Fantastic and Crap
A Buddhist monk once asked me to comment on a particular retreat center in Spain. I said that in my opinion it was “fantastic and crap”, which made him laugh. It was fantastic because there was a palpable, magical spirituality about it. it was crap because it had many of the tedious problems associated with human communities such as poor communication, wasted effort and resources, project delays etc. Little did I know at the time that I was later going to build my joke into a whole philosophy — but here goes!
The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is the truth of suffering, the unsatisfactory nature of life. The entire realm of existence is said to be pervaded by unsatisfactoriness. Even our moments of pleasure and happiness have an unsatisfactory quality about them. The third Noble Truth is the truth of cessation. It is possible to achieve a True Cessation of suffering. This True Cessation is Nirvana, and only Nirvana is peace. This fundamental teaching of Buddhism describes a yawning chasm between our current state of suffering – samsara – and the holy state of Nirvana. The fourth Noble Truth is the path to get from samsara to Nirvana.
In his deconstruction of all conceptual categories, including the four Noble Truths themselves, the 2nd century CE Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna showed how neither samsara nor Nirvana exist inherently, from their own side. They are both empty of inherent existence, which means that they are dependent-related phenomena. They both depend upon mental imputation.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings on the Tibetan Lojong tradition imply a way in which we can see this world as both faulty and perfect. At the heart of the Lojong tradition is the teaching on Exchanging Self with Others, which is described in detail in the article A Place Where We Cannot Be Harmed. If we fully exchange self with others then, although there continues to be suffering, we are no longer be harmed by it. From this point of view we have achieved Nirvana while remaining in the world.
In his oral teachings in 2008 Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explicitly stated that even for the trainee Lojong practitioner this world is like a Buddha’s Pure Land, because it enables us to experience the perfect conditions we need in order to advance on the path (to generate renunciation, bodhichitta and wisdom realizing emptiness). From the point of view of the Lojong practitioner the world is both perfect and faulty at the same time. It is faulty because there is suffering in it, but it is perfect because if we exchange self with others then we are able to transform suffering into the path to enlightenment. For Lojong practitioners whatever conditions we encounter are perfect for our practice. As Geshe Chekhawa says:
“Do not rely upon other conditions. Apply the principal practice at this time.” (quoted in ‘Universal Compassion’ by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso).
In theistic religion there is a similar gulf between the perfect state of the Creator and the faulty, suffering state of the creatures. Because of this gulf many mainstream Muslim scholars insist on God’s transcendence rather than immanence with regard to the created world. They say that to argue that God is immanent in the created world is to deny both God’s unity and perfection.
On the other hand, the great Sufi Muslim scholar Ibn ‘Arabi argued that we need to investigate reality with two eyes: reason and imagination. With reason we will, as the other scholars say, discover God’s incomparability (Arabic: tanzih) with his creation and therefore we will understand the truth of transcendence. But if we explore with imagination we will discover God’s similarity (Arabic: tasbih) to his creation, and so we will understand the truth of immanence.
“Ibn ‘Arabi’s contribution was to stress the need to maintain a proper balance between the two ways of understanding God.” (Ibn ‘Arabi – Heir to the Prophets by William C. Chittick, OneWorld Publications, 2005, p19).
By viewing the world with the eye of reason we see that it is crap! By viewing the world with the eye of imagination we see that it is fantastic! But we don’t want to suffer from double vision. We want to develop a unified vision which is able to handle conventional and ultimate reality at the same time.