It's OK to turn it up to 11 sometimes
(Image above taken from Deviantart, beautiful carvings of Zen temple guardians done by Chapitaaa. See www.deviantart.com/chapitaaa/art/Agyo-and-Ungyo-78672398.)
In last week's article we looked at the cultivation of samadhi - developing a stable, focused, unified mind. The early stages of that process are pretty straightforward (going from 'lots of distractions' to 'not so many distractions' to 'no distractions'), but then it gets weird - first we become one with everything, then we go even beyond that. The focus of last week's article was mainly about the earlier stages of that journey, so this week we'll take a look at the deeper aspects of practice.
Oneness, and some of its downsides
In spiritual circles, you'll often come across stories of people who suddenly 'became one with everything' - perhaps while meditating, perhaps while walking in nature, sometimes even in the middle of the most mundane activities. The way it's typically described, it sounds pretty good - a sense of letting go of burdens, becoming intimate with all things, experiencing boundless joy, love and relief, and so on. Who wouldn't want that?
These types of peak experiences are indeed lovely - but it's crucial that they aren't the end of the story. Sadly, all too many people have a lovely experience which, as time passes, becomes simply another memory, and doesn't make much lasting difference to their lives. Experiences come and go; that's their nature. Nothing lasts forever. However, sometimes experiences can change us, if we let them. If an experience touches us deeply enough, our whole way of seeing the world can be fundamentally altered, in a way that doesn't come and go. This kind of 'shift' to a new way of seeing things is one marker of the beginning of the process of awakening in Zen.
But how does our view change? Perhaps we're left with a fundamental sense that everything is ultimately One in some important spiritual sense. (Subjectively, it can feel exactly that way, as the felt sense of a boundary between 'me in here' and 'everything else out there' falls away, and what remains is a sense of being one with the whole universe.)
This idea of Oneness as the final answer to everything seems to have some immediate problems. For one thing, the world is apparently diverse - we have people, trees, dogs, clouds, Scandinavian death metal - all kinds of different things. So someone who hasn't had an experience of oneness might be tempted to dismiss the whole thing as crazy talk, while someone who has had the experience is going to have to do some mental gymnastics to explain how everything is one really. (Some popular options include: saying that all of reality is illusory, perhaps a dream in the mind of God; that at the quantum level everything is just one unified field of vibrating energy; that everything is made of awareness, and so what exists is just one grand cosmic awareness playing games with itself; and so on. Another standard response is 'You're over-thinking it, this isn't something the intellectual mind can grasp,' which has a certain amount of truth to it but is too often a convenient excuse for not having to think at all.)
A subtler problem comes when this oneness is used to deny diversity. This can potentially cause you real physical harm - after all, if you and the bus are one, why do you need to wait for it to go past before stepping into the road? At its worst, this is a setup for ethical catastrophe. Spiritual doctrines of oneness have historically been used to justify participation in wars (because there's 'nobody separate being killed'), sexual abuse ('there's nobody separate being harmed') and more.
Fortunately, we can do better.
Relative and absolute: the 'two truths'
The later Buddhist tradition developed the doctrine of 'two truths' to explain the apparent contradiction between the felt sense of oneness and the obviousness of the diversity of experience. This says that there are two ways to look at reality, both valid in their own way, despite appearing to contradict each other.
From the 'relative' perspective, things are as they conventionally appear to be. I'm a different person to you, which means I can't have your stuff. This is the domain of ethics, compassion, self-improvement, climate change and so on.
From the 'absolute' perspective, we see the world a different way. We realise that every aspect of our experience is impermanent; that everything we ever experience is a product of multiple causes and conditions coming together, including the way we're looking at it; that even seemingly basic facts about the universe such as time, space and materiality may not be as unquestionably, obviously real as they appear to be. The absolute is the domain of oneness, and from the perspective of the absolute, all the weird stuff the old Zen masters say makes complete sense. (Well, most of it. Some of it's very weird.)
Navigating relative and absolute
One of my favourite Zen teachings is Tozan's Five Ranks, which is a kind of map of the process of learning to understand and navigate within the two truths. First, we must experience the absolute directly, before any of this will make sense. Working with a koan is a very effective way to have this initial breakthrough (you might like to try the 'Who Am I?' practice on the Audio page if you aren't familiar with this style of practice). Once we 'break through' to the absolute, it's impossible to go back to our old way of being, where the relative perspective was all we'd ever known.
However, encountering the absolute isn't enough - and if we stop here, we're prone to all of the dangers I described above, clinging to oneness and potentially in danger of neglecting the relative aspects of our lives. Zen urges us continue beyond this point, deepening our understanding still further.
In time, we must come to understand what the Heart Sutra says - that 'form is emptiness, and emptiness is form'. Whatever we experience as real and solid in the relative perspective must also be seen to be empty of inherent existence (impermanent, dependently arisen and so on) from the absolute perspective ('form is emptiness'). On the other hand, it isn't that there's some mystical substance called 'emptiness' which is separate from everything else. Emptiness is the fundamental nature of everything we experience in the relative perspective ('emptiness is form').
So the second step in Tozan's Five Ranks is coming to see that the absolute is not a special place we go to when we want to get away from the relative - emptiness and form are inseparable. The relative and the absolute are two ways of looking at the same reality, not two different realities. At first, this may be simply a meditative intuition, a view which is easily forgotten in the bustle of daily life, but in the third step of the Five Ranks we begin to find a way of living which honours both the relative and the absolute together, and by the fourth step we have reached a point of 'mutual integration', where the relative and absolute aspects of existence are clear to us at all times. (The final step is to ingrain this understanding into ourselves so deeply that we forget any thought of relative or absolute, awakening or Zen practice, and simply live out our lives in accordance with our most profound intuitive understanding.)
Non-duality, the Middle Way and freedom from fixation
We started out with a kind of 'twoness' (me in here, everything else out there), then moved to 'oneness' ('I am one with the universe'). It might seem like the idea of the 'two truths' takes us back to 'twoness' again, but as Tozan's Five Ranks demonstrate, we're actually aiming to arrive at a subtler place. Reality is 'not two' - it has the absolute aspect - but it's also 'not one'. The technical term for this is 'non-duality' ('not-twoness'), to distinguish it from 'monism' ('oneness').
Non-duality is a tricky idea to get your head around conceptually. We're used to things being one way or the other. Is it, or isn't it? What other possibility could there be?
One way we're used to resolving this kind of dilemma is through compromise. I want the chocolate bar but so do you, and so we end up splitting it in half. You get half, I get half, and neither of us is particularly happy about it but it's better than getting so caught up in arguing that someone else comes along and steals the chocolate while we're distracted.
You'll sometimes hear Buddhism called 'the Middle Way', and that can reinforce this idea that what we're really after is compromise in all things - a kind of lukewarm life, never too much or too little of anything. So if you're a member of Spinal Tap, your amp has to be set to 5.5 at all times. Another technical term sometimes used in Buddhist circles is 'freedom from extremes', which can potentially also suggest the same sense of damp greyness.
But that isn't what we mean at all - in fact, if anything, a rigid adherence to the middle of the road is exactly the type of mistake that we're trying to get away from. Perhaps better than 'freedom from extremes' is 'freedom from fixations'. As soon as you land on any one thing as 'the ultimate truth', you're already in trouble. Reality is multi-faceted. The perspective of oneness is totally valid (and beautiful), but so is the perspective of twoness. Both are aspects of the same - ultimately mysterious, ungraspable, un-pin-downable - reality. And all aspects of a human life - from the most sublime to the most ridiculous - are just as much a part of that reality as anything else.
When you approach a Zen temple, you'll be met by the ferocious gentlemen at the top of this article, the Nio. The one on the left is called Agyo, the one on the right is Ungyo. (Ah and Un are the first and last sounds in the Japanese alphabet, so they're kind of like 'Alpha' and 'Omega' in a Christian context.) On a superficial level, it makes sense to have big tough fierce guards at the gate to a temple; but the subtler meaning is that everything is welcome in Zen practice, even the fieriest depths of anger. Zen practice is not meant to make you a mild-mannered push-over - it's meant to liberate you from the extremes of fixation, enabling you to move through your life with power, grace and compassion.
So by all means welcome oneness, and explore it - but don't stop there. Please, go beyond - for your sake and everyone else's.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!