Before I sought enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers. While I sought enlightenment, the mountains were no longer mountains and the rivers were no longer rivers. After I attained enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.
— A Zen Proverb
Before enlightenment, chop wood carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood carry water.
— Another Zen Proverb
I wrote recently about the Heart Sutra and what it means by emptiness, suggesting boundlessness as another word for it. Again, a question from my blogging buddy Karen Allendoerfer, this time enhanced by a course I’m taking on the history of Buddhism, led me to follow up and brought the two proverbs above to mind.
I’d say that pretty close to all of us, when we look at a mountain or a river, see a mountain or a river. And pretty close to all of us have to do today’s equivalent of chopping wood and carrying water. Maybe we get into a car or hop onto mass transit and go to a job, where we earn a paycheck, with which we buy actual groceries and pay for real shelter. And we have to pay those pesky bills for utilities and interest on loans and various other tangible and intangible goods and services.
We wouldn’t get very far toward enlightenment in today’s world if we didn’t chop wood and carry water (work and pay bills) or find someone to do that for us. We need to exist in the world if we expect to understand the world. In the Buddha’s time, some spiritual seekers did renounce all worldly things in order to find enlightenment. The Buddha tried that, and it didn’t work for him. So he invented what he called the Middle Way — avoiding extremes of both materialism and asceticism.
Nevertheless, we Buddhists do say extreme things, like: All formed things are empty, or boundless. We say those things even though we know that our bodies have skin that contains them, even if they are impermanent. And we have personalities that define us, even if they are subject to change. And we all have boundaries that we won’t willingly let others cross, even if we practice loving kindness toward all. We’d be crazy to deny those “facts.”
To understand this seeming paradox, it’s helpful to think in terms of two worlds, or maybe a better way to phrase it is two levels to this one world. We live from day to day in the relative world, where things are as they seem. We know the relative world is real. The tree is there and I am here. We are two beings. If all things are one boundless entity, I should be able to walk over to the tree and merge with it, if I didn’t merge first with the grass and soil under my feet. But as hard as I try, my skin won’t open up and absorb the tree, nor will the tree’s bark open to accept me.
On the other hand, as a somewhat enlightened human being, I can look at the tree from a distance, or envision it in meditation, and know that we are one — truly experience that oneness. That’s the ultimate world, or the ultimate level of reality. Both the relative and the ultimate are real.
You and I are one. But if we are one, who is doing the writing and who is doing the reading?
Or, to put it another way: Things are not as they seem; nor are they otherwise.
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine