Tattoos and Impermanence

Synopsis: tattoos and impermanence — it’s hard to believe, but nothing is as it seems. We are a process, and nothing we see, think, feel or are physically, stays the same.

Of Wayne’s many books, the one closest to today’s topic is: Half Asleep in the Buddha Hall

Our lives include many paradoxical and contradictory elements. Things are usually not just one way—they are many ways at once. To begin with, we are definitely alive, yet at the same time we are dying. Every moment is a moment of life and at the same time a moment of death in that each moment is gone even as it arises, completely gone, never to reappear. In our usual conception of our lives, we are alive now and dead later. But this isn’t really the case. Zen discourse fully recognizes and embraces this and the many other paradoxes, contradictions, and conundrums that actually do make up a true conception of our lives, and this is why Zen seems at first to willfully not make sense.

Excerpted from: What Is Zen? Plain Talk for a Beginner’s Mind
by Norman Fischer & Susan Moon, page 84

So, I got another tattoo this past Tuesday — a Zen (brushwork style) circle (enso) with a flying raven. The Zen circle is a symbol of wholeness and completion, and encompasses the idea stated in the quote above. The heart sutra has it, “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form.”

And the Raven? A reminder that in Zen, wisdom is found in the cracks.

Today, the peeling process began. Tattoos, new ones, peel. The ink is actually put into the dermis (the second layer of skin,) and the epidermis (the top layer) is stained in the process. You could say that the entire first tattoo disappears as the top layer falls away.

Now, of course, our skin is doing that all the time. It’s not obvious, but it’s happening. You do see it if you get a sunburn — the top layer separates away in bigger chunks than usual, and many are the folk who then spend the day pulling at it.

I’m remembering a nursing student on a jungle trip with Dar and me who’s entire chest was burned and peeling, and she picked and sang, “Peelings! Nothing more than peelings!” to the tune of “Feelings.”

Interesting, though, that we think of our skin–our pigmentation, the moles and liver spots–as being permanent. In reality, the skin you are looking at now is less than 35 days old. Or better, the skin you are looking at has replaced itself over the last 35 days.

Weird thought — that means you’ve left your entire skin lying around. In your bed, in your car, at your desk, on your partner, etc.

Of course, this applies to all the cells in your body… colon cells last only 4 days, and are replaced, for example. Thus, you really aren’t so permanent. And that’s the point of the top quote.

But, you seem to be. You look in the mirror day to day, and there you are.

Darbella took lots of photos of the tattooing process. The one above is a modification of a “regular” photo, something we both like doing. I used it because it’s dramatic and different. But key to today’s article is that the photo is an illusion. Never in this world did the scene look like that.

the original shot
the original shot

Even more interesting, the original photo only captured an instant of time. Obviously. The tattoo needle was changing things second by second. And that, too, is how life is.

We want life to be like we want life to be, and life is a moving target.

When couples fight (even divorced couples 😉 ) the fight is always about this. It’s a Zen issue. It’s the Zen issue that’s described in the above quote. The same Zen‑y ideas is heard at funerals: “In the midst of life we are in death.” This reminds us that:

How it is, is how it is, until it isn’t.

Couple fights are always about “who’s right,” although it can be couched in “what’s best for the children.” Off they go, blaming, judging, and missing the fact that how each sees the situation is neither right nor wrong. It’s just perspective. And perspectives die.

Because they are stuck, they can’t see that the impermanence of life exists right in the midst of its permanence.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve changed my mind a million times, and that’s probably in the last month. Last week’s article on Muhammad Ali was about that — how the way I saw Civil Rights and boxers and the War shifted for me as I listened to his speech.

So, when people fight, what are they doing?

They’re forgetting that how they see things is just how they see things; forgetting that the thing they are seeing has no intrinsic meaning.

This is ‘bad’ for me” is true. “You should agree that this is bad for me, and stop doing it” is not true. But in the midst of thinking you’re hard-done-by, or ignored, or disrespected, it’s hard to remember that how you see things is only how you see things.

And how you see things changes.

Zen is all about seeing the contradictions. Zen focuses on living in the contradiction of non-permanence, non-rightness.

I’m sitting at my computer, writing this, and rubbing my tattoo. As I do, good sized flakes of skin come off. I’ll spare you a photo, but my Kleenex has 10 or 15 gray bits on it. Interesting. Not black. Despite the black tattoo. Anyway, if I keep picking and saving, and then if I could piece the pieces together, would I have the tattoo?

Of course not!

I’d have the remnants of Tuesday’s tattoo, much as I have remnants of memories, plus some photos from Tuesday, and none of those things is (or captures) the actual experience.

Why? Because it’s Saturday.

And nothing, moment to moment, stays the same. Each moment dies, just like the cells in your body, the thoughts in your head, the relationships and family you have. All dying, then reconstituting into the next moment. Until we actually die, and then, well, that’s another article.

Give up on thinking anyone can or should shift their perspective to yours, either because you think you’re so, so smart, or because you’re so, so right. Live your life, be clear and concise, and at the same time admit that everything including you is in flux.

Listen carefully and with compassion to the views of others, and recognize that they make just as much sense as yours do, which is often not much. Then, simply act, and have another look. The tattoo of your life may look superficially the same, but under the skin, it’s another story altogether, and the only constant is change.

And the Raven, wise old bird, he, nods his shiny head.

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

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