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identity of relative and absolute

Post #548 • May 30, 2005, 10:58 AM • 17 Comments

Oldpro, from the comments of the previous post:

Relative and absolute seem mutually exclusive to me, but we all seem to go on and on talking relative and behaving absolute. I think it is OK, perhaps unavoidable, to do this, but we have to be more aware of what we are doing.

Good idea. It turns out that Zen Buddhism has tackled this pretty thoroughly, and practicioners often recite a sutra called the Identity of Relative and Absolute. I copied the version below from the website of the Great Mountain Zen Center.

The mind of the great sage of India is intimately
Conveyed from West to East.
Among human beings are wise ones and fools,
But in the Way there is no northern or southern school.
The subtle source is clear and bright.
The tributary streams flow through the darkness.
To be attached to things is illusion.
To encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment.
Each and all, the subjective and objective spheres are related
And at the same time independent.
Related, yet working differently, though each keeps its own place.
Form makes the character and appearance different.
Sounds distinguish comfort and discomfort.
The dark makes all words one,
The brightness distinguishes good and bad phrases.
The four elements return to their nature as a child to its mother.
Fire is hot, wind moves, water is wet, earth hard.
Eyes see, ears hear, nose smells, tongue tastes the salt and sour.
Each is independent of the other.
Cause and effect must return to the great reality.
The words high and low are used relatively.
Within light there is darkness,
But do not try to understand that darkness.
Within darkness there is light,
But do not look for that light.
Light and darkness are a pair,
Like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.
Each thing has its own intrinsic value and is
Related to everything else in function and position.
Ordinary life fits the absolute as a box and its lid.
The absolute works together with the relative
Like two arrows meeting in midair.
Reading words you should grasp the great reality.
Do not judge by any standards.
If you do not see the Way, you do not see it even as you walk on it.
When you walk the Way, it is not near, it is not far.
If you are deluded, you are mountains and rivers away from it.
I respectfully say to those who wish to be enlightened:
Do not waste your time by night or day.

Okay! I needed that.




May 30, 2005, 8:20 PM

I'm not sure if this is meant to imply that "relative" and "absolute" are identical, but if so, that would be way too Zen for me. I just think, as Fitzgerald said, we have to hold opposing thoughts in our mind and be able to use them. It is more a matter of juggling than fusing.



May 30, 2005, 8:42 PM

The sutra writer would probably agree with Fitzgerald. This sutra stands opposite the Heart Sutra, which declares the emptiness of self and other (click the link to GMZC if you're interested). In contrast, the Identity of Relative and Absolute declares the emptiness of emptiness, and says that relative and absolute operate as separate phenomena even as they depend on each other for existence: "Related, yet working differently, though each keeps its own place."


John Sanchez

May 31, 2005, 5:22 AM

Is this about the semantics of each? How does relatedness and absoluteness relate in a context? Did I skip a class? Are some relationships identified as relative not also absolute, therefore wouldn't everythig be an absolute even relativeness.?



May 31, 2005, 6:10 AM

I can't speak for Franklin, John, but my comments on the previous page had nothing to do with semantic precision. I was comparing our habit of talking about art on the one hand as "relative", that is, subjective or "just a matter of opinion", and, on the other hand, freely employing terms like "good" and "great".

Every once in a while the blog veers into that old morass for a while. It is usually fun while it lasts.



May 31, 2005, 6:24 AM

Are some relationships identified as relative not also absolute...?

If I understand the sutra even slightly, and I may not, all relationships have these simultaneous relative and absolute aspects.


John Sanchez

May 31, 2005, 8:12 AM

I might need a refresher on definitions-subjective is what I feel despite the facts and objective is what is despite my feelings(?) So if these two were to be aligned or married what would that be? Here is my concerned in this-I judge a painting through a subjective tool (my brain , which is an objective piece of machinery, there is that "simultaneous relative and absolute" we were talking about) How do I get to the objective if ever through this tool?(yes this is a good painting despite my feelings and yes I like it!? or no this painting is bad and I hate it! or yikes! this painting is bad, but I like it! I can go on combining all these) Ahhh! how do I get to the truth? or are we in a constant flux of duality that takes a simple decision to say I just like this good painting? I am feeling muddled or am I muddled- I'm going to sleep.



May 31, 2005, 3:11 PM

John, enjoying a painting is a completely different kind of activity from discussing subjective and objective. Enjoy the painting and worry about 'truth" some other time.



May 31, 2005, 3:48 PM

A source



May 31, 2005, 4:05 PM

" the condition is more commonly a symptom of manic depression, mania, and other mood disorders." ( 'American Mania' is a read perhapes.) "It is often most associated with temporal lobe epilepsy, a disorder that may also lead to hyper-religious feelings and a sense that even the most trivial events are filled with heightened meaning and cosmic importance. The hypergraphic patient's compulsion to write all the time is not, alas, accompanied by any increase in talent. The diatribes of the Unibomber, Theodore Kaczynski, or the verbal pablum of some Internet blogs, are typical output.

Steve Shreeve, National Geographic, March 2005.

'Art Speak', 'Art Spoke'.



May 31, 2005, 8:56 PM

hilarious comments, the dance and play of appearances.
feelings arise, the dependent nature of habitual mind.
but are these comments or my feelings truly existent?

if i look deeply, i see each comment is made of pixels.
if i look deeper, i see each comment is made of electrons.
if i look deeper still, each comment is light and then sound
in my inner voice read aloud from eye consciousness to
ear consciousness. but are they truly existent?

then my feeling arise, sometimes laughter, sometimes
concern, sometimes confusion. the result of a lifetime
or more of habitual mind, practicing cause and effect.
but are those feelings truly existent?

whether you are a yogacharan or prasangikan or
even a vaibashikan of ancient India,
you would consider these questions carefully,
and discover the source of suffering
is mistaking relative and absolute.



May 31, 2005, 9:31 PM

Davee, put it in plain English and let's see.



May 31, 2005, 10:08 PM

Another thought model, Quantum Consciousness takes on the Turing Engine, see... Rodger Penrose, "Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness"



June 1, 2005, 5:03 AM

ok, i buckle easily.

relative and absolute truth, aka the "two truths", were the core conversation in first millennium Buddhist Indian circles. how could we, using conceptual mind, discover the true nature of reality they pondered. for conceptual mind could certainly only ever show us the relative nature of reality, conditioned by the filter of concept and habituation. was there still a way to find the absolute? and in knowing the absolute could we more easily find a liberation from all forms of suffering?

i'm more familiar with this discourse presented by tibetan scholars, the source of my study materials and the lineage of my seminary coursework. but in that presentation, the different schools of indian thought had progressively refined statements about the two truths. buckle your seatbelts, here we go.

first were the vaibashikans (along with the sautrantikans) that argued that all external objects were made of particles. so by themselves, no external objects were truly existent simply composites. therefore, when we see a table we only see a table because our conceptual mind sees a table. there is no inherent tableness, only particles that we interpret to be so. therefore, relatively we see a table. in the absolute, there are only particles. moreover, and this is very important, our own mind is also a composite or components and not truly existent also. we have thoughts and emotions and mental processes, so any sense that we have of ourselves being a 'separate self' that is lasting and self existent is a mistaken understanding. we don't exist in that way. we are made of collections of mental processes but they are always changing, we're not the same person we were only moments ago.

then came some other schools who said that even particles are not truly existent (the svatantrikas), because you can keep dividing them endlessly and never find something solid and unchanging. physics is confirming this point to some degree, fifteen hundred years later, yes?

but I'll skip ahead to the chittamatrans, who said that because we really experience all external objects in our mind as mental constructs, we really can't say much about the external world. we can only say that appearances occur in our mind, dependent experiences then also occur because of habituation of mind, but they then claimed that an aspect of mind must be truly existent because we have memories. the fact we have memories proves that there is something that is observing the mental process of appearances and dependent emotional reactions to them, so that proves something is existent - some aspect of mind. they are called the 'mind only' school. i should add however, that this view is not a solipsism, because they also already believe that the self does not exist as proved by the vaibashikans. so no self, no solipsism.

the prasangikans however put an end to the question of absolute reality, by playing the ultimate trump card - that nothing can truly be known to be existent or non-existent either. it is considered the only truly pure view, that the absolute reality is ineffable. any attempt by conceptual mind is inherently relative truth because it leads to one of the extremes of existence or non-existence. because they cannot really exist one for the other, neither is truly possible and therefore the only absolute truth is the absence of the extremes of existence or non-existence: also known as the Middle Way or the absence of the extremes.

i should add though that vajrayana buddhism and i think zen to some degree make a further refinement yet, which is to take a revision of the chittimatran view as relative truth and the prasangikan as absolute. they do this because the prasankigan practice had a bad habit of slipping students into nihilism. so the teachings on buddha-nature combined with chittimatran thought - called the yogacharan school - then say that it is helpful to view relative experience in a three fold nature. the apparent nature is dreamlike and illusary. the dependent nature (habitual mind and all cause and effect) is also relative and non-existent, but the truly perfected nature of buddha-nature IS truly existent. this helped combat the nihilistic tendency by saying buddha-nature or some aspect of mind is existent. some buddhist lineages poo poo this and say it's slipping into hinduism or some form of belief in a soul or unborn existent entity. but the point of this relative only practice is to help practitioners identify aspects of mind that are not dependent nature and use that as path to the direct experience of the absolute while avoiding the trap of nihilism and indifference. so to say the perfected nature is existent is really just a practice aid and the only way to talk about absolute truth is really what the prasangikans said: it is impossible to say if it is existent or non-existent, neither, nor both.

i hope that was of some interest and benefit... if any of this is concerning or interesting, please feel free to write to me for more detail or references.



June 1, 2005, 5:55 AM

That's detailed enough, Davee.

"True existence" and "the absolute" are intellectual postulates. I don't think they are needed to ponder experience, which is all we really know.

Reality, as it registers through experience, seems intellectually impenetrable to me, perhaps because experience is necessarily limited, or shifts like those particles that move when you observe them. When we get too far from direct experience we find ourselves with fictions like string theory and the big bang. And much else.

Reality is frustrating, but at least it is complex enough to keep us busy.



June 1, 2005, 9:48 AM

i guess i left out the view of why those philosophers spent so much time on all this, besides the intellectual entertainment value. in my amateur understanding of the buddhist point of view, the narrowing of experience from direct to conceptual is at the root of human suffering, or more specifically the habitual narrowing even when it is not useful to narrow is at the root of our suffering.

so these logics are designed as exercises to help meditation practitioners cut through those tendencies of habitual narrowness and discern what is fabricated and what is not and thereby obtain a more flexible mind and one that sees clearly any residual self-delusions. then one is free of any frustration or suffering and all experiences are joyful and all interactions naturally compassionate. so they say...



June 1, 2005, 5:52 PM

Sounds good to me. I don't know that I would say that it is at the root of all human suffering, but it bothers the hell out of me, for sure. I certainly think that if we all tuned on to direct experience and tuned out of the "narrowing", as you call it, the world would be a better place, and a lot more fun. problem is, most people think the "narrowing" is actually broadening, raising, uplifting, greater, more important, ennobling, spiritual etc. it is a hard habit of mind to overcome, as we see every day right here.



June 2, 2005, 8:04 AM

well said! may we all find what makes things less narrow and more fun as we go.



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