“THE GREATEST OF ALL THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY SCIENCE has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. “OUR IGNORANCE, OF COURSE, HAS ALWAYS BEEN WITH US, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species.” Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Absolute and Relative



There are two sides to the coin of enlightenment; two inseparable halves that form a whole. Traditionally, in Mahayana Buddhism, these two aspects were labeled wisdom and compassion. I prefer to call these twins, freedom and love. Without the realization and development of both these fundamental and complementary principles—freedom and love—one cannot be completely awake or completely happy.

The practice of deep meditation soon makes obvious the emptiness of all phenomena, and a certain sheen of freedom appears. When the intuition of original, free being is potent enough, dependencies and addictions shrivel and fall like dead leaves. (Or maybe not! Chogyam Trungpa and Alan Watts—eloquent teachers of the enlightened view—both died of heart disease related to alcoholism!)

But even those who have tasted this satori—this essential freedom from the “stuff” of life—will remain incomplete personalities, unless they also exercise and develop the complementary agency of loving relationships.

Too often, I have seen meditators (particularly from the more intellectual traditions, such as Zen and Advaita Vedanta) stuck in what the teachers of old called "void sickness"—tending in their characters toward indifference, fatalism, dryness. The main reason most outsiders misunderstand Zen as nihilism is because so many Zen Buddhists are nihilists! These arid, in-their-head-types, who populate every Zen and Advaita school, East and West, direly need a good, sweet, moist fuck! And any refreshment of Buddhism for modern times must include a generous splash of Eros, laughter and love.

All the world's a stage. A spontaneous display of conscious energy. And at the end of this divine theater, where does it go? The conscious energy remains when the play is gone. Then a new act begins. Don't get me wrong, however. I'm enjoying the play immensely in this very moment and playing it big to the back of the house.

From William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Be cheerful, sir:
Our revels are now ended. These our actors, as I foretold you,
Were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve.
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on,
And our little life is rounded with a sleep.

The medieval German Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, talked about the void and called it "Divine Ignorance." His way to realize it was the "Via Negativa" (recognizing everything the Divine was NOT.) He also talked about divine presence—the Plenum—and the way to realize it was the "Via Positiva."

The Mahayana equation, Emptiness is Form (Void is Plenum) has no argument with modern physics, which looks at forms and patterns as mutually dependent events in an indivisible continuum. The all-comprising Continuum within which everything appears and disappears is the "Void"—but calling it the "Source" is probably a better choice of words. 

Calling it "void" is the time-worn translation, but what a weak noun! Yes, the phenomenal world is a paradox. There is such wonderful, beautiful stuff appearing—and yet none of it is
 ultimateit just doesn't last—yet there's always more where it came from! Amen.


Einstein said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." Jacob Bronowski said, "All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility." They’re both right. Because all the comprehension available to us is structured on the human body-mind ("Man is the measure of all things"), we are bound to have incomplete and imprecise information. So mystery remains, forever.

Even so, I’m a huge fan and lifelong student of the natural sciences. I've even enjoyed reading a few issues of Skeptical Inquirer. My understanding of the mystery at the heart of things doesn't make me a nihilist. I've even written a couple essays trying to state why the ego is such a wonderful mind-program—the result of eons of galactic, solar and planetary evolution. Praise the ego! (This reminds me that Carl Jung said, "Egoless persons should not live in cold climates.")

Two Aspects of Reality: The Relative and the Absolute.

First, the Relative: There are as many paths are there are people. Again, it seems many folks I meet in spiritual circles grok this compassionate acceptance principle more easily than I do. They aren't the types who would kick people out of the synagogue—which I can picture myself doing: "Don't come back until you're ready to ignite with passion for THIS!" That's not the only response to people sitting on their butts and not singing or joining into the energy of the group. There is the total acceptance response that seems to me more "motherly." Perhaps both responses are appropriate in their time and place. Niels Bohr, the Nobel Laureate physicist, said, "The opposite of an ordinary truth is simply false; but the opposite of a great truth is also true."

Then there is the second principle, the Absolute: All dharmas are empty. This is the all-dissolving understanding I keep trying to communicate throughout this website. The       entire phenomenal world is only relatively real. Everything that comes and goes is no more substantial (ultimately) than a dream. Its basis is empty, unknowable, ungraspable and irreducible. Like events in a dream, all the worlds arise and fall without lasting meaning, implication, or effect. This "emptiness" (inadequate term, really), is beyond comparison. Beyond correlation. It is traceless—beyond all information.

I have met scores of people who have an intuitive inkling of this Pure Capacity, Void Nature: Muuuuuuuuu. But from the responses I generally get from people when I try to yak about emptiness (my mistake), it seems to me that they don't grok it at heart. That is, they don't profoundly see that their own self-nature is empty. Their own heart is the timeless, unknowable void. This is the final awakening of "Don't-know mind" when you take it all the way to its absolute, all-effacing conclusion.

And it's not just me, “my own particular ‘path.’” (Emptiness may be true and work for you, Eli, but others have their own paths.) Yes, everyone has her own unique pathBut there is no alternative to emptiness.

Emptiness is the nature of everyone, everything, whatever the path. I’m not being arrogant, here. I’m not saying my path is the one true path. (How boring that would be; I would hate to live in such a world!) But I am saying that emptiness is at the heart of you, me, and everyone. All dharmas are empty. That is their condition.

This understanding is the "transmission beyond the scriptures." And it is rare! The price of admission to this emptiness is one's mind. You have to be undone. It is a shattering, a kind of death. And halfway gone is not the same as "Gone Beyond." I let go utterly and fell into the Abyss—then came back to my ordinary “public” ego. But underneath the everyday hairy guy, I Am the Abyss. I Am Shiva, and I understand What I Am.


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