Philosophers over the ages have debated the question, “What does it mean to be human?”
My answer would be that it is the special nature of our consciousness that makes us human. Not only can we think but we are aware of our thoughts. Not only are we aware but we are aware of our awareness. It is our consciousness which creates for us our “theatre of mind” the qualities of which differentiate us from other beings.
But, along with this awareness comes an understanding of our mortality. As the human mind evolved and our mortality became evident, the resulting existential angst drove us to find ways of countering this fear. In time most of the world’s religions evolved to help us cope with our mortality.
The parable I relate below, drawing on some Buddhist concepts, offers a direct and unflinching approach to this human dilemma.
Augustus and his master sat in the simple confines of the sage’s cottage.
“How long have you lived in this cottage?” Augustus asked.
The sage contemplated awhile. “Well, Pupil, I believe it is almost thirty years.”
Augustus shook his head. “And yet, Master, your cottage is so sparse. You have few material possessions. Why is this so?”
“Oh, Augustus,” the old man chuckled. “Do I really need to answer this question? Perhaps I should respond with a story.”
Augustus nodded eagerly. He was very fond of his master’s stories.
“The young Master Samadha went off to find the legendary teacher Wung Fei. After many trials and tribulations, he finally came to the hut of the master. The master invited him in.
‘Oh Sage,’ commented the young man, ‘you live in a very spare environment. Why is that?’
The old man merely smiled. ‘Samadha, you come to me yourself unencumbered. You carry little with you. Yet you are surprised that I have few material possessions. Why is it that you have so little with you?’
‘It is simple, my Lord. I have little with me because I am merely passing through.’
‘Ah, but that is the nub of it. I have such few possessions because I also am merely passing through.’”
Takygulpa smiled at Augustus. “When we understand the intemporality of our existence, how can material possessions be of any consequence?”
Augustus acknowledged the wisdom of such an approach but pointed out that it was not a precept generally accepted by the population. With that in mind he then asked Takygulpa to explain how a life should be viewed.
“If indeed life is so fleeting,” he asked, “How should we relate to it. And I have heard that some believe that there are other lives after this one. Or our spirit might still live on after death in some form or another. What are we to think of that?”
The sage smiled and reflected a moment. And then turning to Augustus said, “Imagine it is night, and you are a bat. You fly through the darkness. Eventually you approach a small hut. In the hut there is a candle. The candle lights up the room with its brightness. By good fortune, the window is open. You fly through the window and then out the open door on the other side. That short passage through the lightened room is like a life!”
“Is that all there is?” said Augustus in surprise. “What about
“Perhaps there are other huts with open doors or windows up ahead,” replied the sage. “But can you rely on that? As I have taught you, our well-being is enhanced by living in the moment. Now is all we have. No matter that it is short or long, that journey through the light, which is essentially the light of our consciousness is a very privileged journey and not to be wasted.”