New book looks at common values of world religions

Nancy Thompson 

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By now, you know a vital piece of information that I do not know as I write this on Wednesday, Feb. 1: Did Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow or not on February 2? If he did, winter will go on for six more weeks. If he didn’t, spring will arrive early.

I’ve always found two points about that fascinating. First, spring doesn’t officially start until March 21. Six weeks after Groundhog Day is March 16, so sure, winter is going to go on for six more weeks and almost seven. As well, Punxsutawney Phil lives in Pennsylvania and has no experience with what I call “post-winter” in Vermont, which starts March 22 and lasts until ... whenever it warms up and stops snowing.

The second point is that someone has to wake that poor groundhog up, drag it out of its burrow, and hold it up to the sun like some kind of offering. I’ve always wondered how Punxsutawney Phil feels about that. As I told my teacher today, I could happily go to sleep on Feb. 1 and wake up again on March 1. “You could hibernate like the animals,” she suggested.

In Buddhist thinking, I already am. I am asleep. I am very resistant to waking up, as resistant as I imagine Phil must be.

In 1993, Bill Murray starred in the film “Groundhog Day.” His character is an obnoxious weatherman named Phil who must relive the same day over and over. He’s been sent to cover the other Phil’s emergence on Groundhog Day, and he just wants to get it over with and go home. But a blizzard prevents his return, and he heads to a hotel to sleep and wake up the next day again to Feb. 2.

On it goes. He comes to realize over time that he can do anything, but the next day the day will just start over again. Phil is like a kid in a candy store with a fat wallet of cash and no parents in sight; he gets to dream up and act out all his loathsome desires and urges, day after day. Each day, the calendar is reset.

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And no, in Buddhist thinking, it’s not God who is resetting the clock. God is not saying, “You are going to relive this day until you get it right.” There is no God to do that. Whether or not there even is a God is, in various schools of Buddhism, irrelevant. Rather, in Buddhist thinking, it is Phil and Phil alone who has himself trapped.

Some might think “Trapped? What trapped?” It might seem fantastic to get to relive the same day repeatedly. How many of us have wished for a do-over, a chance to live a moment or even a lifetime differently? Even I fall into that trap. Today I saw a posting online. It asked people to choose just one: to be 6 again knowing everything we know now, or $10 million. Like a fool, I went straight for being 6 again.

But as professor Dan Arnold of the University of Chicago Divinity School explains, the Buddhist concept of samsara – our “stuckness” in conditioned reality — is more of a curse than a blessing. “People often suppose that the idea of rebirth represents a good thing—another chance, for example, at realizing dreams unfulfilled in this life,” he said in an interview. “But in the Indian religious imagination, the fact we are continually reborn is thought to be a problem to overcome. The idea of Samsara is that to be continually subjected to rebirth is to be repeatedly subjected to suffering.”

So no, being 6 again would not give me the happy childhood and life that even now I crave. My life would be different, just like each of Phil the weatherman’s Groundhog Days were different, but whether it would be better or worse, I cannot even imagine. Everything, in Buddhist thinking, is cause and effect. Everything is interdependent arising. I cannot predict what that life would be.

So how do we wake up from what Buddhism calls our conditioned reality? Murray’s character Phil had to restrain his ego, and Buddhism sees that as the key. Only by dissolving the idea of independent self and realizing that the five aggregates – form, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors, and consciousness – are empty of inherent nature do we break free. And no, breaking free is not a “reward,” just like samsara isn’t “punishment.” There’s just awakening.

Today, Feb. 1, I can see my shadow. I don’t know yet what it predicts. But I know I’m not awake yet. No one and nothing has pulled me out of my sleep. Unlike Punxsutawney Phil, only I can do that. Until I do, my winter continues.

Nancy Thompson teaches comparative religion for CCV and has taught classes focused on religion at NVU Online and Marylhurst University. She is author of Touching the Elephant: Values the World’s Religions Share and How They Can Transform Us.


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