By Sara Isayama
Have you ever been in a discussion in a Buddhist group, or witnessed one, where two people were going back and forth, and one of them was making valid points, but the other just wasn’t willing to listen?
And then finally after this has gone on for some time, the latter finally instead of conceding the points, responds with something to the effect of, “Well all positions are just aspects of the ego mind. When we truly see nothingness, we realize no such positions exist.”
This is what I like to call the “Ultimate erases the relative” fallacy, that is common in Buddhist discussions. It’s a kind of cop out—a way of preserving the ego, and changing the discussion from dialogue about a relative topic to one of an Ultimate one, in an attempt to distract from the main point someone is making by saying relative subjects don’t exist.
Paradoxically, the person saying this will often passive-aggressively imply that the other person is in their “ego mind” meanwhile they, the enlightened profound person, have understood a wisdom so deep and profound that the other person just simply doesn’t understand. And “one day” perhaps the other person will reach their own level of profundity.
This is a fallacy, and there are important reasons why it does not work. Because it is so common in Buddhist discussions, I thought I would address it here. I see this most often in Zen circles, though it appears in Vajrayana one’s as well.
Essentially the argument boils down to this: that because the Ultimate nature of reality can never fully be expressed, we shouldn’t speak (Nevermind the fact that the person saying this has usually done quite a bit of speaking before this, up until this point!).
If this perspective were true, then the Buddha would never have given voice to the Dharma, and indeed, even the person’s own teacher wouldn’t have given them the practices that they currently practice. The problem with this is that All is One, and all is different at the same time. The Two Truths does not mean one truth and one lie.
Right Action doesn’t mean “no action” just because everything is Ultimate. If that were true there would be no reason for training whatsoever, or speaking about anything, (and no Bodhisttvas) and everyone can go right on continuing being miserable.
It’s also true that people who are suffering are also not aware of this Ultimate nature of reality. They are blinded by their klesha and their emotional defilements, and so they don’t see the Ultimate Nature of things. One of the primary ways that we help sentient beings overcome their suffering, is by giving voice to the Dharma.
Sometimes people may say, “Well, you can’t pass on anything to someone who doesn’t want to hear it,” and that’s true. You can lead a horse to water, but can’t make them drink. But that doesn’t mean giving voice to the Dharma is useless. The Truth is like a seed: even if some reject it at first, it sticks with them, and slowly ripens later, over lifetimes. It’s not pointless to speak the truth to people. They may not accept it, (and that is their choice) but that does not mean it isn’t good to say.
Dharma Refuge is one of the Three Treasures. We don’t simply take Refuge in one Treasure, we take Refuge in all Three.
The irony is that while those who express these kinds of views often have very strong opinions about the Dharma themselves (which they usually are quite happy to share and argue), when someone else expresses a view on the Dharma they disagree with; they seem to be saying: “Well nothing can be truly expressed anyway, so stop talking.”
One might respectfully suggest to such people that if they wish to remain silent, they are free to do so! However others will still choose to continue to give voice to the Dharma. After all, as Buddhist teachers, that is our job; helping sentient beings overcome their suffering through the spreading of the Dharma is what we do.
If that’s not the path for everyone, that’s fine. However it is the path that some of us follow, and personally, I’m very grateful to those who have walked that path before me.
Otherwise I’d still be in a whole mass of suffering like I was before. The least I can do is pass it on.
Homage to the Buddha,
Homage to the Dharma,
Homage to the Sangha.
Sara Isayama is a Buddhist writer, teacher and practitioner. She lives in Oregon with her husband, their two cats, and numerous geckos.
Editor: Dana Gornall