The Relative and the Ultimate: A Love Story

One of the stated goals of Buddhist practice is non-attachment, to break free of conceptual thinking or as Nagarjuna described it, to “stand outside appearance, outside sensation, outside concepts, outside forms, and outside consciousness.”

In our pursuit of this goal, we are led to the ultimate truth, where we discover that all signs (nimitta) are meaningless. Nothing more than just labels to cling to, they are utterly false.

Yet, to live in this saha or mundane world, we must use signs, for without them there is no language and no communication. Signs have a practical value. It is helpful to be able to use names and labels to differentiate between various objects, for instance, to convey the difference between a pear and an apple. We know they are both fruit, but we want to determine which variety.

Nagarjuna says that designations and the objects they designate are not one, nor are they different.  They cannot be one for if that were the case then the word would burn when we said “fire.” They cannot be different because there is no designation without a thing designated and vice versa.

Language and the attempt to communicate lead us away from the ultimate truth and into the world of appearance, designation and differentiation – the trap of conceptual thinking wherein we seize and cling to false things believing them to be real. How can we break free from conceptual thinking when every word, every sentence, and for that matter, every thought, binds us further?

Nagarjuna goes on to say, “The Buddha’s dharma is based on two truths: the relative, or conventional truth, and the ultimate truth. Those who do not understand the relationship between the two do not understand the profound point of the Buddha’s teachings.”

This understanding is a gate to freedom.

Clinging to signs and appearances is just one end of the spectrum. At the other end are those who latch on to the ultimate truth and interpret everything from that perspective. They will stand on the ultimate to denounce the relative

They are justified in the ultimate sense, but  the efficacious aspect of the relative is disregarded. As a result, the ultimate becomes an object for clinging, and what on the surface appears to be non-dualistic thinking is actually the opposite.

Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, for whom the teachings of Nagarjuna were a primary influence, understood well this principle of the two truths. In Muchu Setsumu, he wrote, “Therefore, all things, both in a dream state and in an awakened one, are manifestations of the Truth.”

Dogen understood that the relative, represented here by the dream state, and the ultimate, the awakened state, are “two but not two.” They are one and the same truth. Each merely reflects a different aspect of the same reality. Two sides of the same coin.

Nagarjuna also tell us, “The ultimate truth cannot be taught except in the context of the conventional truth, and unless the ultimate truth is comprehended, Nirvana cannot be realized.”

In other words, we can use the relative to convey the ultimate. On one hand, the ultimate truth is inexpressible, but on the other hand, even though language is completely inadequate, it is possible to communicate our meanings for the ultimate truth by using concepts and signs. Language, then, becomes a tool to help us realize awakening.

Here we should see that the point is not merely that what is conventional or mundane is false. It’s actually about being be able to skillfully use knowledge of the ultimate in order to understand and utilize the relative, and to avoid clinging to either truth.

Through the false, we obtain the true. Looking at it another way, we can say that the relative truth is ultimate truth applied to daily life.

The Buddhas have the ability to keep free from clinging to individuality and yet help all in the spirit of great compassion. [Nagarjuna] points out that the Great Compassion is the root of the Way of the Buddha. The constitutive factors of the [dharma-body of the Buddha] are the limitless wisdom and the unbounded compassion; there are the different phases, different expressions of the ultimate truth of the undivided being on the plane of mundane life. It is as wisdom and compassion that the ultimate is relevant to the conventional, in regard to wayfaring.

K. Venkata Ramanan

As for the love story:

After waking enough times to think I see
The Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free
Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be
Assured that love is just a four letter word

Bob Dylan


The Zen of Everything

Today, I’d like to direct your attention to a very good post by Katherine at On the precipice. She addresses a number of important topics pertaining to the present state, and the future, of Buddhism, particularly here in the West. I’m impressed with her thoughtful presentation.

She approaches these challenges, as she calls them, within the context of contemplative living, and although I suspect that my sense of that may not be the same as hers, it is a practice oriented perspective that resonates with me.

Katherine summarizes the issues as:  “1) The subject of dana and generosity, and how it has not very successfully been translated here; and 2) The issue of gender inequality and the general lack of (recognized as such) realized women teachers within the Buddhist institution — the same can be said for lack of racial diversity; as well as 3) The challenges for monasticism, particularly for women in the Theravada tradition.”

While that’s quite a lot to deal with, these issues have been bubbling for some time and some of them really should be dealt with in the present (you know, that place where we’re all supposed to be) and not be left to boil over some time in the future. I also feel that these issues transcend gender and tradition. As far as I’m concerned if there is inequality for some, there is inequality for all.

So, for those interested in these subjects, please read: Some Challenges of Living a Contemplative Life Today.

Another subject that is demanding our attention now is Islam and the biggest problem about it is ignorance. The sad fact is that most of us don’t know much about this faith. I think it’s important to have some understanding of different religions. Almost everything I understand about Islam, which isn’t much, has come from Karen Armstrong’s book, Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, which I recommend as a good introduction.

Now, Deepak Chopra has just published a new book, a novel called Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet. Say what you will about Deepak Chopra, he often acts (or is cast) in the role of a spokesperson for an alternative spiritual point of view that is fairly congruous to Buddhism, and that’s not a such a bad thing.

Some people may be thinking that it might not be the smartest thing to write a fictionalized account of the life of The Prophet, but Chopra is unconcerned about any possible backlash. Regardless if it’s a calculated risk in the commercial sense or an act of courage, hopefully it will encourage other writers who would like to explore various aspects of Islam but are reluctant to do so out of fear.

At SF Gate, Deepak Chopra shares his thoughts about writing the book: Muhammad and the Litmus Test.

Lastly, I think that if you put Zen in the title of something, it attracts people. That’s why I called this post The Zen of Everything. That was probably the idea behind the title of this article in the Atlantic which has absolutely nothing to do with either Zen or Buddhism: Zen and the Art of Picking Blackberries.

Well, there must be something to Buddhist-inspired names, as evidenced here: Bullish on Buddha?


Transforming Heavy into Light

Tenju Kyoju or “transforming heavy into light” is a term used in a number of Japanese Buddhist schools. Often understood as ‘lessening the effects of negative karma’, the presence of the Chinese character “chóng” meaning “repetition” suggests another sense, that of changing repeated negative patterns of thought, word and deed.

Habits can be hard to break. Deep seated thoughts are not easily dislodged. “Transforming heavy into light” is possible by cleaning up negative tendencies, habits and addictions. From a purely Buddhist point of view it is not altogether necessary to understand why we are compelled to repeat negative patterns, so much as it is to understand that we can stop it with the adoption of opposite behavior (pratiprak-sabhavana).

The Eastern spiritual traditions have developed many practices to effect the transformation of karmic tendencies. One aspect that is central to many of these practices is the taking of vows (vrata) which is said to form tendencies opposite to those ones that binds us to hard-to-eliminate negative thought patterns and habits.

If karma is dependent upon intention, then the patterns that produce negative karmic tendencies can be countered with the purest of all intentions: the vow to realize awakening for the sake of all living beings.

We call this Bodhicitta or the Thought of Awakening.

You who are accustomed to dwelling abroad in the marketplaces of destiny, seize firmly that highly priced jewel, the Thought of Awakening, so well-attested by all those with immeasurable minds . . . Whoever has committed the most dreadful evil may escape at once by taking refuge in this thought . . . This Thought of Awakening is to be understood as twofold: it is the idea of dedication to Awakening [bodhipranidhiccitta) and the actual pilgrimage towards it [bodhiprasthana].

Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life

It’s taught that the first instant in which a person conceives of the desirability of attaining awakening for the sake of others is identical with awakening itself. Of course, that should not be taken literally. It doesn’t end there. Once the thought has been produced, it is the subsequent determination to actualize the thought that nurtures the aspiration and sets in motion the conditions that make it possible for positive karmic tendencies to be strengthened and negative ones lessened.

The seeds of karmic potentialities reside deep within the consciousness, and it is from there, beginning with a new deep-seated thought pattern, bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, that we can “transform heavy into light.”

The sea of all karmic obstacles arises from illusions. If you wish to make amends for your past karma, sit upright and meditate on the true aspect of life, and all your offences will vanish like frost and dewdrops in the sunlight of enlightened wisdom.

Sutra of Meditation of the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue


Real Life is Found in the Mind

Back in June, I called attention to the story of Prasannamati Mataji, a Jain nun who “had given up all her worldly wealth  . . . had given up her family, and was wandering the Earth, treading as lightly as possible.” The Jains practice an extreme asceticism. For instance, while Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads, Jains pluck their hair out one by one. Jains cannot even beg for their meals. They can signal their hunger, but never ask for food.

Prasannamati Mataji’s commitment to this severe ascetic life was inspirational. Then what became a very moving story turned into an unsettling one.  Prasannamati Mataji had formed a deep attachment to her companion, a fellow nun. Falling ill, her friend decided to end her life by practicing sallekhana, the very slow ritual denial of food. When she died, Prasannamati Mataji came undone, and eventually she decided to join her friend by practicing sallekhana herself.

Prasannamati Mataji denied that was suicide. Suicide is a sin, she said, the result of despair. Yet, by the end of the story, her deep depression over the loss of her friend was all too apparent.

I’m not certain when the piece was written, it’s just one chapter in William Dalrymple’s book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Assuming that it took several years for the book to be written and published, and considering that Prasannamati Mataji’s sallekhana would take two or three years to accomplish, I wonder what her current situation is, or if she even has one. I haven’t found any recent information on the web.

I also can’t help but think the ending her like in such a way is a waste. For this woman has acquired so much wisdom and seems to have so much to give to others, if only by example. Prasannamati Mataji’s story, beautiful and haunting, has stayed with me all these months.

The cause of Prasannamati Mataji’s suffering was her attachment, her love for her friend. The author of the story wrote, “to be truly detached, you can’t love.”

Her aim is to achieve spiritual freedom. But is she free? Or is her spirituality a sort of prison?

Buddhism has a different path: The Middle Way. We want to sever unhealthy attachments, the extreme forms of clinging, but we do not want to become so detached from life and the world that our love is restricted to only universal love.

A well-known Buddhist saying goes, “Life is precious. A single human life is more valuable that all the treasures of the universe.”

But we know that life is not simply a matter of being alive, just living. To live fully requires knowledge of know how to live meaningfully.

When our minds are open, we see that life is limitless. It has no bars, no fences. The only limit to life is the limit of our capacity to live it deeply, to the fullest. While at times we may be encumbered by physical limits, our capacity for living fully is for the most part determined by our thoughts.

So Buddhism teaches that our quality of life is equal to the quality of our mind. That’s why we are advised to cultivate positive, loving and creative thoughts. Buddhism teaches us how to train our mind and then how to use it.

This is perhaps the most valuable thing we can ever learn. It’s a different kind of education than the one we received in school, and even all our worldly experience cannot give us the same kind of lessons in living.

In one way, it’s learning how to be still and listen. We train ourselves to be still so we can hear the stillness that is deep within the mind. We learn to let this inner peace permeate our being, and then we learn how to let it permeate our environment. Our inner peace helps us make peace with the outer world.

Once we have achieved a state of harmony, we want to be able to maintain it. We learn how to skilfully manage the entanglements of life. We learn how to walk the tightrope of having things and not having unhealthy attachments to them. We learn how to give love but not seize love or cling to love.

Really, the greatest treasure might actually be found in simply acquiring these abilities.

We can choose how to think and how to live. Remember the old saying, master your mind, don’t let it master you.

In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.

– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind


Late Summer

The sky has changed. The light isn’t summer light anymore.

The days are getting shorter. The sunsets now have a deeper shade of gold.

Next week will be the Autumnal Equinox.

Time flies. It seems like it was autumn just a year ago.

Have you ever seen a wheat or barely field in late summer? Sometimes, when the crops have grown nicely and the heads of the plants are rich with grain, the tops bend over. The stalks of the plants can’t hold those rich heads of grain upright. And when the plant does not produce a full head of grain, it stands very straight as the breeze blows over it. This means that the heads are almost empty. Plants that are empty of grain will naturally stand higher and plants that are rich with grain will bend over. Actually, it is much the same with us.

Sermey Geshe Lobsang Tharchin