The Two Truths & A Plucked Flower

There’s one person sitting on the shore who’s dripping wet. There’s another person sitting on the bottom of the lake who’s never been wet. Which one is Buddha?

Thousands of years ago, on Vulture Peak, the Buddha plucked a flower and Mahakashyapa smiled. Why? Because, at the same time, that never happened.

On one hand, there is time, Vulture Peak, Buddha and Kashyapa. There are flowers to pluck, and smiles to smile. On the other one hand, there’s no time, no Vulture Peak, no Buddha, and no Kashyapa. There’s nothing to pluck or not pluck, and no one to smile or frown.

This is Nagarjuna’s Two Truths teaching. There’s the conventional truth, and the absolute. Our challenge is to not fall into either of them.

The conventional truth is that I am me and you are you. We’re separate. We live separate lives surrounded by separate things. Impermanence is the law of the land for this perspective. When the mind sees separation, then everything that is is already on its way to being a was, an isn’t. This causes suffering. Learning to let go is the prescription painkiller for this.

The absolute truth is that I am not me, and you are not you. We’re not separate. Life, death, and things are all nothing but names—like images in an inkblot. It’s the teaching that says that if something seems separate—if it seems to come and go—then it’s like a shadow or an illusion. Realizing this, there’s no such thing as permanence or impermanence, and there’s no one to cling to things and nothing to be clung to. Since there’s no clinging, there’s no suffering to alleviate by letting go.

The “gradual path” involves using different methods and views to settle and purify the mind so that we can move toward that absolute perspective. That path is confused from the start, since it rests on the view that the conventional is bad and the absolute is good. If we approach practice like that, then we’ll never grok the conventional or the absolute.

The “sudden path” is immediate realization, here and now. It only requires trust, trusting that really there’s no separation and no oneness, no coming or going and no stillness, no gain or loss or no-gain and no-loss, and no pain. It’s trusting that there’s nothing to do since we’re already Thus.

Most of us can’t muster up that kind of trust from the get-go.

The gradual path helps with that. We do this and that until we trust ourselves and trust the path enough to take that leap into Just This.

I don’t endorse the gradual path because it offers too much for me to chase after and explore. I go with a Wake Up first, then practice (Vipassana -> Samatha) route, but whatever works for you.

In either case, the point is to not get stuck in the conventional or the absolute. Conventional reality is like how we get wet after jumping in a lake. Alleviating suffering by letting go is like learning to sit on the beach so that we don’t get wet anymore. Absolute reality is like sitting in an empty lake bed. There’s no water to dive into or not, so there’s no need to sit on the shore to dry off.

When we live with them as one, then that’s like diving into water without getting wet. It’s the best of both worlds. That’s actualized enlightenment, and all it takes is knowing that we can’t get wet. Then we can swim, dive, float, sit on the beach, or help someone who’s drowning, all without fear, affliction, or any hindrance whatsoever.

There’s one person sitting on the shore who’s dripping wet. There’s another person sitting on the bottom of the lake who’s never been wet. Which one is Buddha?

If we say, “Both,” then there’s no need for anyone to practice from the get-go, since we’d all already be wise, compassionate, and free of suffering. Is that the case? If we say, “The one on the shore,” then our practice is gonna be hit or miss, always two steps forward and two steps back. If it’s the one on the dry lake bed, then we’re gonna stagnate. Saying “Neither” means that we can only suffer and be ignorant because there’s no such thing as Buddhahood.

I say that they’re both fucked, and so are we if we take the bait. The person on the shore (attached to the conventional) is “endlessly on the way, but never left home.” The person on the lake bed (attached to the absolute) has “left home, but isn’t on the way.” Monastics were often called home-leavers, and it symbolized their renunciation of all things bullshit. “On the way” is a symbol for practicing Chan.

In some ways, the person on the beach has a leg up, since at least they’re attached to things in the practical world like happiness, family, and money. They’re following the precepts and practicing meditation, so they’re “on the way.” But since none of those helpful means actually get them anywhere, they’re “endlessly on the way,” never Waking Up. And since they’re attached to things in the world, they’ve never renounced the bullshit, never “left home.”

The dude at the bottom of the lake is in real trouble. It’s easy to point out why getting attached to things is harmful since impermanence is always in full view. It’s harder to point out to someone why clinging to the absolute is harmful because—by definition—such a person doesn’t think in terms of harmful or helpful.

The person at the bottom of the lake is at the mercy of their own vows and commitment to serving all beings. They’re beyond the help of all the teachings. If they haven’t actualized their compassion, then they’ll stay in the lake for the rest of their lives, not really of much use to anyone. They might try to teach, but the best they can do is bring people to the lake bed with them. Be on the lookout for that type. They don’t suffer, but they still serve as a condition for others’ suffering.

Really, the person on the lake bed is the person the shore once they’ve dried off. The lake bed is everywhere.

The gain/loss, gradualist path always leads to stagnancy, to the bottom of the lake, to an illusory absolute. The actual absolute is the equality of both of these views.

“How do we avoid clinging to the conventional or the absolute?”

Trust that they’re both empty illusions arising from perception, and trust that what’s true never arises. The conventional person suffers because they believe that things come and go; the absolute person can’t experience sensual joy because they believe that coming and going have come and gone.

The True Person is left with nothing, and they don’t even lay claim to that nothing. When it’s time to sit on the beach, they sit on the beach. When it’s time to swim, they swim. On the beach, they don’t dry out; in the water, they don’t get wet. They never left home, and they see that there is no way to follow. Seeing that, they can leave home or stay; they can follow the way, or not. Because they’re just playing with inkblots.

This is Buddha. This is what allowed Buddha and Mahakashyapa to share the same experience of looking at a pretty flower on Vulture Peak.

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