Two Sides of Practice, but Only One Reality
I’ve heard people say karma relationship work is about the “relative world,” while samadhi power is about the absolute. There’s some truth in this statement, in the sense that relationships between beings and things are part of the relative aspect of reality. From the absolute perspective, there are no inherently-existing, separate beings and things that can be said to interact, and discriminations such as good and bad, right and wrong, don’t apply.
Still, it’s problematic to speak in a way that implies we can do some work in a “relative world,” which exists separately from some sublime, if confusing, “realm” of the absolute. Relative and absolute are two levels of truth about the exact same reality. Therefore, our work on karma relationship must be informed by, and reflect, absolute truth; this is what results in compassion, selflessness, and equanimity, because we’re empty of any inherent, separate self-nature, and all phenomena arise and pass within one, seamless, luminous reality. And our awakening to absolute truth must never be disembodied and removed from the relative reality of life. If our samadhi power feels disconnected from the mundane experience of everyday life, our work isn’t done. We have to learn to manifest our insight about the absolute, or the insight is incomplete and of limited usefulness.
What we’re ultimately looking for in Buddhist practice is integration of absolute and relative, or samadhi power and karma relationship. Our practice is maturing when these no longer appear to be two separate things. However, we can’t just skip to that point because we intellectually know absolute and relative aren’t separate! We have to walk our own path of practice, and – as my teacher was fond of reminding me, to my chagrin – it will take as long as it takes. No use comparing ourselves to others, or to ideals. As we practice, then, it’s extremely useful to keep in mind that we need to devote ourselves to samadhi power and karma relationship.
When We Neglect Karma Relationship
If we neglect either samadhi power or karma relationship, our practice will stagnate or go awry.
When we neglect karma relationship and focus on samadhi power, there’s a strong possibility we’ll become rather cold – emotionally distant, rejecting our own human limitations as well as those of others. We may be obsessed with spiritual insight or meditative experiences, as if they’re more important than anything else, or will solve everything.
Based on whatever understanding we have of absolute truth – even if it’s primarily intellectual – we may draw conclusions about life that cause pain and suffering from a relative perspective. For example: Ultimately, everything is “just-as-it-is” and precious, so there’s no compelling need to address injustice or work for positive change in the world. Because, in an absolute sense, distinctions between right and wrong don’t exist, you can do anything you want. It’s possible to be free from suffering by just letting go of attachment, so the people you hurt can just get over it. This kind of delusion – springing from an overemphasis on samadhi power and neglecting karma relationship – is part of what lies behind the problems you may have heard about happening in some Buddhist communities, where male teachers suddenly figure the rules about not getting sexually involved with students don’t apply to them. Trying to apply absolute truth at the relative level of reality is like cutting a finger off the hand we discussed earlier because in an absolute sense fingers don’t inherently and independently exist. Ouch!
Attachment to Absolute Truth
In addition, when we neglect karma relationship, we may become attached to whatever insights we have had about absolute truth. We dream longingly of our past sublime experiences, and resent the necessity of responding to the demands of daily life. Karma relationship may seem like an irrelevant drag, or a practice for beginners who lack the profound understanding we have. Many Zen stories about interactions between teachers and students involve the teacher provoking the student in order to get him or her to let go of attachment to the absolute and come back to earth. This isn’t just about making sure students don’t hide out in enlightenment experiences and avoid their mundane responsibilities; as long as there seems to be a separation between enlightened and mundane, your insight is still dualistic and not complete.
It’s certainly possible to overemphasize samadhi power even if you don’t think you’ve had any special insight or meditative experiences. Then you’ll probably either keep hoping something really cool will happen during your meditation, or you’ll feel inadequate and discouraged, and conclude samadhi power isn’t in the cards for you. It’s tempting to idealize spiritual insight and the people who have supposedly “awakened” to some degree or another – imagining that a direct experience of absolute truth gives you access to an alternate reality where everything is beautiful and easy. It’s good to resist this temptation to idealize insight as much as possible. Basically, if you don’t think you’ve had a personal experience of the ultimate aspect of life, such an experience isn’t what you think it is.
Trying to “Skip Over” Karma Work
Finally, some practitioners of Buddhism hold on to hope that if they can just get enough spiritual insight, the problems in their daily lives will resolve themselves – so there’s no need to waste time working with karma relationship directly. Karma work gets complicated and messy – much better to skip over it and fix everything by sitting in meditation or studying profound teachings! Unfortunately, this isn’t how spiritual practice works. If you’re making a mess of your life by acting carelessly and selfishly – indulging in anger, greed, or addiction; stealing, lying, etc. – you’re extremely unlikely to be able to cultivate the stillness of mind and body required for samadhi power. All those self-centered activities, and their consequences, are too agitating, and reinforce the delusion of an inherently-existing self-nature.
Even if you’re really good at meditative concentration and able to push the circumstances of your life out of your mind in order to achieve some kind of spiritual insight, you still have to learn how to apply that insight to your actual, daily life in the relative sense. Skillfully navigating the relative truth of our existence requires a whole different skill set. This is a brutal surprise for people who strive hard for awakening experiences and then have to face their messy lives after the experience fades. How to face this challenge is the subject of Jack Kornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. On the other hand, if we’ve done our karma relationship work all along, we’ll already be living in a way that’s more consistent with absolute truth – so any insight we achieve will be more easily integrated and manifested. Then we’ll just have the satisfaction of personal insight to back it up and inspire us further.
Next week: When we neglect samadhi power, and how the two sides of practice complement each other