Saturday, August 13, 2011

Transcendence and the Middle Way


“The Middle Way” is a hallmark of Buddhist thought yet the term is often short-changed or converted into a sort of formula for advancing toward enlightenment—A pathway. Over the vast expanse of time since Buddhism became established, this pathway was been adorned with many different embellishments, not all of which are helpful.

Initially The Middle Way meant “not this, not that; not not this, not not that”—both a negation and an affirmation at the same time: a position (or non-position) between all opposites, but especially between permanence and impermanence. During the epoch of Gautama, Indian philosophy was wrestling with these two opposites. One school argued in favor of an absolute, the other school argued in favor of complete nihilism. Upon his enlightenment Gautama realized that neither school was right, nor were they wrong—thus The Middle Way.

And while this enlightened conclusion may have philosophically resolved the matter, the real power is to transcend the entire issue, in fact to transcend ALL opposition or sameness. In western thought something is momentarily one thing or another at any given point in time and space. A “white” object is only a discrete white object and nothing else. A “good” thing is discretely a good thing. One set of beliefs are right and others are wrong. If a person is considered to be a Democrat they can’t be a Republican; if a Buddhist, not a Christian. We enshrine such exclusive labels. Given the passage of time, space and circumstances one thing may (or may not) transform from one discrete thing into another. The problem with this way of thinking is that it moves backward into the same argument that was resolved by Gautama more than 2,500 years ago—“not this, not that; not not this, not not that.” Sometimes it seems that we are doomed to keep repeating the same error endlessly.

For The Middle Way to have any usefulness (beyond philosophy) transcendence is required: to simply move beyond all opposites and do away with such views. To adopt view “A” (while excluding all “non-A” views) gets us stuck, or to use a Buddhist term “attached” which Gautama taught is the nexus of suffering. Practically speaking, hardly a moment passes when we don’t find ourselves taking up a firm stance on something. We almost regard this way as virtuous. My country right or wrong; love it or leave it. My ideology is right. Yours is wrong. And we demand that our leaders embrace this hardened, bunker mentality. This way of taking up inflexible stances is wreaking our world. How can we remain being open without being considered wishy-washy, or a fence straddler? In the West, it is very difficult.

To answer that question it is necessary to seriously consider this matter of “transcendence.” The truth is that everything has two-interdependent states vs. discrete, independent states. A “white” object can only be that way because it contains all other colors. Scientists proved that long ago through diffraction. OK, then you would argue that the opposite of white is black and for sure is not in the light spectrum—it is the absence of light. This “view” would be correct and not correct—not this, not that, not not this, not not that. Why? Because light and not light arise together just as a mother can only be a mother by virtue of having a child, or a child can only be a child by virtue of having a mother: the chicken and egg thing. This interdependent acknowledgment has a name in Buddhism. It’s called dependent origination which has been central to evolving Dharma (e.g. truth) teachings.

There have been many enlightened Zen masters but one of my favorites is Huang Po. Here is what he had to say about this issue. “Once you stop arousing concepts and thinking in terms of existence and non-existence, long and short, other and self, active and passive, and suchlike, you will find that your Mind is intrinsically the Buddha, that the Buddha is intrinsically Mind, and that Mind resembles a void.”—From the Wan Ling Record. Huang Po is very succinct and cuts to the heart of the matter. He is talking here about transcending, just canning all conceptual matters and allowing your mind to rest with the understanding that there are no valid, exclusive positions and when we adopt a position (any) we are trapped like a monkey who reaches into a jar to get a goodie and won’t let go, thus imprisoning himself. We do it all of the time and pay a heavy price when we do.

At the core of each and every one of us there is a place of peace—a void, without this vs. that. Call it what you will: Buddha, One Mind, The Absolute, whatever. The label doesn’t matter. When we move away from that central place we run the risk of creating karma (either good or bad). At the core there is no karma because this is the realm of the Transcendent Middle Way—“not this, not that; not not this, not not that.” Yet this core space can’t exist without the jar and if we try to grasp it we’ll get just as stuck as the monkey. But maybe Huang Po would say just forget about jars and what’s inside. Just let it all go.
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