Differences, Equality and Pernicious Equality
Elihu Genmyo Smith
We live a wonderful life, many forms manifesting the joy that we are; mother playing with child, a weak elder hobbling along, flowers blooming, wind-blown rain storm, falling leaves, hot and dusty drought, full-moon bright, dark and foggy night. The various forms are exactly this manifesting life - and are the opportunity to joyfully appreciate the variety of this life. This is our opportunity to respond, manifesting this life we are - simple, straightforward.
Unfortunately, sometimes we get caught up in what we like or dislike, in greed and anger, and create stress and dissatisfaction, doing what results in harm and suffering in the midst of this joyous life. What behavior do you find intolerable? Whose manners offend you? Do you react when you see…? Do you believe judgments? Do you notice reactions? Please reflect on this.
Discovering for our self that believing differences and attachment to them results in much of the harm and suffering which humans inflect on them self, on others and on the world, we feel a need to do something. When we do not appreciate the interpenetration of differences and emptiness, equality and differences, we may think that the antidote to problems is to do something about differences. Sometimes doing something about the differences is attempting to wipe out differences, to get away from differences by going to some form of oneness or equality. This can be on a personal level or on a social level, it can be politically imposed or culturally and religiously imposed, and may even include attempts to suppress and do away with differences. And, in doing this, we may even experience peace and serenity in a sense of oneness. But we are in trouble if we think that the problem is the differences, if we fail to see that problems arise out of our misperceptions of differences, what they “mean” and imply; to say it succinctly, stress and suffering arise out of our dualistic delusions and attachments, even attachment to oneness.
If we look for a solution in a conceptual oneness, an artificial equality, we sometimes end up with an oneness that really is a disguised way to impose our self-centered ideas, even ideas of what oneness would be like, on our self or others.
Experiencing oneness, experiencing unity, can be an antidote for self-centeredness, enabling and supporting forgetting self; but the very experience of oneness, and holding to that, may merely substitute “oneness” for “self-centeredness.” We may even think that experiencing oneness is true, full “awakening.” Though it might be a glimmer, the glimmer lacks non-abiding, lacks seeing/being the emptiness of conditions and forms, and may lead to attachment to oneness, and, paradoxically, attachment to characteristics. A glimmer of oneness, even temporarily “wiping out” differences, is not the open boundlessness of ongoing change, is not non-attachment, is not dropping away body-mind. Please do not believe any of these words I wrote or get caught up in them! Please do not hold onto them!
If oneness is only conceptualized, a self-centered idea, a substitute for emptiness, boundlessness, then as a result of this conceptualizing we may become attached to our ideas of oneness, attached to ideas of equality. Mixing oneness and emptiness, we make emptiness into a thing. Even though this attachment is out of kind-heartedness, this is misplaced and possibly dangerous. A surface equality, a conceptually-believed emptiness, a pollyanish oneness which does not face the realities of the cause and effect world we are - but instead covers up differences, not dealing appropriately and skillfully with differences - this can lead to oppression and persecution, intolerance and worse. We may reject and react to others who believe and speak in certain ways, react to various feelings. Being deluded by differences, by the realms of life, and “fighting against them,” we fail to appreciate “all beings are the wisdom and perfection of the Tathagata” (Avatamsaka Sutra), this absolute equality in the midst of differences. Thus, Shakyamuni Buddha says, “I and all beings of the great earth have together attained the way;” no-I and no being that is not-I, no thing that is not-I.
If, instead of working in the midst of differences without being deluded by them, our approach is an approach of artificial oneness, or attachment to a past experience of oneness, this will not enable skillfully responding to troublesome behavior or violence of those (including our self) stuck in self-centeredness. In not appreciating differences, not inhabiting differences, we fail to see “all beings are the wisdom and perfection of the Tathagatha.” Instead we exclude or suppress differences. This exclusion, this suppression, whether of “self” or “others,” is an artificial oneness and equality, a pernicious oneness, pernicious equality - lacking the interpenetration of differences, lacking the “backside” of differences; this is a non-harmonious equality. This pernicious equality can be as problematic as differences which lack the “backside” of equality or oneness. A practice antidote to this problematic is clarifying “form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form” (Heart Sutra). (Form is the many forms of differences, many forms of being.)
There are similar statements in many traditions: our life is seeing G-d in all the many forms and conditions, responding to Jesus in everyone we meet, serving Allah in everyone we greet, responding to the Buddha in this moment of encounter. And when we respond as the Bodhisattva - and to the Bodhisattva - in this moment encounter, we manifest our Bodhisattva functioning in this moment encounter, we enable the “other” to be the Bodhisattva that they are.
The Bodhisattva precepts support us in seeing and responding to things as is, rather than clinging to beliefs about them. If we are trying to do away with differences, attempting to temporarily “wipe out” differences, that much we believe and hold to differences, that much we fail to see differences as they truly are, that much we miss non-attachment to differences. We are blinded by one-sided vision and delusions about differences.
Manifesting equality as differences is appreciating and manifesting differences. Though equality wipes out attachment to and abiding in differences, this equality, this emptiness, does not deny differences. Emptiness is empty of emptiness. So, differences manifest equality, differences manifest emptiness – not one thing.
We fool our self and others when we fail to manifest equality as differences, fail to live this interpenetration of form and emptiness that we are, when we attempt to do away with or cover over differences in a “one-sided” oneness. A pernicious oneness can be a justification for self-criticisms, as well as criticism of those who celebrate their particularity, their traditions; forms of pernicious oneness have even been a justification for all sorts of violence.
Superimposing an ideological equality can be a way to impose conformity, persecuting differences. It can justify persecution and biased treatment against particular political and social beliefs and groups, justifying violence and worse from governmental authorities, encouraging mobs such as in cultural revolutions, or terrorism by those who act against others whose differences offend their ideas of “correct” oneness, offend their vision of the “true” equality. These have been forms of political correctness, of political and religious oppression, in many societies.
Appreciating the interpenetration of emptiness and differences is appreciating the differences as they are, is appreciating the differences we meet from morning to night, whether “our own” or “others.” We know for our self that our encounters are indeed the wisdom and perfection of the Tathagatha, our life manifesting - and naturally respond accordingly. Ongoing practice enables us to see and experience differences as exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly differences; then we are not blinded by self-centered attachments to conditions, attachment to differences, attachment to equality, attachment to beliefs; being not-knowing, we see this life as is in the midst of ongoing arising/passing impermanence.
In noticing/practicing with attachments as they arise in life, we are not bound by them; body-mind experiencing - right here is non-attachment, right here is non-abiding. Right here - not a single thing; and we have to take care of this! We can choose skillfully and appropriately among the many forms of emptiness, many different forms of equality. We can support all we encounter to release clinging and be free of stress and suffering, be awake now.
© 2012 Elihu Genmyo Smith