Do you know anyone who does not feel that 2020 was the worst year in our lifetime? Do you know anyone who is not looking forward to 2021 with hope and longing for a return to normal? My guess is that your answer is NO.
As I started writing this essay, I was thinking of presenting a survey of the challenges we have experienced this last year. However, on New Year’s Eve, we will have a perspective and a sharing with those joining us for the virtual gathering.
For this SHINGI I will examine the Three Truths Tiantai doctrine as an antidote to our frustrations of the past year and expectations for the year to come. What is the Three Truths doctrine, how do I apply it today, and does it really mean what I think it means? To be sure, these three questions have already occupied dozens of scholars and practitioners resulting in many tomes of learned study. For the SHINGI I will need to be brief.[i]
What is the Three Truths doctrine? The Three Truth doctrine developed from the Two Truth doctrine in early Mahayana and expanded by Nagarjuna. The Two Truths are the 1) provisional or conventional truth and the 2) ultimate or absolute truth. The restoring of Buddhist thought by Tiantai took place in the 6th century. The Three Truths takes the Two Truths – of provisional and absolute – and add to them the Center. Ziporyn writes,
“The center means the conventional truth is also ultimate truth, that ultimate truth is also conventional truth – that the very distinction between them is itself only conventional, and yet, since by this very move the conventional is not merely conventional but is also ultimate, this very distinction is itself also therefore ultimate. Tiantai regards this move is simply the thinking through the two truths to their logical conclusion.”
Manifesting profound philosophies into behaviors and action is not easy. How do I apply it today?
We are living in a world with separate realms of reality, not alternate realities or alternate truths, totally separate realms of reality. Each of these realities is based upon a set of conditions and intersubjective realities that lead to affirmation of one’s views and a provides a totally different understanding of the world and outcomes around us, compared to those who exist in another realm. It is reminiscent of parallel universes that both physicists and Buddhist philosophers posit.
There is a reality of those who see the world through a lens of entitled white privilege (they may or may not be aware of it) and people of color whose reality is one of systematic, all-encompassing, subjugation of their personhood. For imagery we can see it played out by Black Lives Matter movement contrasted with the Proud Boys. We are not speaking of right and wrong for the moment. The absolute is without form, sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness. There is no reaction, no theory of what should or should not be. Each of those groups, BLM and PB’s, perceive themselves as suffering incalculable wrongs. The causes and conditions for each group intersect but result in separate realities.
As a white man, I have lived a privileged life. I have tried to understand what it means to be a Black person in America. No matter how many books I read, no matter how many conversations I have had with my Black brothers and sisters, I will still come up short in truly understanding what it means to live in a black skin in America. My values are those of diversity and social equality. I support Black Lives Matter, ethnic rights, women’s rights, religious freedom, the LBTGQ community. I do my best knowing that may not be good enough. But, I also seek to understand the fear and insecurities that grip those who respond to fear mongering, racist tropes, those who succumb to conspiracy theories.
The Center is where we look and listen deeply with each party recognizing that they each have a reality separate and distinct from the other. It is nuanced, not simply right or wrong. Each does what they feel is best for themselves and others.
Most of us find ourselves making statements like I have been a Democrat or Republican all of my life therefore my view is this . . . . A good friend, when we are discussing social issues, will say to me I’m a businessman this or that is the best policy. To be in the center means to abandon those ideas at least temporarily. Begin to look at the issue not in the state of reaction but in a state of deep understanding.
Behaviorally, it is necessary to do what is ‘good’, causes least harm, benefits all sentient beings, and is consistent with Buddhist teachings. Concurrently, one has a better understanding of, the conditions, the perceived suffering of the other reality, so as to ameliorate the suffering in both realities, and hopefully be more effective in pursuing the best course of action.
It is not enough to have empathy; one must be compassionate. Compassion is guided by wisdom. When we are in possession of both, compassion and wisdom we use upaya, skillful means, to act in a way that fits the situation, and best accomplishes satisfactory goals.
Does it really mean what I think it means? Living in the world of the Provisional, Absolute and Center means experiencing the mundane, the sacred, and the integration of the two as the center such that there is no distinction, they are synonymous. When all factors are taken into consideration, the original way a thing appears is no longer unambiguously present.
People sometimes think of the Middle Way taught by Shakyamuni Buddha as the Center. The Middle Way is the way of living between two extremes. Shakyamuni Buddha’s example was living a severe ascetic life with very little to eat, virtually no clothing, not even a bed to sleep on, compared with a life of luxury. This is a very good lesson. The reason the center is not the Middle Way is because the provisional and the absolute are not extremes, they are one and the same. We conceptualize them as separate, because human beings tend to think dualistically.
We are starting a new year, the year of the Metal Ox (join our Wednesday evening virtual gathering on the 6th of January for a discussion on the ‘Ox in Buddhism’). Sometime this year we will return to normal, though not the same. There will be at least half a year or more fraught with pain, separation, frustration and anxiety. We will live through it and emerge with new purpose. To manifest that purpose, acknowledge that the mundane and sacred are one and the same, the center.
May the New Year bring you perseverance, courage and blessings.
Love and Gassho . . . Monshin