Impermanence Works

There is a syllogism that Buddhists often use to illustrate the concept of syllogism that states that sound is impermanent because it’s produced by causes. Sound isn’t different from most other observed phenomena in this regard, but its example serves as a nice illustration. Like sound, the suffering caused by sound is impermanent as well, because it also is produced by a cause, and furthermore, that cause is itself impermanent. But faced with sound that I deem to be noise, as I have been over the last couple of days, I assume the sound will be, if not permanent, at least persistent, and I seem to strive to make the suffering that it causes commensurately permanent. I don’t know why I do this, but I do. There’s something about noise that undermines my sense of well-being. It’s not that the noise is all that painful or unpleasant in the moment I hear it, it’s rather that it indicates a basic vulnerability that I can’t eliminate. If I’m hearing a noise I don’t want to, then it will always be possible for me to hear another noise that I don’t want to (leaving aside the possibility of deafness, which I haven’t the sense of humor to flirt with just now).

There are certain hard, intractable truths that we all must face. We will die, we will lose everything we hold dear, everyone we love will suffer at some point. Writing those things out, knowing full well that they’re true, isn’t anything like as painful for me as hearing the heavy footfall of my upstairs neighbors. That’s how I experience the world, and I’m not quite sure what to do about that. Is it realistic to try not to be bothered by noise or anything else? Would it make sense for me to trade my sensitivity to noise for the more common panic at the thought of loss and death? I suffered through that pain when I was eight or so, and I’m kind of glad to be past it, but it didn’t occur to me that being past it was only a sort of trade. Still, even if it was a trade, it probably was a good one.

Whatever its cause, I tend to be paralyzed by anxiety, or more precisely, it tends to become depression, and I sit there, wracked and hopeless, in a state of surrender. I feel the heat and queasiness of it flow out from my stomach to my extremities, flushing my face and ears and clenching my hands and feet. I become distracted and monosyllabic. I steep in it. What I don’t do is try to change my situation or my state of mind–I commit to their permanence. If noise is disturbing my reading or my meditation, rather than doing something else, I persist in my chosen effort and seethe at its being thwarted. The situation is intolerable, and I can’t get past that single incontrovertible fact. This doesn’t help in any way, but I can’t move my attention away from the unsatisfactoriness of it.

At the height of my struggles with work this spring, my supervisor at the time kept telling me that it’s okay to be unhappy sometimes. I had no idea what she was trying to tell me, but I’m starting to get an inkling. Things had always gone so well for me academically and professionally that I’d never really been unhappy in that context before. As I became so, I took it to mean not that things weren’t going quite as they should on the project and required additional attention and remediation, but that something was fundamentally wrong and was beyond repair. I tried to fix things, but I couldn’t imagine that there was anything that could be fixed, so mostly I just lamented my fate. And there I was again yesterday, not taking advantage of any of the wonderful opportunities open to me within just a few steps or a short ride, but instead surrendering to the cruel fate of what seemed to be a ruined holiday. I failed to note that its ruination was no more than my opinion.

So after many helpful suggestions from friends, family and well-wishers, I’ve gone ahead and done things, proving the transience of my anxious mood–it’s stubborn, but it’s ultimately transient. If I go for a walk out into the dunes past Hatches Harbor or across the breakwater at the west end of town, it will cause me to feel differently. If I go get a haircut, and do a little shopping, it will cause me to feel differently. If I get an hour-long punishing massage, it will cause me to feel differently. If I read a P. G. Wodehouse novel, it will cause me to feel differently. And still to come could be seeing the seals at Head of the Meadow Beach, kayaking, golfing, and any number of hikes in and around the dunes and beaches of Provincetown.

This Too Shall Pass

Today was a good day. The horrible heat let up some overnight, and we were spared the worst of the severe weather that accompanied the transition. I was actually able to take a pleasant bus ride down Fifth Avenue and stroll over to the ear doctor’s office off of Park Avenue without getting uncomfortable. This was a significant improvement over Monday afternoon’s quixotic test of endurance that we successfully undertook in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium (though the linked story exaggerates–the passing cloud was cheered much more loudly than the sun’s return was booed, if it was booed at all, however justified the booing would have been).

The doctor had very good news for me. He looked in my ear and nearly got giddy. He said not only that it looked “terrific,” but that already, just under three weeks after the surgery, it looks better than it did at any point in the ten months that followed the previous surgery. He said it made his day, and got so excited that he let slip that he wasn’t even sure this would work. His excitement confirms my experience so far. Though there’s still some pain (my ear was all but cut off and gutted, after all) and ringing, the ear just feels and sounds more solid–there’s nothing moving around or squishing no matter how I move my jaw–and the hearing seems to be coming back more quickly than the last time. There’s one small spot near the entrance to the ear canal that’s not healing quite the way he’d like, but he assures me that’s just superficial. I don’t know how long it will be before this can be pronounced a complete success and I no longer have to worry about some sort of relapse or complications, but things seem to be going as well as they could so far.

So I’m in a pretty buoyant mood. But I’m trying not to lose sight of the fact that this run of good fortune will end–not out of some depressive impulse, but to try to clearly see how ephemeral all of that on which my happiness (and sadness) depends truly is. I want to remind myself that the refuge from the severe storms that accompany the movements back and forth from bliss to misery that constitute human experience is an equanimity that won’t be found anywhere on that continuum. The point isn’t to get to and stay at that blissful end of that continuum–it’s to abide in the equanimous space from which that continuum arises. That emptiness is easier to release into when I’m happy than it is to aspire to when I’m depressed or anxious. And as I become familiar with the release of happiness that gives rise to equanimity, perhaps I’ll come to know that the path from depression or anxiety to equanimity isn’t an aspiration, but rather that it’s the same release.

The Causes of Suffering

The Four Noble Truths, the teaching of the Buddha’s first sutra and perhaps the closest thing Buddhism has to a Genesis, establish Buddhism as a fundamentally pragmatic religion. Where the Abrahamic religions begin with God creating the universe and then humanity within that, implying particular relationships among humanity, its environment, and its creator, Buddhism begins with a man sitting under a tree contemplating existence until he determines the causes, and thus cure, of suffering, implying a very different relationship between humanity and its environment, and excluding any creator. Rather than the theological or the metaphysical, Buddhism begins with a focus on the practical. Rather than handing down rules to govern our behavior, Buddhism encourages us to investigate the truths discovered by the practitioners who have gone before us and to embrace only that which we find to be valid. This pragmatism can help to keep practitioners from becoming attached to particular views (though it’s by no means foolproof in that regard), and to keep them focused on the path of practice.

The Four Noble Truths are modeled after the medical approach then in use, which suggested that illness be understood in terms of symptom, cause, relief, and cure, and suffering is the first symptom that the Buddha chose to address through his spiritual approach. He stated that suffering is a universal experience, that suffering is caused by our view of existence, that the cessation of suffering is possible, and that the Noble Eightfold Path leads to that cessation. In this context, it’s important that suffering is caused. If it weren’t caused, if it simply existed, then it couldn’t be cured. And from the Buddhist perspective, the causes of suffering fall into two categories: Things that happen to us (karma) and how we react to them (klesha). Karma is what yields an effect for every cause, and klesha is what informs and motivates our participation in karma. Or put slightly differently, klesha is what informs how we feel about what happens to us (causing our immediate suffering), and it’s what causes us to react to what happens to us (propagating that suffering through karma). The distinction between karma and klesha gets harder to locate the closer we look, like the distinction between self and other, subject and object, mind and matter, or any other dualism. Increasing precision brings us closer to the realization that they are interdependent phenomena, two aspects of the same truth. Without either, there would be no suffering. If nothing happened to us, we wouldn’t suffer, and if we didn’t feel compelled to react to what happened to us we wouldn’t suffer.

Buddhism suggests that klesha is the more important of the two causes of our suffering, which is the reverse of how most of us see things. We tend to think that what happens to us is the more significant contributor to our suffering, but Buddhism teaches us that how we view and then react to what happens to us (klesha) is actually the more significant contributor. Enlightenment ultimately frees us of both karma and klesha, but in the short term, klesha is generally the more available to us as an object of investigation and practice. From our dualistic perspective, it’s the subject side of the interplay of karma and klesha in the propagation of suffering. This may be seen as analogous to the realization of the selflessness of persons (or egolessness of self) being achieved prior to the realization of the selflessness of phenomena (or egolessness of other) in Mahayana Buddhism. This also has has practical implications. Just as it’s important that suffering is caused, it’s important that one of the interdependent causes of suffering can be at least partially understood and controlled by those of mundane achievement–it provides a reachable first step on the path. If karma alone caused suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path leading to it would be immeasurably more difficult–the first rung of the ladder would be out of reach.

Faith in Reality

I returned from the vacation that wasn’t quite a vacation, and had four days of much needed rest before returning to work. Actually, it was four and a half days before returning to work, because I spent Monday morning at my internist’s office getting my annual physical (everything looks good) combined with a pre-operative check-up. And when I finally did get back into the office, I found that my management had addressed just about everything that had overwhelmed me. I’m impressed to the point of awe by how progressively and pragmatically the whole situation was handled. And aside from the disorientation of things going so well and having to adjust to an abrupt shift in my responsibilities (and feeling more than a little guilty about how much people have inconvenienced themselves on my behalf), I’ve been recovering. I’ve been tapering off of the Clonazepam and, if nothing comes up in the meantime, will complete that process this weekend.

This will allow me to prepare for the next disruption, which is next Thursday’s encore tympanomastiodectomy. The ear hasn’t healed itself, so that’s still going to be necessary. I saw the ear doctor right before I went away, and he outlined the things he would do differently (use a larger, thicker graft of skin from my hip, and try to open the ear canal wider to get more air onto the skin as it heals) in hopes that it will heal differently. He continues to be irked that this hasn’t gone better, and that’s promising. I think he wants this fixed more than I do.

Lately, I’ve been reading Tsong-Kha-Pa’s The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. It’s difficult to describe. It’s sort of the complete text and practice manual for Gelukpa Buddhism, though it’s probably only going to make sense to someone who’s already studied a fair amount. I’m finding it very helpful, even though I’m a Kagyu Buddhist, in pulling together the disparate threads of texts, practices, and wisdom, and laying them out in a practical, straightforward way. In Chapter 3, “How to Listen to and Explain the Teachings,” I came across this:

2. Think of the instructor as a doctor. For example, when you are stricken by a severe illness…, you seek a skilled doctor. Upon consulting your doctor, you are greatly delighted and listen to whatever your doctor says, revering him or her respectfully. Likewise, seek in this way a teacher who imparts the teachings…

It struck me that this isn’t the way we consult doctors any more. I’ve mentioned before the fact that expertise, especially doctors’ expertise, has come to be less valued, but more than that, the idea of faith that consulting a doctor (or a teacher) in that way depends on is increasingly rare. Though it’s important that we take responsibility for ourselves, we cannot separate ourselves from those on whom we might rely. This is the paradox that most of us would see around the notion of the guru in Tibetan Buddhism. The American tradition, starting perhaps with Emerson, seems to be to jealously guard the right to make our own choices. However, though I believe Emerson would have also urged us to take responsibility for the results of those choices, that seems to be a vanishing aspect of the American tradition. To make a sweeping generalization, people expect to decide for themselves whether or not they’ll follow their doctors’ instructions (or, as they’re more likely to be referred to now, advice), but the responsibility for whether or not they get well lies entirely with their doctors.

The Tibetan guru seems to turn that arrangement around: Someone else is given the right to make our choices for us, but we must accept full karmic responsibility for the results of those choices. I haven’t yet reached, and may never reach, the point in my practice where I have a guru, but I find contemplating the possibility instructive. We have fairly limited influence over what happens to us, especially if we believe ourselves to be separate from reality, and as we practice accepting responsibility for what happens to us nonetheless, we experience more fully the truth that we aren’t separate from reality. In this way, we finally learn to have faith in reality and not hold ourselves apart from it. If my doctor cannot fix my ear, that’s an outcome with which I’ll have to live, and holding someone else responsible for that won’t make it any easier. And my management has already rewarded my faith in the reality that I’m not currently able to make my professional experience bearable on my own.

Provincetown, My Provincetown

I’ve been ambivalent about Provincetown for as long as I can remember. It was about thirty-five years ago that I first camped with my family in North Truro and visited Provincetown, which we did every summer for several years. Then, after my parents divorced, my father, my brother, and I stayed in a hotel on the beach in Provincetown itself for a few summers. One of those summers, my father met a woman who happened to have just built a house in the woods on the east end of town on a whale watch (I have no idea what she, as a local, was doing on a whale watch). A few years later, she and my father split up, and we didn’t come up here again for years. I came up with friends in college a couple of times and camped back in North Truro again, and then didn’t come up again until the trip on which my wife and I got engaged.

Since then, she and I have come back pretty much every year, a couple of times twice a year, and stayed in a series of better and better inns. We’ve come on our own, we’ve had friends up at the same time, and we’ve had family up. This is where, five years after his passing, we finally had my father’s memorial service. It’s a beautiful place, with everything that anyone (or anyone I would want to know) could want, from high-end shops and restaurants lining the aptly named Commercial Street, to art galleries and theaters with pedigrees decades and even centuries long, and all of it set in the vast unspoiled beauty of dunes and ocean as far as the eye can see. You can be as entertained, as active, or as relaxed as you’d like. I long for it; I dream of it when I’m not here; I listen to the local radio station and look at the Web cams; and yet when I’m here, it never offers the solace I hope it will. And it’s more than the simple disappointment that follows the failure to realize any unreasonable expectation.

As long I’ve been coming here, there’s always been something besides the joy of it. In fact, despite the continuing improvement in the accommodations and resources at my disposal, the joy hasn’t really increased. And behind the joy, there has always been this desperate sadness, a sadness that is probably best captured by Edward Hopper, often in paintings of Cape Cod landscapes. The light in those paintings flirts with warmth, but settles on an emptiness that ultimately feels harsh and hopeless. It’s the light of a photograph being overexposed, all the detail standing out sharply and then fading, showing how everything will dissolve into void. It’s the primordial impermanence of everything to which I’ve attached myself showing through. In Freud’s terms, it’s the uncanny. It’s the emptiness I’ve known since beginningless time appearing undeniably before me in the form of everything that I want. In Buddhist terms, it’s the samsara I’m coming to understand as the delusion that I cling to as the root of all of my suffering. And in both Freudian and Buddhist terms, these would be excellent realizations for me to achieve, were I better equipped psychically and spiritually to integrate them. Alas, I’m not.

Instead, I spiral into my suffering. I can neither renounce the attachments that drag me into this pain, nor can I simply enjoy them. I grab them and hold them fervently, wringing out and then discarding whatever they might offer me. And I wonder: Is this the collapse of my futile project of ego, the surrender of which will lead to some attainment and perhaps some bliss; or is it just the onset of some sort of psychotic breakdown? I suppose it depends on whether I believe the Freudians or the Buddhists. This started with being a little overwhelmed at work, but it has begun to engulf everything around me. Something’s going to happen.

Yesterday, I took a walk out west along Commercial Street and then back east along Bradfrod Street. When I first starting coming here, those were the two streets that defined the town, the whole of which seemed to lie between Bradford Street and the harbor. Over the last thirty-five years, contemporary houses that don’t fit at all architecturally with the unspeakably charming houses crowded into the older part of town and, worse, row after row of tacky condominiums have been crowded into what used to be the woods and swamp between Bradford Street and Route 6 (and beyond that, the blessedly still protected Cape Cod National Seashore). It occurred to me as I walked along the edge of this development, that little tiny Provincetown has developed suburbs with all of the ecological and aesthetic disadvantages that suggests. Where you once used to be able to walk anywhere you wanted to go in Provincetown, the people living, or at least staying, over there will need to drive everywhere. They’re not near any commerce, recreational activities, or entertainment. Whatever they’re in Provincetown for will require that they drive to it. And I can’t imagine the water, sewage, and electrical demands this places on the very narrow and delicate infrastructure that’s been stretched out here to support this little fishing village and artists’ community. As I had started my walk, I passed the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, which was advertising a presentation of how global warming and rising sea levels would affect Provincetown (most of which is a couple of feet above sea level). Something’s going to happen.

The Neurasthenic Retreats to His Cork-Lined Room

I started back in therapy, and a few weeks, maybe two months, after that, I started back on medication. I’m starting with Clonazepam, just as I did last time. I hope this is temporary and brief; that it doesn’t drag on and then lead to months or years on an SSRI. In some ways, I’m better off than the last time. I can see more clearly what’s happening, even at just about the worst of it; I’m still able to tell myself that whatever is bothering me will pass; and the pain doesn’t get too deep or intractable. And this does seem to have a more specific proximate cause, though it is still growing out of the same dark, twisted suffering that I’ll be addressing for the rest of my life. It seems that I’ll move from shielding myself from one unpleasantness or another.

The first time around, the unbearable proximate cause of all of my suffering was the noise of our apartment–the drummer upstairs, the summer parties on the decks all down the block, and the screaming unsupervised children in front of the adjacent community garden at 2:00, 3:00, and 4:00 in the morning in the summer. I went through all sorts of treatment and did all sorts of work, but we also moved. We found an astonishingly quiet apartment–not just quiet by New York standards, but quiet by any standards. It’s only when we travel that noise is a problem anymore. And the only price I seem to have paid for this is the ongoing suffering in one of my ears, likely caused by the over-vigorous insertion of an earplug at some point in the battle against noise.

The time around, the problems stem from work, though not in the usual way. Over the last couple of years, my responsibilities have escalated fairly quickly, and I’ve been struggling with what seems to me to be an exceedingly complex and ambitious project. The details are too tedious and subtle to try to lay out here, and some of them are probably confidential anyway, but the point is that I became overwhelmed. My coping mechanisms failed more and more often and more and more seriously. I started therapy, and the decline slowed. At my therapist’s suggestion, I started working out more and taking calcium and melatonin to ensure that I at at least sleep regularly, but still my coping mechanisms weren’t working well enough often enough.

The situation was, if not exacerbated, then at least made more difficult to get a handle on by my Buddhist practice. Though my practice has been invaluable in so many ways, and I do believe that it offers the ultimate means to address my suffering, the mundane walking of that can be painful at times. It offers the insight that allows me to see the impermanent nature of my suffering, and it gives me access to the perspective to witness all of this without actually being it and access to the indestructible awareness that can transcend. But in the worst moments, I find myself asking myself why I’m suffering so horribly from something that’s not real and becoming impatient with myself for not simply not doing this anymore. I lean too heavy on the wisdom it offers, and lose the ability to be compassionate with myself.

And so, with the therapy and the medication, I’ve found again the ability to be compassionate with myself, to allow my coping mechanisms to work and to stop thinking less of myself for needing them. I’ve spoken to my management and told them that I can’t quite handle what I’ve undertaken, and, not surprisingly, they were more compassionate with me than I’ve been with myself. They made sure the project with which I’ve been struggling will be completed successfully, they told me that they will discuss whatever needs to be discussed so I can continue to contribute as much as I have been without it being a threat to my emotional well-being, and they sent me off on this vacation I’m now on with nothing but their best wishes, the admonition not to give work a thought while I’m away, and the promise that everything will be taken care of. I admit to checking my e-mail once, and they’ve been as good as their word. This touches my to the point of tears.

Here I am, on vacation in the place I love most (though a bit before the weather’s quite ready) in gorgeous accommodations, with nearly a week and nothing to do. First, I was just so pleased to be here and to have Provincetown still be here. It’s just so wonderful. I went out and wandered the shops, picked up a used copy of Young Törless to read while I’m here, checked the restaurants to see what would be open, and went to Spiritus Pizza to pick up a MOP for dinner and watched someone from WOMR pick up a stack of pizzas for their fund-raising drive. When I got back to our room to eat, I listened to WOMR, and heard them thank Spiritus for the pizzas. I’m back in the small town I know well, though I noticed that my mind was still running much faster than the context demands. I’m not ready to be quiet and with myself yet.

The room we’re staying in this year is not nearly as private as others we’ve stayed in, and it’s in a newly renovated building that lacks the sound insulation that we’re used to at home. The neighbors upstairs have at least one child, and they’re not very still. The water from the tub, the sink, the toilet, sounds as though it’s running down our walls, and, once again, lying here trying to read Robert Musil, I felt my coping mechanisms going under one more time and the anxiety rising through the core of my body. And so it was back to the Clonazepam (which will require a gradual withdrawal anyway) and all this writing. In that hour, things seem to have unwound some, and I’m going to meditate. But I’m left with these questions: Will I ever be able to be happy unless everything around me is exactly as I want it to be? Do other people feel this way and just deal with it? Will I ever get away from all of the distractions and difficulties that I feel plague me so that I can just be present and with my wife now, not in some future ideal situation?

Two Truths… Three Truths… Whatever it Takes

In his Tibetan Buddhist condensation of the Tripitaka, called the Gateway to Knowledge, Jamgön Mipham describes the climax of a bodhisattva’s traversal of the ten bhumis thus (as translated by Erik Hein Schmidt):

[21,14] At the end of the ten bhumis, the path of no-learning is realized by means of the vajra-like samadhi. In other words, this marks the culmination of the earlier path of learning during which one unmistakenly understood how, in the conventional sense, all phenomena comprised of ground, path, and fruition are unmixed. One realized how, in the ultimate sense, all phenomena are devoid of a self-nature; and grew accustomed to the way in which they are included within dharmadhatu, the unity of the two truths, emptiness endowed with the supreme of all aspects.

Taken out of context, this paragraph caused a fair amount of confusion in our class this past spring, when it was raised by a fellow student. This was an advanced class, so we’d all studied emptiness and were used to hearing about phenomena ultimately being devoid of self-nature, and thus inseparable. The idea that phenomena could also, in a conventional sense, be unmistakenly understood as unmixed (that is, separable) was a little surprising (despite that being our commonsensical, mundane experience). It had been our understanding that realizing the ultimate selflessness of phenomena constituted enlightenment, that is, replacing a mistaken mundane understanding with a correct transcendent understanding. In the reading for the class, for unknown reasons, we had skipped over chapter fourteen of Mipham’s Gateway, so we hadn’t read about the two truths of the Mahayana:

[14,2] “Relative truth” includes all types of perceived phenomena: the “ground”…; the “path”…; and the “fruition”… In short, defined in terms of the unfailing “perceived mode” of all knowables, relative truth refers to the extensive aspects of all existent phenomena.

[14,3] Defined in terms of the “real mode” of all these phenomena of ground, path and fruition, “ultimate truth” refers to the profound aspect of the nature as it is and to the fact that the nature [of phenomena] is emptiness which cannot be established as anything whatsoever.

[14,4] Realizing that these two truths are, in the perfect sense, an indivisible equality is the final meaning–the most eminent among all object of realization.

[14,5] The Sutra Taught by Inexhaustible Wisdom mentions three truths: relative truth, ultimate truth, and the truth of characteristics. This means that the division into the first two truths cannot be finally established by means of their individual characteristics, but rather that they are taught as a single truth, the great equal unity. This is dharmadhatu, the final and ultimate truth.

Going back and reading that brief chapter, it became clear to me that the paragraph by which we were so confused was a description of the bodhisattva’s final realization of the Truth of Chracteristics, which seems to be something like the third of the two truths (I’ll say more about the problems of counting Buddhist truths later). And the paragraph following the one that caused all of our confusion seemed to reinforce this reading:

[21,15] At this final stage, while all knowable phenomena are complete and simultaneously clear and distinct, they are also equally devoid of a difference between subject and object in the nature of one taste, free from attributes. Hence, this moment of wisdom vanquishes the two obscurations along with their seeds and habitual tendencies, brings forth attainment of the fruition of complete purity–the ultimate path of no-learning, which is the eleventh bhumi of Universal Illumination–and thus causes the buddhahood of total omniscience to be realized.

I had seen references to the two truths before, particularly in Madhyamaka texts, but I hadn’t really paid much attention to them. I had somewhat naively seen them as purely progressive: I had assumed that the conventional truth of distinct phenomena gave way to the ultimate truth of emptiness as we progress toward the attainment of wisdom. That’s why that paragraph caused so much confusion. It seemed to suggest not that one truth came to replace the other, but that they were simultaneously true in their respective modes (conventional and ultimate). After my detour back through chapter fourteen of the Gateway to Knowledge, I investigated the two (or three) truths more fully. I went first to Mipham Rinpoche’s Introduction to the Middle Way, where I found this (as translated by the Padmakara Translation Group):

The two truths are two distinct isolates of a single reality. Their one shared nature resides in the inseparability of appearance and emptiness… What appears is empty. If emptiness were different from appearance, phenomena would not be empty. Consequently the two are not separate… the extreme position that phenomena are inherently existent must be refuted by revealing their lack of true existence. Conversely, the extreme position that phenomena are nonexistent is disproved by demonstrating their existence on a relative level. Therefore, the four extremes cannot be refuted by an exclusive appeal to the ultimate nature of phenomena. Ultimate reality, qualified as a non-affirming negative, is able to refute the extreme of existence. But given that the refutation of the extreme of nonexistence involves an appeal to relative truth, ultimate reality, from its own side, constitutes an ontological extreme (nonexistence). And such an extreme kind of emptiness cannot be regarded as dharmata, the ultimate nature of things.

Save for the reference to dharmata in chapter fourteen of the Gateway to Knowledge and the reference to dharmadhatu in the Introduction to the Middle Way, the two excerpts seem to be saying pretty much the same thing, which is that ultimate truth and relative truth are both true in their respective modes or senses, and the ultimate fruition of those truths occurs when they are understood or experienced as indivisible or as a unity. The ultimate truth isn’t “more true” than the relative truth–it’s just true in the ultimate sense, but the relative truth is still true in the conventional sense. Similarly, I don’t think that it can be said that conventional truth is ultimately false or that ultimate truth is conventionally false. It seems that, as with emptiness and appearance or wisdom and compassion, though they cannot be separated, they are both necessary.

This problem of counting Buddhist truths–positing two truths, then positing a third truth that says those two truths are really one truth (none of which should be confused with Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, by the way)–illustrates the problems inherent in attempting to convey non-dual experience in conventional (that is, spoken, written, conceptual, etc.) terms. The two truths can only be experienced or understood as one from a non-dual perspective, so it would be impossible to speak or write, or conceptualize in any way, about the two truths as a unity. Yet at the same time, the formulation of the two truths as two can be misunderstood as suggesting a dualism inherent in reality, pointing to an ultimate reality inherently distinct from conventional reality (just as people misunderstand nirvana as being inherently distinct from samsara). The Truth of Characteristics is an attempt to correct that misunderstanding by suggesting a truth wherein those two truths are two and one. Mipham makes a similar point in the Introduction to the Middle Way:

The correct formulation of the relative truth is the means of realizing the ultimate truth, and conversely, the ultimate truth depends on the understanding of the relative. The ultimate is in fact the true nature of the relative. If there were no relative, the ultimate would be entirely impossible, for the ultimate cannot be reached if the relative is removed. Thus the two are interdependent and can never be disassociated… For appearance and emptiness are inseparable. If you remove appearance, you will not have emptiness remaining on one side, for emptiness is the very nature of dependent arising. And if you remove emptiness, appearance becomes impossible; it would be like fire without its heat. What we call the ultimate truth is but the absence of inherent existence in phenomenal appearance; what we call the relative is appearance itself, arising through interdependence…

The formulation of the two truths is verbal and conceptual, and therefore conventional. Even the formulation of the ultimate truth is dual in nature, and thus conventional, even though it’s attempting to describe ultimate reality. The Truth of Characteristics emphasizes that even the two truths themselves are just interdependent manifestations of appearance-emptiness, and their use is not in their being understood (they aren’t the destination) but in their pointing beyond even themselves to the non-conceptual and non-dual (they’re the final, most subtle indication on the map that there’s no destination on the map). I suppose the Truth of Characteristics is meant to indicate that destination, but to describe it that way is to risk suggesting that it can be found on the map.

My teacher also asked if I had any thoughts as to why this “third” truth would be called the Truth of Characteristics. The ultimate truth is reality as understood in the ultimate sense and the conventional truth is reality as understood in the conventional sense, so is the Truth of Characteristics reality as understood in the sense of characteristics? Maybe. Characteristics are simultaneously appearance and emptiness. If you remove their ultimate reality, you won’t find their conventional reality, and if you remove their conventional reality you won’t find their ultimate reality. Or to turn that around as Mipham does in the second paragraph from the Introduction to the Middle Way above, if you remove emptiness, you won’t find any characteristics of appearance, and if you remove appearance, you won’t find any characteristics of emptiness (“the division into the first two truths cannot be finally established by means of their individual characteristics,” as Mipham puts it in the Gateway to Knowledge). And that points back to our class. According to the Tripitaka, enlightenment is the achievement of two-fold egolessness, the egolessness of self (or selflessness of person) and the egolessness of other (or selflessness of phenomena). The stages of that attainment are first the experience of egolessness of self and then, in two stages, the experience of egolessness of other. But having achieved one-and-a-half-fold egolessness (the egolessness of self and half of the egolessness of other), a practitioner still clings, however subtly, to the self of characteristics. So it would make sense that the Truth of Characteristics would be the means to end that clinging to the self of characteristics, to experience their simultaneous appearance and emptiness, and to realize the last half-fold of egolessness. And fittingly, that’s where Mipham places the attainment of the Truth of Characteristics in verse [21,14]. At least in the context of Mipham’s writings, it all seems to fit together.

But the two truths are referred to far beyond the writings of Mipham Rinpoche. As I mentioned above, most references to the two truths appear in discussions of Madhyamaka, a school of Buddhism that grew primarily out of the writings of the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna. Mipham’s Introduction to the Middle Way is itself a commentary on Chandrakirti‘s commentary on Nagaruna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. In his own commentary on the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Jay Garfield, studying in the Gelukpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, writes of the two truths as follows:

Suppose that we take a conventional entity, such as a table. We analyze it to demonstrate its emptiness, finding that there is no table apart from its parts, that it cannot be distinguished in a principled way from its antecedent and subsequent histories, and so forth. So we conclude that it is empty. But now let us analyze that emptiness–the emptiness of the table–to see what we find. What do we find? Nothing at all but the table’s lack of inherent existence. No conventional table, no emptiness of the table. The emptiness is dependent on the table and is, therefore, itself empty of inherent existence, as is the emptiness of that emptiness, and so on, ad infinitum. To see the table as empty, for Nagarjuna, is not to somehow see “beyond” the illusion of the table to some other, more real entity. It is to see the table as conventional; as dependent. But the table that we see when we see its emptiness is the very same table, seen not as the substantial thing we instinctively posit, but rather as it is. Emptiness is hence not different from conventional reality–it is the fact that conventional reality is conventional. Hence it must be dependently arisen since it depends upon the existence of empty phenomena. Hence emptiness is itself empty. This is perhaps the most radical and deep step in the Madhyamika dialectic, but it is also… the step that saves it from falling into metaphysical extravagance and brings it back to sober pragmatic scepticism.

In his Platform Sutra, Hui-Neng connects the two truths to the Zen Buddhist tradition, and in his new translation of and commentary on the Platform Sutra, Red Pine connects them, through Zen, to modern physics:

Hui-Neng: Good friends, this Dharma teaching of mine is based on meditation and wisdom. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that meditation and wisdom are separate. Meditation and wisdom are of one essence and not two. Meditation is the body of wisdom, and wisdom is the function of meditation. Wherever you find wisdom, you find meditation. And wherever you find meditation, you find wisdom. Good friends, what this means is that meditation and wisdom are the same.

Red Pine’s Commentary: These categories were used in China by a number of philosophical schools to analyze reality in much the same way scientists nowadays analyze ‘matter’ as particles (body) or waves (function). These have nothing to do with reality. They simply represent convenient points of view for what cannot be viewed.

Hui-Neng: Know your mind and see your nature.

Red Pine’s Commentary: This is Hui-Neng’s motto, his teaching in a single breath. When Hui-Neng uses the word “mind,” he uses it with two senses. Sometimes, it refers to the mind of discrimination, the eight kinds of consciousness. But he also uses it to refer to the true mind, the mind of awareness. When he uses it with the latter sense, he often pairs it with “nature.” Again, this is similar to the particle/wave approach noted earlier. Our mind is the body, our nature is its function. The Chinese character for “nature” shows the mind giving birth. Thus, our mind is the source of all things, all dharmas, all thoughts. Our nature is the mind in action. Meanwhile, our mind is who we really are, our real body.

Hui-Neng: Reality is the body of thought, and thought is the function of reality. When your nature gives rise to thought, even though you sense something, remain free and unaffected by the world of objects. The Vimalakirti Sutra says, “Externally, be skilled at distinguishing the attributes of dharmas, and internally, remain unshaken by the ultimate truth.”

This could be called the Truth of Particles and Waves, and from the perspective of the scientists who speak of particles and waves, those are the fundamental characteristics of reality, suggesting that The Truth of Particles and Waves and the Truth of Characteristics would be synonymous. I’m not certain how the pairings would line up, but I think it would be something like: Mind (the particle or ultimate reality) is the body of nature (the wave or conventional reality), and nature is the function of mind.

I even saw this from Jean-Luc Godard, in Mark Amerika‘s otherwise fairly silly META/DATA, which seems to connect the two truths to aesthetics:

To me style is just the outside of content, and content is the inside of style, like the outside and inside of the human body. Both go together, they can’t be separated.

This is about as thoroughly as I’ve explored or explicated anything here, or anywhere else for that matter, in quite some time, and I do this not to just keep making the same point from different perspectives, backed up by different citations. This isn’t just a logical or sophistic exercise. It’s pragmatically useful. I’ve found that contemplating this so that it becomes intuitive, even experiential, can actually change how I approach my life, and thus what my life is like as a result. Though I have often been instinctively uncomfortable with clear distinctions like liberal and conservative, right and wrong, thought and emotion, mind and body, and even male and female, I still find myself equally instinctively reaching for such distinctions when I find them handy. If nothing else, I’m now much more likely to notice (and therefore reflect on) those occasions. But more than that, when I understand my experience this way, I’m more often able to see the mistake I’m about to make or the possibility that I would otherwise have missed. And having done that, slowly but surely, I (and perhaps even those around me) suffer less and less.

As a concrete (and admittedly Buddhist) example of this, I was recently encouraged to consider the relationships, if there are any, among dharma, renunciation, and joy. A linear relationship that’s immediately apparent is that of ground, path, and fruition, with dharma being the ground, renunciation being the path, and joy being the fruition. And that certainly makes sense, as far as it goes. But those three items could just as accurately be seen as an analogy or example of the Truth of Characteristics. Joy would be the ultimate truth of practice, renunciation would be the conventional truth of practice, and dharma would be the third truth that reveals their unity. Or in Hui-Neng’s terms, joy is the body of renunciation, and renunciation is the function of joy, the important point here being that conventional renunciation and ultimate joy are a unity. This occurred to me during a series of talks by Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche that I attended. A student asked how a practitioner can distinguish for themselves between the experiences of depression and renunciation, and Rinpoche responded that depression is painful, but renunciation is joyous. That makes sense. If you feel pain when you believe you have renounced something, you haven’t renounced it; you’ve surrendered it, but maintained your attachment to it. Renouncing conventional attachments, where that renunciation is genuine, is, if only for a moment, to experience the compassion, emptiness, and joy that is ultimate reality. Cultivating conventional joys will ultimately fail, and having achieved ultimate joy, there’s nothing to renounce.

Renunciation is simply the release of attachment; it’s a letting go rather than a pushing away. To engage in renunciation as a sort of debarment is merely to exchange the attachment to having something around for the attachment to having it not around, either of which leads to an endless program of reconfiguring reality to suit our preferences. To renounce is to achieve equanimity, and to achieve equanimity is to see all of the conventional distinctions of reality, while at the same time recognizing its ultimate emptiness. Equanimity is not a detachment from the conventional sense of reality in favor of the ultimate sense of reality–the Truth of Characteristics shows that to be senseless–it’s a lack of attachment to any and all distinctions (even those between conventional and ultimate) because those distinctions are merely conventional (but not false).

The Real Secret

On the way to work after therapy the other morning, I was listening to the most recent episode of the 21st Century Buddhism podcast, which is about anger. Ethan was offering the insight, which can be found in the teachings on the five Buddha families among other places, that there is wisdom in anger. He was trying to get past the dichotomy that holds that anger is simply and only bad. However, one of the students in the class spoke up and pushed the discussion in a slightly different direction. She was trying to distinguish, I think, between good anger and bad anger, and brought in the issue of motivation. She suggested that anger motivated by love is different than anger with other motivations. The question that immediately occurred to me is: Is anger ever ultimately motivated by anything other than love?

This question seems to me to be related to the recent uproar over Oprah Winfrey’s championing of The Secret. The legitimate bases for practical and factual criticism of The Secret and the so-called “law of attraction” alleged to underlie it are legion, but I think the bases of the vitriol directed at the whole enterprise are more often moral and aesthetic (and in that way, it reminds me of The Prayer of Jabez, against which the Real Live Preacher somewhat uncharacteristically railed a few years ago). Critics are responding not as if The Secret’s proponents have made mistakes of fact (which they certainly have), but as if they have done something deeply offensive. Whether the critics believe that people should have to earn their rewards, or that people shouldn’t seek those rewards without regard for others, or that people shouldn’t put their faith in the superficial trappings that are most often presented as the rewards to be sought, or that it’s distasteful to suggest that people who haven’t received those rewards are to blame for what is seen as their failure, they sound hurt and angry.

But The Secret’s proponents have made, and are stubbornly persisting in, factual errors. They’re actually starting from the right place, from our shared basic goodness or Buddha nature, which the Dalai Lama ceaselessly states as some variation of, “From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering.” They lose their way with their next step. They separate the self that wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering from the rest of reality. They then go on to suggest that the self can benefit by taking things from the rest of reality. In fact, we’re not separate from reality, and therefore, attempts to benefit at the expense of reality or any facet of it are ultimately futile. That inherent personal compassion, that basic goodness, that motivation to make ourselves happy and protect ourselves from suffering is distorted by the ignorance of dualism to become, perversely, the cause of all of our suffering. The delusion of dualism leads us to believe that we don’t have what we need to be happy right here and now, and that we were happy in the past or could be happy in the future when we had or will have the proper configuration of external circumstances. Though it may sound optimistic, the message of The Secret (that we can have whatever we want if we just envision it properly) is fundamentally pessimistic. It implies that we don’t have everything we need right here, right now.

Having made those mistakes, the proponents of The Secret aren’t evil–they’re only causing their own suffering. It has been argued that they’re preying on the weakness of those who are suffering most, making them feel worse about their situation, offering them false hope, and then taking some of the little money that they have. But those people wouldn’t be susceptible to The Secret’s siren song if they didn’t already believe that the answer to their problems lay outside themselves, and so long as they believe that, they’ll end up suffering no matter what huckster happens along to exploit them. That isn’t to say that the hucksters are blameless or that the people exploited by those hucksters are to blame for their predicament. It is to say that there’s a whole pile of suffering past, present, and future here for hucksters and exploited alike, and writing exposés and think pieces about the evils of The Secret probably won’t help much. Nor will a Weblog entry pointing that out.

What might help is the recognition that we’re not separate from the situation or anyone in it. Like those being exploited, I’ve been frustrated by having less than others, and I’ve tried to get what I can, within reasonable ethical limits, to make myself happier. And like the hucksters, I’ve had some success in getting those things that are expected to make me happier, and I’ve been frustrated that not everyone (family especially) has been able to do the same when it seems so simple to me. And finally, like the writers and other pundits who decry the whole situation, I am upset by the ignorance of it all and the way that it only proliferates dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I know that the primordial impulse behind all of these actions is basically good, but because that impulse is filtered through the delusion of dualism, it only results in suffering for all involved; for the exploited who can’t seem to get ahead; for the hucksters because even getting ahead, they still suffer; and for the pundits because they can’t seem to persuade anyone of the folly of it all.

Similarly, all anger is ultimately motivated by love. That love is a preference that someone, ourselves or others, be happy and free from suffering. Anger arises when, having mistakenly separated that object of our love from the rest of reality, we perceive that object to be suffering at the hands of a reality from which it’s not really separate. So in anger, there is compassion (for the object), wisdom (a clear relative discernment of the situation), and ignorance (the delusion that that relative discernment reflects ultimate truth). It’s important to recognize that there is compassion and wisdom in anger, but it’s also important to recognize that without the underlying ignorance, there would be no anger. And to say that there’s compassion and wisdom in anger isn’t to say that acting out of anger (which would mean acting out of ignorance) will ever be helpful. As the Dhammapada says, and as Ethan quoted it in the podcast:

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Without addressing the delusion of dualism, all other attempts to reduce suffering will ultimately fail. We’re already basically good (and if we weren’t, what hope would there be?), so we don’t have to address our motivation. Instead, we have to cultivate wisdom, not just by reading and studying, but by understanding in every moment that we’re not separate from any aspect of the reality that we experience. Talking on the phone, ordering food, driving, walking down the street, riding the subway or the bus, going through our work day, or being with our loved ones, we will be best served by engaging in every moment with the intention of removing suffering and cultivating happiness for everyone involved. It’s the only way we’ll avoid suffering and find happiness for ourselves, and no one else is going to do it for us.