Running on Empty

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised – after all, how many people testify that they turned to spiritual practice because they wanted to share the secrets of their material success and psychological balance. No, even if, as Siddhartha and Jesus did, they seek after solutions for others, most seekers after inner truth do so because they find the world to be unsatisfactory. So most spiritual paths start by attacking that which is considered to be most wrong.

In the case of Buddhism, that process beings with deprogramming. The seeker turns inwards and attempts to break the association between her experience of the present moment and its interpretation by the mind. The goal is to understand the operation of the mind, and to correct its programming so that we can construct more successfully our lives.

As Ethan Nichtern describes this process in “The Road Home”, the currency of the successful life is bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is that ephemeral awareness that human nature is constructed to empower our well-being. All the tools are available to us, if we only apply ourselves to learning the craft of living well.

Nichtern does not expose the contradiction of that process: in order to live well, we must murder our dissatisfied self. Our resolve is fortified by applying the law of cause-and-effect to the history of our lives. When we recognize the connection between our misunderstanding and our dissatisfaction, it becomes clear that we should modify our understanding. While the impact of that change is healing of our relationship with the world, that takes time to manifest. Immediately, the change is in fact a form of self-murder.

I experienced this a number of times in my first year in college. As I expanded my awareness of the world of the intellect, I had dreams of my old self dissolving into this greater realm. That old self wasn’t a bad self, and it inhabited a world that I was comfortable navigating. I knew that I couldn’t go back, and so with growth came mourning for the self that had died.

When she has severed the sense of self from the process of forming judgments about the world, the Buddhist seeker is prepared for a journey into emptiness. Nichtern cautions clearly that this is not to surrender a search for meaning. Rather, it is to recognize that the self – our personal experience – is not the entire measure of meaning.

Nichtern illustrates the problem with a parable of the irritating mother-in-law. Rising from the mat, the meditator considers with satisfaction the clarity of mind that he has attained. Then the phone rings, and mother-in-law demands an audience. Equanimity is replaced with dread and anger.

The wisdom of all great spiritual teachings is that it doesn’t help to project our ill-feeling back on the trigger. That simply reinforces the pattern – obviously they find us irritating as well. Instead, we have to learn to project equanimity into our relationships, both beneficial and hostile. When the latter overwhelm us, we should seek separation.

As Nichtern documents, the Buddhist concept of emptiness has a complex lineage. I also find it to be subtle, almost to opacity. He eventually resorts to a metaphor: the ego is like a cocoon, protected in the shell of hardened ideas, but seeking from deep within to transform into a liberated soul. To become empty is to break out of our cocoon. Our experience becomes “empty” because we are no longer bound by the constraints of the cocoon. To be “empty” is to be free.

But free for what? Nichtern asserts that the Buddhist practitioner, recognizing the interdependence between her well-being and the well-being of others, is motivated to seek after healing for the world as a whole. This is a freedom to, rather than the ideal of freedom from which is so popular in America and expressed to magnificently by W.C. Fields with the comedic line, “Go away kid. You’re botherin’ me.”

Put in this context, I find it valuable to make the leap to a more accessible characterization of the dysfunction addressed by Buddhist practice: quite simply, it is selfishness. When embarking in her practice, the acolyte must learn to surrender the protective cocoon that defines her hostile experience. For her own good, that self must be relinquished, allowing her to emerge into constructive engagement with the world. That engagement necessarily involves relationships, and Buddhism offers that wisdom that attaining healthy relationships requires that we not impose our experience on others. We must seek instead to improve our experience.

In Christian practice, selfishness is recognized as the antidyne of unconditional love. In the material world, selfishness manifests most powerfully as predation — the tendency to say “I don’t care how much effort was required to make this. I don’t care how much it will hurt to lose it. I want it, and I’m going to take it.” In the spiritual realm, selfishness desires nothing but itself, and so is arid, producing nothing of value except by coopting the virtues (interesting, then, that Jesus went into the desert to confront Satan).

When the Christian surrenders to the strength of unconditional love, they conquer selfishness. That condition is characterized, not as emptiness, but as peace, arising from the same source as does Buddhist bodhichitta: the realization that reality is organized to bring us into a life that is both satisfying and rich.

The Absolute Theory of Relatives

At this summer’s Buddhist Geeks conference in Rosemead, I was impressed in particular by two of the presenters: Diane Hamilton and Ethan Nichtern.

Ethan was until recently the head of the InterDependence Project in New York City. IDP offers a certificate program in Buddhist studies, so when Ethan sent me a notice that he was starting a lecture series on the Bodhisattva path, I signed up for the study-at-home program.

As I understand Ethan, the Bodhisattva path is the pursuit of Bodhichitta, or compassion for all sentient beings. Achieving a consistent expression of that perspective requires that we consciously dissolve the separation between ourselves and the other. On this path, the seeker is offered four reliances to guard against a descent into narcissism. Trust the teaching more than the teacher. Trust the meaning, not the words. Hold ultimate guidance above provisional guidance. Trust wisdom (with Ethan characterizes as the melding of understanding and intuition) above knowledge.

From the recorded discussion, both Bodhichitta and the final reliance are difficult to grasp. They define states of being, rather than describing the transformative potential of achieving those states. That means that we don’t know how those states will influence behavior, nor how to interact with or support the work done by people that achieve those states.

One of the most powerful concepts in Buddhism, although it takes several formulations, is the distinction between absolute and relative forms of truth. I first encountered these concepts in the chapters on “Other Buddhist Teachings” in Thich Naht Hahn’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. Ethan observes that there is a slippery correlation between “ultimate” and absolute. I’ll start by explaining my understanding of the nature of absolute and relative forms of truth, and elaborate from there.

This axiom is fundamental: Life is the co-evolution of material and spiritual forms. The ultimate goal is the acquisition of spiritual power. That power can be used for two purposes: to gain influence over material reality, or to liberate the self from attachments with the goal of returning to the realm of the Divine. There are two kinds of attachments: entanglement with selfish personalities that seek to tie us down, and material concerns, which are driven by pain.

The paradox of this reality is that to separate ourselves from selfish personalities, we either have to brace our spirits against matter or purge our intimates of their selfishness. If we choose the former, we expose our selves to pain, which leads us naturally to question our choices, and so to enter into the trap of suffering. If we choose the latter, the only way to establish buy-in to the program is to express with complete authenticity our concern for the other.

Now it seems like we’re almost to the end, as in that last sentence we can almost see the principle of Bodhichitta in action. But let’s backtrack a bit: spirit did not start out knowing the endpoint. In the early, highly dynamic stages of material evolution, patterns of spirit that were universally applicable to their needs would have been the only patterns to survive. These would be patterns that we would now characterize as principles. Examples might be “stability”, “consumption” and “proliferation”. Association with “stability” facilitates the survival of a spiritual pattern, adding “consumption” facilitates coupling to material forms that acquire resources to support growth (undermining stability), adding “proliferation” extends access to resources while limiting physical growth (harmonizing stability and consumption).

So here is the realm of the absolute truths, in the realm of spiritual principles. They are persistent resources that various and diverse biological forms can draw upon to more effectively organize and acquire spiritual power. The problem, of course, is that the principles themselves are in competition. It’s amusing here to recall the challenge of competition in Tolkein’s words:

One ring to rule them all. One ring to find them. One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

In other words, competition is itself a principle. It’s action is to force principles into intimate and self-corrupting engagements that eventually squeeze the life out of them. A benefit can be rationalized: competition is one way of breaking stasis, and thereby producing new principles.

The counter-acting principle, and it’s no accident that its avatars shed light, is unconditional love. It involves the intelligent and conscious practice of helping principles organize themselves in ways that strengthen the aggregate. The primary advantage of this approach is that it doesn’t eat itself as competition does (one of the truths that informed the choice of the title “Love Works”). It tends to view differences through the lens of comparison.

In contrast, the realm of the relative is full of events dominated by dumb matter. This includes things like supernovae and volcanic eruptions, but also many of our autonomous functions (breathing and hunger). Obviously, experience is often a composite of the relative and absolute. Principles influence our concrete behaviors, and our behavior injects energy (either supportive or corrupting) into the principles.

While I wouldn’t claim to be a Bodhisattva, so the suggestion is “provisional” (Ouch! Not enough words!), I believe that the action of a Bodhisattva is to participate in the organization of principles. Their formulation of ultimate guidance express that work. The Bodhisattva’s engagement affords them a certain clarity of perception regarding the relationship between relative behaviors and intimacy with absolute principles. They make suggestions to students intended to improve their associations, which are presented to the student as provisional guidance. Once the student achieves intimacy, of course, the provisional guidance fall away.

At this point, I think that we have arrived at one of the aspects of “wisdom” described by Ethan, but there’s more to be said. This is less well supported here – Chapter 4 of “Love Works” describes a class of physical theories that support this perspective – but my experience is that spiritual forms have a different experience of “time” than do material forms. This has to do with the “relative” (Ouch again! Take the mathematical sense) speeds of signal propagation. When we enter into collaboration with the principles, the future becomes visible to us through the lens of their evolution. I have taken to saying that “holy moments join the past and future through a conduit of love”. That’s the basis of the old adage about “women’s intuition”. I’m hoping (closer to expecting?) that people like Ethan find it readily available to them.