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August 28, 2012

by Stephen Damon

A famous spiritual teacher came to the front door of the King’s palace. None of the guards tried to stop him as he entered and made his way to where the King was sitting on his throne. “What do you want?” asked the King, immediately recognizing the visitor.

“I would like a place to sleep in this inn,” replied the teacher.

“But this is not an inn,” said the King, “It is my palace.”

“May I ask who owned this palace before you?”

“My father. He is dead.”

“And who owned it before him?”

“My grandfather. He too is dead.”

“And this place where people live for a short time and then move on, did I hear you say that it is not an inn?”

The story, as I have heard it, ends here, before we hear how the king responded to this very interesting question.  If the story were to include the king’s response it would lose most of its power to awaken the question of impermanence in us.  Of course, it is not an “answerable” question but it needs a response from us.  To respond to it, we must first keep it as an open question—as our question.  The first step of any meditation practice is to take in the fact of our impermanence as a question without reacting to it one way or the other.    

For this reason, certain types of Buddhist meditation, such as Mahamudra, include it as one of the four preliminary contemplations that need to be done before each meditation session. The other three are the preciousness of our human body, the unsatisfactory nature of cyclic existence, and the law of karma.  From this point of view, our meditation practice must always be done in the context of the whole of our lives.  These preliminaries become the prime motivation for us to take our seats each morning, regardless of the external conditions.

Getting back to our story, I would say that we are always turning ourselves into kings and queens.  We are always making palaces out of our littlest accomplishments.  We are always trying to create a sense of continuity and substantiality.  This is how our ego works.  It is unwilling and unable to accept its eventual demise with a sense of equanimity and constantly tries to figure out ways to create the illusion of permanence and substantiality.

Sometimes it works too subtly to be seen without the kind of attention and mindfulness that is developed in meditation practice. Yes, most of us can theoretically agree that nothing out there is permanent, but we need to see impermanence in its most basic and immediate expression. If we sit quietly, we can see that we are unable to see each moment as discrete, but instead connect each moment to the previous one as well as the one immediately after it.  This continuity gives one the sense that “something” is continuing through time. If we continue to pay attention we see that we make this “something,” that exists for a few moments into a monarch living in a palace.  Buddha said this is our fallacious belief in a fixed or permanent “self,” which is the chief cause of our suffering.  Once we see this, we have the freedom and motivation to make real changes in our lives.  Seeing this is already a great change!

So perhaps, the story ends with the king coming to a clear perception of the delusions of his life. He might look  around and see not treasures and monuments but just the moment in front of him, which appears as a question.   Perhaps, he takes off his crown and robes and leaves the palace through one of its back doors.  And perhaps, he forgets to return home!



From → Zen Buddhism

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