The Once-only Plan
On the once-only plan, you accept that there is no radical solution to suffering. Dukkha can never be eliminated, excised, or extirpated. Basing a life on the hope that you can get a second chance in a subsequent incarnation diminishes the soul. We do better coping with the Dukkha inextricably woven into the onceness of life.
On the once-only plan, you accept that the self is a natural illusion supported by your physiology in the same way that a stage magician supports his illusions with apparatus. Like the audience at a magic show, we may yearn to be taken in, but we don’t have to be duped. For the sake of our freedom, it is better not to be fooled. By learning to see through the smoke and mirrors and by resisting the diversion of attention from the sources of the illusion, and the sleight of hand, we can perceive and engage our modular parts. We can penetrate the veil of the I-sense. From behind the scenes, in the penumbra of consciousness, we can watch the brain’s illusions piecing together the world out of best-guess approximations and then filling in the gaps with more guesses in an ongoing act of creative imagination that gives reality its seeming continuity. And we can find the moments of freedom when they come.
Life is better on the once-only plan. Without rebirth, without sure knowledge of results, the Buddhist virtues of altruism, generosity, service, compassion, the prospect of work without concern for reward become really tremendous accomplishments because without the karmic working off, without a final reckoning or release, this lifetime becomes our only chance, our precious “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
In onceness, we raise the stakes for freedom because we recognize that the mounting risks reach their peaks in our turning points.
The onceness that is part of the once-only plan brings nowness with it. The virtue in action that brings meaning and purpose to my life only occurs in the present, and I have my present and you have yours and they are never the same. This gives our developmental processes and the signal events that mark them a paradoxical quality. They are both universal and unique. As lived, nobody has encountered love or loss before you, yet everyone has.
In practicing virtue in action, the needful thing is to have the courage to endure the chaos when the turning dramas come. That is when the opportunities to see and understand vastly expand. In those moments, we come closest to learning how life really works. In those moments, we feel the pulse of the rhythms of nature beating in us, distinguishable in their separate frequency bands. We experience the fullness as we would hear with startling clarity the play of instruments in an orchestra.
If you “live joyfully with the wife of your youth” (or husband or lover, or with whatever love and wisdom you find,) and have the luck, help and common sense to keep from getting too terribly lost, you will, by Solomon‘s counsel, live life fully. In doing so your “I-ness“ will slip into the background. You will still have to deal with your part-personalities. Your field-selves will continue to wrangle and succeed each other. But you will play your roles with more gusto by knowing they are roles. And self-consciousness will slip into the background. You will still prize your uniqueness, but as an instrumentality for doing, not a state of being, not an image seen in a mirror, but a living presence leaping through a window.
We are built like finely tuned violins, made for playing, not for looking at.
As we become less attached to the ego, we become more spontaneous. Moreover, this spontaneity does not lead to helplessness or passivity, but to eager activity, filled with choices, lit by heightened awareness of possibilities.
Eventually even the Watcher recedes. One finds oneself dancing on the free edge of the moment, careless of heights. One identifies less with each dance step and more with the music as a whole. One takes on the transformative moments with less personal investment and more fully. Easily the deed falls clear of the doer to make their own way in the world. And the Prime Doer recedes.
It takes courage to live by the once-only plan.
We usually have our courage backward. On the long reaches of love and wisdom, when it is useful to be steady, we’re impatient with our shortcomings, flaunt our willingness to change and yearn for decisive action. But in the turning hour when the crisis comes and every tremor is evocative of change, we hesitate and resist. When steadiness is called for, we’re ready to change but when change impends, we want to hang tough.
Three kinds of courage help us through our turning dramas. And these apply equally to our personal and historical turning dramas.
The first lets us be brave during the long reaches of the voyage. This stalwartness, this steadfastness, is courage not to shorten the leg going toward the turning point, to stick with the consequences of our actions, to endure danger and reverses, yet, like Odysseus, swept beyond the known world, to be mindful of the journey home. This first courage helps bring us to our turning points with strength and presence.
When we engage the turning process itself, we need a second kind of courage, to submit to chaos, to stay present with eyes wide open while the world falls apart. It means letting our old understandings go, including our sense of ourselves. Odysseus, his final ship gone, his raft destroyed, clinging to a spar, is washed ashore. He sleeps. Awakened by the sound of teenage girls at play, he gathers his wits, pulls a branch from a bush to hide his nakedness, then stands before the girls and politely asks for help. This courage in sheer naked awareness, bare and open in the face of total loss, has at its heart not excess but reserve.
We need a third courage too: to seize the time when conditions change and we fly out of the turning to a new radial on the next long leg. The situation here is turbulent, intense, delicately poised between possibilities. Forward movement requires the courage to affirm your intention with an implementing gesture. We cannot leave it for later; we have to do it now.
In Shambala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche relates this courage to gentleness, and describes it as “energy beyond aggression.” He explains that
“The fundamental aspect of bravery is being without deception… Usually if we say someone is brave, we mean that he is not afraid of any enemy or he is willing to die for a cause or he is never intimidated. The Shambala understanding of bravery is quite different. Here bravery is the courage to be – to live in the world without any deception and with tremendous kindness and caring for others… When you develop bravery, you make a connection with the elemental quality of existence.”5
This quality, this Jen, human-heartedness, he applies not to life in the cloister but to living “in the world without any deception.” Moreover, that includes the business world, most importantly, in its next entrepreneurial outpouring under new rules of corporate governance.
The wise people of the East generally don’t emphasize the moments of choice as dramatic turning points. But there are exceptions. In the Baghavad Gita, the warrior hero Arjuna confronts just such a choice. He is out reviewing his troops on the eve of battle. His charioteer drives him down the line between the opposing armies. Instead of seeing the “us” against the “them”, Arjuna sees the “us” on both sides – friends, relatives, teachers, beloved colleagues. He falls to the floor of the chariot overwhelmed with grief. He prays to Krishna for guidance. Immediately, the charioteer turns into Krishna, who addresses Arjuna as a friend. First, Krishna tells him to stand up like a man. “This despair and self-pity in a time of crisis is mean and unworthy of you, Arjuna. How can you have fallen into a state so far from the path to liberation?”6
Once Arjuna stands up he overcomes the grosser part of his “merely personal” anguish. By that act, he breaks the inertial hold of character on action. This prepares him to make genuine choices.
Krishna advises him to “Arise with a brave heart and destroy the enemy.” But Arjuna does not want to fight. “How can I ever bring myself to fight against Bishma and Drona,” he says, “who are worthy of reverence…I don’t even know which would be better, for us to conquer them or for them to conquer us… I will not fight.”
Krishna proceeds to give him many reasons why he should fight. He argues from reincarnation to show that nobody ever really dies, not friend nor enemy. “As the same person inhabits the body through childhood, youth and old age, so too at the time of death he attains another body. The man of wisdom is not deluded by these changes.” (2.13)
He argues that Arjuna’s choice to fight, if he truly immerses himself in the flow of action, will generate no new karma.
The seer says truly
That he is wise
Who acts without lust or scheming
For the fruit of the act:
His act falls from him,
Its chain is broken,
Melted in the flame of my knowledge.
Turning his face from the fruit,
He needs nothing:
The Atman is enough.
He acts, and is beyond action.7
This desire to “need nothing” worked for Arjuna. The Atman is enough. He is a warrior by caste and experience. He leads his army into battle.
That kind of submission to a social role worked well enough in classical India because personal action fit into an unchanging traditional order of life. You were a soldier, you fought. You were a priest, you officiated. You were a garbage hauler, you hauled garbage. But it doesn’t won’t work in the West where the culture deeply depends on personal distinction and self-actualization. According to Joseph Campbell,
“In the Indian tradition all has been perfectly arranged from all eternity. There can be nothing new, nothing to be learned but what the sages taught from of yore. And, finally, when the boredom of this nursery horizon of ‘I want’ against ‘thou shalt’ has become insufferable, the fourth and final aim is all that is offered – of an extinction of the infantile ego altogether: disengagement or release (moksa) from both ‘I’ and ‘thou.’”
“In the European West, on the other hand, where the fundamental doctrine of the freedom of the will essentially dissociates each individual from every other, as well as from the will in nature and the will of God, there is placed upon each the responsibility of coming intelligently, out of his own experience and volition, to some sort of relationship with – not identity with or extinction in – the all, the void, the suchness, the absolute, or whatever the proper term may be for that which is beyond terms.”8
As the new human nature emerges in the coming sixth age, we will have both. We will establish a unique relationship with the “suchness” by becoming our individual selves. At the same time, our actions will fall cleanly from us, their “chain… broken”, because we will yearn more to contribute to the world than to aggrandize ourselves.
That’s the Western contribution to world culture. Learn to trust your uniqueness. It is never too late to start. When you establish the focal distance that lets you become the exact lens you are, you enter the flow of life with a keener sensory presence and a more daring address to uncertainty. Even in a turbulent, changing world in crisis your transformational powers will count for something: they will help you get your balance; they will create parity between inwardness and outwardness; they will help strengthen the weak leg (see # 97-99.) So endowed, you will experience the signal events authentically. Your choices will make you canny and clever without turning you sour. You will find responses to hate and folly. You will counter malicious interference before the ruthless ones take you down.
Odysseus had been a youthful hero of mine. He united primordial cunning with penetrating judgment. He was brave, willing to go where life took him. I admired his focus on the action at hand; it impressed me how he could use action as a springboard for knowledge. I admired how his power grew, and how he made his grief part of his power. Odyssean character, I believed, made us less self-involved, less self-interested, larger, more primal, and more open to a flowing interplay with events, more able to sail into our turning points in full career. I loved Tennyson’s poem on Ulysses:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move. 9
What a shock I got when I learned later that Dante cast Odysseus into Hell. He was thrown there not because of the violent and treacherous parts of his character, but because he gave false counsel, because he didn’t stay home after returning to his wife and son, because he persuaded his crewmembers to sail away with him. In the circle of Hell reserved for false counselors, Odysseus tells Dante, how he failed his family duty.
“Not fondness for a son, nor duty to an aged father, nor the love I owed Penelope which should have gladdened her, could conquer within me the passion I had to gain experience of the world and of the vices and worth of men…”10
After the Trojan War and his ten-year battle to return home and his campaign to restore his kingdom, he set off again. All along, a deep selfishness dominated him – a need for distinction, excellence, for the accumulation of experience. It made him blind to love, heedless of the continuities in the rhythms of relationship, oblivious to the needs of others and irresponsible toward his subordinates. Why did his wisdom fail in the crucial moments? Because he kept it apart. It did not converge with love.