The Root Paradox of Dharma "The Two Truths"

The root paradox is this. On the one hand, notwithstanding the futile lawsuit we commonly conduct against reality, we are one and indivisible with the Great Way. This truly is our Buddha nature to which, through years of practice, we learn to open ourselves. The view from this side is the oft-quoted one of Julian of Norwich, that, essentially, all is well with our dreadful world.

On the other hand, from the moment of our birth we have no choice but somehow to make our way in the world, and actively to shape its reality and our own. Zen Master Dogen offers a helpful perspective here. Writing "Towards a Participatory Buddhism" Carl Bieldefelt argues that for him "the crucial point lies in Dogen’s vision of a Buddhist life of total engagement with the world around us, of a Buddhist self that is a full participant in the immediate circumstances in which it finds itself … I have in mind something like the ancient ideal of the bodhisattva, who is at once patiently accepting of the world as it is, and yet deeply committed to making it better." (Zen Mountain Record, 21(1) Fall 2002). The italics are mine, and such "empowerment through acceptance" refers to the root paradox of socially engaged Buddhism, its own version of Buddha nature. This paradox is encapsulated in the activists’ koan of Hisamatsu Shin’ ichi, an influential Post-War Japanese teacher, scholar and activist: "Right now, if nothing you can do is of any avail, what do you do?".

In order most effectively to change situations we must wholeheartedly accept how they are, their suchness, and abandon our habitual wish-fulfilling illusions. Only then can we respond with a clarity of mind unshadowed by the distorted perceptions of the needy individual and collective self.

Moreover, for Dogen the world is alive with variant perceptions and possibilities. Dogen scholar Hee-Jin Kim explains as follows:

In Dogen’s view, things, events, relations were not just given, but were possibilities, projects and tasks that can be acted out, expressed, and understood as self-expressions and self-activities of the Buddha-nature. This did not imply a complacent acceptance of the given situation but required man’s strenuous efforts to transform and transfigure it. Dogen’s thought involved this element of transformation, which has been more often than not grossly neglected or dismissed by Dogen students. (Dogen Kigen: Mystical Realist, p.183).

I write of a “root paradox” because it is rooted in the so-called doctrine of the Two Truths – there is emptiness and there is form, and yet they are also one. It is a paradox which informs every aspect of our lives, although characteristically we seek to avoid discomfiting paradox. And it becomes particularly acute and more difficult to avoid as our life draws to a close and we are called upon to live out our dying. There is for all of us, however we may die, a period of time when we do have many choices. Shall we, for example, make a ”Living Will” to govern our treatment at a time when we may have become powerless ? Would we entertain the possibility of euthanasia ? But beyond specific choices I believe our great work is with the koan of being both active agents in the process of living our death and at the same time opening to the inevitable. Whether, on the question of euthanasia, we be “literalists or “situationists” we share this task together.

Nothing matters; everything matters is a particularly penetrating way of both expressing and exploring this paradox. Please contemplate it carefully in the light of your own life experience and aspirations.