“Look at you two with the signs on your jackets. You look funny.”
My wife, Jeanine, was referring to the logos on our fleece jackets, the ones worn by our oldest granddaughter, Camille and me. Camille is 14 and a freshman in high school.
“Baba,” (what the grandkids call their grandmother, they call me Michael) “the North Face logo is cool.”
Something about the casual way Camille tosses off this last remark moves me to challenge her. “Are you saying that wearing this logo makes the two of us cool?”
“Yes. Well it helps. In your case, I’m not so sure,” she responds coolly.
“You know,” I philosophize, “there is only one way to be cool, that’s to be cooler than someone else. If you’re not cooler than someone, there is no meaning to the word cool.”
“Huh?” Camille looks up from her laptop, “I literally have no idea what you are talking about,” she answers, her incomprehension mixed with disinterest. “In school there are the cool and the uncool. The uncool are annoying. Believe me, you know them when you see them.”
Wielding the sword of wisdom, I counter, “In the meditative tradition, if someone really gets to you—positively or negatively—it suggests a connection. Deep down, you are seeing yourself in the message that they represent.”
“Not even possible.”
“But those annoying nerds end up creating Facebook and driving a Lamborghini,” I say defensively. “Won’t they be cool at some point?”
“I don’t think you get it. Being cool is about making a statement—now.”
“But who decides what is ‘cool’? Not the uncool. That means the cool kids themselves decided they were cool. Isn’t that a little circular?” As I say this, I realize that the uncool might just have a hand in establishing coolness. I soldier on. “If everyone wants to be cool, how are the cool and the uncool so different?”
“The ones who aren’t cool are the wannabes,” says Camille, without looking up from her laptop.
“Who are the wannabes?”
“The nerds and the annoying ones. The one’s who think they’re cool but they’re not.”
“So how do you know if you’re cool?”
“You’re not a nerd and you’re not annoying. Some people are annoying,” she replies, a hint of fatigue in her voice.
“Camille,” I answer, making the topic personal, “I was cool once. It was long time ago, but I was.” As I say this, I can’t tell if I’m asserting something or simply fishing for a fresh assessment of my coolness.
At this point my granddaughter grows quiet. I had hoped at least to provoke some mercy for the poignancy of coolness lost, but Camille’s silence suggests that the conversation may be over. Seeing my inability to follow the logic of coolness, had she concluded that in some way we didn’t deserve each other? Not only that but, as an adult having asserted my own coolness—even in a bygone era—was I reaching?
In this awkward moment, I remembered the Buddha’s teachings on the nature of cyclic existence or Samsara. At the top of the food chain—in the misery that is the cycle of death and rebirth—is the realm of the gods, the cool ones. The gods enjoy a self-absorption based on nowness, which may just be a synonym for coolness. Because of their almost meditative composure, the gods are not easily challenged or swayed.
Just below the gods in the wheel of life we find an annoying bunch—the jealous gods—or, as Sakyong Mipham calls them—the wannabe gods. The wannabes are always reaching, always trying to copy the gods. They might, for example, try wearing the same brands the gods wear (although the wannabes never quite look as good).
These would-be occupants of the god realm challenge the gods, but their encounters always end in a defeat of one kind or another. Other than remarking on their unfortunate status as annoying and pointless, the gods just can’t be bothered with the wannabes, who they pity for failing to understand their place. While the realms of existence can last a long time, they are always temporary. They are real, but they are also the byproduct of the confusion and struggle engendered by the sense of our own separateness.
In the case of the jealous gods this fascination leads to a competitive struggle. The wannabes are always trying to one-up. They fight the cool ones, wishing to bring down, or at least rattle their composure. Driven by jealousy, the minds of the wannabes are troubled. As a result, the calm enjoyment of the gods always eludes them. In the wheel of life, the refined pleasure-seeking of the god realm is at the top of the cycle. At the bottom are the hellish states created by the power of (our own) aggression. All of the realms, whether pleasurable or painful, reflect the confusion borne of ego—the idea of a self somehow separate and independent of the world (or realm) that it inhabits.
Having reflected, after some time, Camille weighs in. She speaks deliberately, with a playful smile—both friendly and indulgent. It is clear she means to wrap up the conversation.
“Michael, it won’t help you to talk to me—a cool person. You need to be talking to an uncool person. If you do that, you just may have a clearer understanding.”
Pretending not to mind being waved-off like this, I wondered what might be revealed in the conversation Camille has suggested. Perhaps she was right; perhaps I wasn’t talking to the right person. Or more precisely, maybe I didn’t know who I was talking to. My earlier remark returns to haunt me:
“In the meditative tradition, when someone gets to you, deep down, you are seeing yourself in the message that they represent.”
After pondering for a moment, one thing was clear: not only had the Buddha’s wisdom shed light on my own experience, his portrayal of the realms of existence also anticipated the one realm baffling all of those destined to confront it: High School.
Editor’s Note: For an excellent description of this traditional topic within the study of karma—the Six Realms, see the ninth and tenth chapters of Chögyam Trungpa’s book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. In the Human Realm, where we are, the coolness (of the very pleasurable god realm) and the heat (of the hell-like existence created by anger) are moderated. As a result, human beings are said to be especially suited to the journey that reveals the true nature of the highs and lows of life and relationships. This journey is what the practice of sitting meditation (on a meditation cushion or bench) is all about.