Humans have been struggling with this dilemma for ages: God is good – even synonymous with love – and all-powerful, so why does God let bad things happen? Why does He continue to allow such suffering in the world? For a Zen Buddhist, this question is phrased like this: All being is Buddha-nature and this empty world is inherently precious and without defilement, but still the world is full of suffering. It feels as if there are two separate realities – and much of the time it seems they have nothing to do with each other. How do we integrate them? Is it possible?
Here’s the good news: the need to integrate what can seem like two separate realities is just one of the many stages of the spiritual path. Which means it’s possible, there’s more to come, and it’s worth forging ahead.
Note: the struggle I am talking about here is not about doubting whether God is good, or whether all being is Buddha-nature. That’s another struggle, and a fruitful one. What I’m talking about here is learning how to live wholeheartedly once you have a deep, personal conviction there is a profound and redemptive foundation to everything that embraces all the suffering and makes it, somehow, okay. This is conviction is wonderful, but at some point simply taking refuge in it, however comforting, begins to seem hollow and unhelpful.
I once wrestled publicly with this dilemma of two realities (see Wearing My Heart [and Doubt] On My Sleeve). After that event, my days were been consumed by normal, mundane activities like emails, databases, housecleaning, and worrying about money. At times it seems the doubt had dissipated, or was only a dramatic description of a momentary experience, but it was still there. It lurked like grief, which stays with us for a long time but can lie dormant, waiting for the right thing to wake it up.
Then one evening, happily munching on a veggie burger and not thinking any particularly deep thoughts, I was reading a passage from Ross Bolleter’s Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment. (1) My husband sat next to me reading his ipad, and I asked if I could interrupt him to share something. As I read the passages out loud from Bolleter’s book, I started to tear up. I couldn’t quite finish the section I meant to share because the words got stuck in my throat. (Fortunately, my husband is used to this and wasn’t alarmed.)
Strange – before trying to speak the passages out loud I knew I related to them, but I didn’t realize how deeply. Someone was putting words to my experience. Even more importantly, someone was identifying my experience as part of a larger process of awakening to reality and learning how to be a full and authentic human being. The depth of my doubt didn’t mean I was a spiritual failure, or that my spiritual path is ultimately useless. In fact, it was a sign that deeper understanding and integration was possible.
I want to share with you the passage in Bolleter’s book that so touched me, but it needs a little introduction. In this particular chapter Bolleter is talking about the fourth “rank,” a place in spiritual practice where we have personally experienced something transcendent (in Zen it is a realization of emptiness, in other traditions it might be an encounter with the divine, or a personal relationship with Christ) and now we are trying to integrate that experience with the often brutal or bleak reality of life.
In Zen, the transcendent is called the absolute, or essential, and the reality of daily life is called the relative, or the contingent. Bolleter offers commentary on a line of ancient poetry that describes the fourth rank, “No need to dodge when blades are crossed.” He writes:
“Crossed swords represent the opposition of darkness and light, which correspond to the essential and the contingent, respectively. Given that advance or retreat are equally impossible, we stay put and open to life where we are… Forgetting emptiness, we face up to hard-nosed particularity and oppositional circumstance, treating them as all there is. Yet, although we avoid taking refuge in emptiness, we nonetheless deepen and mature our experience of emptiness by facing up to the challenges we encounter…
“The image of the crossed swords may also symbolize a dilemma: we encounter the crumbling edges of our life and practice, where we sense that whatever we’ve realized can’t light up the darkness and grief of estrangement, or magically resolve our inability to forgive. We must respond by allowing this dilemma, filled with painful confusion and uncertainty, to be just what it is. This is the crux of the matter of not dodging when swords are crossed.”
All of this may sound rather academic or philosophical, but it’s not. What it means is that when I go to visit my friend who is a more or less housebound with extremely painful rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, I refuse to comfort either her or myself with platitudes about how life is ultimately precious, or how if we can just appreciate this moment our suffering is just a concept. These observations about the essential or the transcendent are true, and we may need to take refuge in them at times in order to sustain ourselves. However, they do not make the suffering go away. They do not in any way make the suffering less real.
The way forward, is through the suffering. Not turning away, not reaching back for comforting convictions. Meeting the suffering directly, on its own terms. And I’m not just talking about the acute suffering involved in physical pain, disease, death, injustice, etc. I’m also talking about the daily suckiness of anger, confusion, and the general frustration of being unable to grab hold of lasting peace and happiness.
Heading into the suffering seems crazy, right? Isn’t the whole point is to alleviate suffering? It may be completely counter-intuitive, but according to the teachings of our great spiritual masters, leaving behind our answers and throwing ourselves into direct relationship with the messy, ambiguous nature of the contingent eventually allows us to function even more effectively at alleviating suffering. It does not mean turning our back on the divine, the pure, the transcendent, because that is not actually possible. Our convictions are part of who we are and will manifest in everything do even if we do not consciously hang on to them.
Wow. Maybe, just maybe, if I learn not to “dodge when blades are crossed,” I will someday be able to experience the fifth rank, where (according to Bolleter) “all that we have regarded as the essential and the contingent are found to be none other than each other. The polarities of the earlier modes are annulled, and the algebra of the spirit disappears without remainder into our lives lived as the Way.”
Don’t you think the defining characteristic of a compassionate sage is functioning in the fifth rank, where essential and contingent, divine and human, are realized to exist simultaneously – occupying the same space and time without separation? Think of the saints and other radiant people who have seemed more awake to the world of suffering than most of us, but who also seemed to be not of this world. As long as I let go of any idea that “I” might become such a person, the way forward seems clear.
(1) Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment by Ross Bolleter. Wisdom Publications, 2014.