Saturday, July 17, 2010

Karma, Causality, Two Truths, and Misconception

Karma, Causality, Two Truths, and Misconception
.
If all experiential factors are real things (dharmas), as Dogen contends, then misconceptions are real things. Therefore, Dogen’s view on the unity of the form and nature of things apply. As a real thing (dharma) the form of a misconception and its nature are nondual which means that a misconception is truly a misconception. For the same reason an accurate conception is a truly an accurate conception (e.g. understandable explanations really are understandable explanations.).
.
To clarify this, let’s look at a misconception that Dogen (and many other Zen masters) dedicated much attention and energy to correcting; this is the misconception that commonly arises in association with the Buddhist doctrine of “two truths.”
.
[Note: This teaching usually discussed in relation to the Madhyamika school (which developed it and dealt with it most extensively). This doctrine was a major influence to all Mahayana schools, each interpreting it in their own way. The basic idea of this doctrine (that all schools generally agree on) will suit our purpose here so we will skip the details for now.]
.
Basically, the “two truths” doctrine asserts that there is a “provisional truth” and an “absolute truth.” The provisional truth is usually described in terms of “expedient means,” “temporary devices,” or as “appearance” (apparent truth). The absolute truth is usually discussed in terms of the “true,” “real,” or “ultimate” to which expedients direct us, or as the “true nature” behind or underlying appearances.
.
Now, there may be some question about whether all the classic Zen masters agree with Dogen’s view of these truths. Some definitely seem to diverge from Dogen, but most appear to be in harmony with him; though this is often more implicit than explicit. Fortunately, it is Dogen’s view we are interested in here, and he makes his views extremely and explicitly clear.
.
For Dogen, the two truths doctrine is definitely valid—but only if its interpretation maintains strict (or, perhaps, radical) adherence to the doctrine of nonduality. That is to say, for Dogen, provisional truth and absolute truth are valid insofar as they are understood as coessential and coextensive. In accord with nonduality then, provisional and absolute truths are ultimately seen to be equally significant (e.g. “expedient means” and the “reality” to which they point are not-two; “appearance” and “true nature” are an interdependent unity, etc.) In practice, Mahayana Buddhists (including Zen Buddhists) have shown a definite tendency to stray from the tenets of nonduality when it comes to the two truths doctrine; here is where we come to the common misconception.
.
Uncritical Buddhists, or those with a shallow understanding of nonduality can easily buy into views which may not claim to be—but actually are grounded on—dualistic presuppositions. Often such views appear in terms of a kind of pseudo-nonduality (as discussed in a previous post). The end result usually amounts (more or less) to notions that all conceptions, accurate or distorted, are provisional, unreal, finite, or mere appearance, while absolute truth is regarded as transcendent, ineffable, inexpressible, and incommunicable.
.
As discussed previously, such views are not only dualistic (hence, non-Buddhist), they are very difficult to root out once they take hold. Their direct attack on the intellect often affects a deep distrust of reason, and even common sense. This make such views particularly resistant to corrective guidance. The frequency with which this occurs in association with the two truths doctrine is probably the main reason for Dogen’s overall disfavor of it.
.
[Note: for more on Dogen’s disfavor of the doctrine see all of Hee-Jin Kim books (for a short, succinct example see, Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen On Meditation and Thinking, pp. 25-26).
.
To harbor dualistic views is to harbor non-Buddhist views. For advocates of these views, right and wrong, good and bad, practice and enlightenment, etc. are all “provisional;” and reality is beyond words, actions, and even thought. Thomas Cleary eloquently and convincingly argues (in the introduction to his translation, Transmission of Light) that due to the social reverence for authentic Zen (earned by dramatic success), the name of “Zen” is often appropriated by dualistic cults seeking an appearance of authority. His descriptions of such cults sound very familiar to contemporary “everything is it,” “nothing special,” “no goal,” and “no wisdom to attain” teachers and teachings. In this regard, consider Dogen’s words here:
.
Clearly, ‘not being blind to cause and effect’ is what ‘being profoundly convinced of cause and effect’ means, and accordingly, those who hear this rid themselves of evil conditions. Do not doubt this: do not mistrust it. Among those of our recent generations who call themselves students of Zen practice, there are many who have denied causality. And how do we know that they have denied causality? Because they are of the opinion that there is no difference between ‘not being subject to’ and ‘not being blind to’. Accordingly, we know that they have denied causality.
Shobogenzo, Jinshin Inga
, Hubert Nearman
.
Here we see that modern slogans about “nothing to attain” and “all is Zen” sound suspiciously similar to what Dogen refers to as those that “call themselves students of Zen.” Fortunately, we have Dogen’s guidance on how we can tell if a group’s or individual’s proclamations are divergent from the authentic Buddha Dharma: “…they are of the opinion that there is no difference between ‘not being subject to’ and ‘not being blind to’.” Wherever assertions of “no difference” usurp assertions of “nondual” we can be pretty damn sure that dualism (or pseudo-nonduality) is lurking nearby—and whenever “no difference” begins to surface in association with “causality” (or karma) we are bound to discover some strain of antinomianism or quietism.
.
The “uniqueness” of each universe and self fashioned by each individual (discussed in recent posts) is not due only to the unique time and place of each physical presence. While conditions are a factor, it is causes that are the primary influence. According to Buddhist causality, each individual manifests as an undeniably unique unity with certain innate tendencies and characteristic traits (due to karma). Each individual’s experience of the world unfolds in a consistently natural (to them) manner, from the moment of their first appearance onward. Dogen often points to this by reminding us that chrysanthemums come from chrysanthemums, willows from willows. In Dogen’s in depth treatments of this he takes it even further; this particular chrysanthemum comes only from that particular chrysanthemum, only this particular willow from that particular willow.
.
Herein is why Dogen is so offended by the “denial of causality.” It is founded on the same thing as his scorn of “naturalism;” the implication that sentient beings are formed by the universe (or some other external force) rather than the formers of the universe.
.
Mahayana Buddhist doctrines are firmly informed by the principles of causation and karma. To state or imagine there is no difference between “not falling into causation” (not being subject to karmic conditions) and “not being unclear about causation” (being clearly aware of existence and dynamics of causation) is tantamount to saying the Buddha Dharma is superfluous. What point would there be in hearing the teaching of causation (or any Buddhist teaching), studying it, putting it into practice, and verifying it in experience, if a “clear understanding” of causation revealed that causation has no influence on us in the first place (that we are “not subject to causation)? It seems almost too obvious to mention, yet such distorted notions were as widespread in Dogen’s day as they are in our own. Thus, in the passage above Dogen defines what “not being unclear about causation” means by spelling it out in unmistakable terms, it means “…‘being profoundly convinced of cause and effect’…” for emphasis he adds, “Do not doubt this: do not mistrust it.”
.
We can only be “profoundly convinced of cause and effect” if we profoundly study it, learn it, practice it, and verify it in experiential realization. One of the things causality asserts is that we ourselves are the motivating influence of the course and direction of our life experience. We are neither passive marionettes whose strings are pulled by unknown forces, nor are we the hapless victims of chance and circumstance; we are the authors of our life experience.
.
If we “doubt this” or “mistrust it” how can we seriously put it into practice? If we do not put it into practice we cannot verify it, if we do not verify it we will not assimilate it or be able to access and utilize the enlightened wisdom (bodhi prajna) inherent in it.
.
“Knowledge” about causation is familiarity with the teaching of causation, being “profoundly convinced” of causation is verifying it experientially; the former is the knowledge of “ordinary” (unawakened) human beings, the latter is the wisdom of enlightened (awakened) human beings (Buddhas). Knowledge is acquired, wisdom is evoked. Our total knowledge is the sum of facts we have assimilated through our interactive experience of world and self. Our enlightened wisdom is the totality of the lucidity of comprehension and efficacious competence with which we manage our experience and navigate life, which for Buddhists means the Way of the Buddha Dharma.
.
Existence being dependant on it, experience itself is a given for all sentient beings. The only question is, in Dogen’s terms, whether we “turn the Dharma” or “are turned by the Dharma.” To be turned by the Dharma is to live the whimsical, wooden life of a puppet, to accept the mandates of whatever is most influential at the moment, to conform to the expectations, views, and conventions of the “ordinary” mind of mediocrity. Choosing instead to turn the Dharma is to choose liberation; to choose the “ordinary” mind of enlightenment. True liberation comes with the verification that we alone are the masters of our lives, and that our ability to manage the material of our lives (arrange the instances of our experience) is the measure of our ability to fashion a world and fashion a self—our ability to respond (responsibility) harmoniously to the unceasing flow of experience, illumining and enlivening the Buddha nature of the myriad dharmas of momentary existence.
.
Peace,
Ted Biringer

No comments: