If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Sunday 18 November 2012
Read gnomica 1-150 here!
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What you are is what you have been.
What you’ll be is what you do now.
Siddhartha Gautama Buddha (? 6th – 4th ? centuries BCE)
This one sends out ripples of recognition, familiarity, thought.
Most immediately it makes me think of something I once read about an epitaph in the Capuchin Crypt at a graveyard in Rome. It said the following: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.” This version is admittedly a memento mori somewhat more pessimistic than Buddha’s, which lacks the finality of the friars’ phrasing.
I prefer the Buddha’s emphasis on an affirmative doing or acting over the sense of helpless resignation underpinning what reads to me as the Capuchin order’s existential despair. While looking at all those bleaching skeletal remains in the massive bone yard one could hardly help but wonder what the sense of anything is, certainly for the observer as he is observing them. If it’s true that this vast array of blanched bones is — in Peggy Lee’s words (to mix pop with pope [thanx, Harry S.) “all there is” at the end – what, truly, is the point. But the Buddha allows us a considerable measure of control of the here and now, imputes to us a personal responsibility to have some effect on what comes, or at least how you deal with what comes.
Everything you are now is the inevitable consequence of what you have been up until this minute. By analogy, everything that you will be will be a consequence of what you now do. Life is, if you will, an action program, and for me that implies a number of possibilities all of which are anything but a passive wait for that final ossification. In a sense, life continues beyond the bones, and what you do takes you beyond the gloomy doom of fossilizing into chunky coprolites. It appeals to me as a happier thought about whatever my hereafter may be than does that of ending up as one of any number of mindlessly grinning crania piled on top of each other.
Of course, all of this is not only in reference to some potential post mortem existence but in my mind is of equal if not even greater relevance to the remaining entirety of one’s ante mortem existence.
In either case, some kind of memento mori prompting from time to time is not entirely amiss.
The fact that the Buddha made the statement in the epigraph is not without interest in its own right, for it seems to vitiate the notion that Buddhism hews to some notion that “it is what it is” – but what does that phrase actually mean? that change is impossible because “that’s just the way things are”? Or maybe it is in fact a Platonic notion: something “is what it is” because it somehow ‘participates’ in some ontological abstraction of which “it” is but an imperfect and transitory instantiation here in the phenomenological world. If so, then it seems things are not entirely beyond modulation: true, you can’t do a great deal about “what you have been” but you can do a great deal about “what you do now”. That fact too “is what it is” and thus offers for what comes next anything but that static and preordained trajectory toward the ossuary.
In short, it is not a question of what “it” is but of what “you” do now.” As I think about those two statements —
1 [“What you are is what you have been. What you’ll be is what you do now.”]
2 [“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”]
— I find the former’s open, positive, hopeful outlook far more appealing (and realistic!) than the latter’s despairing, negative, closed view.