Living with opposites

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE - Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) - January 26, 2014 - 12:00am

The other day, I was looking at a lotus pond in a friend’s garden. I find it fascinating that, beautiful as it is, a lotus can only grow in mud. Immediately, this fact opens up many metaphors on life.

I am not surprised that Buddhism has picked up on the lotus in a big way and has made it a comparative image for life’s many truths, among them, the Buddhist belief in embracing life’s pairs of opposites.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything has its opposite. Every yin must have its yang. To know black is to know white. To know pleasure, we must experience pain, and vice versa. Without its opposite, a thing would be meaningless, or incomprehensible.

My religious upbringing was heavily Catholic. There was God versus Satan, Heaven versus Hell, good versus bad, saints versus sinners, salvation versus damnation, keepers of the faith versus the heathen. It was a world of clear dichotomies.

It was clear that everything has its opposite and in my understanding then, there was hardly any common point for the two sides to meet. One had to choose to fight evil and condemn sin, and one’s behavior would determine whether he or she would go to Heaven or Hell.

Unlike Christianity, Zen Buddhism is more accommodating of opposites. It speaks of a fine line one must traverse that stands between the two opposing sides. But there is no epic battle between opposites. Both sides have their place in the world. One must avoid being pulled or attached to either side. Instead of one side condemning the other, in Zen Buddhism, one strives to accept the existence of both and learn to live with them.

Christian zeal will tell you that evil and sin must be conquered so that the good and the glory of God will reign in the world. Thus, one must divide the world between good people and bad people. In truth, I see many virtues in this and its aim to make the world a better place.

But I also see a lot of problems. For one, it can get dogmatic since all understanding and interpretation of every aspect of life must be based on Christian tenets. One can therefore become awfully judgmental and intolerant, not accepting that there are other ways to view life and the world.

History has witnessed the excesses of religions. The effects of the zealousness of missionaries in spreading Christianity have not always been positive. It has destroyed many peoples, civilizations even, and its influence on the power brokers of the societies it has converted has not always been benignly used or aligned with its avowed aims. And dogmatism, intolerance and religious arrogance may have a lot to do with this.

One of the primary tenets of Buddhism about life is that it is sorrowful. But be that as it may, it counsels people not to run away from life but to engage it completely. Why? Because the sorrow, contradictions, and the rule of the pairs of opposites is but the door, or foreground, to life’s very wonderment and deep mysteries. It says “yes” to life and its many forms and ways of showing up; it does not seek to change it. And paradoxically, this acceptance of life as it is is how one’s experience of life changes. That is because more than seeking to change the world outside, inner change happens. One is changed from someone who cannot accept the horrific, to one who can embrace both the ugly and beautiful, the sorrowful and joyful.

Metaphorically, one can say that from the mud underneath, one climbs up to the lotus. When one becomes unconditional about accepting life, one can rise above the muck and breathe the open air of understanding and compassion of the lotus.

You may have heard of the Zen koan that asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” You may have wondered what it means. There are many who simply dismiss the question as too strange, or react with perplexity by trying to physically clap with one hand against the wind. We all know that doing so makes one look ridiculous. And that is clearly the point.

It is incredibly ridiculous to demand that we only live one side or one dimension of life, that we only accept the beautiful and good and reject the ugly and the awful. For one, can it really be done? We know that many times, no matter how we try to control it, life very much happens the way it chooses.

Therefore, to produce the sound of clapping, both hands — the left and the right — must be present and must meet and engage.

I am not out to compare which is better, Catholicism or Buddhism. Buddhism is, strictly speaking, not a religion. It does not claim that Buddha is God. 

In truth, I see the world through both lenses. While I often see the need to act decisively against the evils I see in the world (which in itself seems the Christian thing to do), I sometimes hold back because I catch myself conscientiously asking if I am being too attached to my own interpretation of the world. I ask myself whether I am too involved in the battle for the world’s own good, or mine. I question what my true motives are. I always ask myself, “What if I am wrong?” 

The cold detachment that Zen Buddhism has taught me helps me step back and see myself in the third person playing my part in the scheme of things together with all the players in the drama of life. And the blending of Christian morality and Buddhism gives me a clearer view. In the end, I still choose to continue to do what I think is right, but avoid falling into the trap of pride and hatred. 

I also try not to fall into the trap of cheap misplaced compassion and forgiveness that ignores the call of justice and gets people of the hook in the name of Christian values. I also constantly remind myself not to gloat with prideful righteousness.

In the process of building a better country, I know that there will be pain for some, and liberation for others. But each must do what each must do. As Joseph Campbell puts it, â€œI will participate in the game. It is a wonderful, wonderful opera — except that it hurts.” And I must accept this, whether pain happens to me or to others. But just as there is pain, joy will also be there since the two are indeed part and parcel of life vigorously playing out, or â€œclapping,” if you will. 

Strangely, with both the Christian and Buddhist perspective, I can say that in the battlefield of life, I am present both as warrior and spectator. I am both mud and lotus. And this works out for me as long as I walk the fine line and keep both perspectives.

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