A Zen parable goes that Master Ryokan lived in a meagre hut. A thief rummaging around one evening found nothing to steal. Seeing him exit empty handed, the master offered him his clothes. Ryokan sat naked and contemplated the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.” (Paraphrased from Zen Flesh Zen Bones by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps)
There are two truths: the relative one and the absolute one. Since we can’t really know the absolute one, we spend a lot of time categorising our relative space. ‘This is time’, we say, though neither birds nor animals know minutes nor seconds. However, you and I can meet at 6pm. The sky is borderless, yet we identify air space and control air traffic. We arrest goats that cross borders and microchip birds to compensate for nature’s lack. In this way we adopt divisions as a matter of convenience.
The ability to expand and divide ourselves is infinite. When it comes to amplificatin, as Carl Sagan reminds us with an image of the Earth taken from Voyager 1 on 14 February 1990, we are on a Pale Blue Dot. In terms of contraction, physicists have just arrived at preons. Neither side has hit a wall.
We learn different things at either end; about life, its physical, chemical and emotional manifestations. We are constantly choosing the lens of the macro or microscopic in our daily lives.
On the surface, we see one seed grows while another does not. On looking closer, we see the sprouting is influenced by the origin of the seed, its causes and conditions. We can look beyond and see the plant has annihilated the seed in replacing it. We note that nothing arises by a single cause and our knowing all causes is limited. This is the principle of Dependent Arising.
In such a conditional space then, it is futile to fear lack. We tell ourselves we are in a race for finite opportunities—to miss out is to fail. We become fearful and blame what blocks us. This pushes us into a race for resources and time against those we frame as rivals. Cue the hostilities.
We band together in groups to co-opt these perceived limited resources for those most like ourselves. Race, caste, community, sect, sub sect and gender become ways to restrict access. When we run out of substantial differences, we take what we can find by way of sexuality, marital status, looks, schools, etc. In the minutiae is located infinite ways of othering.
We are so caught up in this divisibility that we forget movement in the opposite direction is possible. True masters from Gautama the Buddha to Ramana Maharshi, from Sri Aurobindo and the Dalai Lama to SN Goenka have exhibited an openness across boundaries.
What makes it possible for a master to give away his own clothes while the rest of us seek value in accumulation? We are made colonisers and capitalists in our franticness, while the great are undiminished by their giving.
The difference is where one is fixed. When one is stationed in the immutable truth, that nothing is permanent, that there is no concept of time, that there are no boundaries, and no real differences, just varying levels of awareness of our sameness, what is there to miss out on?
Most of us live our limitations instead of our boundlessness. There is a parable of the monk who ran from a tiger only to hang off a cliff by a vine to find its mother waiting to eat him below as mice begin to gnaw at the vine. The monk begins to eat a berry, forgetting his entrapment between dualities.
In a series of talks in Switzerland in 1978, philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthi discussed the limitations of thought. Thought may have given us marvels but it has also brought us to war. The more we pick between dualities, the more we paint ourselves into a corner. We view freedom as choice. Yet, if our choices are still between our endless differentiations—left or right, one religion or another, male or female—is it really freedom to place one above the other?
We’re still hankering for a slice of pie. We’re still in the Zero Sum Game. It’s a trap. Sure, you say, but we have to make our choices. Identify with nothing, no nationality, no religion, no ideology, no thought, Jiddu Krishnamurthi advises. The Buddha suggests you don’t carry the boat you use to cross the river on to land. See the relative as convenient alone. Discard it when it’s served a purpose.
Space has no abode;
It is free from elaboration, and stainless.
Your mind is the same as space,
And you are free of any point of reference: I bow to you!”
When we station ourselves in vastness, our actions do not come from fear and grasping. We see that things are subject to numerous causes, we can stop blaming and othering, we can do without, we can make space.
Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.
~ Zen Master Eihei Dogen, the Genjokoan, 1233, transl Shohaku Okumura
Gayatri Jayaraman is the author of 'Sit Your Self Down' and a mind-body-spirit counsellor.