Friday, February 19, 2010

Where is the conflict?

The Tittha Sutta contains the wonderful tale of blind people trying to describe an elephant. One touches a leg and argues that an elephant is like a tree. One touches an ear and argues that an elephant is like a basket. And so on.

So it is with those of us with fixed views convinced that we are right. We cannot abide the person who has a different experience of the elephant. As the Buddha taught:

They don't know what is beneficial and what is harmful. They don't know what is the Dhamma and what is non-Dhamma. Not knowing what is beneficial and what is harmful, not knowing what is Dhamma and what is non-Dhamma, they live arguing, quarreling, and disputing, wounding one another with weapons of the mouth, saying, 'The Dhamma is like this, it's not like that. The Dhamma's not like that, it's like this.'


Why do we find ourselves so affixed to views? So identified with them? A common caricature of the Christian is the evangelizer who tries to persuade everyone else to hold to his own views: God is like this. Hell is like this. The human condition is like this. And of course there are some unfortunate Christians who do this, but where is the teaching presented that we must conform our viewpoints to some standard in order to have salvation in the Christian sense? Such a view is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Rather, we are told that by grace is one saved, through faith, and it is the gift of God.

Essentially, the Christian must presume that it makes no difference whether his particular viewpoint is right or wrong. It's completely beside the point! The crucial issue in Christianity is the relationship vis-à-vis the risen Christ. And even an uneducated child can be in such a relationship -- indeed, Jesus seems to emphasize that it is easier for a child than an adult in Matthew 19:14.

And classical Buddhists can be just as divisive, clinging to views and justifying this behavior with the label "Right View." But obviously, samma ditthi must be understood as much more than merely holding certain viewpoints.

What is the answer? To see the elephant in its completeness, the blind man must gain sight. We must open our wisdom eye and behold things as they really are. Until that time, we must assume that our view is imperfect.

Where is the conflict between Christianity and Dhamma practice? The more I look, the less conflict I discern. We all come to this moment with idiosyncrasies and viewpoints, and of course we know that we're subject to error and misunderstanding. Chief among them is our abiding concept of self -- which for the habitual Christian is always bound together with an abiding concept of God. This is crucial to understand: Any concept of God reflects an underlying assumption about self. There is no way around this. And so the Christian path is the path of reconciliation with God -- that means reconciliation of self and God, and this is a process of daily commitment and practice, not an intellectual game.

The person on the Dhamma path engages with what presents in this very moment, be it boundless despair or abiding faith or joy or pain or anything at all. For the habitual Christian, there will be that indescribable something which we might label "the experience of God," and regardless of what we label it, we know that it is a real experience we have had. Even if our understanding of it is imprefect. How to engage with that? The pat answer you'll get from some people is: reject it. It's based on wrong view.

And that is indeed one possible answer, but from the perspective of practice, it's not a very helpful one. It can be very convenient to walk down the aversive path of rejecting all of that stuff we were taught as children, all the stuff that we couldn't understand, or that turned us off, or that merely confused, or that evaded heartfelt questions. It can be very convenient to latch onto a different path that seems more rational, or more comfortable, or a better fit for us personally. And look what happens in that process: the underlying habit of clinging to views persists and grows stronger.

And the elephant is still in the room.

Let us take the Buddha's admonition seriously. What is beneficial? What is harmful? And that means beneficial to liberation, versus harmful to liberation. Clearly, clinging to views is not beneficial. So let us hold our views lightly. That applies equally to the habitual Christian as well as to anybody else.

When we set aside our views and regard them as impermanent, changing phenomena, subject to arising and passing away, as not-self, not me, not mine, then we understand: the path of practice has nothing to do with whether we have a correct understanding of God or God's absence. Through not-clinging, there is no conflict. And then we can appreciate that this little piece of elephant we touch might not be the same as the little piece of elephant our neighbor touches. And that can awaken empathy, because we realize we are the same.

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