Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What's real?

Good and Evil

Thinking thoroughly about what’s real must necessarily include thinking about what’s not real because these two define each other. Nothing can be understood in isolation. It is only possible to understand one thing when compared to the opposite. “Love” means nothing in isolation from indifference. Likewise evil is understood against the comparison of goodness. Not only do reality and unreality define each other, they are opposite from each other. Everything has these two dimensions. Up and down exist together and define each other and the same relationship applies to everything: Black/white, up/down, in/out and seen/unseen. What can be seen has qualities that allow perception. The unseen however lacks perceptible qualities and thus can’t be seen.

The Buddhist understanding of the relationship between reality and unreality is not different from the Christian understanding. It uses different words but in essence it is the same. Both the Buddhist view, together with the Christian perspective, provides a more thorough understanding. Consider the following:

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18

Here Paul articulates the two sides of reality and points to how they are different. The seen is temporary but the unseen is eternal. What is eternal has no beginning nor ending. That’s what eternity entails. However, what is seen has a beginning and an ending and is thus temporary. Where Buddhism differs from Christianity on this matter concerns the possibility of dividing reality from unreality, or to use the Christian terms the unseen from the seen.

The dogmatic Christian teaching says that these two can be divided but when explored more thoroughly it can be shown that this dogmatic teaching is incorrect. The essential nature of God is love, which imbues the entire creation. The problem here is not the reality of Gods love. The problem is one of perception. The love of God can’t be seen. It can only be experienced.

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8: 38-39

We are inclined to differentiate between the physical and the spiritual. The implication of this view is that the physical and the spiritual dimensions are different and can be isolated from each other. The question must be, “how is it possible to extricate what enlivens us from the vehicle that contains life”? Forget about labels. Set aside how precisely and conceptually spirit and mind are distinctly different and just considers the indivisible nature of spirit and body. A body with no spirit would be a zombie and a spirit without a body would be a ghost.  The Bible teaches that God is the animating aspect of us. Buddhism teaches that it is the universal mind. Neither the mind nor God can be conceptually grasped. They may be the same thing with different labels. Whatever label we choose makes no difference but what does make a difference is the characteristics of what arises from both, which is unconditional love (agape in the case of Christian thought, and compassion in the case of Buddhist thought). Removing even these labels leaves us with the identical character of both: the inseparable nature of Gods love. I think the Buddhist explanation is better because it deals more directly with the inseparable nature between the spiritual and the physical, the real and the unreal. In essence the Buddhist understanding is that what we ordinarily consider real is a mistaken conclusion based on the perceptible nature of form, which can be seen. All form can be seen. Nothing spiritual can be seen. Form, as Paul says, is temporary, but Gods love is eternal, yet can’t be seen (only experienced).

The Buddhist language uses the dimensions of “form” and “emptiness” in place of “seen” and “unseen” but the meaning is nearly identical. But here is where the majesty and ultimate saving power takes place. The Buddhist perspective says that these two: “form” and “emptiness” are not two. They are one single, indivisible matter, just as up and down are indivisible and just as we are indivisible from Gods love. Jesus taught the unconditional nature of Gods love and unconditional means indivisible.

Emptiness is the mirror opposite from matter just as up is the mirror opposite from down. Emptiness is 100% spiritual yet it can’t be perceived or measured. It is whole and complete. It is like space: everywhere and unseen but contains everything perceptible. Emptiness is neither empty nor changing. Emptiness doesn’t move and has no perceptible characteristics. From the Zen perspective, emptiness is who and what we truly are and exists within each of us.

Emptiness, albeit unseen is whole, complete and perfect already and is the unseen part of you and me. Emptiness is our spiritual core. It is what makes us conscious, sentient beings. Emptiness is also subject to dependent origination, which means that emptiness is also empty and binds it to form. The union can’t be broken just like the up/down union can’t be broken. If we tried to do away with one side, the other side would cease to exist. Some times this form/emptiness arrangement goes by the handles of conditional/unconditional. The conditional part is divided between polar opposites and subject to cause and effect. The unconditional part is unified and not subject to anything. Conditions change. Unconditional matters are fixed and these two require each other.

The solution for all of us is to understand three things:
  1. When we attach our self-worth to what is seen but temporary, we are setting ourselves up for eventual heartache because these things pass away.
  2. When we identify our selves with what is spiritually eternal (Gods’ love) we realize a lasting sense of peace and stability that can’t be shaken.
  3. These two—the seen and the unseen, are two parts of the same thing but only one part is absolutely real (the love of God). The other part is relatively real. Reality is relative and absolute, conditional and unconditional.
We are both the indivisible union of matter and spirit and the task of life is to work to realize the integration these two but never question the inseparable nature of Gods love. How do we integrate? By being the agent of Gods love, first by accepting ourselves as the channel of divinity and then through action. We are the body of Christ and if Christ remains an intellectual abstraction instead of an indwelling reality, then there is no means of spreading Gods love and we are all doomed to rely solely on what passes away. There is no need to speculate or debate the number of angels on the head of a pin. Either God is real or not and there is an easy way to find out: let go of ideas and start living a life of giving. As the saying goes, “What goes around comes around.” We create our own realities by being the agent of spiritual expression, either for good or evil.
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