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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, May 12, 2006

ultimate reality

In my last post I mentioned reading a book called Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche in 1989 when I was on a group meditation retreat in Colorado. It was my first dathun, or month-long meditation retreat, and I bought the book at the commissary to read on those few periods during the week when I had free time. It's a slim little volume of 94 pages by a Tibetan meditation master of the Kagyu tradition. I found it gripping and read it compulsively, almost like a thriller, to find out "what happens"--that is, what is the nature of ultimate reality?

Does this question strike you as being academic and esoteric? It strikes me as being urgent. For it's not merely a matter of academic curiosity; ultimately we base all of our decisions and actions on our assumptions or beliefs about the way the world is. We work, all the time, on the basis of an implicit understanding of what is real and true. If we thought some other thing were true, we would act in a different way. Our decisions would be different, and so would our lives. In fact, I am sure that our set of beliefs--what we believe is true--whether held consciously or otherwise, is the biggest determinant of how our lives will unfold.

During that dathun in spring 1989, 8,000 feet up in the Rockies, I was going through one of my periods of thirsting for this kind of knowledge. Meditating eight hours a day every day allows the mind to settle to its native condition of brightness and clarity. It takes on a quality almost like heaviness: it sits in the present moment, and resists being pushed out. It's a good time to read dharma.

So I read Progressive Stages, and talked with my meditation instructor Nancy about my restless, impatient thirst to understand this text. (Combined with my bouts of homesickness, it was enough make Nancy worry about me, so that one day she pulled me out of the meditation session for a special interview to find out whether I was "all right". I was.) The book briefly explains the progression of the understanding of "emptiness" (the word usually used to translate the Sanskrit shunyata), both in the history of Buddhism and in the understanding of the Buddhist meditator--for the progression is one and the same. Starting with a coarse understanding of the notion, the practitioner, through studying, reflecting, and meditating, gradually acquires a more subtle understanding and experience, until eventually, with enough of the right kind of effort, he or she has a direct experience of ultimate reality.

Emptiness is not nothingness. This is one of the stumbling-blocks associated with using this word to point to the idea. "Emptiness" is essentially pointing to the fact that experience cannot be grasped conceptually. Our concepts are only conventions, approximations--an overlay on experience. They are convenient for communicating, but they cannot, cannot form an exact fit with reality. Generally, though, we are very attached to concepts (a habit called "conceptual clinging"), and are deeply reluctant to let go of them. "Let go" in this sense does not mean abandoning the use of concepts; it means having a clear recognition that they are not synonymous with reality.

This might seem like an abstract philosophical point, but it takes on great importance when one is advised that the major concept to be relinquished, the pre-req, as it were, for traveling the subtle depths of the Buddhist path, is the concept called "I". Yes: the Buddha said that "I", ego, is another concept: a convenience, not something that corresponds to anything ultimately real. The meditation on emptiness begins with an investigation into the nature of this thing called "I". The puzzling and alarming thing is that if you look hard to find exactly what you mean, what you are denoting, when you say "I", it disappears like smoke. It seems to be the most obvious and taken-for-granted thing, but if you look hard to isolate this obvious thing and find out exactly what it is, you're going to find you can't do it.

"Oh well," you might say, "what difference does it make? Whether my ego really exists or not, I've still got my mortgage payments and parent-teacher interviews." True enough. But when you think about how much effort you put into trying to please your "I", trying to keep it out of trouble, trying to make it comfortable and secure, trying to get it to be a winner, it does actually make a difference whether it exists or not. Because if it doesn't, then what the hell are you doing? In a certain sense, it's no different than going through a lot of time-consuming trouble, and responding, if someone asks you why, "I'm trying to make Casper the Friendly Ghost happy."

That person might gently point out that Casper the Friendly Ghost is a fictional character, one whose happiness you can't influence, indeed one whose happiness is very problematic in terms of whether it exists, or even can exist. In short: your actions are misguided, and insofar as you pursue that aim, your time is 100% wasted.

It's back to what we believe is true. This makes all the difference in how we spend our time, and the life that results for us. This intuition has been driving me like a goad since I was about 20, maybe longer.

It makes a difference. It makes all the difference.

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