Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What's Real?

Cat on Mat (picture 1)Image via Wikipedia
More than anything else Buddhism is a practice of reality. What is real? Are things exactly as they are, without addition or subtraction? Or perhaps they are incomplete and need further embellishment and refinements which we call discrimination. Do we believe we are capable of refining what is already perfect: that without our ego-centric preoccupations reality is needful? Within the true mind all Buddhas, everything is complete, pure and whole, perfectly integrated without division and alienation which we refer to as unity. Nothing within that realm is lacking or needful.

And yet we exist, apparently as separate individuals with no discernable link to other life forms. It is a profound paradox that on the one hand seems immanently reasonable and on the other hand insane. Dependent origination is supremely flawless. Nothing comes into existence alone, out of nothing. As soon as one thing arises another arises at the same time. Light and dark arise together. Up and down arise together. Good and evil; strong and weak; man and woman; mother and child; thinking and thinker—everything is originated dependently. Nothing escapes this provision. And yet our thinking mind tells us otherwise.

So what is real: the gilded lily or just a lily? You see there is the essential dilemma: We are beings who think, reason, and imagine. And these tools are extremely useful in normal everyday life. But these are just tools we use for abstracting, manipulating and imagining life. Tools are not life. They are tools.

When we use mundane logic within the framework of the tool set, certain rules apply. One number plus another number equals a particular sum. Two plus two always equals four and it doesn’t matter if your speak only Chinese, Russian or English. Mundane logic is universal. When we operate within this box of abstraction we agree to play by the rules which define the box of abstraction. But there is another form of logic which transcends abstraction and is called “supra-mundane” logic with a different set of rules that contains (but us not limited to) mundane logic. It is impossible to solve certain problems within the box of abstraction because of the fixed rules that define its existence. Take the thinker/thinking problem for example.

How can there be thinking without a thinker who thinks? This problem can’t be solved with mundane logic and the reason is because both thinkers and thoughts are abstractions—imaginary. If both are abstractions there is no place for reality to alight. At least one of the two must be real to solve the problem and when that condition applies, the “rules” of abstract limitation are broken. And here is the secret: Dependent origination rules, not abstraction. This overriding rule says that an abstraction must be balanced with reality. It takes something real to abstract. Abstractions produced by other abstractions are a mirage. A thinker is an abstraction and the product of a thinker is just an extension of the unreal abstraction. In truth there is no thinker and thus no thinking. Both are the products of the imagination and thus have no permanence. Everything in temporal life is constantly changing.

Reality is understood in different ways. The most popular way depends upon tangible measurability. Science completely embraces this understanding. A different understanding is permanence. From the perspective of temporal life nothing is permanent and must be seen as unreal. The fact is, life as we know it, is both temporal and permanent. One aspect is tangibly measurable (form) and the other aspect is permanent, yet unmeasurable (emptiness). Abstractions and reality arise together (dependent origination). These are just variations on the theme of form and emptiness. Form is a manifestation of emptiness just as an abstraction is a manifestation of reality. It is reality that is thinking not an imaginary thinker. This is what Bodhidharma called “Mind essence”—the co-joining of form and emptiness.

“Mind essence” is a very difficult notion to wrap our thinking around since thinking is about abstractions and this “Mind essence” is totally real, yet unseen. We lust for forms of reality we can put our hands and thoughts around and the mind doesn’t allow either form of grasping. The odd thing is that we use our minds continuously without being able to define what, where or how mind exists. If we decided for even an instant that we wouldn’t think any longer until we grasped the “what, where and how” we would be dead in a flash. So we don’t think about mind, we just use the tool without having a clue how it functions. And the fact is we don’t need to know how it functions, just that it does.

In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Buddha says we know things two ways: Either through outer signs or through fathoming. To know something through outer signs is like seeing smoke and deducing fire. We don’t see the fire but know it’s there because smoke and fire are linked through dependent origination. The same with mind. We don’t see mind but we know it’s there because we use it. This is an example of touching the real through abstraction. To know something through fathoming is to just know directly, by-passing abstractions. The first—outer signs—is an example of mundane logic. The second—fathoming—is an example of supra-mundane logic. We don’t know how we know, we just know that we know.

So what is real—in the fullest sense? We are here in bodily form. That is an undeniable fact of tangible verification. That’s a part of what’s real. The body is born, grows, becomes attached, suffers, gets old and dies. That’s a part of what’s real—tangibly verified. What is not tangibly verified is what we can’t see. We can’t see what moves us. We can’t see the mind. We can’t see the spark of life that activates or originates us. We can’t see beyond the grave. Yet without these unseen dimensions, which we use every moment throughout life, the body couldn’t function and move. How can we deny these dimensions just because we can’t see them? They too must be a part of what’s real. Whatever name or names we use to convey and communicate about this unseen dimension is not relevant. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We can’t see the fragrance but it smells sweet nevertheless. This is another way of seeing the unseen.
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