Imagine if whenever you greeted someone for the first time – a supermarket cashier, the postman, a new colleague, a neighbour, a date, anybody – rather than uttering the usual “How are you?” you instead transmitted some little nugget of wisdom that might be of more use to them and might provoke a more interesting response than the usual “Fine thanks.”
If you wanted to pass on some profoundly useful piece of information to this other person in less than six words – perhaps even something with the potential to change their lives – what would those words be? I’m not suggesting your opening shot should be difficult or baffling. When I was about 17 years old a trainee teacher called Ian Crowe joined the staff of my secondary school. He looked no older than we were and was frequently mistaken by pupils and other teachers for just another spotty bespectacled sixth former, though he must have been about 21. Perhaps as a result he was determined to be taken very seriously indeed. (To be fair, it was obvious even to us kids that he was an intellectual whale trying to swim with a school of minnows.) He also taught tennis and I remember showing up slightly late for a group lesson one afternoon to be greeted with a single word: “Crumbly.” He said it very distinctly and looked at me as if he expected some kind of response. Had this been slang for “useless slacker”, I wondered, at the school where he recently graduated? Or had I misheard him and what he meant was that my punctuality was disgracefully “crummy”? When I mumbled “Sorry?” he repeated the word, only this time so slowly and deliberately I couldn’t possibly misconstrue it.
“Crumbly.” He waited patiently, without any trace of malice, for my response. With hindsight I think he was hoping I would respond with words suggestive of lateral thinking, such as “rhubarb” or “apple” or “custard”, in which case I must have disappointed him because I simply blushed deeply as only an adolescent can blush, grinned feebly and hurried past him onto the tennis court. In addition to history and tennis, I remember now that he taught an extracurricular course on cognitive psychology (or was it philosophy?) which I took with half a dozen of my classmates. Maybe the psychoanalytic technique of word association (pioneered by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton and later adopted by Freud) had been mentioned and he wanted to find out whether the lesson had sunk in?
As I say, there’s no point greeting everyone with words no one will understand. You’d be better off sticking with “How are you?” If only he’d said “Everything is crumbly” it might have made more sense, eventually. I have never forgotten my sense of shame at somehow failing to live up to his expectations, but what I have learned with the passing years is that everything I once naively assumed to be stable and reliable is actually very soft and crumbly indeed. Youth is crumbly. Beauty is crumbly. Human bodies are crumbly. Memory is crumbly. Thoughts, opinions and ideas are crumbly. What we call history is crumbly. Scientific theories are crumbly. This blogpost will crumble, though I hope this blogger won’t crumble away completely for a few more years.
I don’t know the Pali word for crumbly, but much the same sentiment is expressed in the expression “Everything that arises, ceases”, the Buddhist insight that everything, whether in the mind or the wider world, is impermanent. That includes our sense of having a solid, stable self that stands apart from everything else. This is a deeply counterintuitive concept until you are forced to reflect on the way your sense of self continually changes throughout the day depending on mood, hunger, alertness and so on, on what becomes of the self during deep, dreamless sleep, and where the former selfhood of a person with dementia goes.
Most of the Buddha’s teaching can be derived from the words “Everything that arises ceases and is not self.” This realisation is surely fundamental if we want to see the world and ourselves as they really are. Without realising this truth it’s impossible to free ourselves from the attachments to thoughts, ideas, emotions, desires and beliefs that cause us so much suffering. We can never be truly at peace while we’re grasping at impermanent things. No wonder that when Kondañña, one of his first five disciples, uttered the deceptively simple formula “Whatever is subject to arising is all subject to cessation“, the Buddha is said to have responded excitedly: “Kondañña knows! Kondañña knows!” His old friend had found the key to enlightenment.
So these would be my alternative words of greeting, if only I had the courage to say them out loud to everyone I met. They’d be more useful than “How are you?” – let alone “Crumbly”.