Life shifts and karmic momentum

Life shifts and karmic momentum August 29, 2015

Or, “On submitting a PhD thesis, and going back to school.”

This week I saw, probably on twitter, an image of a man around thirty wearing a backpack and a sign hanging from his neck reading “Starting 19th Grade.” The caption said, “what grad school feels like.”

No doubt that image captures how a lot of people are feeling this time of year, aged 5-35. 

As for me, I’ve just submitted my Ph.D. thesis, something about comparing early Buddhist and Kantian ethics, leaving me in a sort of limbo after what might have been my “24th Grade,” give or take. There is no true limbo though, as life moves on just as it had before.

This is karmic momentum. Nothing stops. Tiny – or sometimes relatively large – chunks of our life might shift significantly, but there is no stop. All of our education, family moments, random ups and downs, people who maybe just slipped into our lives for a brief moment or two, are all still there, lodged in some particular neural pathway, like that movie you didn’t remember you’d seen before but once something jogs it, bam – you remember the whole thing…

It was never gone. In the terms of Yogacara Buddhism, it was always there as seeds, just needing the right conditions to ripen.

Grad school can allow a person to avoid the big bad world of academia or whatever else might come next, as grad students, their friends, and families have gleefully mocked for some time:




Ah, grad school.

I still have a “defense” or viva voce ahead of me and no doubt some amount of corrections and expansions, so I cannot quite claim to have escaped the grad student bubble. Again, life moves on, just as before. And, as I plan for the next step in life, an adjunct teaching gig here in Montana, I read and contemplate the Buddha’s teachings, thinking about how they must have affected people around him and somehow still people today:

First he discovered that there is no safety. The basic weather of existence —impermanence—beats mercilessly upon whatever we try to erect against it. No stuff of dreams, no cocoon of convention, can withstand change, aging, and death. So the prince reluctantly renounced clinging to the illusion of security and sought the reality beyond it. Relentlessly, with unflagging courage and devotion, he followed the path pointed out by intelligence. The result? A prince completely awoke from all dreams and became a buddha, an awak­ened one.

— from Sherab Chodzin Kohn’s A Life of the Buddha

Impermanence. How deeply can we feel that in our bones? In our minds in each living breath?

Our difficulty with impermanence is, according to the Buddha, the heart of our suffering. But can we too renounce clinging? This is the challenge.

Can we, at least on some levels, accept the importance of giving up clinging? What is left? What is still worth clinging to? Against the forces of change, time, impermanence?

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