Thursday, June 09, 2005

Tat Tvam Asi...

Those familiar with my writing have probably seen, as one recurrent theme, our own mutual responsibility for each other. I see it as an existential imperative, for if you are responsible for your own life, which affects everything around it, you're responsible for everything.

But today I'd like to take that out of the realm of western philosophy and look at it from the site of the eastern mind. "Tat tvam asi" is a way of thinking, which, in Sanskrit, means "Thou Art That". It means that when you think of what you are and when you think of anything else, you are basically thinking of the same thing. Another way of putting this is that you are not alone but, rather, part of a larger web of creation. I'd like to expand on both of these for a minute to show you how they come back to my initial, western premise.

When tat tvam asi means that you are both you and everything "outside" of you, the relationship is one of self meeting self. This is probably confusing to most people used to thinking in a western mode, so let me put it in a western mode. I am presently sitting at my desk, looking at my monitor, whereon these words appear. I am an animal made of carbon, water, some minerals, and so on. My monitor is an object made of carbon, minerals, so on and some water was used in the process. The very same atoms that formed the universe are in both of us, both animate and inanimate. Our only difference is one of animation. But should I treat it with less respect simply because it cannot move? Now, let's look at my relation to another person. We are both made of the same materials, have the same parts. In a very real sense, I am that. The difference between us is miniscule and primarily accidental, when you think about it. So, why should I have less compassion for a Muslim or a homeless man or even a killer?

When tat tvam asi means that you are part of creation, the relationship is one of interdependence. It's easy to see why you wouldn't kill your family as you depend upon them; our society calls such people crazy. Would it make sense to kill a cousin or a grand-nephew? So, why then, are we hell bent on killing off so many of our distant relatives in Iraq? Aren't we interdependent with them? By disrespecting them, are we making it easier for others to disrespect us? Remember, we're setting the rules for our own comeuppance. The same applies for the animals we make extinct and the planet we so happily foul.

Buddhists believe that the closer you can come to tat tvam asi, the closer you are to enlightenment.

I believe that it is simply an inescapable fact.

1 comment:

Nikhil N.R said...

Good post on deciphering the meaning of Tat-twam-Asi. I myself have been trying to find the meaning of it in Ttoday's context. Anyhow, you have put it ina wa very simple way so that people in the west can understand...