By Jon Solomon.
It’s spring here in France, and flower trees have started to bloom.
Spring blossoms, a perennial source of metaphor, conjure up associations with new growth. According to a well-received tradition, they might also present a parable for transmission of spiritual realization. It seems like a fitting time to reflect on the challenges and rewards of bringing spiritual practice into domains that seem resistant, or even opposed, to spiritually motivated life-styles.
Take for instance my job. As a university professor in the Humanities, a big part of my work consists in understanding theories of human society. In the tradition of the modern Humanities, an irreplaceable part of the understanding-process centers around critique. As practitioners of this discipline, we learn how to deploy the tools of social theory in a critical way. While the word critical can mean many things, it probably refers in everyday parlance most often to something that is corrosively negative. As such, it doesn’t seem to have much of a place in a spiritually-attuned life.
Before I address that issue, and, inevitably, critique it, I’d rather start off by sharing the special kind of beauty that I sometimes see in mundane corrosion. When I have the time, I like to walk around the city in search of naturally-occurring paintings reminiscent of those by masters from the 1950s and 60s Color Field school.
But the truth is that critique and spirituality, as social worlds, are often portrayed as antithetical, or at the very least not complementary in the way in which healthy-eating and yoga are, for instance. On a list of symptoms of a terrible “epidemic” of nonjudgmental happiness spreading around the globe, a list manifestly motivated by penetrating reflection on a spiritual lifestyle, that I spotted on a French language forum, symptom #9 was: To take pleasure in conducting oneself as a healer, who brings light and joy, rather than as a critic.
Unable to find any models to follow or people to emulate, I became at one point so vexed about how to make seemingly contradictory things work out together that I came close to concluding that the only possible answer lay in an either or solution. I suspect that this situation is a common one experienced by many people who are serious about a spiritual lifestyle yet remain engaged to various kinds of social progress, big or small.
The problem arises when we expect there to be some way, perhaps we would fantasize it as the key to a spiritual life, in which contradictory things work out together, or again, in which apparent contradictions do not exist at all.
Richard Cohen, in Beyond Enlightenment, provides a novel reading of Buddhist scripture that addresses this issue. Consider the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which proclaims that all beings have the capacity for realization, yet nevertheless defines one category of being, the icchantika, who is permanently and constitutionally incapable of realization, ever.
In the Lankavatara Sutra, however, Cohen finds an interesting distinction. With regard to the icchantika, the Lankavatara begins by asking, with no small irony: How is it that the wanters do not want to be liberated? The sutra then distinguishes two types of icchantika, the wanters par excellence, one of whom is, in Cohen’s words, doomed to remain in samsara, while another is distinguished by her vow to remain in samsara forever until all other beings achieve nirvana.
It seems like a contradiction, until we realize that the bodhisattva is the precise correlate of the icchantika, like the reverse side of the same coin. They both eschew nirvana, but for completely different reasons. One type of icchantika foolishly expects contradictory things to work out together, and then, when they don’t, seeks either or types of resolutions, while another has no expectations of the kind.
Although some situations surely do require either or approaches, more often than not that’s just a sign of a lack of creativity. The best way to do something is often just to use the constraints of the actual situation, the very contradiction itself, as a support. Trinley Thaye Dorje says: From a Buddhist perspective, the path itself is a way to overcome the problem, both its causes and conditions. The bodhisattva’s way of overcoming it is such that not only you try to escape from it, but you sort of go through that phase and try to learn something meaningful.
The lack of a model, something that would guarantee even icchantikas a way to exit samsara, so acutely felt by so many people who combine spirituality with a modern life, just gives us a better opportunity to become something else: a singular analogy. The analogy is not, as Plato would have it, a putting-into-relation of two things that are presumed different, one of which assimilates the other, i.e., dualistic mind. It is rather an operation of unbounded seamlessness among pairs of antagonistic things that arise together, at the same moment. From this perspective, there is nothing to prevent us from seeing every social encounter, as Richard Cohen writes in the conclusion to Beyond Enlightenment, as an opportunity for adversarial giving. I’m happily in the process of opening-to-what-that-means.Photos by Jon Solomon
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