It has often been observed that time seems to go faster as we grow older. Our birthdays arrive with increasing rapidity. Shortly after my fortieth birthday, I began to feel as if I were taking the garbage cans out to the curb every other morning. And with each ensuing decade this subjective sense of accelerating time, which a number of my older friends have also noted, has grown ever more prominent. It is as if we were afloat on a swiftly moving river, and each of those “important” birthdays, the ones that mark the decades of our lives, were another waterfall, whose drop and velocity have yet to be experienced.
Yet, from the vantage point of Zen teachings, neither birthdays nor waterfalls are quite what they appear to be. They are at once real and illusory. In his book Living by Vow the Soto Zen priest Shohaku Okumura has this to say about waterfalls:
A river flows past a place where there is a change of height, and a waterfall is formed. Yet there is no such thing as a waterfall, only a continuous flow of water. A waterfall is not a thing but rather a name for a process of happening. . . . We cannot distinguish where the waterfall starts and ends because it is a continuous process.*
There is no such thing as a waterfall? To anyone who has witnessed the power and beauty of Niagara Falls, or, closer to home, the gorgeous waterfalls of Western New York, Okumura’s statement may seem absurd. It defies common sense. Yet Okumura is not for a moment denying the reality of what we conventionally call a waterfall. Rather, he is admonishing us to recognize that “waterfall” is only a concept, which for convenience we apply to an unending process. By so doing, we may fool ourselves into believing that this “waterfall” is a solid, independent object. In reality, however, it is a continuous process, which had no beginning and will have no end.
And as with waterfalls, so with birthdays. They too are both actual and illusory. Recently, Isla August Pires, a little girl of my acquaintance, celebrated her first birthday. Her birthday cake boasted a single candle. Not long afterward, my father-in-law, Saul Caster, turned ninety. We honored his birthday with a gathering of friends and a delicious lemon cake created by a local caterer. Those birthdays were occasions for joyous celebration as well as respectful commemoration. To deny their importance, much less their reality, would be an affront to both the celebrants and our common understanding of the world.
Yet, whatever its social acceptance, the concept of a birthday is a convenient fiction. It is a mental construct, imposed by the human mind on undifferentiated reality. As the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh has often pointed out, in certain East Asian cultures a newborn child is reckoned to be one year old. His or her age dates from the moment of conception. Seen from that perspective, what we in the West conventionally call a birthday might better be called a “continuation day.” What it marks actually occurred nine months earlier.
And beyond the cultural relativity of the concept, there is also the artificiality intrinsic to its nature. In absolute reality, every moment is a birth and a death. By imposing dualistic concepts upon that reality, and by measuring it with our own invented yardsticks, we habitually delude ourselves, while also causing unnecessary suffering. As Thich Nhat Hanh observes, in ultimate reality “there is only continuation and manifestation.”** When conditions are sufficient, “things” manifest; when conditions are no longer sufficient, those things no longer manifest. Too often, it would seem, we attach undue significance to the manifestations and disappearances in our lives, while ignoring evidence of continuation.
“The weirs of age,” *** as the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson memorably described them, can easily become objects of dread, especially in later life. And the process of aging, which Robinson vividly portrayed as a “stairway to the sea,” can leave us feeling vulnerable and disempowered. But by remembering that our birthdays, real and momentous as they are, are also arbitrary creations of the human mind, we can at once address and lessen that deep-seated fear. By recognizing both the actuality and the insubstantiality – what Zen calls the “emptiness” – of those annual events, we can not only see more clearly into the nature of reality. We can also learn, in the words of the Zen teacher Melissa Myozen Blacker, “to blend in with and ride the flow and current of our lives.”****
* Thich Nhat Hanh, “Can Nothing Become Something?” (Dharma talk).
* Shohaku Okumura, Living by Vow (Wisdom, 2012), 158-159.
**Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Eros Turannos.”
*** Melissa Myozen Blacker, “No is Not the Opposite of Anything,” The Book of Mu (Wisdom, 2011), ed. James Ishmael Ford and Melissa Myozen Blacker, Kindle edition, 2243.
Photo by mattbuck.