The point, therefore, is not to reject dualities in favor of a hypothetical “non-duality” but to learn to live with them more lightly, fluidly, and ironically. The danger of duality, against which the Buddha warned his followers, does not lie in oppositional thinking itself. Rather, it lies in how we use such thinking to reinforce and justify our egoism, cravings, fears, and hatreds.
As habitual users of language, we assume words to be accurate representations of reality. Complete understanding, however, no longer succumbs to the convenience of oppositional thought but is open to the immediacy and potential of what is happening from moment to moment. Training ourselves to pay intimate and embodied attention to the very pulse of life within and around us exposes the limitations of language.
The sage (muni) is concerned not only with what impacts his physical senses but with words and concepts that impact his mind. He is on guard against seductive ideas, compelling “images” of the world that seem to explain everything, and beliefs that provide heart-warming consolation. The problem with such ideas, images, and beliefs does not lie in whether they are “true” or “false.” There is something about the very way in which a concept is structured that limits and imprisons us. “A picture held us captive,” said Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations. “And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”60 There is something arid and barren about holding on to any position, even a Buddhist or Wittgensteinian one.
Nirvana can be compared to the sudden opening up of a space within one’s experience when one’s innate inclinations die down and reactivity fades away. One glimpses in such moments how one is free to act in a way that is not determined by reactivity, thereby enabling the use of practical reason to decide on another kind of future.
Gotama compares each of us to a barren field that needs watering, the parts of an arrow that need to be assembled, and a rough block of wood that needs to be worked. He conceives of a person as an unfinished project, a work in progress.
We have spent a lifetime developing responses to pain and difficulty. Changing these old habits is like trying to reverse the momentum of a boulder tumbling down a mountainside. It requires great effort, skill, patience, perseverance, and no small amount of courage. —Lama Shenpen
each of his teachers had given him permission to interpret Buddhism in whatever way worked for him. He’d seen how Buddhism meets you wherever you are and lets you take what you can from it at that moment. In fact, it was unlike other faiths in that there weren’t rules, and even its most fundamental precepts were infinitely flexible. But in spite of all that, he still envisioned the Buddha as a kind of deity sitting on a mountaintop, having transcended suffering. He wanted Buddha to lift him up out of San Quentin onto that mountaintop, high above his suffering—to save him. That’s the Buddha he had to kill—the illusion that anything outside ourselves can save us. What he learned is that Buddha can’t save us. Jesus can’t. Allah can’t. Only we can save ourselves.
Then he said, “I thought this Buddhist shit was supposed to protect you.” Pema looked at him and sighed. “Jarvis,” she said, “there’s no protection from pain and grief. It’s a fantasy to think we can be protected. You wouldn’t want to not feel grief when someone dies. What kind of person would that make you? A very coldhearted person.”
We’re all doing time. We’re all in prison. We’re all on death row. And we can all free ourselves.
Rinpoche led Jarvis forward in other ways. He’d given him permission to take from Buddhism what helped him and reject his own and others’ preconceptions about what a Buddhist should be. He showed Jarvis that Buddhism is replete with paradoxes and contradictions because life itself is. And he pointed him toward the central paradox of the faith: that the more one accepts suffering, the less one suffers.