While eating breakfast yesterday I came across a newspaper article highlighting the security frenzy surrounding the London 2012 Olympic Games.
My initial reaction was to shake my head at the pictures of the security forces tackling an innocent but enthusiastic photographer into the gutter to avoid a potential threat to the olympic torch. It caused me to question the nature of the torch, or more specifically, the flame – and what it was the security forces are actually trying to protect.
Sadly, this event isn’t that surprising. As a pilot I’m already well aware of the massive exclusion zone, called R112, around London’s airspace, and the consequential threat of interception, being shot down, or being sent to a dark place for many years as a result of blundering into it without permission. That’s if the ground to air missile installations being planned don’t get you first.
So, what has all this to do with impermanence – or more importantly how our ignorance of impermanence leads to suffering (in this case, someone being tackled to the ground)?
Well, a few days ago, another news article was on TV that showed what looked like some mining/davie lamps on an aircraft. The volume was down, but it became apparent that these lamps were transferring the olympic flame to the UK on a special flight.
It struck me that the Olympic flame is perhaps one of the most obvious examples of impermanence. All manifestation is simply the coming together of various causes and conditions to produce a temporary effect. What is more temporary than fire?
The notion of keeping the Olympic flame alight is I think, in Buddhist terms, completely contradictory. Is the flame the same flame from moment to moment? Sometimes powered by gas, at other times, oil and wick, the flame changes constantly, by burning different atoms of fuel.
When the flame is transferred from the oil lamps to the gas powered torch bearers the flame doesn’t jump to the torch, and leave the lamp. Nothing is transferred at all – just some heat allows a new flame to initiate.
If a torch bearer stood behind a tree and blew out the torch, and relit it with a match, it would be utterly impossible using any scientific method known to humanity to determine if that flame was lit by the official Olympic Flame™ or by a cigarette lighter or a match.
It is the clinging to the notion of a permanent, unchanging fire – attachment to ego, and the pride of the organisers to maintain a permanent fire that formed the causes for the poor (if misguided) photographer to be pushed to the ground.
It reminds me of the ancient superstitions of Rome and the Vestal Virgins and their job to keep the sacred fire burning. How they, and Rome, suffered!