Thursday, August 6, 2009

Two Realms—One Reality

Light / แสงสว่าง / 光Image by AmpamukA via Flickr

A prominent scientist and a girl on the edge of becoming a woman, on the surface seem to have little in common. I know them both intimately and thus see the common ground even though they may not. Both are highly intelligent; both creative, both kind and a pleasure to be with. One is a senior citizen, the other still a teen. Their worlds and concerns are light years apart and yet they are both seeking the same thing: Rules and guidance systems to plot a future path. Their chosen paths are very different but their approach is the same.

In our phenomenal world it’s an expedient matter to measure conduct against adopted standards. It keeps you on track and out of the weeds, at least most of the time. Society couldn’t function very well without agreed-to standards which define acceptable behavior and help us chart the road ahead. The problem is that such standards only work when everyone embraces the same standards, but standards which suit one person don’t suit another which is why we have conflict—No universal agreement.

One of the central teachings of Buddhism is “Interdependent Origination”. The teaching is not difficult to understand but seems difficult to fully embrace. The premise is this: That all things exist in balance with an opposite. For example a “down” requires an “up”; light requires darkness; phenomena requires noumena (infinite other examples). These opposites are interdependent and arise and cease together. There would be no such thing as a down without an up which is why the teaching is called what it is. Simple to grasp but not so simple when it comes to adopting needed standards. And why is that? Because a standard used to measure light wouldn’t work so well when there isn’t any light. And this observation becomes even more critical when it comes to the edge separating opposites, which is to say, “How do you establish rules and standards on the edge dividing the opposites”? Where neither are there yet both are there?

This sounds like an impractical consideration but stay with me. My scientist friend is a brilliant physicist who is pushing the limits beyond normally acceptable boundaries (into the metaphysical realm) and the young lady is likewise exploring the limits beyond normally acceptable boundaries of ethics and is searching for some spiritual rules and guidance. Both are going into the same realm and trying to use proven yardsticks from the phenomenal realm applied in the noumenal realm without realizing that when you cross that boundary line, the rules of the game must change. What we become accustomed to—perceptible objectivity, becomes worthless when operating in a realm that is imperceptible. It is like trying to find a new set of glasses which will allow you to see air.

There are two errors we commonly make in conducting our phenomenal affairs and these two haven’t changed since the time of the Buddha. The errors are that we perceive objects as either fixed and lasting or fluid and decaying. In one sense we conclude with permanence and in the other nihilism. This conundrum is exactly the same as what confronted people in the time of Gautama and what he realized in his enlightenment is that both are true and neither are true (as separate matters). His enlightened resolution came to be known as The Middle Way. But how does that make sense? How can something (anything) be both true and not true at the same time? In order for that to work it is necessary to acknowledge this dilemma which my two friends are wrestling with—The opposites of phenomena and noumena and be willing to stand with one foot in each of those two camps at the same time.

In The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment (Address by the Bodhisattva of Pure Wisdom) it says
“...the intrinsic nature of Complete Enlightenment is devoid of distinct natures, yet all different natures are endowed with this nature, which can accord and give rise to various natures.” Elsewhere it says that enlightenment is not something that comes and goes; it is ever-present. This too seems like an irrational statement. It is a perfectly logical question to ask “If enlightenment is ever-present then how come I don’t experience it”? Perhaps the answer to that question is that we are trying to see air with a new set of glasses. Air can’t be seen with any glasses and “Complete Enlightenment is devoid of distinct natures...”. If enlightenment has no defining nature then it doesn’t matter how sharp our vision—It can’t be seen. Yet the Sutra goes on to say that “all different natures are endowed with this nature, which can accord and give rise to various natures.”

So what is the pearl of wisdom here? Perhaps the pearl is to stop expecting the impossible and accept that the task is not to invent another set of tools but rather live by the constant infusion of the Spirit. Buddhists might choose to call Spirit “Buddha-Nature”. Christians might choose to call it “The Holy Spirit” but a name is just a handle. Some people prefer one handle, others prefer another handle but noumenal truth has no handle or nature. We are not comfortable in “flying blind” but isn’t that the definition of expedient means—Doing what is needed, one moment at a time, as phenomenal life flows and changes? How useful is it to use fixed standards when all of life is shifting and changing? The rules which worked yesterday are yesterday’s rules and tomorrow’s rules will only work when unknown conditions arise then. Circumstances change, and when they do we need to measure the moment and act appropriately. This flexible way requires only one leap of faith—That enlightenment is a constant reality and it has no nature.
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