I’ve been on a hunger strike all day. Nothing to do with being a Buddhist, of course, any more than setting oneself on fire or divesting oneself of all one’s worldly goods or retreating to a monastery. A Buddhist may do any of those things, I suppose, but as a personal choice, and not because they are required or even recommended in Buddhist teachings.
My hunger strike has to do with my not being able to smell or taste anything. This has been going on for the past three days, off and on (mostly on, alas)…I could taste a little bit of my oatmeal with blueberries breakfast yesterday (oh! the delicate fragrance of the Ceylon cinnamon! the sweetness of bursting blueberries!), and maybe a third of my lunch. Eating the broccoli (which I love, when I can taste it) was as exciting as chewing on damp straw. Today? I had high hopes when I was able to (just barely) detect the flavor of salt. I decided to go ahead with making my hot chocolate. Even if I couldn’t taste it fully, I reasoned, it’s a hot liquid, which may stimulate my lost senses…I was further encouraged by being able to detect (slightly) the sweetness of the honey I stirred into it.
Well, it looked good…it felt good, and it took away the hollow feeling I was getting from having subsisted mostly on water and hot lemon ginger tea for the past 18 hours or so. The lemon ginger tea that I couldn’t actually taste…I could only detect the slightest heat from the ginger. But I can’t say I could taste the hot chocolate at all. I could feel my brain working, trying to fill in the blanks from past experience and visual clues…information stored. Sense memory. The brain did its poor best, throwing out a kind of phantom flavor in place of the real, but compared with really tasting the hot chocolate, poor indeed. That’s when I resolved not to eat again until my senses came back to life.
I know I should eat. It would help eliminate the hollow feeling in my stomach, but without smell and taste, I just can’t convince myself it’s worthwhile. I went into the kitchen and smelled the most pungent things in it—vinegar, onion, scented cleaners, bleach, alcohol. Nothing. Which makes cooking dangerous, as I realized last night when I started a pot on the stove for moq au vin (no coq; one makes do with what one has) and forgot it. Wondering why I’d left the kitchen light on, I wandered in and found the pot smoking away merrily. I hadn’t smelled it burning at all. At that moment I decided to postpone further cooking adventures for the time being.
I’m not mentioning all this merely to complain about the rhinovirus that’s cast a pall and a blight over my life for the past four days, though of course the coughing, sneezing, nasal congestion/runny nose, constant headache and general malaise have been unpleasant enough. I’ve almost worked my way through a family-sized box of tissues, I’ve missed several opportunities to meet with friends, and it’s fortunate that I’m not on a job at the moment, as I’d have had to plead illness or risk infecting everyone I came in contact with. I’ve scarcely been around people at all; I don’t want to be a spreader of The Plague.
No, I thought this was a great opportunity to introduce yet another key Buddhist concept, the nine levels of consciousness. I don’t know why we humans seem to be drawn to numbered lists, but we are. Consider the myriad listings that are continually scattered throughout the media: “eight reasons why men leave”, “5 ways to reduce belly fat!”, “top 10 new restaurants”, “7 circles of hell”, etc. etc. I suppose it has something to do with a desire for order, by which we make sense of what’s going on around us. In Buddhism, for example, we have the concepts of “ten worlds”, “3000 realms in a single moment of life”, “three obstacles and four devils”, and amongst Nichiren’s writings the “Fourteen Slanders” and “The Eight Winds” are two of my favorites. But to get back to the nine levels, the first five levels are none other than our five senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste.
The sixth level, our conscious mind, can be compared to a basic operating system, or a processing unit, because it’s on this level that we respond and act on the information we receive from our senses. The senses get a bad press sometimes, but without them we’re not really living, because the mind has nothing to work with. In some cases, when a sense or two is impaired, the others will become stronger to compensate, as with the person who loses his/her sight and develops a more acute ability to hear. (I expect my recent loss is only temporary; I certainly haven’t noticed any heightening of my remaining senses.) Sensory deprivation, depending on the form it takes and its duration, can be therapeutic. It can also be torture, and the means of ‘losing one’s mind’.
The seventh level of consciousness (also known as the subconscious) is made up of the factors that we generally consider our self-identity: gender, nationality, spirituality, etc. Our stored experience from the sixth level, as well as the conditioning we receive from family and society, exist in this seventh level. This is the level that therapy addresses, and as far as many people are concerned, that’s as far as it goes. If that were the case, life might seem brutish indeed. Born…exist…make mistakes…try to fix…oops, out of time (as Prince would say), death. Even the most well-adjusted, happy, non-therapy-seeking person still tends to grapple with a fear of death. Almost everyone will at some time feel disconnected, lonely, or afraid that he/she has not lived the best and fullest life possible.
But wait, there’s more! I promised nine levels, and nine levels you shall have. The eight level of consciousness is the karmic storehouse. Karma from the past is the source of a lot of what exists in the subconscious; who we are is the effect of who we were. That’s why a person is born into a particular family, country, social status, etc. It’s where our looks, our intelligence, our health, our relationships (familial and otherwise), our tendencies come from. And every moment we are alive we are making causes (through everything that we think, say, and do) that will determine not only the direction our current life takes, but who we will be in the next life. A failure to grasp this can undermine all the good effects of therapy. Despite all the training, best intentions, and strenuous effort in the world, we often find ourselves slipping back into old patterns. Even if believe that our present actions are what creates our future, how do we change that old stuff we can’t even see? How can we get into the ‘deep storage’ and clean it out? How can we access this level?
And that brings us to the ninth level…none other than the Buddha consciousness (or as we call it, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo), which is shared by all life. We chant to tap into this level, to illuminate the darkest corners of our stored karma, and clean that stuff out. It is on this level that we ‘purify the senses’; while we don’t want to be at their mercy, we certainly don’t want to lose them! Viewed through the pure Buddha consciousness, even the most painful existence cannot fail to be improved, and mundane life filled with unimaginable power and richness.
On that note, I’ve decided to cut up a couple of apples. Even if I can’t taste them, I can at least enjoy their juiciness and crunchiness, and they’ll be good for me. And then I’m going to go chant. As Nichiren says, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is like the roar of a lion. What sickness can therefore be an obstacle?” I’m not going to let a little thing like being two senses short keep me from purifying the rest of ‘em.
I just took a bite. I think…I can almost, sort of, maybe taste it…