Monday, April 09, 2012

Absolute v. Relative

Japanese Gardens, Portland, OR
"Sure, I understand that on an Absolute level, all is space. We are empty of concept and things only exist as a part of a larger whole. But what about on the Relative level?"*

This is a question from a student at a Miksang Contemplative Photography weekend. It's not an uncommon question - in fact, since we talk about perception pretty much constantly during Miksang talks, in comes up a lot. But this time, we are pretty far along in the program - in a cumulative program called Absolute Eye - and he wants to know how we can experience the Absolute, if we can, on a Relative level.

If this seems to high faultin' to you, hang on and keep reading.
 Absolute is what really is. Beyond what we see, beyond what we believe, almost to the point where we can't experience it with the kind of understanding we usually use, because in order to do so would be to not understand it. In other words, the Relative mind cannot comprehend Absolute fully, unless it allows itself to let go of Relativity and be Absolute itself.

Sound confusing? It feels confusing. But it is possible, though very hard to explain. And I am quite certain you have experienced Absolute - that everyone has - that everyone can, that everyone is.

The thing is that most Buddhist teachers, even in Shambhala and in Tibetan schools, are encouraged to teach according to Absolute. Don't even mention the Relative (this is especially the case in most forms of Zen, which do little discussion as is, and when it exists, it happens on a very Absolute scale). To do so alters the students' understanding of the Absolute, and in fact, perhaps it is better not to talk about Absolute too much, as to talk about it is to bring it to Relative description - words, concepts, ideas.

Perhaps because I am naive, or because I am young, or because I haven't been around enough very Absolute-existing teachers (eg Enlightened or Realized Ones), I constantly truck in the line between, and translation of, Absolute and Relative. And I have found that especially if you are teaching a Contemplative Practice (eg one in which the mind is engaged in a specific direction - see more here about Contemplative versus Meditative), Relative is key. First you dip people's toes in to how it feels on this scale, this level, a Truth, in fact, of our existence from our perspective. Then you can point with that Relative finger to the Absolute moon. No finger and the Absolute is a lot harder to relate to - literally, to have as a Relative. It's a stepping stone, one that needs kicking out afterwards from underneath the toes of the viewer, but is necessary nonetheless.

And this I think is especially true when looking at teachers themselves. Teachers, no matter how Absolute they are in manifestation, come to us as humans (or beings). Therefore, they have a Relative existence. After watching Crazy Wisdom last night, I asked a teacher in our sangha to say more about Chogyam Trungpa's sexual relations with some of his female students. The film addressed it, but not as well as I thought it could have. I rolled it around and around in my head, as I have for years, and he rolled it around and around in his. The teacher's contemplation pointed to the Absolute of Chogyam Trungpa - that he never acted for himself or acted in a way to maliciously harm another. It wasn't until I was home that I realized what I feel is missing from a lot of discourse about this sometimes dark aspect of Trungpa is the Relative. No one except those who dislike or were harmed by him will talk about it on the Relative level. That makes some of the Absolute answers - though not the teacher I spoke to last night - sound sychophant-ish.

I think, however, I have come to the point where I finally have an understanding I can work with. As a female teacher in this lineage, and I suspect this will be even more so after this film, as the questions increased after the memoirs: his wife's memoir, Fabrice Midal's biography, and Jeremy Hayward's recollections.

My understanding came out of hours of discussion with Dylan, irritation about a lack of "dissentors" in the film, a lack of validation of mistakes for an Absolute teacher, of which I have no doubt he was. My understanding of it is this, and this is what I feel I can say to you, as readers, and to the public, as students and atttendees of talks I give:

I believe Chogyam Trungpa was an Absolute Master. He saw everyone as enlightened in the way only an Absolute Master can. I have been told he never acted on his own behalf or to benefit solely himself, in fact, often, quite the opposite. Also, he was a human being. Human beings exist on the Relative scale, and I think he made errors on the Relative scale, as humans do, though I also allow that perhaps those errors were not errors on the Absolute scale, or not to his understanding. As for how someone who is Enlightened can make errors on the Relative scale, or even Absolute scale, my answer is the same as Pema Chodron: "I don't know." However, I do believe it is important to acknowledge that some people experienced his behavior, on a Relative scale, as harmful. Some people were, in fact, very harmed by it, regardless of his Absolute intentions. Not acknowledging this Relative level of harm means some people's complete experiences go unheard. And that is not ok.

It feels good to have a more nuanced understanding in which I don't feel pulled between Absolute answers and Relative anger (I don't think I could have handled him as a teacher in person on a Relative scale, because of my own history with alcohol and sexual abuse). Both/and, rather than Either/Or.

*For more on Absolute/Relative and the Madyamaka school see this quite accessible Wikipedia article.

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