changing (anataman: devoid of any inherent self).
Our clinging (moha) to our beliefs is nothing but sheer ignorance (avidya), a sign of an unawakened mind, a slumbering consciousness. Look at the level of violence, intolerance and unrest in the world today due to people’s attachment to their way of life. For that matter, attachment to anything, although natural, stems from ignorance because the very nature of attachment is the quest for permanence. My beauty, my wealth, my family, youth, status, nothing should fade. Attachment hurts us badly whenever we are forced to loosen our grip on things we wish to retain.
What’s worse is that such attachment gives birth to indulgence (asakti) and with indulgent behavior, we sort of develop a self-amorous mindset, we get self-absorbed, even self-obsessed. We fall in love with ourselves not in a manner that boosts our self-esteem and wellbeing but in a way that we constantly seek external approval to feel worthy of anything.
If the story ended here, it would not be so bad still. The trouble is that attachment leading to indulgence creates the most destructive of all emotions — greed (trishna). The Sanskrit word trishna is an incredibly profound word, for it means much more than greed. Just greed is lobha in Sanskrit, but trishna is that insatiable desire, that futile search for permanence in what is inherently impermanent.
It’s all very simple then: with greed, we remain indulgent and attached which in turn keeps the real flame cloaked under the blanket of ignorance and with ignorance, we continue to cling to whatever we can and as a result our suffering is endless.
A husband called out to his wife from the washroom, “Honey, can you hand me a towel?”
“A towel!” the wife roared from the kitchen. “Should I prepare this bloody breakfast for you or give you a towel?”
He stood there dripping under the shower that was now turned off.
“First, you always forget the towel and then you leave it wet on the bed! I have to pick up your dirty laundry too,” the wife came to the washroom and continued. “Let alone cleaning the washroom, you leave your shaving gel opened, your razor carelessly facing the top. And then you come out all wet and roam around the house like a bull out of the pond. The other day our housemaid slipped on the wet floor and did not come for three days. I had to do all the work by myself! Oh God! Why this man!?”
Wonder what my mistake was, the husband thought, to ask for the towel or her hand in marriage?
Maybe the real mistake was his irresponsible behavior. Or, maybe the wife could be more patient or perhaps they couldn’t be bothered. Either way, they’ll gradually grow out of love and one day wonder where it all went wrong. Care not about others and the same vibes bounce back at you. A sense of connection fuels interconnectedness.
Have you ever been on a long-awaited vacation with your loved ones, to say a beautiful hill station? There, due to any small misunderstanding, let’s say you had an argument or you got some disturbing news from work or whatever, do you remember how you felt afterwards? The beauty of the mountains or the whiteness of the snow, the singing birds or the gentle brooks, all lose their lustre instantly. Bereft of any joy inside or outside, you are unable to see the beauty. Everything’s still there but it no longer feels that way.
That’s what ignorance does to our consciousness. It’s all there, we just can’t see it.
To benefit from the law of interconnectedness, we can’t afford to cover the mirror of our consciousness with trishna and svartha, self-centeredness. They act as a blindfold and prevent us from seeing the flame within the flame, obstructing our vision of seeing the beautiful hall, the sunset, the twilight, that candle in the chandelier. All of that depends on the mirrors being clean and your vision clear.
It is one of the reasons why some people’s struggles never abate, they remain on edge for the most part of their lives. Attachments do that to us; they create noise and turmoil in our heads.
I know some of you may be thinking, as I’m frequently asked, should we not have attachment(s) then?
It’s not my prerogative to tell you what you can or can’t do in your life or what you should or shouldn’t have. I don’t believe in preaching. Period. All I am saying is that whatever I am attached to will eventually be the cause of my suffering (dukha). Without fail. Yes, attachment also motivates us, gives us pleasure, it even strengthens us in a way, but it also makes us oblivious to the truth and the beauty that surrounds us.
The law of interconnectedness is there for everyone, but to have it work for you, one must know how to put the wheels in motion. Someone may have a sum of ten million dollars in their bank account, but if they don’t know how to withdraw or use that money, they can’t spend or invest it.
And, how to “put the wheels in motion”, you ask? Be kind. Make a difference to someone’s life. Anytime you are hurt, ask yourself, could it be that I’m hurt because I can’t see past my viewpoint, maybe because my mirror is covered and I am not seeing the flame that’s lit up my whole world?
Your inner voice will take over and guide you then to the shores of serenity and love, rekindling a sense of connection with the universe.
Nothing connects like a kind gesture. And, nothing connects forever. Cosmic design just doesn’t cater for it.
As promised in my last post, I’ll be visiting the UK in the third week of June.