Two realities and three practices for a middle way – Teaching with Thinley Rinpoché
So, just what can be the use of Buddhist philosophy ? This is the question that criss-crossed the first session of this new cycle of teachings with Thinley Rinpoché based on The Adornment of the Middle Way, one of the essential Buddhist texts composed by Shantarakshita (725 – 788). During the second session, this past August, another question arose as a theme: what is reality? Is there one truth? We take into account that in our context, reality and truth are synonymous: what is true is real.
The response comes from the Buddha of course: there is not one truth, there are two! When we talk about reality, we refer to two modes of knowing phenomena: one erroneous and the other not erroneous. In other words, there is one reality and two ways to apprehend it: one through confusion, the relative truth and the other through wisdom, the ultimate reality.
Relative reality, known as the truth of preconceptions, is the perception of the mind through distractions. It is about our truncated experience of reality, an experience subject to the obscuration of the mind. We call it the truth because that is how we experience it. This reality does not exist beyond our representations, but we can use it according to our perceptions. Just as the chronic that I write on this computer is illusory, it is effective in the end as it allows you to read it. It is the relative reality, composed or illusory. But this truth hides another: ultimate reality. That is the reality that is not subject to confusion and distraction, all of the veils being unravelled; it is our direct experience of phenomena as it is. If we perceive things according to this truth, the direct experience of reality, that will not make the chronic, the computer or the reader disappear, it will allow us not to be duped as to their real nature. What is troubling for us in this approach is that we do not at all perceive the relative reality as illusory and moreover, we do not have access to ultimate reality (since it is beyond representations). So, what do we do?
The genius of the Buddha was to start from our experience of relative reality, what we live here and now, to give us the means to liberate ourselves. It is by relying on this reality of preconceptions that we can reveal the ultimate reality, since one hides the other. To practice then becomes a path of revealing through wisdom. Since it is the distracted mind that is the cause of our confusion, it is the clarity and intelligence of this same mind that can draw us out of this misunderstanding.
Until now, even if this demands some reflexion and effort to get away from our set ways, this double truth allows us to understand the very nature of the path, to liberate us from our malaise and its causes. But Thinley Rinpoché led us through the meanderings of the philosophical schools where each one presents the two truths according to it own logic. We know that these four schools were born from the diverse approaches of the Buddha; he adapted his teaching to different mentalities and capacities of the students. But they all have the same goal: to guide us to a direct experience of reality in order to escape what is causing the malaise. They share the same basis: all composed phenomena are impermanent, conditioned existence is characterized by suffering, and we can not find a being in itself. In order that these philosophical views can become personal experience, practice is necessary. The path breaks down into three practices known as “the middle way”, because they avoid the two extremes every time.
The ethic of the middle way avoids the extreme of the simple pursuit of sensory pleasures, a life that can be summed up as consumption as well as the extreme which mistakes the nature of virtue, taking for example asceticism as beneficial. As a common point, these two extremes do not allow for the development of one’s good. In terms of ethics, the middle way is based on causality that links our thoughts, our acts and our becoming. The precepts that we follow dissipate afflictions, they are fundamentally not harmful. It is a way to live where we do not hurt anyone, including oneself.
Meditation of the middle way avoids the extreme of torpor, a form of relaxation that is limited to managing stress as well as the extreme of agitation, a concentration that aims for performance going in the direction of competition in order to win, without others knowing. In terms of meditation, the middle way establishes calm without inner chatter from which clarity and a quality of presence also arise. It is clarity and the calmness which define the meditation.
Nevertheless, ethics and meditation can not alone be the cause of liberation. To attain ultimate wellness, it is about freeing oneself from the mechanism that generates dissatisfaction based on distraction. To dissipate distraction, we have to cultivate knowledge that is not erroneous. The discernment of the middle way avoids the extremes of existence, eternalism, which gives the impression that one as well as others really exist, and the extreme of the non-existence, as to think that acts do not have consequences. In terms of discernment, the middle way goes beyond distraction through precise knowledge of reality in order to cultivate a cognitive approach that no longer goes through our representations, but that is direct, not duel.
The middle way of the three practices guides us to no longer be lured by our perceptions, to experience reality as it is, to understand the two truths, as much for one’s own benefit as for that of others. These four days of study prepared us to submerge ourselves in The Adornment of the Middle Way. So while we might think that Buddhist philosophy leads us away from reality, the truth is that it gets us closer.
Puntso, Head of Dhagpo’s Program