Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Reflection

Russian billiard ball, demonstrating the tight...Image via Wikipedia
It may be a good idea to pause and reflect at this juncture before proceeding on down the Path. It’s important that we get the first two steps “Right” since these two form the basis of what follows.

There is a risk of presumption inherent in discussing anything. We assume that we know what certain things mean and proceed based on that presumption which is never a good idea. To insure that we not proceed down the primrose path with flawed presumptions well take a brief pause to reflect on a vitally important matter: reality—how do we define reality?

The Buddhist perspective on reality is very specific and is defined in terms of dependent origination. According to this framework, something is real IF it has “Intrinsic Substantiality” meaning independent status, separate and apart from anything else. If it doesn’t meet that requirement, by definition it’s not real. We could quibble about whether or not we like this definition, or even if the definition is accurate, but by so doing we’d miss the important point: this is the definition understood within Buddhism. Nobody says you must accept this definition but if you want to make sense of the Eight-Fold Path you need to accept it. So, accordingly, what would be “real?” Absolutely nothing within the realm of conditional existence. By “conditional existence” think causal linkage. Nothing just pops into existence without prior conditions unless we’re talking “Big Bang”—singularity, and in truth there may have been a prior causal link even to that, but put that issue aside and think everything since that point. And finally, when you hear the expression “emptiness” you must think “not independent.” Emptiness is just the necessary partner of interdependent form. It does not mean vacuity/nothingness which is unfortunately the common-coin understanding, which becomes a problem when you’re sitting looking at another person (or yourself in the mirror) and thinking “I'm looking at a phantom.” A bit of a credibility problem arises from that piece of ignorance.

Now the dharma of dependent origination says that everything has a counter-point which arises with events. Thus a mother arises with the counter-point of a child, instantly—not one then the other. Light arises with the counter-point of darkness. A self arises with a non-self. Form arises with emptiness. Emptiness arises with non-emptiness. Conditional reality arises with un-conditional reality. These are all examples of simultaneous, interdependent arising. The list is without end. The causal links between things interdependently creates karma like a cue ball striking the eight-ball and sending it into the corner pocket, or a Zen master answering a novice with a wise answer. Book-ends. All of these forms are variations on the same theme of dependent origination, which denies the myth of independent, un-linked causal conditions. Every cause results in a measured response mandating “expedient means,” which is another way of saying one thing matching another—an appropriate response dictated, in wisdom, to a particular cause.

Why is this such a big deal? Let’s look at a real-life example. You get up in the morning feeling grumpy and your teenage daughter makes some snippy comment. What happens next depends on whether or not you really “get it.” Variation # 1 would be to take offense and send a scorcher back at her, which she then fields and launches World War III. Variation #2 is not to respond in kind but to exercise forbearance and wisdom taking into account that (a) your grumpy mood is not real but is rather a mental/emotional perception which is rooted in a “self” which is likewise not real (return to the definition of reality please) and (b) that what is true for you is likewise true for your daughter. Variation # 1 is what we will do in ignorance and without being mindful of “reality.” Variation #2 is the flip side. In the first case you are forced to make a nasty conclusion that your daughter is just an independent _itch with a genetic streak, which she obviously got from your spouse (but not you) and that you are just having a bad day (but with some justification which escapes you at the moment). So both you (and your daughter) set off about the business of the day of creating some pretty bad karma that all begins with a distorted sense of reality and flawed perceptions.

So when we hear such statements as those in the Diamond Sutra which say, “Sabhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life or a soul,” we need to pay attention to this word “perception” and the definition of reality. Why? Because there is no such thing as an independent self, being, life or soul AND even if there was (which is impossible) what we perceive is a distortion. If you doubt this last statement about perception just reflect on the example about your teenage daughter. What we perceive colors everything and if we’re not extremely mindful and careful, our empty-perceptions will result in causally-linked bad karma which we must pay for sometime down the road.

Our outlook on life (Our View) is either “Right”—which is a reflection of reality, unencumbered by flawed perceptions (as defined by dependent origination) OR it is a reflection of ignorance. And this “Right View” flows (causally linked) into “Right Intentions.” Everything that follows is set in motion based on how we proceed from these two important first steps.
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