I'm personifying Buddhism in the title of this blog post. But really I'm talking about how Rob Burbea viewed the Buddhist approach to dualities in his book, Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising.
As noted in recent posts about the book, I like the way Burbea explains his subject, though sometimes he can be too Buddhist-geeky for my less-committed-to-Buddhism taste.
However, today my yellow highlighter kept making question marks in the margin as I read two chapters about "The Dependent Arising of Dualities" and "The Fading of Perception." I found much to like in the chapters, but also some that I didn't like.
Which meant I wasn't acting in accord with this statement of Burbea:
We could also say that in those ways of looking there is a measure of insight into non-duality, since the duality between objects and consciousness is seen to be false. Moreover, since in that view all objects, whatever their appearance, share the same essential nature, implicit too in this non-duality is the non-duality between things which seem to be opposites.
At first I thought that quotation was fine, since I viewed it in the way that Alan Watts often would talk about dualities such as good and bad, up and down, pain and pleasure, and such.
This uncontroversial perspective is that dualities, by definition, require both of the "duals" in order for either to exist. Good, by itself, would be meaningless. Good needs bad in order to stand out. Ditto for bad. So good needs bad, and bad needs good.
But then Burbea quotes the Third Zen Patriarch as saying, "Make the smallest distinction [between things], however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart." Burbea explains that rather cryptic utterance as meaning that we should "practise, over and over, a dropping of any preference for any pole of any duality that presents itself."
So we shouldn't prefer good over bad, or pleasure over pain, or love over hate, because preferences involve clinging, and clinging indicates that we haven't grasped the Buddhist tenet that actually the person clinging lacks a self that could possess the object of desire, and objects lack inherent existence anyway, which makes them not really real.
Now, later Burbea backs off the whole "dropping of any preference" thing, which is good, because it strikes me as both undesirable and impossible. After all, wanting to drop all preferences is a desire, a clinging to a Buddhist ideal. So is wanting to no longer want.
At the end of the second chapter I read today, Burbea said something that didn't elicit any question marks from me, since it made much more sense.
In realizing for ourselves this dependent arising and fading of phenomena, understanding its implication of emptiness, and then gaining some familiarity with viewing things directly as empty, a range and freedom of view is opened up to us. Describing how he practised, the Zen Master Lin Chi said:
Sometimes I take away the person. Sometimes I take away the situation or the thing. Sometimes both. And sometimes neither.
By 'taking away' is meant 'seeing the emptiness of'. Thus, among the options he listed, the first corresponds to a way of looking that sees the emptiness of self; the second to viewing phenomena as empty; the third to a lens that sees both the personal self and phenomena as empty; and the fourth takes both self and phenomena at face value.
Not impelled to always pick up and use the view of emptiness, free to look in any of these ways, we are freer, as understanding matures, to respond to any situation in any way that seems most helpful and appropriate.
This fits with my recent post, It's best to respond to most problems, not react to them. Reactions often are habitual and instinctual. In contrast to more thoughtful responses, reactions tend to be rooted in unthinking emotion or how we're used to dealing with a situation.
If a supposedly "spiritual" person is used to appearing as if they don't care about what happens to themselves or to others, because they've supposedly attained such an exalted level of detachment from worldly affairs, then they're going to act uncompassionately when say, a friend or family member is having a tough time and needs their help.
I noticed this sort of behavior frequently during the 35 years I was an active member of an India-based religious organization, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, headed up by a guru.
The RSSB teachings would approvingly quote the words of Jesus in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”
I thought that was a horrendous attitude, that a goal to leave this world behind and attain the glories of heaven required a commitment to detach from normal human activities, concerns, and attachments. I'd see RSSB disciples become rigid, dogmatic, and robotic as they tried to look like how they thought a devoted RSSB disciple should.
As Burbea says, our real goal should be to respond to situations in the most helpful and appropriate way. If that means crying along with someone who has just suffered a painful loss, then we should shed tears along with them. If it means celebrating with someone who has just experienced a highly pleasurable event, then we should share their joy.
The foundation of spirituality, the ground floor on which all else must rest, in my view is acting like a decent average human being. Without that base, whatever lofty structures we construct in our search for meaning will be deeply flawed.
Put another way, a genuine sinner is much more appealing than a fake saint.