A key Buddhist principle is a recognition that things are always changing. Life is transient. When we have the feeling of wanting things to return back to normal, we need to remember that normal was always relative, there is no going back.
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 128. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, And today I’m going to talk about, no going back, some thoughts about impermanence. Keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use this to learn to be a better whatever you already are. The koan I shared in the last podcast episode goes like this. A monk asked Kegon, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?” Kegon replied, “A broken mirror never reflects again. Fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.” So let’s start out talking about this koan and this concept a little bit, and like I’ve done before, I want to share some of the thoughts that come from the Patreon group where we discuss these koans and we discuss the ideas and the concepts from the podcast.
So this first thought comes from David who says, “I really like these koans that you’ve chosen so far.” And then he goes on to say, “In my view, enlightenment is an understanding of how the world truly works that one has been able to embody in their daily life. This understanding allows one to see beyond appearances and to act skillfully in consequence because an enlightened person cannot simply undo this understanding of the world. Kegon compares it to trying to put back together a broken mirror or fallen flowers.” And I like what David shares here, this concept of one, a person, cannot simply undo this understanding of the world. And I think there’s a lot of truth to that. The moment we understand something, we see it in a new way, we can’t ever undo that.
And the analogy that I’ve used in the past to describe this, I don’t know if you recall those paintings that were like a series of dots or little patterns and if you stared at it long enough and you shifted your focus, you could usually see a hidden image inside of that image. And I remember some people really struggled to see those and I remember struggling to see those. But then once you see one and you kind of figure it out, then that’s it. You can never not see it. Your eyes know how to shift and see the focus and and then you never go back to seeing just the dots. Every time you look at it, suddenly boom, that hidden message appears in there, and that’s kind of what this reminds me of. An enlightened person, or let’s not use the word enlightened, but just the moment somebody sees something through a new lens of understanding you can never go back and see it the way you used to see it before.
And continuing with these thoughts, Talia says, “I like this one. It makes me think of becoming a mother for the first time. People try to explain it to you and prepare you for how you are going to feel and the emotions that will arise, and those words do help along the path towards parenthood but can’t do justice to actually living the experience yourself. Until you’ve experienced that magical time personally, you can never go back to before when you had only just heard about it.” Those that are further along in the path to enlightenment can teach and share with others and help prepare them. However, once you’ve reached enlightenment, you can never go back to knowing what life looks like when you are living mindfully and skillfully.”
And again, Talia’s comments here echo what David was saying, which is that there’s a difference to have something explained to you, in this case, she uses the example of motherhood to have it explained, and then to experience it, it’s two different things and you can never go back. Once you are a mother, you can never go back to not being a mother because you’re forever changed. Stanley says this, “Thank you for the koan, I got me thinking. Everything and every event is impermanent. Once it has changed, you cannot return to its past. It can only exist in the present only to continue to change and find itself in a new present. I might want to rephrase Kegon’s reply to, a broken mirror never reflects as it previously did again and fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.”
I like that. I like that rephrasing because it’s true, the broken mirror may still reflect but definitely not as it previously did and again, echoing here this constant change that we can’t go back. And then I want to share Darlene’s thoughts. She says, “For me, it has a double meaning. First, it means that an enlightened one can never see things the same way again after they become enlightened. But secondly, just as flowers on and off the tree are both ordinary so is being unenlightened and unenlightened ordinary. Just because one sees things from a different perspective does not mean that they have left the ordinary world.” I like that thought that Darlene shares and I would echo something similar. To me, this koan, when the monk is asking Kegon, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?” To answer that question, you would have to define, what does an enlightened one mean or entail? What does that even mean and how do you define ordinary world?
You see, Kegon doesn’t fall into that trap. He doesn’t answer his question. He replies back with a very simple observation of the nature of reality, which is that a broken mirror never reflects again, fallen flowers never go back to the old branches. Now, he doesn’t address anything about enlightened, anything about ordinary. He just teaches a very profound truth and this is how I see it. Because he never focuses on enlightened or ordinary, he just answers in a way that speaks to a topic that, in my opinion, is infinitely more important than speculating about enlightenment. He reminds the monk that there is no going back, life is always changing, and that’s where the topic or the title for this podcast episode came up. There’s no going back.
Now, once you’ve changed, how can you ever go back to how you were before? I think the answer is that you don’t. Once you’ve been in love, you can never know what it is to have not been in love, or in the example that was given of being a mom or being a dad or another common example is once you’ve lost a loved one, I have friends who have lost a spouse or a child, or once you’ve lost a parent, once you experience that form, that level of heartache, sure, you can adapt to a new normal, but you can never go back. So it’s almost a misconception here to even use the word normal in the same way that the monk uses the word ordinary. Is there such thing as an ordinary world? Is there such thing as normal? So when you experience some kind of profound change, any kind of change, or it doesn’t even have to be a profound, even a small change, you never go back. There is no going back.
And to me that is the essence of what’s being taught in this koan. That’s the essence of what I extract out of this for me. If I take this and I shift inward and think, what does this mean to me? It’s a reminder that things are always changing. I think it would be the same to ask if there were a modern version of this to ask, can someone who survived cancer ever returned to the ordinary world? Well, no, the answer would be no. If you’ve ever had a second chance or a near death experience, you don’t go back to the ordinary world in the same way that someone who’s lost a loved one, you don’t go back to the ordinary world. You adapt to the new norm, and you could apply this to so many other examples, any other question, but the point is that there’s no going back to the ordinary world because there is no ordinary world.
And I think a key Buddhist principle is the recognition that things are always changing. Life is transient and when we have the feeling of wanting things to return back to normal, we need to remember that normal was always relative, there is no going back. And this is where I think the Tetris analogy fits so well with a worldview. If I want to have a worldview that fits with reality, that worldview for me is the view that life is a lot like a game of Tetris where new pieces are showing up and every time a new piece shows up, it changes the game. You never go back to how it was before that piece because in the new present moment of the game, you’re dealing with a new piece.
We’re all experiencing this right now with the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s this new piece that suddenly shows up for virtually the whole world and we’re all trying to fit this into our life. And I think there’s a misconception here if we’re thinking, well, when this is over we just go back to normal. We don’t. There is no such thing as normal. This is the new normal. And then when this eases off, whatever life is like then, that’s the new normal and it’s always changing. So we’re all working with this piece and for those of you who are new to this podcast, this concept I discuss it I think for the first time in episode number five, which by the way, episodes one through five serve as a really good summary or a foundation of a lot of these ideas. So if you’ve just joined in recently and you’re catching up on the most recent podcast episodes, I would recommend pausing and jumping back to episodes one through five and then jump back up and stay caught up.
The world has changed and we are changing with it and if we resist the change, then we experience the discomfort of change and also the suffering of wanting things to be other than how they are. But if we just go with it, if we go with the change and we change with it, then we only experience the discomfort of change but we don’t experience that unnecessary self-inflicted suffering that is the second arrow. So this concept to me is really important, this idea of understanding that there’s no going back, and as life continues to unfold, each new piece that shows up for me, I have the understanding that there’s no going back, which allows me to first and foremost accept the new piece. ,Okay, this is what life has thrown at me. All right now how do we pivot? How do we adjust? How do we adapt? Because that’s what we’re good at. If we want to get through these big things, we have to be capable of change.
Change can be uncomfortable, but change is what gets us from where we are to where we’re going and we’re always going somewhere because is always changing. So a concept that I wanted to talk about that I think goes hand in hand with this understanding that, okay, if there’s no going back now what? Well, to me, that now what, is that I need to develop a sense of faith in myself. And I think I’ve talked about this concept before, but it seems like sometimes we go through life trying to find the someone or the something that we can trust in. If so and so tells me that this is going to be okay then it’s going to be okay because I trust so-and-so. In that case, I have faith in so-and-so, or in something or in an organization. I mean, you can kind of have this trust in anything, but I would like to consider that the trust that is most important is the trust that we have in ourselves.
In other words, my ability to adapt, my ability to sit with whatever emotion is going to arise as I encounter these big Tetris pieces that show up in my life gives me a greater sense of strength to know that I don’t have to worry about the fear, I can learn to be comfortable with the fear and ultimately become more skillful with whatever situation arises for me in my life. And I think there can be kind of a misconception here because I’m not trying to imply that, hey, trust in yourself and when these big scary things happen in life, you got it, you can figure it out. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying have the faith in yourself that you know that no matter what life throws at you next, you’re going to be able to adapt.
Now, that doesn’t mean you’re going to like it. It doesn’t mean it’s going to never be unpleasant. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to experience crippling fear or anxiety. It doesn’t mean any of that. What it means is I know that I can become skillful at pivoting and adjusting and adapting to whatever life throws my way. And sure, it may be hard and when it is hard or if I encounter some very difficult emotion like anger or fear, I’m not afraid to feel that anymore. And I’ve referenced this before, when we feel these emotions, I think this is another big misconception here, it’s not that we’re trying to change the emotion, we’re not trying to ensure that we don’t feel pain or fear or hatred. What we’re trying to do is change the relationship we have with these emotions.
So when an emotion arises and I have a good relationship with the emotion, then it’s okay to experience fear in the face of uncertainty because of the situation I might be going through with the world changing. Maybe you lost your job. Maybe you don’t know how you’re going to pay the rent that’s due or you’re behind on your rent. And that’s okay to experience that fear, that anxiety, that’s natural. So changing the relationship we have with the emotion is a much more useful approach than to say, “I need to make sure I don’t feel that emotion. I don’t want to be scared,” and to try to will it away. It’s no different than just aversion, which is one of the poisons, to feel aversion towards these emotions and say, “Oh, I’m not going to be scared. I’m going to trust in myself.”
Well, what you want to do is approach it with, “I trust myself to be capable of feeling whatever’s going to arise, and if I’m going to be scared, I’ll be scared, but I’ll sit with it and I’ll analyze the fear and I might come to find out that it’s not fear itself, it’s some other emotion that was underlying the fear.” Maybe it was embarrassment to look like a failure if I can’t pay my rent, right? Or something along those lines, but to me that’s how this works. So what it means for me is I don’t need someone to convince me that things are going to be okay because I trust my own ability to be able to adapt and to accept whatever life’s going to throw at me and that includes even going to be okay if it’s not okay. From time to time, it may not be okay and it’s okay that it’s not okay.
So just to summarize these thoughts and wrapping these two things together, I think when I remind myself regularly that there’s no going back, you’re just playing this game that moves in one direction, it goes forward, and life throws pieces at you, Tetris pieces. These pieces show up and that’s it. The instant it shows up, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to not have that piece. It’s there. You just got the piece and there it is. So I’m stuck with the piece. The the sooner I accept that and recognize this is the piece that I have to work with, now I’m working in the space of reality. This is my reality. My new reality is that this piece showed up. So my faith, if you want to call it that, or my trust, my confidence that arises, is in no one else, nothing more than in my ability to adapt. I know I’m going to figure this out.
It doesn’t mean I’m going to figure it out in a nice, concise, pretty way. I might make it all messy for a little while, but, hey, I’m trying to figure it out. I trust that I eventually will. And that, to me, is a very powerful thing that gives me a great sense of peace, I guess, with whatever life’s going to throw at me. It’s like, oh, I’ll figure it out. And if I don’t, if I mess it up, that’s okay, I’ll figure that out. I’ll figure out how to figure out that not having figured it out, you know? And that makes it feel a lot less intimidating. All right, so those are the thoughts that I wanted to share with this concept of no going back and the concept of having trust in yourself, your ability to adapt.
So that’s all I have for this podcast episode. And as always, I want to thank you for listening. If you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can consider becoming a patron and joining our online community where we discuss these koans and the podcast episodes. And you can learn more about that by visiting secularbuddhism.com. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. But that’s all I have for now. And I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. But before I go, I’m going to leave you with this additional Zen koan to work with between now and the next podcast episode.
So this koan goes like this. What is your original face before you were born? Think about that and I will share my thoughts on the next podcast episode. Thank you for listening. Until next time.