Ash Wednesday

Louis Welden Hawkins (1890), “Procession of Souls”

Today is Ash Wednesday. As someone who was raised Catholic, and even began the preliminary steps to take ordination in the Catholic Church, this is a profoundly meaningful and essential day. But the uses to which this day is put by the cult of belief that grew up around the teachings of Jesus, and the uses to which it might be put by Buddhist teaching and practice, could not be farther apart.

Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar is this remembrance of death: we come from dust and we return to dust. “Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust” is intoned in the Catholic funerary rites. Buddhism has the same insight. In Sino-Korean, it’s mu sang boeb. Reflection on the condition of the impermanence of conditioned reality is the beginning of practice. Everything phenomenon that appears undergoes change and dissolution. The great Dōgen said, “One must be deeply aware of the impermanence of this world.”

But whereas in what we call “Christian” thinking, that meaning got turned into a cult of “Oh, everything is permanent. There is no way out of that trap. We need to wait for a savior who will be resurrected from that, too, and save me!”, in Buddhism, that insight into impermanence leads to “I can sit down and liberate myself and liberate others with this powerful technology — meditation.” They are radically opposite approaches. Although it is increasingly popular among Christians to do different kinds of meditations, if they are waiting for a savior to rescue them from this, it cannot be considered true meditation.

So, today is Ash Wednesday in the Catholic and Christian world. Christians will “wait” for Jesus for some six weeks or something to be resurrected again. Yesterday was Mardi Gras — “fat Tuesday” — the last partying before the fasting and everything that leads to the expectation of some resurrection to save me somehow. “Oh, now we get serious! Jesus will come and save us.” Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this intensified fasting and penance as we prepare ourselves for the savior who will come and give us a “means” for conquering impermanence. And what are those “means”? Further belief in him.

Being a living being is hard: we’re born without asking, and in some way (usually not of our choosing), we die. You don’t need a degree in philosophy from Yale to know that, from an ontological perspective, that shit’s fucked up. Ha ha ha ha ha!!! This is the basic message of today, Ash Wednesday. “Man, this existence shit’s fucked up. We’re born, we die. No way out! That shit is totally fucked up! So we’ve got to wait for a Savior! We need Superman! He’ll come to save us from that situation our parents brought us into when they did this thing that gave them a few minutes of pleasure but now I have to deal with it and fear losing everything I love through it, at a time and a place most likely not of my choosing. I’m terrified. Someone save me!” It’s definitely a very understandable feeling. As Dae Soen Sa Nim used to say, “Being born is already a big mistake!”

But that absurd mistake need not lead to creating yet another one!

Buddhism looks into the very same matter of impermanence. But whereas many are taught to expect outside solutions that can never come, the Buddha showed us how to look more deeply into the very root of the matter, in the way that Socrates urged our existential seeking: “What am I?” And then from that turning, looking directly into the very nature of mind itself, we attain our True Nature before thinking arises. This has no life or death. This never comes or goes. This cannot be “resurrected,” and nor does it need resurrection, because it was never born in the first place!

Christian-themed day of observance or not, Ash Wednesday is a true day for reflecting on impermanence: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The means by which you derive helpful insight from it is, of course, your own choice.

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