Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Teachings of Totality

Both Taoism and Zen tend to value an open, flexible mind. There are many reasons for this, but today I want to explore totality.

There is an old Zen poem that goes something like this:

A beautiful woman
Is a delight to her lover
A temptation to the monk
And to the tiger, a good meal

When I first heard this poem, I thought it was pointing to the empty, relative nature of “beautiful”. The woman herself is really none of these. In a sense, this is true, as I will explain later. But this is only one side of the story. If we consider the teachings of totality, she is ALL of these things.

A more classic, philosophical example is a cup of coffee (Philosophical people and coffee are often found together, so it should come as no surprise when we see it used as an example). A cup of coffee may be a refreshing drink early in the morning. It may look white, with a handle, and filled with dark brown, aromatic coffee. Yet now if we look at it with an electron microscope, this cup of coffee is transformed into an ocean of electrons, spinning and shimmering like tiny suns in space. A cup of coffee is a universe in itself. Who is to say that around these little suns aren’t tiny planets, with cities and countries? Now let us look at the cup of coffee from a great distance. It is mere speck, a piece of dust.

So we know our experience of coffee depends on many things: having a human body and mind, having the coffee at the right time of day (morning for some, afternoon for others), looking at it with our naked eye instead of a microscope, and so on.

The problem comes in when we break off one view and forward it as THE view. If one person were to say, “Ah! A nice, warm cup of coffee!”, a physicist might come along and say, “Well, that’s not a cup of coffee at all. Actually, it is a pattern of vibrating molecules that exist near one another.” The first person may retort, “I don’t see any molecules, you must be wrong.” The physicist may say, “No, it is you who is wrong, you don’t have the right materials to see the truth!”

This sounds absurd with the coffee, but when we consider the beautiful woman example, we can see the revelation of a chilling truth. The temptation aspect of a beautiful woman may be seen as the only aspect, and I would wager that this viewpoint has been used to justify the suppression of women throughout the centuries. In fact, we may react to this view by believing that there is no tempting aspect of a beautiful woman at all. Many women (and some men) may see other women as beautiful, but not necessarily as tempting. But this, too, would only be a partial truth. A beautiful woman is both tempting and non-tempting.

To add another level of sophistication, we may then say, “Well, the temptation or non-temptation is not in the beautiful woman, but in the body-mind of the person who sees her.” This is true also. So now we can make absurd statements such as, “The beautiful woman is tempting, non-tempting, and neither tempting nor non-tempting.”

Nor can we necessarily say this is true, that she is both tempting and non-tempting. She is tempting to one person depending on their age, sexual maturity, culture, time, mood, clarity of eyesight, disposition, of mind, and a whole host of other factors. Also depending on these factors, she may be non-tempting. We see here the presence of dependent origination. The body-mind event of temptation, or non-temptation depends on everything else.

Perhaps we get a closer insight when the Buddha says things like, “There is neither one, nor not one, nor neither one nor not one, and not both one and not one.” He says things like this all the time in the Pali Canon.

An open, flexible mind should be open to seeing this from all angles. In Hua Yen Buddhism, it is said that the ultimate Buddhamind is omniscient. From a Buddhamind angle, all of these aspects would be realized at the same time. It is only in our smaller, limited minds that we see only one angle at a time. In Western terms, this a glimpse into the mind of God.

Ignorance prevents us from seeing all of these angles at once. It is simply a lack of knowledge, or to be more precise, a lack of knowing. In the West, we often think of ignorant as uneducated. We often assume that formal schooling leads to amassing knowledge. This is not the case at all. Ignorance, in my view, is better defined as narrow-mindedness, or seeing only part. The more parts you see, the less ignorant you are. In fact, a wise judge would be some one who could fairly hear both sides before making a decision. We tend to think of wisdom coming from experience, and experience is nothing more than knowing. A variety of knowing leads to wisdom.

Narrow minded people may be conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, Christian or Buddhist. On the other hand, all of these types of people may have open and flexible minds. The outer appearance, character, or trait of a person is only part of their identity and really tells us very little about a person. To hone in on this trait to the exclusion of all others doesn't make any sense.

This is why one good practice for expanding the mind is to consider the other side. If some one disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. It means there are two sides of the story, and in a sense, they may both be right (in a conventional sense). When we are able to truly see the other side, our mind opens, it expands. Having seen this, it is less likely to cling to the part it was clinging to before. Seeing the other side is not helpful for others, but it helps us in our spiritual progress.

Further reading:

The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism

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