Saturday, May 2, 2015

Who Is Right and Who Is Wrong?

     Indeed, if by another’s word someone is inferior
     Then oneself also comes to be of inferior understanding. 
     Then again, if of oneself one is a realizer of Truth, a wise man,
     Then among philosophers no one is a fool.     (—Cūaviyūha Sutta, v.13) 

     Imagine the following extremely common scenario: Two people, A and B, disagree. A considers B's behavior and/or beliefs to be wrong and unacceptable, whereas B considers his own behavior and beliefs to be right, or at any rate much righter than A's. They are both convinced that they are right. But of course they can't both be right, because each of them considers the other to be wrong! If they are both right, then they are both wrong. Even so, each of them has it all worked out that they themselves are justified. They have plenty of reasons backing up their own side. It's plainly obvious to them. Each of them is obviously right, and thus both are wrong, too. This happens all the time—in fact it's happening right now, at this moment, in thousands of interactions all over the world.
     Of course if the disagreement is over something external and "objective," like, What is the capital city of Nevada?, then the person who asserts it's Carson City may be considered, for practical, conventional, and obvious reasons, to be more right than the person who asserts that the capital of Nevada is Paris, France; but there is no purely objective truth independent of a believing mind. Subjectivity is always involved. Ultimately according to Buddhist philosophy, Nevada doesn't really exist at all; it has no intrinsic, ultimate self-existence; so, ultimately, how could it have a capital? The existence of the state of Nevada, and of its capital city, depends upon human perception. (This is, to me, a fairly obvious observation, but people of the West are conditioned to assume the existence of an objective world independent of perceiving minds, so I'll eventually return to this point.)
     But setting aside the issue of a presumed external material world for the time being, if two people disagree over some kind of value judgement, then all bets are off. The "objective world" may shrink down to one person's individual mind, which may be going with some very different assumptions from those of the other person's individual mind. The disagreement becomes a disagreement over mere matters of opinion. Still though, each person thinks and feels that he or she is obviously right, even as he/she also thinks/feels that the other person is obviously wrong. 
     In such cases one may appeal to the values and assumptions of the majority; yet whoever is considered by the majority to be right may simply be closer to the cultural mainstream, or to the mainstream of human animal instinct. Is killing someone who is "evil," or maybe who just disagrees with you, right or wrong? Well, it depends on what culture you are in, and who you talk to. Should a Buddhist monk just stand there and watch a girl drown rather than swim out and save her just because it is against the rules for a monk to touch girls? Well, there are actually a few hard-nosed monks out there who would be inclined to say Yes. It is very much against the rules, especially if the monk cannot restrain his own mind while doing it, and if the girl drowns it's the fruition of her own karma, her own doing. Technically, from a Theravada Buddhist point of view, such a monk doesn't necessarily do anything wrong at all by letting her drown (although that would ultimately depend upon his own mental states). If the majority determines what is right and wrong, then in the modern world Enlightenment would seem to be wrong, and self-centeredly running in circles would be right.
     What people consider to be "truth," even "scientific truth," is conventional; it is only relative, and not ultimate. But we have been trained since infancy, or toddlerhood at the very latest, to assume that there is one real, objective Truth out there to be discovered—what early scientists considered to be the way God would see the Universe, as opposed to the way human apes see it. (So it is a bit ironic that most scientists nowadays have dismissed the Being whose point of view they are trying to discover, striving for the point of view of omniscience while denying omniscience itself.) But it would seem to me that "God," assuming that such an entity exists, would see everything in space, time, and whatever other dimensions there are from all possible angles, simultaneously, without separation. An infinite "point of view" simply cannot be reproduced by a finite mind, or symbolically. "God" would see that Reality is ultimately formless, just as "God" Itself is formless, since Reality is "God." A thinking mind cannot really understand Truth. It can only understand what a person believes to be true. And as I've attempted to explain elsewhere, belief and genuine knowledge are very different.
     From a Dharmic point of view, "right" is what takes you closer to Enlightenment, and "wrong" is what takes you farther away from it. (This would seem to indicate that for an enlightened mind there is no right or wrong.) Thus right and wrong are more practical than matters of objective verification. And what takes one person closer to Enlightenment may take another farther away—living alone in a cave, for example—so "right" is not necessarily universal. Furthermore, history has shown that some very peculiar and "superstitious" beliefs may help people to become very advanced saints; it may even be that weird, faith-based "superstitions" may bring one closer to Enlightenment than can logical, critical, and almost necessarily lukewarm empirical objectivity. (This is a paradox that bothers me sometimes, but it nevertheless remains evidently true.) So objective facts, from a Dharmic point of view, may have little to do with rightness.
     One lesson to be learned from this tale of confusion and woe is, It All Depends On How You Look At It. You can see the very same thing as beautiful or ugly (and our moods and health may cause the very same thing to look/taste/smell/feel good now and otherwise later); one may see the very same person as wrong and stupid, or as a beautiful miracle, and easily find justifications for either way of seeing.       
     But, even so…it appears to be human nature, reinforced by cultural conditioning, that there is one Right Way, and one objective truth, standing in resplendent glory above an infinite multitude of wrong ways…and as a general rule, we each consider ourselves to have found that one Right Way. Virtually everyone in the world is supremely wise, because virtually everyone has found the One True Way! This is just human nature.
     This whole notion of "objective truth," with us being the right ones and those fools over there being the wrong ones, makes for a hell of a lot of unnecessary problems in this world. (Sometimes it's obvious that they're wrong—but it's just as obvious to them that we're wrong, and their version of reality is just as valid or invalid as ours is.) It's wiser to assume that we're all wrong, or that right and wrong, in the worldly sense, are mere matters of opinion, and therefore, to some degree, silly. 

     The ignorant cherish the idea of rest and unrest,
     The enlightened have no likes and dislikes;
     All forms of dualism
     Are contrived by the ignorant themselves.
     They are like unto visions and flowers in the air:
     Why should we trouble ourselves to take hold of them?
     Gain and loss, right and wrong—
     Away with them once for all!     (—Hsin Hsin Ming, Suzuki's translation)

     Several months ago, while absent-mindedly gazing at a blank wall, a theory of spiritual death spontaneously popped into my mind. It's somewhat similar to Dostoevsky's definition of hell: being completely cut off from God. It's like this: the more rigid and closed off a system is, the more it is enclosed in a shell, the less alive it is. Life has some formlessness to it, it is flexible, and thus with regard to an attitude, the more dogmatic, the more dead; and the less certain, the more alive. Nirvana itself is absolutely formless, and at its best, "I don't know" also is formless. As soon as one thinks one has things all figured out, one becomes locked into a coffin (especially considering that one is extremely unlikely to be correct in that assumption), or at best becomes locked into a mental prison. But the Western mind is trained to assume that there is one objective reality which can be determined intellectually, and that science is in the process of determining it. What science taught fifty years ago is laughably out of date now, and what is taught now will be laughably out of date fifty years from now, but intellectual hubris inspires us to think that we know the truth intellectually—which closes us off from real Truth, which simply is not intellectual, and cannot be translated into something intellectual. Science and the Western mind are locked into a rigid way of seeing the world, and insist that the world really is that way, and thus, especially from a spiritual perspective, are well on the way to death. Rigidity is symptomatic of death.
     Thus with regard to things that a materialistic point of view cannot explain, like, for instance, the findings of parapsychology, or the alleged datum that a person like Therese Neumann could live without eating and regularly manifested the stigmata (bleeding wounds spontaneously appearing on the hands, feet, side, and forehead), such individuals insist upon a mundane, materialistic explanation, like, "They're frauds." I once read a theory about Therese Neumann to the effect that she had post traumatic stress disorder from an extremely difficult youth, a kind of eating disorder in which she had severe aversion for food, and also a form of hysteria in which she would mutilate her own body without realizing she was doing it. Upon reading something like this many followers of scientific realism would probably jump at it, thinking, "Aha! That must be it," even though the explanation doesn't fit some of the empirical information about her. (I considered including a picture of her as an illustration for this post, but the photos of her with blood streaming down her face gave me the willies, so I changed my mind.) The truth simply can't be spiritual, since spirituality is a mere superstition, or a relaxing hobby necessarily lying entirely within the context of materialism. Or so some people think.
     The Jehovah's Witnesses have essentially a very similar attitude toward interpreting the Bible: They begin with the notion that the Bible is infallible truth, and then adopt the most plausible-sounding explanation they can come up with in accordance with that. One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon involves the case of the death of Judas Iscariot. In one book of the Bible he returns the thirty pieces of silver to the Pharisees and goes off and hangs himself, with the Pharisees then buying the Potter's Field with the money, because they didn't want "blood money" to go into the Temple treasury—with the alternate name of "The Field of Blood" going to the Potter's Field because it was bought with this same blood money. In another book of the Bible Judas keeps the money, buys the Potter's Field himself, and then, while standing there, suddenly pitches forward, with his bowels spontaneously gushing out of his body, and with this gory incident giving good reason for the name "Field of Blood." These two stories would appear to be irreconcilable, right? He couldn't have kept the money and given it back, and he couldn't have died in two different ways, right? Wrong! Not even! The Jehovah's Witnesses explain it like this: Judas did return the money, but the Pharisees bought the field in his name, so it was as though he bought it himself; then, he did hang himself, from a tree branch at the field, but then the rope broke or the branch broke, causing him to fall upon a rock, which caused his bowels to gush out; and of course a field could get its name for more than one reason. So there, you see, there's no contradiction at all! The Bible can't be wrong. They really believe this, and nobody can prove them wrong. Jehovah's Witnesses, scientific materialists, and pretty much the entire human race can work out the information at hand in accordance with their own rigid, limited way of looking at things.
     Yet the Universe we live in is infinite, and our poor little brains just can't work it all out. They're not designed for working it all out, and even if they were, they still would not be able to do it. A finite blob of grey meat cannot comprehend an infinite Universe. It can detect patterns and label them and come up with some really ingenious techniques for compensating for some of its many limitations, but infinity must remain beyond its range. Anyway, even if scientific materialists or this or that other person are "right" in a worldly, objective sense most of the time, still, open-mindedness is an infinitely superior attitude, and "I don't know" is still more likely the correct answer to any question. Again, a rigid attitude in which one thinks one has it all figured out is spiritually dead, or at least comatose. Rigidity is a symptom of death. 
     Whether we realize it or not, we are living a spiritual life, and this is the most important aspect of our lives, even though most people may disregard it at the superficial, "conscious" level of the ego. We are working through spiritual entanglements, although we may identify them or ignore them in very different ways. And at the highest, purest "level" of spirituality—mere words fail to explain it—that is, Nirvana, there simply is no wrong or right. 
     So what if you're right, and so what if you're wrong! It all depends on how you look at it. Just do the best you can in the present moment, and be as awake as you can, and you'll be right enough.  

1 comment:

  1. Enlightened beings will be perceived as very weird in the eyes of worldly people. This is because worldly beings are deluded. Maybe this is why higher ariyans cannot even lead a worldly life like working properly. They simply lacked the worldly skills (or delusion to function in human politics).