In mythology, the Sphinx is a creature with a human head, lion’s body and eagle’s wings, said to be treacherous and merciless, who will kill and eat those who cannot answer her riddles. The most famous one asked of (King) Oedipus Rex goes, ‘What is it that has one voice, and is four-footed [in the morning], and two-footed [in the afternoon], and three-footed [in the evening]?’
Yes, the answer is… a wo/man. Or rather, a fe/male infant, first crawling on all fours in the ‘morning’ of this life, who then becomes an adult in the ‘afternoon’ of this life, walking upright on two legs, who later becomes an old person in the ‘evening’ of this life, walking with a cane. We might even add that one might eventually be ‘no-footed’ [in the late evening], if bound to (wheeled) beds and chairs.
Although the Sphinx is imaginary, it is true that all sentient beings, even kings and gods (in the Buddhist perspective), are subjected to the flow of time, with each trapped in a continuum of change, from birth to ageing, sickness and death. In fact, as long as yet to be liberated, this flow is cyclical, with rebirth and ‘redeath’. What matters is to seek meaningful action in the process, which leads to liberation, the True Happiness of one and all.
While mention of morning, afternoon and evening might be misleading, it does reminds us that life goes by very swiftly. Upon hindsight when old and dying, one’s entire life might seem to be as if like a dream, that transpired over the course of a day (and night). Also, when we live, each morning, upon waking, we are as if born again, before we tire, as if old and sick, at night sleeping, as if dying again.
This life is thus a series of ‘minor births and deaths’. Every day is another chance to do better, while every day squandered is another chance wasted, as the day of ‘major death’ creeps closer. This life is a race in time, yet against time. In ‘Gods of Egypt’, the Sphinx asks, – ‘I never was, am always to be. No one ever saw me, nor ever will, and yet, I am the confidence of all who live and breathe. What am I?’
The answer is… tomorrow – because it has yet to come, yet always seems to be coming. None has seen it yet, and it cannot be seen now, but those alive seem sure that it exists. As if singing of hopes for the future, this seems to be the opposite of the first riddle, that sung of the despair of impermanence? But is tomorrow, just like today, not when we further advance towards impermanence too? Life must be lived well and fully now, since tomorrow or ‘later’ never really ‘comes’!