Thursday, July 31, 2014

The high price of choice: winning battles, losing wars.

My way or the highway?

The boundary line between sleep and wakefulness is anything but clear. Ordinarily we think we know the difference. When sleeping, sometimes we dream and it isn’t clear that while in the dream it isn’t real. But when we wake up we say to ourself, “Oh, that was just a dream.”  Dreams can seem very real and sometimes terrifying. Research has shown that between 25% to 50% of people die while asleep and while not conclusive, evidence suggests that little difference exists between such things as heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety due to wakeful states of stress and sleep states of stress. The body doesn’t distinguish.

Our reasoning is that one state (wakeful state of consciousness) is real while the sleep state is not. To fathom the Buddhist understanding of highest, or ultimate reality it is necessary to come to terms with the basis of discrimination. And when this is explored the conclusion is that the vast majority of the human race is never awake but is instead in a state of perpetual sleep, not knowing the difference between reality and unreality. 

To unlock this mystery we need to examine the matter of discrimination. Why do we see things as mutually discrete and different? Isn’t it sufficient that they appear that way? It is clearly evident that things are different, at least from the point of view of perception. We see, smell, taste, feel, hear and imagine them as being different and mutually discrete. How could it be otherwise? That alone should justify discrimination—shouldn’t it?

According to the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra this is seeing only one half—and not the important half—of reality which is transcendent to perception. There is a state of consciousness, referred to as highest, or ultimate reality where all differences disappear, where there is no this vs. that. It is not a state based on normal means of perception but is rather experienced intuitively. It is the root consciousness from which all arises. This state is not determined logically, accessed philosophically or described by words or other symbols. It’s discerned directly—by-passing all conditions which restrict and limit reality. In this sense it could be said that discrimination both exists and it doesn’t exist.

At the level of conditioned, mutually discrete life, which we routinely enjoy, there is no question that discrimination exists. Objectively things are perceived to be different and it is impossible to avoid making judgements and expressing preferences about these objective forms. And from the basis of unconditional, highest reality it is equally clear that discrimination does not exist. At this level, all objective forms fuse into Oneness. So on the one hand we perceive difference, make preferences, fight over such things and are unavoidably trapped by the choices we make. On the other hand we can see that there is ultimately only unity where discrimination-based choice is pointless. If there is no difference (and we imagine that there is) we are living in a dream world, believing that difference is real, making choices based on that imaginary dream and paying the karmic price.

While this view of reality may seem strange it is eminently practical. When we see responsive, feed-back violence occurring around us, we need to take a step out of the fray and notice that no one is winning. That should be our clue to which state of consciousness is prevailing. It doesn’t necessarily mean we can step out of the unreality of our realm of perception and into the ultimate realm, but it will alert us to the price we will pay by continuing to fight battles and lose the ultimate war. 

Each side can justify retributive responsiveness. The question is always, who started it—who took the first shot? This line of argument can be (and often is) taken all the way back to the beginning of beginingless time. In the Lanka, the Buddha, correctly points out that in the realm of ultimately reality there is no cause and effect which functions within ordinary, objective life. Cause and effect, like all of ordinary life, is an illusion with roots in our mind. One way leads to a never ending cycle of winning battles, losing wars, suffering and the other leads to compassion, harmony and tranquility. The choice is always before us and we must accept the benefits and consequences of our choices. Karmic results are unavoidable in the realm of one opposed to another.
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