Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Two Truths

In my last post I talked about the teaching of anatman. Upon further reflection I realized that I didn't emphasize the Two Truths--the Absolute and Relative--enough. This is one of the most brilliant insights that Buddhism has to offer (although it appears to have Upanishadic origins that predate Buddhism).

The Absolute and Relative dialectic (although "dialectic" may not be the best word, it works much better than "dicohotomy") offers a framework to balance the realites of the every day world with the insights of emptiness--in other words, the ultimate nature of reality. Ultimate and Relative are not opposed; rather as Shitou writes in "The Sandokai," "Ordinary life fits the Absolute like a box and its lid," "like two arrows meeting in mid air." Or as David Loy writes, "[this] doctrine is a shorthand way of expressing a difference between two modes of experience."

The Two Truths helps us understand the Buddha's radical insight into emptiness (of self or inherent existence) while still acknowledging and honoring our day to day self.

That said, it's so easy to get caught up in these lofty teachings--to appropriate the infamous raft metaphor: to turn a life jacket into an anchor, another object to grasp! For at the end of the day, when it comes down to it, even though my ego or sense of self may be empty, it sure doesn't feel that way when my feelings get hurt or when something in life disappoints me. Then, me--I, Andre, whatever you want to call it--seems to be the only thing that is real. The hurt, anger, frustration, while empty and conditioned, feels as hard and permanent as a rock. Because, truth be told, while I'm mired in the Relative it takes a lot of faith in the teachings, in the Dharma, to believe that there is an Absolute at all.
As always, it's a matter of walking the Middle Way between extremes--between faith and doubt, study and practice. For though the Absolute and Relative, samsara and nirvana, may be two sides of the same reality, it takes the Middle Way to see that.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: johnmuk.

1 comment:

  1. Guess I should have caught up before commenting on the last post, oh, well...

    My first insight into the truth behind the absolute and relative came from hearing Tozan's poem about them again at a time when I was ready to hear its meaning.

    "The blue mountain is the father of the white cloud.
    The white cloud is the son of the blue mountain.
    All day long they depend on each other, without being dependent on each other.
    The white cloud is always the white cloud.
    The blue mountain is always the blue mountain."

    I'd been hung up on the father/son relationship but that time I heard it they were just friends and it struck me like lightning (well, not so dramatically). While it was a concept that I'd been holding together for a long time, this realization allowed me to set it down and see that it held together on its own.