Classifying the world of thought into “eastern” and “western” is a gross oversimplification. Nevertheless we require some handles by which to grip this unwieldy beast of mental life. One of the first distinctions that we’re taught is that western thinking tends towards the default of permanency while eastern thought emphasizes change. Change, of course, is the lack of permanence. The older I get the more I see the wisdom in accepting change as the only thing that’s really permanent. It’s a lesson you learn as a homeowner. In my typical western way of thinking, I assume things will pretty much stay the same, but the myriad of small, external forces work constantly toward change. The only way to keep a house well is with constant upkeep.
The other day I found a rotted windowsill that our inspector somehow missed. That it hadn’t happened on our watch was clear by the fact that the previous owners had slapped a thick layer of paint over what was clearly a broken and decaying sill, in essence ignoring the problem. Change, you see, is constant. Things really get interesting when you start to apply this to religion. Although the Bible only hints at it (for the view isn’t entirely consistent) God is considered unchanging. The same yesterday, today, and forever. Meanwhile everything down here is constantly in flux—changing, evolving, decaying, reproducing. Religions of eastern Asia tend to embrace this change as a given. Our frustration in life, as Buddhism recognizes, has its roots in attachment to permanence. Things inevitably change.
On the one hand this is so obvious that it might appear simplistic. But then think how we live our lives here in the western hemisphere. Our employers hire “change management” teams. We suppose things will return “back to normal” after this pandemic is over. We’ve been living the cloistered life for nearly six months now and things have been changing. Especially in the early days people could be heard lamenting how quickly information and circumstances shifted. Change is permanent. For the homeowner anxious about the ability to keep up with upkeep, the constant growth of the lawn and the aggression of weeds can be their own kind of trial. At times it feels like you need to be paid just to take care of your home since it’s a full-time job. It is overly simplistic to draw an arbitrary line from pole to pole, but it does seem that some cultures, tending toward the east of the birthplace of monotheism, have some basic insights from which we might learn.
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