I conducted a short Introduction to Buddhism presentation tonight, as the culmination in a four-week world religions survey course. Of the religions covered, it is really the only one I had a personal investment, as I’ve “dabbled” in it; and have lingering sympathies, if not actual practice. Obviously, it is impossible to cover all that you’d like in a ninety minute introduction. One can barely get through the life of Gautama and a too-quick gloss of the dubiously simplistic three-pronged typology of the “Three Vehicles,” let alone explore the complexities of the human condition. Oh, but I tried, and in the process, I think, did a hatchet job to the two-truth doctrine. So much so that I feel like I should make up for it here, in the only other public venue I have for these kinds of things, and tap out a lay-level presentation on the topic. Take from it what you will. Given the venue, however, I welcome comments on its relative coherence, and am also curious whether others otherwise unconcerned with Buddhism find any resonances with their philosophico-political projects.
Re: the two-truth doctrine. “Basically” . . . in Buddhism (esp. Mahayana Buddhism) there’s a sense that there are two levels or kinds of truth. Big-T “absolute” truth, and little-t “run-of-the-mill” truth. We live our lives in and by little-t truth. Little-t truth (our everyday reality) is governed by the principle of what Buddhists call “co-dependent origination”: nothing exists independently of something else. All actions occur in a web of other actions — e.g., traffic (“I” am traffic, rather than “in” traffic, because traffic does not exist outside my participation with others in creating it). Even actions we do in private occur in relation to others, in the sense that we only know it is private because of the absence of other people. Without the existence of other people, and the possibility they could be around, there is no “privacy.” [Note: I set my Fichte aside years ago, but it's never quite left me.] Such is the little-t truth that governs our lives. We do not escape this. Rather, the key is to see little-t truth as little-t truth; and thus to see that the stuff of our regular lives, from our experience of others to our experience of ourselves, is ultimately impermanent (in the sense that if something is dependent on something else, it should not be construed as permanent or “necessary”). Suffering comes from (a) not recognizing the things of life as impermanent, and (b) grasping them/clinging to them as though they were permanent/necessary.
[Coming to grips with this intellectually is possible. Otherwise, why would I be writing this blog post or teaching such lessons to non-practitioners? This kind of intellectual understanding is what motivates people to try and follow the Eightfold Path. Experiencing the truth, however, is a different matter, and is where the stuff of monasticism and/or meditation kicks into gear; which is why so few people do either.]
All this is different, but related to, Big-T Truth, which Buddhists regard as the only truth that that can be called permanent, necessary, and ultimate. Because this truth about the world, about ourselves, etc., is not dependent on anything else, it can only be described as “empty.” If the truth is anything other than emptiness, i.e., if it is “something”, then it becomes dependent on something else, and thus is no longer permanent, necessary and ultimate. (As a result, the “empty”-language shouldn’t be regarded negatively; but, says the Buddhist, it should be regarded as an ultimate affirmation–which for the Buddhist results in a profound, self-dissolving, absolute bliss.)
So, in short . . . yes, in the language of the modern-day Whole Food “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual jet set” we are all united, even in the territory of little-t truth of everyday life, in that our actions (things we do and do not do) affect the actions of every conceivable other, and these actions are themselves caused directly and indirectly by the actions of untold others. We are united in this intricate, complex web of intentional and unintentional, random and planned causation that extends beyond even a single lifetime.
We are, however, also united by the Big-T Truth, but this is a unity whose implications are far more profound still. Here, we recall that the singularity of “I” and the unity of “we” both need to be recognizable as “I” or “we”; and that this process of identification puts us back into the co-dependent territory of little-t truth. As such, Big-T truth unites us in the sense of dissolving the desire for such an identification and/or recognition–whether it be the identification of “I,” certainly, or “you,” and thus too “us,” or even of what is happening when we say “unity”. (Hence the Buddhist insistence on no-self.)
What I like about Zen especially is the degree to which Big-T truth is not elevated as some goal to achieve. On the contrary, this truth in a certain sense requires the impermanence of little-t/everyday truth. No little-t truth, no Big-T truth. (Of course, the “awakening” to Big-T truth transforms our understanding of little-t truth; but it in no way frees us from it. Indeed, so close is the relationship between the two kinds of truth that, ultimately, the annoying tic manifested throughout this post of differentiating “Big-T” and “Little-T” truth must ultimately be seen as inadequate, and possibly even deceptive.) Lest things start to become too clear: we are all united by way of our being differentiated from one another. This is the truth, says the Buddhist, of which only meditation (or in non-Zen traditions, a really benevolent and helpful Bodhisattva) can give us a true glimpse.